When October Goes — Song for a Sunday

When October Goes
Nancy LaMott & Christopher Marlowe; her last television appearance, just nine days before she died

Did Johnny Mercer really collaborate with Barry Manilow? Well, yes and no. Manilow did write music to an unfinished poem by Mercer, but after the legendary lyricist’s death. The result, “When October Goes,” is gorgeous in the right hands and can easily turn into power-ballad schmaltz in the wrong ones.

The late great singer Nancy LaMott was definitely “the right hands.” Her arranger Christopher Marlowe used the song “Autumn Leaves” to lead in to the Mercer/Manilow song. LaMott’s simple, direct vocals shine a spotlight on the lyrics. I don’t think you’ll find a better interpretation of “When October Goes” anywhere.

Faith – Song for a Sunday

Today’s song doesn’t have anything to do with God, unless you understand God as the force that moves your body to a driving beat.

I needed to tap my toes yesterday and then I remembered this, the showstopping finale of the animated movie SingStevie Wonder’s song Faith.

I stuck it on replay and, whaddaya know?, some of the annoyance fell away. It’s impossible to tap your toes and not to be in the moment.

Go on, try it.

Murphy’s Law of Relativity

I had a nightmarish day yesterday. I can’t even get a Story Safari out of it—that’s how bad it was. Almost the whole day seemed to be operating by Murphy’s Law.

And then I remembered Houston.

My day from hell would have looked pretty darn good for someone wading through chin-deep water in Houston today. Or someone huddled in a shelter, trying to dry out a clean pair of underwear for tomorrow. Or someone getting by on an hourly wage, trying to figure out how to make ends meet if the electricity really is out for six weeks. Freelancers and entrepreneurs—no internet, no work; no work, no income. I can’t even imagine.

Sending love—and music. This is how we deal with hurricanes in New Jersey. Sing it loud.

“The perfect country song” — Song for a Sunday

Back in 1975, Steve Goodman thought he had written the “perfect country and western song.” His friend, singer-songwriter David Alan Coe disagreed. Oh, Coe liked the song well enough. But he felt it needed a little bit more to make it the perfect country song. So Goodman added a verse.

Here, listen to Coe explain:

I appreciated finding this video embedded in a Rolling Stone article about Coe. It gives proper credit to Goodman—as Coe does in this clip. That doesn’t always happen when people talk about or write about this song.

Of course, I put the “You Never Even Call Me By My Name” in my Steve Goodman tribute show—you can hear a bit of it and its story starting at 1:50 in the clip below. I took the lyrics from Goodman’s recording, so they’re slightly different than Coe’s. No F-bomb, for one.

Well done, Steve.

Steve Goodman wrote the "perfect country song"
Steve Goodman

Elaine St. George: Happy birthday, Arlo

Our first guest blog post comes from…me, the singing side of me. I don’t blog often as Elaine St. George—come to think of it, I don’t sing often as her these days, either. But I’ll take any opportunity to remind the world about the underappreciated singer-songwriter Steve Goodman. So enjoy this post from July 10th, 2015:

Happy birthday, Arlo

by Elaine St. George

Arlo Guthrie
Arlo in 1979, publicity photo from Warner Bros.

It’s Arlo Guthrie’s birthday today. Obviously Arlo holds a special place in the hearts of Steve Goodman fans. His cover of “City of New Orleans” gave Steve his first visibility. Well, as much visibility as a songwriter ever gets when he’s not singing his own song. Even if it’s a hit.

When I bought my first Steve Goodman album in the late ’70s and found “City of New Orleans” on it, I’ll admit I checked the credits twice. Like most of the rest of America, I assumed Steve was covering Arlo’s song. A few years later, of course, that perception changed. When Willie Nelson sang “City of New Orleans” in the mid-’80s, presumed authorship of the song transferred to him. Steve got his first Grammy when Willie’s cover won “Best Country Song.” But by then Steve was no longer around to receive it. He’d died a few months earlier.

