My Holiday’s Complete – Reading About Songwriting On The Beaches Of Italy
Forgive me Father, it’s been over two weeks since my last blog entry. Maybe it’s because I had been in Italy (Rome and the Amalfi Coast) since July 20th, and maybe that’s why I, a non-Catholic, chose to open a blog in a quasi-confessional tone, having just been to the Vatican (among other places) on my trip. This is not a travel blog, however, so I won’t go into all the details about the carb-rich foods and oh-so-amazing cappuccinos and gelatos which greeted us in the Eternal City and the lopsided resort towns of Positano and Amalfi. One thing I didn’t do at all was play a guitar, something I do every day when I’m home, and as a result I found myself “writing” whole chord progressions in my mind in much the same way that I recently read Burt Bacharach has done it for years. I know this because, besides the food and coffee, I devoured two excellent music biographies – both dealing with fascinating and complex songwriting collaborations – during my fourteen days in the old country.
One of them was Ken Emerson’s fantastic account of the “Brill Building” era of New York pop songwriters, Always Magic In The Air, which chronicles the writing teams of the late ’50s and ’60s in New York, Bacharach and Hal David, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich and the teams who inspired most of them, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman and Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller.
But prior to reading this, I took a borrowed copy of Squeeze Song By Song, written by Chris Difford & Glenn Tilbrook themselves (with writer/interviewer Jim Drury), which, true to its title, is a song by song compilation of thoughts, notes, memories and background stories behind the great 80’s (and beyond) songs of the mighty Squeeze, who are touring as we speak. Or as I type anyway. Maybe it was because I knew that I was missing all three of their Bay Area dates, but I was jonesing for some Squeeze knowledge just before we left for Italy and I had been told about this book since it came out in 2004. Thankfully, a friend (Thanks Lara) lent it to me so I could take it on the long plane rides, hotel rooms and beaches. Funnily enough, I hadn’t even planned to be taking two books about songwriting process with me, but that’s what happened and as a result, I feel like I’ve been at a 14 day intensive songwriter retreat, albeit without a guitar. I was so moved by Difford’s tales of personal battles with demons and his subsequent success in getting it down in song lyrics, that I even dashed off a few lyrics myself (on the back pages of one of those New York Times compilations of Will Shortz crossword puzzles). The story of Squeeze is compelling enough, Difford and Tilbrook are not always “best mates” as one might have assumed, in fact they have very nearly killed each other or written each other off countless times in their 30 plus years together as bandmates and collaborators. Glenn writes the music, you see, and Chris writes the words. Oh there’s a few exceptions but early on they delegated their duties and it worked for them, so they stuck to it. Chris has suffered from depression, alcoholism and cocaine abuse. Glenn likes to drink, but also dallied with snorting heroin for a time. Both men have had failed relationships, and have had periods where they don’t approve of each others’ spouses or girlfriends or of each other. And yet, as the cliche holds truthfully, it was the music that kept them coming back together.
Various characters, Jools Holland, Elvis Costello, Aimee Mann and even a cameo by Spinal Tap’s Christopher Guest and Michael McKean are mentioned in the text, but the only voices are those of Difford and Tilbrook with the occasional leading question by Drury. It’s fascinating, sad at times, and ultimately inspiring. I still harbour a not-so-secret desire to be both musically as adroit as Tilbrook and as lyrically brilliant as Difford. A boy can dream.
The subtitle for Always Magic In The Air is The Bomp And Brilliance of The Brill Building Era, which is both accurate and way too simplified for this richly researched historical account of a pivotal time in the history of American song, and by extension of influence and reach, the World. For one, the book makes it clear from the get-go that there were two New York centers of song industry on Broadway, in addition to the Brill Building at 1619, there was the upstart Aldon Music Company up the road at 1650, the beehive of activity started by ace plugger Don “Donnie” Kirshner and his more musically hands-on producing partner Al Nevins. Some might only remember the name Kirshner as the stiff, parody-ready host of Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, once lampooned (with biting accuracy) by Paul Shaffer on SNL in the ’70s. Still others might recognize his name as the Colgems musical consultant responsible for the actual songs on The Monkees (until a simian mutiny wrested artistic control over the musical direction in a move comparable to Frankenstein seizing the good doctor’s machines). After having read the tales of creative partnership in the Squeeze book, I was more intrigued than ever to read the multiple tales of competition, collaboration and sheer hitmaking adrenaline in Emerson’s book, which started off a little drier than I’d hoped but eventually gripped me with its complex interweaving narrative and almost ethnomusicalogical dedication to getting to the roots of the music. Bacharach and David drift from collegiate Perry Como songs to grown up Dionne Warwick tunes like “Walk On By” and “Windows of The World”.
Carole King and Gerry Goffin go from answering Sedaka to writing for Aretha Franklin (“Natural Woman”) and give The Monkees one of their last hits (“Pleasant Valley Sunday) before Gerry freaks out (post-Dylan) and Carole takes James Taylor’s advice and starts fronting for her own, more personal songs on the landmark Tapestry album. Married couple, Barry Mann and Weil are in stiff competition with married couple Goffin and King and have tense dinners for four where the subject of work is studiously avoided.
Jeff Barry and his partner Ellie Greenwich (who died last year at age 68) work magic with each other (and with Phil Spector) but not so much apart, and yet they discover and develop Neil Diamond together. Saddest is the wheelchair bound Doc Pomus and his globe trotting songwriting partner Mort Shuman and most inspiring is the go-get-em, instinct driven sense of fun and danger that typify Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller‘s best work, with and without Elvis Presley. Dylan wanted to kill this kind of songwriting, The Beatles paid homage but ultimately rolled over it like they did both Chuck Berry and Beethoven (so to speak).
I highly recommend both books, especially if you’re a songwriter, but even if you aren’t. Squeeze roll on (and roll off) and one gets the picture that this will always be thus until one of them is no longer breathing. And while the “Brill Building” still stands, the factory mentality of its era was eventually demolished by the self-sufficiency and self-expression of the British invasion and the Zimmerman approach. Both books, I suspect, tell it like it was. And in many ways, both tell it like it still is and will always be whenever songwriters attempt to catch the magic in the air with our imperfect butterfly nets.