Wrote a song for everyone, wrote a song for truth

“I would write five songs to get one song.  I’d have a big junkyard of stuff written as the year went by.  If something wasn’t complete, I just pulled out the parts I liked, like taking bruce-springsteen-october-2016-ss01the parts you need from several cars, and you put them in the other car so that car runs.” — Bruce Springsteen, on the songwriting process

To the layman, the art of writing a song seems magical, almost otherworldly.

Many people find it hard enough just to write a coherent sentence or a paragraph, let alone an essay, a speech or, God forbid, a book.  The idea of conjuring up song lyrics and then putting them to music is… well, a Herculean task, and pretty much impossible.

So how do the songwriters do it?  How do they do it even once, never mind dozens of times?  How do icons like Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney write memorable song after memorable song every year from their teens until well into their 70s?

images-25Clearly, it’s a very rare, God-given talent.  And it is mysterious.  Even the songwriters themselves are hard-pressed to explain exactly how it works or where the songs come from.

“Songwriting is a very mysterious process.  It feels like creating something from nothing. It’s something I don’t feel like I really 2e0a4cf67d454c9de58e985e44e318d3688beff0control.”  — Tracy Chapman

“If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often.  It’s a mysterious condition.”  — Leonard Cohen

Those fortunate few who have the ability to craft a song concede that they often struggle to produce something they’re satisfied with.  The late Leon Russell, an exceptional pianist, arranger and recording artist, admitted that songwriting never came naturally to 0798c90a-49f7-42a3-aa91-de253523e4e8-large16x9_1280x720_60719P00WWVGPhim.  “Songwriting was very tough for me.  I would go in and sit, and hope for inspiration to come, but it was rarely forthcoming.”

Most classical music composers studied the intricacies of music for many years before attempting to write an aria, sonata or symphony.  By contrast, many pop songwriters confess that they had little or no musical education.  McCartney, the most PaulMcCartney_wide-f63b946213ed3b3b0fd9ed854a92e1be36a852a2-s800-c85successful songwriter of the past half-century, says he can’t read nor notate music.  It just comes to him by playing around with notes and chords as he plays guitar or piano.

“If I was to sit down right now and write a song,” McCartney said, “I’d use my usual method:  I’d either sit down with a guitar or at the piano and just look for melodies, chord shapes, musical phrases, some words, a thought just to get started with. And then I’d just sit with it to work it out, like I’m writing an essay or doing a crossword puzzle. That’s the system I’ve always used.”

neil-diamondNeil Diamond may have put his finger on it when he explained what he saw as a major deficiency in his songwriting toolbox.  “I don’t deny now that it would have been nice to have had more background in music theory.  But because I never had any of that, songwriting is easily the hardest part of what I do.”

C1A2RBlB6BS._SL1000_.pngPaul Simon admits that it takes him a long time to write songs.  “For me, the music — or more accurately, the rhythm — usually comes first, and then a melody will suggest itself.  This may take weeks, even months.  Then I struggle a long time to settle on the lyric.  It’s very helpful to start with something that’s true.  If you start with something that’s false, you’re always covering your tracks.”

1208-ctm-kchdonhenley-1Some artists have had considerable success by regarding songwriting as a process.  Here’s Don Henley‘s take on it:  “My process hasn’t changed much at all.  I still use legal pads.  I do a lot of writing in my head when I’m engaged in other activities, like driving, or loading the dishwasher.  I find that when I’m doing menial tasks, my mind lets go of all the clutter, and then the creative stuff can bubble up from the subconscious.” 

The late great David Bowie, whose lengthy career underwent numerous stylistic bowie2_2446365bchanges, said he found it helpful to have rules and a structural process, but he never minded breaking those rules now and then.  “I think process is quite important. To allow the accidental to take place is often very good.  So I trick myself into things like that.  Maybe I’ll write out five or six chords, then discipline myself to write something only with those five or six chords involved.  Of course, I’ll cheat as well.  If I’ve got the basis of something really quite good coming out of those five or six chords, then I’ll allow myself to restructure it a bit, if I think, well, that could be so much better if instead it went to F-sharp, or something like that.”

