UFO

It was pouring rain, and dark. There was a gap in the driver's side wiper blade that messed the windshield in a way that forced me to squint a bit. Larry Carlton's "Room 335" was blasting on the car stereo - the perfect driving song in the early eighties. It was around nine, on a weeknight and I was on my way to play a club in the valley. There were no cars ahead of me on the freeway. There hadn't been for a while. No tail lights to follow through the downpour.

As I rounded a corner I saw moving lights in the sky up ahead. They were above an upcoming overpass - off to the side, not over the freeway. I slowed and saw that the lights seemed to be connected in a line and ... I pulled over.

 An internet-procured photo of something similar to the thing I saw

An internet-procured photo of something similar to the thing I saw

I got out of the car and stood in the rain, staring.

When I was eleven years old I was the editor of a newsletter called "The UFOEO Reporter". It was printed on the mimeograph machine at James Douglas Elementary school, thanks to Mr. Capon, the kind-hearted principal there. UFOEO stood for "Unidentified Flying Objects Enthusiasts Organization". There were about 15 members of the group, and none of them were in Vancouver, where I lived. They were also UFO enthusiasts, from places all around the world, and most of them had newsletters of their own. The idea was to report UFO activity in our locals and share the accumulated news through the mail by way of these hand-made publications.

I was also the youngest member of the "Vancouver Area Flying Saucer Club". My Mom and Dad took turns driving me to meetings in Kits, and I was warmly welcomed by an eccentric group of truth-seekers who thought I was just the cutest thing - until the night I stood up and mockingly questioned a presentation about two Australian boys and their suspicious close encounter of the third kind. 

I was a curious kid and often drawn to themes that called from the fringes of accepted science. UFOs played a large role, but if the topic could be found in FATE Magazine (used copies of which were available at Ted's Book Bin, on nearby Fraser street) I was determined to remain open-minded about it. Open-mindedness was a badge of honour for me in those days.

The string of lights seemed to be circling around something, or to be attached to something that was circling around. The object floated, or "hovered" as UFO folks used to say, above the overpass - occasionally lilting slightly, as though suspended from a string. There was no sound. The rain soaked through my coat as I stood on the highway shoulder watching the lights going around, and the UFO going nowhere. It was about the size of a quarter held at arms length, but I couldn't sort out a dependable sense of scale. The rain didn't help. 

Despite my youthful immersion in UFO culture, my first thoughts focused on a terrestrial explanation. I tried to imagine a balloon with lights tracing around it, and how big it would have to be if it was tethered to, or controlled from, the overpass. I was surprised to realize that the theoretical balloon would be roughly the width of a car. If this was an elaborate prank involving a very large prop, I thought, why pull it on a night like this? It was past nine on a weeknight, there was no traffic to speak of and it was raining hard. 

Fate Magazine was a small format pulp magazine that dealt with UFOs, psychic abilities, ghosts and hauntings, cryptozoology, alternative medicine, life after death, mental telepathy, ancient astronauts, and, as Wikipedia goes on to say; "other paranormal topics". I was into all of that. My open mind was often strained, as it was at that final "Vancouver Area Flying Saucer Club" meeting (I'm sorry Mrs. Beaton), but I valiantly attempted to know the unknown and stay abreast of, or even a few steps beyond, an unfolding future. 

A car pulled to the shoulder behind me and the driver got out. 

"What is that?" he called to me. 

I grinned in the dark at the idea that he expected a useful answer. I had been thinking, when he arrived, that if it wasn't right above the overpass and actually further away, it was very large. If it was a mile away, it was huge.

"A UFO, I guess." I called back. 

The object began to move. Slowly it moved off to the south and, although it was hard to be sure, away from us. Soon it disappeared beyond the tree-line - either descending or getting further away - it's lights still tracing at the same speed. 

As the night seemed to darken, buddy laughed awkwardly, said goodnight and got back into his car. He pulled away. Maybe it lasted five minutes all together. Maybe longer, I don't know. 

Music began to overtake my interest in the paranormal. Alternate realities, real or unreal, were becoming increasingly inconsistent with the world I needed to live in. Also, some of it was starting to scare the shit out of me. I sold my paranormal library for $30. I bought forty-fives with the money. I started singing in a band. 

I always believed that in exploring the unknown and otherworldly, I was learning about unfolding truths that would soon become self-evident to the world at large, and that much of what was called fringe science would be proven out over time and become real science. In the sixties, I was sure that proof of the existence of UFOs would arrive soon, and that we'd find out what they were and where they came from. Science would connect the dots and track down the facts. 

But it never happened. The evidence failed to arrive. 

So my trust shifted over time. Eventually, I came to agree with Marcello Truzzi, the founding co-chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, who said: 

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Or, put another way by the inimitable Christopher Hitchens; “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” 

I believe I still have an open mind. Where the truth is concerned, it's not over till it's over. 

I also believe I saw something hovering above a freeway overpass, out in the valley, one dark and rainy night many years ago. I'll just never be able to tell anyone, for sure, what it was. Which is OK with me. One last quote. My all-time hero; scientist, teacher, raconteur and musician Richard Feynman said this:
 
"I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong."
 
 
* I did not take a photo of the UFO. What I saw was similar to the internet-procured (and altered) shot above - only further away. About the size of a quarter, held at arm's length.

