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A Cup of Coffee with Chris Frantz

MY FAIRFIELD NEIGHBOR CHRIS FRANTZ HAS A BOOK COMING OUT. HERE’S A PIECE ABOUT OUR CHAT IN A DOWNTOWN COFFEE HOUSE.

Chris Frantz, drummer for Talking Heads, wants you to know one thing. “A lot of people thought David Byrne was the goose that laid the golden egg. It wasn’t really like that. He was the egg, but he was not the goose.” The goose was Talking Heads. He clarifies, “We always thought Talking Heads was the mother ship and Tom Tom Club and anything else we did was just a spinoff of that.”

Tom Tom Club was a side project he and his wife, bassist Tina Weymouth, came up with during an indefinite early hiatus, when lead singer David Byrne got a gig scoring the Twyla Tharp dance project, The Catherine Wheel. At first Chris and Tina weren’t interested in having a side project, even when the fourth member of the group, guitarist and keyboard player Jerry Harrison, announced he was doing a solo album. It was actually their accountant who convinced them. He said, ‘Yes, you’re doing well, but you just did this big tour of the world with an eight piece band and you’ve only got about $2,000 in the bank. So you’d better do something.’

“Tina and I looked at each other. Neither of us were singers, at least at that time, and we thought, ‘What kind of solo album could we do?'”

Taking advantage of the early ’80s hip hop/dance era, they concocted the Tom Tom Club, whose first album The Tom Tom Club, produced the massive club hits, “Wordy Rappinghood” and “Genius of Love,” propelling it to instant success.

How much success? “Well, let me tell you this story,” says Frantz. “When the first Tom Tom Club album was raging, we were riding in a cab from 57th Street downtown to Irving Plaza. In the car was Tina, myself, our manager, and David Byrne. I wish our manager had waited until David wasn’t in the cab with us. But he said, ‘Hey, guess what? The Tom Tom Club album went gold today.’ Tina and I were like, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ But David was just sitting there, not making any comment. Talking Heads had not had any gold albums in the United States to that point. I think we had one in New Zealand, of all places. So “Genius of Love” is right up there, in terms of sales, with the best of the Talking Heads.”

Chris Frantz:
Our manager was good friends with Chris Blackwell of Island Records. We already knew Chris because he’d passed on Talking Heads. In fairness to him, he said, “I’m putting all of my power into breaking Bob Marley in America.” Anyway, our manager said to Chris, how about if Chris and Tina come down to Compass Point and make a record down there. Being keen on reggae, he understood the power of a good rhythm section. So he said, “Sure, send them down and they can record a single. And if I like the single, then they can do a whole album.” The first song we recorded was called “Wordy Rappinghood.” We recorded it and mixed it in three days. Chris Blackwell came into the studio and said, “I love it. Get started on a whole record. And in the meantime, I’m going to release this as a single in Europe and Latin America.” It did really well. In quite a few countries it went to #1. So we got to work on an album.

We worked with one of the house engineers at Compass Point, Steven Stanley. At that time, he wasn’t getting a lot of work, but Tina and I liked him, and we thought, “We can work with this kid.” We had worked with him a little bit on Remain in Light when the first engineer, Rhett Davis, a very famous British engineer who came down with our producer, Brian Eno, got mad at Eno and left after three days. So we had Steven come in as sort of an interim engineer while this other guy got himself together to come down. Stevie had recorded all the tracks for “Once in a Lifetime,” so we knew he was a good engineer. And he became coproducer with us. We mentioned to him that we liked Lee Perry. Stevie was totally into that sound, except he was much more precise and had a more international outlook. Like, Stevie wasn’t just thinking about what would be hot in Jamaica, he was thinking about the whole world.

“Genius of Love” was the second song we started. We didn’t finish it until a couple of weeks later. I had the idea for the title and Tina wrote the rest of the lyrics and the melody, except for the last line. I wrote:

He’s a genius of love
He’s got a greater depth of feeling
Yes, he’s the genius of love
He’s so deep

We wrote all the songs for the album in the studio. We had learned to write that way on Remain in Light. It’s a good way of coming up with surprise things. If you just sit down with a piano and a vocal and you make a demo, chances are it’s going to sound like something that came before. Same with a singer/songwriter with a guitar: chances are it’s not going to be a real surprise to your ear. But if you go in with no preconceived ideas, or maybe a slightly preconceived idea, but not a fully formulated idea, then it can just go anywhere.

In the studio I’d play the drum part. It’s played by hand, but it’s a loop part. It doesn’t have any fills or anything, but it does have some tom-toms, so I would record a groove with bass drums, snare, and hi-hat. Then Tina would put down her bass. Then I would add a little tom-tom here and there. And then we added the keyboard part, which was actually two keyboard parts combined. Then Tina worked out the vocals with her two sisters, Laura and Lani, and a little bit of screaming by myself. Then we added Adrian Belew on guitar. We also had a Bahamian guitarist named Monty Brown playing a simple rhythm part. He had recently left T-Connection, a Bahamian funk band that had had a few hits.
Chris and Tina started dating in 1972 after they met at the Rhode Island School of Design. They have been married since 1977.
Lyrically, things would get changed as it went along, but Tina had a good idea of what she wanted it to be about. We also wanted to pay tribute to all these great soul artists that we really enjoyed and appreciated, like Smokey Robinson, James Brown, and Sly and Robbie. “There’s no beginning and there is no end/time isn’t present in the dimension.” I didn’t hear that line coming. Tina came up with that. That stuff in the middle, that’s Tina’s sister, Lani, who invented this language when she was a little kid. It’s gibberish, but it sounds like it might be Hindu or something. People at the time were asking, “What kind of language is that?” Well, it’s this language that Tina’s sister Lani invented as a child.

I would say it probably took two 16-hour days to complete, but once we had the bass and drums, we already knew we had a hit. Usually, you wouldn’t say, “This is a hit,” because you don’t want to jinx it, but I think everybody in the room knew it.

It was the next single in Europe but it didn’t really happen there. It was a hit in the dance clubs but it was not a commercial radio hit. But before the album came out Island pressed 100,000 12″ singles and exported them to the US. We were signed to Island only for the UK, Europe, and parts of Latin America. Actually, we didn’t make the deal in the US until one day after Island had sold 100,000 import singles in the United States. Seymour Stein at Sire, bless his heart, woke up that morning and said, “Whoa! I’d better get on this.” And he then offered us a deal. But originally he wasn’t interested.

First time we played “Genius of Love” live was on the tour that became the movie Stop Making Sense. We had never intended for Tom Tom Club to be a live thing. To us it was just an interim thing while Taking Heads waited for David Byrne to be finished with The Catherine Wheel. But in fact, on that tour some people would say, “I didn’t come here tonight to hear Talking Heads, I came here tonight to hear Tom Tom Club.” That was mostly in the big cities, with people who liked urban music. In New York it would be the Mudd Club and Danceteria and Hurrah. All of those places would play music to dance to, but it could be any kind of genre – it wouldn’t necessarily be disco. It might be new wave from England. It might be something from France or Africa. It wasn’t necessarily your cookie-cutter disco bands. But down at CBGB’s, where Talking Heads started, there was a whole “disco sucks” thing. Those people just disdained anything having to do with dancing. To them it was all disco and it was all bad. They didn’t like rap either, but Debbie Harry and Blondie did. They had a big hit with “Rapture,” and then just weeks later we came out with “Wordy Rappinghood,” which was also a white girl rapping. Neither of us knew that the other was doing it, because we were recording in the Bahamas, and they were recording in New York.