Artists of all types talk about having a muse — an intangible inspiration, stimulus or creative influence.  In Greek mythology, the Muses were the nine goddesses (daughters of Zeus) who presided over the arts and sciences, and the Muses could be very unpredictable.

carlysimon-1119-1447935762Songwriters point out that their muse ebbs and flows, and can sometimes seem to disappear for long stretches (the so-called “writer’s block”).  Carly Simon offers this recollection:  “My songwriting artistry has gone through many phases, including one time where it has been very quiet and abandoned me completely for a few years.  That was really frightening.  I didn’t know if I’d ever get it back.”

ìììSongwriting is a curious art form that, like most art forms, cannot be rushed.  It is for this reason that artists and their corporate benefactors are often at odds about how much time is necessary to produce quality work.  As rocker Nick Cave puts it:  “My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times, and I feel it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature.  My muse is not a horse, and I am not in a horse race.”

Springsteen, a notoriously prolific songwriter for most of his 50-year career, concedes even he has had times when he couldn’t come up with anything:  “I wish I could write every day, but I’ve sometimes gone for long periods of time without writing because I didn’t have any good ideas, or whatever is in there is just sort of gestating.  Sometimes, I’ve had to force myself to write.  I think what happens is you move in and out of different veins.  You’re mining, and you hit a vein, and then you go with that, and then it dries up.”

hqdefault-10Patience and perseverance are crucial for songwriters, they say.  Many failures come before they hit on a song they really like.  Gerry Goffin, the lyricist and ex-husband of songwriter Carole King, was part of the famous Brill Building stable of songwriting teams who reported for work each day and were expected to crank out hit songs like some sort of factory assembly line.  Goffin was pragmatic about that kind of creative environment:  “You’ve got to realize it’s a hit or miss process.  But my advice would be, Don’t be afraid to write a bad song, because the next one may be great.”

a45512834_s800b1b5My daughter Emily Hackett is a Nashville-based singer-songwriter who writes on her own or in collaboration with others.  Either way, she says, it’s a process of exploration.  “There’s a lot of discovery in songwriting.  If you’re doing it right, you’re constantly discovering new avenues.  You could take a certain road for five or ten minutes and not get anywhere, but that’s okay.  Try a different road.  Eventually you’ll land on the right path, and the song will unfold.”

TomPetty-2The late Tom Petty drew an analogy between writing a song and catching a fish:  “Songwriting is pretty lonely work.  I think a lot of people don’t have the patience for it.  You’re not necessarily going to get one every time you try.  In fact, most times you try, you’re not going to get one.  It’s like fishing.  You’re fishing, and you either caught a fish, or you didn’t.  If you did, there’s one in the boat; if you didn’t, there’s not.  But you’ve got to go back and keep your pole in the water.  That’s the only way you’re going to get a bite.”

We music lovers should be grateful that songwriters are often almost addicted to their art.  They p01br0nwenjoy writing songs, certainly, but sometimes it becomes an obsession that haunts them, and doesn’t let go until the piece is finished.  John Lennon had this to say about that:  “It’s like being possessed.  It won’t let you sleep, so you have to get up, make it into something, and then you’re allowed to sleep.  That’s always in the middle of the bloody night, when you’re half awake and your critical facilities are switched off.”

dolly-parton-yellowCountry songwriter Dolly Parton has said she looks forward to those times when she isn’t touring or leading a busy life so she has the opportunity to focus on writing new songs.  “I always long for that block of time and space when I can go on a writing binge, because I’m really addicted to songwriting.”

keith-richardsSome songwriters are amazed when they come up with a great song and wonder why no one had beaten them to the punch.  Says Keith Richards:  “With most of the songs I’ve written, I’ve felt there’s this gap waiting to be filled, and I think, man, this song should have been written hundreds of years ago.  How did nobody else pick up on that little space before?”

joni-mitchellOther tunesmiths are such perfectionists that, once they’ve recorded and released a song, they find themselves forever unhappy with the result.  Here’s Joni Mitchell talking:  “When I listen back to my early music, it’s always, ‘Why didn’t I put a guitar fill there?  Why did I sing the line like that?  And why am I whining?'”

