American Icons: The Test Of Time
(Photo: Lorca Cohen)
“They just don’t write songs like they used to.” How many times have you heard that one? When I was a kid, people from my parents’ generation would often say this, referring to the great songs of Tin Pan Alley they grew up with as rendered by great vocalists like Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, and comparing them to what they saw as the musical junk food we kids were then consuming, your Beatles, Stones, Monkees, etc. To them the possibility that some of these long-haired scruffy young men like Lennon & McCartney were writing great songs didn’t exist. The visuals then, perhaps as they do now, distracted from the music. And though all of us were intent never to turn into our parents, I hear my friends and peers frequently making the same kind of judgment – that nobody writes great songs anymore.
Of course, what constitutes a great song is a subjective determination. Certainly if a song becomes a hit, then the marketplace has spoken. Although, as we all know, people make great records all the time of not-so-great songs – what makes a record great isn’t what makes a song great, and so commercial success isn’t always an accurate estimation of the song’s power. A much surer and purer test is the test of time: any song that people want to hear years after its emergence is a successful song. This is, after all, the requirements of a “standard” – any song that outlives its own time.
And so while there were some doubts that no songs would become standards written outside of the age of Tin Pan Alley (the age that led to the writing of the mythic “Great American Songbook”), those doubts were unfounded. The numbers are in: among the top ten most recorded songs of all time are standards written by Gershwin (“Summertime,” with lyrics by Dubose Heyward) and Arlen (“Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” with lyrics by E.Y. Harburg) as well as songs written by John Lennon (“Imagine”) and Paul McCartney (the aforementioned “Yesterday.”) “Yesterday” is, in fact, the world’s most recorded song. It’s a remarkable yet real example of the potential of a single song; there are a staggering seven million recorded cover versions by a necessarily vast range of singers, including Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Liberace, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Plácido Domingo and Daffy Duck. Muzak’s elevator and shopping mall music has included 500 different covers of “Yesterday.” Evidently McCartney did something right, even in terms Irving Berlin would respect. Even Tin Pan Alley champion Sinatra acknowledged the presence of new standards, singing what he called his “favorite Lennon and McCartney composition,” the song “Something,” written by George Harrison.
And so we shouldn’t be too quick to pass judgment on songs we might deem worthless. I’m certainly guilty of it myself by turning on pop radio in the car. I hear what sounds to me on first listening like a lot of digital confection; artificially contrived musical confections that seem devoid of any warmth, soul or grace. It’s like wandering into a ghost town, having expected Times Square. Where did everybody go? And I catch myself. And it brings to mind what Leonard Cohen told me when I asked him if this happened to him, or if he felt meaningful songs were still being written.
“There are always meaningful songs for somebody,” he said. “People are doing their courting, people are finding their wives, people are making babies, people are washing their dishes, people are getting through the day with songs that we may find insignificant. But their significance is affirmed by others. There’s always someone affirming the significance of a song by taking a woman into his arms or by getting through the night. That’s what dignifies the song. Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activity dignifies the song.”
This is an understanding that has opened my mind, and is beneficial for any songwriter to embrace. That although Dylan insisted, in my 1991 interview with him, that “the world don’t need any more songs,” in fact new songs are always necessary, songs to match the singular dynamic of the times in which we’re living. Dylan did add a qualifier to his previous statement: “Unless someone comes along with a pure heart and something to say.” So even cognizant as he is – perhaps more than most – of the sheer and staggering glut of songs that already exist in our world – he recognizes that a song from a pure heart, well, that’s welcome any time. Especially now.
After all, the music industry obviously isn’t what it used to be, as any attempt to find a record store in your average American city will attest. But though the industry is in mid-cataclysmic freefall, music itself continues to thrive, and people stay almost constantly connected to some source of music, be it an iPod, a car radio, or a TV show. Regardless of one’s opinion of shows like American Idol, there’s no disregarding the fact that it’s about songs. And not only are great songs still being written, but they are being appreciated maybe more than ever. A great example is Leonard Cohen’s miraculous “Hallelujah,” which was never a hit for Mr. Cohen, and is a song that has been elevated to the level of a standard simply because it’s great. And like the great songs of the past, it’s a song many singers want to sing. It shows the world will always need new songs. And so, my fellow songwriters, our work is far from done.