Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Filtering by Tag: James Taylor

Adding to One's Life Story (part 2)

Last week, with the help of several literary references, I wrote about the ideas of life achievements, mediocrity, and living out one’s life as epilogue rather than story (kudos to Vonnegut, Jr. for coming up with this one). The concluding question was this: if you haven’t achieved the goals you set out for yourself early in life, does that mean you’re living a life of mediocrity? I answered by saying that while you’re life might in fact be mediocre, it needn’t be.

In the film Manchester by the Sea, the lead character played by Casey Affleck is living an epilogue. His life story is over, and now it’s merely a waiting game until the finish line. Though his case might be an overly drastic one, I do occasionally observe people living out their epilogues and doing little to further their life story.

But more often I see the opposite: people doing extraordinary things that might not exactly constitute the lives of grandeur they’d envisioned for themselves decades ago, but are still impressive achievements, significant contributions, or interesting pursuits that give their lives meaning. Hell, on my block alone, we’ve got a man who opened up a toy museum, plays in excess of 100 gigs a year, wrote a book about the Chicago music scene in the 60s and 70s, and collects and sells antique toys worldwide. His life story is far from epilogue even if he isn’t gracing the cover of Rolling Stone.

Four years ago I met a man who learned a trade as a teenager, started his own business in his 20s, raced cars in his 30s, competed in Ironman Triathlons in his 40s, and THEN, at the age of 50, decided that he’d like to learn an instrument. He learned two. I now play keyboards for his classic rock band of 15 years. Oh, and last year he opened up a restaurant in suburban Chicago. Tell me his life is epilogue. Or mediocre. Or anything other than amazing.

Another friend of mine has been called a Renaissance Man. He built his own brick oven in the backyard, brews his own beer, quilts, cooks, plays the flute, builds his own drones, and runs triathlons.

Another buddy memorizes Shakespearean sonnets, studies philosophy in his spare time, plays a wicked violin, taught his daughters their respective instruments (one of whom is going pro), teaches Sunday school, serves on the synagogue Board and runs marathons.

(question: what is it with high achievers running marathons and competing in triathlons. I don’t get it)

The list of people whose lives I admire goes on and on. Average people publishing books, raising money for charity, driving political change, helping those in need, writing songs, building furniture, embarking on amazing home improvement project, traveling to interesting places. There is no shortage of impressive people in our midst. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

As someone who dreamed big as a child, I’ve done a fair bit of analyzing and rationalizing my current state of affairs. Like George Bailey, I haven’t quite achieved what I set out to back in my early 20s. About a decade ago I wrote the following lyric, supposedly for a friend of mine, but in retrospect aimed squarely at me:

(from “Grounded” off of Pause)

The truth be known, my friend
There lies a noble end
But it’s a million miles away from where you’ve been
You’ve been on cruise control
Without a lofty goal
And every day begins and ends and ends where it begins
I believe there is something grand you’re ready to achieve
It’s not so out of reach
After all
There are lesser souls than you to heed the call

My youngest child was about to start Kindergarten, and it was time for me to explore other aspects of my life more fully. I wouldn’t classify my life as anything exceptional, but when I’m feeling a little down about things I recognize that while my life story may not be a bestselling page-turner, it isn’t a dull textbook either. It certainly isn’t epilogue. I’ve accomplished much since writing that self-inspiring lyric.

The reality is epilogue never has to happen, even if you live to be a hundred. And the converse is true as well. The characters of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road were already living epilogue in their 20s.

Learn. Explore. Volunteer. Start a hobby. Help others. Learn an instrument. Love, and experience joy with the ones you love. Learn a craft. Grow something. Learn a language. Have fun with friends. And perhaps most importantly, enjoy the little miracles around you every day.  As James Taylor wrote, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.”

Which leads me to the ending of the Monty Python film, The Meaning of Life. Michael Palin says, “Now here’s the meaning of life,” is handed an envelope as if announcing the winner of an award, and says: “Well, it’s nothing very special. Uh, try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

It degrades quickly from there in inimitable Monty Python fashion, but it starts out nice enough!

BEWARE! Don't play that song!

A musician I know recently received a list of approximately seventy artists he's no longer allowed to play at a particular restaurant. They include: Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, The Eagles, Smokey Robinson, Fleetwood Mac and Bruce Springsteen. Luckily, the inclusion of Megadeth on the list didn’t affect my friend’s playlist, but the others did.

So, what do all of these artists have in common?

They’re all part of the company Global Music Rights, a music publishing entity led by Irving Azoff whose mission is to collect higher performance royalties for artists, some of whom haven’t played music for decades by virtue of the fact that they’re dead. John Lennon, for instance, and Ira Gershwin!   

