Saturday, June 28, 2008

Future Theme Ideas

Just movin' the future theme ideas post up to the top...

Please post any ideas you have for future themes in the comment section to this post. That way they'll all be in one place. Also, feel free to discuss any questions you might have about the blog or any ideas you might have for improvement.


Songwriting: Walkin' Blues

I often come across articles where the writer bemoans that nowadays, there's nothing new and original in music, that everything is a rehash of what came before when there was a regularity of fresh sounds. The new thing has always been there, but what makes it out to the mass media is based on commercial concerns. It's not like there's nothing new and original. Just go down to the small clubs spread around and you'll hear plenty of new sounds. But economic conditions keep these bands down, the average person wants something they've heard before, the safe and familiar. Captain Beefheart said it best about his own music:

Captain Beefheart Quotes

"I think nutrition is very important. If you eat bad, you feel bad. If you feel bad, you do bad things. Most of modern rock and roll is a product of guilt. People cop licks off of dead people, like stealing pennies off a dead man's eyes. The movement needs a bowel movement."

"I don't do lullabyes. I'm tired of lullabyes, like The Beatles. I heard *Lullabye of Broadway* when I was a baby, and I still hear it now, and I'm still a baby. We're the only people doing anything significant in modern music. I haven't heard anything else that gets away from mother's heartbeat. All I've heard is a rebelling against parents, and I'm tired of hearing that."

"I don't believe in time, you know, 4/4 and all that stuff. Frank Zappa believes in time and we could never get it together. He writes all his music and gets sentimental about good old rock 'n' roll, but that's appeasement music."

As I wrote in Songwriting: Night Train, music has been building on itself since the beginning of time, musicians have been "borrowing" from one another forever. I refer to it as Open Source Songwriting - first, let's define Open Source Culture, via Wikipedia:

Open source culture is the creative practice of appropriation and free sharing of found and created content. Examples include collage, found footage film, music, and appropriation art. Open source culture is one in which fixations, works entitled to copyright protection, are made generally available. Participants in the culture can modify those products and redistribute them back into the community or other organizations.

The rise of open-source culture in the 20th century resulted from a growing tension between creative practices that involve appropriation, and therefore require access to content that is often copyrighted, and increasingly restrictive intellectual property laws and policies governing access to copyrighted content. The two main ways in which intellectual property laws became more restrictive in the 20th century were extensions to the term of copyright (particularly in the United States) and penalties, such as those articulated in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), placed on attempts to circumvent anti-piracy technologies.

Although artistic appropriation is often permitted under fair use doctrines, the complexity and ambiguity of these doctrines creates an atmosphere of uncertainty among cultural practitioners. Also, the protective actions of copyright owners create what some call a "chilling effect" among cultural practitioners.

One of the best articles of any sort I've read in recent memory comes from Harpers. Here's some key exerts from it, I highly suggest reading the whole thing.

The ecstasy of influence

  • A plagiarism by Jonathan Lethem
    "When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty." The line comes from Don Siegel's 1958 film noir, The Lineup, written by Stirling Silliphant. The film still haunts revival houses, likely thanks to Eli Wallach's blazing portrayal of a sociopathic hit man and to Siegel's long, sturdy auteurist career. Yet what were those words worth — to Siegel, or Silliphant, or their audience — in 1958? And again: what was the line worth when Bob Dylan heard it (presumably in some Greenwich Village repertory cinema), cleaned it up a little, and inserted it into "Absolutely Sweet Marie"? What are they worth now, to the culture at large?

    In 1941, on his front porch, Muddy Waters recorded a song for the folklorist Alan Lomax. After singing the song, which he told Lomax was entitled "Country Blues," Waters described how he came to write it. "I made it on about the eighth of October '38," Waters said. "I was fixin' a puncture on a car. I had been mistreated by a girl. I just felt blue, and the song fell into my mind and it come to me just like that and I started singing." Then Lomax, who knew of the Robert Johnson recording called "Walkin' Blues," asked Waters if there were any other songs that used the same tune. "There's been some blues played like that," Waters replied. "This song comes from the cotton field and a boy once put a record out — Robert Johnson. He put it out as named 'Walkin' Blues.' I heard the tune before I heard it on the record. I learned it from Son House." In nearly one breath, Waters offers five accounts: his own active authorship: he "made it" on a specific date. Then the "passive" explanation: "it come to me just like that." After Lomax raises the question of influence, Waters, without shame, misgivings, or trepidation, says that he heard a version by Johnson, but that his mentor, Son House, taught it to him. In the middle of that complex genealogy, Waters declares that "this song comes from the cotton field."

    Blues and jazz musicians have long been enabled by a kind of "open source" culture, in which pre-existing melodic fragments and larger musical frameworks are freely reworked. Technology has only multiplied the possibilities; musicians have gained the power to duplicate sounds literally rather than simply approximate them through allusion. In Seventies Jamaica, King Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry deconstructed recorded music, using astonishingly primitive pre-digital hardware, creating what they called "versions." The recombinant nature of their means of production quickly spread to DJs in New York and London. Today an endless, gloriously impure, and fundamentally social process generates countless hours of music.

