Nigel Smith is the William and Annie S. Paton Professor of Ancient and Modern Literature in the Department of English, as well as a co-director of the Center for the Study of Books and Media. He came to Princeton in 1999 from Oxford. His work focuses on Renaissance-era authors like John Milton and Andrew Marvell. This semester, he is teaching ENG 221/MUS 222: “Words vs. Music: The Song in Modern Times,” which focuses on how a song “delivers pleasure” and aims to discover what makes a song good.
Q: What was the first vinyl you purchased?
A: My first musical experience was being taken at the age of five by my dad into the local music shop. He bought me the 45-inch of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles ... I found that music utterly invigorating ... It must have been eight years later, I went out and bought ... one of the great heavy rock records that there is, and it was “Deep Purple in Rock.”
Q: Your new course delves into the question of what makes a song good. Which songs do you consider to be good and why?
A: Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” is a kind of anthem for an era. It is amazing because, first of all, he’s getting really good at playing in his new electric mode — it’s such a confidently constructed piece of music ... It’s just magnificent. Then the lyric is just so compellingly interesting: Who’s he talking to? Who’s this mysterious woman? A great song is a song that does what songs assume to do, but in a very sophisticatedly achieved way ... or it’s a song that stands out because it does that which we assume songs do not do ... It’s got a lot of disquiet in the lyric, so it has this edge to it — you can’t not listen to it.
Another great example of a brilliant song is Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble” on his “Graceland” album. I greatly admire that song because it has such a well-thought-through unity ... What I love about it is that the lyric is a great lyric, but it’s also a great poem ... It’s a really well-conceived piece of visionary writing.
Q: Your personal fashion sense is a sizeable part of your campus reputation. Is style something that is important to you?
A: Is that right? I had no idea, I had no idea. I try to tone it down, you know. I’m not actually conscious of dressing up ... I think I sort of spend some part of the year going to and fro between the US and Europe, and the UK in particular ... I suspect that I probably dress a bit more like a Brit still. For instance, I think men in London dress a bit more loudly than men in New York — I mean loud ties. If you work in the city of London, you know, the Wall Street of the city of London, part of your bearing sort of depends on having a really great suit and a really great tie. And a great tie is a tie that’s going to be visible from a hundred yards; that might be partly to do with it.
Q: I hear you have your own rock band, can you tell us a bit about it?
A: I have a band with Paul Muldoon, a campus poet, and I began writing songs with him in 2004 ... From time to time he’s worked with various musicians, some classical and some not ... So we started writing songs, and then we gathered people we could find who would play with us, and we had a band called Rackett, which was what you’d call a classic rock band. We wrote all our own songs and made three records, which we distributed ourselves. We toured Ireland; we toured Finland, believe it or not. We played a heavy-metal club 50 miles south from the Arctic Circle; it was quite something.
That came to an end in early 2010, and then we made a new band that’s called Wayside Shrines, which is the name of a Paul Muldoon poetic sequence ... It’s a bit more folkie and a bit more indie ... We’re making a record and we are playing on campus on the 15th of March, which will be the beginning of the campaign to push the record.
Q: Why did you move from Oxford to Princeton?
A: I was effectively approached by a two-sentence email, and that sort of thing doesn’t happen every day. I had done everything I could do in Oxford, and I would have to keep doing it until I retired in all probability. So that was very, very nice and wonderful ... I took that leap, and it’s been absolutely amazing.
Q: Your previous work has focused on authors such as Milton and Andrew Marvell — considering this background, what do you find interesting about popular music? Do you see it fitting in with your previous research, or is it entirely a new endeavor?
A: There is some continuity — obviously a lot of earlier English poetry was also lyric, set to music, so from time to time I get to teach that. This is the first time I’ve crossed the line between my non-academic interests. It’s more than a hobby — it’s a passion ... I adore playing live, and I can’t get enough of that ...
But it’s the first time I’ve taken that interest into the classroom and found a way of teaching it and I think a really interesting topic — which I’m going to write a book about — is how songs are arrived at and how words go with music ... We have some great music, but often the words are not so great or they don’t even matter and they’re down in the mix except as vocal texture. I would like to think that my thoughts would help people to appreciate the words as they go with the music more or even to think about writing their own songs.
Q: What are your top three bands?
A: I’m going to have to say The Beatles. I’m going to have to say The Grateful Dead ... and King Crimson, there you are ... In the end, however basic somebody’s music is, people like somebody who’s got rock-and-roll spirit. It really matters.
Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Amy Garland.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/02/16/29916/