"And the gatekeeper calls out your name ..."

"Fuck, Fuck, Fuck, Fuck" he shouts, and the band snaps silent on the one.

A cheer goes up in the crowd. A tension releases and a connection sparks. This is what they'd hoped for. Not that they would say - but like a selfie with a passing comet this is the story they were hoping to be able to tell.

On stage, time stops and hands suspend. Fingers, picks and drumsticks poised, players watching and waiting in that open moment - the split-second shared acknowledgement of an imminent unknown. With a silent tempo still counting off they've all defaulted faithfully to rule number one: the singer is always right. They watch. 

His left arm churns an explosion of dust particles in the spotlit blackness around his silhouette. What had begun as choreography has sped up and broken time and is now the only movement of his otherwise motionless body. Sweat drips down the side of his neck, tracing the in-ear wire under his shirt and down his back. Is the arm slowing or is awareness simply heightening? This down beat could drop. Or not. No one onstage has taken a breath. 

Ten thousand people are now quiet. All but a very few at the far fringes are focused expectantly on one of two large screens. The face framed there is impossible to read, but most see what they need to see; a man lost in a powerful moment and deep in a reverie far beyond their understanding. He is in a place they would like to be. A place they are willing themselves to be with him. They watch.

The arm slows. The sound of an amplified breath. 

"And the gatekeeper calls out your name"

And on "name" the band drops hard. The crowd roars. The face on the screens flushes with release. A guitar screams.

SA4QE 2016

It's been a year since I participated in SA4QE - the international conspiracy that celebrates the naming day of the brilliant Russell Hoban by leaving pieces of yellow paper - presenting quotes from his books - in odd places all over the world. Its also appears to have been a year since I updated this blog/site/thing. So much has changed. I may or may not get to that. In the meantime, here’s what I sent in to the excellent Russell Hoban site (where you should check out the other yellow papers) this year:

The weather here on the west coast of Canada was once again inclement on Russell Hoban's naming day. I arrived at a grey and windy White Rock Beach with my yellow paper, some tape and a pocket full of tacks. I had a location planned - at a tourist lookout above the beach and pier - but when I arrived at the beach, the first thing I saw was a silent and still man with a briefcase, standing in front of the old train station, contemplating the bay in front of him.
The bronze sculpture is called "Passenger", but I knew right away that it was the Gom Yawmcher man - and I knew also that he was considering something similar if not identical to the subject of my yellow paper; "If you could even jus see 1 thing clear ..."
As I walked toward him, the sun came out. Once I had affixed the paper to his briefcase, it went back behind the clouds.
"If you cud even jus see 1 thing clear the woal of whats in it you cud see every thing clear. But you never wil get to see the woal of any thing youre all ways in the middl of it living it or moving thru it."
~ Riddley Walker (p. 186)

SA4QE 2015

As I have done for several years now, I participated today in an international conspiracy - called, mysteriously, SA4QE - to celebrate the naming day of the brilliant author, Russell Hoban. All around the world, pieces of yellow paper, bearing quotes from Hoban books, have been left in public places – cafe tables, bookshops, park benches, telephone booths, train stations or anywhere my fellow participants deemed appropriate. Russell Hoban remains one of the most original writers of the twentieth century and one of my very favourites.

Here’s this year's submission:

Russell Hoban's naming day was cold and rainy here in White Rock BC, Canada. The pier was mostly deserted. I walked to the very end and attached this year's quote to the railing that looks out to the American San Juan Islands and the Canadian Gulf Islands.
As I walked back, a small smile of a rare kind took over my cold and wet face.
Happy Birthday Russ, and thank you.
  "Perhaps this world that's in us, this world that we're in, was never meant to be fixed and permanent; perhaps it's only one of a continuous succession of world-ideas passing through the world-mind. And we are, all of us, the passing and impermanent perceivers of it." 
Russell Hoban ~ From the Novel ‘Fremder'

  You can check out other submissions as they come in, and learn more about Russell Hoban and SA4QE here.

Trubba not.

All Ways In the Middl Of It

I was looking through some collected Russell Hoban quotes, getting ready for SA4QE on Wednesday, and this one hit me - only, for some reason, not for a yellow paper on the pier. So this must be where it was supposed to go.

"If you cud even jus see 1 thing clear the woal of whats in it you cud see every thing clear. But you never wil get to see the woal of any thing youre all ways in the middl of it living it or moving thru it."
Russell Hoban ~ From the Novel ‘Ridley Walker'

To My Three or Four Forgiving and Open-minded Friends

Trying to find a good book to read is annoying me. And, for reasons unknown to me, that annoyance makes me want to write. I can't figure it out. I'm not going to try. But I am writing. Something.

Encapsulating the months that have passed since last I wrote is the impossibility that has impeded me. There is no way. I've considered sneaking up on an account of it from several different directions - maybe a general metaphoric discussion of the over-riding emotional landscape, for instance. Bullshit and who cares. Maybe some short illuminating scenes that might suggest the general story - No. No one thing, or two things or three is the nub of it. It can neither be distilled nor generalized, and too many people I love are prominent characters in the story arc and I have no right to share their parts, and I won't.