    Artists and their surrogates who fall into the trap of seeking recompense for every possible second use end up attacking their own best audience members for the crime of exalting and enshrining their work. The Recording Industry Association of America prosecuting their own record-buying public makes as little sense as the novelists who bristle at autographing used copies of their books for collectors.

    As a novelist, I'm a cork on the ocean of story, a leaf on a windy day. Pretty soon I'll be blown away. For the moment I'm grateful to be making a living, and so must ask that for a limited time (in the Thomas Jefferson sense) you please respect my small, treasured usemonopolies. Don't pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing.

    I really don't have anything more to add to this, Mr. Lethem expresses my feelings more eloquently than I ever could. With the Net, the Genie is out of the bottle - I don't think it's going to be possible to get him back in.

    Robert Johnson: Walking Blues


    Muddy Waters: Walkin' Blues

  • Friday, June 27, 2008

    Songwriting: God Only Knows


    The Beach Boys: God Only Knows (Instrumental Backing)

    I realize not everybody is a musician and some of this may be Greek, but I've always wanted to point out some of these technical musical delights and this is the theme. I'll make it short. The bass line to the verse of God Only Knows, the greatest song in the world, dances around the changes, carving its own path rather than follow the root notes. When you listen to the verse, try to hear how the bass and chords move up and down independently, creating tension and climbing up to that glorious chorus. In a documentary, I think it was Terry Melcher who said the verse 'built a stairway to God'... something like that. Sorry, I should do my research.

    Nobody used changes like this in pop music until Brian. The Beatles quickly followed suit. Lyrics are important but you won't hear them on this post. Just listen to those changes. And even better, the production. I love everything on Pet Sounds: the delayed wood block, the slappy bass... an orchestra of perfect sounds. (For those playing along at home, I'd recommend a piano before a guitar on this one.)

    God Only Knows
    music: Brian Wilson | lyrics: Tony Asher
    (Bass notes denoted in bold.)

    I may not always love you

    But long as there are stars above you

    You never need to doubt it

    I'll make you so sure about it

    God only knows what I'd be without you

    Songwriting: How To Write A Political Song

    Cisco Houston: Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)
    Lyrics by Woody Guthrie.


    Joni Mitchell is one of my favorite songwriters, but she has one big weakness. She does not know how to write a political song. This shows up especially in her later work. She certainly is passionate about some issues, but her anger gets in the way of her craft, and she winds up with rants instead of songs. In this, she is hardly alone.

    Before I go any further, I should clarify my terms. I have been careful to use the term "political song", not "protest song". A political song is a song written to be listened to by people who may not even agree with the songwriter when they first hear the song; done properly, the song persuades by drawing the sympathy of the listener. By contrast, a protest song is written to energize a group of people who already agree with the songwriter: at its best, a protest song is musically simple enough to be learned by a thousand or a million people while they march through the streets. A classic example of a protest song is "We Shall Overcome".

    Returning briefly to Joni Mitchell, I have discussed her works as political songs, but really the problem is that they are too lyrically simplistic to be effective political songs, but they are too musically sophisticated to work as protest songs either.

    To see how a political song should work, let's look at a classic example: Woody Guthrie's "Deportee ( Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)".

    Guthrie actually wrote this as a poem in 1948, and the music was written a decade later by a school teacher named Martin Hoffman. On January 29, 1948, a plane carrying a crew of four Americans and a "cargo" of 28 migrant workers being deported to Mexico crashed in Los Gatos canyon in California, killing all on board. Guthrie found the fact that the Mexicans were identified in the newspaper accounts only as deportees offensive. Hence the line, "You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane."

    Guthrie tells the story of this event through eyes of an unnamed fellow migrant worker who either knew some of the victims personally, or knows plenty of others like them. He gives some of the victims names, because to him they are people, not just "deportees". This is the key to what makes the song work. Guthrie does not sloganize; he personalizes. He gives us a character we can identify with, who tells us of the pride he takes in the hard work that he and his fellows do.

    Guthrie even manages to get another issue into his poem without losing his focus. As part of the farm subsidy program at that time, the government paid farmers to destroy some of their crop to support higher prices. Guthrie found this unconscionable when people were going hungry. He ties these two themes together at the very end of his poem with these lines:

    Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
    To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
    And be called by no name except 'deportees'?
    And he doesn't need to say anything else.

    Reader submission by Darius

    Thursday, June 26, 2008

    Next Week's Theme: Fifty States

    Our goal next week is to post 50 songs, one for each state in the United States. Please post songs with the name of an American state in the title.

    Here is the twist: Once a state is used, do not repeat that state. I will kick off the challenge with "California" by Joni Mitchell on Sunday morning. After that it's first come, first served.

    It's a challenge because (1) 50 posts would be a new SMM record, and (2) I'm not sure there is a song for every state. We'll find out, I guess. (Since we need to post 50 songs, if possible, don't feel obligated to write long posts.)

    In other news, the design committee has concluded its work and will be unveiling the new Star Maker Machine website design on Sunday.