The song came out in ’81. So the checks started rolling in as early as ’82, continuing through ’83. And then there might have been a little dry spell. But the song still sounds fresh even today. It still gets used in movies and on certain TV commercials. Recently, it was in Anchorman 2 and The Wolf of Wall Street at the same time. But it was a pity that we didn’t have time, after the initial thing, to really take Tom Tom Club seriously until after Talking Heads was over. Because with Talking Heads we were touring a lot and when we weren’t doing that we were working on new records. We did do several Tom Tom Club records after that, but they were all kind of squeezed into a certain period of time.

The only comment David ever made was when we went to see the premiere of The Catherine Wheel. Tina and I sat with him in the VIP section with Baryshnikov and all these dance people, and afterwards there was a party at Studio 54. So we went to Studio 54 and what should be playing when we walked in but “Genius of Love”? It sounded so good and you could tell everybody in Studio 54 was really getting off on it. David leaned over and he said, ‘How did you get that hand clap sound?’

That was the only thing he ever said about the record.

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Recalling My Old Neighbor, John Mayer

We moved to the block in 1985, only a couple of years after I had been hired as the first editor of GUITAR for the Practicing Musician, a publication which would go on to become one of the most popular music magazines of the decade. My neighbor, John Mayer, was then about eight or nine years old. To me he was just another of the regular horde of neighborhood boys who used the tree in our front yard as second base for their stickball games in the summer and the south end zone marker for their football games in the winter. There were at least six of them in the horde, as I recall, including the three Mayer brothers. My two daughters, aged 2 and 7, were definitely charter members of the sidewalk cheering squad that urged those boys on to even more unseemly acts of male bravado on my front lawn. When the older one got old enough, she invited John to a basement boy girl party, where John got claustrophobic and wound up trying to crawl out of the basement window.

It was several years later that I started hearing the sound of an electric guitar wafting out of the window of the house across the street and two houses down. This was just about the time my wife had decided to fulfill a lifelong dream of learning how to play guitar and I had used my influence to get her a discount on a nifty Yamaha FS-310 acoustic. But the speed and fluency displayed by our neighbor (we soon learned it was John) as he deftly mastered the pentatonic scale in less than a week and a half proved too much for her as she earnestly plucked her way through “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for the 90th time. She was his 8th Grade Art teacher, for crying out loud. So she sadly went back to painting portraits.

It seemed like days later, when my older daughter came home to say that John Mayer wanted to know if he could call me to ask for advice about music. Of course, I told her to tell him, heavy metal maven that I was. The difference, I found, between people who were really serious about getting ahead in the arts, and the mere dreamers, was their ability to identify the people who could give them good information, and then go after them, in the process demystifying an otherwise daunting journey.I gave my daughter a Guitar Magazine t-shirt for John, but he never did call.

Nevertheless, when John left the block to attend The Berklee School of Music in Boston, we were impressed but not surprised. We were definitely more surprised come the Spring of 2001, when word came circulating back to the block that a John Mayer was opening for the Dave Matthews Band on his current tour and was soon to have an album out on Columbia Records! This was a leap beyond our ability to grasp. In this fame-drenched world of ours, where the media leads you to believe that every third person is or has a great shot to be famous, if not for fifteen minutes, then at least five, few people realize that just about anyone they’ve heard of is already in the top 1% of all those who struggle daily with making it in the arts. I know. I was one of the perpetrators. In the world of the national magazine, where editors routinely bestow fame in the form of giddy headlines and outsized predictions, everybody is a star; that’s where you start. If you’re in a magazine, on TV, on the radio, or even a rumor on the Internet, fame is a given. But to go from the Berklee School of Music to an opening slot on a Dave Matthews tour would be a defining moment of achievement usually reserved for only the most amazingly brazen of fingerpickers. And John was surely not that brazen. It had to be a different John Mayer.

But then my younger daughter confirmed through her research online that John had put out an independent CD. Good for him—a great first step. I had to tip my cap to my old neighbor, my beat up GUITAR magazine cap, and run out to my local record store to purchase the CD. Not only didn’t they carry it, but I was informed a couple of weeks later by the clerk that they couldn’t even get it. This is a local kid, I ranted. Where else is he going to sell any records? They were a national chain, the ignorant clerk shrugged.

If only John had come to me, I thought, not for advice, but for a blurb. While I was no longer with GUITAR by then, my career as a blurb writer, though it consisted only of two blurbs, was exemplary. Back in 1973, a quote lifted from my review in The New York Times was used to headline an advertisement for another East Coast legend in the making, Bruce Springsteen. Twenty years later, a similarly zingy paragraph of mine helped to launch John Jackson’s book, Big Beat Heat, into an eventual Ralph J. Gleason Award as Rolling Stone Magazine’s Book of the Year.

Oh well, it was a lesson he’d have to learn, and better early than late. In fact, though there was much I could tell John about the heartbreak of not being able to find your latest work in even the local stores, I was sure he’d rather hear it from a peer. In my then soon to be published book, Working Musicians, Brenda Kahn, who had an album out on Columbia in 1992, spoke eloquently on the subject.

“It’s really important to keep fame in perspective,” she said over sandwiches at the Hotel Edison Café. “Fame is like a drug; you can never be famous enough. If you want to get famous, that’s a whole industry networking game. But if you want to be a musician, you get to play music. That’s what you get. You get that experience with the audience. That’s the deal. It took me years and years and years to figure that out.”

Of course, in about another minute and a half, the need for such philosophical advice would become moot. That’s when John Mayer appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, looking a little stiff in front of his band, but yes, it was the same John Mayer of the Fairfield, CT Mayer brothers, of stickball in the summer and football in the winter, and general mayhem all year round.

After that you couldn’t go a day without something else turning up. First it would be a tune buried in the soundtrack of a hip teen show like Felicity or Dawson’s Creek. Then it would be a cut played on WFUV. My daughter started getting Instant Messages from friends all around the country who were listening to John Mayer. Then I ran into a friend of mine in the print music business who said they were bidding on a piece of his publishing. He had an advance copy of the new CD, soon to come out on a subsidiary of Columbia Records! When Mayer’s video started showing up on VH-1 and in the buzz bin at MTV, and Rolling Stone put him in their Hot issue, and Teen People named him ‘Someone to Watch,’ my daughter was heard to proclaim that we had a star on the block.

I looked out the window at the Mayer house, visible through the still bare trees. As yet there were no limos outside, no groupies encamped. But was it only a matter of time?

A few months later his show at the esteemed Irving Plaza sold out quickly, but my daughter, of course, had already purchased her tickets weeks before. Due to some fluke of poor planning, typical of the teenage condition, she wound up having to take her mother as her date. When she was informed that Irving Plaza was a standing room only venue, my wife phoned Mrs. Mayer, to see if she had any pull. “Just a pass a note to John,” she advised her. “He’ll come out and bring you backstage.”

Veteran of many such stage-door imbroglios, I bemoaned their naiveté as the two set off to the show. “He won’t even get the note,” I scoffed.