And I haven't been unhappy, or sad in a daily way - I've had some great times - a lot of them - but I've been overwhelmed. There's just been too much. There's been too much and it's come too fast and much of it is part of a new paradigm that I haven't had the time or energy to get on top of. I badly want (and need) an attitude that covers this new reality, but all my efforts to engineer one have so far failed. Which is, well, a failure ... and I'm not fond of those.

So rather than chronicle that inability to make peace with the difficult parts of what I just now realize has been the first four years of "my sixties", I've clammed up. And although I tell myself it's the recent subscribers to ramcguire.com - people requesting an alert in the unlikely event that something new happens here - that have embarrassed me into stepping up, the truth is I miss it.

So in the spirit of my original blog, I'll try once again to overcome the inertia of myself while imagining the three or four of you as forgiving and open-minded friends who don't give a shit what I write but are still encouraging me to do so.

Why I Write

I spent some time this morning considering buying a book called "Why We Write" that collects the answers to that question from some well-respected authors. The big idea was to find an answer there that might apply to me - since I've realized I don't have a good one myself. The only reasons I can dredge up seem a little unsavoury. I'd love to truly state that writing is like breathing to me (as one of the authors in the book's preview claims) but it isn't. I'm always happy to have completed something, but the drive to begin is more based on the belief that I should write, not that I couldn't help myself.

And why should I write? I don't know. That's why I was going to download the book - rather than writing this.

Once when I was very young, my uncle brought a woman to our house that he claimed was a gypsy. With her black hair and flashing eyes she looked the part. My uncle convinced her to read my palms. I clearly remember telling her that one day my palms would be impossible to read because they would be covered in ink. I thought I was being clever making that "veiled" reference to the career path I had chosen.

I enjoyed writing as a child, although I often wonder now if I was simply enjoying the accolades and attention I received when I wrote. Of course I was - but did I continue writing for more of that attention or because I enjoyed the process? Who knows for sure. Not me. I do know that, like now, the question often stops me in my tracks and, like a snake eating it's own tail, progress towards a solution grinds to a halt when the resulting circle reaches it's smallest possible diameter.

I've kept a journal for years. The writing I do there is uninspiring and pedestrian but I believe there's value in keeping track of your days. It's a struggle for me to keep up-to-date, but I do because I receive good value from the entries that accumulate. There is a clear and useful reason for that writing. Sadly, I've become increasingly unsure about my reasons for writing in public.

I'm sharing this conflict here because, for whatever reason - suspicious or otherwise - I'd like to return to public writing with more frequency - and sincerity - and I'm unsure where to resume the story. Or what it is I want to share. Or why ...

SA4QE 2013

Once again I've participated in an international conspiracy to celebrate the naming day of the brilliant Russell Hoban. All around the world, pieces of yellow paper, bearing quotes from Hoban books, have been left in public places – cafe tables, bookshops, park benches, telephone booths, train stations or anywhere the birthday celebrants deemed appropriate. Over 350 quotes that have been left, on previous birthdays, in big cities and small towns in 14 countries since 2002. Russell Hoban remains one of the most original writers of the twentieth century and one of my very favourites.

Here’s what I sent in this year:

Greetings from White Rock BC Canada!
Yellow papers appeared on the pier today and changed things a bit. Folks on their walks stopped, curious. And walked away, curious. Hopefully Russ got a smile out of it.   "... still I am of the world, still I have something to say, how could it be otherwise, nothing comes to an end, the action never stops, it only changes...."
- from Pilgerman

  There are two more photos from my SA4QE adventure here, and you really should check out other submissions, as they come in, here, the full Russell Hoban site here here and the "Head of Orpheus" site here.

Trubba not.

Correction to "The Politics of Songwriting - Part Five"

Rolling Stone Magazine has run an online version of a Kurt Cobain interview from their January 27 1994 issue. In it, Cobain breaks down Nirvana's songwriting shares. I was wrong about him receiving all the royalties. If my math is correct, it appears he took a total of 87.5% while the other two band members shared the remaining 12.5%, for a total of 6.25% each. Here's how he put it:

Haven't there been any issues where there was at least heated discussion? Yeah, the songwriting royalties. I get all the lyrics. The music, I get 75 percent, and they get the rest. I think that's fair. But at the time, I was on drugs when that came up. And so they thought that I might start asking for more things. They were afraid that I was going to go out of my mind and start putting them on salary, stuff like that. But even then we didn't yell at each other. And we split everything else evenly.

1Q84

I finished 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami last night. It was a big, engrossing magical book that took me both far away and deep inside. I didn't want it to end. Like Richard Ford's brilliant books, 1Q84 made me want to write. It reminded me that no two people see this world and its passing minutes the same. It convinced me again that capturing and preserving the ephemeral moment and the random impression is worthwhile - if only for my own satisfaction and edification.

According to Chekhov,” Tamaru said, rising from his chair, “once a gun appears in a story, it has to be fired.”

“Meaning what?”

Tamaru stood facing Aomame directly. He was only an inch or two taller than she was. “Meaning, don’t bring unnecessary props into a story. If a pistol appears, it has to be fired at some point. Chekhov liked to write stories that did away with all useless ornamentation.”

Aomame straightened the sleeves of her dress and slung her bag over her shoulder. “And that worries you – if a pistol comes on the scene, it’s sure to be fired at some point.”

“In Chekhov’s view, yes.”

