This is one of those rare moments when one central piece of my cultural world is commenting on other central pieces. The writer, of course is Byrne, whose pop lyrics and music and even his rummaging around in the musical traditions of other places came to me at a crucial time in my discovery of the world. I know, that sounds melodramatic. But when I tried to write "in my discovery of music," that just did not encompass what I meant. I guess this is because "at that age," such simple things as music--as song lyrics or hooks or tunes--can bring a world with them. And did.
And one thing he is writing about is the concept of the standard, which he is exploring through songs from classic Disney movies and showtunes written by Cole Porter and George Gershwin. He explicitly talks about the Stay Awake compilation from 1988, the title of which I have been trying to think of since I re-encountered Tom Waits' version of "Heigh Ho" on Orphans. And although he does not specifically mention it, I cannot read his discussion without thinking of Red Hot + Blue, where, of course, Byrne contributed his own brilliant version of "Don't Fence Me In."
So, OK, strange enough.
But now he is planning to perform with Paul Simon at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Which led him to contemplate what it is about Paul Simon's music that makes it so compelling. And Paul Simon was another one of maybe four or five performers whose music dominated my teenage psyche. In the course of that discussion he talks about You're the One, a more recent album, of course, but one that immediate struck me because its lyrics seem to get what it means to grow up, to grow older. But here is what David Byrne said:
Like many others, I grew up listening to and learning the Simon & Garfunkel repertoire. However, it was one of his more recent records — You’re the One — that really knocked me out, even more than Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints, which one might expect me to identify with, since I was also collaborating with musicians from Africa and Brazil around the same time. The record didn’t sell that well, but to my ears, he had finally internalized all he’d learned from his earlier collaborations. He had made something that didn’t sound like any of his sources or inspirations, yet couldn’t have been made without them. We crossed paths somewhere and I told him how much I liked that record and maybe that helped break the ice.
Some months ago, we started meeting occasionally and we’d fall into talking about how we write and what the process is and where we get stuck and when it’s easy. I would sit, rapt, as I felt like I was hearing the words of a master songwriter, a kind of magician who was going to reveal to me, over lunch, some of his best tricks. Here was a more contemporary Gershwin or Cole Porter who was going to tell me a little of how it was done. Listen up.
Well, it didn’t happen exactly like that. Specific harmonic devices don’t always work for everyone in the same way, for example. At times, Paul and I might actually use very similar ways of writing words, but in the end, what we gravitate to — the lyrics we choose to be best and most suitable — is unique to each of us. So his tricks are essentially useless to me. I could, however, extrapolate, and find common ground in the decision-making process along the way. Our discussions yielded more about what might drive an artist to continue creating than they did songwriting advice. What does one do when confronted with a problem? And how can an artist remain passionate and interested in writing little songs?