Adventures In Songwriting, Part II.

On a songwriter’s personal journey, featuring Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, Mrs. Bertagnolli, Steve Goodman, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen

Part Two.
See Part One here.

I started writing songs, as do almost all songwriters, not unlike somebody who has never driven before getting behind the wheel. I really had no clue about any of it—the words or the music—so I did it blindly, with love and faith guiding. Though my inaugural song began in G, it ended in E—a whole other key. Ending a melody where it begins—the return to tonic, as it’s known—is a fundamental concept, common to most of the music we hear, regardless of genre or generation.But this is how all songwriters learn to write songs. This is the journey of discovery, and though all of our journeys are distinct, they are connected.

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I learned by studying and learning to play—as I still do to this day—songs I loved. Reverse engineering, to get inside their architecture, to learn the components that add up to that effect.

Because there’s a whole lot to learn when learning to write songs. It’s why almost all the great songwriters interviewed here and in the first volume admitted to years spent writing bad songs before they wrote good ones. (With the exceptional exceptions of John Prine, Rickie Lee Jones, Laura Nyro and Janis Ian, all of whom wrote masterpieces from the very start.)

Songs encompass many elements at once, and it’s in the seamless fusion of those elements that greatness is achieved. But in each of these pursuits—the creation of music and lyrics—is a whole world to discover. Music is a universe unto itself, with melody, rhythm, and harmony. Lyrics, as well, encompass a complex realm of considerations, combining language both poetic and colloquial, weaving together metaphor, symbology, storytelling, and more in rhymed verses. Add to those aspects the mastery of song structure itself—the precise architecture of verse, chorus, bridge and other song forms—into which the words and the music take their place.

And despite the impact of songwriters such as Dylan and Lennon and McCartney, who forever expanded the potential of the popular song, the song form itself was never exploded and replaced. Dylan, The Beatles, Simon, and the rest showed great respect for the song—and within its narrow confines created miracles. And it is in that accomplishment—creating something eternal and unlimited within a restricted form—that the full and true phenomenon of the song is realized. That, as Krishnamurti said, “limitations create possibility.” That within this tiny room, this narrow space, this fast passage of time, a songwriter can create something boundless.

Once I started writing songs, I never stopped. To this day nothing is as compelling, exciting, or fulfilling.

The Beatles look out of the Magical Mystery Tour coach skylight, on location in England in September 1967.

I played my dad my songs always. He was a writer himself, the author of three books, and was a tough critic. But a consistent one. His chief word was “trite.” Meaning he’d heard it before. Meaning everyone had heard it before. It had been done. So my mission became to write anything he didn’t find trite. To discover new content in songs and new ways of transmitting it. Ultimately I did get there.

I also played one of my songs for my junior high music teacher, Camille Bertagnolli, a sparkling piano-playing teacher with an infectious passion for music and teaching. She led the Glee Club, as it was known, a choir of boys and girls singing songs in simple harmony.

I wasn’t really sure, however, if she’d have any interest in hearing a song I wrote. After all, the songs she taught our class were famous ones by legendary songwriters such as the Gershwins, or modern standands like “Fire and Rain,” written by James Taylor. All songs that astonished me for their beauty.

But she did want to hear my song. She asked me to play it then and there in her big musical office, and she listened intently, as if it mattered. Because it did matter, as she taught me. She let me know in no uncertain terms that writing songs mattered. Her words changed my life. I was already committed to this thing. But because of her, I became reverent in my devotion. “For the rest of your life,” she said, “you will always be rich. Because you have music in you.”

The song I played her was called “Picnic Island.” She loved it. Though the words added up to some sort of sense, the music was well conceived, a mostly major-key verse set against a minor-key chorus. Not only did she praise its structure; she immediately did what I always do now: she figured out what the chords were. She even informed me that a chord I was playing in a funny position and didn’t recognize was simply C major. (She was right.) That night she notated the song, wrote out the music and lyrics, so she could teach it to the class.

This was an honor for which I was unprepared. The whole class—all those voices—were going to all sing my song? And at the same time? It seemed like an impossible dream. But the very next day of class she passed out the dittoed pages with my song in purple ink and my name on it as the writer—right where names like James Taylor and Gershwin had been—and announced, “This is very special. One of our own students, Paul Zollo, has written a song, and we are going to learn it.”

