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Singer-Songwriters

[The Guardian, 1999]


HE WAS lying across the sofa on the other side of the room at the party, guitar case propped against the arm. His shaggy head was cradled in a dark-haired girl's lap. A dyed redhead had set herself the task of stroking his bony thighs. His anguish was clearly both existential and inextinguishable; each time one or the other girl leaned down to offer words of comfort, he would twist his face away and wince inconsolably. I was very impressed. In fact, I was half tempted to congratulate him on his technique. And of one thing I was certain. Here was a man who wrote and performed his own songs. He was probably going to write one about this, the following morning. Or afternoon, leastways.
  Strangely, writing and performing songs does not, on its own, entitle you to be known as a singer-songwriter. Neither Prince, Ozzy Osbourne nor Debbie Gibson, for example, has ever been branded thus. To be a singer-songwriter you must, first and foremost, be too sensitive to live, too vain to die. Secondly, you must not operate in a musical area, such as funk, heavy metal or teeny-pop, where there is any danger of the listener being distracted from your outpourings by their enjoyment of the way the record sounds. And thirdly, you must consider your own life, thoughts and feelings to be the only legitimate subject for your, or indeed any, work. You have suffered for your art. Now it's everybody else's turn.
  Which is not to say that all singer-songwriters are dreadful. Just most of them. Every so often, though, something turns up which throws the curve - right now, for instance, a duo called Ben & Jason. It's something of a curiosity for singer-songwriters to travel in pairs; perhaps they've elected to do so for reasons of safety. Any road, their debut album, Hello, shows them to be the first shrinking violets to follow the work of Nick Drake with something of worth.
  Nick Drake is as close to a patron saint as singer-songwriters will ever get. He has all the necessary qualities, being intense, tortured and dead. This makes him a wildly romantic figure to those whose only other great romance is with themselves. He is also, paradoxically, famous for being underappreciated. To singer-songwriters, most of whom base their entire output on feeling underappreciated, this is truly something to aspire to. Ben & Jason, bless them, have created very fine records largely in Drake's image - meditative, pastoral, unashamedly wimpy - but without the customary self-aggrandising attempts to wrap the dear, dead boy's mantle around their own, frail shoulders.
  Folk, or at least folk-based music, is the meat and drink of singer-songwriters. More so than meat and drink, to look at most of the scrawny beggars. There are a number of reasons for this. The acoustic guitar is cheap and relatively portable. It demands no great virtuosity to produce a simple background noise. And crucially, it dispenses with the need for other musicians, who for some reason often fail to appreciate your genius and artistic temperament. Once you've had some solo success, the upstarts come for hire and you can be as precious as you please with them.


BOB DYLAN, who invented the genre, set all the precedents, both for quality and vanity. Inevitably, it was sanctimonious drivel like Blowin' In The Wind - even that dropped “g “ was insufferably mannered - which inspired others to follow in his tracks, rather than more sophisticated and powerful early songs such as The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll. By the time everybody else had cottoned on to Blowin' In The Wind, Dylan had disavowed both its sentiments and its sound. He still acted the singer-songwriter to perfection, being moody, enigmatic and a randy little bugger to boot. As Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen would both later admit, writing songs was a great way for a geek to get girls.
  Simon had started out as a wannabe pop star. So, as it happens, had Dylan - he played piano for briefly popular teen idol Bobby Vee - and so would many other singer-songwriters including Tori Amos, Alanis Morissette, Alex Chilton and all of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Some of them did fairly well. Simon and Garfunkel scored rock'n'roll hits under the name of Tom & Jerry. Graham Nash was one of The Hollies. Morissette had a previous incarnation as “the Canadian Tiffany”, a carbon copy of a starlet no one remembers, from a place no one is much interested in, but which exports singer-songwriters by the sackful.
  In the wake of Dylan, it had become clear that money, credibility and long-term status were liable to attach themselves to poet philosophers with hollow-body six-strings. Leonard Cohen, conversely, was already a poet, albeit not a very good one, and a writer of preposterous novels. By heading down the high art scale, he found his real vocation, producing a series of superb records which have only recently been recognised for their scathing humour and mordant self-deprecation as well as for their sublime miserabilism.
  But for every Dylan and Cohen, there would be a thousand Donovans and worse. And what Dylan did for sullen, skinny boys, Joni Mitchell would do in spades for skittish, self-obsessed girls. Like all the best singer-songwriters, Mitchell moved from early simplicity into wild, exhilarating bursts of inventiveness. And like all the best, she would unwittingly inspire a legion of tedious solipsists who made up in egotism what they lacked in ability. There were, as ever, exceptions. Laura Nyro. The undervalued Janis Ian. Carole King, who had already more than proved her worth as a brilliant pop songwriter




for others. But for the most part, the early seventies were clogged up with howlingly awful artistes of both sexes, each more willing than the last to plumb the very puddle of their psyche.


