Rock and Roll Never Forgets
Behind the Muse attempts to “pull back the curtain” by sharing the thoughts of more than 40 songwriters on what they do and why they do it. The interviews are arranged in roughly chronological order, starting with Mitchell Parrish, the author of “Sweet Lorraine” and others, and ending with current cult babe Tori Amos.
The pieces vary in quality both because of Bill DeMain’s occasional weaknesses as an interviewer and because of different levels of candor by his subjects. DeMain’s strength as an interviewer is, strangely enough, related to his weakness. He mostly stays out of the way and lets his subjects speak for themselves, and wonderful quotes like these are the result:
“The desire to create is what makes life bearable . . . I really don’t understand how people can live and not do that.”
“The real source of inspiration is, to quote a hyper-therapy term, ‘the child inside of you.”
The lack of projecting himself into the interviews becomes bothersome when, either through a lack of knowledge or initiative, he fails to ask follow-up questions or challenge his subject’s assertions. For example, in asking Sheryl Crow about writing her hit “Leaving Las Vegas”, DeMain omits the fact that by most reports, David Baewald wrote the lyrics of that song, drawing from friend John O’Brien’s novel of the same name. That Crow chooses not to mention this in favor of some vague palaver about how Vegas in the song is a metaphor for L.A. is not insignificant, as it would not be the last time she asserted greater input into the songs on her first multimillion selling album than she apparently had. Taking credit for work that is not your own is surely the deadliest sin an artist can commit. Even allowing DeMain the benefit of the doubt that at the time his interview with Crow was conducted (1993) these accusations were not widely known, he was wrong not to at least address the issue in the newly written introduction to the piece.
The short text pieces that precede the interviews spotlight another of DeMain’s weaknesses: He has a tendency to fawn.
“When musicologists look back at the American music of the 20th century, Bacharach will surely have earned his place in the pantheon of greats alongside Gershwin, Berlin, Porter and Rogers.”
On Billy Joel:
“For over 25 years, this living legend has been returning to the altar of pop, rock and soul music, soaking up inspiration.”
Then there’s the Tori Amos piece:
“In the hands of a lesser artist, these themes could have easily degenerated into a whining and venting session, but Amos delivered her messages with poetic lyrics, playfulness and a flamboyant, Lolita sexuality.”
This is the kind of purple prose that makes the reader want to tell DeMain to calm down. There must be ways to express fancy for a songwriter without resorting to puffery.
Believe it or not I truly liked this book. (I can understand how it could be difficult after reading the first part of this review.) Music lovers, songwriters, and critics welcome almost any addition to the literature that asks the questions: Where do songs come from? What makes one creative? The easiest answer to the first question is: people think them up. But there’s more to it than that. What might be a strange, alien thing to some is as natural as photosynthesis to a plant for people like Mellencamp, Lang, and other songwriters, and there’s a lot to be written about this difference. What makes one person creative where another is not? Unfortunately DeMain’s book is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to answering these questions.
The songwriters represented here are indeed an impressive bunch. In the better interviews, DeMain succeeds in presenting important information that readers may not have known before; he draws interesting observations out of his subjects. The section on Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn, for example, finally persuaded me to order a “Best-of” from their pop duo Everything but the Girl:
“I think for the good stuff that anybody writes, one third of it is true, one third of it is completely untrue, and one third of it is half-true . . . a lot of the songs are dialogues with myself, or between states of mind.”
And compare Crow’s aforementioned omissions in her interview with DeMain’s treatment of Smokey Robinson. Now, Robinson is the quintessential songwriter. Few would argue that point. This is the guy who wrote “The Way You Do The Things You Do”, “My Girl”, “Ain’t That Peculiar” and “The Tracks of My Tears”, to name a very, very few. If anyone deserves to sing their own praises, it would be he. But Robinson is careful to list his collaborators, pointing out the arrangements of Paul Riser and the ideas and riffs of guitarists Robert White and Marv Tarplin and stressing the importance of their contributions.
The book is an extremely thought-provoking read; it’s only frustrating when one considers some of the paths not taken. It would have been preferable if DeMain had made more of an effort to get his subjects to talk in-depth. As they stand, the quality of the interviews seems to depend more on the subject than the interviewer. Interviews are a two-way street, to be sure, but it seems to me that a good interviewer engages his or her subject in more of a conversation than DeMain does here. The interviews themselves are also often too short to be satisfying; many of those profiled deserve (and in more than one case, have had) entire books devoted to them, and DeMain isn’t able to get very far within ten pages or less for each.
Like an album of rough, unfinished songs, this book has gems enough lurking in it to be rewarding.