Catcher In The Rye by Sammy Walker
Five Get Over Excited by The Beautiful South
For Whom The Bell Tolls by The Bee Gees
Hemingway´s Whiskey by Kenny Chesney
Islands In The Stream by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton
Lady Writer by Dire Straits
My Autobiography by Janis Ian
New Biography by Van Morrison
Rave on, John Donne by Van Morrison
My Back Pages by John Stewart & Darwin´s Army
Paperback Writer by Yhe Beatles
In my final four or five years of living in the UK I was privileged to serve as host and interviewer at Rochdale Literature And Ideas Festival. In its first five years of existence, which coincided with my last five years of living in the Borough, the list of best-selling novelists, auto-biographers and biographers, dramatists and poets who appeared at the event was hugely impressive. With Willy Russell’s plays and the autobiography of BBC dj Liz Kershaw and the travel writing of her brother, journalist Andy Kershaw, and the Dr. Who books, written by Tommy Donbavand, the shelves of Number One Riverside Library could probably be fully stocked with only the works of local and visiting writers who have appeared at the Festival.
There are also creative writing groups meeting regularly all across the Borough, with the Library Services lending them support. When I lived in Rochdale there was, at the least, Touchstones cwg, Weaving Words and Langley Writers. From within their ranks they produced writers of their own, including Robin Parker with his collection of The Edenfield Scrolls and Lorraine Charlesworth with a beautiful biographical tale called For Love Of Bahrain. There are emerging writers, too, such as Louis Brierley, who like Martin Peters was on a football field, is probably ten years ahead of his time yet.
We can’t all be (Stephen) King, perhaps, but we can all be paperback writers.
Indeed, it might be argues that the writers of perfectly disposable three minute pop songs have contributed to the best of British literature.
Many readers of our Sidetracks and Detours blog and those of you who also write your own blogs will be aware of a relatively new and verdant genre of fiction that is enjoying big sales, attracting new authors and seducing previously successful authors in other genres to try their hand in this little-explored territory. Young Adult fiction, it might be argued, began when Catcher In The Rye by J D Salinger was published in 1951 for the traditional adult market. However, its references to teenage angst and feelings of disenchantment and disenfranchisement soon attracted a teenage audience, too. Holden Caulfield, the novel’s central character, has been held ever since as a perfect example, good or bad depending on which side of the generation gap you are, of teenage rebellion. The novel still regularly appears on variations of Top Reading lists.
Whether or not Sammy Walker was ever a disaffected youth the music critics of the seventies labelled him unfairly as ‘the new Dylan’ rather than explore his individuality. It is true that he recorded a slew of Woody Guthrie songs early in his career but I have several of his tracks on my i pod that demonstrate his unique song-writing talents.
Catcher In The Rye is a title, amongst those, that I would recommend to any new listener,… or reader.
Many bookworms, all across the arts and down the ages, will have been avid readers of one or more of the series of works by Enid Blyton. Most of us remember stories of Noddy and Big Ears, and The Secret Seven and maybe all of us remember at least one adventure of The Famous Five. I remember Five On A Treasure Island and Five Go To Billycock Hill.
Even if I found Julian a bit too studious I always felt Dick was a real mate. Anne was the sort of good girl I wouldn’t have dated in later life, but at the age I was reading these she and George (ina) seemed the kind of girls I might have knocked about with. Even Timmy the dog was good fun. It seemed every time somebody threw a stick he fetched back something much more interesting.
I’m not sure Enid Blyton ever wrote anything in the series with a title of Five Go To The Beautiful South, but that didn’t stop The Beautiful South recording Five Get Over Excited, which to be fair, the five very often did. Lead Singer, and writer, Paul Heaton. demonstrated some lovely lyrical flair, with ‘Daddy’s own beer’ being paired with ’Abba’s Mama Mia’ as a perfect example.
