THE OBVIOUS THIEF
Last Saturday I went to see Chris Cornell at The Kirby Center in Wilkes Barre,PA. He is touring on his latest solo release “Higher Truth”. Mr. Cornell treated a sold out crowd to a master class in singing, songwriting, and performance. But an offhand story he told in the middle of the show is the inspiration of today’s blog.
About halfway through the gig he told a story about Johnny Cash. At one point Chris had written a song for Johnny that everyone (producers, labels, etc.) was excited about. There was only one problem: Johnny didn’t want to do the song.
His reason? Johnny said he didn’t want to record any song that everyone couldn’t sing.
Now Chris Cornell has written piles of great, memorable songs. But I guess his vocal prowess on this particular tune was too much for JC.
He didn’t want to record a song that everyone couldn’t sing. In all my years of playing, recording, and writing songs I have NEVER heard anyone say that. Let alone someone of the stature of Johnny Cash.
And you know what? The man in black had a point.
Now, I love to hear a singer or musician with crazy good chops. You’ll never hear me put that down. But there is a time and a place for virtuosity to take center stage and there is a time to just sit back, serve the song, and do the obvious, tried and true thing……. Why? Because it works.
When I was interning at my first studio gig I was sitting in the control room with one of the engineer/producers. He was working with a band that was laying down overdub after overdub onto a basic pop track. The engineer looked at me, rolled his eyes in disgust and said “They think they are inventing something.”
That was my first lesson in the old adage of KISS: “Keep It Simple Stupid.”
I wish I had a dollar for every time I asked an artist to describe their music and they said “Oh, it’s indescribable.” I’m not sure I want to listen to a band that plays music that doesn’t even make sense to them.
As musicians, I think one of the hardest things to do is embrace the obvious. As I see it, there are three main reasons for this:
- You don’t trust a simple idea. It can’t be that easy.
- You want to impress your musician friends with your awesomeness.
- You think the idea sounds like something someone else has done.
Paul McCartney dreamed “Yesterday”. Willie Nelson wrote “On The Road Again” in like 20 minutes. A first year guitar student could play both those songs no problem. But Sir Paul and Willie didn’t turn those songs into prog rock opuses because it was “just too easy.” The ideas were floating around out there, they grabbed them and wrote them down. Song finished. And the rest is history.
There are many, many examples of this.
The second reason is kind of a corollary of the first. The simple idea is just too, um, simple. A guitarist I’ve known for years once told me he couldn’t stand to play below his ability. Needless to say, this guy didn’t finish too many projects. And the ones he did confused the hell out of me.
Musicians can be pretty snobby in this regard. A lot of “indie” musicians especially. There are many great indie bands out there, but some of those guys have more rules on what is and is not “indie” than any other musical genre. Isn’t that the antithesis of independence?
I personally think it takes courage to leave a song as it is. To just put it out there the way it was when you connected with it. Neil Young does this consistently, I have read. I always loved the fact that The Replacements would release these real pretty ballads from time to time. I mean that was a punk band right? A good tune is a good tune and Paul Westerberg had the balls to be a sap every once in a while. Tom Waits is the same way. A super talented, innovative writer…….all over the map stylistically. But nobody writes a simple love song quite like Tom. Thankfully he has the courage to share those tunes with us.
I think it’s important to ask yourself sometimes why you are changing a perfectly good idea. I think your heart should know the difference between an average idea that needs work and a great idea that is so simple you have trouble believing in it. Sometimes a gift is a gift. Trust it as is.
The last reason is the most controversial: You change a song because it sounds like something else. For this I am going to quote the old chestnut “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.”
I’m not advocating plagiarism. But I do believe that many ideas just have the same DNA. And when you are out there fishing, ultimately it is highly likely you are going to catch something that is from the same family as something that has been caught before.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but here’s what happens: You write a tune and play it for your band. The guitarist notices that it is the same chords as some other tune and he immediately starts playing the other tune and joking about what you just ripped off. Then you either trashcan the idea or you camouflage it so it no longer sounds like whatever. In the process, the original charm of the idea is gone. Now you have an intellectual exercise that makes your guitarist scratch his chin with glee. But the dude on his way to work in the morning promptly skips that track every time it comes on. The connectivity of the idea is gone.
The Beatles stole. Led Zeppelin stole. Charlie Parker stole. Johnny Cash stole.
For example, check out the first verse to “Crescent City Blues”:
“I hear the train a-comin, it's rolling 'round the bend
And I ain't been kissed lord since I don't know when”
Other documented cases of thievery:
The Police riff in “Message In A Bottle” was based on the riff in “Don’t Fear The Reaper”
Nirvana riff in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is very much like the intro of Boston’s “More Than A Feeling”. Cobain himself noticed that.
Bruce Springsteen’s hook in “Badlands” is the same hook as the riff in The Animals “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”…..just changed from minor to major and sped up.
I look at it this way. Popular old recipes become popular old recipes for a reason. Because they are delicious. They connect. Cliches become clichés because there is a grain of truth in them. Songs and riffs become iconic because they touch a primal nerve. If it’s based on something someone else has done, whether inadvertent or otherwise, so be it. The guy you got it from probably lifted it from someone too. You are just adding your two cents and driving the idea farther down the road. Musical chain mail.
It’s always impressive to see someone break new ground and do something that hasn’t been done before. But in most cases even a genius is just combining a few known elements together that no one ever thought to combine. People understand new ideas by way of analogy. “It’s sort of like this meets this.” If they can’t make an analogy, most people think your ideas are just weird or you are clinically insane.
So be careful when editing the simple. There is a fine line between clever and stupid. As a wise man once said.
Be brave enough to trust the obvious. Flashier and more is not always better. The local auto dealer might put a Corvette in the window. That might get people in the store, but once they are in the majority will buy a sedan, minivan, pickup truck, or SUV.
Once again: Why?
Because it works for their lives.