And yet, not only did they wind up in the V.I.P. Lounge (where there were real couches and a reporter from the Associated Press, as well as a couple of other neighbors), but they sat with the Mayer family, the elderly father, a former principal, the stunned, look-alike younger brother Carl, who probably never forgave me for not giving him a Guitar t-shirt as well. Near tears the whole show, the father was especially nonplussed that the audience knew the lyrics to John’s songs. Otherwise, he was way out in the ether, along with the rest of the family, John included, who stopped by to say hello after the set, his eyes distant, fixed on the immediate itinerary: Philly, Cincinnati, Atlanta, a basketball team on the road to the Final Four. I remember Springsteen like that, when I spoke to him one afternoon in 1973, in the commissary of Columbia Records, flush with the raves for his first album.

“It’s strange, let me tell you, very strange. I don’t know if I dig all this commotion. Lately, you know what I do when I’m not playing—-I sleep, period. I go home and go to sleep, get up and play again. Run to Baltimore to play, run back. This week I’ve got three days off, which is a really big vacation. All I want to do is write some good songs. The main problem is not to lose sight of what is actually going on. All the hype, anyone with any sense just ignores it.”

On the Rosie show, not long after that, Elton John brought Mayer’s name up, out of nowhere, claiming he had “the voice of an angel.” A little while later, Mayer opened for Elvis Costello at the Beacon. Room For Squares went gold. Even my local store had a few copies. Not long after that John caused a near riot when he attempted to visit his old high school.

As famous (infamous) as he’s since become, John has always maintained his outsider’s honesty–something that’s gotten him into trouble in the press more than once. One Halloween not long ago, a neighor of mine found him handing out treats when he brought his daughter to the door. A guitarist himself, he and John talked shop for a half hour while the daughter vainly urged her father to keep moving. Another time, maybe a year later, John was just standing and chatting with friends on our next door neighbor’s lawn. Years ago, before the fame, he and the neighbor used to jam in the neighbor’s living room. A few months ago I got to interview John for the first time, when he was one of the centerpieces at a big music business event, talking about his seemingly magical, seemingly effortless career. He went out of his way to ask about the family. “And I always wanted to tell you how much I appreciated that Guitar t-shirt,” he said.

About fame there is no longer a question. The question has been answered. And yet, though John’s family no longer lives on the block, I’m not certain the block has ever recovered. I heard my two neighbors have been talking about forming a band.

I just hope they don’t divorce their wives and move to Atlanta.

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A Pleasant Afternoon with Keith Richards

If Keith Richards had been a sounder sleeper,
perhaps his greatest hit would never have
been written. Similarly, if he’d been a just
a regular mortal leafing through that magazine
a couple of years later, perhaps he might have
missed one of his finest titles. But the success
of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” transformed him
from a mere world class guitarist into a true songwriter.

“I remember after ‘Satisfaction’ got to number
one–bang bang at the door. Where’s the follow
up?” he recalled. “I mean every twelve weeks
you had to have another one ready. The minute
you put out a single, you had to start working
your butt off on the next one, and the bigger
the hit, the more pressure there was on the
follow-up. But it was an incredibly good school
for songwriting in that you couldn’t piss around
for months and months agonizing about the
deeper meaning of this or that. No matter what
you were doing, like touring and recording, you
had to make damn sure you didn’t let up on the
writing. It made you want to search around and
listen for ideas. It made you very aware of what
was going on around you, because you were
looking for a song. It might come in a coffee
shop, or it might come on the street, or in a
cab. You get a heightened awareness. You listen
to what people say. You might hear a phrase at
a bus stop. Instead of accepting life, you start
to observe it. You become an outsider rather
than a participant. You’re listening for it every
moment, and anything could be a song; and if
you don’t have one you’re up the creek without
a paddle. For instance, with ‘Ruby Tuesday’ I
saw this picture in some fashion magazine that a
chick had lying around her apartment. It was this
great ad for jewelry-rubies. Also, it happened to
be Tuesday. So she became Ruby Tuesday. I was
just lucky it wasn’t Thursday, I guess.”

As the ‘60s turned the corner and Bob Dylan
and The Beatles led the way from Tin Pan
Alley fluff into something harder and heavier,
Richards and his lead singer collaborator
also needed to up the ante. “I’d say Lennon
definitely felt a strong urge not so much to
compete with Dylan,” Keith surmised, “but Bob
did spur him to realize he could dig deeper.
Mick and I felt that, too, although maybe we
didn’t feel it as strongly as John. The differences
between John and Paul were always greater
than between Mick and myself.” Keith cited
“Symphony for the Devil” as the Stones’ most
Dylanesque song. But his description revealed
how Richards influenced Jagger just as much
as Dylan did. “Mick wrote it almost as a Dylan
song; but it ended up a rock ‘n’ roll Samba.”

“Sympathy for the Devil,” was just one of
a number of songs the pair wrote, including
“Mother’s Little Helper,” “19th Nervous
Breakdown,” “Stray Cat Blues,” “Gimme
Shelter,” and “Street Fighting Man” that gave
the band a much darker reputation than their
immediate peers. To some extent Keith said this
was a media creation. “You use every available
tool in the kit. You get a general feel for what
people want to hear from you and when you’re
good at providing it and they like it–oh, you
want more? Here’s more. And I’d just come up
with a line or a song and lean on it, push it, go
for it. Nobody writes a song or makes a record
to put it in a back drawer.”

Eventually the songwriter returned to his
roots as a guitarist. “To me, songs come
out of being a musician. Playing. I cannot write
to poetry, rhymed couplets, and things like that.
I can write a song out of a chord sequence, a
riff, and eventually come up with lyrics to fit
onto it. But the other way around – no way. I
don’t write songs as a diary. None of them are
autobiographical, but in some sense they’re
a reaction to certain emotions. Some of the
happiest ditties I’ve written come out because
you’re feeling exactly the opposite and you write
to counteract that feeling. I was feeling
anything but happy when I wrote ‘Happy.’
I wrote ‘Happy’ to make sure there was a
feeling like that.

“The important thing to me is to sit
down with an instrument. You might
spend three or four hours going through
the Buddy Holly songbook and then out
of nowhere there’ll be a little crash, and
there it goes. All it takes is a split second.
It might be an accident – a mistake that
sets you off. It’s a matter of sitting down
and playing more than with any definite
intention to write. All you’ve got to do
is be receptive and recognize it when it
happens, because it can come from the
weirdest angles. Rarely do I write a song
totally by myself. Even if I actually do
write it by myself, I always like to have
someone around playing along with me
going, yeah, yeah. I’m a band man – a
group man. I can’t sit there alone in a
room and say, it’s songwriting time –
ding, ding, ding! I work best when the sun
goes down. I’ve eaten, had a few drinks,
and I’ve got some good buddies around. I
love sitting around with an acoustic guitar
and whacking out songs with friends and
family. Somehow they never sound as
good as they do that first night on the
living room couch.”

