Song Man: A Melodic Adventure, or, My Single-Minded Approach to Songwriting
By Will Hodgkinson
'Stay uncommercial. There's a lot of money in it," said Jerome Kern, who did OK by himself when he added "Ol' Man River," "The Way You Look Tonight" and several hundred other catchy tunes to the American songbook. By Kern's standards, Will Hodgkinson should be a millionaire, because the music he cranks out in the course of his engaging chronicle "Song Man" is as uncommercial as could be.
In his earlier book, "Guitar Man," the English music journalist tells how he used his connections to get guitar lessons from Roger McGuinn of the Byrds and alt-rocker PJ Harvey, among others, with the goal of learning the instrument well enough to perform before a live audience in six months.
In "Song Man" Hodgkinson takes the inevitable next step: Having mastered the guitar, at least to his own satisfaction, he follows a trail trodden by countless no-talents as he sets out to write a hit single and, in the words of one of the many equally ambitious failures he comes across as he writes, seal himself inside a bubble of fame and money, never mix with normal people again and have " 'a porter on the door of the building, because the last thing I want is for an axe murderer to come and chop me up in my sleep.' " When Kern said songwriters should be uncommercial, he meant that most music is formulaic, so a savvy artist will startle his audience by throwing out the rules and coming up with something new and, once the public gets over its initial shock, addictively good. Hodgkinson does record his single, though if it's something less than a hit, that may be because he made the mistake of throwing out the rules before he learned what they are. Jimi Hendrix is reported to have said, " '[L]earn everything, forget everything, and play.' " At least Hodgkinson got the last two steps right.
His song "Mystery Fox" sounds so bad ("Mystery Fox/Get out of your box/It's time for me/To chase you up that tree, o mystery fox") that you begin to think he's setting himself up for failure. When he sings it at a wedding, one of the guests proclaims, " 'That was the worst thing I ever heard in my life.' "
But then he has other songs. Even better, he has a musically gifted wife to help him achieve his goal. It is a truth universally acknowledged that an obsessive, good-natured doofus will have an exasperated if affectionate spouse to help him over all the scratches in that big vinyl LP we call life. Hodgkinson's wife, NJ, has a strong singing voice, not to mention tons of patience with his at-home composing sessions, though at one point she says:
" 'I just can't bear it any more. . . . It's torture. There is no tune. You can't sing. You're completely out of tune. There's nothing. Nothing! Sorry, I don't mean to be rude to you. . . . But I'm really tired and I've had a hard day and, if you keep playing that song, I think I might cry.' "
Ever sensitive to the constructive criticism of his biggest fan, Hodgkinson replies, " 'So you don't like it?' "
The problem is that there is a hidden curriculum of songwriting that works something like this: Yes, there are rules, but nobody knows what they are, and nobody can explain how you learn them. Almost all of the masters that Hodgkinson seeks help from -- the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards, Ray Davies of the Kinks, the Hal David who wrote all of those great Dionne Warwick songs with Burt Bacharach -- use the "r" word, but no one seems able to tell him what a single one of those rules is.
Oh, they have terrific stories. Andrew Lloyd Webber tells Hodgkinson that initially "Do-Re-Mi" went, " 'Do is a deer, a female deer, Re is a drop of golden sun,' " etc., and it wasn't until someone told Richard Rodgers to drop the verb that the song became what it is today. (" 'Very often somebody else will suggest the slightest alteration to your song that actually changes everything,' " Lloyd Webber notes.) And Davies tells of the moment he was liberated as a songwriter: He was listening to a recording of John Lee Hooker's "Tupelo, Mississippi" and heard a car horn in the background, making him realize that songs have imperfections in them because they are made by imperfect people -- himself, say.
Davies is one of the several interviewees who, in their own way, reinforce Hendrix's learn everything/forget everything advice. " 'It's actually impossible to tell someone how to write a song,' " Davies says. When Hodgkinson points out timidly that Davies is teaching a songwriting course at the moment, the artist says:
" 'Doing it is the key. We all pick up our own methods along the way.' "
All art consists of the deliberate transformed by the accidental; in this case, the deliberate amounts to all the woodshedding advocated by virtually every one of Hodgkinson's interview subjects, all that mastering of the great songs that have already been written. And the accidental is the random changes that come from our own imaginations and personalities as well as the suggestions from such collaborators as the person who told Rodgers to take the "is" out of "Do-Re-Mi."
If Hodgkinson never gets to the Richard Rodgers level of success, it's because he can't find a way to spend as much time in the woodshed as great songwriting requires. He has to pay the bills, after all, and his band mates are dodgy at best. They do manage to book studio time and record Hodgkinson's compositions; wisely, though, nobody quits his day job.
Want to hear how "Mystery Fox" and the rest came out? You can go to Hodgkinson's page on MySpace.com and listen to them, though it's a pleasure best pursued in solitude: 10 seconds after I tuned in, my wife leapt to her feet and, echoing the moment in the book when NJ tells her husband she's had it up to here, said, "Turn that off right now." The songs are, um, horrible. The band sounds like a bunch of 8th graders trying to play Doors covers on instruments somebody left on the curb for solid-waste pickup. And the vocals are so hysterical and constricted that one imagines Hodgkinson being chased through the studio as the shade of Jim Morrison tries to strangle him with a pair of his signature black leather trousers. This isn't garage rock; it's garage-sale rock, if that.
But then you knew those songs wouldn't be any good. Besides, as the music plays, the dog crawls under the bed, the baby wails and your mate lunges for the car keys, you might actually want to hoist a pint in praise of Will Hodgkinson. For by summoning the courage to post his songs online, he proves precisely the point of this charming little book, which can be summed up by the joke in which the tourist asks the guy carrying a violin case how to get to Carnegie Hall, and the musician answers, "Practice, practice, practice." Hodgkinson put many hours into his art. It wasn't enough.
David Kirby is writing a book titled " Little Richard: The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll."