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The Marvin Quadrant: Coming to Genre, Part Two: the Brill Building (NYC)

The Brill Building (courtesy of Epicgenius under CC BY-SA 4.1)

And the Little Dog Too

Florence Moore Hall, present day (Image credit: Creative Commons)

In 1975-76 I served as a Resident Assistant (RA) in Loro, one of the seven houses in Florence Moore Hall (dorm motto: It’s not east campus, it’s not west campus, it’s just sort of there somewhere in the middle).  When I served as a Resident Fellow (RF) in West Lagunita from 2006-12 (three houses, Adelfa, Eucalypto, and Granada, nearly 200 undergraduates, definitely west campus), I often didn’t get acceptances from my top-choice RA applicants because they preferred to accept offered positions in all-frosh houses to relive their own first years but now in the role of the RAs who had welcomed them to college life; I know that inspired my interest back in the seventies, as my Larkin RA Peter C. became one of my closest friends for decades after that Larkin year.  Peter cast me as Zachary “Zooey” Glass in the Larkin Players’ March 1974 production of Franny and Zooey, the script shamelessly cribbed verbatim from J.D. Salinger’s short story and novella from the 1950’s, both originally (and separately) published in The New Yorker and later brought together in book form.  If you want to hear a longer-than-usual story, featuring a cat named Bloomberg and goldfish in a bowl downstage left, ask me about that formative experience.

In my RA year, over winter break I spent the two weeks Flo Mo was closed living at the old Manzanita Trailer Park on east campus, a nearly-forgotten adventure in temporary undergrad housing at Escondido Road and Campus Drive that lasted a couple of decades—160 shoebox-y trailers arranged in forty rectangles of four, each with beds for four students.  Over the break, in the poorly-insulated thus chilly trailer—I don’t recall if I had the winter coat to ward off the cold or reliable heating of any sort—I rewrote The Wizard of Oz as Toto Too, keeping the songs from the movie but making Toto the narrator—he talked to the audience but not to Dorothy (he called her Dot) or the other characters, as they knew him only as the little dog.  I worked from my memories of watching the movie every year while growing up—no internet or streaming services yet; as I draft this essay during winter break exactly 48 years later, I marvel at the video clips and songs available at my literal fingertips via the laptop in my apartment (an apartment all of PWR has seen behind me for four consecutive September Sessions).  In December 1975  I wrote the script longhand—no computers yet, so I probably didn’t revise much, hammering out a couple of scenes a day.  I have no memory of what or where I ate during that break, and I’m pretty sure the trailer didn’t have a television, so writing the script shaped the days and kept body, brain, and soul together.

Plato criticized writing in its early days for its capacity to replace dialectical inquiry through conversation (does Socratic dialogue qualify as conversation?) with mute symbols; he worried also about the effects on what Aristotle would come to taxonomize as the fourth canon of rhetoric, memory.  We might reframe the question now to ask about the effect on human memory of all the technologies and related replacements of not only conversation but also the traditional physical artifacts of print text including books and magazines.  With everything readily available for recall via technology, what do digital natives consider worth remembering and how do they think about their own memories as a technology, albeit an old one, like handwriting?  In Larkin I had a friend who memorized Johnny Carson monologues from The Tonight Show—he would repeat them on demand, once, memorably, on a first-year spring break trip to the banks of the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  In West Lag, I had an RA who memorized entire episodes of Seinfeld—he also would repeat them on demand—and he also did a great velociraptor imitation, which I asked him to do at staff meetings about once a quarter.  I expect you have students who memorize texts like these.  Ask them how.  Ask them why.

We put on Toto Too at the end of winter quarter 1976 in one of the dorm lounges, with “dorm mom” Elisabeth C. providing piano accompaniment to the enthusiastic performers (Liz lives in Mountain View now, though she’s retired from her role as rehearsal pianist for the Palo Alto Children’s Theater).  Tim M. from San Diego played the Head Munchie, my revised version of the Mayor of Munchkin Land, as an affable stoner.  We had Flying Mooses in place of Flying Monkeys and no special effects budget—for the tornado that whisked Dorothy and Toto to Oz, Elisabeth and a crew member or two shook rippling sheets of some kind of metallic material to produce storm-adjacent sounds approximating the fury of nature unleashed.