“So you’re thinking you’d rather not hand me a pistol.”

“They’re dangerous. And illegal. And Chekhov is a writer you can trust.”

“But this is not a story. We’re talking about the real world.”

Tamaru narrowed his eyes and looked hard at Aomame. Then, slowly opening his mouth, he said, “Who knows?”

~ Haruki Murakami - 1Q84

R.I.P. Russell Hoban

Damn.

From 'Ridley Walker':

"the worl is ful of things waiting to happen, Thats the meat and boan of it right there. You myt think you can jus go here and there doing nothing. Happening nothing. You cant tho you bleeding cant. You put your self on any road and some thing wil show its self to you."

From 'The Moment Under the Moment':

"Reality is ungraspable. For convenience we use a limited-reality consensus in which work can be done, transport arranged, and essential services provided. The real reality is something else--only the strangeness of it can be taken in…"
From 'Frember':
"Being is not a steady state but an occulting one: we are all of us a succession of stillness blurring into motion on the wheel of action, and it is in those spaces of black between the pictures that we find the heart of mystery in which we are never allowed to rest."

Miss you, Russ.

Today's Guardian Article

The Head of Orpheus

The Politics of Songwriting - Part Five

The three members of Green Day split songwriting royalties evenly despite the fact that, from what I can tell, Billy Joe Armstrong writes the lyrics and melodies for their songs. Kurt Cobain, on the other hand, received sole songwriting credit for all but a couple of Nirvana's songs (a co-write and a b-side written by the band's drummer Dave Grohl).

Two entirely different ways of approaching songwriting royalties. And there's everything in between. There are no rules, and that, I think, is as it should be.

Green-Day-Nirvana.jpg

Green Day's all-for-one attitude has kept the band together through a long and impressive career. Billy Joe's decision to share writing credits may play a major part in this.

There are many Green Day covers out there. I've got a great version of 'Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)' recorded by Glen Campbell. Like the Green Day arrangement, it's mostly the singer, an acoustic guitar, and an orchestra. It's hard to imagine what role Trés Cool, and Mike Dirnt (the drummer and bassist) played in writing the song, but they receive equal shares of songwriting royalties from any cover versions. Best I can tell, Billy Joe is cool with this.

What if, though, one or both of Billy Joe's bandmates left the band in their early days - a situation that has befallen many young writers? They would continue to receive royalties, from songs they may not have contributed to, despite the fact that Billy Joe would now be performing with a new drummer and bass player in Green Day. Maybe they have a contract that deals with this. Maybe they don't care.

Kurt Cobain's band, Nirvana, had five drummers before Dave Grohl joined. Splitting his songwriting royalties with one of them might have induced that drummer to stay on (or made Cobain less-likely to fire him) and Nirvana could well have cemented an entirely different line-up - in the way that Green Day did. But that line-up would not, then, have included Dave Grohl - a significant contributor to Nirvana's aural appeal. Nirvana members Grohl and Krist Novoselic did not receive (with only two exceptions) songwriting royalties on Nirvana songs. Best I can tell, they were cool with this.

Since his days in Nirvana, Dave Grohl has become one of the world's most successful musicians and the "primary songwriter" for the Foo Fighters, just as Cobain was for Nirvana. Ironically, since I've referenced him in this ongoing rant about the politics of songwriting, Nirvana's bass player Krist Novoselic is currently active in ... politics, as an elected State Committeeman in Washington State.

UPDATE/CORRECTION:

Rolling Stone Magazine has run (in September 2012) an online version of a Kurt Cobain interview from their January 27 1994 issue. In it, Kurt Cobain breaks down Nirvana's songwriting shares. I was wrong about him receiving all the royalties. If my math is correct, it appears he took a total of 87.5% while the other two band members shared the remaining 12.5%, for a total of 6.25% each. Here's how he put it:

Haven't there been any issues where there was at least heated discussion? Yeah, the songwriting royalties. I get all the lyrics. The music, I get 75 percent, and they get the rest. I think that's fair. But at the time, I was on drugs when that came up. And so they thought that I might start asking for more things. They were afraid that I was going to go out of my mind and start putting them on salary, stuff like that. But even then we didn't yell at each other. And we split everything else evenly.

The Politics of Songwriting - Part Four

So …

Let’s say you get together with a group of friends occasionally to have a few beers and jam. And let’s say that another friend brings along some recording gear one night and captures what turn out to be some impressive and only slightly beer-addled performances, which he, in turn, passes on to a record company president he knows. On the basis of the four completed songs he’s heard, the record company president offers to immediately sign the “band” to a multimillion dollar contract. In addition to the signing advance and artist royalties, shared by all band members, the record company will need to know who gets the songwriting royalties.

