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Remembering three world-class songwriters, cut down in a row
Hello, friends. Something a little different today. Thanks for your patience.
I hope you’ll join me in remembering, and appreciating, three of the greatest American songwriters of the past 50 years. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration brought on by the moment. I’m also barely scratching the surface on any of these writers’ works; please feel free to add your own favorites and memories below.
JOHN PRINE, 1946-2020
The music world darkened Wednesday night when the Prine family announced that John Prine, one of the most remarkable American songwriters, had passed away from COVID-19 complications. Prine was 73 years old and a two-time cancer survivor, so last week’s announcement that he was in the ICU seemed only a precursor to today. And here we are.
Prine was a brilliant, heartbreaking writer, who needed just an acoustic guitar and a sheet of lyrics to create something haunting and masterful. “Angel From Montgomery” will be what gets passed around the most over the coming week, particularly versions with Bonnie Raitt, and for good reason—it’s an extraordinary accomplishment.
“Paradise,” too, accomplishes the elegant feat of ruing the effects of coal mining on a town without conveying a message that any of it or its people are worthless or even lesser for it.
“All The Best,” too, is Prine in his bag—a wry, rueful message hiding in the weeds of a major key. It’s a divorce anthem, as his intro at this live performance makes explicit, but it’s a song about acceptance, bitter and barbed as it may be inside one’s heart.
There’s something inscrutable and challenging about the way Prine wrote, but instead of coming off as obscure, it was almost more “if you know, you know.” You listen long enough and you’ll hear something that you know. And then you know. Then, as Roger Ebert famously said in Prine’s first review 50 years ago, “and then he has you.”
Early Bob Dylan is an obvious immediate comparison, but not quite. Steely Dan writing Bob Dylan music, we’re getting closer. But the reality is that Prine was his own force, telling stories that only look small from far away. And once you know what to look for (again—if you know, you know), you see the influence everywhere in modern Americana: the Drive-By Truckers, their protégé Jason Isbell, Josh Ritter, Miranda Lambert, all for starters. Perhaps you can’t ascribe the entire genre to him, and he’d never have taken the credit anyway, but his influence is inestimable and eternal.
ADAM SCHLESINGER, 1967-2020
Last week, COVID-19 claimed the life of Adam Schlesinger, a 52-year-old songwriter whose name you may not know but whose work you almost certainly do. Schlesinger’s most famous work—one of two, anyway—is the lively single at the center of 1996 movie That Thing You Do!
Writing an entire movie around one original song is no small feat—movies about show business are routinely tripped up and undercut by the fact that you can’t just… write a legitimate hit song/comedy bit/TV show/book/whatever into the plot of a movie and have it work.
There are ways around that problem—Wayne’s World, a nearly perfect movie, had to ask us to believe that a cover of “Ballroom Blitz” was an unknown band’s ticket to stardom, which, yeah—but the simplest (if not the easiest) path is straight on through, and Schlesinger wrote a legitimate banger. The song peaked at #41 on the Billboard 100 in real life, in the year of our lord 1996, which is a bit like Kevin Costner walking off the set of “Tin Cup” and promptly making the final cut at the Masters.
You might be one of the folks that saw the Hugh Grant movie Music & Lyrics—those songs, that was Schlesinger too. Neil Patrick Harris’ “It’s Not Just For Gays Anymore” number at the Tonys a few years back, if that’s your thing? Yep. Maybe you’re in the still-smaller population who watched CW sitcom Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (if so, you probably didn’t need any of this introduction); he co-wrote plenty of those songs too. Here’s how good he was: I cannot stand musical theater, and I relished that show’s musical numbers for their sheer wit and fearlessness.
Most of Schlesinger’s efforts came with the band Fountains of Wayne. Again, you almost certainly know the work; in 2003, the song “Stacy’s Mom” was ubiquitous on the radio and TV. Who could argue? A classic, bouncing, retro-’80s synth and guitar bop with a classic, bouncing, retro-’80s Rachel Hunter playing the title role. But you must know that one already. As Esquire’s Dave Holmes wrote, the album it came from, Welcome Interstate Managers, is so much more than that:
The whole album should have been huge. Instead it gave the band the one hit that got them called one-hit wonders, and earned them a nomination for Best New Artist after they’d been on commercial radio for seven years.
