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.

A Year Ago Today ...

“When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is - everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

~ Steve Jobs

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.

Connor McGuire

Social media doesn’t usually work that well for Connor McGuire. He’s tried. If you look around online, you can find him on the obligatory Facebook and Twitter, and he has a Tumbler website - but there’s not much there. Social media is clearly low on his list of priorities. His focus has been elsewhere.

His friends report that he seems to disappear for large blocks of time, only to emerge sporadically with some new version of himself and his art. They imagine a cave - which is not too far from the mark. They imagine screens glowing in the dark late at night, knobs and buttons, piles of instruments, piles of unwashed dishes and empty bottles. They can hear this in his music.

When they hear it, they can also tell right away why he’s doing it. It’s clear he’s searching for something great but different. Different but not weird. OK, maybe even weird sometimes, but not stupid or abrasive - or weird for weird’s sake. The words sound like thoughts we’ve had, the tunes haunt from a place not easy to reach and the emotions revealed are tempered with a welcome intelligence.

A song is a fragile construction, with each piece dependent on the other and, initially, only supported in the air by the artist's sheer force of will. Some of Connor's songs don't get finished, but I sure love the ones that do ...

Today I'm doing some social media for him, since he's been mostly preoccupied with making music (and, in his spare time, his Boba Fett armour).

Here's a live recording of Connor's new song "Hand it Over":

The Death of Facts

The other day, The Chicago Tribune featured a satiric story about the death of Facts. A sad story, but possibly true.

When I was a teenager, I'd often call the downtown Vancouver Public Library where the staff there would look up facts for me. Although it's hard to believe now, they'd put me on hold and rummage through the appropriate reference books until they found the answers to the questions I'd asked. The librarians always seemed happy, and maybe even a little proud, to be able to help me in this way.

Later in life, a large part of my fascination with the computer revolution hinged on the very real possibility that facts would someday become easily and instantly available without the necessity of those phone calls. The internet tied all the computers together and it soon seemed as though we would presently have access to a worldwide library wherein all truth could be found.

I signed on with more passion and conviction than anyone I knew, and sure enough, the internet eventually became my personal and dependable fact repository. Then a strange thing began happening ...

As the internet began to become *everyone's* personal library and access to facts became ubiquitous, those same facts began to lose their lustre. As they became less rare - they seemed to become less valuable.

And as the internet democratized the collection and storage of facts, institutions formerly trusted to caretake them - The Encyclopaedia Britannica, The New York Times, the Vancouver Public Library for instance - were eroded and undermined. The conflicting agendas of the online masses and the new media they aligned with began to create, re-purpose or spin facts to support whatever opinions they felt required supporting.

For a while there, I thought I was losing my mind. My searches for dependable information became less and less fruitful. Reputable and supposedly trustworthy experts delivered black-and-white opposite versions of what should have been the simple truth. Trying to identify definitive facts became next to impossible for me. I yearned for the nice ladies at the Vancouver Public Library.

If my Dad was still around, he'd be reminding me now that the press and media - and anyone else trusted with the power of information (or simply "the power") - has always lied - twisting or inventing the facts as they pleased for their own purposes. He was right, I know, but this is different.

I didn't become a news junkie until September 11th 2001. Before that I'd check the news in the morning the way our parents quickly scanned the front pages of the morning paper. On that Tuesday morning the news page I frequented was simply a white background with black headlines, saying only that New York City was "under attack".

After 911, I was addicted to unfolding history. I was drunk with the power the internet gave me to parse every molecule of information at the moment it became available. I kept a bottle of Visine beside my computer screen.

Soon, questions arose. A theory was advanced that controlled demolitions had brought down the World Trade Centre buildings. A YouTube clip demonstrated that a 757 couldn't fit into the hole in the Pentagon wall. If these citizen journalists were actually on to something, the ramifications were almost impossible to consider.

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars just added important questions that demanded answers. I waited for those answers to emerge, but the people and institutions now in control of the information simply continued to generate more facts, or statements with the appearance of facts, without ever taking responsibility for their veracity. Fair and balanced now seemed to mean that flat-earth believers still had viable facts to contribute to the news cycle.

While Obama restored my hope, his presidency has since become the focal point of some of the most egregious misuse of the f-word. Ridiculous assertions now stand as fact - unchallenged. Opinion is all that remains.

The Chicago Tribune story, while satirical, contains quotes from Mary Poovey, a professor of English at New York University and author of "A History of the Modern Fact." Both the professor and her book are, in fact, real. She says:

"There was an erosion of any kind of collective sense of what's true or how you would go about verifying any truth claims," Poovey said. "Opinion has become the new truth. And many people who already have opinions see in the 'news' an affirmation of the opinion they already had, and that confirms their opinion as fact."

The world wide web has brought people together in a way that has never before been possible and helped us accumulate a shared treasury of knowledge that's unsurpassed in history, and yet it's become a free-for-all in which the truth is threatened by dogma, superstition and politics.

I mourn the passing of Facts. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for truth and wisdom.

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

Steve

"Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."
~ Steve Jobs - From his 2005 commencement address at Stanford

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.

My Summer - 2011 Edition

I've just returned home from the last Trooper show of the summer. There are a few more shows coming up in the fall and winter but the "Trooper 2011 Summer Tour of Canada" has officially concluded. It was, without question, the best, most successful and most fun tour I can remember. As he did last year, my brother-in-arms Gogo snapped photos from his vantage point at the keyboards. I'd like to thank him again for this. Just like last year, I'm blown away by seeing pictures of all the shows in one place. It was a helluva tour. There are 29 shows here - shown in chronological order. The Curacao show is missing (despite the fact it was the Carribean, and hot, it was technically pre-summer), as is the private birthday party in Ontario. Otherwise, though, I think they're all here.

2011-Trooper-Live-Collage-with-Titles-summer-only1.jpg

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.

19760000-Brian-Smith-Ra-McGuire1.jpg

~ 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.

Joni-Mitchell.630.jpg

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.

ford_richard1.jpg

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