R-6446275-1427469478-5531.jpegSome pop songwriters have found themselves facing lawsuits because their song sounds like another song that’s already been written.  In 1976, a court found George Harrison had “subconsciously plagiarized” The Chiffons’ song “He’s So Fine” when he wrote “My Sweet Lord,” and awarded millions in royalties, which later spurred Harrison to write “This Song,” with these lyrics:  “This song has nothing tricky about it, this song ain’t black or white, and as far as I know don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright, so this song we’ll let be…”

Lennon once said:  “You know, there are only so many notes.”  Springsteen maintains, “Everyone steals from everyone else.”  Folk singer Pete Seeger famously wrote, “So sing, change, add to, subtract.  But beware multiplying.  If you record and start making hundreds of copies, watch out.  Write a letter first.  Get permission.”  


As a postscript here, I wanted to mention how, since the dawn of the Internet, songwriters have watched helplessly as their intellectual property has been devalued to Songwriting-and-writers-blockthe point of absurdity.  Downloads and streaming services have given consumers easy access to so much music, but the royalties paid to the songwriters have been reduced to a mere fraction of what they used to receive.  It’s grossly unfair, and needs to be remedied.

The good news is, within the past year, the Music Modernization Act — supported by a broad cross-section of artists, producers and others throughout the music industry — has overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives and is currently pending before the Senate.  It will overhaul copyright law and result in songwriters and artists at last making their fair share of money from digital and streaming services.

The bad news is, a last-minute amendment to the legislation, proposed by The Blackstone Group (a multi-billion-dollar private equity and financial services firm that stands to gain handsomely), is threatening to kill the MMA bill dead in its tracks.  It’s a classic example of corporate greed and a blatant attempt to halt what is widely viewed as a long-overdue correction of songwriter remuneration.

I implore you, on behalf of songwriters everywhere, to contact your U.S. Senator and demand the removal of the offensive amendment and insist on passage of the MMA in its original wording.



I fought the law and the law won

“Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?…  I’m goin’ down to shoot my old lady, I caught her messing ’round with another man… Hey Joe, I heard you shot your lady Hey-Joe-Stone-Free-Singolo-45-Giri-Jimi-hendrix-vinile-lp2down, shot her down to the ground…  Yes, I did, I shot her, you know I caught my old lady messing ’round town, and I gave her the gun, I shot her!…”

For at least a hundred years, probably longer, songs of many genres have been written about jealous men shooting their cheating women (or their lovers, or both) in arguably justifiable “crimes of passion.”  Perhaps most familiar is “Hey Joe,” whose origin is murky but seems to have been written in the 1950s, recorded by dozens of artists, and made most famous by Jimi Hendrix on his 1967 LP “Are You Experienced?”

It’s merely one example of how the old bromide “Crime doesn’t pay” certainly doesn’t hold true when it comes to popular music.

Hundreds of songs about crime — blues, hard rock, country, rap, folk, pop — have been cairnes-colt-gun-guitar02written that feature outlaws, thieves and serial killers and the broad array of awful things they do.  Some are based on true stories; some offer disturbing images of unspeakable acts; some are sad tales of accidental shootings resulting in prison terms.

Some are even written with an almost happy-go-lucky slant and turned into Top Ten confections that sell millions.  Take, for instance, “Indiana Wants Me,” a 1970 pop hit about a man who killed another man and went on the lam from the authorities.  He 1200x630bb-10regrets his act, if only because he knows it will mean separation from the woman he loves.

The Steve Miller Band wrote “the story about Billy Joe and Bobbie Sue,” two madcap felons “with nothing better to do” who got away with murder and robbery, and turned it into a hit called “Take the Money and Run” in 1976.

Even the peace-and-love Beatles came up with “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” a silly throwaway on 1969’s “Abbey Road” about an unhinged fellow who delights in killing people with hammer blows to their heads.

