Monday, June 28, 2010

Write Like a Rolling Stone (and Don't Get Scooped Again)

Over the weekend I picked up a copy of Rolling Stone’s ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time.’ I’d include a link to it, but for some inexplicable reason, Rolling Stone’s website doesn’t have anything on its site to promote the issue or the list in any way. They’ve learned nothing from last week’s ‘Runaway General’ fiasco, when Rolling Stone managed to get scooped over the Gen. McChrystal story that THEY broke, Memo to print media: The internet is your friend. Use it.

Okay, with that bit of media criticism out of the way, after reading through the printed issue (and if you love music, I think it is worth buying the printed issue) I was most fascinated by the stories of how many of the songs were written. Some of them have become rock-and-roll legends I’d heard before: Mick Jagger wrote the lyrics for The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (#2) in 10 minutes, the morning after Keith Richards dreamed the guitar riff and title line. John Lennon wrote most of “Imagine” (#3) in just one morning. Pete Townsend wrote The Who’s “My Generation” (#11) on his 20th birthday. The lyrics for “Purple Haze” (#17) came to Jimi Hendrix in a dream.

Then there were the stories I’d never heard before. Prince wrote “Little Red Corvette” (#109) in the backset of a bright-pink Ford Edsel. Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters wrote “Comfortably Numb” (#321) after “a sleazy Philadelphia doctor injected him with tranquilizers before a gig when he was suffering from hepatitis.” I laughed when I read this blurb quoting John Fogerty about writing “Proud Mary” for Credence Clearwater Revival (#156): “I was fooling with the chord changes and started singing about a river. I realized, ‘Well, maybe if I make it about a boat.’” And Neil Young’s only number one hit, the acoustic “Heart of Gold” (#303) came about only because he couldn’t play electric guitar for two years after a back injury.

I’m not a songwriter, and a lousy poet, but the stories of how these songs were written – in bursts of inspiration, after messing around with lyrics or a guitar , or as a result of pure chance – are universal to anyone sitting down in front of a blank screen or paper. And while a lot of the stories make it sound easy to crank out a hit, consider the work that went into Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” (#1)which started as a long written verse, between 6 and 20 pages. The article quotes Dylan as he goes on to describe the process like this:

“’[It was] just a rhythm thing on paper all about my steady hatred, directed at some point that was honest.’ Back home in Woodstock, New York, over three days in early June, Dylan sharpened the sprawl down to that confrontational chorus and four taut verses bursting with piercing metaphor and concise truth. ‘The first two lines, which rhymed ‘kiddin’ you’ and ‘didn’t you,’ just about knocked me out,’ he confessed to Rolling Stone in 1988, ‘and when I got to the jugglers and the chrome horse and the princess on the steeple, it all just about got to be too much.’”

I love that he sounds so surprised about what he had written. And it's reassuring to know that someone like Bob Dylan can sweat over and feel overwhelmed by what it is he's creating.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous6/28/2010

    and I'm still amazed that people still think Bob Dylan (not his real name) wrote and sang in English - Mr. Foofeyhead