|Johnny Paycheck: a real genius|
Monday, August 24, 2015
We love music but overlook lyrics too much
And yet the music pros say lyrics must be totally sharp. There are many rules. It is true that the best in the business occasionally break rules. But you can be sure they know what the rules are.
Paul McCartney crafted music for radio in the 1970s. His voice droned on. Many of us sought his music because he reminded us of the Beatles. George Harrison was certainly on that gravy train, more so even. McCartney is a fine artist. But when his "Silly Love Songs" came out, I felt it was just cynically crafted to be a radio hit. McCartney had the power to get just about anything recorded and promoted. The consistency of his product has probably been better in his post-Wings days. He probably feels more pressure to cut out the fluff.
In the '70s we'd go to the "record store" like Musicland at Crossroads Shopping Center, St. Cloud, and paw through the various bins. An artist's newest release would be on top. "Cover art" for an album was considered important. When a major artist came out with a new album, a large number of that album would be on top in front of the artist's name in that display. A new album seemed so fresh and invigorating.
I attended a workshop in Moorhead once where a music industry expert talked about how music goes from fresh to stale. Why do you think new tunes climb so much on the charts, replacing the old ones? It's kind of sad, really. A good song has its "run" which is really quite brief. It then descends on those charts. We have gotten tired of it.
Much is said about how much we love music. We paid close attention to Casey Kasem's show (and, what a textbook case of estate issues at the time of his death). Ah, his "long distance dedication." So, we love music, and there are achingly high standards for the creation of pop music. Songwriting is anything but an impulsive or whimsical craft. And yet. . . And yet we famously "mishear" song lyrics or fail to understand even the most basic premise of a song. Ronald Reagan considered the song "Born in the U.S.A." and judged it entirely for the title. He looked not at all at the lyrical nuances. Heck, ol' "Ronnie Re-run" (a nickname applied by a college friend of mine) seemed to miss the essence of the song. It wasn't nearly as patriotic as he thought. But, a president would have to love a song called "Born in the U.S.A." (Didn't Cheech and Chong satirize that song with "Born in East L.A.?")
Let's move on to the most famous example of a misunderstood song. Ahem. "Take This Job and Shove It." I'm sure the song was written with exacting songwriting craftsmanship. I am more fascinated with songwriting craftsmanship than I am with journalism. I spent 27 years working in journalism.
Many people believe Johnny Paycheck wrote the "Shove It" song. I thought that when I wrote the first draft of this post. Paycheck popularized the song. David Allan Coe wrote it. Paycheck was a superlative songwriter in his own right. These guys were precisely the type of songwriter I'd like to be.
I wonder if Coe/Paycheck realized the monster they created when they presented the "hook" line: "Take this job and shove it." It's like an anthem for people frustrated at work. The pre-cyber age was full of jobs that were tedious, dirty and boring. Not so much so today. Coe hit a nerve with what he created. I wonder how he wrote down the song originally. On a napkin? On the back of a receipt? Fascinating craft. I was entranced at a museum exhibit in Nashville once, where I could see the scraps of paper when songs were originally created, complete with crossed-out lines and corrections! It was like observing genius at its core.
Woodward and Bernstein's notes about Watergate wouldn't interest me at all. But I'm mesmerized by the inception of these tunes, so simple and yet so powerful and timeless. I think we got tired of Watergate just like we get tired of a song.
"Take This Job and Shove It" is only remotely, or secondarily, connected to the idea of hating your job. Really it's about the shallow feeling of when your significant other leaves you - the loss of purpose. The woman was your reason for being, after all. "My woman done left. . ." I once used the word "done" in that context - is it Southern? - in my song about Kirby Puckett which is on YouTube. Please listen.
Coe reportedly resented that people were of the impression Paycheck wrote the song. Paycheck may have laughed all the way to the bank, but I think he felt a bit haunted by the song too. People in the corporate world, and that includes music, aren't likely to fawn over a song where one disses his job.
I have a Johnny Paycheck CD, recorded late in his career - a live and definitive recording made in Branson MO. I'd be in seventh heaven if I could write one song like these. "Take This Job and Shove It" is not included! Paycheck probably did not want to be defined by that song with the cynical title. However, his money was in the bank. (Or, let's face it, he probably spent it.)
Paycheck had the "Shove It" song at No. 1 on the country charts for two weeks. It spent 18 weeks on the charts. It was his only No. 1 hit.
Johnny had the image of a hell-raising outlaw singer - something I wouldn't wish to emulate. Jimmy Carter professed a liking for such music, like for Willie Nelson. I'm in awe of Paycheck's songwriting touch as for Tammy Wynette's debut hit, "Apartment No. 9," in 1966. I also love "A-11" which is a lively, fun and moving tune that is on the Branson CD. Maybe God will someday allow me to "borrow" some of that talent. Songwriting has a divine spark.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org