1965000-Winters-Green-in-Living-Room1.jpg

~ Brian Smith, Daryll Stelmaschuk, Me, Derek Solby in 1965

Since you and your mates have never had a reason to discuss songwriting, the subject suddenly becomes the elephant in the jam-room. Although the rhythm guitar player vaguely recalls someone calling out chord changes, and a beer being spilled on a notebook full of lyrics, he’s decided that songwriting credit should be split even-steven amongst the Beer Brothers (his choice for the new band’s name). Much of what you played on your Les Paul was extemporized … a lick here, a solo there … and your only clear memory of the evening was having to stop frequently because the drummer seemed to be having trouble catching the groove – so you’re feeling unwilling to share royalties with him. And although the lyrics for the songs seemed to come together surprisingly quickly, you’re considering changing some of the lame parts. This, you decide, will be your after-the-fact songwriting contribution, and justification for your share. The bass guitar parts were played by a friend who’d shown up late with a case of Red Stripe. This was his first jam. Some of the Beer Brothers privately resent his “Brother” status and question his right to any kind of royalties. The keyboard player is a big fan of the drummer and plays with him in another band. He’s the one who sang the lyrics and melody he’d learned from the drummer’s demos of the four songs. The drummer was the one calling out the chords and stopping the band when things got off track. He’s not happy with the sloppy playing on the recordings, and was considering taking his songs elsewhere – but now he’s stoked about the million dollar recording deal.

So what happens next? Politics, that’s what. At this juncture, with our imaginary record contract in the balance, anything could happen. At one extreme, the whole adventure could end in a Commitments-worthy stalemate, possibly concluding with a drunken Irish fist fight. More likely though, some kind of compromise will be hammered out. An acknowledgement of the drummer’s songwriting contribution would be a fair and just outcome, so let’s choose that hypothetical road for the Beer Brothers and consider what could happen next.

At the first official band meeting, the drummer’s demos are played and it’s unenthusiastically agreed that songwriting royalties for the four initial songs should go to him. In the following weeks though – after receiving advance money from the record company – the four other Brothers invest in recording setups not unlike the drummer’s. By the time you and your buddies meet up to jam some new tunes for the record, each player is packing a collection of freshly-written songs. There are 46 in all and only a dozen or so are required. To a layman, the solution might seem simple – just narrow it down to the best songs – but in this hypothetical scenario (and very often in real life) each player believes, not surprisingly, that his tunes are the best ones.

So what happens next? Politics again, of course.

With the musical direction of the band now at stake – further complicating the songwriting issue – tensions begin to mount. Your band’s overnight success has attracted press interest and your bass player, by virtue of his boyish charm and good looks, has been singled out. During interviews, he talks at length about his songs and the musical thrust of his band. The keyboard player, still tweaking mixes for his eleven tunes, now openly mocks the drummer’s “over-commercial” pop songs. The rhythm guitar player has increased his pot intake and tinkers constantly with a vintage Echoplex he’s borrowed to enhance his trippy dub songs. You’re confused. The drummer’s pissed …

Left to their own devices at this point, the BB’s could break-up, reshuffle personnel (“creative differences”) or work out another politically expedient compromise. As you can see from this admittedly accelerated and time-compressed scenario, these compromises come less easily as the potential for money and fame increases.

So who’s songs get on the album? Since I prefer happy endings, and because I’m making this up, I’ll predict that the record company introduces you all to a world-class producer who listens through the 46 songs and ultimately chooses to record only those written by the drummer. In fact, he likes those tunes no better than the others, but he’s learned that the record company president chose the four original drummer-composed songs – and the president signs his $50,000.00 cheque. To cover his ass professionally and creatively, though, he also insists that the band cover four songs that were hits in the sixties.

If I were in a malevolent mood, I could continue the story detailing how, after the release of the first hugely successful album, the producer sues the drummer/songwriter for a share of his royalties based on his contention that he contributed to the songs in the studio. Well-known songwriters might be called in for their expert testimony.

This isn’t particularly exaggerated. These kind of politics are more likely than not to arise. Some bands manage to co-exist longer before these issues begin to complicate things – and a few lucky crews, by virtue of some fortuitous alignment of the stars, sail through their entire careers with no significant political crises at all.

In a collaborative creative endeavour all things are possible and, as with creativity in general, breaking and bending rules and conventions keeps music interesting and alive. Any combination of input and talent can complete a successful creative project, but when money is injected into the equation, things can get complicated.

I’ll start working on part 5 now ...

The Politics of Songwriting - Part Three

I fell in love with popular music around the time Elvis showed up. I was only 6 years old when “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Don’t Be Cruel” topped the charts but I could probably still sing you all the songs on that year’s hit parade.

~ Me - Writing lyrics on the first US Trooper tour in 1975

With notable exceptions, most of those songs were written by professional songwriters. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, for instance, wrote many of the seminal rock and roll classics that I believed Elvis, The Drifters, Dion and Ben E. King wrote. (In fact, Elvis never wrote a song.) Later on, many of my faves were crafted by the prolific Motown and Brill Building songwriting teams, and not by the talented singers and groups whose 45’s I was buying.

More and more though, the line between songwriter and performer was blurring. Singers like Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash, Little Richard, Marvin Gaye, Hank Williams, Smokey Robinson and Roy Orbison, to name a few, also wrote the songs they sang. Some, like Orbison, sang both originals and covers.

Regardless of where the songs came from, the music (or “backing tracks”) for the majority of these records was performed by musicians who remained mostly anonymous. As an example, the music you hear behind Motown artists like The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes and the Four Tops was performed by a group of unheralded and uncredited players nicknamed “The Funk Brothers”. The excellent 2002 documentary, 'Standing in the Shadows of Motown’, points out that, despite their anonymity, this group “played on more number-one hits than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys combined.”