The Bee Gees chimed out loud at number four in the UK pop charts in 1993 but all those of us who endured / enjoyed (delete as applicable) a nineteen sixties secondary education knew that title of For Whom The Bell Tolls had been ‘nicked’ by The Gibb Brothers from a novel by Ernest Hemingway. My generation were all familiar with Hemingway for other works too, such as A Farewell To Arms and The Old Man And The Sea.
I’m not sure we learned at school that Hemingway had also borrowed the title from writing we school-kids would then have considered arcane and obscure. The line is developed from a reference to funereal tolling in a 1624 piece of writing by metaphysical poet John Donne, more specifically from Meditation XV11 in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.
To be fair to Hemingway, he selected the line very specifically to call men to duty and to suggest the Spanish Civil War, a major concern at his time of writing, mattered not only to the Spanish but to everyone.
Hemingway´s name is writ large across more than one song that pays homage to his writing.
Hemingway once suggested that we should ‘never delay kissing a pretty girl or opening a bottle of whiskey,’ the kind of profound advice that made me become a writer ! ‘Cigarettes and Whiskey and wild, wild women’ seem companions of choice for most male fiction writers.
Hemingway’s Whiskey thus became the title track of the twelfth album by country artist Kenny Chesney. Of the song, written by Guy Clark and Joe Leathers, Chesney says, “a friend had given me Guy’s album, which had just come out. Hemingway’s Whiskey talks about living life to its fullest, being a man about your responsibilities and not compromising. As soon as I heard it, I knew I had to cut it — and call the album that — because it says everything about the way you live your life, and what life can be if you refuse to buy into limits, which, as someone who’s read all his books, is everything Hemingway’s novels revolved around.’
Islands In The Stream was a song that revived UK interest in the individual careers of two huge selling artists who collaborated to record it. The number one single, composed and later recorded by The Bee Gees, Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb, was initially a massive hit for country stars Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. The accompanying video of a sequin gowned Dolly and a tux and bow Kenny showed them obviously enjoying the song
Whether The Bee Gees lyric is an interpretation of the Hemingway novel from which it takes its title, however, remains a matter of on-line debate.
The book, written to revive Hemingway’s reputation after negative reviews of Across the River and Into the Trees, was written through 1950/51. This, ‘rough but seemingly finished’ work, was only later found by Mary Hemingway from among 332 different works Hemingway left behind after his death. Islands In The Stream encompassed three stories to illustrate different stages in the life of its main character, Thomas Hudson.
The Bee Gees’ song was also a later Comic Relief number one for Rob Bryden and Ruth Jones after their characters, Uncle Bryn and Nessa, memorably performed it in the comedy series Gavin And Stacie.
When creating an i pod Side-tracks And Detours playlist to guide us all across the arts, the title of Lady Writer cannot be resisted. Along with all Dire Straits’ recordings, and those of their lead singer – guitarist Mark Knopfler, it is a song regularly blared out from my car speakers. The track was first released on their second album, Communique, in 1979, but the vocal is one of those that Knopfler often delivered as a mumble down a long tunnel. Nonetheless its opening line of ‘lady writer on the tv’ is an instant hook.
The female author in question was not a creative writer of fiction but, according to several books about Mark and the band, was Marina Warner, whom Knopfler was impressed by when seeing her on a tv chat show. She was a broadly educated essayist and, in 1976, had published a well-researched and argued book about ‘the cult’ of the Virgin Mary.
So, a song about a Lady Writer it most certainly was but like so much rock n roll, it was, too, a song about a love unrequited, with a physical likeness to one of Knopfler’s former flames being the reason behind some stinging lyrics.
Janis Eddy Fink might not be a familiar name to include in our Side-tracks And Detours playlist about writers, but her stage-name of Janis Ian certainly is. With her song about female teenage angst and how she ‘learned the truth At Seventeen’, and the autobiographical Society’s Child topping the charts in her early career, Janis Ian was a high profile member of the sixties and seventies pop culture. She is still performing today, and recently toured the UK, making an appearance at the Lowry, and throughout her career has mixed beautiful love songs with others that address arguably weightier topics, as a 21st century album title, God And The FBI, might testify.
