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Sing A Song Of Sixth Sense
By Danny McBride - 05/15/2001 - 12:31 AM EDT

Sing A Song Of Sixth Sense
By Danny McBride © 2001

Iíve just watched another one of those hideous music awards shows. Well, parts of it. It is such torture and tedium that I really canít watch all of it. I just click in and out to see who is on and who is doing what. And for the clothes. Why lie? "GAWD! Look at what sheís wearing. Her bellyís hanging out. Sheís way too fat for that outfit on TV. She shouldnít ever wear anything like that in public. Not even to Circle K at three A M."

Of course I also watch for the songs. I know going in that almost none of what I am going to hear will be much more than commercial pabulum with hokey lyrics and hackneyed chord progressions and musical phrases. But as a songwriter Iím always curious to see what passes for hits these days. And I know also that journeymen craftspeople have honed these little ditties to please an ever demanding commercial music money machine. Many do it well and raise families on the royalties. Many, however, always look a little edgy accepting awards for stuff they know deep down was written not from the heart, but from the wallet. Nothing wrong with writing from the wallet so long as the heart is in it.

I know that what I listen to is hardly ever on any radio station. Luckily here in Los Angeles there are several college and public radio stations that will almost never play a mainstream hit or artist, or if they do, it is part of a music set where it really fits. Or sometimes it is a well-known artist but not a track you ever hear unless you own all their CDs. So people I listen to and whose music I buy are almost never going to be on any of these shows accepting the "Trite Lyric of The Year" award or "Best Performance by an Artist with Barely a Modicum of Talent".

So what we have here, as Strother Martin told Paul Newman, "Is failure to communicate". I have dozens and dozens of CDs by artists who are truly that: artists. And almost nothing by top selling artists with a few rare exceptions such as Bob Dylan or Sheryl Crow, who happen to stick to their guns and also hit a nerve commercially. But most of what I listen to is by people with much smaller followings: Sonny Landreth, John Hiatt, Kebí Moí, Lucinda Williams, Richard Thompson and others who have something to say and an amazingly individual way of saying it.

So how do you know as a songwriter whatís best for you? Do you have the stomach to write in pre-arranged meetings/sessions with other writers/partners and concoct the next hit for some big pop artist out of a pre-ordained language of lyrical phrases and musical passages reworked from previous radio hits in order to conform to "the star making machinery behind the popular song"? Or, are you someone who has something to say, no really has something to say, and must write or die, and the hell with whether it is popular with a mass audience? Yes, most of us hope to do both, but if you really had to choose, which would it be? You have to know deep in your heart, something you could call a "sixth sense", and I donít mean where the little kid turns around and says "I see dumb people" or whatever he says. (I yelled out "Bruce Willis is DEAD" after the first ten minutes of that gem, and everyone around me said "Shhh!! He is NOT".)

Abe Lincoln was right: "You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you canít fool all of the people all of the time." Whatíll it be? It is the music business after all, and you must approach it as a business. You are your own little company, whether you are a corporation or not, and you are the boss. But whether you are a builder of fine tunes or an architect of new designs, only you can decide.

This is nothing new. For example Bob Dylan comes to mind. As he approaches forty years of being a recording artist averaging an album a year for most of those forty years- -and for those who have been under a rock, he writes almost everything heís ever recorded- -one can also trace the history of Tin Pan Alley in the early 1960s when Dylan debuted, and realize that while he was making his way through the Village- -Greenwich Village, in case you didnít know- -playing coffee houses and generating a following among the folkies, just a few blocks to the north at 1619 Broadway on the very same Manhattan Island, tunesmiths such as Ellie Greenwichóno relation to the village- -Jeff Barry, Neil Diamond, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka, Howard Greenfield, Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, and others were laboring away in the famous Brill Building crafting pop tunes for the Shirelles, The Raindrops, The Shangri-las, The Ronettes, Tommy James and the Shondells and dozens of other pop acts of the era. Bob could easily have taken a subway uptown to try to make it as a songwriter with that crowd, but he chose not to. Instead he remained in the culture that spawned Joan Baez, Mimi and Richard FariŮa, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk, Rambliní Jack Elliott and eventually The Loviní Spoonful, The Band and many others.

Would Dylan have written well-crafted pop tunes uptown? More than likely yes. But the culture was totally different. The Brill Building, built during the depression of the 1930s, was already an old office building in those days, with cracked paint on the ceilings and walls, and a creaky old elevator (I remember choosing to walk down eight floors rather than reŽnter it!). The Village, on the other hand, was alive with a street scene and funky boutiques, bookstores, eateries and venues. It was scruffy and Bohemian. The Brill Building was buttoned down by comparison. It was at that time home to about 165 music or music related companies. (By the way, history buffs, there are dozens of websites devoted to the Brill Building. Just go to a search engine and type it in.) The Village had the feeling of being more open and free-spirited- -One might say an environment to be more creative. But each had its pluses and minuses. Depending on your outlook on life, you may have chosen one over the other. Not too many people did both.

These two songwriting cultures have pretty much always existed and continue today- -Two hour mid-morning writing sessions in a Nashville publisherís office, or the individual expression of your own passion. You decide. Be all you can be (Oh wait- -thatís the Army). Then be the very best at whichever you choose. Which would I suggest? Uh-uh. Use your "sixth sense". You decide. Iíll look for you on one of those awards shows.

Okay. Time for my boot heels to be wandering.


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