American Icons: What I’ve Learned

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Paul Zollo interviews David Crosby at the Belly Up Club in Aspen, Colorado. 2002.

In commemoration of our 30th  anniversary, rather than focus on a single songwriting icon, as is my usual focus, I wanted to take this opportunity to discuss lessons I’ve learned from doing this work.

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Probably the most profound and surprising lesson learned was that these songwriters who have written famous songs, even standards, are humans. Like us. That none of these songwriters are superhuman, though the songs they created are timeless and everywhere at once. Growing up, these people – Paul Simon, James Taylor, Paul McCartney, for example – were true heroes, writing and singing the songs that impacted our every day. They were the people who punctured the ordinary, the mundane, to make something extraordinary and timelessly inspirational.

So I figured they were impervious to any human frailty, be it fear, insecurity or envy. But, of course, I was wrong. They are people. Which makes their accomplishments all the more profound, because they didn’t snatch these songs full-blown from Olympus, but from hard, often solitary, work. Still, it was surprising to me that any of them would be impacted at all by criticism, or record sales. I felt they were above it all. But no songwriter lives above it all, even those who have been to the very peak of the songwriting mountain of success and fame. In fact, having enormous success at any point in your career can become a burden, as one is forever expected to repeat or surpass that success, and if they don’t, they are considered has-beens. As in, “Yes, you were so great three years ago – what happened?”

The truth is that it’s the humanity of songwriters – their deep well of emotion – that empowers them to write the songs they wrote. James Taylor told me that criticism in a different publication paralyzed him for years. Paul Simon told me sales for his great Hearts And Bones album were so low, relative to the giant success of previous albums, that he felt he “failed.” Tom Petty told me his label initially rejected Full Moon Fever because they “didn’t hear any hits.” (When it was eventually released, there were four hits.)

Given this, the extent of their accomplishment is all the more impressive. Because it takes a whole lot of confidence to write a song for the world to hear. As Patti Smith told me in describing the difference between writing poems and songs, the poems are written for that small group of people who read poems, whereas songs are written for the entire world, and for all time. And for that reason, songwriting is harder. The challenge is greater.

This led to the recognition that, unlike previous centuries when poetry was the art of the people, it isn’t anymore. It’s an art for the elite. It is songwriters who have taken over that mantle, and who still write of modern times in rhythm and in rhyme – as did the poets of yore – and doing so, speak directly to our hearts and our minds. It is song – not poetry – that people turn to now for meaning and comfort and inspiration.

It also made me realize that no songs are insignificant, even those we may deem shallow or undeserving of repeat listenings.  When I asked Leonard Cohen if he felt meaningful songs were still being written, he related poignantly his belief that “there is always someone taking a woman into their arms with a song we might find insignificant,” and that “songs don’t dignify human activity, human activity dignifies songs.”

I’ve also come to realize something I already knew, but now wave like a flag constantly, to encourage myself and my fellow songwriters. And that is what Van Dyke Parks told me: “The writing of a song is a triumph of the human spirit.” This is maybe the most important revelation of all, as our culture is geared to assume that business success alone equals triumph, and lack of that means failure. Yet the truth is that the writing of a song – and its completion – is a triumph, separate from the business. And that the business itself isn’t designed to promote this understanding, quite the opposite.

In fact, when I started doing this work back in the ’80s, several legendary songwriters – including Frank Zappa and Todd Rundgren – told me this music business is a racket. A racket? I truly didn’t understand what they meant, so naïve was I. To me, any professional success meant you were in songwriting Valhalla forever, far from human concerns. Now I know. The business itself is geared towards promoting that which is presently successful, not something new and brave. It’s the reason Capitol Records originally rejected The Beatles, because no bands had hits right then, only solo artists did. Of course, things shifted, as they always do, and those Beatles did pretty well for Capitol. Livingston & Evans, the songwriters of “Silver Bells,” “Que Sera” and other standards, told me every one of their famous songs was originally rejected. When I asked what lesson this taught them, they answered in unison: “Nobody knows!” By which they meant nobody in the business knows. It’s up to the songwriter to know.

The industry also is in the business of segregating songwriters and musicians so as to market music easily into separate bins.  But musicians – and lovers of music – all know that all music is one, and all songwriters are united by this singularly delicate endeavor of combining words and music into songs. As Pete Seeger said, “All songwriters are links in a chain.” We’re all connected. We’re unified in this ongoing work – this work that, unlike most modern endeavors, has been going on for ages – of translating our modern lives into song. Those of us who do this all the time – despite the tendencies and shifts within the industry itself – and despite the vagaries and challenges of simply existing in these times – are heroes. As Bob Dylan said, “Thank God for songwriters.”

This article appears in our January/February 2015 “30th Anniversary” issue. Subscribe here

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