Keith works differently with Ronnie
Wood than he does with Jagger. “When
Ron and I sit down together to play we’re
two guitarists. Whereas with Mick and
I there’s maybe more of an idea in our
heads that what we’re after is a song at
the end of what we’re doing. When Mick
comes in with a song, usually he’s got it
worked out pretty much. He may need
a bridge to be written, or a different
beat, or to turn it around a little bit. Over
our whole period, maybe 50% of the
time he writes the lyrics and I write the
melody. But that’s a far, far too simplistic
explanation. We write in every conceivable
combination of ways. It’s really an
incredibly elastic arrangement – especially
when you’re writing with a partner for
a band, a specific unit, rather than just
writing a song to see who you could sell
it to. Some songs hang out for years before we
feel happy with them and resurrect them and
finish them off. Others, in two takes they’ve
come and gone and you’ve got to relearn it off
your own record to play it later. Lots of times
you think you’ve written four different songs
and you take them to the studio and you realize
they’re just variations on one song.

“When we’re doing an album I come in with a
handful of riffs and some songs. One or two will
be fairly well-defined. Others, it would be – this
could be dynamite for the Stones, but I have
to wait until we all get together in the studio to
find out. I can’t take it any farther by myself as
a song, or a structure, or an idea until I’ve got
their input. If there’s no kiss of life, if everybody
walks off to the toilet, then you know you’ve
got to drop that one and go on to something
else. But when you just sort of pick up your
guitar when the studio is virtually empty, people
are telling jokes in the back room or playing
dominoes, and then within two or three minutes
they drift back, pick up their instruments, and
begin whacking away, you know they’re into it.”

From his years dedicated to the craft, Keith
has come to view the songwriting experience
as somewhat metaphysical, though he’d be the
last to put it that way. “I never care if I have
anything down on tape, or if the tape runs out
and the song disappears, ’cause they all come
back eventually. I’ve written songs and lost
them and found them ten years later. Once it’s
there, it’s there. It’s just a matter of how long
it takes before it comes back out again. I find
the more I play, the more I’m into it, the songs
pour out. I don’t have a problem with being
non-prolific. That’s all psychosomatic. Music
isn’t something to think about – at least initially.
Eventually it’s got to cover the spectrum, but
especially with rock ‘n’ roll, first it has to touch
you somewhere else. It could be the groin; it
could be the heart; it could be the guts; it could
be the toes. It’ll get to the brain eventually. The
last thing I’m thinking about is the brain.”

Behind the Songs

The Story Behind “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus

HERE’S MY RECENT INTERVIEW WITH STEPHAN MOCCIO, CO-WRITER OF THE MILEY CYRUS HIT, “WRECKING BALL.”

The thing that every songwriter dreams of is what is known in the trade as “a window of opportunity.” That period of time when it seems like every song you write is cut, every cut you deliver is a single, and every single released under your name soars effortlessly up the charts. It’s when all the previously closed doors slide open, the phone rings off the hook (or buzzes off your belt or in the folds of your briefcase) and every executive assistant knows your name. The lucky ones find that “window” for a few months, maybe once or twice in a lifetime. As co-writer of Celine Dion’s “Your Day Has Come” in 2002, the Miley Cyrus mega-smash “Wrecking Ball” in 2013, and the monstrous hit for The Weeknd from Fifty Shades of Gray, “Earned It,” in 2014, Canadian-born composer Steven Moccio’s “window of opportunity” has lasted more than ten years.

Not that his last two credits haven’t opened it another mile wider. “The phone is ringing off the hook,” Moccio agreed. “I mean the president of music at Universal Pictures took a meeting with me. I would say a big part of the meeting was because I was the cowriter on ‘Wrecking Ball.’ So he was interested to see what I could do for Fifty Shades of Gray, because he was a fan of that song. And ‘Earned It’ has been played more times on radio than ‘Wrecking Ball’ ever was. At one point I think we had 36,000 spins a week in the US alone. Now, with the success of ‘Earned It,’ often I’m getting asked to write big movie songs or end credits for films. I’ve gotten to know all heads at all the major studios and that’s been an extraordinary thing. I spent the last eight months co-producing The Weeknd’s album and that album is #1 around the world. I’m working on three movies now. The only one I can talk about is the new Julia Roberts film, The Secret in Their Eyes, in which I cowrote a song with this girl Maty Noyes. I’m consumed with producing Maty’s album right now because I really believe the music that we’re creating together is special and I hope people are going to react to it.

I never got into music to make money. That’s probably the best lesson my parents taught me: do what you love and the money will follow. At one point, I was broke. But I knew come hell or high water that one day people would hear my melodies; I knew they were that good. Part of the reason for my success in music is because I’m a hard worker, I’m disciplined. I don’t take it for granted. I love music. I’m always trying to write a greater song than my last song. And whether that’s the case or not it doesn’t matter. It’s my goal every time. That’s what keeps me honest.”

That being said, his association with the notorious 50 Shades of Gray and the probably even more notorious Miley Cyrus has not escaped his attention. “It’s kind of ironic,” he admits. “Because I’m a guy who fundamentally just composes beautiful songs and beautiful music. I’m really a classical writer.”

Stephan Moccio:
Sacha, MoZella and myself did the entire song in one day. I remember it was September 24th, 2012. We came together as three writers unknown to each other, put together by our publishing companies basically to write a song for Beyoncé. That’s what got us in the room. But you just can’t force that stuff. When we started writing the song we thought maybe this is not for Beyoncé. None of the regular studios were available, so Sacha’s manager ended up finding us a Montessori school, with a white piano. It was just the most unique situation in terms of where to write a song. I guess, a great song could be written anywhere, if it’s meant to be.

When you’re in a situation like that, the first thing you do is say hello to people and chat, but within 5 or 10 minutes of meeting each other, things became highly charged. MoZella was extremely emotional that day. She was very frail because she had broken off her wedding during that week. She almost didn’t end up making the session. “Wrecking Ball” in every way is about MoZella’s toxic relationship and then the courage to say, “I can’t go through with this.” So here we are, Sacha and I holding this girl together who was just very emotional, trying to comfort her.

I don’t write lyrics, but I remember we all wanted a strong metaphor as a title and we were just throwing out words. And I remember kind of shyly putting up my hand and saying, “What about ‘Wrecking Ball’?” And Sacha went, “Yeah, ‘Wrecking Ball,’ that sounds good.” And MoZella kind of ran with that. It’s when she got the line, “I came in like a wrecking ball.” It was real collaborative. Sacha is a great pianist so he started off on keyboards and then for some reason he surrendered the piano to me for the rest of the session. MoZella worked with lyrics and melodies while I was at the piano. We demoed it the following day and in a couple of hours we had this beautiful piano vocal demo.

At one point in the writing session MoZella said, “I know Miley Cyrus well enough, do you mind if I play it for her?” Of course, Sacha and I are, “Sure not a problem, it would be great.” And then MoZella a few weeks later ended up playing it for Miley Cyrus. I don’t know all the details, but I know MoZella wanted to play it for Miley on a Sunday, because she said, “If I’m going to get Miley’s attention, the best way to get Miley’s attention is on a Sunday.” I respect that. There is a psychology sometimes about playing a song for an artist at the right time. If you play it at the wrong time, it can be the best song in the world, but it won’t be heard because the artist is not receptive to it. But Miley was really excited about it.

