Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Marriage In Meter

I had a friend once named Jack Keller. Jack passed away a few years ago, but I think of him often. He was a Tin Pan Alley trained songwriter, born and raised in Brooklyn. He took his craft to Hollywood for a while, writing for the Monkees and cranking out themes for TV shows, ultimately landing the theme songs for "Bewitched", "Gidget" and "Seattle". He wrote plenty of other hits, some you know and some you don't. He ended his days writing in Nashville for the same publisher I wrote for (EMI). This was back when EMI was just a fledgling company doing business as Screen Gems-Colgems-EMI in a little cottage at 1207 16th Ave South.

Jack could often be heard behind some closed door lecturing a young writer about his poor prosody, "Dat's not da hit ! Here's da hit (plunking single notes on the piano) da, da, da, DA, da, DA. Ya got too many syllables. Dat don't work. It's da marriage, I'm tellin' ya, da marriage!"

I wrote with Jack enough times to know that once he found "the hit", you didn't mess with it. He was a stickler for every line being perfectly constrained to the melody he'd composed. It didn't matter how good you thought your line was, if it didn't match syllable for syllable with his melody, he'd shoot it full of holes then calmly smoke his pipe until you thought of something better. His melodies were little gems of simplicity and distinction, nothing generic about them at all. Each note held it's place with purpose. But, man, did he ever insist on doing it his way.

Maybe you're saying to yourself, "What a stubborn guy". Thing is, he wasn't merely stubborn. He was right, maddeningly right. Every time I worked with him I learned more about the art of how NOT to compromise a hit melody for the sake of a line of lyric. His restrictions made me (gasp) a better lyricist! It forced me to find not just the right concept for a line, or the right rhyme, but the sequence of words that made the melody, concept and rhyme shine brightest.

Before you begin dismissing me with arguments about Bob Dylan and John Lennon, yes, I know. The discipline is broad. But hear me out for a moment. There are plenty of writers you can study to learn about loose meter, but few examples these days of the true Marriage.

You see, lyrics can to be both meaningful AND metered strictly. That is, in fact, the immortal challenge of both songwriting and poetry. Anyone can say a thought, but only a great writer can say it so concisely that it can never be said better again.

Classical composers use a rigid, almost mathmatical theme-and-variation approach to melody. Once the theme and variations are establish you don't deviate. Beethoven wrote his Ninth in the rhythm : "dit dit dit DAH. dit dit dit DAH." Not "dit dit dit DAH, dit di-dit dit DA-DAH". This theme business is one of the hallmarks of good composition. Many barriers have been broken since Beethoven, but we haven't always improved things. What is it that makes a song memorable to begin with? Isn't it a certain amount of repetition along with deceptively employed variations of that rhthmn? Are we really helping ourselves by pushing the envelope of theme and variation to the point where the average listener can longer even find it? The echoes are essential. The melodic echoes are the DNA of a melody. Without echoing themes a melody unravels too far.

I break the rules, too. I like Dylan as much as anyone and when I take liberties with the meter, I usually tell myself I'm following some branch of the songwriting tree that sprouted from his work. Sometimes I'm happy with the results, but many times my weak meter is just because I'm too lazy to get it right. Do you break up the Marriage with intent or out of laziness? Many writers seem to not know the difference. It takes some objectivity. You've got to know where that pulse lies and pick it up throughout the song.

The next time you're cramming all those extra syllables into your verse lines because you just need to get all the information into the song, ask yourself if it can be pared down for the sake of the meter, the pulse, the DNA of the melody. You won't be sorry you tried. Maybe you'll hear old Jack Keller's ghost say, "It's da marriage!"

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

Friday, September 12, 2008

Finding The Reverence

A friend of mine recently went to hear Jimmy Webb speak about songwriting. Jimmy talked about how the American songwriter is in decline because younger writers no longer study their creative ancestors.

We can debate whether this is a temporary trend or a sea change, but it's the premise of Webb's argument that interests me. There's a difference between pushing the art forward, and abandoning the past altogether. Sometimes what appears to be a clean break is actually a brilliant and rather large leap, but we must still be able to determine that it is a forward leap and not merely the abandonment of disciplines and principals that have governed the art of songwriting since the days of the Childe Ballad authors.

A song cannot be whatever we say it is any more than a novel can be four words and a cover. You might ramble from melody to melody with no sense of theme, weak symmetry, no fixed choruses, and I will admit that you've written something. But I would no sooner call it a "song" than I'd call a grocery list a "poem". Yet some have even attempted to get away with that hoax, and as a result poetry has also been in decline.

It isn't enough that a songwriter can claim an influence, he must also demonstrate what he has made of that influence. Dylan wasn't copying Woody Guthrie, nor was he just singing like him and abandoning everything Woody stood for in his writing. He was taking the leap forward, and in retrospect we can see it clearly today. When we look back from some future vantage point, will we clearly see the reverence for the past in any of the current songwriters on the scene? I can't name many I'd include on the list of reverential writers, maybe Josh Ritter, Brett Dennen, and a couple of others.