It was the first time in my life I had felt tears of joy. I didn’t shed any, as I recall, but I was so moved by the emotion of hearing my song elevated to this great place that I welled up with a feeling I’d never known before that. It was an honor and a thrill unparalleled in my life up to then. I remember the sound of hearing my song sung by our entire choir. It was stunning. This little creation, born on my humble guitar strings, now sung—with spirit—by the whole bunch. Sure, she changed the groove somewhat so it had more of a musical theater bounce than I intended. But I could live with that. The song was in the world now, and what happened was out of my control. I felt what can best be termed as parental pride.

As if she hadn’t done enough to transform my life forever, Mrs. Bertagnolli included this song in our holiday concert. My song. Both my parents—even my father, who was never around during the work day—was there. He even taped it on a cassette, a tape I still have and cherish. It was momentous. I knew then that there could not possibly be anything in life more fulfilling than being a songwriter. And I’ve never really wavered from that idea.

Camille Bertagnolli, AKA Mrs. Bertagnolli to her students, the greatest music teacher and songwriting champion, Locust Jr. High, Wilmette, Illinois

I also had a great guitar teacher named Judd Sager who was seventeen when we started, which to eleven-year-old me seemed very grown up. He had long and hip hair and a mustache, could play guitar and sing beautifully, and was one of the coolest people I had ever met up to that point, like if some cool fusion of George Harrison and David Crosby walked into my home. At first he taught both my brother Peter and myself, but my brother had other talents, and music became my province alone.

Like Mrs. Bertagnolli, Judd was excited that I wrote my own songs and was using guitar—almost from the moment I started playing—as a songwriting tool. Knowing well that a songwriter’s vocabulary consists of the chords he knows that support melodies—and being inspired and excited by brilliant chordal usage by our mutual heroes that the time, such as Lennon and McCartney especially and George Harrison and Paul Simon—he taught me new chords every week.

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These were golden for me, each one. So hungry and happy to get new information on this, already clearly my life mission, each was received like a gift, knowing each added new synapses in my musical brain that would forever expand my understanding of music. But he did more than teach me new chords; he insisted I write a new song every week using these chords. Which was a brilliant exercise that enriched me both as a guitarist and songwriter. When a chord was in my own song, I found, I learned how to play it! Even the hard ones, like F major, which, as every guitarist knows, is the first really tough chord to play. So my guitar chops quickly expanded. But so did my harmonic vocabulary, the tool bag from which I compose my songs.

I grew up in the beautiful Chicago suburb of Wilmette, just north of the city. At that time Chicago was home to a great and thriving folk music scene with wonderful clubs like the Earl of Old Town that featured local legends Steve Goodman, Bob Gibson, John Prine , Michael Smith, and others. It also had the great Midnight Special radio show on our classical station, WFMT, which, on Saturday nights only, swapped Mozart, Beethoven, and the rest for our heroes Pete and Woody and those heroes coming in their wake. That show, which remains the Chicago equivalent of Carnegie Hall for singer-songwriters, is still on the air.

It was the weekly open mic nights at Steve Goodman’s own club, Somebody Else’s Troubles on Lincoln Avenue, or the Spot by Northwestern University, that I learned how to perform. (It was also at the Spot where I learned to handle hecklers, who were frequent there, drunk on beer and youth, wanting to tangle. I loved it, as I do to this day.)

I took advantage of the generous spirit of many of these artists by asking them to listen to my songs. Armed only with my guitar and that aforementioned chutzpah,I would make my way backstage after shows with hopeful determination. They were a sweet and gentle bunch, and not once did they turn me down.

Steve Goodman was unique among great songwriters in that he could write a brilliant song, such as “City of New Orleans,” which became a hit for Arlo Guthrie, but would also sing and record classics by other great songwriters. It was Steve who introduced John Prine to the world, as he did Michael Smith. Songs by both Prine and Smith represented to me the greatest a songwriter could achieve, the distant star toward which I aspired.

Steve gave me my first songwriting lesson. And to this day the most important one. It was after one of his greatly spirited shows. In a dressing room with lights and mirrors surrounding, I asked if he’d listen to my new song. He smiled, said sure, and handed me his big black acoustic guitar.

He listened carefully, gentle smile in his eyes. When I was done, he waited a beat, and said, “Yeah, you know that was good. That was good. But I could have written that entire song in two lines.”