Perfectly qualified for inclusion in our ‘hall of fame’, Janis Ian is also a columnist and science fiction author.
It was on her 2006 album, Folk Is The New Black, that she recorded My Autobiography. Like many of her songs it worked on several levels, deliberately reminding us that many autobiographies are, like hers when she speaks of ‘sleeping with Kennedys,’ really just works of wild fiction.
Addressing a similar topic, Van Morrison recorded New Biography, savagely attacking under-researched and agendised work about ‘celebrities’ undeserving of the title ‘biography.’ Of friends who contribute to such life stories, Van reminds us that ‘we’ve got to question where they’re coming from’ and suggests they are simply nobodies, playing ‘the fame game,’ as he growls his way through the acerbic lyrics of this song on his 1999 album Back On Top.
Notwithstanding his distaste for the genre, Morrison has been the subject of a number of biographies. Can You Feel The Silence? – Van Morrison, A New Biography, collated by rock biographer Clinton Heylin in 2004, details ‘the breakdown of Morrison’s marriage, the creative drought that followed, and his triumphant re-emergence.’
The publisher claimed their writer was ‘seeking to understand the forbidding aspects of Morrison’s persona, such as paranoia, hard drinking, misanthropy, as well as why, in the words of his one-time singing partner Linda Gail Lewis, Morrison’s music “brings happiness to other people, not him.”
Morrison himself also paid his respects to other writers, including to a metaphysical poet, with his song Rave On John Donne. However it seems that despite, or because of, his perceived ravings the fifteenth century poet couldn´t hanf on to a good line if he tried. Almost five hundred years after Donne had penned the line, Perry Como had a hit song, with the hook line of ´catch a falling star and put it in your pocket´ echoing a John Donne work.
Many music fans of my generation might look back, as I do, on that wonderful nineteen sixties explosion of a new popular culture. I wonder, though, what our older and surely wiser and perhaps more cynical selves think when we listen today to Dylan’s line that ‘I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now’? My wonky knees and failing eyes remind me how old I’ve grown, but could it be true that in the last forty years I have somehow grown younger too?
Bob Dylan’s line comes from My Back Pages, which he, of course recorded and The Byrds covered.
My favourite version of the song, though, comes from a later recording by John Stewart and Darwin’s Army on an album released in 1999, which included not only this Dylan number but also titles by Merle Haggard, Paul Simon and Tim Hardin. Stewart is accompanied here by his wife, Buffy Ford and long-time musical buddies Dave Batti, John Hoke and Dennis Kenmore with the record’s production values serving John even better than do some of his solo albums.
My Back Pages teaches us more about ourselves, but the lessons don’t come any easier with age !
There will eventually be almost 150 tracks in our Side-tracks And Detours listings guiding all across the arts scene and, had we wanted, we could have made all of them Lennon and McCartney compositions.
However, we now look at a Beatles recording, Paperback Writer, written in 1966 when Lennon’s name was always the lead in the partnership credits. The lyrics are not quite the saccharin sweet we normally associate with Paul McCartney but even during the fall out about whether their songs should be, instead, attributed as McCartney & Lennon, John seemed to attack to defend.
‘I might have helped with the lyrics,’ he said in a later interview, ‘but it was definitely Paul’s tune.’
The song topped the charts all over the world, though in the USA two weeks at number one were interrupted by Frank Sinatra’s Strangers In The Night.
According to subsequently disgraced dj Jimmy Saville, McCartney’s Paperback Writer was penned in response to an aunt’s request for a single ‘not about love.’ Seeing drummer Ringo Starr reading a book McCartney hit on the theme of his song. (note to all local creative writers, “write what you see.”)
McCartney later claimed, however, that he wrote it after reading an interview with author Martin Amis in The Daily Mail, surprisingly perhaps, the regular paper of John Lennon.