    Songwriting: The Queen And The Soldier

    Suzanne Vega: The Queen And The Soldier


    My wife and I compliment each other very well. When it comes to songs, I usually respond first to the music, the arrangement, and the production. I sometimes go years loving a song without knowing what it is about. My wife is the opposite: although she has more musical training than I do, she hears lyrics, sometimes to the exclusion of all else.

    So when the first thing that grabs me about a song is the lyrics, it's an event. The first time I heard "The Queen and the Soldier" was such an event.

    The story this song tells is fairly straight forward. A soldier goes to tell his queen that he will no longer fight in her wars. She has him killed for his disobedience. End. But it's not so simple as all that.

    What sets this song apart is the description of the characters' emotions. He either is in love with the queen, or falls in love with her in the course of the story. She seems to fall in love with him, which terrifies her. So does she order his death because he defies her orders to fight, or because she fears her own emotions?

    Sometimes this song for me is a literal story about two characters who are trapped in societal roles which doom their love. Sometimes it is a symbolic antiwar song. And sometimes it is a metaphor for a failed relationship. Are any of these interpretations what Suzanne Vega had in mind? I have no idea, and I wouldn't want to ask her if ever got the chance. The mystery of "The Queen and the Soldier" is what makes it a great song.

    Reader submission from Darius

    Wednesday, June 25, 2008

    Songwriting: Thunder Road (revisited)

    Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Tortoise: Thunder Road


    (On writing as a process of adaptation, part three: the extreme cover.)

    One of the reasons I coverblog is that I love folk music, and many local artists need some sort of boost to be heard. Which is to say: in my experience, cover songs are an especially important vehicle for introducing audiences to new artists -- by using familiar songs, a comfort zone is created which helps us be more willing to try something new; from there, if we like what we hear, we may be more willing to try the original works of the artist. The flip side of this, of course, is that covers confront the singer-songwriter model that typifies most new music today: by changing the way a song is performed, covers generally split original performance -- as modern, post Tin Pan Alley culture experiences it -- from song-as-written, making it easier for an astute listener to consider as discrete product both the song itself and the artistic choices that went into each performance.

    But every once in a while, an artistic reimagining of song is so different from the original, rather than creating comfort, it confronts our sense of the original song, calling attention to the vast difference as we strain to hear the original in the cover. I'm not just talking here about acoustic renderings of Ozzy Osborne songs, either -- what I mean to point to is more like the "recasting" Matt traces through the work of The Replacements, or something akin to the "open source" adaptation of melody, lyric, and arrangement which Dean spoke of earlier this week, though in this case, we're taking about cases where at least one of those components stays similar enough that the original is still both attributable and, further, is named by the artist performing the song -- that is the performer believes he is creating a coversong, regardless of what we might read into it. Such extreme covers transcend our usual understanding what it means to cover something, and begin to move -- ever so slightly -- in the direction of rewriting.

    One great example of this is the Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Tortoise "cover" of Thunder Road, a song we've already heard evolve in the hands of its author, thanks to Paul's great analysis. (note: unless you grew up in a thrash-metal-only zone or something, you've surely heard Springsteen's original before this week, too). The cover is startlingly different, and much of this is "mere" arrangement: rock drums, pulsing, anthemic keyboards and electric guitar; seventies-era rock breaks and solos; beautiful, haunting harmonies. But there's something else happening here, too. By keeping the lyrics intact, but completely rewriting the composition -- switching it into a minor key, and displacing the melodic line entirely, though it appears again faintly in the harmony part of the chorus -- other than a faint recognition that this is a Springsteen song we know, the way we hear the song has almost no relationship to the way we have always heard the original. If chords matter -- and Brendan made that case convincingly, I think -- this isn't a new setting of a song, it's a total deconstruction of one.

    Maybe my coverblogger's ears are oversensitive to such change. But I think what Tortoise and Bonnie "Prince" Billy have done here is to coversong what Jackson Pollock once was to art: by presenting us with something almost but not quite unrecognizable, it confronts our sense of what is and what is not true writing, asking us to consider more fluid the usual lines between the art of performance and song creation and the craft of arranging and interpretation. It may not be true "writing", but it's closer to it than most covers.

    Songwriting: Tramp The Dirt Down

    Elvis Costello: Tramp The Dirt Down


    Various sources of inspiration for songwriting, volume III of at least IV

    Politics & War: As I've been thinking about different things that inspire songwriters this week, I have realized how often it is the case that the inspiration is a passionate feeling: love, hate, pain, joy, etc.

    Much of the greatest rock music ever written has been written by people who were passionate about politics and war.  And when I think of the most passionate songs along those lines I think of Masters of War by Bob Dylan and Tramp the Dirt Down by Elvis Costello.

    [Note: If you examine the side-board of this blog you'll see that Dylan and Costello are the two most blogged-about artists here at SMM. In my opinion this is exactly as it should be and I'm more than happy to add one more to the Elvis column.]

    This song is as passionate as they come. It is about Costello's disgust with Margret Thatcher and his determination to live long enough to tramp the dirt down on her grave when she finally dies (a remarkably similar sentiment to that of Masters Of War - I'm just realizing as I type). This is, without question, one of his best songs, and that's about all I have to say about it.