Brutal criticism! And not what I had expected, having previously received almost unanimous praise for my efforts. But, I recognized, now I was in the major leagues. I wanted to play with the pros, after all, and this was a healthy and warranted dose of reality. It was a little painful initially, but ultimately greatly appreciated. Because I knew he was right: the song did amount to perhaps two lines of actual content, and no more. And rather than be crushed by this criticism, I took it as a challenge. I decided to write songs that made sense. To write something like a Steve Goodman song. Or a John Prine or Michael Smith song. A true story song. With lyrics poetic and musical but that told a story someone could understand. That was the goal anyway. I didn’t always reach it. But I aimed high.

Steve Goodman

My next song was called “Shades of Color” and was inspired by a newspaper story I saw in the Chicago Sun-Times about convicts who painted. This was the story of one such artist, who used art to escape.

This songwriting journey is one every songwriter takes and plays out against the soundtrack of the time one is in. Mine was a time of momentous, meaningful songwriting. In only a handful of years The Beatles progressed from “She Loves You” to “Strawberry Fields” and beyond. I was hyperaware of this evolution, which was intoxicating and electric to me. Nothing seemed more vital or meaningful.

Dylan, Simon, The Beatles, and the others—they expanded the popular song. Without sacrificing anything that made songs great, they showed, as Robbie Robertson said, that anything goes. That a song could contain any topic, and the only limit was the songwriter’s imagination. It was a brave new world.

Then came other geniuses like Randy Newman and Tom Waits into my life, who showed me other parts of town I’d never even considered and where I soon wanted to live. Also there was James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Carole King, Stephen Stills—all doing glorious work but in different ways, and each valid and beautiful.

And as modern standards emerged, enlivened and expanded by this evolution, the world was changed.

I never took any of it lightly. Each new miracle song that arrived in my world was momentous to the extent of changing everything. I remember countless examples, but the most stunning was 1970. I was still in my first year of writing songs. After my dad picked me up from weekly Sunday School at Temple Sholom in the city, we went out for lunch in what was then called Old Town, a hip part of town along Wells Street with great cafés and cool poster and record shops. It was the counterculture realized, the world I was experiencing through song though rarely seeing firsthand, living as I did in a mostly wealthy, white suburb.

After lunch we went to one of these shops. The weather was cold, gray, and biting outside in typical Chicago fashion, making these interiors ever more glowing.

It was there I heard it as soon as we walked in: “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The new single by Simon & Garfunkel. Released prior to the album of the same name.

I nearly swooned. I knew who was singing it. I knew it was our friend Artie. That golden voice so friendly and dear to me, even then, like a brother singing to me. But this was something new, something different. It was something so sweeping, so majestic and triumphant—and yet so warmly amiable, a song of true friendship—that it was utterly enthralling. My dad sweetly purchased the 45 for me, probably knowing there was no way he could pry me out of this store if he didn’t.

I brought it home, went directly to my room to play it, and essentially lived inside that song for months. On the flipside was “Keep the Customer Satisfied,” which I also loved. But “Bridge”—I couldn’t get enough of it. How anyone could write something so beautiful? It was something I really couldn’t fathom. But I sure thought about it:

How exactly did Paul Simon sit down with only a guitar and a pad of paper—same tools that I have—and come away with “Bridge Over Troubled Water”? He looked like a normal human, after all. Like a member of my own family, in fact, which is how I always thought of him, to this day. But no one I ever knew could do that.

It’s that hunger for understanding, that passion for these musical concoctions, that led me to these questions and these volumes. At that time these heroes of mine were often interviewed in the press but rarely queried about songwriting and hardly ever about music itself.

Yet internally I was compiling my own personal lexicon of questions I’d like to ask Paul Simon—or James Taylor, Carole King, Laura Nyro, Randy Newman—or any of those songwriters I revered. How did they do it? Does it seem as miraculous to you as it does to us, your listeners? And how about this song, and this one? How did you wrote those? And does the process seem as magical to you as it does to me?

I knew then of the connection between all songwriters and proudly included myself in this club. As the late great Pete Seeger said in the first interview in the first volume, “All songwriters are links in a chain.” It’s that wisdom that guides this journey and repeats like a refrain through all these pages: the understanding that all songwriters—regardless of genre or generation—are united by this singular pursuit of combining words and music to make songs.

No songwriter learns how to write songs—or even acquires the inclination to do so—in a vacuum. Inspired and enervated by the songs of others, songwriters begin by using these templates of songs known and loved and then expanding from there. We imitate and we emulate that which we love until we discover, ideally, our own voice and our own song. Even Dylan started by imitating Woody Guthrie. (And he wasn’t even the best Woody imitator, according to Woody’s wife Marjorie, in our opening chapter.)