Up on the Roof

Flash forward to spring quarter.  As the weather warmed, for some forgotten reason I began writing song lyrics, sometimes on the grassy hillside behind Florence Moore Hall that led up to the Knoll, home of the Music Department back then.  I didn’t show the lyrics to anyone.  I’m not sure if I had any plans for them.  By that time I had realized that I had little talent for writing poetry, the official focus of my English major with a creative writing emphasis.  I hadn’t found my way to writing fiction yet (that would become my focus in the MFA program at Arizona several years later); I remember having lots of texts whirling around in my head—all the novels, short stories, and plays I’d read in English courses in the major, all the dialogue from the film courses I’d taken and the film series I’d studiously attended, all the music I’d listened to.  (I didn’t watch much television as an undergrad, probably a good thing, given how much I watched before and after... )

Anyway, the roof of Florence Moore had wooden decks just outside the doors of at least several of the houses, maybe all of them.  Head Munchie Tim M. and his friend Gary D. played their guitars on the deck outside their house (maybe Mirlo or Gavilan), adjacent to Loro.  I stood at the deck railing and listened, idly wishing I could play guitar.  One afternoon they played/strummed a sequence of chords I’d heard them play/strum before.  I listened and all at once twanged, without invitation and I hoped in an acceptable relationship to their strumming, the words “Oh, I’ve got a friend in Buddha.” From where did these words come?  Don’t know.  Possibilities: Two years earlier when I played Zooey, the character railed against the instruction in Buddhism provided to him and sister Franny by their older brothers Seymour (a suicide whose death haunts all the remaining siblings) and Buddy (the narrator of the novella and the surrogate for the absent eldest brother).  Maybe I carried some residual resentment from Zooey’s rants?  I wouldn’t hear Alan Watts’s lectures on Buddhism on SF radio till a couple of years later.  I hadn’t taken any courses in Buddhism or comparative religion.  Maybe I’d assimilated a general impulse toward satire from college life.  I’d written the wizard in Toto Too as a New Age (not Buddhist) guru/fraudster putting one over on the guileless denizens of Oz. 

A final possibility: In part one of this saga last quarter, I didn’t mention two singer-songwriters I heard and admired growing up: Tom Lehrer and Allan Sherman, both known for their comic/parodic songs. Tom Lehrer, a scientist in real life, performing “The Vatican Rag” in Copenhagen in 1967. Allan Sherman performing “Harvey and Sheila,” which you may recognize as having the public domain melody of “Hava Nagilah”--Sherman took advice early in his career to work with songs from the public domain to avoid copyright issues; Weird Al Yankovic, the Sherman of a later generation, had to arrange permission for his parodies of contemporary, copyrighted songs.  Note the narrative range of this skewed, culturally-specific romantic comedy, following Harvey and Sheila from their first meeting through marriage, parenthood, a move from NYC to LA, all chronicled with what we now call “product placement.”  Harvey and Sheila’s story anticipates what I’ll sketch later in the pop music context, with the central figures in Sherman’s story moving from New York to LA.

A note on comic rhetoric for future installments of this series, when the focus shifts from pop music to pop comedy: Listen to the audience responding to Lehrer and Sherman’s lyrics and how much the laughter depends on the recognition and quick mental processing of shared/common knowledge (doxa in rhetorical terms).  The Copenhagen audience for Lehrer laughs differently than the US audience for Sherman—the “home crowd” for Sherman brings more of the shared cultural context setting up Sherman’s jokes—we can almost hear the audience’s pleasure in getting both the cultural context and the joke, collaborating in (maybe lifting up) the performance with their response.  While the Copenhagen audience might know something about the Vatican and Catholic practice, likely their grasp of English idioms does not match those of the playful, inventive Lehrer or a native speaker—I can’t hear the same collaborative element in the response in that clip.  When I get to comic rhetoric in the coming quarters, I’ll develop how enthymemes serve as a fundamental component of comic rhetoric, incorporating both shared/common knowledge and access to the values and belief systems of the context.  End of note.