On the surface, demanding more money from radio conglomerates and on-line streaming services like Pandora might seem like not only a reasonable business pursuit, but even a moral one, the equivalent to Major League ballplayers demanding more of the pie from greedy owners back in the 70s and 80s. According to a New York Times article on the topic, a song that’s streamed around 40 million times on Pandora only collects approximately $2200 under the traditional publishing compaies of ASCAP and BMI, and since the music industry has taken such a tremendous hit on physical sales, it's reasonable that some artists would try to make up for the loss elsewhere. 

Of course, nothing is forcing a radio station to play Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” for the billionth time. Hell, maybe Global Music Right will be doing everyone a favor by eliminating overplayed songs from our radio dial. But either way, I concede this end of the business strategy. I don’t care if 97.1 FM "The Drive" in Chicago (which is of course owned by a large broadcasting company) has to pay a little more to play “Hotel California.” (Though can we all agree that the estate of Ira Gershwin should give it a rest, already?)

But what about musicians? Not DJs, mind you, who play the original recording, but musicians who play an interpretation of the song? Should the arms of performance rights enforcement extend this far? 

I will play around forty gigs in 2016 plus another forty-five church services and will be lucky to gross – get this – $10,000 for doing so. I’m not joking. I earn less per hour than my teenage daughters. And yes, just like no one is forcing a radio station to play Journey, no one is forcing me to play music for money. I could call it a day and start working in human resources again and within a matter of months slit my wrists.  

But the questions is: should musicians really be restricted by what songs they can play? And should restaurant owners really be paying licensing fees for hiring a cheap-ass band on a Saturday night doing serviceable covers of well-known songs? I see small restaurant owners, program managers of struggling park districts and night-shift supervisors of dive bars on a weekly basis, and they’re not exactly driving Teslas to work. Still, my musician friends often have to protect themselves and include a clause in their contracts stating that the restaurant owner is liable for any licensing fees associated with hosting live entertainment.

What about large national restaurant chains that own hundreds of locations nationally? Surely they can pony up the cash to the publishing companies, right? Perhaps. But I know of at least one national chain that has opted not to pay the likes of Irving Azoff, and who wins in this scenario? Not the musician. Not the music publisher. Not the composer. Not the patrons (unless avoiding certain artists is a plus). And not the restaurant owner. It’s a lose-lose-lose-lose arrangement.

Should live performances be exempt for paying licensing fees? If yes, what if James Taylor plays a Carol King song at Wrigley Field next week (as he most surely will)? Should Carol King get a cut? What if I play a Carol King song this weekend at a dive bar? The two scenarios are not equivalent, and I could imagine the law drawing a distinction between the two. But where should the line be drawn? Should licensing fees only be paid when an artist plays in front of an audience of 500 or more people? 1000? 10,000?  

I can't say for certain, but I can say that it would be ridiculous to ask a rock band making a cool $400 on a Saturday night to pay performance fees, just as it's equally ridiculous to ask the small bar that's hosting the music to do so. Something's gotta give here.

Maybe restaurant owners nationwide will wise up and refuse to pay licensing fees altogether, and bands can go back to doing what they used to do: play original music. Who knows? A musical renaissance may be just around the corner!

James Taylor in Milwaukee

At sixty-six, James Taylor has no doubt uttered the same song introductions and comebacks to yelling fans hundreds of times, but on Tuesday night at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Taylor made it sound  as if he was bantering with the audience for the first time, using the same easygoing delivery that he employs with his music: endearing, charming, playful and never over the top.  When one fan yelled out, “I love you!” Taylor paused, looked out and said dryly, “I’m beginning to have feelings for you too.  This is all so sudden.”  After two sets totaling almost two and a half hours, one got the sense that fans were wowed as much by Taylor’s remarks between songs as they were by his music and all-star cast.

Taylor's easy-going nature led a friend of mine to ask during intermission: "Does he ever rock out?”

Um…no.  Like the Jackson Browne concert I saw last month in Chicago, Taylor’s version of rock is something more subdued, the kind of rock one might prefer on a rainy Sunday morning.  But whereas Browne’s lyrics are laced in sorrowful, melancholy tones, Taylor’s ooze with optimism, from the heartfelt expressions of love in his beautiful new song, “You and I Again,” to the overly saccharin (for my tastes) “Only One” and “Shower the People.”  Where Taylor really shines is in songs that offer just a hint of reverence or longing.   Taylor playfully described “Country Road” and “Carolina in My Mind” – mainstays in his touring repertoire – as "hippy, tree-hugger bullshit," but these songs are nothing if not an ode to nature filtered through the eyes of Taylor’s childhood in North Carolina where the landscape colored his world.  It’s not just a celebration of nature; there’s a tinge of something beautiful lost along the way.