I also wanted to ask about a phenomenon I experienced from the start and knew wasn’t particular only to me. Which was when lines for songs, both musical and lyrical, would simply arrive, like a gift. A line that does everything and more that you need. Where did that come from? They always seemed to come from beyond, as if I was tapping into some timeless and mystic source. And it still feels like that.

Because in that experience exists the essence of songwriting. It is a conscious act to reach beyond the conscious mind, to discover and invent things outside of our usual reach. That is both the challenge and beauty of the thing. Every single songwriter I spoke to had some experience of it, although they perceived it individually. The especially intellectual ones, with no faith in anything spiritual, attribute these experiences to the artist connecting with his own unconscious. Sure, it feels as if it comes from beyond, they say. Because it is beyond your conscious mind, from your own subconscious.

The others—the spiritual ones—scoff at the others’ inability to grasp the truth—and understand songwriters tap into a source that is beyond them but connects all. Rickie Lee Jones, who embodies the faith and openness of the spiritual ones, laughed and said, “Where else would it come from?”

Soon after “Bridge” came another song that, to me, also resounded like a miracle: “Let It Be,” the single by The Beatles, written by Paul McCartney. Again, exalted consciousness. It seemed nothing could be more beautiful. Obsession—I listened to it nonstop. It was all I needed.

Other remarkable songs emerged, songs that stretched and redefined what songs can do. “Mr. Tambourine Man,” written by Dylan but performed by the Byrds. “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor. “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by Stephen Stills. “American Pie” by Don McLean. “Hello in There” by John Prine. “Louisiana” and “Sail Away” by Randy Newman. Everything by Laura Nyro. And so many more.

These songs, if I listen to them today, still send me. They bring me back to when I first heard them—but forward too. Their power is undiminished by passing time. And therein lies the beauty and magic and power of the song: it is a forever renewable source. It is a vessel of grace and spirit, impervious to the wear and tear of the physical world.

This exalted song consciousness doesn’t belong only to the distant past. To this day I am forever excited and even surprised by the extent to which great songs can still send me. So many times in recent days I have found myself walking down Hollywood Boulevard and confronting a song so utterly compelling, I need to stop and take it in. Whether it’s something fairly new, such as “Chandelier” by Sia, a recent favorite, or something classic, I will be transported. There’s one store that only plays Michael Jackson, and whether I go by and hear “Billie Jean” or “Man in the Mirror,” I have to stop. Stop and feel the magic. Every time.

So when I got the lucky job in Hollywood, 1987, of becoming editor of SongTalk, which was the journal of the National Academy of Songwriters, my mission became to interview legendary songwriters—and ask them only about songwriting. Of course, it’s a big subject and encompasses a lot of corollary issues. But the main focus was always on music and the creative process, which invariably led to good places. Music, after all, is the realm in which these people live and in which their genius flourishes. Yet rarely can they discuss the actual technicalities of music itself with the press, as most writers are not musicians.

But if I asked Brian Wilson, for example, about colors associated with musical keys in his mind, he opened up. Or if I mentioned to Paul Simon, for example, the cunning of the subtle key change in the last verse of “Still Crazy After All These Years,” his eyes lit up, and we connected in a whole new way.

Or when I spoke to Dylan about the essence of the key of A minor in “One More Cup of Coffee,” our conversation instantly deepened.

(“Try it in B minor.” Why? I asked. “Because it might be a hit for you.”)

This was the pattern always. As soon as I would let on that I was a fellow musician, the conversation would shift. Musicians simply speak differently to fellow musicians, and songwriters to fellow songwriters, than to civilians. It is a whole other language. Yet it’s an abstract and vaporous thing to discuss, a genuine mystery even to those who have written music for decades. But it’s where we live.

Because as songwriters know well—and was exemplified in Volume I—there are no easy answers about songwriting. Not one of these legendary songwriters divulged a secret or a trick that would make songwriting easy. Because it is not easy. When I first realized that Simon, for example, while writing songs for Graceland and subsequent albums, had jettisoned his old tried-and-true method of writing a song with voice and guitar and was, instead, writing songs to musical tracks, I thought it was an especially hard way to write songs.

He agreed. “Yes, it is hard,” he said. “But all of songwriting is hard. There are no easy ways.”