Pick a track—any of them—and you’ll find a gem: power pop chord progressions that always move the way they’re supposed to, a turn of phrase you’ve never heard before, a story that communicates what the subject is feeling, why they’re feeling it, and what they want. Not what they’re going to get, not what they’re going to do, not what anyone else is going to do… just what they want. On paper it’s almost too simple. In practice it’s as wide open as the human experience itself, and in the right writer’s hands it’s a three-minute invitation into a fascinating little alternate universe.
None of Schlesinger’s career is possible without his encyclopedic ear, which was a combination of both innate musical fluency and a slavishly developed appreciation for so many genres of music. It’s one thing to like a song, a style, a genre—it’s another to know why, to pick out what makes this pop song or this show tune work better than its peers, without going into outright plagiarism. OK—“Stacy’s Mom” flew a little close to The Cars. But Fountains of Wayne leaned into it—the “I <3 RIC” license plate was just one of several nods in the iconic video.
It’s equal parts tragic and ridiculous that Schlesinger never really got his flowers for his prolific work. Perhaps there’s less of a market for songwriting than even the most pessimistic penfolk fear. Whatever. Schlesinger was great and he’s gone far, far too soon.
BILL WITHERS, 1938-2020
Meanwhile, last Friday, we lost a titan of American music—a singular, unforgettable voice. Bill Withers died at 81 due to heart complications.
That’s a 30-minute live set for you, when you have the time.
Big Bill was a giant in his time, with a voice that could convey a range of emotions that rivaled any peer. He could convey joy, pain, relief and regret, all at whatever intensity level he wanted.
Bill Withers the voice was larger than life, but Bill Withers the man never seemed to be—there was nothing supernatural or inaccessible about his songs. He inhabited the same world as everyone else, felt the same pains, wanted the same things. I suspect—and I mourn that we’ll never be able to find out for sure—that Schlesinger found quite a bit of inspiration from the stories Withers told.
Withers wasn’t a showman—he could put on a show, obviously, and his Carnegie Hall live album is a certified classic—but he wasn’t raised in show business. He was a Navy man, then a factory worker; the cover of his debut album Just As I Am is literally Withers standing outside the factory where he was still employed, toolbox in hand, smiling as much at the outside world as he is at the camera. It’s an authenticity that record labels spend millions on trying to replicate to this day.
Withers wasn’t much for labels, though; he later told NPR that he thought A&R Records stood for “antagonistic & redundant” after they made his breakout single “Ain’t No Sunshine” a B-side. I’m sure they’d have told similar tales. Withers walked away from the music industry in the mid-‘80s, content with the catalog and money he had made. Again—music wasn’t the only thing he knew how to do, so he didn’t need it to survive.
Maybe we need more songwriters who understand the elemental power of emotion, something that tells its own story if you let it. Songwriters who understand that stories don’t have to be more complex than the feelings behind them. Songwriters with a wink and a wry smile, yes, but who tell their audience what they know deep down, even if they’ve never heard it like that before.
And, of course, we could always use more songwriters who can hold a note like Bill did on “Lovely Day.” My god.
Rest easy, Bill.
STICK TO AFFIRMATIONS
Thanks for joining me today, friends. We’ll always end on a kind word.
If you’ve ever lived in a river town or city, you know a thing or two about floods. Some of them come in a flash and leave just the same, and some of them come down the river and wash over everything they can, right on down the line. It’s a disaster, but one you can gird for, if you’ve got the sand and the heart. And, as it is, the patience.
The flood comes and poisons everything it touches, seeps into every crevice, barrels over every half-measure and impermanence in its path. In its wake: chaos, mud and rot. Those who seek shelter are the wise ones; those who fancy themselves stronger than the water are laid low.
At some point, the crest comes. With luck it’s lower than the sandbags where you live. Sometimes there isn’t enough sand on earth. But the crest always comes. Eventually.
What comes next is not that the water disappears, of course, not immediately. The river lowers, slowly, and the levees must still hold. Whatever we’ve done, we keep doing, until nature has decided that this lesson of its unfathomable strength may end.
A crest may, may be coming soon. It means that our prevention measures are working, and when something’s working, you keep doing it, even if it’s doing nothing. This is the part where you need patience, and if you’ve made it this far, you know you can do it. You can keep going.
There’s still hell beyond our levees if we’re not careful. There’s still more bad news to come, bad news we can’t do anything to stop by now. “Back to normal” is relative; it has to be when you lose what’s irreplaceable. But you’re a survivor. Soon, when the time is right, you’ll be a rebuilder. What you build won’t be the same; it’ll be stronger, tempered, just like the steel inside of you.
Stay safe. Stay well. Stay up. We’re in this together, for the long haul.