My weekly trips from Stony Brook to
Because he is the kind of man I respect the most. An honest trier. Not that he makes a big deal of honesty. Just does his stuff straight up, no frills, no flaming guitars. Which may be one reason why it took so long for him to be accepted as a great. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1999 (though he was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in ’92). He even griped about it in interviews ten years ago. That was right after they started using one of his songs to teach history in schools. Now he’s sixth on the all-time list of album sales. But it’s the minor details that touch me.
That he learnt classical music as a kid. And ballet. Which led to his taking up boxing, because of course the kid who dances in tights has to take on the bullies some time. Won 22 of 24 fights on the Golden Gloves circuit, finally pulling out when his nose was broken in his 24th fight (it’s still kind of blobby). Then he saw the Mop Tops on the Ed Sullivan show and decided that he wanted to be an entertainer. Came the hard years. Quick-dying singles with invisible bands. The first album - named after a working-man’s town near his childhood home - was a disaster, because it was mastered 1/16th too fast and he ended up “sounding like a chipmunk”. The hard years out west, the journeyman period on (how appropriate) Sunset Boulevard that provided the material for some of his biggest hits. The bitterness remained even after the album that had 3 numbers on the Billboard charts, even after the multiple Grammies, because he had signed away the rights to those first few songs. He once said that he must have earned about $7000 from the sale of all that material.
One of my other idols dissed him in an interview to Playboy. Said, in effect, that his songs hovered on the edge of greatness without ever breaking through because his lyrics didn’t “think it all the way through”. Basically, that he could have said more with fewer words. But then he isn’t Paul Simon, he doesn’t deny his early work because (paraphrase) it was so steeped in Eliot that it embarrassed him (which was what Paul said about the Songbook). And oh, his voice. From a purely selfish point of view, perhaps it’s a good thing he gave up classical music. Opera’s loss is our gain. I don’t understand opera anyway, and I feel triumphant – and a whole lot more – when I listen to his voice soaring across nearly 3 octaves in this song. Which is my favourite among his ballads, don’t ask me why. It fits that he should cite as an influence Gordon Lightfoot, another beat-up journeyman with a voice like velvet magic.
He hasn’t recorded a new album in 15 years. About 8 years ago, well before Mama Mia or even the Doors musical, his songs were woven into a Broadway show that turned out to be a major hit. It’s still running. And he still performs. Despite the broken marriages and the broken hopes that led to rehab, despite the broken bones from that motorcycle accident. Had to schedule a repeat of his performance for the farewell to New York’s Shea Stadium before they tore it down. The tickets for the first concert sold out in 45 minutes. (The second went slower. 48 minutes. Damn). These days, he’d rather build powerboats than go in the recording studio. Can’t argue with that, it’s his life. But one of my biggest regrets is that he performs at Stony Brook every other year and I had to choose the gap year to be there.