And that brings me back to Arlo Guthrie, because in a way it was through him that I rediscovered Steve. Well, not “rediscovered”—I’d never forgotten about him. But that was when I decided to put together a whole show of Steve’s songs. And that show has now turned into an album. But I digress…

(Cue the harp and the wavy focus to signify a flashback…)

Five or six years ago, I did a show in Boston. The venue wanted a longer set than I’d planned so I had to add some material and I thought, “Why not do some songs written by people who live in Massachusetts?” First person who came to mind was James Taylor, but I had trouble finding a second. Then I remembered Arlo Guthrie had written “Alice’s Restaurant” about a place in the Berkshires so I decided he’d be perfect. I couldn’t cover “Alice’s Restaurant”—I didn’t have that much time to fill! But I thought I’d sing “City of New Orleans” and tell a story about how Arlo hadn’t written it, Steve Goodman had.

Being a thorough kind of gal, I researched the backstory and I discovered two things:

  1. Arlo first heard “City of New Orleans” when Steve had the guts to walk up to him out of the blue in a crowded bar, introduce himself, and ask Arlo to listen to the song. The rest, as they say, is history.
  2. Steve had the guts to do that because he knew he didn’t have any time to waste. He was dying of leukemia. In fact, he had died in 1984 at the age of 36. And I’d had no idea.

A little more research confirmed that #1 wasn’t exactly the truth. But #2 absolutely was. This guy whose work I loved—whose songs were so full of life and heart—was gone. And I’d missed it completely.

How had I remained so clueless? I’d moved on, listening more to showtunes, the Great American Songbook, and jazz than to the folk music that had sustained me in my teen years. But now that I knew the real story—or something closer to the real story—of Steve’s big break as a songwriter, I thought more people deserved to hear it. And I decided I needed to tell it.

For the record, the real story—as recounted in Clay Eals’s incredibly thorough book Steve Goodman: Facing the Music—is that the meeting was no accident. It was set up by a Chicago club owner who knew Steve had a great song on his hands and wanted to get him a break. The other part of the real story is that Steve only became a songwriter after doctors told him he had leukemia, and maybe only a year more to live. With typical Steve guts, he managed to stretch that one year out to 16.

That resonated with me. No one would have blamed Steve if he’d spent the rest of his life on a beach somewhere. But he insisted on living. And creating. That’s when he turned himself into a songwriter. And that’s how he had the guts to sing his song for Arlo Guthrie. Yes, the meeting was prearranged. But Steve showed up for it. And he kept showing up, until the leukemia finally claimed him.

I don’t know if you’ve ever done anything creative—art, singing, whatever—but it takes courage to stand up there on stage or hang your picture on a wall and say, “This is who I am. This is what I care about.” Steve did that. He seized every opportunity he could to share his work with people. He inspires me as an artist every day. And I hope that by telling his story and singing his songs, I can inspire other people to do whatever seems hardest for them.

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying: Thank you, Arlo Guthrie. You have no idea who I am, but you’ve had an impact on my life. Happy birthday.


Cinematic politics, 1987 — from David Sedaris’s diary

The political situation is far too fraught these days. I’ll leave analysis to the professionals (if you’re worried about North Korea, check out this special emergency episode of Tommy Vietor’s Pod Save the World). So I thought it might be fun—fun! not a word you hear in connection with politics these days—to check out a little cinematic politics circa 1987.

Our guide is David Sedaris. Please forgive him for using the term “hermaphrodite”—that was what we called Intersex people back in the day. If you’ve had a classical education you’ll appreciate the word’s deft combination of the deities Hermes and Aphrodite—but today the people in the community prefer Intersex. That term was not in wide use when Sedaris wrote this diary entry, 30 years ago.

Ah, the diary. I should probably mention that Sedaris has published excerpts from 25 years of his diaries under the title Theft by Finding. I’ve only made my way through 1991 so far, but it’s full of quirky observations like this one.

Cinematic politics, Sedaris-style

cinematic politicsAnd so to the passage in question:

January 18, 1987

In the mail we received a video guide of new releases. One movie is called Never Too Young to Die. The copy reads, “A vicious hermaphrodite wants to control the country, and only two people stand in his way. [Only two?] The resulting ‘battle of the sexes’ will blow your mind with a heady mixture of powerful heavy-metal music, state-of-the-art weaponry, martial arts, and espionage that makes this exciting action flick a winner.”

Note: that “Only two?” editorial comment is Sedaris’s. Of course. He continues:

“Times have changed when a hermaphrodite wants to control the country and only two people stand in his way. If he were a black or Hispanic hermaphrodite, he’d probably have a harder time of it.”