I don’t know Miley at all, so I don’t like to say things on her behalf. However, we all know that she was in a relationship with Liam [Hemsworth] at the time and it was clearly public. So she obviously related to the lyric. Miley thought that Luke, being Dr. Luke, should be the producer. And he ran with it, along with his partner, Henry Walters [Cirkut]. They produced the song, so that’s when their names came on it as writers.They didn’t change the song at all, but they did produce it brilliantly. I mean, if you were to hear the demo, the demo is almost verbatim to the sonics of the song they did. The arrangement was exactly the same key, same tempo, everything.

We wrote it on September 24th and her vocal was already recorded by December. Within that 8-10 week period everyone was telling us how amazing the song was, how amazing it sounded. I didn’t really get a chance to hear it until it was released, except once over the phone. Meanwhile, the record company kept on saying, “‘Wrecking Ball’ is such a big, big record and we think it’s going to be the next single.” And lo and behold, she dropped it by surprise when she did her controversial performance at the MVAs in August, 2013. That night it went to the world and became the #1 single on iTunes.

It’s one of those global songs that you always wish you were a part. Luckily, I’ve been a part of a few of those now. But then when it happens, you try not to pay too much attention to it, because you can drive yourself mental. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say we weren’t calling people just checking to see the amount of spins it got on radio, because that also dictates chart position. I did kind of check in on that every few days.

But it’s incredible, when you have a song like “Wrecking Ball” that becomes a social movement. Clearly, the video had a lot to do with it, as well. It was a controversial video. I know everyone has an opinion about it, love it or loathe it. We live in that kind of age, where it affects, for better for worse, the experience of the song. The visual’s such a big part and sometimes who’s featured on the song is a big part. There’s a lot of contributing factors that affect whether a song is going to be heard by the masses. Sadly, as much as I want to believe it, it’s not just about the fact that the song’s a great song. I mean, there are a lot of great songs that we don’t hear, because they just haven’t been given that platform.

And “Wrecking Ball,” in my humble opinion, is a great song. If you hear it stripped down to vocal and piano it’s a classical piece of music in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of classical influence in it. And when you hear the chordal structure, it’s completely there. The sentiment couldn’t be more genuine, because we have MoZella, who’s pouring her heart and soul out, she’s crying half the day. I believe we genuinely wrote a great song with blood, sweat, and tears. We worked for it. However, we were also given the platform that only an artist like Miley could give us, with everything that was going on in her life at the same time just hitting. It all hit at the right time.

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An Uncomfortable Evening with Lou Reed

d07185ey3ih-150x150LOU REED THINKS he’s gone as deep as he wants to go for his own mental health. If he got any deeper, he’d wind up disappearing. Or so he says.

It was last August when I got the word from one of the leading ladies on his office staff.

“Lou Reed does not want anyone to know how he writes his songs.”

I was momentarily disoriented. “Pardon?”

“He will not give you permission to use his interview in your book.”

“Surely you jest?” I remarked.

“I’m not paid to jest,” she snapped.

Give a man a staff, I thought, and his sense of reality goes out the window. Regaining my composure, to say nothing of my indignation, I whipped up a new battle plan to deal with the secretary. Secretaries are my bread and butter, my ice cream cake. To secretaries I am Goliath.

“Then you must realize that I don’t actually need his permission. Calling for permission was a mere profes-sional courtesy on my part. Technically just the fact that he granted the interview is permission enough. Technically, all I need is the tape!”

“Technicalities, my ass,” snarled the secretary, “we have lawyers.”

“Lawyers, my foot,” I snarled back, not in the least intimidated, “I have friends high up.”

“How high?”

“The sixth floor?”

“Lou Reed does not want anyone to know how he writes his songs!” she bellowed.

“But everybody already knows. I’ve told all my friends!” I shouted, but she didn’t hear me, having hung up.

Still reverberating from that insulting conversation, I retreated to my living room, sank to the couch, my battle plans in tatters. This was not the first such sunlit moment to turn dusty on me in the bleak light of day. My memory is an attic cluttered with the broken down gadgetry of ambi-tion. Agents disappearing into the forests with my short stories. Record companies going bankrupt just after signing up my songs. Whenever good luck strokes me, sooner or later there is a secretary on the other end of the line, taking it all back.

From the outside I may seem important. People pop in at all hours, find me on the phone ninety percent of the time. What they don’t realize, what the world does not yet know, is that eighty percent of the time I am on hold.

It was November, vicious outside. As I left my house it began hailing. Thin young men skidded by me in the slush, pulled along by their umbrellas. Women in rubber-soled shoes trudging on the pavement in packs of twelve made the avenue impassable. I inched my way uptown, holding onto my hat. (Though winds they blow and trains may stall, taxicabs go floating into the river, no one has yet accused me of being late for an appointment.) Sopping wet, my yellow sheet of questions ruined, little eels swimming out of my trouser cuffs, I arrived at the publicist’s office on the dot of four, integrity personified.

“Didn’t they tell you?” moaned the British lady who was his press agent; “the interview’s been postponed.”

“Surely you jest?”

On viewing the figure before her, wringing out his overcoat sleeve, the lady was taken with pity. “Perhaps I can phone him again and see if he’s available.”

Had I met with the same fate as was handed me nine months later, by that foul secretary, there would be no story left to tell, except that of my subsequent pneumonia, which I have already sold to another publication. Reed, although suffering from a cold himself, agreed to grant me an immediate audience. I was interviewing him for a book on writers, after all, and Reed, I had a feeling, despite his footwork, was a literary man.

It was still vicious out, but now pitch dark, as we left the office for Reed’s apartment in Greenwich Village. Bowing toward the absurdity of having to journey directly back from whence I had just departed, I took no other pleasure in the fact that he and I were neighbors, perhaps shared a few of the same hangouts, haunts, knew a wino or two in common.

The press agent and I took the bus downtown. While she lathered me up with a finely recited message on the cur-rent comings and goings of Lou Reed, I lapsed into an historical reverie.

When Reed arrived, the Village had been engaged in a mini-civil war. The West Village had tradition on its side and little else, some notable watering holes, the Vanguard for jazz, the coffee house scene. But the East was in, had those marvelous slum apartments, perfect for dropout living, had the Summer of Love in its backyard, rock flow, the Balloon Farm and the legendary Fillmore East. St. Mark’s Place was giving MacDougal Street a run for the hippie dollar.

There was more than mecca at stake here, more than a territorial skirmish for possession of those sultry girls in tight dungarees, weekend runaways to decadence. There was a philosophical debate raging too, a war of lifestyles. It was like the difference between folk/rock and heavy metal, between grass and heroin.

In the West Village you still held onto your day job, got stoned every night after work. Acid was a risk worth taking, maybe twice a year, for the world it revealed. Primary to your lifestyle was control, discipline in your craft. For years you might plod along, revising.

But once past Fifth Avenue, everyone freaked-out. No one did acid over there because they believed in it, only because it happened to be a good kick at an orgy. Minds were blown and busted routinely out on the edge where hippie genii spewed speed raps into microphones, issued verbatim transcripts as works of art and were rewarded with the keys to the vault as they slouched through the ozone.

So if you were a Western Yankee, the Rebel Eastsider was an object of envy and ridicule. You longed for a taste of such liberation – to really go psycho for a month or two – but knew the price was way too high – spontaneous art was fine, but let’s see them do that again for posterity. Meanwhile, those on the other side of the divide held the Yankees in the same ambiguous contempt, whining for your Establishment praise and approval, while at the same time calling you gutless or worse, conventional.

