The great American songwriter talks film scores, Sinatra, Family Guy and the ‘mystery chord’
You’re credited as one of the writers on ¡Three Amigos!… what did that involve?
Harlan Guthrie, Ontario
Well, the songs were all mine – “The Ballad Of The Three Amigos”, “Blue Shadows” and “My Little Buttercup”, where the Three Amigos hit that long note – but for once I also ended up contributing to the script. It was mainly Steve [Martin] and Lorne [Michaels], but I came up with some ideas. It was a very collaborative process – one of the few genuinely collaborative episodes I’ve been involved in – and it involved us all chipping in with ideas and developing other people’s jokes. I honestly can’t remember what lines I wrote. All I can remember is Steve’s jokes that I wished I’d written, like where they go into this rough bar wearing stage Mexican outfits and say, “We’re not Mexicans…” I remember having a long debate with Steve about the line “the bells tolled with a loud ding”. That got funnier the more we discussed it.
I’ve read you find songwriting rather excruciating. I feel the same way – co-writing can add yet another dimension of pain. Do you feel there’s a qualitative difference between songs that come from one writer versus a team?
I remember Gretchen supporting me in Boulder in ’79, and she was great. I like the idea that co-writing adds another layer of pain! Of course, I’ve done very little co-writing. I wrote some songs with Jackie DeShannon when I was 18, and a song with Bobby Darin, too. But I have to say I can seldom hear a difference between a collaborative song and a song written by a single writer. From experience, I’d say there’s a tendency for a solo songwriter to be more personal and soul-searching. But then you compare Irving Berlin and Rodgers & Hart and it turns that assumption on its head.
Your lyrics crack me up. What makes you laugh?
You know, I’ve been watching Absolutely Fabulous lately. It’s not often on round here. But man, that’s funny. And it’s the meanest goddam thing I ever saw – the load that’s put on that daughter, Saffy! I like that. I mainly watch TV comedy, stuff like Reno 911, Modern Family, Raising Hope. And I watch a lot of old shows like The Honeymooners. I need to see more stand-ups. Louis CK, I’ve heard many really bright people telling me that he’s very funny. The two things I’ve seen by him were straight masturbation, that’s all it was about. But maybe I need to see more of him.
Do you miss the days of the Brill Building? And do you think we lost something when pop stars were expected to write their own material?
Kevin MacAteer, Aberdeen
Well, when I started out I was certainly in awe of Carole King. If I ever had a hero, of any kind, it was her. I maybe never gave [Gerry] Goffin the credit he deserved because I wasn’t paying much attention to the lyrics. I would occasionally compete to write songs for Gene McDaniels or Bobby Gee or Little Peggy March, but she would always get them, and I understood why, because she was really good. And I also have great affection for Mann and Weil and Sedaka and Howie Greenfield. But no, I don’t think the emergence of the singer-songwriter was a bad thing. I liked that being an artist wasn’t purely cosmetic. And I’m sure there are still people with the talent of a Carole King who are writing material. I don’t think things got worse.
How do you feel now that Dobie Gray is gone?
Oh, I feel worse. I love periods of Southern soul, particularly the New Orleans stuff. Bobby Charles and Dr John and so on. Dobie Gray had some terrific musicians playing on his records. And it seems like one of the greats from that era seems to pass on every few months. Still, it just means that there are now more great gigs for me…