Here Comes Rhymin’ Marvin

While I ultimately wrote “serious” song lyrics (at least as serious as one can get in pop genres), Lehrer and Sherman influenced my initial forays into writing in the genre, and I never moved totally away from their irreverent rhetorical stance.  At first I had trouble addressing anything seriously as a lyricist (I considered seriousness essential for academic writing, though I did almost title an essay for Classics of European Cinema “That’s Ingmar, not Ingrid,” before losing nerve and going with “Ingmar Bergman: The Cold and Empty Sky”).  Songs didn’t exist in the academic context for me (notwithstanding my analysis of two pop songs for Mr. Gamache in high school, described in part one), so I could write without fear or fetters the country eastern “Friend in Buddha” (“I was standing in the church on a Sunday afternoon/Wondering if I really could be saved/When a Buddhist monk approached me, it was none too soon/He said ‘Son, the whole west is depraved’”), the tragic country saga “Truckdrivin’ Child” (“He left his home and his mama when he was only four/Said ‘I gotta get out of here, I can’t take it anymore’/So he took the wheel of ten-ton rig as far as it would go/And when he died, they buried him by the shoulder of the road”), the Springsteen-inflected rocker “Clean Ears” (“Clean ears make me hotter than fire/Clean ears increasing my desire/It’s those clean ears that make me love you/As long as they’re clean, can’t enough of you/And those clean ears, those squeaky clean ears”), the love-gone-wrong piano romp “Quiet Desperation,” borrowing a phrase from Thoreau (“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation/But none of them is losing you/I’m leading a life of riotous desperation/On a diet of booze and blues”), and another love-gone-wrong blues meditation on the relationship between suffering and art “I Killed You Just to Put You in a Song” (“I was burning in my sleep/Tossing and turning in my bed/My misery hollow and deep/I was wishing I was dead”).

What I realize now about growing up absorbing pop culture (not knowing I was simultaneously schooled by it) and also about doing undergraduate work has to do with the duality of education (although we can explore many more facets of education), one realm existing in schools and the other existing in the culture and media.  I’ll claim for now that those early lyrics from the afternoon on the roof onward came out of both schools.  My mentor-teachers at Oak Park High prepared me to write school assignments for English and film courses and provided enough context for me to manage social science essay assignments as well, with some adjustments for disciplinary conventions.  My countless hours in the wide-ranging, ever-present immersion school of pop culture prepared me to write Toto Too and song lyrics.  Certainly I had much left to learn (through practice, sometimes guided, more often not, over time) in both academic and cultural contexts, and my graduate years immersed me in short story genre conventions of the early eighties (the advent of “dirty realism,” “minimalism,” and related genres within the larger genre of the form) along with academic essay conventions from the writing teacher’s perspective informed by rhetorical traditions, composition studies, and the early process movement.  Even now I still haven’t finished doing either kind of school.  I will add that I much earlier felt myself in conversation with pop culture than with academic discourse.  School writing served institutional and credentialing purposes (and of course grades loomed large), while through what I’ll call pop culture writing I joined a conversation in the Burkean sense—the parlor as eternal jam session.

In what follows I explore a number of songwriters and performers and their coming to genre through both kinds of schooling in three geographical settings from the late 1950’s to the early 1970’s.

The Brill Building as Genre Construction and Maintenance Site

I begin this section with a duo who wrote some 230 songs together during their long partnership, many of them now classics that define sixties pop music along with the Motown canon and the folk rock coming out of Laurel Canyon.  I’ll note first that Burt Bacharach (born 1928) and Hal David (born 1921) experienced the Great Depression as well as World War II; I haven’t done a biographical deep dive to find any reflections they may have shared on their childhood memories—Wikipedia includes this from Bacharach: “I was Jewish, but I didn’t want anybody to know about it.”  Bacharach grew up in Queens (sharing a New York City background with many who wrote and composed in the Brill Building); his father wrote a syndicated newspaper column while his mother wrote songs and encouraged her son to learn several instruments.  After graduating from Forest Hills High School, during which he frequented jazz nightclubs to hear such legends as Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie, he studied music at McGill in Montreal and the Music Academy of the West in Montecito, California, absorbing a wide range of musical genres that influenced his pop songwriting.  Clearly he pursued formal schooling and training as well as extracurricular schooling, bringing all of it into conversation in his musical compositions intended for consumption by a mass audience.

Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Brill Building years

Hal David also grew up in New York City, the child of immigrants from Austria who owned a local deli.  His older brother Mack David distinguished himself as a lyricist and songwriter; we can assume the brothers heard music in the house and in the city growing up.  David attended Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn and then went on to study Journalism at NYU (sounds like a word guy).   Bacharach and David met and started writing together around 1956, under contract to Famous Music in the Brill Building.  Note the year, the same year Elvis Presley appeared on the three nationally-televised programs described in part one.  Again, I haven’t studied their biographies in depth, though I venture that growing up during the Depression (and experiencing thirties movie musicals), coming into adulthood with the world at war, and first hearing Elvis Presley and other early rockers as adults already working as songwriters all separate Bacharach and David in substantive ways from their younger colleagues in the Brill Building constellation.