The late weird genius Warren Zevon became known as the “Excitable Boy” for the title 71uE8bn8X7L._SX355_track of his top-selling 1978 LP.  That song whimsically describes the boy’s escalation from rubbing pot roast on his chest to biting the theater usherette’s leg, to eventually raping and murdering a girl and then digging up her grave to build a cage with her bones.  Charming little ditty…

And those are just a few of the lighthearted ones.  It was challenging indeed to try to whittle down the voluminous list of “criminal songs” to about two dozen for this blog post and playlist.  But I’ve made my selections, and added a healthy gang of “honorable mentions” afterwards, and as usual, you’ll find a Spotify playlist at the end as a soundtrack to your reading pleasure.


51Cv700H1UL._SX355_“I Fought the Law,” Bobby Fuller Four, 1966, The Clash, 1977

The moral of the story here is crystal clear:  Break the law, you go to jail.  But talk about a creepy coincidence:  Texas native Bobby Fuller put together a foursome and recorded the regional favorite “I Fought the Law” in 1966, turned it into a Top Ten nationwide hit and, only six months later, was found dead in his mother’s garage from asphyxiation.  Suicide or homicide?  We’ll never know.  England’s punk heroes The Clash found success with their more aggressive cover of the song, which brought them a US audience in 1979.

Glenn_Frey_-_Smuggler's_Blues“Smuggler’s Blues,” Glenn Frey, 1984

As music videos took center stage in popularizing songs in the 1980s, former Eagle Glenn Frey (who passed away in 2016) wrote, produced, and starred in “Smuggler’s Blues,” an award-winning work that ended up as the inspiration for an entire episode of the “Miami Vice” TV show.  The lyrics tell the story of a drug deal gone awry, and the life-changing consequences for everyone involved:  “It’s a losing proposition, but one you can’t refuse, it’s there politics of contraband, it’s the smuggler’s blues…”

“Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny Cash, 1969

R-5030921-1382615509-7462.jpegCountry musicians haven’t been the least bit shy about writing songs about outlaws, thievery and love gone horribly wrong.  From Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and George Jones’ “Still Doin’ Time” up through the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” and Kacey Musgraves’ “Five Finger Discount,” country music fans have always cherished the songs that canonized gun-toting folks who felt the need to settle scores “because he needed killin’.”  Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” which combined the metaphors of trains and prisons in one memorable track about a cold-blooded killer who “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” reached #1 on the country charts in 1968.

“Robbery, Assault and Battery,” Genesis, 1976

robberyPhil Collins, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford and Steve Hackett had their hands full as they prepared material for the first Genesis album without their former front man Peter Gabriel.  One tune Collins wrote, “Robbery, Assault and Battery,” recalled his days as a young actor playing the Artful Dodger in a London stage production of “Oliver Twist.”  But the song took the crimes much further, from picking pockets to murder, still gleefully escaping the reach of the law, at least for now:  “I’ve got clean away, but I’ll be back someday…  Some day they’ll catch me, to a chain they’ll attach me, until that day, I’ll ride the old crime wave…”

“Midnight Rambler,” The Rolling Stones, 1969

530f7b6bbb80f_300_sqIn the ’60s, The Stones encouraged the perpetuation of their bad boy image with references to Satan (“Sympathy for the Devil”) and violent crime (“Gimme Shelter”).  One of their more notorious efforts is “Midnight Rambler,” which uses the example of the so-called “Boston Strangler” of 1966 to paint a harrowing picture of a madman on the loose, possibly in your neighborhood.  The studio version on 1969’s “Let It Bleed” is pretty great, but the live version on 1970’s “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out” is superior.

