Sunday, September 2, 2012

Anyone Who Had a Heart - RIP Hal David

Knowing I love you so 
Anyone who had a heart 
Would take me in his arms 
And love me too

Every generation should have its celebrated songwriting teams - artists who churn out hit after hit that become part of the soundtrack of our lives. There's something comforting about knowing they're out there, working to reflect back to us our daily joys and sorrows, keeping us wondering what they're going to do next.

The Baby Boomer generation was lucky to have two prolific teams who put their distinctive stamp on our times - John Lennon and Paul McCartney, of course, and Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Bacharach and David were the classic style of team - one wrote the lyrics, the other composed the song. As lyricist, Hal David, who died yesterday at 91, had a knack for putting words together that captured the feelings we all had.

They wrote so many songs it would be impossible to pick my favorite. Their songs were everywhere when I was growing up, and I associate different ones with different things. But where lyrics alone are concerned, I did zero in on one when I heard the news of David's death, and that is Anyone Who Had a Heart from 1963. It makes me cry every time I hear it, like right now, and why? Because it just nails heartbreak. It's the simplest composition, but the words he selected were the perfect ones. There were no better ones.

Bacharach-David songs never seemed formulaic, and looking on Hal David's website, I believe I've found at least half of the reason for that. Here are his own words about how he wrote lyrics:

In writing I search for believability, simplicity and emotional impact. Believability is the easiest of the three to accomplish. One thing a lyricist must learn is not to fall in love with his own lines. Once you learn that, you can walk away from the lyric and look at it with a reasonable degree of objectivity. I often discard a good line because it is inconsistent with the basic idea. If the line happens to be witty or sad in a particularly fresh way it hurts me to take it out. But that's part of the pain of writing. 

Simplicity is much harder to achieve. It is easy to be simple and bad. Being simple and good is very difficult. The sophisticated Cole Porter, the earthy Irving Berlin, the poetic Oscar Hammerstein, and the witty Lorenz Hart all have one thing in common - simplicity, the kind that is good. I must also mention a special favorite of mine, Johnny Mercer. Whether he is being poetic or humorous, he is never complicated. I seek this elusive thing called simplicity always. I hope I sometimes achieve it. 

Above all, I try to create an emotion to which others can respond. Unless I can create an emotion to which I can respond, I throw the lyric away. Although I cannot know how others will react, I assume that if it moves me it may do the same for them. Sometimes I am right, sometimes I am wrong. 

Anyone Who Had A Heart had many things going for it - a brilliant composer in Bacharach and the sublime voice of Dionne Warwick, for starters. But David hit the trifecta here with his lyrics - they had believability, simplicity and emotional impact in spades. 

I won't recount his life here - there's a good obituary on him in today's New York Times, with many facts about him that I did not know. RIP Hal David.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Some Misunderstanding, Gene Clark (1974)

But I know if you sell your soul to brighten your role
You might be disappointed in the lights

This morning on NPR there was an interview with Adam Brent Houghtaling, the author of "This Will End in Tears: The Miserablist Guide to Music." Believing that it's completely acceptable to feel sadness and to inhabit it, accompanied by the healing assistance of music, Houghtaling has assembled an intriguing compendium of melancholy songs and the artists who brought them to us.

I looked at the book's table of contents on Amazon, and found it odd that twice in one week I was staring at the name Gene Clark, with a list of miserable songs that includes the startling Some Misunderstanding. The first time happened when a fellow music aficionado, Henry Scott-Irvine, posted a video on Facebook featuring Clark and the Textones' Carla Olson singing 1987's Gypsy Rider.

One of 13 children raised in Missouri and a former New Christy Minstrel - it's hard to imagine the time in our history when this sort of music resonated (Clark is at the far left in this) - Gene Clark left that "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore" prepster scene when his world, like everyone else's, was upended by the arrival of the Beatles. The commercial folk scene's days were seriously numbered when the mop-topped Lads from Liverpool emerged on this side of the pond. 

Upon arrival in L.A., the harmonic convergence of Clark's talents with that of two other folk refugees, Jim (later Roger) McGuinn and David Crosby, led to the formation of the Byrds, with Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke soon following. Their first producer/manager Jim Dickson insisted that, rather than being mere Beatles mimics, they needed to set themselves slightly apart by injecting a more singer-songwriter ethos into the mix. This is what led to the plan in 1965 to electrify Bob Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man, using session musicians from The Wrecking Crew, an idea none of them took much pleasure in at first. Only McGuinn played his 12-string Rickenbacker.

I pretty much lost track of Clark when he departed the Byrds after an eventful but stormy two years - the lush harmonies they served up vocally and instrumentally bore no resemblance to how they got along under the pressures of the music business. At heart a singer-songwriter, he had absolutely no appetite for the band's infighting or for being an American rock and roll star on a par with the Beatles, which led to other problems, and he never found the niche that he could comfortably occupy while making the music that he loved.

Over the following 20 or so years Gene Clark turned out music as a solo artist and in collaboration with others that I am only just now discovering, some of it quite miserable but also beautiful. I found an ebook about him, Remembering Gene Clark, that is jam-packed with details of his story and the reminiscences of others, that is very interesting reading.

Unfortunately, his health and mental health became a shambles from multiple issues and worsened by drug and alcohol abuse that he could never overcome. He died in 1991 at the age of 46. As Chris Hillman said in John Einarson's "Mr. Tambourine Man: the Life and Legacy of the Byrds' Gene Clark," the business "... was not supposed to be for him. It killed him, it really killed him ... a sweet soul was just stomped on. It's a brutal place for many people, Hollywood. It really sees them coming."