Let’s also consider a contributor from the business side of things: Don Kirshner, Bronx-born in 1934, another Depression-era baby, attended George Washington High School and Upsala College in New Jersey before entering the music business.  He owned a series of music publishing companies, serving as producer and promoter for a roster of artists, sometimes bringing them together.  Notably, he worked with Brill Building songwriters (Boyce and Hart, Goffin and King, Neil Diamond) to funnel songs to The Monkees for their television show and the pop charts.  Eventually he hosted Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert from 1973-81, after a year hosting In Concert for ABC; Kirshner’s iteration of the show featured long sets by hot pop acts of the time in contrast to the single-song guest shots typical of musical variety shows and even Saturday Night Live with its one-song-early and one-song-late showcasing of musical guests.  Kirshner became something of a pre-meme meme via Paul Shaffer’s imitation of his monotone style on SNL.

Brill Building, Manhattan (photo credit Richie Unterberger)

 I start with Bacharach, David, and Kirshner to establish the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway as a cultural bellwether already established before the arrival of the younger writers I’ll discuss next, a cluster born during WWII.  Pre-WWII cultural workers in the Brill Building generated songs for the big bands of the era, with “song pluggers” making the rounds to radio stations to drum up airplay and to bandleaders to place songs in their repertoire.  Technology, youth culture, and the post-war Baby Boom led to Brill Building growth, with some 165 music businesses located there by 1962, with another busy music production site two blocks away at 1650 Broadway.

(Matriculating) On Broadway

“Every day we squeezed into our respective cubby holes with just enough room for a piano, a bench, and maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky. You'd sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubby hole composing a song exactly like yours. The pressure in the Brill Building was really terrific—because Donny (Kirshner) would play one songwriter against another. He'd say: ‘We need a new smash hit’—and we'd all go back and write a song and the next day we'd each audition for Bobby Vee’s producer.”  --Carole King quoted in Simon Frith’s The Sociology of Rock.

Carole King (center) with Gerry Goffin (background) and Paul Simon (right) in a New York City studio, c. 1959. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Carole King, born Carol Klein in New York in 1942, graduated at 16 from James Madison High School and then briefly attended Queens College.  She had begun writing and recording songs as a teenager; after finishing high school she started taking them to the Brill Building with hopes of catching a break.  She kept writing as a college student at Queens, meeting Paul Simon there and also connecting with him at Brill (the pictures of them from that time stop me in my tracks, frozen with wonder, whenever I see them).  She also met Gerry Goffin, a student a few years older; they began writing together and they married, he 20 and she 17.  She gave birth to her first daughter Louise soon after (the pregnancy led to the marriage).  She quit college to work as a secretary, as did Gerry to work as a chemist, and they continued to write songs at the Brill Building as described above.  1619 Broadway became her college, a pressure cooker of competition holding out a tentative promise of achievement leading to a livelihood. 

I rely on Sheila Weller’s 2008 book Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simonand the Journey of a Generation, for this account of the writing of the Goffin/King breakthrough song “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” The pair had been writing dozens of songs together without commercial success (keep that in mind as a template of apprenticeship we’ll encounter again).  One afternoon Don Kirshner asked Carole to think of the Shirelles while writing her next song—homework for a young married couple with an infant daughter and jobs.  Carole did her part of the assignment first, writing the music, recording it on their Norelco tape machine while singing “dah-dah-dah” for the melody she heard for the not-yet-written lyrics (go ahead, do that yourself, just for fun and to recreate the moment—be young Carole); she left the tape for Gerry with a note stating “Donny needs a song for the Shirelles tomorrow—please write.”  Weller reports Gerry’s reaction to the music this way: “I had never heard a melody like that from Carole before!  It was melodic!”  He wrote the lyrics, imagining himself “in the place of a woman,” then shared his work with Carole when she returned home around midnight.  Imagine this young married couple, already parents, working together till 2 a.m. to finish their homework, then taking the finished song to “Donny” the next day. 