    Songwriting: Out On The Side


    Dillard & Clark: Out On The Side

    It's amazing what learning an instrument will do for your appreciation of good music. I can't explain the feeling of discovering a brilliant chord progression, but when you love a song, pick up the guitar and figure out what the chords are; you just might figure out why you love it.

    Gene Clark is one of my favorite songwriters (and my number one man crush). His songs get me so good because they are based on traditional folk and country progressions, but taken to the next level. The use of relative minor and II and III chords distinguishes his tunes from classic I-IV-V stuff, but they seldom feel complicated. He sticks to his roots with the perfect amount of new flavor.

    Out On The Side from Fantastic Expedition just kills me... Starts on the II (F#m) chord and, interestingly, almost every line ends on the I chord (E). When they switch to the descending A - G - E (IV - bIII - I), it sounds definitively 'Gene Clark' to me. Hangs on the E to a tension-building F#m just before the classic A - B - E (IV - V - I) hook on "out on the side," providing satisfying closure to this moving progression.

    Out On The Side
    by Gene Clark
    (Lyrics and chords available at

    F#m  A
    F#m       A           G#m           E
    And there could be at any moment a change
    F#m       A              E
    And if perhaps to put us down
    F#m     A             G#m            E
    I won't act like I've seen something strange
    F#m     A                 E
    Maybe I just won't make a sound
    A            G           E
    But when the door closes before my eyes
    A   G         E
    Oh, oh I will cry
    E                    F#m
    Just to know you are going to stay
    A   B      E
    Out on the side

    Tuesday, June 24, 2008

    Songwriting: Persuasion

    Tim Finn: Persuasion


    Richard and Teddy Thompson: Persuasion


    In my first entry for this week's theme, I looked at an example of song creation in which found poetry was adapted into song, both through minor textual change and, more significantly, through setting that material to original music. Today's song is the reverse: an adaptation of a borrowed instrumental into a narrative song through the addition of original lyrics.

    Songwriting credit is usually a pretty straightforward phenomenon; it has to be, in a world where attribution is economically relevant. When multiple authors are listed on the record label (or, more recently, in the metadata that appears in the iTunes "composer" field), those little slashes that separate their names are generally understood as a signifier that the song was written through one of two methods of collaboration:

    In both of those cases, the collaboration is generally considered part of the creation of the song - that is, the song is not considered finished until the partnership has produced a product. And, though historical synchronicity is implied in such collaboration, there is nothing inherent about this. The Grammy-winning Wilco and Billy Bragg sessions which brought forth Mermaid Avenue Vol. I and II are generally accepted as collaborative works despite posthumous contribution: Woody Guthrie wrote a bunch of lyrics, but until they were set to music by Bragg and his alt-country co-horts, the works were not considered finished song.

    The case of Persuasion, then, is somewhat of an anomaly.

    Originally, Persuasion was a Richard Thompson/Peter Filleul instrumental written for the movie Sweet Talker. Collaborating with composer Filleul was not new for Thompson -- previously, the two had worked together on soundtracks for some TV shows you've never heard of either -- but constantly rewriting the music to fit the movie as it evolved in editing was a painful process for Thompson, an artist known for careful attention to his song craft, and he swore he would never do another soundtrack.

    Persuasion was released with little fanfare in 1991 on a soundtrack album which, like the movie itself, is generally considered to be a dud. The song is pretty cheesy, with typical late-eighties soundtrack production -- too cheesy, really, to be worth including here, though you're welcome to sample it. But New Zealander pop/New Wave musician and singer-songwriter Tim Finn (Crowded House, Split Enz) heard it somewhere, and thought the song could be salvaged. He added lyrics, and began playing the song in concert; eventually, it was recorded and released on Together in Concert, a live 2000 trio album with fellow Enzed artists Bic Runga and Dave Dobbyn. The following year, Richard and Teddy Thompson cut their own version of the now fully-realized song, releasing it as one of two new songs on his excellent Capitol Records retrospective album Action Packed, credited to Finn/Thompson/Filleul.

    For a study in songwriting, then, the differences between posthumous collaboration and the case of Persuasion are subtle, but significant.

    First, this is not a case of taking raw materials and turning them into song -- where Bragg and co. truly finished what Guthrie had started, what Finn did was to take something which had already been released as a finished product and used it to make a song which is quite literally about something, in ways which an instrumental cannot be. This, itself, would make the case of Persuasion notable enough to merit inclusion in any discussion of pastiche songwriting.

    And second, the existence of two versions of the "finished" song -- one by the original author of those lyrics, and one, much later, by the original composer of what he thought at the time was an instrumental -- begs a whole series of questions, from "what is a song?" to "which is the original version of this song?"

    No philosopher, I; I'd never deign to tackle the fundamental question of what a song is. But as a cover blogger, it is that last question which keeps me up at night. Technically, because he wrote the "song", Richard Thompson's recording of his own original theme with Tim Finn's lyric cannot qualify as a cover of someone else's music. But just as certainly, Tim Finn's version is not "the" original, either, because Thompson wrote and performed the music a decade earlier.