In the sixties, though, the players began to emerge from the shadows. With the arrival of The Beatles – and record production that mixed guitar-and-drum-heavy tracks almost equally with the vocals – the pop music audience began to acknowledge and appreciate the importance of the band members’ musical contributions. The traditional format of singer (or vocal group) and back-up band was breaking down. ‘Group’ or ‘Band’ more often referred to both the singers and the musicians who made the records. John, Paul, George and Ringo – Mick, Keith, Charlie and Bill were all members of seemingly democratic, one-for-all-and-all-for-one musical posses, and were, in the eyes of their fans at least, equal contributors to the records they made.*

The conventions of songwriting and arranging changed as well. Songs increasingly came from within the band and their arrangements were often constructed by the band members as a group effort.†

In those bands where no clear division of roles was agreed upon, the difference between “songwriting” and “arranging,” and who should get credit for what, often became a contentious matter of opinion - as did the answer to the question “whose songs should end up on the album?” To this day, the fundamental issues of authorship and creative voice can be a divisive undercurrent that can weaken or destroy an otherwise healthy band or artist.

Although the Beatles popularized the idea of an autonomous band of equals - John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote the lion’s share of the songs that fuelled the band’s astonishing career. They divided all their songwriting credits 50/50, which in their case meant that if one of them showed up with 90% of a song, the other would still receive 50% for helping to finish it. In fact, based on an agreement made in their teens, they also split credit equally on songs they’d written independently.

George Harrison also wrote songs for the group but had difficulties in getting The Beatles to record his music. Only one of his songs appeared on the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album (considered one of the most important albums in the history of popular music) and, tellingly, no other Beatle played on that track. Soon after the release of their next album (The White Album), Harrison quit the band. Although he later returned, the White Album sessions – during which the band’s songwriting became increasingly insular and individualized – marked the first serious tensions within the group, from which they never fully recovered.

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~ Brian Smith & Ra McGuire in 1976

My partner and I also split our Trooper songwriting 50/50, although the songs I write independently are credited to me alone. Like George Harrison, I would have preferred to have had more of my songs on the albums, but I, also, had difficulties in getting them recorded. Frank Ludwig, who sang and played keyboards on four of Trooper’s nine studio albums was likewise keen to have more of his songwriting included, and his eventual departure from the band was directly related to his lack of success in that regard.

Like The Beatles’ White album sessions, Trooper’s month-and-a-half sojourn at Sundown Studios, recording the Flying Colors album, was also, arguably, the beginning of the end for the group that recorded the band’s biggest hits. The overarching tensions of those sessions, and the paths we all took as a result, were the result of songwriting politics the likes of which I had never previously encountered.

Part Four coming soon. ††

*Note that in the jazz world, musicians had already been acknowledged and appreciated for years – my references to anonymous backing tracks are specific to popular music.

† Please note the word “often” here. Professional songwriters continued to flourish during this period, as they do today.

†† This is all seeming a bit too scholarly and preachy to me overall, for which I apologize. If I didn’t think the historical detail might be illuminating for some of you, I wouldn’t be boring you with it … and I hope to soon get on with something more entertaining.

The Politics of Songwriting - Part Two

Any song you hear – live, online, on the radio or TV, on a computer playlist, CD, record or tape – is referred to in the music biz as either an “original” – a song written by the performer or performers you’re hearing – or a “cover” - a song written by someone else. Nazareth’s powerful 1975 version of “Love Hurts” was a cover, as was another of their hits; “This Flight Tonight”.

Nazareth

Joni Mitchell wrote “This Flight Tonight” and recorded it on her album “Blue” in 1971. The sparse recording features just Joni and her open-tuned guitar with a brief addition of extra voices and a slide guitar in the bridge. The focus, though, is on Joni’s urgent vocal delivery and introspective and regretful lyrics.

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Joni Mitchell

Nazareth’s version of the song could not be more different. Manny Charlton’s driving electric guitar groove rocks hard and Dan McCafferty’s vocal adds a swaggering tension to the lyrics. This is one of the rare cover versions I like better than the original.

Nazareth’s reworking of “This Flight Tonight” is a radical but classic example of what's called an "arrangement" – the changing of the presentation of a song in a way that stamps it with a new musical personality. Transforming a Joni Mitchell song into a rock anthem is no mean feat, and the band's unique arrangement – the parts invented by the musicians (or an arranger or producer), the phrasing of the singer, the sequence of verses, choruses and bridge – was fundamental to the success of their recording. Nonetheless, the basic integrity of the song itself – the lyrics and the melody – remained the same.

In the case of all "cover" versions, the relationship between a song and it's arrangement is simple: there can be no arrangement, without there first being a song to arrange. As a result, the recipient of the songwriting credits, and royalties, is equally clear and uncomplicated.

The members of Nazareth receive none of the songwriting royalties generated by "This Flight Tonight" or their version of "Love Hurts" – but their recordings of those songs have brought them other, significant, rewards.

For one thing, additional royalties are also paid by the record company to the artists themselves when copies of their records are sold or downloaded. A cover that becomes a hit can propel record sales – and those royalties – dramatically. Hits also make touring more likely. Live shows create additional income and help develop an audience that will buy the artist’s recordings and so on ...