Weller continues the narrative to describe Kirshner tweaking and shortening the song and then Carole recording the demo.  She also wrote the score for the strings, training herself with a library book, How to Write for Strings (now that’s briskly applied research).  Weller ends the story on a crescendo in December 1960, with the first birth control pills coming to the market, the election of JFK to replace WWII general and two-term president Eisenhower, and the Shirelles becoming “the first African-American female group in American history to have a #1 hit.”  Clearly, “Donny” in this case knew what the mass youth audience would love, and Goffin and King graduated from student apprentices to culture-makers.  (Not to make too much of this, but here goes: while many current students dream of writing code for the next great app, the Brill Building students wrote code in the form of music and lyrics with the aim of reaching millions of people through radio, records, and television.)

Some things to keep in mind while listening to the three versions below: first, in terms of the lyrics, note that the song proceeds in the present tense and second person (“Tonight you’re mine completely/You give your love so sweetly”); relatedly, the lyric poses a question that also serves as the title of the song (“Will you still love me tomorrow?”), shifting the focus from the present to the future, weaving deliberative rhetoric and the desired future into the epideictic praise of love with which the direct address begins—I wrote in part one that the pop love song creates a kind of eternal present celebrating emotion in the particular moment; perhaps this song rates as a classic because of how the lyric complicates the rhetorical situation.  Finally, how do the modes of delivery affect your experience of the song?

The Shirelles perform “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” in 1961 (lip-synching to recorded vocals and instrumentation).  One part of the Weller narrative about the song shares that the Shirelles didn’t like the King demo at all; Kirshner assured them that with full orchestration they would love the song—they did. Carole King performs “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” on BBC in 1971 with live vocal and piano.  The demo might have sounded something like this.  Famously, Carole King did not plan a career as a performer; her friend and fellow culture-maker James Taylor invited her to play with his backing band and ultimately put her in the spotlight on stage performing her songs. Taylor Swift performs the song at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in honor of Carole King’s induction in 2021.  This clip speaks volumes about the evolution of pop music through several stages from 1961 to 2021, from “girl groups” to the singer-songwriter to the pop diva.  The instrumentation dispenses with the strings of the original and the piano of the writer’s version for some kind of synthesizer sound (as near as I can tell with my untrained ear).  The staging dispenses with the minimalist scripted choreography of the original and the unadorned play-and-sing version of the writer’s to allow the diva to prowl the stage.  I won’t editorialize, but it’s the first two versions that move me to tears—maybe I’m just old.

The Sound of Simon—WBM (Writing beyond the Major)

“And every stop is neatly planned/For a poet and a one-man band”—Paul Simon, “Homeward Bound,” 1966

In his introduction to Paul Simon Lyrics 1964-2008 (2008), David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker since 1998, writes that we “undoubtedly know the story,” assuming he addresses an audience of Simon-philes: “Simon was born in Newark in 1941.  He was raised in Kew Garden Hills, a middle-class area of Queens.  His mother was an English teacher.  His father was a professional bassist.”  Remnick also notes that as teenagers Simon and Art Garfunkel, who met when both acted in a school play, had a hit as Tom and Jerry in 1957, “an ebullient pop song called ‘Hey Schoolgirl.’”  Later, in their early twenties, they achieved fame using their birth names.  Remnick contrasts Simon’s lyrics with the “scornful and scabrous finger-pointing style” of some early Dylan songs (he likely would admit there’s more than that going on in early Dylan), terming Simon’s work “a wry, gentler species of social comedy.” 

He also describes Simon as “a reader of English verse: W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin,” and later his collaborator on the musical The Capeman, Derek Walcott.   This observation makes sense, as after growing up the son of an English teacher and graduating from Forest Hills High School, Simon earned a BA in English at Queens College.  All the while he managed his Jerry Landis alter ego, meeting Carole King at Queens and writing songs to take to the Brill Building (those pictures, those pictures).  Remnick makes much of Simon’s narrative gifts, citing “Duncan” as an example; we can just as easily reference the earlier “America” to illustrate Simon’s concision and ability to craft evocative stories in rhyme.  Let’s consider the range of genres Simon weaves into the lyric.

“Let us be lovers/We’ll marry our fortunes together/I’ve got some real estate here in my bag.”  The story begins with dialogue spoken by the unnamed narrator to Kathy, named in the second verse/stanza.  Wikipedia reports that the song has as a character Simon’s romantic interest at the time, Kathy Chitti (the same Kathy as in “Kathy’s Song,” another Simon work from the period).  The idiom begins in the courtly tradition, as an invitation to a lover to pursue the open road, immediately shifting to the quite colloquial “I’ve got” and the surprising image of “real estate” carried in a bag, followed by the contextualizing contemporary details of cigarettes and pies.