The press agent and I departed from the bus and entered Lou’s building – on Fifth Avenue, the very street that separates East from West. I found it more than symmetrical that Reed should live on the Western-most block of the Eastside, where he could in fact peer from his kitchen window into the posh gardens and lobbies of the enemy.

I considered his early days, the Velvet Underground, with their image of leather lips and contemporary cool –so chic and vague and dispirited. Their melancholy songs of addiction and despair. Reed in sunglasses playing at the Cafe Bizarre, a tourist trap in the Village, where they didn’t even have hawkers. Then came Andy Warhol and soundtracks at the New Cinematheque. When they opened at the Balloon Farm, a converted dancehall above the Dom, later to be known as the Electric Circus, all the freaks in the neighborhood made the place the number one local hangout. The group did ‘Heroin’, and ‘I’m Waiting For My Man’ – songs of another culture, the new age, written in blood, accompanied by a grinding, atonal backbeat. Bowie, Iggy, the glittery cynicism of the ‘70s; that’s where it started. Now Reed’s records get reviewed in heavy print, his poems command space in the Harvard Advocate – leading figure in a cultural five-year plan, the underground rising to the surface, lopped off at the neck and dry-cleaned for mass consumption. Fitting then that Lou should live within smelling distance of the roses.

Are you interested in hearing an interviewer drown? The sound of a once-promising writer going down the toilet? Just listen to my tape. It’s all here. Dylan made a career out of destroying journalists. Reed had refined the process to an art. As I listen to it now, in pain, my face fixed in a wince, each minute hangs like a guillotine. The interviewer’s throat begins to get raw, his voice cracks. Soon he develops a cough, one which gets worse as the hour progresses. You can hear the terror in his tone.

Reed’s tone throughout is constant, drab, ominous, no trace in it of drama – the special craft of the put-on master, never give yourself away. In T-shirt, dungarees, newly shorn head, deep-set, hollow, ghastly eyes, my adversary stares at me across a bridge table in the living room, press agent and lady of the house chatting indistinctly on the couch.

“Were lyrics the first thing you started writing – songs
or did you write before that. . . poetry or anything?” I begin, establishing the high level I would maintain for some thirty seconds.

“I wrote stories,” says Reed.

A silence. The interviewer steps into the breach. “When was this?”

An ambulance goes by on Fifth Avenue. I follow its siren as it fades all the way downtown. “I wrote songs too,” says Reed at last. “When I was a kid.”

Having written stories myself at that age, I grab onto this as a connection which could lead us to a realm where we might wander unrestrained, revealing long-locked secrets of adolescence, lost loves, original philosophy.

“What kind of stories?”

Thirteen fire engines roll by. Fourteen. “Well, one of them was on one of my albums.”

I can see that Reed is already bored, has no desire to impart any ancient visions. But I persist. “Do they seem to follow the same kind of mood as your songs?” This is for a book, after all, on writing, writers.

My thirtieth birthday comes and goes. “I haven’t written a story in a long time.” I turn thirty-five. “Berlin’s a story that’s kind of in the same mood.”

I can’t believe it. He’s given me a break, divulged a bit of independent information. Berlin is his latest work, his new baby, a strange, haunting piece filled with variations on gloom. There is loss, gentleness beneath the sorrow, a pervasive feeling of ennui. Passing up this opportunity, the interviewer blunders in the wrong direction.

“So, what led you into songwriting?”

“I had a job as a songwriter.” I wait for some further exposition, but none is forthcoming.

“Was it the result of going around knocking on doors and things like that?” the interviewer rasps, his lips bone dry.

“No, I met somebody who said ‘You write songs. So and so could use a songwriter. A staff-songwriter. Would you be interested?’ So I said yeah.”
The battle lines have been drawn – my Westside literary verbosity, his Easterly existential monotone.

“So what brought this staff-writing period to an end?”

“I just split.”

“When you write now, do you have a discipline, set aside a certain amount of time each day? Do you take any sort of notes, like if you get an idea for a title?”

“If I come up with something good, I’ll remember it.”

Earlier I had been handed a mimeographed volume of his poetry and lyrics; sensitive and raw, poignantly evocative pieces. I had a feeling he’d be vulnerable in this area.

“Do you have the same approach to writing poetry as you do lyrics?”

“I’ve stopped writing poetry altogether.”

“Is this a conscious decision?”

“I just haven’t had any poems to write.”

I have become the heavy, looking for explanations, footnotes. Reed is the Street; his curt responses render my long-winded questions meaningless. In rock & roll, as in all beatnik poetry, it’s the feeling not the method that mat-ters. I am the professor, he is the natural. I am the sociologist, he is the delinquent. I am the square, he is the streetpunk rockstar hipster. The anti-intellectual anti-hero played to its logical extreme.

But I am not as dumb as I look. I have my own devices too, even more devious. While asking him to describe how his lyrics have changed over the years, I begin to feed his image.

“I mean at one point you seemed to be really into describing a certain kind of scene, and making it very real for people who knew about it, but didn’t really know about it.”

“Especially for people who didn’t know about it at all,” Reed chimes in.

“Well, people might have heard of the East Village, but that’s as far as it went.”

“Yeah, but I brought a little taste of–” Catching himself, he holds back. “Ah, maybe that’s pretentious. It’s just I wrote about what I knew about.”

But at least I’ve gotten him interested. Soon Reed has us on St. Mark’s Place; Saturday night at the Balloon Farm.

“That was the beginning and everybody was quick to jump on the bandwagon.”

“What would you call that the Lower East Side experience?”

“It was a show by and for freaks, of which there turned out to be many more than anyone had suspected, who finally had a place to go where they wouldn’t be hassled and where they could have a good time.”

“Did it surprise you that this crowd was out there?”

“Well, you see, what it was – Andy had a week at the new Cinematheque when he could put on whatever he wanted, and what he wanted to put on was us. . . with films and stuff. And the people who showed up – everybody just looked at everybody else and said ‘Wow, there are a lot of us.’ So we knew they were there.”

We are finally untracked! Now let me speed up the tape a little bit to where he’s talking about Berlin again.

Berlin needed a lyrical approach that was direct. There could be no mistaking it, no head games. You didn’t have to be high to figure out what was happening, or be super hip or anything. It was to-the-point, whereas some of my other albums and songs had puns or double entendres. In other words, the difference would be, in ‘Heroin’ I wrote ‘It makes me feel like Jesus’ son’. Now if the Berlin guy had said that he’d say ‘I take heroin’. That’s the difference. Like in ‘Heroin’ I say ‘I wish I was born a thousand years ago’. The guy on Berlin would say ‘I don’t dig it here’. You can go through the whole album and he’s always approaching things that way. He’s consistently saying very short, straight, to-the-point, unmissable things.”

Like a freaked-out Zen master, Reed’s words can be misconstrued in several ways, but just look at the trans-cript so far. Time after time those short, straight, unmissable replies. He is the guy from Berlin, at least for the space of the interview. The question was, had the many complex emotions he’d lived through in the sixties, the drugs and suicides, the bad trips which scarred the Andy Warhol crowd, then his belated rise to fame, driven him into a psychological corner? And his response to it, like his songs, like his poems, were statements of an experience so devastating as to defy expression except by the most primitive of means? Reflecting a life where, after feeling too much for too long, the safest reaction is no reaction at all?

