Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Or maybe Bob Dylan. Or Carole King. Or Bob Gaudio....


     I seldom pause to wonder how readers might react to whatever it is I'm writing. First, because my starting premise is that, whatever the topic, they don't care — that's my job, to make them care, to present a situation in such a way that they find it interesting, despite lack of previous interest. 
     So the idea of taking their temperature, first, and then spoon feeding their biases back to them — what fun is that? That's a recipe for Fox News, for a feedback loop. They wouldn't need me then — they could just look in the mirror and start talking. No, I write what interests me, and hope readers take the bait and don't complain too much. That generally works.
    There was no particular reason to laud Randy Newman on Christmas Day. But he was on my mind, so that's what I did. Naming him "the greatest living American songwriter" wasn't a daring aesthetic choice. It's just the attitude that presented itself — the organizing idea, a mistake, probably. Not because I don't think he is — I do. But because the "greatest" appellation was a red flag waved in front of the readership. I hadn't considered that. 
    Cut to Christmas Day, at 7:03 a.m.. The column's up, and the very first email out of the blocks is this, from a Michael M.:
    Having read your columns for years, I've respected your opinion even when I disagreed with you. So the lazy blindness of your column today surprised me to no end. Like white Americans do all the time, you declared a "Greatest" only considering other white Americans as contenders for the title. It's so expected and accepted, I'll venture a guess you didn't even remotely think about it being offensive to the millions of people who don't have a clue to who Randy Newman is. Your column is ready by millions of those people so declarations like yours do matter. The truth of the matter is the greatest American songwriter living is William "Smokey" Robinson. From the Motown era thru today he had written literally hundreds of chart topping hits that have defined American music. As we used to say, no other American songwriter could " even carry his jockstrap." To be clear, I'm not accusing you of being a racist, you're not. I'm kinda dismayed that you unconsciously engaged in the thoughtless exclusionary belittling of Black and other minority Americans. And oh yea, Merry Christmas. 
     Michael M.
     I initially only thought of Tom Waits — for years he was my go-to greatest songwriter, before considering Newman. Trying to think of a second, for rhetorical purposes, I came up with Bruce Springsteen. It isn't as if I conducted a poll or made lists of options.
     Chewing on this — "lazy blindness," ouch — I read a few more emails.  Bob Dylan was mentioned. Shit, I never thought of him. And the racism stuff — like I'm Jann Wenner forgetting to include a black musical figure in my book of icons. I figured, if I'm going to lose my job over a frickin' column about music, I might as well go out swinging, and answered Michael M.:
     I appreciate your reading. But the "music is personal" aspect of my column must have flown past you. Newman is the greatest songwriter to me. I never thought about Smokey Robinson, didn't know he was still alive and, honestly, wouldn't have changed my opinion if I had. Another reader brought up Bob Dylan. Who, like Robinson, was important, and I'd have picked above him, despite the taint of being white. "Like a Rolling Stone" surely is a more important song than "Tears of Clown."
     Thanks for writing. If I post a few choice responses on my blog, I'll shield your name, to protect you from the embarrassment of being associated with your opinions. Oh, and Merry Christmas.
    Thank goodness that was the most ... strident email. Nobody calling for my head for lack of inclusivity. From there, it was various readers offering up various favorite artists. I thought they made some good points.
     I appreciate Randy Newman’s often quirky songs and really like Tom Waits (especially “The Heart of Saturday Night”). But I’m stumped as to how you can write a column on America’ greatest living songwriter without at least mentioning in passing Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.
     Just my take — and taste,
     Daniel F.
     Now Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" hit me like a freight train. When I was 16. But I'd no sooner declare him the greatest songwriter than I'd dub him America's best poet. Very important yes, but also generational. I pointed out to one Dylan fan that I was in kindergarten when "Like a Rolling Stone" was released. It was a bigger deal if you were 20. 
     The most surprising thing, for me, was the Carole King contingent. Quite a number of them. I'd put Joni Mitchell (okay, Canadian) or even Joan Baez above her. King seems feminist agitprop. 
     No, Neil — the greatest living songwriter is Carole King. She wrote for herself and dozens of other artists. While I'm sure you are familiar with her work, if not, get out to the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire to see "Beautiful" while it's still there.