The framing story of the road returns in the second verse with mentions of the couple boarding the “Greyhound in Pittsburgh” and the narrator earlier taking “four days to hitchhike from Saginaw.”  These details draw on both the genre of the epic journey and the realistic short story.  We can think of the narrator and Kathy as parallel to the couple from the classic 1934 screwball comedy It Happened One Night, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert (their characters named Peter Warne and Ellie Andrews) on the bus from Florida to New York, and also to Benjamin Braddock and Elaine Robinson (Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross) at the back of the bus in the final scene from The Graduate, a film for which Simon would supply several songs.

"’Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat’/’We smoked the last one an hour ago’/So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine/And the moon rose over an open field.”  Here we get a short scene that would fit neatly into a short story or a movie; we can easily imagine the grammar of the shots if this interaction were shot for a movie—the two-shot of the couple exchanging the lines of dialogue followed by a close-up of the narrator looking out the window and a close-up of Kathy, eyes down, reading the magazine, all dramatizing the distance between the couple, with a closing shot of the moon rising over an empty landscape.  Lots packed in there.

"’Kathy, I'm lost,’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping/I'm empty and aching and I don't know why/Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike/They've all come to look for America/All come to look for America/All come to look for America.”  While the narrator speaks a last few words of dialogue, the distance remains as Kathy sleeps, leading to the closing inner soliloquy in which the narrator reveals his profound state of isolation, making a final leap of affiliation to join with the cars on the turnpike—note the reference to cars, not people, in the final lines, though we can interpret the meaning as invoking the drivers on their quests.  Note also how far we’ve come from the epideictic pop love song in a lyric that expands the moment into scenes and allows for a range of emotions from the initial euphoric invitation to the final solitude.

Whatever his initial influences, Simon to my eye and ear stands out as an English major’s songwriter, drawing on poetry and short fiction and integrating those genres with folk (Simon spent some time as part of the Greenwich Village folk scene, providing an alternative school to the more commercial Brill Building school) and pop, reveling in words while also deploying a particular narrative sensibility and sharp eye for the particularizing detail.

Simon and Garfunkel perform “America,” 1968.  Simon commented in an interview that he and Garfunkel admired and aimed to emulate the Everly Brothers, Phil and Don, in their harmonies but never achieved what the brothers achieved.  Well, the harmonies here achieve plenty. Paul Simon performs “Duncan,” 1972.  Note the same blend of genres in this lyric as delineated above in “America.”

A Doctor (Almost) Transformed—Jazz Singer, Jewish Elvis

 "I actually wanted to be a laboratory biologist. I wanted to study. And I really wanted to find a cure for cancer. My grandmother had died of cancer. And I was always very good at the sciences. And I thought I would go and try and discover the cure for cancer." --Neil Diamond to Larry King 

Neil Diamond, born 1941, the same as Paul Simon and a year before Carole King, attended Erasmus Hall High School for a time, with Barbra Streisand and Bobby Fischer as schoolmates, then moved to Abraham Lincoln High School, where he began to fence, an activity that would continue through college at NYU.  At sixteen he heard Pete Seeger play at Lake Surprise Summer Camp (founded 1902, the largest such camp for Jewish kids, according to Wikipedia).   Apparently Seeger had an inner writing teacher as part of his being, as he listened to songs the campers wrote (not clear in the Wikipedia entry if he conducted a songwriting workshop, which would secure him a place in the PWR Hall of Fame).  The experience led Diamond to get a guitar, take lessons, and begin writing songs—the first “real interest” he’d discovered in his young life.  This led to the kind of dual matriculation described above: on the official matriculation side, Diamond did pre-med at NYU on a fencing scholarship, won a national championship as a member of the fencing team, and ultimately decided to drop out of NYU ten units short of graduation to take a job writing songs. 

Neil Diamond performing, 1972 [Creative Commons license]

Diamond served an apprenticeship similar to the Goffin/King version described earlier.  Wikipedia describes him writing on buses and in an upstairs room with an upright piano at New York’s Birdland Club.  Diamond himself notes the “wordiness” of his early efforts and his problem writing the kind of hooks the music publishers wanted.  He also cites the lean years as fundamental to finding his voice as a songwriter (and vocalist, as he recorded his own demos, like King and later Laura Nyro).    

