“Somebody said to me, But the Beatles were anti-materialistic. That’s a huge myth. John and I literally used to sit down and say, Now, let’s write a swimming pool.” - Paul McCartney
Songwriting is the biggest mystery to me. It is something so many people seem to be able to do, and yet I have tried for probably the better part of forty years now to write songs with virtually zero success. I have one song about how hard it is to score drugs when you get older. I have one other I've never sung for anyone ever. I have a wedding song I wrote in 1980 that I've always wanted Willie Nelson to record. I have a half-finished one about being in a plane looking down on the lights of Memphis that I kind of hear as a Vulgar Boatmen song. Years ago I wrote one called something like "The Patron Saint of Circumstance" that I recorded on a cassette that I lost. I can't remember much about the song other than that I liked it at the time. I have a 22 second instrumental that I am very fond of.
And I have snippets, fragments, that I occasionally offer to people who never take me up on it. One, in particular, is the... I'm not sure what the word is. It's not the "chorus," I don't think it's a "bridge"... it's the line at the end of a verse that contains the key idea and probably the title. It's about how passions burn most fiercely when we are you and ebb as we age.
It is sung by an older man remembering his younger self. When I think about it I can hear George Jones singing it. The line is: "But I was younger then, and my heart was full of roses." When I sing it, the word "roses" is stretched out at the end. If you can do anything with it, it's yours.
I want to look at songwriting by looking at some of what I consider to be some of the greatest songs we have. First up....
Written by Cole Porter in 1936. Sinatra first sang the song in 1946 and then, in 1956, he recorded this version, arranged by Nelson Riddle and known for Milt Bernhart's terrific trombone solo that shows up around 2:20 in. The collaboration of Porter, Sinatra and Riddle produces this moment of near-perfection. The pleasure here is right on the surface, in the grain of Sinatra's voice, the gorgeous lyric perfectly phrased and played with, and in Riddle's sense of swing.
“I usually know what kind of song I’m after. I know what I’m trying to do when I start. I don’t always get there. But I try to visualize what it’s actually going to be." - Jimmy Webb
Jimmy Webb is one of the 5 or 10 best songwriters of all time. He's at his most interesting when he picks an artists to work with and writes an entire album for them. He did it with the Fifth Dimension, Richard Harris, and with Johnny Rivers, and he did it for Art Garfunkel on his best album, "Watermarks." If I had to pick my favorite Webb collaboration of all time it would be Garfunkel's reading of Webb's "Crying in my Sleep." If you listen, you learn a volume of information about the people in the song, their history, their relationship, their friends, their jobs, etc. But if you just look at the lyrics you will not find ANY of that in there. This song is one of the greatest examples of the use of subtext I've ever found. With Webb, the pleasures are many, but a major one is in the way he suddenly moves n an odd angle away from the direction you were certain he was going. This has that characteristic that is common to all great songs - I never tire of it.
“My best songs were written very quickly. Just about as much time as it takes to write it down is about as long as it takes to write it…In writing songs I've learned as much from Cezanne as I have from Woody Guthrie…It’s not me, it’s the songs. I’m just the postman, I deliver the songs…I consider myself a poet first and a musician second. I live like a poet and I’ll die like a poet.” - Bob Dylan
It is probably silly to claim any one song as Dylan's best, but this is the least silly claim of all. What I find so telling is that this is the one song he never seems to stop writing. There are many on line sites that list the various lyric variations Dylan has played with over the years, this is just one example. The song comes from the period in which Dylan was trying to apply the principles of his painting teacher, Norman Raeben, to his movie project (Renaldo & Clara) and his songwriting around the time of his "Blood on the Tracks" album. The songs is an ocean of sub text and time travel. It is,for me, Dylan at his most singular, powerful and sublime.