Covers have also been seen as a good way to attract and win over new fans. If someone already knows the song, the thinking goes, they’re half way to liking your recording of it. As an example, six of the fourteen songs on the Beatles' first album were cover versions.

The other eight songs, though, were written by two members of the band – John Lennon and Paul McCartney - and this idea of the self-contained rock band, writing their own songs and playing their own instruments, arguably marked a turning point in the history of popular music – and of songwriting.

As song creation began taking place within autonomous bands, the traditional view of what a songwriter was – and what constituted songwriting – began to become less clear. The question of who was entitled to the songwriting credits – and royalties –began to come up more often.

I’ll start on Part Three now ...

Joni Mitchell’s version of “This Fight Tonight”

Nazareth’s version of “This Flight Tonight”

The Politics of Songwriting - Part One

Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were a hugely successful American husband-and-wife songwriting team. I've invoked their names hundreds of times over the years when asked about songwriting and songwriting royalties.

Felice & Boudleaux Bryant

They wrote 6000 songs and sold over 200 million records. Their list of hits includes “Bye Bye Love,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Wake Up Little Susie,” “Love Hurts” and “Rocky Top.” The one I wave around while giving my songwriting speech is "Love Hurts”, a song I first heard in 1961.

I would never have imagined at the time - I was 11 - that those words and that melody came from anywhere other than Roy Orbison’s own tortured heart. He sang every word with conviction and sincerity and delivered every note of the melody as though it was occurring to him as he sang, there in front of the microphone in that mysterious non-place where I imagined hit records were created back then.

I suppose I believed, in an unquestioning and not very thorough way, that all the songs I heard on the radio were emotional communiques that originated with the singers performing them. It wasn’t till I started writing songs myself that I began to learn more, and think more seriously, about the song writer’s art.

By 1975, I’d co-written the eight songs on the first Trooper album. Two of those songs, “Baby Woncha Please Come Home” and “Good Ol’ General Hand Grenade” shared the Canadian charts that summer with another version of “Love Hurts” – this one recorded by a Scottish group called Nazareth.

Dan McCafferty sang the song with a ferocity not present in Orbison’s version. Roy’s “Love Hurts” was sad but resigned. Dan’s added anger (especially in the soaring middle eight) and a lick of righteous self pity. The “hurt” is overall more searing than Roy’s. I continue to love both, to this day.*

Most people are familiar with the Nazareth version and some will remember the earlier Orbison track, but fewer will have heard the very first recording of the song, by the Everly Brothers in 1960, or Jim Capaldi’s hit UK version, from 1975. For many, Jacob Lusk’s recent American Idol performance may be their only exposure to the song.†

Regardless, while all five of these strikingly different performances showcase the unique singers and musicians that created them, one important thread remains consistent throughout: the lyrics and melody wedded together by Felice and Boudleaux over fifty years ago.

The songwriting royalties generated by the record sales and airplay of all the versions of “Love Hurts” went to the Bryants and, now, to their heirs. This will be the case with the iTunes track released last week by Jacob Lusk and will continue to be the case if another talented artist or group chooses to record the song in the future.

I'll return to another Nazareth hit, "This Flight Tonight" in part two - once I write it.

Roy Orbison's cover of "Love Hurts"

Nazareth's cover of "Love Hurts"

Jacob Lusk's American Idol performance of "Love Hurts"

*I was honoured to have the opportunity to sing a verse of “Love Hurts” onstage with Dan McCafferty and Nazareth on my birthday in 2004.

† These are not the only covers of the song. To see a full list, containing over 40 versions (!), click here.

The Sportswriter

I'm re-reading 'The Sportswriter' by Richard Ford. I don't often read a book a second time. Debbie gave me all ten of the New York Times Top Ten Books for Christmas in 2006 and Ford's 'The Lay of the Land' was among them. It was unlike anything I'd ever read - equally hard-nosed realistic and dreamy-headed magical. The writing was alive, crisp, startlingly present and read as though every word had been polished – while at the same time seeming to flow like water from the mind of its protagonist Frank Bascombe - a man surprisingly recognizable to me.

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Richard Ford

I soon learned that 'The Lay of the Land' was the most recent of three books chronicling Bascombe's complicated, yet in many ways pedestrian, life from 1986 (The Sportswriter) to 2006 (The Lay of the Land). 1996's 'Independence Day' covered the years in between.

I dug out 'The Sportswriter' a few days ago thinking to check it as a benchmark of sorts. I've held all three books in such high esteem, I'd started to wonder if my current reading still held up or if, maybe, I'd placed the Bascombe books on an undeserved pedestal - creating an unrealistic and unfair reference point.

On the plane to Toronto and back this past weekend I confirmed that, in the case of 'The Sportswriter' at least, the power of the writing remains undiminished.

I have to use a post-it note to mark my place in the dog-eared paperback because so many pages have been turned down (or in some cases up) to mark favourite passages. Here's one on the subject of teachers, a profession Frank has tried, but run from, terrified, referring to his former colleagues as "anti-mystery types":

"Real mystery – the very reason to read (and certainly to write) any book – was to them a thing to dismantle, distill and mine out into rubble they could tyrannize into sorry but more permanent explanations; monuments to themselves, in other words."

