LOS ANGELES , It would be easy to fill an ode to lyricist Jerry Leiber, who died on Monday at age 78, entirely with stories culled from his and longtime writing partner Mike Stoller’s songs. The volume of American classics that the team created over the years is astounding, but more impressive is the inventiveness, vision and laugh-out-loud love of language of the team’s best work, as anyone who’s ever sung along to the words “You’re going to need an ocean of calamine lotion” understands.
Take the opening couplet from “Love Potion No. 9”: “I took my troubles down to Madame Rue / You know that gypsy with the gold-capped tooth?” Hearing the rhyme for the first time, how could you not be filled with glee as the narrator sips and starts kissing everything in sight, culminating in the wonderful kicker, “But when I kissed a cop down on 34th and Vine / He broke my little bottle of Love Potion Number Nine.”
There’s Big Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog,” with the lewd brush-off, “You can wag your tail but I ain’t going to feed you no more,” or the Coasters’ raucous hit “Yakety Yak,” which transformed a parent’s dismissive scold , “Yakety yak, don’t talk back!” , into a defiant cry of rebellion, or “On Broadway,” whose story of artistic yearning has become an archetype. Leiber’s work with Stoller is so ingrained in the American psyche that it’s easy to forget that they actually had to sit down and write the stuff. Hasn’t Ben E. King’s rendition of “Stand By Me” always existed?
There are few means of better capturing pop culture at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll than examining the lyrics of Jerry Leiber. The best of his story-songs captured life with a poet’s eye for detail and a short fiction writer’s precision , and suggested a generational shift without clumsily calling for social upheaval, but by questioning authority and advancing social mores one seemingly innocuous line and internal rhyme at a time. Among the high points: A slice-of-life moment about the heartless snubbing of three cool cats by three cool chicks that inspired the Beatles on their first 1962 demo; “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” a classic tale of geeky cowardice that became the namesake of a hit Broadway musical; or a song about poison ivy that could be about either a venereal disease, falling in love, or both, which inspired the Rolling Stones to kick it into gear.
Just as important, Leiber and Stoller’s songs offer a portal into a moment in time in Los Angeles. In the pair’s dual autobiography, “Hound Dog,” they describe their teenage years here in ways that not only capture the spirit of the time, but ring true for any rebellious, curious kid looking for bliss within music and culture. Leiber and his mother arrived from the East Coast when he was 12, and they moved into a bungalow in Larchmont.
The lyricist recounted hanging out at the gates of the nearby Paramount lot and meeting Irving Berlin, about being so intent on sitting down with Cecil B. DeMille that young Jerry became his secretary’s errand boy. (Stoller got his start gigging with Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan, and was engendered into Chicano culture through one of his first girlfriends.)
One of Leiber’s first jobs was as a busboy at the landmark Clifton’s Cafeteria downtown, which is where he said his life changed. Writing in “Hound Dog,” he recalled carrying a tray of dishes into the kitchen when he passed a short order cook smoking a joint and listening to the radio. The DJ on the air, Hunter Hancock, was playing Jimmy Witherspoon’s “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.”
“I can’t explain my reaction,” wrote Leiber, “but at that very moment I was transported into a realm of mystical understanding. The light came on.” Anyone who’s ever been shocked and seduced by music knows the feeling.
Soon thereafter Leiber and his more reserved songwriting partner were roaming Central Avenue on L.A.‘s south side , what Leiber so perfectly described as “a secret world” pumped on the adrenaline of rhythm and blues, jazz and budding rock ‘n’ roll. He got a job at a record store across from Canter’s Deli , near the current hipster hangouts Turntable Lab and Family Bookstore , and became one of the first iterations of a record geek.
Read all the obituaries to get the details of the pair’s reign, of their work with Elvis Presley, of their string of 11 hits in 1957, of their work in the Brill Building, of how the song structure that they helped invent , verse, chorus, verse, chorus, instrumental solo, verse , has been codified over the years into the de facto structure of nearly every pop song written since, from the Beatles to Bruce Springsteen, PJ Harvey to Kanye West.
As you’re delighting in Stoller’s landmark instrumentation and structural genius, listen to the lyrics, which as Leiber evolved as a songwriter started drawing ideas from other, unexpected sources. Wonderfully transparent about his inspirations, he didn’t hide the fact, for example, that the words to Peggy Lee’s 1969 hit “Is That All There Is?” were taken from a prose meditation by German writer Thomas Mann called “Disillusionment.”
In Mann’s story, after recounting the numbness of his life experiences, the narrator awaits the ultimate disappointment: “So I dream and wait for death. Ah, how well I know it already, death, that last disappointment! At my last moment I shall be saying to myself: ‘So this is the great experience , well, and what of it? What is it after all?’”
Leiber used Mann’s words nearly verbatim, but with one major difference. Mann dwells on futility until the very end. Leiber though gave it an ironic twist that will echo long after his departure. If that’s it, she sings, “Then let’s keep dancing / Let’s break out the booze and have a ball / If that’s all there is.”