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The loneliness of the long-distance singer-songwriter

April 13, 2012

This column is a special happy birthday greeting to friends Darren McDonald and Ken “The Dutchman” Goudswaard.

One of my favourites moments from the old The Larry Sanders Show on HBO beautifully illustrates the mixed blessing successful singer-songwriters must feel from time to time.

The skit centres around Warren Zevon’s appearance on the fictitious talk show. Backstage, he warns Artie (Rip Torn), the show’s producer, that he does not want to perform his signature song, “Werewolves on London,” even if it is a personal favourite of host Larry (Garry Shandling).

“Every single show I do I play ‘Werewolves of London,’ you know, it’s driving me fucking crazy,” he says.

Excitable Boy

Warren Zevon, creator and victim of "Werewolves of London"

He agrees to perform another oldie, “The French Inhaler,” but when they suddenly find themselves with a couple of minutes of extra time, Larry makes a special request for one of his personal favourites…. Zevon is a good sport and complies, but there’s no mistaking the look of contempt on his face in this classic moment of cringe comedy. (The clip, like every other moment of television history it seems, can be found on YouTube. )

Many times I’ve wondered how often singer-songwriters like Zevon, who write a career full of great songs but are known popularly for a single tune, must get asked to play that one damned song.

There is no shortage of these people. These are just a few that spring to mind:

· Rickie Lee Jones – There was a lot more to her than “Chuck E.’s in Love.” Her world was a mix of beatnikery and Rebel Without a Cause, or maybe a bit West Side Story. I know Jones has her detractors, but I’ve always had a soft spot for The Magazine, which has some of the best horn arrangements I’ve ever heard, while Flying Cowboys has to be one of my more unsung albums from the 1980s.

· Suzanne Vega – I’d heard a couple of tracks off her debut and was intrigued enough to buy it. When her next album, Solitude Standing, came out, I was happy to see the song “Luka” get her some much-deserved attention. She produced some fine material after this, but she has never really had anything resembling a hit single since. (Note: “Tom’s Diner,” off the same disk as “Luka,” was also pretty big.)

· Loudon Wainwright III – The misanthropic melody maker has been hard at work for decades. He’s one of those rare songwriters who can make you laugh and squirm in the same verse. When I saw him in concert last year, he had to tell the audience he’d forgotten how to play most of his old tunes. I had to wonder if his 1972 novelty hit “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” was among the casualties.

Over the years, the charts have been littered with “one-hit wonders,” but these typically are bands or singers who have their 15 minutes of fame before they head to the delete bin and anonymity.

In theory, you could attach the label to singer-songwriters with one huge hit on their resume, but it doesn’t quite fit. The ones listed above never reached the kind of superstardom that would have them playing sports arenas one day, then scrambling to play some shitty dive the next. Many top singer-songwriters start in clubs and that’s where they stay. The luckiest ones carve out an existence year after year playing larger rooms. Think Leonard Cohen, Lucinda Williams, John Prine….

They’re also different from the Tin Pan Alley or Brill Building hit-makers of the past that made a living churning out songs for other people. (There are obvious exceptions to this rule like Carole King or Laura Nyro whose songs were both hits for themselves and for other artists. I’d also include one of my idols, Randy Newman, although he must have had a few Zevon-like moments following 1977’s “Short People.”)

Singer-songwriters are a different breed. Unlike one-hit wonders, they’re built for the long haul, and while the 1970s is often described as the heyday of the singer-songwriter, if you look hard enough now, you’ll find a staggering number of great ones from the last decade or two. (Paste magazine, back in its print incarnation, produced a good issue on the 100 best living singer-songwriters, which provides a good overview of some of the folks.)

Most of the contemporary songwriters just haven’t had any monster hits to make them household names or get them on many magazine covers. They simply don’t produce the kind of food upon which the beast that is pop music dines.

Most never even have their work show up on classic album lists. After all, they’re more song-centric, aren’t they? Many struggle, but they keep recording, touring and writing over long careers. They persist, doing what they do, despite a mostly indifferent world that just wants to hear that one same bloody song again and again – and that’s if they’re one of the lucky ones.

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From → Essays

4 Comments
  1. Ken is Dutch?

  2. Barbara Cross permalink

    You know Mike, one of my regrets in life is that you and I didn’t keep our friendship active after j-school. Your blog, and this post in particular, reminds me that we really are soulmates on some level. Growing up in small-town Saskatchewan in the 1970s, I didn’t have the access to truly discover music and had to take what I could out of mainstream pop/rock. As an adult I spent too many years with an insecure musician who took some kind of offence if I wandered away from what he thought was worthwhile music. But that’s the past, and I’ve been going through a bit of a musical awakening over the last few years. I now live well off the musical beaten path and it’s like my life has opened up. A lot of the people you mention above are in my collection, and the one that really resonated for me is Randy Newman, who I had totally written off based on Short People – and then I stumbled across Louisiana 1927 several years ago. Our musical taste isn’t identical – I suspect partly because yours is much more mature than mine is. But from reading your blog, your playlist and mine certainly intersect, and I think we respond to music in a similar way.

    • Yeah, I agree. I’ve lost contact with so many people over the years. Part of that is that chaos of my adult life. I think I figured out I’d moved about 25 times in as many years. As annoying and trivial as Facebook can be, I do find it a help when it comes to reconnecting. Anyway, I’ll try to get in touch soon, or if you’re in ToonTown, let me know.

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