I’d Love to Write Another Song

Selected Lyrics
Ira Gershwin, Robert Kimball, ed.

Perhaps you’ve heard the same things I have.

That verse is the purest form of writing.  Language distilled to its essence. The form that requires the most effort not just of the poet, but of the reader.

Maybe all that leaves you less terrified than it does me.

Yet, really, I’m up to my ears in poetry. Lyric poetry. Music isn’t just background for me. It plays constantly. I can’t imagine a day without it and I can quote lyrics until listeners flee the scene hands clasped tightly to the sides of their heads.

There’s a good chance some of those lyrics were penned by Ira Gershwin, half of the greatest American songwriting partnership of the 20th century. If we can give global prizes to plagiarizing pop stars we ought to be able to find a place in the firmament for an earlier incarnation of a commercially-minded lyricist.

One of the claims made for songwriters who emerged after World War II is that they were serious people dealing with serious subjects rather than the twaddle of earlier, perhaps less serious times. Racism, nuclear annihilation, neo-colonial wars, expanding consciousness, this was meaty, and remunerative, stuff. By contrast, Mr. Gershwin made his money the old-fashioned way–on Broadway.

Broadway was big business a hundred years ago, where stars, songs and fortunes were made.

Well, I’m not buying it. Love songs–even treacly ones with overly-obvious rhymes–are just a staple. Even the Bard of Hibbing has written a few.

That brings me back to the elder Gershwin. Born near the close of the 19th century into an immigrant family in New York, by 1924 Ira and his brother George had their first Broadway hit, Of Thee I Sing. Over the next nearly decade and a half, they wrote some of the greatest songs ever contributed to the great American songbook.

The melodies of those songs stuck in your head, and so did the lyrics. Long before the rock critics fetishized the idea of lyrics written in an authentic voice Ira Gershwin strived to make his lyrics sound the way people actually talk.

That last statement is not without its caveats. Perhaps I should have added the phrase, “in Broadway musicals.” Gershwin wrote primarily for the theatre and more specifically for musical theatre. There wasn’t then, and may not be now, a lot of latitude for walking too far away from the boy-meets-girl formula.

The Gershwin brothers, George (l) and Ira (r), arguably the greatest sibling songwriting team ever.

Whether the source material springs from  Shakespeare or Michener there’s almost always some couple that ought to be together, can’t seem to get together, approaches getting together, fails to get together and , then, almost always winds up together.  Scoff at it if you will, entertainment is a business and the proof is in the box office receipts. And, in the best cases, the songs.

That brings me back to the Gershwins because, honestly, the songs are glorious, doing what every great song does: packing an emotional wallop at exactly the right moment.  Consider the start of one Gershwin-penned refrain: “They’re writing songs of love, but not for me.” You don’t even need to know the plot to figure out where this one fits in. I’d even suggest this walks right up to the line between empathy and bathos.

But that refrain rolls on and I find myself retreating from muttering “Oh, brother” to myself. The singer laments the dead ends of her love life in words only Ira Gershwin could pen: “With Love to lead the way,/I’ve found more clouds of grey/than any Russian play/could guarantee.” Really? A Russian play?

Wait, there’s more. “I was a fool to fall/And get that way/Hi-jo alas/And also lack-a-day”  For all its corniness, is there any better retort to getting ditched than “Hi-ho, alas and also lack-a-day?” I wished I’d known it during my dating days.

The B side of this Long Island band’s last single is one of the great “I was dumped” songs. Click the image to hear it.

Okay, okay, I get it. Cry in your beer songs are a dime a dozen; at any given moment half the songwriters in Nashville are probably working on one. At least in song, though, love is binary, so if the guy’s going to get the girl (or the girl the guy, or the guy the guy,  or the girl the girl, or, well, you get the picture)  you’ve got to do triumphant, too.

Gershwin, again: “They all laughed at Christopher Columbus, when he said the world was round/they all laughed when Edison recorded sound.” There’s an opener, for you.  The naysaying continues, rhyming all the while and listing an all-American crew who wouldn’t take no for an answer in their particular endeavors: the Wright Brothers, Marconi, Eli Whitney, Robert FultonHenry Ford, Milton Hershey. It’s a veritable Who’s Who of American commercial and inventive heros .

And it’s all in the service of having hung the moon. Here’s the payoff:

They laughed at me wanting you
Said it would be, “Hello, Goodbye.”
And oh, you came through
Now they’re eating humble pie

They all said we’d never get together
Darling, let’s take a bow
For ho, ho, ho!
Who’s got the last laugh?
Hee, hee, hee!
Let’s at the past laugh
Ha, ha, ha!
Who’s got the last laugh now?”

