Published: Jun 19, 2012
When I was preparing to write the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of Paul Simon’s Graceland, I listened to it dozens of times. Most of those listening sessions were unnecessary — I knew the music. What I was looking for from this legendary music was a magic formula.
It had occurred to me, you see, that the truths of music might be the truths of all art forms — or at least, of writing. If I could crack the code of “Graceland,” I reasoned, I’d have an edge when I was writing my novel.
And I was right. For “Graceland,” Simon wrote the music first, then added the words. And the music was heavy on rhythm. (As Simon has said, “The roots of rhythm remain.”) That gave him tremendous freedom; for Simon, sometimes “singing” means a cool way of talking out of the side of your mouth.
I get deeper into this when I became obsessed with another Paul Simon song, “The Obvious Child.” It starts with a remarkable African drum sequence, and it continues that compelling beat right through the song. Freedom? By the end, Simon is singing 1950s street-corner doo-wop over those drums.
My takeaway: Find the beat of my book and keep it going, use the words like lyrics, watch it become the literary equivalent of a hit song — brisk, efficient, short.
I tried that. It worked. Very exciting.
And then I met Ralph Murphy.
I met Ralph Murphy, who has had #1 hit songs in five decades, at a dinner for Don Schlitz, who had briefly abandoned Nashville in order to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. How do I know Don Schlitz, you may ask. Because my parents used to live in Nashville and my mother, on a very smart whim, bought a townhouse she intended to rent. Don saw her ad and called. He had a wife and a child, and he was a songwriter. My mother, worried about his ability to pay, asked him if he had written any songs she might have heard of. “Do you know ‘The Gambler?’” he replied. That was modest; the list of the hits he’s written runs long. He is also one of the nicer people on the planet; if you didn’t know better, you would think his job is hanging out with his friends and, on the side, knocking out a few songs.
So this is how I found myself, seated next to Ralph Murphy at dinner, explaining my Unified Theory of Creation.
Ralph was way ahead of me. He explained how disco, which was cocaine-fueled music, was produced at 135 beats per minute, and why today’s dance music, which is powered by Red Bull, comes in at 128. He knew how long the introduction to a song should last and what a correct rhyme structure looked like and how soon the listener had to hear the title. He’d even written a book, “Murphy’s Laws of Songwriting.”
I was riveted.
Ralph Murphy’s book is charming, candid and funny. It’s also self-published, expensive and repetitive. For songwriters, it’s essential reading — like having Michael Jordan teach you how to play basketball.
The number of fledgling songwriters who visit this site is small, and they are not why I’m writing this. You are. I see this as an important book for anyone who makes things out of nothing and who believes that success requires only your massive creativity. Not so, Murphy says. There are rules. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the vastly cheaper Kindle edition, click here.]
You can, Murphy says, be an artist and play your songs before small, adoring audiences in out-of the-way clubs at 10 PM. Or you can harness your creativity to the Law of Commerce — give people what they want — and they’ll play your creation on drive-time radio. You decide.
As I have said elsewhere, any art school genius can write a six-minute song so complex that it won’t be appreciated for decades. It takes a different kind of genius to write a shorter song with three chords, a killer hook and an unforgettable title.
Me, I’ve got a kid who might want to go to college. I’m looking for a hit. If you are too, there are some home truths here you might want to consider.