You’ve probably noticed that both writers—the anonymous copywriter and Sedaris—assign the “hermaphrodite” a male pronoun. That’s probably because the actor playing “Velvet Von Ragner” was himself a man. And not just any man: Gene Simmons of the band Kiss. I’m surprised Sedaris didn’t mention the other star of the movie—John Stamos. Then again, he may have missed the debut that year of Stamos’s sitcom Full House.

But I promised you sexual politics: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as they say in Sedaris’s adopted homeland, France. Sedaris’s observation that “a black or Hispanic [would] probably have a harder time of it” is a classic example of “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”

Anyway, as we contemplate the potential destruction of our country if not our world, I thought it might be refreshing to time-travel back to 1987, when the person wreaking the havoc at least had the decency to do it intentionally, with a heavy-metal soundtrack. Stay safe, everyone.

Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

Imperfection & authenticity — RIP Barbara Cook

Barbara Cook,
Cook in 2011, photo by Joella Marano, CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the great singers of the American musical theatre passed away yesterday. I may be somewhat less than objective about her—I once drove 36 miles in a raging blizzard because I had front-row seats to a one-night-only concert—but I think some of the qualities that made Barbara Cook such a great singer parallel the qualities we need to be great writers.

Take this anecdote, from her obituary in The New York Times:

Teaching master classes at the Juilliard School in recent years, Ms. Cook often waved off her students’ preoccupation with vocal perfection, pushing them instead to get at the pain and joy beneath the notes.

“What is this song about?” she demanded of one bewildered class.

Writers may not always be dealing with the extremes of “pain and joy,” but we must have an emotional connection to what we write. It’s the only way we can hope that our audience will also have an emotional connection to the material. And without an emotional connection, without knowing what your message is about, they’re just listening to a bunch of words. And who cares about that?

Notice also Cook’s insistence that the singers stop obsessing about sounding perfect. Perfection is just a roadblock we create. Because it’s unattainable, we can constantly belittle ourselves when we fall short of it. In her concerts, Cook would sometimes stop in mid-song and start all over again if she sensed something was off—not because she wanted to sing perfectly, but because she wanted the audience know that she was just as human as we are.

Barbara Cook: Words matter, the truth matters

But one thing Barbara Cook pursued rigorously, especially in her career as a cabaret singer: the truth. When she sang a lyric, you knew exactly what it meant. And fortunately for us, later in life she discovered the work of Stephen Sondheim—devilishly hard music with lyrics that demand complete emotional connection. Asked by Broadway.com to name her three favorite songs to sing, she chose two by Sondheim. Sondheim, in turn, told The Washington Post in 2002:

“No one sings theater songs with more feeling for the music or more understanding of the lyrics than Barbara.”

After winning acclaim—and a Tony Award—on Broadway, Cook took a left turn into alcoholism and depression, emerging in the mid-1970s onto the cabaret circuit. This soon led to a recording contract with Columbia Records. And that is how her Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall record entered my collection: I gave blood one day while I was working at CBS and picked the record out of a bin set aside to reward donors. I never suspected it would be the start of a four-decade-long musical crush. But that’s a story for another time.

The New York Times obit again:

Paying less heed to the technical virtuosity that had thrilled audiences in big Broadway theaters, she now emphasized phrasing and styling to project a song’s emotions in smaller, more intimate settings.

The effect was striking. She had made no secret of her personal problems. But character and hard-won experience seemed to suffuse her songs, and it connected with audiences and critics. The reviewers took up a refrain, with phrases like “simple honesty,” “simplicity and directness” and “straightforward and declamatory.”

Obviously I added the emphasis, but this is authenticity. And it works as well when you’re reading a speech as it does when you’re singing a showtune. Connect with honesty—character flaws and all—and your audiences will connect with you.

Her three favorite songs to sing

“He Was Too Good to Me” by Rodgers and Hart (recording released in 1959) — bear with her through the verse; the emotion kicks in with the song proper. And listen to that crystalline soprano. If this song doesn’t have you reaching for the Kleenex, I don’t know what will.

Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”—yes, I’ve overdosed on this song too. But listen to the lyrics—you can hear every one.

The third song Cook mentioned was Sondheim’s “So Many People.” It’s the second half of this arrangement. Although it comes from Cook’s Sondheim album, this is Malcolm Gets singing. I couldn’t find a recording of Cook herself singing it.