002424“I Shot the Sheriff,” Bob Marley and The Wailers, 1973

This classic reggae tune by the late great Bob Marley has an unusual twist:  The narrator freely admits to killing the (corrupt) local sheriff but professes innocence regarding the death of his deputy.  Guitar hero Eric Clapton turned The Wailers’ obscure track into a #1 hit in 1974.  Decades later, when rapper Ice-T took a lot of heat for his incendiary song “Cop Killer,” he cited “I Shot the Sheriff” as proof of society’s hypocrisy that neither Marley nor Clapton ever faced the same outrage.

maxresdefault-18“Don’t Take Me Alive,” Steely Dan, 1976

From as early as 1972’s “Do It Again” (“In the morning you go gunnin’ for the man who stole your water…”) through 2000’s twisted “Cousin Dupree” (“What’s so strange about a down-home family romance?…”), Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were infamous for writing lyrics populated by felons, weirdos, pedophiles and outcasts.  In “Don’t Take Me Alive,” the narrator has killed his low-life father and has no intention of turning himself in (“Got a case of dynamite, I could hold out here all night…”)

“Miguel,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1971

hqdefault-9The legendary Canadian troubadour did wondrous things with this melodic piece of Spanish guitar folk music that tells the tragic story about Miguel, a Mexican who sneaks across the border to see his true love and avenge his mother’s broken heart at the hands of a deserting father.  Miguel also shoots the lawman who came to capture him, and Miguel ultimately dies as well.  In this tale, revenge is definitely not sweet.   

“Ride Like the Wind,” Christopher Cross, 1980

R-2724911-1349521796-5725.jpegCross burst on the scene in 1980 with this #2 hit, another murderer-on-the-lam vignette.  The first-person narrator laments that he was “born the son of a lawless man who always spoke my mind with a gun in my hand.”   He was accused, tried and sentenced to death… but he “never was the kind to do as I was told, gonna ride like the wind before I get old…”  The galloping musical arrangement underscored the sense of urgency in the man’s race to reach Mexico before being captured.

R-9763215-1485973867-7424.jpeg“Jailbreak,” Thin Lizzy, 1976

“Tonight there’s gonna be trouble, some of us won’t survive, see, the boys and me mean business, bustin’ out dead or alive…”  It’s unclear just what crimes they committed that landed them in jail, but the point here for songwriter Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy is that “the boys and me” are serious tough guys who don’t intend to sit rotting in jail for even one more day.  The hard rock song remains a staple on classic rock playlists many decades later.

ROCK_805-2“Nebraska,” Bruce Springsteen, 1982

After five albums full of songs about exuberance, lust, hopes and dreams, Springsteen threw his audience a curve ball with the album “Nebraska,” full of criminals and losers facing bleak, dead-end existences.  At the top of the list was the man in the title track, fashioned after the real serial killer Charles Starkweather, a Nebraskan who killed 11 people in the 1950s before being executed in 1959.  The album, sparsely recorded by Springsteen at home alone on a four-track cassette recorder, also included crime-related pieces like “Johnny 99,” “Highway Patrolman” and “State Trooper.”

“Bloodbath in Paradise,” Ozzy Osbourne, 1989

220px-No_rest_for_the_wickedLeave it to that unpredictable psycho Ozzy to write a lurid hard rock song blatantly depicting the infamous crimes of Charles Manson and his “family” 20 years after they took place in the Hollywood Hills.  Manson may be dead now, but thanks to tracks like this one, the gut-wrenching murders live on.  In case you’d forgotten, here’s a snippet to turn your stomach:  “There’s blood on the walls when Charlie and the family make house calls, if you’re alone, then watch what you do, ’cause Charlie and the family might get you, can you hear them in the darkness, helter skelter, spiral madness, bloodbath in paradise…”

“Murder By Numbers,” The Police, 1983

maxresdefault-19The most chilling thing about this compelling song (found as a bonus track on The Police’s final LP “Synchronicity”) is how it offers a virtual manifesto for how easy it is to turn murder into an art form “if you’ve made a stone of your heart and your hands are willing.”  The lyrics explain that there’s no need for bloodshed if you merely slip a tablet into someone’s coffee.  It goes on to suggest, “If you have a taste for this experience… then you must try a twosome or a threesome… it’s a habit-forming need for more and more…”  Hmmm.  Makes me wonder whether some of these shooters today grew up listening to this track over and over…


