I should probably start this by saying that I am not and have never been a songwriter. Or a singer. Or talented. Years ago, I wrote a few records for my then gal’s punk rock band but they were of the variety of: “Let’s go down to St. Marks place/punch somebody in the face.” For 17 years, since the winter of 1997, I have been surrounded by actual musicians. I’ve been in studios and on buses and in dressing rooms, and I’ve watched them struggle to create great songs. I’ve also seen them take the path of least resistance and settle for merely finished songs. Since I’m more of a profiler and an essayist when it comes to my place in the ecosystem of rock journalists, I have never really had cause to criticize, but I happened to be watching an old episode of “The West Wing” late one night. “The West Wing” has become a form of meditation for me. It’s always on — a soothing loop — and I don’t like to unplug from it, especially after a day of writing. It was the “King Corn” episode, if you’re familiar with the show, and in it, the long unfolding romance between Josh and his assistant Donna finally seems to be coming into flower once she left the Wing and went on the road campaigning for the vice president, “Bingo Bob.”
The music they chose to underscore the tension in a key scene in "King Corn" just happens to be an old Ryan Adams song from his 2002 “Demolition” album. Now, let me say that I think Ryan Adams, whom I used to know in my professional capacity as a rock writer and whom I have not seen in over a decade, is a true artist. Some of his songs are among my favorites (“Cold Roses,” most of “Heartbreaker,” less of “Gold” but still quite a bit of it, you get the idea). Anyway, Josh, weary from trying to elevate Matt Santos, is going to bed alone even though he wants Donna there in those clean hotel sheets, and Donna is likely thinking the same and over it all, and the sad hum of the generic hotel by night, one of hundreds they’ve checked into, we must hear Ryan sing these lines: “What is this fire? Burning slowly. My one and only. Desire.” Well, it took me right out of my great Sorkin “om” and back into the cold, oppressive city and a long, lonely night of my own.
Of course, to Adams “fire” and “desire” may be the perfect rhyme. Most musicians, I’ve learned, write the lyrics last, and he might have just been feeling the music early and felt like “desire” was meant to be exactly where it was. Yes, maybe he liked the way fire and desire sounded in his mouth and looked on a page or a studio chalkboard, the way they generally fit like a pair of lovebirds on a perch. Fire and desire. Especially when punctuated by a mournful harmonica, which is definitely not a cliché in a Ryan Adams song (definitely). Or maybe he wanted to get wasted or laid and did not give a shit. I can’t really tell. I’m split. My cynical side, well you know what it says, but the mystery, the voodoo, the alchemy of the art of songwriting prevents me from determining one way or another. You’d have to ask him and hope he’d be honest. Which he probably wouldn’t.
The next day I reached out to a mentor of mine, a slightly older rock critic (and one of my old bosses). I asked him what was up with the whole “fire and desire thing,” and let him know that I would be writing about it. Fire. Desire. When did they first do their dance? Was it in classical poetry? Did it crawl up into a blues song from a Delta murk? I even emailed the great Greil Marcus — the great Greil never replied, but my ex-EIC and mentor seized on the question. It seemed to trigger something in him as well. We agreed that there are some songs where “fire” could only ever be the key rhyme. The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Fire,” for example. Jimi seems to sell it by sheer style points alone and it’s hard to deny his “itchin’ desire” and its need to be scratched fast. Maybe Jimi is singing to a man, but most likely it’s a woman in crushed velvet flares who smells like musk or hash or cloves. But what is a woman’s "fire"? Don’t we all come with the same internal temperature? Hey, 98.6 — it’s good to have you back again.
Is it the fire in the belly? The reproductive organs? Is it the body temperature that rises up during sex and makes us sweat? If so, don’t men have internal fires as well? Doesn’t everyone? And therefore how can singing of this be special? Or even interesting? It’s like singing about having a pee.
Malign the Doors all you want — and for some reason people who were never teenage boys often do — but the fuckers wrote a seven minute and six second song about “fire” that never once used the word “desire.” Bob Marley and the Wailers did the same, also with a song with “fire” in the title off an album with "fire" in the title. My mentor and I tried to determine without the help of the Internet whether the Beatles ever resorted to what we can call the “easy rhyme” — the “moon, June, spoon” of sex lyrics — a notch above “maybe” and “baby.” We couldn’t find any Beatles lyrics of the kind, but did turn up several Bob Dylan lyrics where the great man went there — "Caribbean Wind,” “Lord Protect My Child,” “I Feel a Change Comin’ On” — and again, I wondered if Bob examined all the possible words at his disposal, many thousands in various languages, as well as nonsense words or scat, and chose “fire” or “desire” because it fit (he even named an album "Desire," so perhaps so). Brian Wilson was convinced his “fire” song could start actual fires like Drew Barrymore. My point is that better men than myself and even Ryan Adams went there and emerged with their careers and legacies unsullied. The great Rick James created one of the best slow jams ever with a song that didn’t even try to bury the linguistic marriage. The actual title, a duet with Teena Marie, his insanely gifted protégé, is actually called “Fire and Desire.” Bruce Springsteen too is like the fucking poet laureate of the fire and its best friend desire. In song, The Boss can sell it like nobody else.