“Melinda was mine/'Til the time that I found her/Holding Jim, loving him/Then Sue came along, loved me strong/That's what I thought/Me and Sue, but that died too/Don't know that I will/But until I can find me/The girl who'll stay/And won't play games behind me/I'll be what I am/A solitary man, solitary man.” Neil Diamond performs "Solitary Man" in a 1971 clip.  “Solitary Man” stands as the first Diamond song to reach the charts, as he notes in the framing remarks of this clip.  The lyric takes us back to epideictic territory, celebrating emotion, in this case the narrator’s isolation due to past betrayals.  We get the past as a site of inconstant love and the future as holding out the potential for new love, but the song resides in the lonely present.  Note the contrast with the Goffin/King song, with love present in the moment but perhaps gone tomorrow.  As I’ve noted in part one, pop love song lyrics do things with time, arranging past, present, and future in relation to love.  (Listen to “Angel of the Morning” in regard to the theme.)

"'America' was the story of my grandparents. It's my gift to them, and it's very real for me ... In a way, it speaks to the immigrant in all of us." --Neil Diamond

“They're coming to America/Every time that flag's unfurled/They're coming to America/Got a dream to take them there/They're coming to America/Got a dream they've come to share/They're coming to America—“America,” Neil Diamond From The Jazz Singer, 1980.  I include this version to illustrate both parts of the title of this section.  Here Diamond stretches back to Al Jolson in the first film version of The Jazz Singer and also hints at the Elvis-adjacent accouterments (sequins, lots of sequins, and jumpsuits) Diamond would embrace in his later career, far from his Brill roots.  We can contrast Diamond’s celebratory anthemic “America” with Simon’s “America,” contemplating the stark difference between “they’re coming to America” with “they’ve all gone to look for America.” 

Beyond Brill

"Who else but this Jewish Elvis could go multi-platinum with an album that featured a version of ‘the Kol Nidre’? For me, this was the ultimate bar mitzvah."  --Neil Diamond in a Los Angeles Times interview about The Jazz Singer, 1980

I conclude this section on Brill Building songwriters with an additional take on Diamond’s reference to himself as a “Jewish Elvis.”  Note that Diamond, King, and Simon viewed Presley’s national television appearances as teenagers—we can imagine the effect on them.  Some early publicity photos of Diamond suggest a James Dean wannabee and perhaps the defiant Elvis of Jailhouse Rock, though Diamond evolves out of his rebel phase and becomes something like the sequined and caped older Elvis of Las Vegas showrooms.  Consider the divergent paths of the three New York natives.  All three become cultural icons but in distinct ways.  While Diamond, like Presley untrained as an actor, plays the lead in a remake of The Jazz Singer, the original version one of the first sound films—Lawrence Olivier plays his devout chazzan/cantor father concerned that his son will assimilate, with popular music the gateway cultural drug.  Paul Simon, also untrained as an actor, chooses One Trick Pony as his foray into film, the story of a touring musician far less wealthy and famous than Simon himself.  Both go Hollywood, briefly, though they write and record albums for decades and perform in front of stadium crowds.  King moves to Laurel Canyon (more on that later) and appears as record store owner Sophie in Gilmore Girls (more on that in a future part), taking on a supporting role instead of starring in a movie, though her life inspires both a movie and a Broadway play or two.  All become cultural brands, their schooling complete.

I call them icons above, though they also function as embodied enthymemes.  Simon, for instance, sustained his New York bona fides by appearing often on SNL in its early years, notably in this Thanksgiving-themed sketch in which his persona as a songwriter becomes comic fodder. Listen to the live audience’s laughter, knowing already what Simon represents and thus getting the jokes about his image, “taking himself too seriously,” and wanting to be known as “Mr. Alienation.”  In The Big Bang Theory, a focus a couple of essays back, Neil Diamond becomes the cultural enthymeme bridge between MIT-trained engineer Howard and neuroscientist Amy, who have nothing in common except their circle of friends and, happily, loving Neil Diamond, as evidenced with glee in their car karaoke versions of “Sweet Caroline” and “America.” As mentioned, I’ll return to Carole King in a later part to explore how she functions as an enthymeme (and more) in Gilmore Girls.