The Brill building at 1619 Broadway. Through these doors walked some amazing songwriters on their way to work. Click the image for a neat blog post on its history.

I may be alone in thinking this, but wordplay is a craft. You don’t just get up and do it, at least not without a lot of practice.  You could rightly complain about spoon/moon/June triplets. Ira Gershwin operates on a distinctly different level where anything from real estate to Russian philosophers might be put in the service of the song.

The rap is that before Sondheim and Dylan a bunch of hacks sat around the Brill Building with the thesaurus open on the piano. I think that’s wrong, or at least short-sighted. Those hacks include Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Doc Pomus, Neil Diamond and even Chip Taylor, the man who gave us “Wild Thing.

Maybe treating them and Ira Gershwin more like poets isn’t such a bad idea.


In Funky Denim Wonderland

Rock Me on the Water
Ronald Brownstein

I was feeling more kvetch-y than usual when I started this post, a state I attributed to the unusually cold temperature and my self-imposed house arrest.  Fast forward a couple of weeks and my mood has improved along with the weather.

So I may end up being more charitable than when I started writing. We’ll see about that.

One thing I will not do is abandon my decision to Continue reading

What’ll I Do?

The Year in Music: The Titular Playlist

Lately, I seem to be making a lot of excuses.  Many starts, few finishes. A lack of sticktoitiveness that may eventually call my birthright citizenship into question.

I could attribute this lassitude (it’s not quite yet sloth) to many things. But such musings seem to beckon me to a darker place I’m not in the mood to visit. Despite today’s Arctic temperatures, I think it’s important to acknowledge the good fortune I have. We all have struggles. And we all have blessings. It’s important to remember that and be as kind as we can to one another.

In the spirit of kindness, or completeness, or at least not-breaking-a streak-ness, the least I can do is wrap up, as I usually do, with a playlist drawn from the year’s post titles. I hope I’ve cast a wide enough net to include a song you already you like or a tune you didn’t know that catches your fancy. Paul Simon lamented songs that voices never share. I feel the same way about music in general, so I hope you find some pleasure in it.

Happy Listening! Have a great New Year!

  1. Redemption Song-Bob Markey and the Wailers, 1980
  2. I’m Gonna Go Fishin’–Ella Fitzgerald, 1962
  3. Who Invented These Lists–Little Man Tate, 2006
  4. He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother–The Hollies, 1969
  5. My Spine is the Bassline*–Shriekback, 1983
  6. It’s All in the Game–Freddy Fender, 1991
  7. I Had a Real Good Mother and Father–Gillian Welch, 2003
  8. Madman Across the Water–Elton John, 1971
  9. Secret Life–The Corrs, 1996
  10. Something Ain’t Right–David Byrne, 1992
  11. Van Damien’s Land–U2, 1988
  12. We Can Be Together–Jefferson Airplane, 1969
  13. Only a Memory–The Smithereens, 1988
  14. Lady With a Fan–Grateful Dead, 1977
  15. A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today–Merle Haggard, 1977
  16. You Give Love a Bad Name–Bon Jovi, 1986
  17. Summer Cannibals–Patti Smith, 1996
  18. Man Out of Time–Elvis Costello & The Attractions, 1982
  19. Spy–They Might Be Giants, 1994
  20. If You Haven’t Any Hay–Skip James, 1931
  21. Paradise City–Guns ‘N’ Roses, 1987
  22. Never Say Never–Romeo Void, 1981
  23. Tear My Still House Down–Gillian Welch, 1996
  24. What’ll I Do?–The Nat King Cole Trio, 1947

* For some irritating contractual reason, the early studio recordings of Shriekback do not appear on Spotify. I’ve spared you the pale, live imitation from later years. It’s worth hearing the original if you can find it.


Come On Let’s Eat

Independence Day 2022

I hope I’m not the only person exhausted by the incessant need to find things we can’t agree on. That, my friends, is a choice.

So rather than struggle to demonstrate commonality through song, allow me to indulge in something I hope we can easily agree on: food. I recognize food insecurity is real. I also believe meals serve many purposes. So let’s celebrate our country’s culinary bounty and agree that any country fortunate enough to sing about food is a pretty good place.

The link to the expanded playlist appears at the end of the post and, if you can’t wait, right here.