    I think Finn's product is easier to explain -- it is, I suppose, a lyrical adaptation of an instrumental. But I have struggled with nomenclature to describe Thompson's 2001 recording, because I think his original work as composer makes his later recording more than just a performance of Finn's adaptation. Rather, I think it qualifies as something new and namable.

    Because Thompson clearly appreciates Finn's lyrics enough to record his own take on them, I think it qualifies as a "re/cover". It's a bit postmodern, but that mid-word slash also recalls the mark which signifies co-writing credit on those record labels; as such, it seems especially fitting. If anyone can think of ANY other examples of a Re/cover, I'd love to hear them. And if someone wants to write the wikipedia entry for re/cover, you can start here. Just make sure to cite me on it.

    PS: Just to complicate matters further, here's a Youtube version of the two songwriters performing the song together in 1993, years before Thompson recorded himself singing lead on the song. Notably, each plays his own piece of the song, and supports the other as well: Finn sings the lyrics he wrote, and strums the basic chords, while Thompson plays the melodic theme he originally penned as an instrumental on his signature electric guitar, and does back-up vocals. I have no idea what to call this one, either. But call it what you will: it's a great song in all incarnations.

    Songwriting: Portland. Talent Show.

    Many times, rather than labor over it, the smith will melt the song down to it's constituant parts and recast it. The creator might take the constituant parts and wield them in an entirely different way: "It's not a sword now, it's a pen."

    Paul Westerberg was first working the specific ingredients of this song as "Portland," which my ears hear as anger and resignation directed at the other members of the formarly-fun bumper-car he was being jostled in.

    The Replacements: Portland

    I think it was a sound editorial decision to cut the song (it ended up on the All For Nothing, Nothing For All compilation, as an outtake), 'cause it was too 'present' and vicious.

    But it was also afflicted with hookiness and hum-ability! Westerberg, the smith, recast the song as "Talent Show".

    Opposite from upset resignation, "Talent Show" harkens the butterfly-in-stomach, optimistic/worried feeling of 'way back when'... when they could'a been. Of course, like just about everything about The Replacements, it fizzled.

    This bookend version of the song, then, is from the band's last show:

    The Replacements: Talent Show

    Songwriting: "You ain't a beauty, but baby, uh, you're alright..."

    I think Thunder Road is one of the best rock songs ever written.

    Why? Well, there are a lot of really great lines, but the best part is the seemingly effortless way that the words and the music fit so well together. Of course, it wasn’t always that way. Listen to this early live version of the song recorded in February 1975, during the tour leading up to the release of Born to Run. While it still sounds pretty good, it’s wordy compared to the pristine version on the official release.

    Bruce Springsteen: Wings For Wheels (a.k.a. Thunder Road)

    As you can hear, Bruce made a number of substantial changes to all of the verses, but I think it’s the relatively minor changes he made to the opening verse that best show the importance of careful editing in songwriting:

    The screen door slams
    Angelina’s Mary’s dress sways
    Like a vision she dances across the porch
    As the radio plays
    Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
    Hey that’s me babe and I want you only
    Don’t turn me home again
    I just can’t face myself alone in the mirror again tonight
    Don’t run back inside
    Baby Darling you know just what I’m here for
    So you’re scared and you’re thinking
    That maybe you we ain’t that young anymore
    Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night
    You ain't a beauty, but baby, uh, hey you’re alright
    Oh and that’s alright with me

    Here’s a more recent live version with the familiar lyrics:

    Bruce Springsteen: Thunder Road (Live)

    [purchase Born To Run]

    While I'm in the mood, here’s another Bruce song I’ve always loved--probably because of its relatively modest scope:

    Bruce Springsteen: Used Cars

    [purchase Nebraska]

    “Now Mister the day my number comes in I ain’t ever gonna ride no used car again…”

    Monday, June 23, 2008

    Songwriting: Dead Of Winter

    Eels: Dead Of Winter


    Various sources of inspiration for song writing: Volume II

    Personal Tragedy: I hope I don’t offend any hard-core Eels fans, but in my opinion they really only have one great record: 1998’s critically acclaimed Electro-Shock Blues. I have tried a couple of other albums of theirs, and the magic just isn’t there.

    So, how is it that front man and sole song writer “E”, who by my estimation is ultimately a second-tier composer, was able to produce such an incredibly beautiful and heartbreaking set of tunes for Electro-Shock Blues?

    I think the answer is that sometimes personal tragedy brings out the best in artists. Sometimes it even makes artists out of non-artists.

    Electro-Shock Blues was written following the suicide death of E’s sister, and his mother’s death that followed a battle with lung cancer. These two deaths, which occurred in close temporal proximity to one another, left E as the only living member of his immediate family. The songs on the album feature entries from his sister’s diary, comments about chemotherapy, hospital food, two songs about funerals, a beautiful tune about memories of simpler times with his sister, and others about E’s struggle to keep his sanity in the midst of this onslaught of personal crisis. The entire album is poignant, painful, and real.

