Writing songs is hard.
I know. I have composed and captured many fragments that prove as much — both in digital as well as analog format. I have at times considered compiling them into a sort of non-career retrospective: perhaps as many as 200 tracks, clocking in at well under 40 minutes in length. It’d put The Minutemen and Paint It Black to shame, I tells ya. Think something more along the lines of The Beatles’ ill-fated Get Back sessions, only with less enthusiasm.
I still think it might be fun to book a show to present a few of those lost masterpieces. Though, band rehearsals might be a bit tedious: “No! It’s G, A-minor-seventh this time! Let’s go over it again.”
The trick, I reckon, is to borrow just enough of a favourite existing song to flesh things out. In that sense, we budding songwriters can take a page from David “The Laughing Gnome” Bowie, who yesterday showed those young upstarts a thing or two by proving he is more than capable of completing one new song every 10 years. Hey, it’s got me beat.
How did he do it? By returning to his “classic” sound (or one of his “classic” sounds), presenting us with a gorgeous downcast ballad blessed with an even more gorgeous melancholy vocal, and lyrics that speak to a well-traveled individual. It’s Starman brought down to earth. And when, two and a half minutes into the song, Bowie has to reach for an anthemic ending, he shrewdly turns for inspiration not to his own past but to those other great 20th Century songwriters: Guns N’ Roses. Yep, I defy you to not break into November Rain as Where Are We Now? winds down. The pounding piano. The orchestration. The temptation to sway your way into a Davy Jones dance. (Or, in this case, a David Jones dance.) It’s all there, save for the whining. And the drugs.
Of course, no one was saying as much yesterday, as we all indeed swayed in unison to a new Bowie classic. Just as no one talked about how Colbie Caillat’s catchy Brighter Than the Sun was pretty much a rewrite of MMMBop, or how Lee Ann Womack’s sentimental I Hope You Dance seemed to be sung over the backing-track to Sarah McLachlan’s Building a Mystery. But that’s okay. For one thing, Building a Mystery echoed Joan Osborne’s One Of Us. There are, after all, only so many melodies to go around. George Harrison argued that decades ago — to no avail. (Though Bob Marley surely proved him right when he joyously broke into The Banana Splits‘ theme midway through Buffalo Soldier.)
Make no mistake, I too was caught up in the hypnotic quality of Bowie’s return to form. I welcome and applaud the great man’s latest triumph. But then, I love November Rain — even if it too threatens to turn into someone else’s song right around the start of the guitar solo. (In GnR’s case, regrettably, Bryan Adams’ I Do It For You.) Besides, I admire any songwriter who knows how to finish what he’s started.