“'I'm On Fire' by Springsteen?” recalls Gideon Yago fondly. “I was 7, a denizen of the NY tri-state area, meaning it was all over the radio that summer. And also terrifying when you're 7 and don't understand metaphors of sexual tension. You think ... jesus ... this guy is *on fire?’ Holy shit!"
And that was after "Rosalita" (his “stone desire”) and the ballad “Fire,” which fell back on “desire” after soaring with “Sampson and Delilah.” It was a sexy soul jam for the Pointer Sisters but is probably best known for inspiring the late, great Robin Williams to sing it in the voice of Elmer Fudd. (RIP, man. Still.)
“Bruce’s ‘Fire’ is enormous,” says singer songwriter Lloyd Cole via email (we were also discussing the Pointer Sisters' perfect cover at the time). Cole is no slouch as a lyricist. The dude once rhymed “Norman Mailer” with “get a new tailor.” Normally, according to Cole, “You avoid it if I weren’t writing a song addressing fire and desire if you were a proper writer.” Cole is also partial to the old Shocking Blue song “Venus” (“Terrible and irresistible”). They go there, and so does Bananarama decades later. “English as a second language is always an advantage,” Cole adds and it’s true, the Shocking Blue version is much more charming than the Hi NRG "ramas."
I was hooked now, and reached out to other singer/songwriters, wondering if my displeasure (and the thorough ruining of “King Corn”) was justified, or if I was overreacting. Most people, after all, barely notice lyrics, as I’ve heard so many rock stars lament to me over the years. “I don’t think I’ve ever rhymed anything with fire, alas,” wrote Moby, “but I like Billy Joel’s rhyming ‘fire’ with ‘turning’.” I don’t know what meditation Mobes was deep into at the time, but I reminded him that Saint Billy rhymed “burning” with “turning,” not “fire.”
“A lot of people think that songwriters start with something to say and then look for the right words to say it,” writes Adam Schlesinger, backing up my earlier theory. “It's usually the opposite. They just start singing stuff that sounds cool and then they start rhyming to it, and then they try to make sense of it all afterwards. Fire is one of the greatest words to sing when you're just vocalizing gibberish. Morrison obviously hit upon the phrase light my fire first, then tried to rhyme fire with a bunch of different stuff, like mire and pyre and liar, but in the chorus he just said fuck it and rhymed light my fire with try to set the night on fire because fire sounded so awesome he wanted to sing it again. Maybe he didn't even notice it was the same word because he was high(er).”
Oddly, I don’t mind rhyming “fire” with “fire,” if that even qualifies as a rhyme. But fire and desire will always, always take me out of a song and and nix any chance of me making it one of my favorites, even if it comes from one of my favorite bands (say, U2’s “Desire”). Why couldn’t Bono make the extra effort? Johnny Cash did. He fell into a burning ring of fire and went down down down but he found no “desire” in his abyss, did he? (Thanks to sharp-eared readers, we rescind those kudos to the Man in Black — in his very first verse of "Ring of Fire," no less: "Bound by wild desire / I fell into a ring of fire".)
The place where the quality control might be most stringent is in the world of hip-hop lyrics. You simply can’t get away with something that rote. Take this quote from a furious and young Eminem, talking to London’s N.M.E. about 15 years ago, on the cusp of the release of his now classic "Marshall Mathers LP." Boy bands and Britney ruled and fires and desire were all about, as if an asteroid of slack had just hit. “You can only rhyme fuckin’ ‘fire’ and ‘desire’ and ‘heart’ and ‘fall apart’ so many times, and I’m sick of hearin’ it. And if I lose my fans ‘cause they find out Eminem doesn’t like ‘N Sync, I don’t give a fuck, fuck ‘N Sync, fuck Backstreet Boys, fuck Britney Spears, fuck Christina Aquilera, fuck all that bullshit.” A decade and a half before that, a pair of MCs from Queens declared, “I’m the kind of rock, there is none higher, Sucker MCs should call me sire. To burn my kingdom, you must use fire. I won’t stop rocking till I retire.”
They didn’t need it to take over literally everything and announce a permanent shift in popular culture, did they? Maybe it’s time for us to finally retire it?
But then again, I’m not a songwriter. "I'm absolutely guilty of this rhyme crime,” admits Catherine Pierce, another singer songwriter pal of mine and one-half of the great country rock duo the Pierces. “But I stand by it wholeheartedly. Desire burns, for god's sake, so of course you are going to partner it with fire. It's a rhyme that's just too satisfying to ignore. I'm more offended by the pairing of ‘love and above,’ but sometimes that can pass too.”