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Songwriting

Fallibility

Posted on 2008.04.06 at 12:58
Current Mood: awake
Current Music: You May Be Right - Billy Joel
One of my uncles (I’ve had a bunch of ’em, so that doesn’t narrow it down much) decided many years ago that he needed to explain something to us kids. That is, to us kids who were ga-ga about the Beatles. “You know they don’t write their own songs,” he told us. He said it as if it were something of which every intelligent adult was already aware, but that the time had come to put a stop to our naïve notions. He offered as an example the song “Michelle.” He named a composer I’d never heard of, and whose name I do not now recall, and he told us that anyone who knew the music business would immediately recognize the work of this composer; that it was transparently this man’s work.

When we children offered some protest at the notion that our heroes might be deceiving us about their musical abilities, my uncle decided to turn up the heat. “Those guys are uneducated idiots,” he said (or something much like it), “It takes a musical education to write the kind of songs they’re passing off as their own.” He went on to explain that it was part of the image being cultivated about them to pass them off as having talent, and that the real composers were being well compensated for their anonymity.

I went away from that encounter unconvinced, but troubled. Within a few years’ time, as I became more educated about music, about life, and about my uncle, I came to regard the poor man as sadly deluded, and I came to regard his conduct with us as borderline shameful.

Now to be fair, I wasn’t in the room when “Michelle” was written. Likewise, I was otherwise engaged when they wrote “Good Day Sunshine,” “Fixing a Hole,” and “I Am the Walrus.” So in any specific case… hell, they could have had Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs ghostwriting for them for all I know. In fact, I suspect that producer George Martin had more input into their early songs than anyone has ever admitted. But as for my uncle’s larger point about what sort of people do and do not write good songs – well, I don’t feel as if I need to articulate a specific rebuttal (unless one of my readers really wants me to). I feel quite secure in regarding Lennon and McCartney (and Harrison for that matter) as gifted songwriters. And I frankly regard my uncle as a shortsighted fool for his narrow view of the world, and for having the nerve to pass off that view as self-evident wisdom.

This all feeds into a topic I have touched on before – that one of the important lessons we ought to pick up in childhood is the lesson that adults can be wrong. I understand that there are good reasons why adults need to establish themselves as authorities. After all, there’s a lot children don’t know, and part of the job of being a parent is protecting your children from their own ignorance and foolishness until they are able to fend for themselves. But learning to think for one’s self is also part of the maturation process, and the time comes when the discerning child needs to say, “Here is something I think only because it has always been told to me. I don’t actually know it from within myself. The time has come to put it aside and to find out what it is that I believe; to find out what it is that I can figure out. If the wisdom and knowledge of others can inform my decisions, so much the better, but in the end, it must be my own perception of the truth. Otherwise, I will either be living a lie or living with an unresolved tension between the shallow truth at the top of my brain and the deeper truth I keep buried.”

Along with that, I think that a sense of humility can be a good thing to add to the mix, lest one become too arrogant about one’s conclusions. For myself, I try to maintain a strong sense of uncertainty and fallibility when it comes to matters of fact. Now if we’re talking about matters of opinion rather than matters of fact – well, that’s quite a different story! I’m quite a bit more assertive about things I regard as opinions. If you’ve ever heard me trash a play or a movie I didn’t like, you know what I mean. Ah, but that’s a digression I should follow another time! Let me just say that opinions are made of air and facts are made of gold.

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