And, of course, he’s right. There is no formula or no repeatable method for the writing of a great song. Because as Lennon said and all songwriters understand, any one of us could sit down and write a song right now. Given a title—even a key, a tempo—we can sit down and write a song. But a great one? A timeless one? That is the goal. And how you get to those ones—the songs that seem beyond, even beyond the songwriter who wrote them—that remains a mystery.

But part of being a songwriter is the passion to embrace this mystery. As Leonard Cohen said in Volume I, “Songwriting is much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.”

That level of devotion resonates with songwriters because it’s accurate. It’s a daily pursuit of something unseen, even unknown, and you fling yourself directly into this unknown, sustained by nothing but faith and courage. And love. The love of songs, of music, sustains us. The religiosity in Mr. Cohen’s words rang true in my heart and mind, as I know it did for songwriters everywhere, because we recognize that songwriting is a high calling and perhaps the purest and holiest thing we do.

“The world doesn’t need any new songs,” Dylan told me, with a sly smile. But to this he added the qualification: “Unless someone comes along with a pure heart.”

A pure heart. That is the essence of great songwriting, the well from which Woody Guthrie drew, as did those who came in his wake. They came for the pure love of song. Even when writing on a commercial assignment—as did Leiber and Stoller when writing songs for the movie Jailhouse Rock starring Elvis, or Jeff Barry and the Brill Building writers, or Norman Whitfield and the Motown gang—they connected with the pure heart of music, the love of song.

For songs—and songwriting itself—is a source of joy. We don’t work music; we play it. Being playful and connecting with joy is the essence of the thing, even for those who find the process torturous. It’s only tough up to that point when you get something that works. Then it becomes joyful.

As Laura Nyro said, for her songwriting was a “serious playground.” When writing songs, she said she felt that “you are really with your essence.<el>There can be delight there. There can be self-discovery. You can dance there.” Jimmy Webb said, “I am like a kid with a jigsaw puzzle. A glittering, magical jigsaw puzzle.”

It’s a journey of joy I’ve been on for a long time. The year I wrote my first one is also the year The Beatles broke up. It was one of those occurrences so significant, as was the death of John Lennon, that it seemed the world wouldn’t go on. But it did, and it always does. As Stephen Stills wrote, “We have no choice but to carry on.” And it’s the songwriters who make life endurable in these times, who give us hope to carry on even when it seems all hope is lost.

Jimmy Webb

To this day music still matters as much as ever, if not more. Songs still matter. Though I am well known as an author of this and other volumes, my greatest joy is the writing of a new song. I quote Van Dyke Parks’s statement that the writing of a song is a triumph of the human spirit all the time because it is so true.

And concurrent with writing these books and other writing about music (and Hollywood history: Hollywood Remembered is another compendium of my love and obsessions), I have continued on the golden path of writing songs, and it’s been a rich and wonderful journey.

Songwriting is an ancient endeavor, dating back to the dawn of man. The first book about a songwriter was the bible, with the psalms composed by King David. Psalms that spoke to man more directly and fully than mere words ever could. There is no epoch of history or any culture that existed without music. Many historians maintain song preceded spoken language.

Songs, for successive eons, have been integral to every human occasion, from momentous events such as weddings and funerals to mundane ones like elevator trips and supermarket shopping. Songs fan the flames of war, celebrate victories, and envision peace and a world beyond war. Songs are written and sung in rage and protest, in an effort to change the world. Songs are also there to celebrate the beauty of the world and the greatness of existence. The need for song—for this attempt to make sense of the world with words and music—is deeply rooted in humans and as primal and necessary as the need for love.

Now headlong into this twenty-first century, with miracle technology forever at our fingertips changing our world profoundly, still nothing has surpassed the power of a song. New technologies have forever changed the way we acquire, collect, and listen to songs. But never have songs and the need for songs in our lives been supplanted. Despite what Dylan said, the world absolutely needs new songs.

The truth remains that whether a song is heard by millions or by only one, it matters. It is truly a triumph of the human spirit. Here is a deep and joyful journey into the heart of the mysteries from which these triumphs emerge. It’s there, in that timeless place where words and music meet, that Bob Dylan’s words resonate forever: “Thank God for songwriters.”

End of Part Two.
See Part One here.

Ready to learn more about the craft of songwriting?

Since 1984, American Songwriter has helped songwriters stay up to date, become inspired, and hone their craft. Many of the artists and songwriters we feature have been reading American Songwriter for years. Now, you can join them.

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  1. Thanks for reminding me why I have tortured myself all these years. What could be more rewarding than to write a song that becomes a world all its own. Pure joy!

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