Category Archives: Kevin Quain

The Importance of Detail in Songwriting

A new music discovery for me is a songwriter named Kevin Quain. Last summer, at the Irish Festival in Littleton, Colorado, I heard a great band called The Town Pants. They played a song called “Mr. Valentine’s Dead”, which I thought was great. I bought their cd with the song, and, upon reading the cd booklet, saw that it was written by somebody named Kevin Quain. I googled him, found his website, made friends with him on myspace, and bought his 3 cd’s. Turns out this isn’t the only good song he’s written, he has a lot of great songs. But I want to use “Mr. Valentine’s Dead” as an example of how the use of detail really helps a song. Here’s the lyrics:

*****

Mr. Valentine’s Dead
by Kevin Quain

Mr. Valentine’s dead, and he’s drinking Manhattans
singing a coal miner’s tune
in his daddy’s tuxedo, and Fred Astaire shoes
he’s the best looking corpse in the room.

Mr. Valentine’s dead, and the angels are waiting
down at the end of the bar
Well they’re drinking martinis, and laughing at nothing
smoking Havana cigars

Chorus:
Have you ever seen dead men dancing so lightly?
Did you ever hear corpses who sing?
Mr. Valentine’s dead, and the angels will take him
but not ’til he’s finished his drink.

Mr. Valentine’s dead, but it won’t slow him down
He’s determined to stay on his feet
And he bangs on the table, and orders a round
and pays with the gold in his teeth

Mr. Valentine’s dead, and he’s singing in Spanish
wearing a rose in his hair
Now the angels are howling, and drinking tequila
shooting their guns in the air

(Chorus)

Mr. Valentine’s dead, but he still loves a party
He’s always the last one to leave
And he hangs down his head, and cries like a baby
when the band’s playing “Goodnight, Irene”

Mr. Valentine’s dead, but he’s never looked better
Tell the priest we won’t need him tonight
Tell his mom to stop crying, and the band to keep playing
’cause the angels are too drunk to fly

(Chorus)

*****

Notice the detail. First of all, the guy has a name–Mr. Valentine. He’s not having a drink; he’s “drinking Manhattans”. He’s not just singing any old song, he’s singing “a coal miner’s tune”. And so forth. To drive home the point, let’s subtract all the details, and replace them with generic lines that essentially mean the same thing, and see how it affects the song:

Mr. Valentine’s Dead – Rob Roper’s butchered version with detail removed

A man is dead, and he’s having a drink
singing an old folk song
in an old suit, and old dancing shoes
he’s the best looking corpse in the room.

The man is dead, and the angels are waiting
down at the end of the bar
Well they’re having drinks, and laughing at nothing
smoking expensive cigars

Chorus:
Have you ever seen dead men dancing so lightly?
Did you ever hear corpses who sing?
The guy is dead, and the angels will take him
but not ’til he’s finished his drink.

The man is dead, but it won’t slow him down
He’s determined to stay on his feet
And he bangs on the table, and orders a round
and then he pays for it

The man is dead, and he’s singing a song
acting silly
Now the angels are howling, and having drinks
acting reckless

(Chorus)

The guy is dead, but he still loves a party
He’s always the last one to leave
And he hangs down his head, and cries like a baby
when the band’s playing his favorite song

The man is dead, but he’s never looked better
Tell the priest we won’t need him tonight
Tell his mom to stop crying, and the band to keep playing
’cause the angels are too drunk to fly

(Chorus)

*****

It’s still a pretty good song; there’s still the humor of a dead guy who’s still behaving as if he’s alive, and the funny stuff about the angels. But not as good. Don’t you miss the “Fred Astaire shoes” and things like that?

For many songwriters–including me when I started out– the second, butchered version is closer to what we write, at least on the first draft. I’ve learned to run my songs through a “detail filter”, and if there’s no detail, to add some. For example, instead of saying, “I was walking down the street”, say “I was walking down Maple Street”. Instead of saying, “It was morning”, say “It was seven in the morning” and so forth. Instead of saying, “an old man”, say “Mr. Valentine”. It’s more interesting, don’t you think?

-Rob

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