Or this from earlier in the book, about Franks habit of "looking around" what he feels to something else he might be feeling:

"When you are fully in your emotions, when they are simple and appealing enough to be in, and the distance is closed between what you feel and what you might also feel, then your instincts can be trusted. It is the difference between a man who quits his job to become a fishing guide on Lake Big Trout, and who one day as he is paddling his canoe into the dock at dusk, stops paddling to admire the sunset and realizes how much he wants to be a fishing guide on Lake Big Trout; and another man who has made the same decision, stopped paddling at the same time, felt how glad he was, but also thought he could probably be a guide on Windigo Lake if he decided to, and might also get a better deal on canoes.

Another way of describing this is that it's the difference between being a literalist and a factualist. A literalist is a man who will enjoy an afternoon watching people while stranded in an airport in Chicago, while a factualist can't stop wondering why his plane was late out of Salt Lake, and gauging whether they'll still serve dinner or just a snack."

These ruminations arise from Franks confusion about whether or not to tell Vicki Arcenault he loves her.

These are not easy books to read and I'm not necessarily recommending them to you. An online check will show you that they are about equally hated and revered out there in the world. But since the books aren't as famous as some, and Richard Ford is still not a household name, I thought I'd share them here like I share the sometimes less-than-well-known music I love.

Also, I want to write as well as Richard Ford - a goal that, although probably unattainable, will pull me forward like no wishing or hoping could do. Writing this post is, then, part show-and-tell - but also part declaration. I want to write as well as Richard Ford.

SA4QE - 2011

Here's the email and attached photos I sent tonight to The Slickman Building (4th floor), somewhere in Britain. It documents my participation, again this year, in the SA4Q event, celebrating the 86th naming day of Russell Hoban. All around the world, pieces of yellow paper with quotes from Hoban books were left in public places – cafe tables, bookshops, park benches, telephone booths, train stations or anywhere the birthday celebrants deemed appropriate. The SA4QE (Slickman A4 Quotation Event) website lists 350 quotes that have been left, on previous birthdays, in big cities and small towns in 14 countries since 2002. Russell Hoban remains one of the most original writers of the twentieth century and one of my very favourites. Here's what I sent:

Good evening,
Thanks again for this opportunity to participate!
Russell Hoban’s birthday began, in White Rock, British Columbia, Canada, with a menacing darkness squatted defiantly over Semiahmoo Bay. My yellow paper had been wrapped in plastic, as always, to protect it from an inevitable rain coast pelting - and subsequent melting - of Mr. Hoban’s words, but the particularly unwelcoming weather kept me inside until early afternoon …
At 2:00 PM Pacific Standard Time, on Russell Hoban’s naming day when he come 86, the dark clouds parted and the sun shone down. I headed down to the beach with my lovely wife, yellow paper in hand.
It was left on the best bench. Close to the water but distant from the action. A peaceful yet powerful spot. The wind was still whipping up the water. The gulls like that.
I am proud to once again represent for White Rock. I hear that, as of this year, I’m no longer the only Canadian contributor to SA4QE. This makes me proud as well. Here’s what’s written on my paper:
Reality is ungraspable. For convenience we use a limited-reality consensus in which work can be done, transport arranged, and essential services provided. The real reality is something else--only the strangeness of it can be taken in...
Russell Hoban The Moment Under The Moment, Foreword
My best to all members of the Kraken Community ...
And Thank you again, Russ, for the joyous mystery and the mysterious joy
Happy Birthday!
All best
Ra McGuire

On Tour With My iPad

I've finished my first two book on my iPad - "A Visit From the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan and "Wild Years - The Music and Myth of Tom Waits" by Jay S. Jacobs. "Goon Squad" is a truly contemporary book that wanders shamelessly through time, observing the tumultuous lives of a cast of characters all vaguely associated with the music industry. I liked it a lot. The Tom Waits book is a pretty straightforward chronicle of a very private man's career. I would have liked to see more detail, but appreciate what I learned.

I really enjoy reading on the iPad. On the whole, I like it better than reading traditional books.

At first I missed not being able to gauge, by the amount of pages shifted from the right hand to the left, how far along in the story I was, but it's not so much a loss as a change of habit. My iPad has helped be break that habit and realize that reading, like life, is all about the journey. The distance yet to be travelled should not be a distracting consideration. At any rate, a quick touch of the screen will show me.

I've read my iPad in airports, on planes, in vans, in restaurants, in hotel rooms, in beds in hotel rooms and in all circumstances, except bright sunlight, the experience has been more comfortable and all-round more rewarding. Part of this is due to the excellent Marware Eco-Vue case I bought while waiting for my iPad to arrive. Thanks to the multiple configurations of the case, I rarely have to hold the iPad with my hands. Even while sitting with my legs crossed the micro-fibre lining grips my jeans and holds the screen in place.

I was most looking forward to reading comic books and graphic novels on the bright, colourful and nearly comic-book-shaped iPad screen, and that experience has been everything I hoped for. I've been re-reading some favourites and discovering new titles (like Ed Brubaker's amazing "Criminal").

Although the time difference probably measures in miliseconds, the iPad is quicker in and out of the backpack and, as a result, more likely to be deployed. There is a general feel of convenience to it that my heavier, hinged, MacBook Pro seems, more and more, to lack.

For the moment though, and until I'm more used to the iPads glass keyboard, anything longer than a few paragraphs gets written on this trusty laptop.