Gimme a Pig Foot and a Bottle of BeerBessie Smith (1933)

What better way to start than with the Empress of the Blues calling for some authentic soul food? As a kid, my grandfather would make “man lunch” a couple of times a year. Pig’s feet (and other nearby parts) figured prominently. Maybe all poorer people share soul.

Beans and Cornbread--Louis Jordan and His Tympani 5 (1949)

The clown prince of jump blues got more mileage out of food and eating as subject matter than anyone else I can think of. One suspects he was a man of large appetites. His good-natured story-songs inspired a Broadway show and New Wave‘s Joe Jackson to get us all dancing the Lindy again.

Watermelon Man–Herbie Hancock (1962)

There was a time in living memory–well, my living memory, at least–when the pop charts contained a much wider range of music than they now do. That included jazz. This piece, from Herbie Hancock’s first album as a leader, was a hit for Mongo Santamaria a couple of years later. If you’re interested, there’s a great video where Herbie explains how this song came together to, of all people, Elvis Costello, after which he plays it in two styles.

CoconutHarry Nilsson (1971)

I’m a latecomer to the Nilsson party and, if I’m honest, I still find myself standing at the entryway debating whether I want to commit. None of that really matters because every party needs cocktail ingredients and in this summertime classic the man who rhymed his surname delivers.

JambalayaProfessor Longhair (c. 1978)

Sometimes a classic jumps genres. I know the die-hard country fans will disagree with me about this (and I will profess my deep love for Hank Williams) but when ‘Fess took this tune down to New Orleans, he made it his own. I can’t hear it any other way and just looking all this up prompted me to make a pot of that Acadian stew for dinner last night. (And now my kitchen smells like Louisiana.)

RC Cola and a Moon Pie-NRBQ (c. 1980)

I often forget that this band, whose fan base has always seemed to really heavily on frat boys and preppies living in the Northeast,  emerged from Florida. So of course they celebrated regional junk food. I dare you not to sing along with the chorus.


I could go on all day so check out the playlist for extras including some original versions, cocktail songs, alternate versions, the song I nicked the post title from and, maybe, even some classic rock and antipodean pop. (I’m still debating what level of chauvinism I want to embrace this year.)

Enjoy the holiday. Despite being in a bit of a mess, it really is a great country and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. So, let’s not screw it up.

Chicken and HoneyThe LeRoi Brothers (1982)

My roots music fascination is long-lived, so I first heard the group that lured away Fabulous Thunderbirds drummer Mike Buck soon after it was released. It’s got guitars. It’s got twang. It’s got guitars and twang. Who needs anything else?

Today I Work My Fanny Off

Steve Earle & The Dukes
Sugar Loaf Performing Arts Center
June 14, 2022

Waiting to enter the Sugar Loaf Performing Arts Center, an intimate venue located about 50 miles northwest of New York City in the scenic Wallkill Valley, a friend noted it had been Continue reading

A Brand New Crescent Moon

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss at Forest Hill Stadium
June 4, 2022

As a crescent moon rose over the neo-Tudor facades of nearby apartment buildings, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss entertained a less-than-sold-out crowd to an evening of music that drew liberally from several catalogs: folk music, 1950s R&B, blues and Continue reading

Only a Memory

Memorial Day 2022

Photo: courtesy U.S. Army by Elizabeth Fraser

Once again the unofficial start to the summer season has begun in clouds and rain. Maybe that’s fitting, given recent events.

This year, I think, we ought to also remember the innocent victims, the students and congregants and clubgoers, who also were part of the fabric of our country. Their loss is no less a national wound than anyone who died in combat.

If you are a veteran you may disagree with me. I am not diminishing your service, or that of your fallen comrades. I  respect your time and the risks you took and I am grateful that you served. But we’ve allowed our streets, schools, entertainment palaces and houses of worship to become target zones. And in so doing, we have necessarily expanded the pool of lost lives.

There are, today, dozens of families in New York and Texas left with sure-to-fade memories and the certainty that future dreams will never be realized. Songwriters seem to know that. So, here’s a set of memory songs and a playlist for Memorial Day 2022. If your fave isn’t here, I may have included it there.

In Memory of Elizabeth ReedThe Allman Brothers Band (1970)

Anything, Proust reminded us, can trigger a flood of memories. We don’t always need words to evoke the past. We don’t even necessarily need our own past, at least when it comes to a song title. This early instrumental from the band that created Southern Rock as a genre, legendarily drew its title from a headstone in a Macon, Georgia graveyard. Yet to me, it’s always sounded very personal and evocative.