Or was he putting me on?

“Do you see this as representing a new approach to things on your part?”

He shrugs. “On my next album I may go right back to the other way.”

And yet, the conversation picks up from here on. The literary man begins to emerge. During another of my interminable dissertations on the inaccessibility of most forms of publishing to the young writer, Reed jumps head-first into my thought.

“That’s why I get a kick out of publishing poetry in rock magazines. I mean, I’ve been in the Harvard Advocate. I’ve been in some of the heaviest. But I get a kick out of being in the rock magazines because that’s the people I want to read the stuff, not the people who read the Harvard Advocate.”

And then he really opens up about his songwriting.

“I write very fast. The lyric part of it comes in one clump. I like to leave the lyrics for the very last possible minute and then just sit down and zap, go through them. Just take each song and put a lyric to it, put it away. Take the next song, put a lyric to it, put it away. Do the next song. And just not even look at them. I look at them later to check, ’cause I know the basic thing is perfect, for me. Sometimes one or two words have to be changed. The real danger is that maybe I’ll be tired. . . and my handwriting is so bad..

“That you won’t be able to read a few words?”

“I won’t be able to read the whole damn thing!”

And then we talked about prose.

“Dorothy Parker – now if she wrote a song, watch out! That would be something else because she was right on target. I mean, just a little short story about a guy and his wife, where he’s reading the newspaper and she’s setting the table and they’ve got nothing to talk about – that story’s unbelievable, so painful sometimes you just have to put her away or she’ll drive you through the wall.”

I asked him if any songs had ever affected him that way.

“‘Mother’ by John Lennon. That was a song that had
realism. I mean, that did it to you. That’s about the only one I can think of on that level. When I first heard it l didn’t even know it was him. I just said ‘Who the fuck is that? I
don’t believe that.’ Because the lyrics to that are real. You see, he wasn’t kidding around. He got right down to it, as down as you can get. I like that in a song.”

“Do you think you’ll get further down in your songs?”

“I think I’ve gone as deep as I want to go for my own mental health. If I got any deeper I’d wind up disappearing.”

Things are happening thick and fast. He’s breaking out anthologies of his essays and poetry, showing me reviews of old albums and performances.

“Ralph Gleason, the dean of American reviewers, wrote in a review, I’ll never forget it; he said the whole love thing going on in San Francisco has been partially sabotaged by the influx of this trash from New York, representing everything they had cured.”

Reed becomes rhapsodic, flipping through the pages of
1967.

“When we went to Frisco, Bill Graham was doing his Fillmore and he had alight show, right? So we walked in and we saw a slide of Buddah and we said, ‘That’s gotta go!’ He hated us, said we were the lowest trash ever to hit Frisco. Let’s say we were a little bit sarcastic about the love thing, which we were right about, because look what happened. We knew that in the first place. They thought acid was going to solve everything. You take acid and you’ll solve the problems of the universe. And we just said bullshit, you people are fucked. That’s not the way it is and you’re kidding yourselves. And they hated us.”

Then he pulls out the Rolling Stone review of Berlin. “It’s one of the worst reviews I’ve ever seen of anything. I got one paragraph saying I should be physically punished for putting out the album.”

Though Reed may thrive on being reviled, the interviewer has given him no such outlet. In fact, things may have gone much too well. Instead of formally signifying an end to the interview, Reed drifts off, into a discussion with the press agent, leaving me to prepare for the street alone. I assume that while I am in the midst of slipping into my coat, unraveling my scarf, pulling on my mittens, someone will come over to acknowledge my leaving, walk me to the door with a few kind words. Hopefully it will be Lou Reed himself, offering me a handshake to commend a bout well-contested.

But it doesn’t happen. He won’t even meet my eye. Already he’s denying the event, banishing our conversation from his mind. Means nothing. And I in my foolish pride, cannot force myself to return and face him in the living room. He might punch me out. At last the lady of the house (who has never been introduced) unbolts the door and wishes me Godspeed in the violent night.

Months later, in the summer of the year, Reed would act, through his intermediaries, to deny the encounter even further, withholding his signature from the manda-tory book company release, as if to say we never met. And maybe we didn’t.
You certainly won’t read about it in my book.

 

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Nine Questions for Paul Simon

1.Did Mrs. Garfunkel ever think of you as a bad influence on her son?

SIMON: Oh, no. I didn’t lead him into the wild life; he got into it on his own, later on, when he grew up. We both got hooked on rock ‘n’ roll at the same time, listening to Alan Freed’s Moon Dog Show and the Everly Brothers. Artie was always a singer at school. He sang ‘(They Tried to Tell Us We’re) Too Young’ in the fourth grade and knocked everybody out. By the seventh grade, we were singing together in groups. The friendship was based on much more than music – we were very similar kids, we had the same sense of humor – but without the music, I doubt if we’d have remained close friends.

2.You started in rock ‘n’ roll in 1955, at the age of 13 – a mild-mannered middle-class Jewish boy from Forest Hills – when macho Southern punks and lower-class greasy hitters were the musical rage. Was there anyone in rock ‘n’ roll you could have beaten up?

SIMON: Do you count Artie as being in rock ‘n’ roll? Then I think I probably could have beaten him up. I could have easily taken care of Michelle Phillips. Neil Sedaka, too. Actually, I tried to emulate those hoody guys; we used to call them rocks.

3.Did you and Garfunkel attract distinctly different groupies on the road?

SIMON: We attracted about the same, because people saw Simon and Garfunkel as one person. We did get separate letters, but I never paid much attention to the letters. I just remember that most of them were very, very long. The groupies we used to get were usually heavy readers – people who had read a lot of poetry. But I didn’t really participate to a great deal in the groupie scene. I was always attached, and when I wasn’t, I didn’t go out of my way to pick someone up. And then the ones I did pick up, I thought were nice. I liked them. Maybe I didn’t want to spend any more time with them than a day or two, but I liked them. It wasn’t like a straight rock-‘n’-roll fuck-them-and-leave-them style. It was a crooked rock-‘n’-roll leave-them style.

4.Did you feel rejected by the counterculture of the Sixties?

SIMON: Simon and Garfunkel became so enormously popular that we were eventually disdained by the hip critics. In the beginning, they lavished praise on us. Maybe at the height of the hippie days, we weren’t really in fashion – we were too New York; we weren’t particularly associated with the drug scene, though we were in it as much as anybody could be in it. But it wasn’t part of our image. I never wanted to be busted in Des Moines, you know. I didn’t believe the hippie thing, anyway, that California, laid-back, minimal-vocabulary existence. I didn’t believe all the smiles. I thought there was a lot of vindictiveness in it; there was something very cruel underlying a lot of it. I didn’t buy it nor was I particularly intimidated by it.

5.As the generation that came of age in the Sixties now reach mid-30s, do you think it has made an impact – or has everyone of consequence sold out?