JUST as Bob Dylan boasted that he had killed off Tin Pan Alley, the system which separated composing and performing, so punk and eighties pop pretty much did for singer-songwriters. Accustomed to years of solemn worship, during which their every utterance was accorded a reverence more in keeping with holy writ than petulant and perpetual adolescence, they were to be kept in abeyance for the best part of two decades.
  The eighties were a wretched era, but if there was one good thing to be said for them - and I emphasise “if” - it was a relative absence of strumming and whining, at least in conjunction with one another. Again, there were exceptions. Suzanne Vega, pale and uninteresting, did very nicely with her milk-and-water verses. Tanita Tikaram was Lloyd Cole in drag, or vice-versa. Politicised singer-songwriters enjoyed a fleeting vogue - Michelle Shocked, Tracy Chapman, Phrank. It was a good time to be a lesbian with a guitar, or at least to look like one. The perennial Billy Bragg, admirably oblivious to the whims of fashion, continued to turn out records. Each one resembled a lab experiment in which an amorous bloodhound had been furnished with a bullhorn and a copy of Das Kapital.
  The eighties also witnessed the flourishing career of Kate Bush, queen of the “I'm a tree” persuasion of singer-songwriter. This happily infrequent drama school technique mainly involves getting into character, and begs the question as to which makes for more embarrassing lyrics: soul-baring banalities, or method-acting exercises? To be fair to Bush, after a run of recordings which demonstrated that innovation is not always a force for the good, she turned up trumps with her Hounds Of Love album, one of the outstanding records of the decade. She also invented Tori Amos, but you can't blame her for that.
  Come the nineties, singer-songwriters have returned with a vengeance. Literally so; vengeance being a principal motive for most of their breed. Vengeance on those who shunned them, refused their advances, ignored their prowess or simply thought they were plain weird. This is as good a spur as any - just ask Thom from Radiohead. But a grudge against the world or several specific bits of it does not necessarily mean you merit its rapt attention.
  One name echoes down the halls of infamy: Alanis Morissette. In the seventies, sulky male bards were everywhere. Twenty years on, it's the turn of the girls to bore us rigid with stuff that rightly belongs in teenage diaries. And Morissette kicked the whole thing off by selling umpteen million copies of her album, Jagged Little Pill, often erroneously referred to as her debut. That her name sounds like a joke feminisation of Morrissey's is what you might call a significant coincidence - given that her lyrical style is what you might call humourless Smiths with PMT. A cheap shot, true, but then we're talking cheap music here.
  Even so, Morissette's sonic gravel is as pearls from the deepest ocean, compared to the slew of records from dismal young women signed in the aftermath of her wasp-chewing triumph. I would name names, if I could remember them. But having succeeded in consigning them to oblivion, I don't intend to dredge them up now merely for the sake of argument. We all know they're out there, and not one of them has produced anything approaching the standard of Smelly Cat by Phoebe from Friends.
  Meanwhile, the boys haven't been idle (That's merely a turn of phrase, of course; singer-songwriters of any variety are usually idle to the point of appearing stuffed. This is also known as being artistically blocked.) Having lost out in the Dear Diary genre, they've turned instead to the Suffering Soul. You may already have heard of Mishka, the nautical Caribbean beatnik - a boatnik, really. Mishka combines the more winsome traits of Bob Marley with a style of lovelorn bleating which, while it makes my fillings spin in their cavities, will very likely launch him, sooner or later, into the charts, far beyond the reach of critical slingshots.
  The progeny of old singer-songwriters have now taken to popping out of the woodwork with records of their own - Jakob Dylan, Adam Cohen, Rufus Wainwright (son of Loudon), whose baroque piano compositions make him the pick of the bunch by a fair few lengths. As if this weren't enough, every month brings the attempted rehabilitation of long forgotten warblers, sometimes deserved, sometimes not. Nick Drake started the trend. Phil Ochs, another suicide, was next. As for Gene Clark, I personally intend to bang on about him until whoever owns the rights to the inspirational No Other album gets the message and reissues it.
  Future revival subjects, at a guess, will include the recently deceased David Ackles; the mawkish work of Clifford T Ward, who is sadly now afflicted with MS; PF Sloan, who wrote the dreadful Barry McGuire hit Eve Of Destruction; plus Dory Previn, Don McLean, Phoebe Snow, James Taylor, the mullah formerly known as Cat Stevens, and, eventually, David McCallum, who when not camping it up as Robert Vaughn's blond companion in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., could be found propping up the bill of pop packages throughout the sixties. No, they don't make 'em like they used to. That's one thing to be grateful for.









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