Eli, Tom Hanks, and two Mona Lisas, part one
I have never courted controversy. I don’t really like those that do. I write this because this first article in a series of three will present an idea that may be controversial to some of those reading this. I’m not doing this for affect. I know this because, strangely, I’m not even sure I fully understand the idea or agree with it, but maybe after this trilogy we will all have our answers.
Here it is:
There is no such thing as a great song.
Now, before the idea is approached from the wrong direction, let me clarify. I’m not saying that there are no great songs because of the word, ‘great,’ being a matter of opinion. I believe that all music is a matter of taste, and that my definition of great and someone else’s are not likely to be identical.
Music, in my thinking, can be equated to food. No one should tell you what tastes great. It’s up to you. If you love the way it tastes, then it is great-tasting. If you love the way it sounds, then it is a great song.
Except, it isn’t.
Because there is no such thing as a great song.
I have had this discussion with many different people with many different ranks for music on their lifestyle scale. Some who think about music most of the day. Some who think about it only fleetingly. Some in between. Yet, everyone has an opinion on my opinion.
The main reason why I say there are no great songs is because a song does not stand separately from its parts, and in most cases, isn’t even the sum of its parts. A song, to my ears, is only parts. It is made of pieces that fit together well, or even not so well, but succeeds because of something that is very easy to define, yet very hard to describe. That something is…
A great song is not a great song.
A great song is a great performance.
Or a collective of simultaneous great performances.
There is nothing inherent in the song that makes it great.
Some will probably tell me it’s the melody, the hook, the lyric, something like that made the song great. I will say it’s the drum fill at the 2:34 mark.
To me, that drum fill at that exact point in the song IS the song. It is the reason I look forward to playing it and hearing it again and again. Or it’s that guitar solo. Or the way the singer is a hair behind the beat on the chorus. Without that fill, that solo, that timing, the song isn’t great, (even though there are no great songs.)
What really makes a song great for me is not its structure on paper, but what the players do with that structure.
Even with A-list writers like The Beatles, it was the tone of John Lennon’s voice. It was George Harrison’s ringing guitar. It was Ringo Starr’s flourishes. It was Paul McCartney’s harmony and pulsing bass lines. That’s what made me wear out their records.
I can hear someone’s response now- Yes, but I’ve heard Aerosmith cover the Beatles and the song was awesome!
Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Brad Whitford. Those guys are very talented musicians. It should sound awesome.
Try listening to my band play Come Together and tell me how awesome it sounds. It doesn’t.
Ultimately, it’s the performance that matters, and I cannot perform at the level they can.
Ray Charles could’ve sung my daughter’s report card and have the room in tears.
John Coltrane took My Favorite Things and jet-fueled it to another galaxy. I can’t even believe it is the same song Julie Andrews sang so well in The Sound of Music, except for the opening melody line. It stands, even now, as the moment that changed my whole idea of what people could do with the same notes. Hearing Coltrane play it, or anything else for that matter, gave new meaning as to what could be a great song- and that is any song, as long as it was Coltrane playing it.
Okay, that is just a few examples, and I will not bombard you with more to make my case.
This is not to suggest there isn’t such a thing as a great songwriter. (And this is where it gets tricky.)
I think my favorite pop songwriter of all-time is Carole King. Her songs have always been timeless and full of emotion, and yet it isn’t actually possible to be either of the things. Songs are symbols and words on a page. In and of themselves, they carry no emotion and no ability to be timeless. The emotion is in the performance. The timeless quality is from the performance.
I think what great songwriters can do better than others is find the notes, the words, the combination of the two that can most convincingly and movingly be translated into a great performance. Her lyrics are accessible, honest, and relevant. Her melodies are rhythmic, cascading, and challenging to the better singers. All of this demands a great performance in order to be a great song.
For me, it’s like hitting a baseball. A hitter is only as impressive as the pitcher who delivers the ball. How much more incredible is it to see someone catch up with a 95-mph heater and hit it out of the park than it is to see someone launch an 85-mph one? Great songwriters deliver perfectly difficult pitches to hit, and when they are struck squarely in return- look out! In this metaphor, Carole King throws about 100-mph, and Aretha Franklin is Babe Ruth. Respectfully, King is also a wonderful singer. So, I guess Carole is Babe Ruth (a terrific pitcher and legendary slugger). Let’s make Aretha Hank Aaron.
Anyway, when I was a freshman in college I used to listen to Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage record every day at about 10 am after my morning class. I would blast it, so loud that one day the janitor heard it through the dorm door as he washed/waxed the hallway floor. He knocked on my door, waking me up, (I often like to sleep to really loud music), and asked me to whom I was damaging my hearing. I told him, and he said he was going to go out and buy the album.
I relayed this story to a neighbor, who said that Franz Zappa was great as a musician and composer, but his songs were sub-par. ‘You’ll never hear Eli singing Zappa,’ was his best volley.
Eli was a semi-homeless guy who sang on the corner of Drunk Street and Regurgitation Ave., at the end of a long row of off-campus beer halls, hoping inebriated co-eds would make the mistake of dropping a $5 instead of a $1 into his tip jar during their stumble home as he belted out one Eagles classic after another on his acoustic.
Granted, I never heard Eli break out Catholic Girls or Wet-T-Shirt Night, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t think of those nuggets as brilliant, or as valid and valuable to civilization’s ever-growing catalog of songs. My friend’s contention was that a great song was one that could be played by Eli on an acoustic, that anyone could enjoy. Not something so esoteric and admittedly vulgar as the aforementioned Zappa offerings. My argument was that his argument was wrong.
And I will tell you why in part two…
Recommended listening: Frank Zappa- Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up
Larson Sutton, 39,
is a writer/musician
living in Los Angeles.
Picture By Brian Gimmel
Listen To Larson’s Band Today! On iTunes