Memories FadeTears for Fears, (1983)

I was never a big fan of synthesizers. It’s more truthful to say I recoil from them. So for a synth-pop record to lodge in my brain for forty years, there must be songcraft and quality aplenty. The harrowing songs on this debut record–before the smash hit album that let TFF own the mid-80s–still resound. Maybe it’s the pain, evident in this ditty.

Those MemoriesDolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, & Emmylou Harris.(1987)

More typically, memory songs are about lost loves. I suppose that’s almost redundant. Without lost or unrequited loves, why would we need songs? Here, the late 80s country supergroup composed of three of my favorites takes on a familiar tale in a familiar manner to stellar results. As a bonus, the band contains John Starling (g), Leland Sklar (b), Mark O’Connor (v),  David Lindley (m), Herb Pedersen (g), Russ Kunkel (d) and Steve Fishell (st).

Memory LaneMinnie Riperton (1979)

I’d nearly forgotten about Minnie Riperton until I went canvassing for memory songs. There was a time when she was destined for great things, although it turned out her true destiny was to leave us far too early. This 1979 hit showcases her vocal range and serves as a lovely time capsule of late 70’s R&B. You’d never know from the video, itself a period piece from the early days of the form, that she’d be dead seven weeks later.

Only a MemoryThe Smithereens (1988)

A true product of my age and upbringing, in my heart of hearts I believe that guitar-pop songs ought to be about girls. Some bands just instinctively understand this, arguably none more so than New Jersey‘s greatest band, The Smithereens. Here they turn the girl who got away into much more than a memory.

You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory-Johhny Thunders (1978)

Can there be such a thing as a punk standard? And could such a song have been crafted by a notorious junkie? Based on a glance at YouTube I’d say that the answer to both is yes. And what a song. Despair, desperation and defeat in a little more than 2:50. Johnny gets the last word, don’t try.


Thanks for the MemoryBob Hope (1938)

Even as a kid, I knew that Memorial Day (or Decoration Day as my grandfather insisted on calling it) was about fallen soldiers. And just as certainly I knew that soldiers and sailors had no greater friend than Bob Hope. His USO shows seemed to be aired annually. And this, his signature song first introduced in The Big Broadcast of 1938, was always the last number

Here’s the playlist:



There’ll Be New Dreams, Maybe Better Dreams

The Year in Music: The Titular Playlist

My grandmother used to say, “Blessed are they that go in circles, they shall be called wheels.”

It’s always been a bit unclear what that last noun meant. Maybe it literally referred to a wheel. Maybe she was just poking fun at the Beatitudes. Maybe it was her own personal synonym for Lord-knows-what.

Yet somehow I think we’ve all become wheels these past 12 months, scurrying and fretting and endlessly hoping some semblance of normalcy will return–as if there’s an agreed-upon definition of that.

The wise thing, I think, is to dwell upon whatever good fortune we have. For me, that always includes music, now endlessly and bottomlessly available on-demand. I hope you find something to enjoy in this year’s playlist, all of which contributed in various ways as post titles.

And I hope you find a new normal that allows you the space to find enjoyment.


  1. I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink–Merle Haggard, 1980
  2. Language is a Virus–Laurie Anderson, 1986
  3. Revenge of the Nerds–The Rubinooos, 1984
  4. Roam–B52s,  1989
  5. Candida–Tony Orlando & Dawn, 1970
  6. A Theory–Tracy Chapman, 2008
  7. Sketches of China—Paul Kantner, 1973
  8. The Swamp–That Petrol Emotion, 2001
  9. Libertango–Grace Jones, 1982
  10. A New England–Billy Bragg, 1983
  11. Lights Out–Michael Bloomfield, 1978
  12. Magic Man—Heart,  1975
  13. Picture of Matchstick Men–Camper Van Beethoven, 1989
  14. It Must Have Been the Roses–Grateful Dead, 1980
  15. And She Was–Talking Heads, 1984
  16. Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer)–Bessie Smith, 1933
  17. Talk Talk–Talk Talk, 1982
  18. Three Little Birds–Bob Marley, 1978
  19. Mad Dogs & Englishman–Andy Caine · The Easy Virtue Orchestra, 2008
  20. Here Comes the Rain Again–Macy Gray, 2012
  21. Fables and Trouble–Amelia Curran, 2009
  22. U.S. Blues–Grateful Dead, 1974
  23. Sheep–The Housemartins 1986
  24. Undertow–Lisa Hannigan, 2016
  25. The Honesty’s Too Much–Dan Hill, 1978
  26. On Saturday–The Clarks, 2002
  27. Crossword Puzzle Blues–Steve Mardon, 2004
  28. See You in September–The Happenings, 1966
  29. See How We Are–X, 1985
  30. Small Town, John Mellencamp, 1985
  31. Hit it and Quit It—Funkadelic, 1971
  32. Monkey Man—The Rolling Stones, 1970
  33. Beat Surrender–The Jam, 1982
  34. We Don’t Need This Fascist Groove Thang–Heaven 17, 1982
  35. Harlem Shuffle–Bob & Earl, 1962
  36. Tell Me a Story–Iggy Pop, 1979
  37. Words–Missing Persons, 1982
  38. Teacher, Teacher–Rockpile, 1980
  39. Hold On-En Vogue, 1990
  40. The Republic–Gang of Four, 1980
  41. Oh, Tannenbaum–Vince Guaraldi Trio, 1965
  42. The Circle Game–Joni Mitchell, 1970