      This one sent me rushing to Wikipedia.

     Um, no. I usually agree with most of what you write. Even when I don’t, your sarcasm makes me laugh.
     But Randy Newman? I give you: Diane Warren, Bob Dylan, Bob Gaudio, Paul Simon, Brian Wilson, Barry Gordy, Carole King, and yes, Taylor Swift.
    To save you the effort: Diane Warren wrote "If I Could Turn Back Time" and dozens of forgettable top 10 hits, all of which could be heaped together and erased from our collective memory with no loss whatsoever to American culture. Bob Gaudio wrote "Sherry" and other songs for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The rest you know.
     Actually Brian Wilson — of the Beach Boys — gave me pause. Not my cup of tea either, but obviously great. And someone suggested one who made me wish I had given this some premeditation: Stevie Wonder. His songs might not have been the soundtrack of my life, but you can't ignore his genius.
    Oh, and before I drop this subject with a sigh of relief, there were a few who agreed with me:
You’re right, he is.
     Tom K.   
     I find most or your work to be timely, interesting, and informative. That said; I rarely agree with your conclusions. Today’s article is different for me. I could not agree more with your sentiments concerning Randy Newman. Thank you for the piece, it made my Christmas a little brighter.
    Which was the whole point. If you're wondering whether I learned a lesson from this, I have: never declare someone the greatest or the best at anything. Or maybe, ALWAYS declare someone the greatest or the best at something. It seems to stir the pot.
    Do you see the dilemma? That's why, in the main, it's better to focus on writing the stuff — that's hard enough — and let the readers react how they may.


  1. I like your conclusion. Someone will always disagree with an opinion, and if reasoned well, make the discussion interesting (unlike those with shoulder chips).

  2. Yogi Berra’s grand daughter made a great documentary about him after Major League Baseball in 2015 honored the 4 greatest living players Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Johnny Bench, and Sandy Koufax. She objectively proved that 1) He was alive at the time. And 2) His accomplishments met or exceeded each of the four that were chosen to be honored. Worth a watch even if one is not a baseball fan.

  3. Yes. If you'd said randy was amongst your favorite living american songwriters, or was your favorite, less discussion may have ensued .
    Not a particularly controversial thought declaring him the greatest but an enthusiastic nod.
    Whether you're right or wrong is impossible to determine.
    Though he is certainly in the running. Fun stuff . Appropriate for the season.
    Want to throw out another Willie Nelson. A personal fave.

  4. I don't care that they're dead, but the Gershwins were better than any songwriters alive now or then!

    1. Yes! The Gershwin's and Cole Porter and .Rogers & Hart...

    2. Among others. The timeframe when these songwriters lived, and wrote their timeless classics is loosely defined as "The Great American Songbook." It includes American popular songs and jazz tunes from the early 20th century...songs that have stood the test of time.

      Often referred to as "American Standards", the songs published during the "Golden Age" of songwriting include popular and long-lasting lyrics and melodies from the 1920s to the 1950s that were created for Broadway theatre, musical theatre, and Hollywood musicals. These songs also became standards for jazz musicians" during the same period...from the 20s through the 50s.

      "The Great American Songbook" is not an actual book or specific list of songs. It includes standards by Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and many others.

      In the 1980s, these same songs and songwriters became a syndicated radio radio format of adult standards called "The Music of Your Life." The format achieved popularity on AM radio stations in the U.S. and Canada, which were facing declines in listenership because of FM radio's popularity.

      But it didn't last. "The Music of Your Life" was replaced with conservative talk radio and sports radio. And the prime listening demographic aged and died off, which eventually spelled doom for the format by the first years of the new century.

      Oh, you can still find the standards on the airwaves...the classics that even early Boomers have known all their lives. The music can be heard on a few FM stations that also broadcast online. And on a few satellite radio channels. But you have to know where to find it. Eventually, it'll fade away...and be gone for good. Just like the folks who loved it.

  5. "If I post a few choice responses on my blog, I'll shield your name, to protect you from the embarrassment of being associated with your opinions."

    Oy, don't mess with a guy who possesses rapier-like wit, with a pen to match! I'm stealing this one!

  6. Superlatives should not ignite such passion in an era when the term GOAT is tossed around willy nilly. I’d just embrace the notion that you are read by millions. Happy New Year.