    What is it about personal tragedy that makes for great art? In my opinion the answer is that you can’t fake this stuff. I could probably write a verse or two right this minute about the war, about cars, a walk on a beach, or whatever, but the result would be pedestrian and mediocre. Genuine psychic trauma, on the other hand, can’t be conjured. As a result of this, the listener is drawn into a bond of sympathy with the artist, and because we have experienced pain of various kinds ourselves we are able to understand from what well of sorrow the words come.

    The featured track is Dead Of Winter. E is standing outside his mother’s house on a winter night thinking about her struggle with cancer and knowing that she will die soon.

    so I know you're going pretty soon
    radiation sore throat got your tongue

    magic markers tattoo you
    and show it where to aim

    and strangers break their promises:
    "… you won't feel any … you won't feel any pain"

    Sunday, June 22, 2008

    Songwriting: Night Moves (Edit)

    Bob Seger: Night Moves


    The song Night Moves by Bob Seger recalls a youthful love affair. Seger has explained that the song was written about an Italian woman whom he dated when he was 19. He starts out the song by introducing the couple. Her “points” are self-explanatory; his “points” refer to metal objects worn by rebels on their shoes in the late 50’s and early ‘60s:

    I was a little too tall
    Could’ve used a few pounds
    Tight pants, points, hardly renowned.
    She was a black-haired beauty with big dark eyes
    And points all her own, sitting way up high,
    Way up firm and high.
    As the love affair begins, the couple is found in the back seat of his car--practicing their “night moves.”
    Out past the cornfields where the woods got heavy
    Out in the back seat of my 60 chevy
    Working on mysteries without any clues

    Working on our night moves
    Trying to make some front page drive-in news
    Working on our night moves
    In the summertime
    In the sweet summertime
    As Seger continues to describe this youthful rendezvous, he is quick to point out that the relationship was not about love or marriage, it was just a summertime romance.
    We weren’t in love, oh no, far from it
    We weren’t searching for some pie in the sky summit
    We were just young and restless and bored
    Living by the sword

    And we’d steal away every chance we could
    To the backroom, to the alley or the trusty woods
    I used her, she used me
    But neither one cared
    We were getting our share

    Working on our night moves
    Trying to lose the awkward teenage blues
    Working on our night moves
    And it was summertime
    For anyone who thinks sexy has to be explicit, the next verse dispels that myth. The verse concludes the first part of the song with a consummation of the physical relationship.
    And oh the wonder
    We felt the lightning
    And we waited on the thunder
    Waited on the thunder
    My favorite part of the song is the pregnant pause which follows the onslaught of the lyrical thunder. The sparseness of this interlude has flavors of intimacy, solitude, but most of all satisfaction.

    The song could have been a rock and roll anthem at this point. However, when the lyrics resume, the story is elevated to greatness.

    It is not clear how much time has elapsed when he “awoke last night.” But it is clear that the “thunder” is not the same thunder from the previous verse. The girl is gone and the ’60 Chevy too. We don’t know if he is married, divorced, or single--whether he lives in the same town anymore, but it doesn’t really matter. All we know is that the song that he is humming from 1962 won’t be found in that week’s hit parade.
    I awoke last night to the sound of thunder
    How far off I sat and wondered
    Started humming a song from 1962
    Ain’t it funny how the night moves
    When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose
    Strange how the night moves
    With autumn closing in . . .
    When Seger sighs, “Ain’t it funny how the night moves,” the “night moves” no longer describe the physical acts of the couple. Instead, the title phrase is now talking about the passage of time.

    The remembrance in this verse transforms the song. Seger is not simply bragging about a girl he dated; he is talking about more than the end of one youthful summer. The song now becomes universal. Even though the autumn of our lives is closing in, even though we may have become established “with something to lose,” even as we slog through our daily routine, the grind of the rat race, all it takes is one moment, one bolt of thunder, and all the memories of youth and vibrancy and angst and vigor come flooding back.

    But why the refrain?

    So Bob Seger has given us one of the classic rock songs of all time, one of my all-time favorites, and now I’m going to criticize it. Sorry, that’s how it goes.

    The song should end after the line about “autumn closing in.” Instead we get a big refrain that adds nothing new and seems false. You can try to recapture the glory days, but it’s like the 50 something man at the dance club trying to pick up 18 year old women. No matter how hard you try, you can’t go back. When you hear the female back-up singers, it’s as if Seger is haunted by the memory of his first time even when he is with other women.

    Had the song ended with “autumn closing in”, it would have recognized the fragility of youth, that the night has moved. To maximize the effect, it could have ended the first side on vinyl. Song fades to silence, the needle lifts and returns to rest. Time to contemplate the impact of the end of innocence and acknowledge that life moves on. Also, it would have left everyone wanting more.

    The lyrics of the refrain do not add to the feeling of the song. Although Seger ends with a repetition of “I remember,” that point was already made when he started humming a song from 1962.

    This is definitely one of my favorite lyrical songs of all time, but could it be better? Listen to the song again and cut it off after “autumn closing in” and consider the silence.

    Bob Seger: Night Moves - Edited

    What do you think?