The field appears to be dominated by writers who lack the discipline or the reverence. They have the talent to sing and play instruments, they have the recording skills and the software to get it down, they have the drive and the incentive to be famous, and they have street teams on social networks to promote them. But having all these things seems to make them rather impatient with study. The one thing they apparently do not have is any abiding interest in what happened before they got here. Sure, they've listened to Sgt. Pepper and they've already stolen a few production ideas from that classic. They own a beat up copy of Blond On Blond from their parents' record collection. They listened to that LP long enough to discover that Dylan sometimes makes obscure allusions and that he writes a lot of songs with four or five verses.

But this is merely the "trappings" of influence, no different than donning a Nehru jacket and saying you're influenced by the Beatles. Influence in the reverential sense means being involved with more than the superficial aspects of the past, it means tracing the roots and analyzing the elements.

It's safe to say that never in the history of our culture have so many superficial similarities existed between the musical artists of today and the musical artists of a previous generation. Look at the clothes, hair styles, images and artwork and you'll see 1969. Listen to the CDs and you'll hear production that reminds you of the Byrds, the Beatles, "Positively Fourth Street" and Joni. But check out the songs. The lyrics are unfocused, the choruses unmemorable, the ideas lack the motive to really communicate. It reeks of self-indulgence. Simply put, no one has told these folks that they haven't worked hard enough, that they haven't written their best song, that they need to develop their instincts and hone their craft. No one has said, "No".

Could it be that the break down of the old model music industry is to blame for the deterioration of the American songwriter too? It certainly looks that way. In the past when a songwriter was told, "It ain't a hit, sonny" he went away and wrote a better song. Now that same songwriter just goes home and cuts a record. The resulting morass of mediocrity has lowed the standards of artist and listener alike.

Try as you might, you cannot become truly accomplished at anything without study. You may think songwriting frees you from that awful obligation-- the one you hated every night as you did your high school homework-- but it doesn't. I have studied songwriting as long and as hard as any doctor ever studied his profession. I've also studied poetry just as long and hard, because I believe it has a lot to teach me. My advice to all the young songwriters out there is this : take the time to really study and find some reverence for what got us here. Just because you feel an impulse to write a song doesn't mean you're ready to take on that responsibility (yes, you are responsible and accountable for what you put into this world). You must allow the well to fill before you draw water.

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

Thursday, September 4, 2008


They say there's no road map for success, but I say there's a compass. Your True North might be different from someone else's, but I'll wager plenty that you know where it is if you've really searched for it. Only a fool would look at his compass and then follow someone else's best guess about the route to travel. That's all it is-- advice I mean, a best guess. No matter who it comes from, it's a guess.

Can you look at where you are now and where you want to go, and navigate sensibly? All successful writers do this. If you have a mind, a heart, and some talent,
you can plot the course. The problem is not coordinates, it's courage. We need to have the resolve to go in the direction our compass points. If we seek advice at every step, we're undoubtly going in circles. Maybe an occassional reality check to be sure the needle isn't stuck, but nothing more.

The successful writers that I know all burned bright at the start. Even through their mistakes they remained true to their course. They made some adjustments
according to how others reacted to their work, but not major course corrections. The reason their song catalog is so deep is because they covered that much ground in the time that most of us spend zig-zag tentatively to our vague destinations.

If you don't know what you're trying to communicate, how you're trying to communicate it, and why you'd even bother, then you are going nowhere. If you must ask
someone else the question, "Is this any good?", it probably isn't. If you really feel the song, you don't need to ask.

What's the mystery here? Why is it so hard to connect with what we feel? We say we've lost objectivity, but is this a lie or a delusion?

Every time you eat an apple you can tell if it's sweet or sour. You've eaten the same fruit all your life but you always know if this is a delicious apple or a bad apple.
When you love someone you never tire of seeing their face. You don't lose objectivity about it. It remains beautiful as long as you feel love for that person. Could it be that you've never felt anything for your songs? Do you love what you write, or do you simply write songs the way you'd paint a wall-- cover all the spots, hit the corners, and roll out the rest as fast as possible?

I've mixed metaphors here, so back to the compass.

I took my eye off the horizon and the needle too often when I was younger. Now I never look away. This blindness, this lack of objectivity, the big lie we tell
ourselves-- it's a problem we must address. We must decide for ourselves what level of commitment, what depth of feeling we have about our own work. You might hate the hit that's sitting at #1 this week, but you figure it's a good idea to write one just like it. I guarantee you that if you do this you'll fail every time. The biggest copyrights are the songs some writer passionately loved, passionately wrote, and passionately believed in. That applies even to those tunes you happen to hate. Remember this : for every song on the radio that you dislike, there's a writer behind it who believed whole-heartedly (and even if I'm wrong, you won't fail by heeding what I say because you'll simply write a hit that you love).

If you don't believe in your songs; if you don't cherish them like children; if they don't make you cry or laugh or dance for joy; if they are merely exercises or
"completed songs", probably no one will record them. We must write what we love, write what tears us up inside and get to the bottom of the feeling, write what we're very intent on communicating, write what we can't live without expressing. Anything less will not move an artist to invest his or her career in our work.

Go ahead. Look at that compass now, and be honest about what star you follow. Because if you ask the person next to you what star you should follow, he just
might steer you off the edge of the world.

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt