Songs I have been trying to rewrite for years

Every writer, every musician, every artist is basically a thief. We don’t mean to be, but we can’t help it. We create because we love, so naturally what we create resembles what we love.

Now, there are people who intentionally swipe someone’s words, music, and ideas and try to pass ’em off as their own. I’m not talking about these plagiarists, who are sad criminals indeed. I’m talking about the rest of us, who wear our influences on our sleeves, who create in a (probably) vain effort to capture that spirit that first drew us to the art we love. We may be thieves, but we’re thieves of passion.


Anyway, I just recorded a new album, All This Life, and it contains 15 songs that absolutely found their roots in other, better, songs. At this point in my old age, my thievery has created something of a pop-culture gumbo, a giant stew of musical contraband with too many influences (hopefully) to be traced to any one artist. In fact, it might someday be accepted as my own personal style. Until then, though, you can probably trace my creations back to any one of these wonderful songs, which are listed in no particular order (although the first song is undoubtedly first for a reason). There are hundreds more, but these are the first ones that popped (ha ha! “Popped!” Cause I’m writing about pop music!) into mind.

NOTE: I didn’t include certain songs that have informed my love of rock music from the start – “Johnny B. Goode,” say, or “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” or even the entire Beatles catalogue, because, well, that stuff has influenced EVERYBODY. Even Miley. Maybe not Justin.

“Back on the Chain Gang,” The Pretenders
Pretty much every song I come up with is my attempt to write “Back on the Chain Gang.” Chrissie Hynde hasn’t written a bad song yet, but even if she did, her delivery is so raw, sexy and honest that she could transform it into something sublime. But “Back on the Chain Gang” contains something so hugely emotional and transcendent that I get caught up in it every time. And oh, the song – a guitar lick at once jangly and melancholy (not to mention that amazing, descending triplet lead), a postpunk folk groove, a metaphorical lyric so sweet and mournful that it almost makes you forget the song is an upbeat rocker. Chrissie never overdelivers, and her restraint is as fascinating as the rest of it. I long to create something that contains so much emotion in such a pop-friendly package.

“Little Wild One (#5),” Marshall Crenshaw
Sweet, simple, and sexy, “Little Wild One” is a hard-rock screamer disguised as rockabilly pop. Crenshaw’s nifty ode to seething heartbreak seems so simple, but his delivery is full of such an intense, restrained passion that you cannot help but fall into it. Then you realize how well the melody blends with the lyrics – the high notes in the chorus just make the whole thing more emotional. And then comes the bridge, which almost feels like another verse, in which Crenshaw’s yearning can’t be contained in one vocal track – it becomes three. And the whole time, it’s a rocker with a great, twangy guitar. “Little Wild One” is everything pop/rock should be, and proof that the simplest melody and changes can allow for the most direct, intense communication.

Tie, “Vienna”/”A Matter of Trust,” Billy Joel
Billy’s The Stranger is the first album I remember buying on my own. I like to think I used my own money, but how does a 7-year-old make money, besides scanning the couch cushions every few hours? Anyway, I wore that sucker out, even if I generally tuned out on the last two tracks (and who could blame me). “Movin’ Out” was the song that attracted me, but more and more I was haunted by the gorgeous “Vienna,” which combined a folk-ballad aesthetic with enigmatic lyrics and a tough-as-nails delivery. To this day, I haven’t been able to figure out the mysteries of the melody, but I’ve written a lot of songs trying.

Meanwhile, “A Matter of Trust” is just the perfect pop song. Great groove, simple but effective changes, a fantastic, circular melody, and is there a better key for power pop than D? The weak production on The Bridge lessens the punch, but it’s there on 12 Gardens, Billy’s latest live album. It’s amazing – the groove is right there from the beginning, and there aren’t a lot of detours, but man, does it soar.

“Darling Be Home Soon,” The Lovin’ Spoonful
Simply the most romantic song I know. Sebastian and the boys start with a calm folk melody and capture what it means to be in love in such a beautiful and mature way that it still brings tears to my eyes – and best of all, there’s not a trace of sentimental pap. I’m still trying to learn how to build a song so honestly.

“Dried Up,” Ass Ponys
I love so many tunes by the Ass Ponys, the late, great combo from Ohio (which fortunately lives on, in a fashion, as Wussy), but I think “Dried Up” is the one I’ve been trying to catch up with the most. Like all the Ponys songs, it combines true Americana soul with a healthy dose of punk, and tells a novel’s worth of stories in just a few lines. It’s also painfully honest, a screed that captures the true, sad nature of nostalgia (“you’re moving like a poem/and it hurts to see you going”) like the best Carver story. Whenever I get caught up in my own metaphors (or, worse, “poetry”), I try to think of “Dried Up” and how so little can accomplish so much.

“Unsatisfied,” Replacements
I started listening to punk in high school, and fell in love with the fierce, stripped-down energy, the anger, and (of course) the huge chunky guitar chords. But it took the ‘Mats to teach me that true punk attitude and penetratingly honest lyrics with soaring melodies aren’t mutually exclusive. I suppose some churlish infidel could label this as a building block to “emo,” but really, it’s a burst of passion that just happens to kick ass.

“Don’t Wait Up,” Richard Julian
If you don’t know who Richard Julian is, I strongly suggest you stop reading this post right now and remedy that immediately. I was a fan of his even before I knew he grew up right down the street from me, and he just keeps getting better. Like all the best songwriters, he plays in all styles, from funk to blues to country. But while my favorite song of his changes every day, “Don’t Wait Up” is the one that continues to amaze me with how well it creates a mood, a time. Even before the line “there’s frost on Memorial Day,” you’re feeling it, thanks to the incredible guitar work and subtly descending melody. Every time I set out to write a new song, I think about how I can capture a feeling as well as “Don’t Wait Up.” Haven’t gotten there yet.

“Sleepwalker,” the Kinks
I’m not saying it’s my fave Kinks song, and it’s certainly far from their best. But at a time when I was just teaching myself to play guitar, that “Sleepwalker” lick – a variation of “Louie, Louie” (but then again, aren’t they all?) with a huge sound and a beat you can dance to – informed about 90% of my songs from the time. And even now, it reminds me that there is nothing like a great, simple, chunky chord sequence to kick off a 3-minute rock song.

“Buddy Holly,” Weezer
“Buddy Holly” is a simple, funny little pop song with the guitars turned up to eleven. As one who loves simple, funny little pop songs and guitars turned up to eleven, it was quite a revelation to hear one song that encompassed both. See also Veruca Salt’s “With David Bowie.”

“No One Like You,” The Scorpions
Okay, judge if you must, but I love this shit. I know the first line on my CD is “a winter’s tale plays in my head as I come undone,” but still…give me some crunchy power chords and a singer who knows how to wail about how chicks are hot and stuff and I’m one happy boy. And before they became the poster boys for wussed-out powerless ballads, the Scorpions fuckin’ ROCKED. And here’s how – they could switch from beautiful guitar ballad to pounding hard rock in the space of one song – thus, “No One Like You.” They never really got the respect they deserved from the metalheads, who like to poke fun at diminutive, balding Klaus Meine and his almost ridiculously high caterwaul (of course, those same lunkheads fawn all over Geddy Lee, who admittedly has better hair). But I love the Scorps because they brought a healthy dose of power chord punk to the scene; they were unafraid to mix complex, melodic guitar lines (“Still Loving You”) with the most basic, any-kid-can-play-that-after-one-month-of-lessons licks (“Rock You Like a Hurricane,” anyone?). So even in my most introspective shoegazer tunes, I’m always thinking about big, chunky guitar chords.

Rockin’ in the Free (if you steal it) World,