    For numerous insights into the song, try

    A lengthy description of the history and production (including technology) of the song and album is found at

    For miscellaneous song facts that have not been verified for accuracy, see

    There is undoubtedly plenty of commentary about this song in cyberspace. One that I found interesting is at

    Reader submission from Dave.

    Songwriting: Let Them In

    John Gorka: Let Them In


    David Wilcox: Let Them In


    The question of source material and song ownership is one I have considered at length in my tenure as a coverblogger. But the study of coversong deals with songs first and foremost as found and re-manipulated objects, not constructed objects. Which is to say: although taking existing materials and making them your own can be an illuminating and transformative process, covering someone else's song wholesale isn't songwriting.

    But in my search for great covers and the stories behind them, I also find myself encountering half-covers, reworkings, song combinations, translations, "based ons", and other ways in which songwriters adapt and play off of existing material to make something carefully crafted and new.

    The pastiche method of songmaking -- in which songs and source materials are transformed not simply through new performance, but through reworkings of those original materials -- falls somewhere between our traditional models of true songwriting and coversong, I suppose. But it is the origin story for some of our greatest songs. And, as any good ghostwriter or translator knows, the act of turning raw material into something else entirely is a form of creation, too.

    This week, as befits a cover blogger's approach to a songwriting theme, I'll be touching on a few such rewritten or reconstructed songs, and the process of collaboration with found or borrowed material that gave them their birth. Today's focus: found poetry as source material.

    Adapting existing poetry and prose into song is nothing new. For centuries, Biblical texts formed the lyrical basis for classical music; just check any Unitarian Universalist hymnbook, and you'll find many entries which were not set to music until after their original authors had passed on to the great chorus in the sky. Though I hope to look at a notable exception to the rule later this week, however, for most of the history of musicmaking, the sacred source text was perceived as immutable. Poetry, not so much.

    Years ago, someone sent singer-songwriter John Gorka a poem that had been found written on the wall of a military hospital in the Philippines after WWII. Struck by the poignant sentiment and simple, down-to-earth imagery of the poem, Gorka chose to adapt the lyric, giving it line breaks and a few tweaks of spelling and phrasing, rearranging and adding a few lines, deleting an entire duplicate stanza, and setting it to a simple tune. The end result:

    Let them in Peter
    For they are very tried
    Give them couches where the angels sleep
    And light those fires

    Let them wake whole again
    To brand new dawns
    Fired by the sun
    Not war-time bloody guns

    May their peace be deep
    Remember where the broken bodies lie
    God knows how young they were
    To have to die

    Give them things they like
    Let them make some noise
    Give dance hall bands not golden harps
    To these our boys

    Let them love Peter
    For they've have no time
    The should have bird songs and trees
    And hills to climb

    The taste of Summer
    In a ripened Pear
    And girls sweet as meadow wind
    And flowing hair

    And tell them how they are missed
    But say not to fear
    It's gonna be all right
    With us down here

    Interestingly, though the song was written in the late eighties, Gorka did not record the song himself until 2001 -- and by then, his work, though still powerful, was starting to suffer from lengthy fade-outs and bass-heavy production that, frankly, just doesn't fit the song as well as his live setting does. But somewhere along the line he handed it off to fellow folk performer David Wilcox, whose simple, acoustic 1991 recording of the song is arguably both the better and the "original" version, recorded with no ornamentation save a pure voice and a slow guitar.

    In recent years, both the original poem and Gorka's lyrics -- often listed as "A Prayer to St. Peter", and sometimes attributed directly to the hospital wall, though many of these postings show Gorka's restructuring of the lines -- have found their way onto numerous bulletin boards and web tributes for soldiers lost in wartime. Edwin McCain's even more recent recording of the song pops up on those tribute blogs a bunch, too, set to slow slideshows of fallen boys in better times.

    The universal sentiment of the lyric transcends even McCain's maudlin lite-rock setting, but I still think Wilcox's setting of Gorka's tune and adapted lyrics is the powerhouse here.

    Songwriting: Little Boy Soldier

    The Jam: Little Boy Soldier


    I plan to approach this new theme, at least in part, by discussing the various ways that artists become inspired to write. I have at least three posts in mind, and this is the first.

    Imitation: One way to write music is to use your favorite bands as inspiration. It's well known, for example, that John Lennon was trying to write like Dylan when he wrote both Hide Your Love Away and Norwegian Wood. Neither of these songs sound particularly like Bob Dylan, but imitation was the doorway to inspiration for Lennon in both of these cases.

    Paul Weller of The Jam has always been a vocal fan of The Kinks. The Jam covered David Watts on their All Mod Cons album, and they have covered many other Kinks songs in live performances.  In an interview at the time of the release of their fourth studio album, Setting Sons, Weller said that they entered the studio specifically setting out to make something like a Kinks album.

    Setting Sons was supposed to be a concept album that told the story of three childhood friends who drift apart as a result of their military service. In the end this story is lost on the listener, but the songs themselves didn't suffer for the loss.

