2006-07-19

I am music and I write the songs


Barry Manilow wasn't included for the book Songwriters on Songwriting, a collection of interviews by Paul Zollo. Actually it came as news to me that Barry didn't write I Write the Songs but at any rate, he wasn't given the opportunity to share his thoughts along with the likes of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Townes Van Zant, Sammy Cahn, Todd Rundgren, Frank Zappa and many others on the craft, the process, the mystery. David Gates of Bread isn't in the book either nor is Neil Diamond. This is Rocksnobs approved mostly. That's OK, you've got to the draw the line somewhere.

Dylan once said, not here but somewhere, "A song is anything that gets up and walks by itself." It exists on its own terms independent of the creator or any recording made of it. Others could perform it it any style, under any circumstances and it would still have it's own undeniable identity. Many of the songwriters interviewed speak of some mysterious gift that comes to them, they know not how, when a real song appears from their hand. They can't explain it much, some say they were just the one who happened to be in the right place at the right time to receive it, to pull it out of the air.

Leonard Cohen recalls a songwriter’s chat with Dylan. He wondered how long it took Dylan to write a certain song. About fifteen minutes, said Dylan who then asked Cohen about one of his songs, how long? About five years replied Cohen. Actually, Cohen confesses to Zollo, it was more like ten years. Randy Newman leaves the LA suburbs every morning and goes downtown to an office to work. Van Zant went to Colorado in the summer or Tennessee in the winter, and came back with songs. Tom Waits writes songs with his wife, just like Slim Harpo used to do. Those kinds of relationships are built to last I would wager. There's the cut-up technique, adapted from William Burroughs, that David Bowie famously used. Experience could either count for a lot or not at all. Observation or hallucination, reporters’ notebook or dream diary, divine inspiration or outright theft, the muse or the bottle.

A songwriter friend of mine says he's basically in the scrap metal savage business. Sure, alchemy has to enter into the equation at some point but really you're just loitering around the dump, waiting to spot something shiny under the rubbish. He also said that when Paul McCartney was writing Yesterday his original dummy lyric was Scrambled Eggs. Did people want to know that? This classic song that people loved almost more than any other started life as Scrambled Eggs? It's like a member of the Magic Circle violating the primary directive - don't reveal the trick.

I started writing song lyrics a couple of years ago, been looking for a Bacharach to my David or Difford to my Tilbrook, or is that the other way round?

i'd beg for some forgiveness
but begging's not my business


Dylan brings up the true rhyme/near rhyme debate. He says it used to be a matter of pride for songwriters to get a true rhyme but nobody cares about that anymore. Close enough for jazz. Christopher Ricks says Dylan is the 20th century's greatest rhymer. Is that so? I can testify that when you come up with a rhyme you've never heard before, you feel like the best. Come up with a character voice that works perfectly and you fancy yourself the equal of Newman. Not too many of the songwriters talk about theft too much, maybe it's too obvious a thing to say out loud, an accepted piece of kit. Love and theft. Steal from your lover, steal from Howlin Wolf. Whatever works. Steal from the people whispering at the next table. If you don't pull it out of the air, who will?

The best advice in the book, and there's lots of advice, comes from Randy Newman, "Make something happen. Write something down. Do something. Go ahead. And stay there. Three hours, four hours. And good things will happen."

Absolutely, and I would imagine the best thing ever is a royalty cheque arriving one lonely morning.

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