Goodnight, dear Barbara Cook

I’ll leave you with Cook in her prime—1957—from her Tony Award-winning role, Marion the Librarian in The Music Man.

How can I miss you when you won’t go away? – Song for a Sunday

I taught a wonderful class on revision yesterday. And today’s song played a supporting role.

One of the concepts my writers always have trouble grasping is Rest. I mean, they know what it is, what it means. They just fail to see how it applies to them.

Surely some hack with no sense of shame could leave a first draft in an imperfect state, I can almost hear them thinking. But not me. Or if they’re fresh out of academia, Not I.

But the truth is, we need distance because we demonstrate time and again that we are highly subjective judges of our own work. We think a first draft sucks when actually it contains some true gems. We think something is brilliant when it’s drek.

That’s why I built two time-outs into my revision process: Rest after the first draft and Revisit after the second.

But that word- revisit – implies that you have left at some point and now return. Or, as Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks croon:

How can I miss you when you won’t go away?

I learned that song from an ex. In retrospect, perhaps I should have worried about our relationship sooner. But in any event, it’s a fun song, and this is a rollicking live rendition of it.

Enjoy your song for this Sunday.

How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away from Mark Messina on Vimeo.

Musical gut-punch — song for a Sunday

I wrote yesterday about a piece one of my writers wrote that hit me like a gut-punch. (Okay, I wrote “punch in the gut” but SEO doesn’t like prepositions in keywords.)

gut-punchI’ve experienced many emotions in the theatre, but only one moment where I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. Seriously. When Patti LuPone sang “Rose’s Turn” in the revival of Gypsy she did—wow, was it 10 years ago?—my first reaction was a sound, maybe oof! The kind of sound I imagine you make when someone delivers a gut-punch. (I hope I never test this theory.)

I was so stunned—I think everyone in the theatre was—that it took a moment for my hands to find each other and begin clapping. This writer calls it “the greatest musical theatre moment I’ve ever experienced.”

When I left the theatre after the show, I called my partner. She asked, “How was it?”—not particularly caring one way or the other. So she was shocked when I burst into tears: “It was the most amazing performance I’ve ever seen. I could see this show every night for a week.” (This was before the production moved to Broadway; it was a very limited run at City Center.)

I came home and logged on my computer to find an email from a friend who had three tickets to Gypsy she couldn’t use and did I perhaps want to see the show?

I don’t know if you’ll experience the same gut-punch I did. But here’s your song for a Sunday.

The Young People’s Concerts — Song for a Sunday

Have you heard about Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts”? They were legendary, and I recently came across a discussion of them in a fairly unlikely place: Nancy Duarte’s book Resonate.

Okay, maybe it’s not such an unlikely place. Duarte’s subject in Resonate is creating memorable presentations. And Bernstein was nothing if not memorable. And he did it all before PowerPoint. Can you imagine?

Bernstein taught his tiny audience—well, a large audience, but of mostly tiny humans—about relatively simple matters like the different sounds of the instruments in the orchestra. And about more complex things like just what the heck the New York Philharmonic Orchestra was doing up there on that stage.

My piano teacher led an expedition to the Young People’s Concerts three times a year. My father helped her out by chaperoning the trip. I can’t help thinking I would have taken in more information if I’d been wearing less formal dress, more comfortable shoes, but that was how one went to the Philharmonic back in the day. And my father brought along special butterscotch candies for me, which went a long way toward canceling out discomfort.

I may remember more about the Callard & Bowser’s butterscotch than I do about the concerts, but Maestro Bernstein was a compelling presence, a Star. Duarte quotes Variety’s description of him as having

“…the knack of a teacher and the feel of a poet. The marvel of Bernstein is that he knows how to grab attention and carry it along, measuring just the right amount of new information to precede every climax.”

Duarte points out how Bernstein explained the complex concepts of symphonic music by comparing them to everyday concepts we children would be familiar with. 

“How does development actually work? It happens in three main stages, like a three-stage rocket going into space. The first stage is the simple birth of an idea. Like a flower growing out of a seed. You all know the seed, for example, that Beethoven planted at the beginning of his [fifth] symphony, “dunt dunt dunt duuuunt.” Out of it rises a flower that grows like this [plays piano].”

I cannot embed a video for you, but find some butterscotch candies, click on this link, and revel in the power of metaphor—and the power of music.