A few weeks ago, I blogged about books that I was reading — so, teachers, I guess my book report is due.
One of the two I mentioned then, “Anatomy of a Song” by Marc Myers, I have been able to finish. Which is something of an accomplishment — an inveterate reader only three decades ago, I have more recently gotten out of the habit of booking it. But that has changed in the past year, and part of the inspiration for that was reading about The Music.
“Anatomy” was a fun read, finished a week or so ago. But I have not been able to return to the other music-oriented book I mentioned previousy, “Fortunate Son: My Music, My Life,” by Creedence Clearwater Revival co-founder John Fogerty. Too painful to watch someone patting themselves on the back so hard that you fear they may inflict injury …
But I will attempt to finish Mr. Fogerty’s explanation of why everything CCR accomplished is almost entirely because of him. I just need to listen to his solo efforts a bit more, trying to find something — besides “Centerfield” and “Old Man Down the Road” — that would blow up my “The Whole Is More than the Sum of the Parts” theory of rock and roll groups …
As observed in the previous post, “Anatomy” is a compilation of a series of Wall Street Journal columns pitched as being about significant rock and roll songs. But its thematic backbone, and subtitle — “The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hit that Changed Rock, R&B and Pop” — are not entirely accurate.
For one thing, three of those songs are country and western tunes that never really crossed over into rock and pop, although the artists that performed them — Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette — unquestionably influenced rock musicians. What is “iconic” is largely subjective, and some of the songs that Myers chooses as such are perhaps less singular, and more just notable — if that is an actual difference, rather than a distinction.
That said, Myers has provided a service in singling out these 45 singles, and doing research and conducting interviews with the artists, composers, producers, songwriters and others involved in creating them. Via that, he provides a multidimensional window into the creative process involved in turning something theoretically simple — a song, a musical item most often of short duration and minimal impact — into something of lasting significance.
The first two songs are a bit “down in the weeds,” even for those of us who have followed The Music for decades. Although one of those, “K.C. Loving,” is more familiar to many as “Kansas City,” a tune that is better known for being performed by other artists.
Delving into that very early era of “rock,” Myers passes over some hits — although confined to the rhythm and blues/“race music” categories— that had a major impact on the trajectory of rock and pop — among them, “The Fat Man” by Fats Domino, Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88.”
After that, though, there are more “hits” than misses. The songs that Myers profiles include some that are not just “iconic,” but indispensable: “Shout,” the Isley Brothers; “Runaround Sue,” Dion; “You Really Got Me,” the Kinks; “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’,” the Righteous Brothers; “My Girl,” Temptations; “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” etc.
A few of Myers’ picks are head-scratchers: the Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat,” “Love’s in Need of Love Today” by Stevie Wonder (who created a number of more significant songs, in my opinion); Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” (was that the most important thing Pearl did?); “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith (why are they even mentioned in this context?). But Myers does at least make a case for the inclusion of the songs that I wouldn’t.
Many of the songs he selected are my favorites by those particular artists, including some where I would have a lot of other choices. He gets into the weeds about Elvis Costello’s “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” which I love, although I could cite another of Costello’s compositions as important.
I especially enjoy when Myers breaks down songs like Joni Mitchell’s “Carey.” His writing explains not just that song, but another on her seminal Blue album, “California.” Unsurprisingly, Mitchell’s writing is autobiographical — but the author takes you to that Grecian island, and into those sea-carved caves, and into the psyche of one of the best storytellers of The Music.
I also found Myers’ dissection of the songwriting process fascinating. How the artists who make our music do that is all over the map. His interviews show that some writers start with a melody, and bring in the words later; some begin with verse, then come up with musical notes that support the words.
Interestingly, one of those artists that he features — Donald Fagen, with his late partner Walter Becker, one of the best songwriters of the modern era, in my opinion — works the music and the lyrics at the same time. To me, anyway, that may explain why their Steely Dan music (and Fagen’s solo work) is so appealing.
You may disagree about that particular manifestation of rock and roll, but if you care about The Music, you owe it to yourself to read “Anatomy of a Song.” It will help you understand why the songs that run through our heads are there.