Songs about mentally ill loners who kill innocent people are almost too numerous to mention.  Sad to say, these curious, dangerous types have always made fascinating subjects for songs, films and books.  In the popular music arena of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, I have singled out these riveting tracks:    

psycho_killer_poster_new“Psycho Killer,” Talking Heads, 1976

When David Byrne wrote this quirky song back in 1974 “because the villains were always the more interesting characters,” he envisioned Alice Cooper doing a Randy Newman-type ballad about a murderer.  By the time it was released on the Talking Heads’ debut LP in 1977, many erroneously assumed it referred to the so-called “Son of Sam” killings in New York City that year.  The translated lyrics (partly in French) tell the story pretty clearly:  “What I did that evening, what she said that evening, fulfilling my hope, headlong I go toward glory…”

maxresdefault-20“Ticking,” Elton John, 1974

Elton’s lyricist Bernie Taupin intended for his fictional antihero to earn our pity as a misunderstood, troubled kid whose “brain just snapped” when he “went berserk in Queens” and murdered 14 people.  The dramatic, seven-minute track from the “Caribou” LP offers taut-nerve lyrics in which the killer is described as “an extremely quiet child” who wrestled with demons that no one paid attention to.  But they should’ve seen it coming, he believes:  “Hear it, hear it, ticking, ticking…”

1*5r1NwBOzlYYnqUNivLaRWg“Family Snapshot,” Peter Gabriel, 1980

This harrowing song from Gabriel’s third solo album (unofficially known as the “Melt” LP) takes the listener along on a ride through the warped mind of a lone assassin eager to pick off an unnamed politician as his campaign caravan travels by on a city street.  We learn his plan (“If things work out right, they won’t see me or the gun”), his irrational motive and need for fame (“There he is, the man of the hour, standing in the limousine, I don’t really hate you, I don’t care what you do, we were made for each other”), and even what likely caused his unraveling (“Come back Mum and Dad, you’re growing apart, you know that I’m growing up sad, I need some attention…”).

1bc845ee44fd92345c2b3f4cf3810521.1000x1000x1“Killer’s Eyes,” The Kinks, 1981

An attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981 was the impetus for Ray Davies’ song “Killer’s Eyes,” included on The Kinks’ “Give the People What They Want” LP that year.  Davies said he was among those who continually searched for answers as to why someone seeks to kill anyone, let alone a man of God who preaches world peace.  The song is written largely from the point of view of the assassin’s brokenhearted mother:  “We all go through hell in some kind of way, can you tell me what it’s like to be there every day, when you were young you had a vision, why’d you go and do a thing like that?…”

419JGQY6S2L“Sniper,” Harry Chapin, 1972

Chapin wrote long story-songs, and this interminable 10-minute treatise is a test of anyone’s endurance.  Although it doesn’t mention Charles Whitman by name, it’s clearly about the disturbed man who climbed a tower at the University of Texas in 1966 and murdered 16 innocents.  It’s not a great song, not by a long stretch, but it offers some constructive insights into the dysfunctional thinking of those who commit such acts:  “I am a lover who’s never been kissed… Listen you people, I’ve got a question, you won’t pay attention but I’ll ask anyhow, I found a way that will get me an answer, been waiting to ask you ’til now, right now!  Am I?…  You’ve given me my answer, can’t you see?  I was!  I am!  And now I will be!!…”


Honorable mention:

Down By the River,” Neil Young, 1969;  “Too Much Blood,” The Rolling Stones, 1983;  “Been Caught Stealing,” Jane’s Addiction, 1990;  “Crime of the Century,” Supertramp, 1974;  “Smooth Criminal,” Michael Jackson, 1987;  “Stagger Lee,” Lloyd Price, 1959;  “Let Him Dangle,” Elvis Costello, 1989;  “Machine Gun Kelly,” James Taylor, 1971;  “Bankrobber,” The Clash, 1980;  “Janie’s Got a Gun,” Aerosmith, 1989;  “Riders on the Storm,” The Doors, 1971;  “Thieves in the Temple,” Prince, 1990;  “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde,” Georgie Fame, 1967;  “Renegade,” Styx, 1978;  “The Killing of Georgie (Parts I & II),” Rod Stewart, 1976;  “Band on the Run,” Paul McCartney and Wings, 1973