Curiosity! I think that’s what drives the creative process for young songwriters. That’s what drove me over 50 years ago. Like so many of my generation, I was thrown into the fantasy of being a rock and roller. It happened on that electrifying moment on a Sunday night, February 9, 1964, at 8 PM Eastern, when The Beatles glowed into living rooms across America on the Ed Sullivan Show.
I was overwhelmed! They were so very cool. In a world of Steve Lawrences and Dean Martins, it was a group, with guitars and amps and drums. What a concept! …And now it was scaring the hell out of our parents! Wow, kids could really do that?
I was galvanized! Isolated in a small Western Pennsylvania town, I didn’t know that there were thousands of my generation whose passions had been moved in that same way, at that same moment, in cities and town all across the country. I guess I hadn’t signed up to Facebook yet!
I had dropped practicing scales, and what I apparently thought was the pointless weekly routine of piano lessons, when I left elementary school. Suddenly, I wanted to play again! Like so many of us, we got three or four buddies and we set up camp in the garage or the basement. We learned a 1-4-5 progression and E, D, A, and we could stagger through a full set of pop songs.
I pulled together a bag full of other influences, like everyone else. Mine were American artists like Bob Dylan, Donovan, The Rascals, Three Dog Night, Dion DiMucci, and of course, the plethora of bands from the British Invasion. The Stones, Dave Clark Five, and The Kinks, were among them. And then me and my buddies went out and played school dances and parking lots and eventually gravitated to playing the bars and clubs along the New York State border, where the drinking age was 18, versus 21 in Pennsylvania.
The turmoil and sea change in America was led by the civil rights movement, and soul music spoke to the issues. Earlier in the ‘60s, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Going To Come” was an exotic and mysterious thought to a kid from a small, almost entirely white rural community. However, it meshed with Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changing.” And then Stephen Stills seemingly pulled our consciousness together. “Something’s happening here…”
We were just a couple of years past the horrible assassination of John Kennedy. No matter what your politics, the lingering pain that hope and happiness had died, pushed our desire for change. It instilled a restlessness that seemed pervasive among the young.
Then, my second TV epiphany happened. I think it was in 1967. I recall it was a Saturday afternoon. Flipping around the few channels we had, I landed upon a random live concert, which I believe was from the Ohio State Fair. The Chambers Brothers were performing “Time Has Come Today.” It sunk in.
Then, a new band followed. Black and white. Soul and rock. Horns and guitars. Afros. Shirtless. Hippiness from San Francisco. It was “Dance To The Music” and then… “There is a blue one, who can’t accept a green one, for living with a fat one…” Sly and his outrageously musical band consumed me with passion. Music was in charge. Music was power and sexuality. Music was thinking. Music was social and political. Music was the new journalism.
The world was out of control. A war was raging. Friends were getting drafted. People I knew were coming home in boxes. Others came back alive, but were frightfully screwed up on drugs. It scared the shit out of me.
Martin Luther King was shot. Bobby Kennedy was shot.
The songs became even more pointed. It was like Barry McGuire’s 1965 hit “Eve of Destruction” was coming to fruition. Marvin Gaye asked “What’s Goin’ On?” and Edwin Starr emphatically questioned, “War…What is it good for?” And Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong captured the chaos with The Temps’ “Ball of Confusion.”
…And others offered hope. Cat Stevens exhorted us with “Peace Train,” and John Lennon galvanized our inner hope with his emphatic pleas of “Give Peace A Chance” and “Imagine.”
Oh, it wasn’t all high-minded social commentary. There was the genius of Roger Miller’s novelty. “Dang Me,” “My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died,” and Shirley Ellis’ addictive rhyme, “The Name Game.” Songs scripted every emotion of our lives.
Yeah, I wanted to be a songwriter. They were the movers and shakers of a generation. They cut through the BS with three minutes of clarity.
Amazingly enough, I got my chance. After establishing myself with a music business day job as a journalist and then a publicist, by the late ‘70s, I actually got to write with a couple of my idols. To write lyrics for Dion DiMucci and Felix Cavaliere is still a little bit surreal for me. They are true giants in the world of rock and pop since its very beginnings. And the experiences of collaborating with them still rings magically in my heart and mind.
However, by 1980, I had spent fifteen years establishing a career in the music business. And in my spare time (which was becoming almost non-existent), I was spending every waking hour writing. Boxes of unrequited lyrics – scraps of notepads, napkins, words and rhymes — stared at me quietly. I was speaking with no voice.
My passions were diverted to creating strategies for other artists and writers. How to get through the corporate world of the music business? How to get a massive marketing machine hitting on all 8 cylinders? How to cut through the maze for people whose talent often far exceeded mine? I became a surrogate, creating marketing plans, fixing problems, and helping artists navigate “the system.”
Yes, songwriting had been pushed to the back of my cranium. In many ways it seemed it was a place for younger people to explore. Curiosity! Trying things. Trying to figure out the world. Testing your thinking about young adult discoveries.
So 50 years pass. Songwriting? There’s no need to go there again. Hey, there’s no “demand” to go there again!
And then one day, an old friend, indie artist extraordinaire, Gary Lucas called. I had recently encouraged him to write with Jann Klose, a singer/songwriter with a wonderful voice. I thought their talents would complement each other, and Gary assured me that they had.
He also asked me a question. “Hey, you write lyrics. Why don’t you write with us?”
Dan, Jann, Gary
At 65 years old, why do I need to go there again? I could only fail. It’s like I imagined an old man trying to date again. Clumsy, stupid, and no sense of style or timing. And that’s painful to watch!
So thanks to Gary and Jann for their willingness and graciousness to allow me to climb up on that horse again, we wrote. It’s all the fun of scrabble with friends! Fitting words together. Getting into the same rhythm and attitude and emotion. I didn’t try to do anything outside of myself. I love and admire much of the poetry of rap… but I don’t rap. All I could do was go back to my roots of songwriting and see if it still had any relevance.
And let’s look at relevance for a moment. At what age does it end? At what age do you stop dancing? At what age do you stop thinking with whatever ability to do so that you have left? It all comes to an end, but can there be grace to the encore of our relevance?
Life’s too fast, and I’m too slow.
You dream too high, you come to know…
You’re born with nothing, you die with less.
I’m livin’ in the well of loneliness.
I could have embarrassed myself trying to write popular songs at this stage of life. And maybe I did! But maybe I embarrassed myself at 15 too. I was young and I was curious. Now, I am getting old… and I’m curious.
Yes, I am curious, and maybe that makes me young again. And as I begin this New Year, my resolve is to be curious. My hope is that we all seek out our curiosity. That we continue to discover. Travel. Read. Re-discover friends. Understand our families in new ways. Explore something new!
And if you are curious about those songs, judge for yourself, as Gary Lucas & Jann Klose present their new album “Stereopticon.” The three of us co-produced the album. Gary and Jann co-wrote all of the songs and I collaborated on six of them. And if you do listen by chance, I thank you!
…And if I embarrassed myself, just remember that I’m a curious old guy!
STEREOPTICON can be found on all digital stores, including iTunes at https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/stereopticon/id1065240432 and on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B018ZPIXGE
Watch the “Secret Wings” video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvNeh8ozt_I