SIMON: Selling out is a tradition in this country. It’s like Mom and apple pie. I mean, Abbie Hoffman turns himself in to promote his book. Hitler’s the one who said every man has his price, the only thing that’s surprising is how low it is. But, sure, the generation changed things. That war-baby blip in the population is always going to be the thing responsible for change, until they don’t have any money to buy things anymore. In this generation, there’s a great emphasis on form and not content, which I find distasteful. Yet these are the people I feel most comfortable with. I’d be shocked to find out they were as conformist as other generations, but I think they’re just as materialistic. I think that temptation is too hard to withstand.

6.What is your most blatant example of conspicuous consumption?

SIMON: I try not to be conspicuously consumptive – because I just don’t want to antagonize anybody. But I’m not afraid to spend money on where I live or on how I travel. I don’t think twice about buying anything, but, on the other hand, I don’t buy that much. I’ve been wearing jeans since I was 14 years old, and that’s what I like to wear. I don’t have expensive hobbies. I don’t own boats or sports cars. Feeling that you can do whatever you want is great, and I can do whatever I want.

7.It has been said that perhaps the chief benefit of huge success is the ability to afford a higher-priced shrink.

SIMON: Success doesn’t necessarily make you go into analysis. Besides, a higher-priced shrink isn’t necessarily a better one. I was in analysis for a long time – it was really good for me. I’ve been through a marriage and divorce and fatherhood, successes and failures, and I think I’m now a very competent cripple. I can absolutely navigate my way across the street. Not in the most graceful manner, perhaps, but I can definitely get from one curb to the other.

8.Are there any musicians in rock today who awe you with their talent?

SIMON: Stevie Wonder has a really great gift, though I wasn’t crazy about the last bit of work he did. I don’t know if I’m awe-struck, but as close to that as my nature allows. But there are a lot of extraordinary musicians around.

9.Are you a legend on your old block?

SIMON: Sure, I guess so. I took my son there recently to show him my old house. I drove him around, took him to Artie’s house. We went down to my public school. I took him to the candy store where I used to hang out and place bets on the trotters. I bought him an egg cream – which now costs 45 cents. The guy in the candy store recognized me. He knew what had become of me – but he related to me the way he’d always related to me. He called me Paulie.

 

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Finding Laura Nyro

One of the most enigmatic and evocative and emotionally intense songwriters ever to hit the Top 40, Laura Nyro’s career survived numerous dips and bends. Known for her late ‘60s smashes, “Wedding Bell Blues” (The 5th Dimension), “Stoned Soul Picnic” (the 5th Dimension), “Sweet Blindness” (the 5th Dimension), “And When I Die” (Peter, Paul & Mary, Blood, Sweat & Tears), “Eli’s Coming” (Three Dog Night), and “Stoney End” (Barbra Streisand), she dropped out of sight at the turn of the decade after releasing Gonna Take a Miracle with Labelle, an album length tribute to the r&b songs she grew singing on New York City subways and rooftops, harmonizing under the moon of love. Quite a departure from the stark and melancholy epics that populated her previous albums, like “Been on a Train” and “The Confession.”

Writing out of personal experience, Laura always stood at the front lines in the battle between the sexes, an emotional firestorm, who moved halfway around the world from the naive bliss of “Wedding Bell Blues.” After her mellow return to action in the late ‘70s, with Nested, Smile, and the live Season of Light, she dropped out again. Five years later Mother’s Spiritual marked a kind of emotional rebirth, a series of songs to and for her newborn son.

Around the release of that album, in 1984, I spoke with Laura, who gave few interviews. But after reading my piece on John Lee Hooker, she agreed to talk to me on the phone about her life as it applied to songwriting, portions of which appeared in USA Today. I had the pleasure of meeting her in person backstage at a Newport Folk Festival just a few years before she died in 1997. “I think that I searched,” she said in a smoky voice conjuring candles and incense, “and I think I traveled far to find something that was very close. People who are going to find their own convictions will all have to go through a certain amount of obstacles. I don’t think I’m different from other people who are searching….to be happy, really. And I’m kind of happy now.”

“When I was very young I remember sitting at a piano and hearing the notes and the chords ring out in the air and I knew there was something special in that sound, some kind of freedom. As a kid I listened to the 50’s songs of urban romance: ”The Wind” by the Diablos, “Oh What a Night” by the Dells, “Happy Happy Birthday Baby” by the Tune Weavers. The first two 45s I bought were “Bye Bye Love” by the Everly Brothers and “Mr. Lee” by the Bobbettes. A year or two later my favorite songs were by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. By the age of 15 I was seriously listening to John Coltrane and jazz singers like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina Simone. I remember one spring afternoon at (the High School of) Music & Art. The weather was lovely and me and my friends were sitting outside looking at a newspaper picture of the Beatles arriving in America. We were listening to ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and I felt this thunderbolt in my heart.

“I have a love for simple basic song structure, although sometimes you’d never know it. It’s a musical starting point and you could stay with it or take it to the ends of the earth, because as beautiful as simplicity is, it can become a tradition that stands in the way of exploration. I started off in music with simplicity and then moved into abstraction and some uncharted waters with the exploration of it. Some people would say went off the deep end. I wanted to learn more and I took freedoms with the principles of composition. I used these dark chord structures, suspended chords, advanced dissonances (advanced for rick and roll), rhythms leading to other rhythms within the same song. My jazz background put certain inflections into my songwriting and singing. Throw in all the poetry I’d read since I was a kid and just being a woman, and that’s what made my songs complex and emotionally rich.

“I don’t think you should categorize yourself as an artist. You should allow yourself to grow. Growth is the nature of the creative process. You have to accept it, respect it, and move on. The thing that’s important to me is to express life as I see it. That’s my priority. There’ve been many changes over the years as I saw life differently from age 18 and age 25. You have to remember, I was still a teenager when I made my first record and the world around me started changing at the speed of lightning just because I’d written some provocative songs. The ‘60s started spinning into a whirlwind and outside of some recognition for my music I felt like I was living inside a hurricane. My rhythm of life was more of a free spirited one and then it changed. I kind of felt like I was losing the rhythm of my youth. So many things were happening at the same time. This is how I experienced it. So I started slowly moving out of that scene so I could experience other things in life without a bunch of people breathing down my neck. When I turned 30 my love songs changed from romantic notions to a deeper taste of life. My mother died right before I wrote the songs for Nested. My child was born right before I wrote Mother’s Spiritual.

“The last few years have been so musically abundant that I felt like the Goddess of Creativity. But who knows? Next year I may only write one song, because that kind of songwriting is cyclical, seasonal; it’s the culmination of a deeper experience. It’s like nature, it takes time to seed and then it blooms. Mother’s Spiritual was a wonderful idea that flew through my head in a minute and then took years to manifest because the relationships and responsibilities that were inspiring the music were also pulling me away from it in terms of time. Since I was recording while I was writing it actually took me two and a half years to complete the 14 songs. Most of the songs I wrote a night. I would just wake up in the middle of the night. I had a young baby and that’s when I found the space to write. I didn’t work with a tape recorder. I would write my ideas down. I have love songs written upside down on matchbook covers. I’d write on my hand if there was no paper. Sometimes I might hear a particular instrument, like when I wrote ‘Melody in the Sky’ I heard gypsy violins.

“Once I’m writing I’m very disciplined. I’m there for the music. When I’m writing music there’s a certain magic from the music underlying life. It’s like you’re living at a deeper current. It’s a very complete feeling. You’re taking care of everyday things, but you’re living at the edge of a song.”