    Weller has stated publicly that the featured track, Little Boy Soldier, was a specifically deliberate attempt to write a song like The Kinks. You can judge for yourself whether or not their imitation was successful. As far as I'm concerned, as with Norwegian Wood, whether or not the end product actually sounds like the imitated artist is not as relevant as whether or not it is worth hearing in and of itself.

    Songwriting: Tangled Up In Blue

    You could write a whole book about this great song (or at least a Wikipedia entry), but I’ll leave that for somebody else. I’m just using it to talk about editing in songwriting.

    As music fans, we usually hear only the final, official version of a song. As a result, we risk assuming that the songwriter simply sits down with pen and paper (or guitar) and spits out the tune in its final form. (Actually, only Townes Van Zandt did this.) Most artists have to live with their songs for awhile, making several tweaks while getting comfortable. As a fan of songwriting, I love hearing early unreleased or live versions of popular songs for the chance to witness the editing process.

    Here is an earlier unreleased version of Tangled Up In Blue that comes from the famous “New York Sessions” for Blood On The Tracks:

    Bob Dylan: Tangled Up In Blue (New York Sessions) [purchase]

    This early version starts in the third-person and then switches to a first-person telling halfway through. The official version is in the first-person throughout the entire song, which I like better. Other major changes made from the New York Sessions version to the official release are (1) the replacement of the L.A. airplane factory with the a fishing boat in New Orleans, (2) changing "doctor's wives" to "carpenter's wives," and (3) changing the busy/stoned verse to the more intriguing story about Montague Street and "dealing with slaves." All improvements, I think.

    The edits highlighted below show the changes Dylan made from the New York sessions before releasing the official version:

    Early one morning the sun was shining
    He I was laying in bed
    Wondering if she’d changed at all
    If her hair was still red
    Her folks they said their our lives together
    Sure was gonna be rough
    They never did like mama’s homemade dress
    Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough
    And he I was standing on the side of the road
    Rain falling on his my shoes
    Heading out for the old East Coast
    Lord knows he’s I’ve paid some dues getting through
    Tangled up in blue

    She was married when they we first met
    Soon to be divorced
    He I helped her out of a jam I guess
    But he I used a little too much force
    And they We drove that car as far as they we could
    Abandoned it out west
    And Split up on a dark sad night [Not "on the docks that night"]
    Both agreeing it was best
    And She turned around to look at him me
    As he I was walking away
    She said “This can't be the end
    I heard her say over my shoulder,
    “We’ll meet on another day again someday on the avenue,”
    Tangled up in blue

    He I had a job in the old Great North Woods
    Working as a cook for a spell
    But he I never did like it all that much
    And one day the ax just fell
    When he So I drifted down to L.A. New Orleans
    Where he reckoned to try his luck
    Where I was lucky just to be employed
    Working for a while in an airplane plant on a fishing boat
    Loading cargo onto a truck
    Right outside of Delacroix
    But all the while he I was alone
    The past was close behind
    He I seen a lot of women
    But she never escaped his my mind and he I just grew
    Tangled up in blue

    She was working in a topless place
    And I stopped in for a beer
    I just kept looking at the side of her face
    In the spotlight so clear
    And later on as the crowd thinned out
    I was just about to do the same
    She was standing there in back of my chair
    Said to me, “What’s Don’t I know your name?”
    I muttered something underneath my breath
    She studied the lines on my face
    I must admit I felt a little uneasy
    When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe
    Tangled up in blue

    She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe
    “I thought you’d never say hello,” she said
    “You look like the silent type.”
    Then she opened up a book of poems
    And handed it to me
    Written by an Italian poet
    From the Thirteenth Century
    And every one of them words rang true
    And glowed like burning coal
    Pouring off of every page
    Like it was written in my soul from me to you
    Tangled up in blue

    He was always in a hurry
    Too busy or too stoned
    And everything she ever planned
    Just had to be postponed
    He thought they were successful
    She thought they were blessed
    With objects and material things,
    But I never was impressed
    And when it all came crashing down

    I lived with them on Montague Street
    In a basement down the stairs
    There was music in the cafes at night
    And revolution in the air
    Then he started into dealing with slaves
    And something inside of him died
    She had to sell everything she owned
    And froze up inside
    And when it finally, the bottom, fell out

    I became withdrawn
    The only thing I knew how to do
    Was to keep on keeping on like a bird that flew
    Tangled up in blue.

    So now I’m going back again
    I’ve got to get to her somehow
    All the people we used to know
    They’re an illusion to me now.
    Some are mathematicians
    Some are doctor’s carpenter’s wives
    Don’t know how it all got started
    I don’t know what they’re doing with their lives.
    But me, I’m still on the road
    Heading for another joint
    We always did feel the same
    We just saw it from a different point of view
    Tangled up in blue

    Nine years later Bob released a live version with even more changes--many substantial--to the lyrics:

    Bob Dylan: Tangled Up In Blue (Live 1984) [purchase]

    Interestingly, Dylan went back to the third-person perspective for some verses of the Real Live version.

    This is the first of at least two posts along these lines. Later in the week I'll post an earlier version of Springsteen's Thunder Road that really screamed for a red pen. Thankfully, Bruce worked it out.