See You in September

Labor Day 2021

Wistful. The word itself evokes the feeling. Just try to say it without sighing.

If months belonged to adjectives would there be any argument that September is the most wistful? I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. Some of the greatest songs ever written to convey that feeling put the month front and center

So let’s say goodbye to Summer 2021 by celebrating September and all the wistfulness it conveys. There’s an extended playlist available here and at the end.

(NB: Tending, as my lists do, towards older and less popular material, the below videos are, for the most part, not record company productions.)

September Song Johnny Hartman (1955)

Although not widely known, Johnny Hartman might have been the greatest male ballad singer of the 20th century. To the extent that he’s known at all, it’s because of his 1963 collaboration with John Coltrane. Here, on his debut, he delivers a mood-setting version of this Kurt Weill classic.

See You in September The Happenings (1966)

If this mid-60s staple reminds you of another New Jersey foursome you’ll be forgiven because The Four Seasons are of the same time and place. I’ll fess up:  until I went looking for it I’d always assumed this song was one of Frankie Valli‘s lesser vocal performances.  Doppelgangerness aside, it’s an emblematic classic. Jersey boys, it turns out, don’t just come from Newark, they come from Patterson, too.

September Girls Big Star (1974)

The most influential band most people have never heard of had their own take on the year’s ninth month and girls at school. This Alex Chilton-penned confection appeared on the band’s second record. If you ask me, Chilton hadn’t lost a step and even learned a thing or two after The Box Tops disbanded.

September–Earth Wind and  Fire (1978)

Among the sillier things ever said to me was the assertion by a recruited-jock-roommate at a large state university that, as college students, we were now free to listen to “other” music. The other music he had in mind was EWF. I didn’t need his permission. The band was always a guilty pleasure and this song has always delighted me.

September Skies Brian Setzer Orchestra (1994)

Recent readers may not be aware of my Long Island roots or my deep admiration of my near-contemporary, Bellmore‘s King of Twang, Brian Setzer. A triple threat in the playing, singing and songwriting trifecta, here, armed with just a guitar, Nassau County’s heppest cat demonstrates that he learned a couple of tricks from the masters of mid-century mid-fi. The song was written in the 1990s though the full-band version in the playlist sounds like it came from the era of the Rat Pack.

Flaming September Marianne Faithfull (1995)

What does one make of a singer whose earliest success is inextricably linked to the success of her boyfriend’s band and who then went on to release at least two masterful albums recorded a decade and a half apart? The residual sexism in that question aside, Marianne Faithfull more than earned her rightful place in the history of Anglo-American popular music, as demonstrated here in this deep cut from a later record.

Video Bonus and Playlist

Papa was a Rolling Stone The Temptations (1972)

This past Thursday was the 3rd of September so you didn’t think I’d let this one pass, did you? As Motown goes, it doesn’t get much better than this  A song written by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield who also took the producer’s chair. Vocals by The Temptations, And every bit of studio magic they could muster. A dance tune that has earned its designation as a masterwork.

Here’s the link to the playlist. Enjoy it and the day off, if you have it off.

Be Adrift on Your Radio

Mid-July 2021

Generationally speaking, I’m less inclined than younger people to ramble on about myself. It’s not as though I don’t have a head full of thoughts containing the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ just like everybody else. It’s more that Continue reading