    1. You'll notice I didn't feel the need to acquaint the reader with reality. It's like those people who write in assuming I have a staff. At this point, why pop their bubble. Pretty to think so.

  7. Most prolific? Best melody? Best lyrics? What are your metrics? Most interesting lyrics is Dylan by far. "North Country Blues" paints a vivid picture, a sad saga, a full length movie in a 3 minute song. "Eye of the Hurricane" by David Wilcox similarly describes a snapshot with the lyric "when you've laid your dreams to rest, you can get what's second best but it's hard to get enough". Marc Cohn's "Walking in Memphis" tells a personal tale, hearing it the first time, I felt I knew him. Before "Yesterday" was covered by every singer on the planet, Willie Nelson's "Crazy" was the most played song on American radio. I contend that Patsy Cline's version of it is the best example of synergy, the perfect voice for a perfect song. Of course these are just my personal favorites, just like Neil expressed his affinity for Newman.

  8. The race card is often overplayed.

  9. I find it peculiar that race was introduced when it's just a person's personal opinion. Geez, we can't just like who we like without a litmus test? Are we supposed to feel the same sort of shame we must feel if we clumsily use the wrong pronoun? As a proud liberal, for the first time in my life I'm questioning a liberal compulsion. These are the views of people who learned about ethical propriety from social media rather than actual human experience - people who radiate smugness after expending zero calories to establish a simulacra of a "superior" moral position. I pass on indulging them.

  10. He may not be the greatest songwriter, but all the songwriters mentioned here could die in a plane crash, and I would not be as devastated as I was by the death of Jimmy Buffett, my cowboy in the jungle.

  11. Chicago legends Steve Goodman and John Prine are both regarded by those in the music industry as two of the greatest.

    1. Too many to count, how did this Chicago duo skip my memory. Prine's "Bruised Orange" is a masterpiece. ......sat on a park bench, kissed the girl with the black hair and my head shouted down to my heart, "you better look out below"

  12. Great column, great fun. Everyone has their own opinion of the GOAT in songwriting is, and their all right. Randy Newman, yeah he's up there and so is Tom Wait. And McCartney, Smokey, all of them. But I really do like Carole King, her body of work and some of those songs on Tapestry are similar to Hogy Carmichael from the Great American Songbook the way she creates her chord changes. Waits and Newman craft similar types of songs. Absolutely beautiful work. Dylan more of a country and folk/rock vibe. Great but different. But as of today, December 27, 2023 I'll go with Tom Waits, some real gems in there. Plus anyone that covers his songs might make it sound a little better, although I love his raw sound.

  13. Great strategy. Divide and conquer. Where have we seen that before? All our answers are correct...TO US. Happy New Year to our gracious host and engaging hive!

  14. Thank you Dennis. I have always considered myself mostly a liberal but this kind of stuff from the Michael M’s of the world drives me nuts. One wrong move and you are chastised and shamed.

  15. Someone else mentioned Willie Nelson.

    If the US would get its act together to create a Living National Treasure status, similar to Japan's, Willie really ought to be the first inductee. (He's 90, maybe get a move on.)

    And Dolly Parton would like a word, for that matter.

    Alan - longtime reader, occasional commenter.

  16. If Canadians are allowed, no one comes close to Neil Young.

    1. my absolute favorite. if he could only sing

  17. You didn't pick up on Michael M's (apparently non-sarcastic) belief that your column is read by millions? It should only happen.

    1. Oh, I picked up on it. It's like when your kid says his dad is the strongest man in the world. You can correct him. Or just savor the moment. I chose to savor the moment. At this point in my career, I have to take my plaudits where I find them.

  18. To ignore race (and sex for that matter) in a discussion of living American songwriters music would be a little criminal. You're living in a land of dreams when you can't consider how structural racism deprived plenty of Black songwriters of the opportunity and longevity that otherwise would have made them contenders for the title.

  19. Only one songwriter could write that " he not busy being born is busy dieing" or win the Nobel in literature for his songwriting or at age 82 write a wonderful new album ( go look at the lyrics in the tracks on " Rough and Rowdy Ways" ) and still be performing? ( here in Chicago a month or so ago). Joan Baez's former paramour of course.( shes pretty good too ).


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