Taylor offered a few surprises, including three new songs as well as deeper cuts such as “Lo and Behold” from 1970’s Sweet Baby James, “Millworker” from the failed Broadway musical Working, and “One More Go Round,” a tune from 1991’s New Moon Shine that he introduced by stressing that while the groove is good, the lyrics are somewhat subpar.  As with most of Taylor’s concerts, too much of his set list remains constant year after year.  He played the usual four songs from his debut album (plus one extra), plus another four or five mainstays, and it would have been nice had he performed a few more songs from lesser-known albums.

Like Jackson Browne and Paul Simon, Taylor consistently assembles a fantastic band.  Even the simplest of tunes can appear interesting and complex when watching drummer Steve Gadd, guitarist Michael Landau and bassist Jimmy Johnson execute their craft.  The sound was also excellent, though at the booming Bradley Center, I could hear another James Taylor Band playing half a second after the real live band on stage as the sound bounced off the back of the arena.  Since only the first level of the arena was used, it would have made more sense to play at the underutilized Milwaukee Theater.

For the final two songs, Taylor sported a personalized Brewers jersey that a fan had offered him during his first encore.  It was a nice touch, as was Taylor's thank you to the audience for allowing him to continue to play music for all these year.  He’s clearly a man who’s still in love with performing, and luckily his voice has remained strong.  Judging from last evening’s concert, I imagine there will be many more tours in Taylor before he decides to call it a day.

Song Forms: Doing away with AABA

Paul Simon once wrote the lyric, “I seem to lean on old familiar ways.”  And so it is for most songwriters, Simon included.  When it comes to song structure, inertia is strong, and few writers deviate substantially from one of two general song forms: AABA (most jazz songs follow this format, many show tunes, and several pop songs as well.  Think “Yesterday” by the Beatles) and, with modest modifications, ABAB (more identifiable as verse, chorus, verse, chorus, often adding a bridge after the second chorus).  Composers do it almost without thought, which makes exceptions all the more impressive.  Sure, it might not take a genius to write a song with the form ABCDCBA, but it’s not something that occurs to most people, so in that sense, maybe it does take a genius to compose a song in an interesting format, if only because no one else thought to do it.

Which means maybe JamesTaylor is a genius.  His 1991 song, “Shed a Little Light,” follows that song form – ABCDCBA - and somehow makes it flow nicely and memorably.  You would think after four sections foregoing repetition, the listener would be left to flounder, lost in a sea of unfamiliarity, but JT pulls it off impressively.  Most listeners probably aren’t even aware that the song is proceeding to unexplored territory; they’re only aware that the song continues to move forward, to gain momentum, before reversing the momentum and slowing to a halt, as if completing a four-minute train ride.

Of course, composers don’t need to go to these lengths to inject new life into their songwriting.  Even slight alterations from the standard formats can be inspiring.  For example, instead of following a format such as verse – chorus – verse – chorus – bridge – chorus, what about pushing the bridge up, or repeating it, or adding a second unique bridge?  Elvis Costello does a particular good job of mixing up song sections.  Consider the following song from his 1994 release: Brutal Youth:

“London’s Brilliant Parade”

Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus

ABCABAB

What I particularly like is the addition of a bridge immediately after the chorus, delaying the return to a verse.  I borrowed this technique for my song, “No Point In Seeing Me Through” from my album Pause.  After the first chorus I go to a bridge before returning to the verse.  To me, this keeps the song moving forward, plus I add a modulation up a step for the final verse before returning to the original key for the final chorus.

Costello song forms deviate even further in some of his compositions by repeating a bridge or by adding a second bridge (The labels of the song sections I use here are relatively irrelevant, and likely disputable, for in some of these songs each of the sections carry nearly equal weight):

“The Other Summer Side”

Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus – Bridge – Verse – Chorus

ABCBCAC

“All Grown Up”

Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus – Different Bridge – Verse – Chorus – Different Bridge

ABCBDABD

Even a successful song, like Costello’s modest 1989 hit, “Veronica,” can depart from the usual fare.  Here, Costello and Paul McCartney inject the bridge in a different place: after the second verse.  A very unusual tactic, but, in my find, an effective one.

“Veronica”

Verse – Chorus- Verse – Bridge – Chorus – Verse –Chorus

ABACAB

It’s odd that in light of these and countless other examples, so many songwriters – me included – continue to follow the formats we’ve grown accustomed to over the years.  Perhaps it’s time to try a little harder to mix things up.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved