Songwriters On Songwriting
Paul Zollo

Published by Writer's Digest Books, 1991 194 pages, $17.95.

By Ronnie Dee

I always find interviews with other songwriters interesting, even if they're not overly informative. Paul Zollo, Editor of Songtalk magazine, interviews thirty-one songwriters from various fields and lets them do most of the talking (and he did not ask a single one, "How does it feel?"). This volume is packed with tidbits from the minds and mouths of people who write the songs that make the whole world sing.

Interviewees include: Pete Seeger, Mose Allison, Brian Wilson, Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Paul Simon, Jimmy Webb, Donovan, Roger McGuinn, Joan Baez, Harry Nillson, Randy Newman, Frank Zappa, Louden Wainwright III, Rickie Lee Jones, Rodney Crowell, Madonna (ls there no escape from her?), Todd Rundgren, Mark Knopfler, et al. At least we were spared Michael Jackson and Sinead O'Connor.

There are some things in here that can blow your mind. In the interview with Ray Evans and Jay Livingston, who wrote "Silver Bells," "Mona Lisa" and "Que Sera Sera," they mentioned the astounding fact that they had one song in five positions in the Top 10 "at the same time. The classic "To Each His Own," performed by five different acts, occupied Numbers 1, 3, 5, 7 and 8 in the Billboard Top 10 during the same week.

(Pause here and think about that one for a while.) Pete Seeger puts a little damper on our creative pomposity by reminding us that even the most original songs have more than a little tradition in them. "After all," he states, "the major and minor scales were invented thousands of years ago." Likewise, 2/4 and 3/4 time, the English language itself and the phrases we use were all invented a long time ago and we merely keep rearranging them.

Did you know that Paul Simon came up with the title "Mother and Child Reunion" from a dish at a Chinese restaurant: chicken and eggs. Hmm, boy. Would it be the same thing with fish and eggs, a la smoked salmon and caviar? Let's face it, you just can't teach things like that.

The consensus shows that Bob Dylan has had a more profound influence on today's songwriters than anyone else. And who was Dylan's guru? None other than Arlo's daddy, Woody Guthrie. (Of course, this is the fact only because Buddy Holly died at such an early stage in his career. It hurts to think of how many songs we would have gotten from him as he matured.) Just to show you that you don't have to be involved with what you write about, we have the tragic case of Brian Wilson, the guy who wrote those happy-go-lucky songs about summer, surf, girls and cars — sensational songs. His melodies and harmonic arrangements are pure genius and he was just a teenager when he started. In real life he was a drug-addicted recluse with family problems and other mental difficulties. "In My Room" is a much more poignant song now than it was years ago when I thought Wilson really was a carefree Beach Boy.

From all accounts, he still seems to be a little wigged out. I have seen him interviewed on TV a few times and he reminds me of someone who is hypnotized, or sedated. He spent most of the time during this interview lying on a couch staring at the ceiling.

His advice to aspiring songwriters: Don't drink coffee! "Caffeine screws with your creativity." Hmmm, maybe Sinead O'Connor wouldn't have been such a wacky interview after all.

Paul Simon, who articulates his thoughts on songwriting better than most, emphasizes the importance of "Dreamtime." That is a time when you relax your mind and. not purposely think of anything. You just let the random thoughts wander and ramble through your head. Simon likes to toss a ball against a wall, which he describes as very calming.

He theorizes that if you try to force your mind to write, the results will be too mundane and predictable. Are you listening to this? Contrary to what we have so often been led to believe about the opening line of a song, Simon feels that it is more important to the writer than to the listener. To the writer it is the lead-off line that takes you in whatever direction you intend to go. On the other hand, the listeners' concentration does not always catch everything in the first line. The melody, rhythm, lyrics and ideas are all coming at them at once and something too profound can overshadow the rest of the song. Start off easy, Paul says and let the audience settle into the song, "Get into the groove," as it were. "Be a good host to people's attention span," he says. Are you going to argue with Paul Simon?

As I am perusing the interview with Joan Baez, I am also listening to a tape of last week's Sunday Bluegrass radio show. Upon reaching the part where she is discussing the writing of her plaintive song "Diamonds and Rust," I am thinking, "I have a copy of that somewhere; I'll have to listen to it again soon." The bittersweet tones of Joan's voice are swimming in my head when suddenly, from the tape player, the Bluegrass Alliance romps into a rollicking version of the same song. In the inimitable bluegrass style, it sounds like a "Mavis and Marvin Smiley" parody. I am at first stunned, then I smile and glance furtively around. Coincidence? I wonder, because just last week I was riding in a friend's car when the radio announcer blurted, "Fed up with an air conditioner that doesn't work right? Blah blah. ..." And at that instant, smoke began pouring from his dashboard air conditioner vents. As he gaped in horror, I couldn't help but laugh; it seemed part of the commercial. Coincidence?

Anyway, one of several rampant themes in the book is the mention of rhythm as a harbinger to a melody. A steady drumbeat, a metronome, a ticking clock, even tires clicking on the highway are great ways to come up with new melodies. With a guitar or piano, one is inclined to automatically play familiar chord patterns and notes, thereby restricting their creativity.

A drone is also a good way to inspire new melodies. You just relax (remember what Simon said?), listen to the beat (or drone) and let the melody come to you. After it is in your head, you can work it out on an instrument. Si Kahn told me about a refrigerator he once had that hummed a nice steady "Bb"' that assisted him many times.

Okay, what we really want to know from these successful people is: "Exactly how do you write songs?" Well, they don't know. When asked, "Do you have any idea where your ideas originate?," Louden Wainwright III gave the typical reply, "None whatsoever." They refer to "someone moving the pen for me," or "It just came pouring out"; or "The idea just came from somewhere above." There are many references to something spiritual guiding them, but not one can tell you how to write a song.

What it always boils down to is this: If you want to learn how to write songs, start writing them. They may be good or they may be bad, but only you can write your songs.

You can learn how to do it better by listening and reading, but ultimately it will still be up to you.

It may not be definitive, but this is an interesting book. It is always fun to read about so many diverse people involved in a common theme. Some are straightforward and intelligent; some are goofy; some are too technical for me and although you may not learn how to actually write songs from these folks, they make entertaining reading.

An older book, "In Their Own Words," by Bruce Pollock, is similar in nature.

Published in 1975, it featured a twenty-year history of rock music along with the interviews and analyzed many standard rock and roll songs. Only four people, Louden Wainwright, Frank Zappa, Gerry Goffin and Randy Newman, were interviewed in both volumes.

This is likewise an enjoyable read if you can find a copy. And it really hurts to see that this 231-page book cost all of $4.95.