The Folk Side of Town 

"You're born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free."—Bob Dylan

“Now for ten years we've been on our own/And moss grows fat on a rollin' stone/But that's not how it used to be/When the jester sang for the king and queen/In a coat he borrowed from James Dean/And a voice that came from you and me”—Don McLean, “American Pie,” 1971 (most readings of the song identify Dylan as the jester)

“Well, you burst on the scene/Already a legend/The unwashed phenomenon/The original vagabond”—Joan Baez, “Diamonds and Rust,” generally considered an account of the Baez/Dylan sixties relationship, 1975

Before we dive into the New York folk coffeehouse world thriving a few miles of Manhattan away from Brill, listen to this audio of Zora Neale Hurston singing and describing the process of learning the folk song “Halimuhfack”: Halimuhfack | Library of Congress ( Hurston worked as a folk ethnographer, picking up songs “of the people,” without commercial incentives or motives; such songs belonged to everyone.  What we’ll consider in this section sketches the commodification of folk music in response to the insatiable mass appetite for musical entertainment and the subsequent commodification and revision of genre (folk to folk rock—we saw this in part one in the move from the folk forum Hootenanny to the electrified hit showcases Shindig and Hullabaloo), song (from the people and of the people to the expression of an individual artist), and singer (“the voice that came from you and me” to the voice that comes to and at you and me—if we buy the record, the album, the concert ticket—to express the singer’s experiences and confess the singer’s deepest thoughts).

Folk music in coffeehouses featured acoustic music and venerable, venerated traditions of narrative with themes drawn from everyday life and the travails of work and poverty.  The Nobel laureate in literature we know as Bob Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota in 1941 (the same year as Simon and Diamond), decided to go to college in the folk clubs and surrounding streets of Greenwich Village.  He had listened to rock music growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota (Elvis on the television when Dylan was 15 or so); he played Little Richard songs at a high school event, so we can surmise he knew youth culture.  Before matriculating in New York, he attended the University of Minnesota for a year (Wikipedia also reports he joined Sigma Alpha Mu, aka the Sammies—my brother-in-law Richard was a member at the University of Michigan some years later) before moving to New York to pay respects to the ailing Woody Guthrie and become part of the folk scene.  He changed his name; in keeping with the epigraph leading off this section, he needed to leave behind the wrong name, the wrong parents, and (we can assume) the wrong school. 

Bob Dylan, 1965 [photo from Britannica]

Dylan’s early songs drew on folk songs for melodic inspiration but he wrote or rewrote lyrics to reflect current social and political issues.  Consider the timely yet timeless questions of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and the clarion call of “The Times They Are A’Changin,” both written in the present tense but including a sense of history and in the latter case a sense of future possibility.   Contemplating early Dylan, I wonder about Robert Zimmerman’s formal schooling in Hibbing.  I wonder about his English classes and English teachers.  I wonder about the songs that erupted from him in those first New York years at his new (folk) school. 

Let’s consider how folk rock as a genre came into existence via Ecclesiastes and Dylan and the Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun.”

The Animals (a British group part of the English Invasion along with the Beatles, Who, and Rolling Stones) recorded “House of the Rising Sun,” considered by some chroniclers the first folk rock song; Eric Burdon and his bandmates drew on a traditional melody and narrative, with no single identified writer and no definitive version.  Different folksingers performed different acoustic versions in the folk genre.  One anecdote of the time involves prominent NYC folkie Dave Van Ronk developing a version that became a performance staple for him. As music and songs became more valuable as commodities, artists felt compelled to lay claim to what formerly belonged to all as a kind of communal property.  Dylan recorded Van Ronk’s version for his debut album, admitting (sheepishly? brazenly?) to the appropriation when Van Ronk asked him not to record the song for a while, as he wanted it for his own next album.  We can imagine the rough and tumble of competition, bruised feelings, and busted friendships as the scene became a magnet for record deals and television appearances.Bob Dylan performs an acoustic version of “House of the Rising Sun” in 1963. The Animals perform an electric version of “House of the Rising Sun” on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.  Consider the rhetorical elements of the performances, particularly in relation to the listener’s experience of the song.

Let’s move on to another example of genre formation/transformation.  Pete Seeger (seen in part one singing about the big muddy) wrote “Turn, Turn, Turn” in the late fifties, drawing on Ecclesiastes.  Note the oracular quality of the narrator’s stance, at some distance from individual experience, concerned with vast stretches of time divided by the cycle of seasons. Judy Collins and Pete Seeger performing “Turn, Turn, Turn” in 1966. The Byrds performing “Turn, Turn, Turn” in the sixties.  Note the children singing along in the audience, in an image straddling eras between folk singalongs and rock concerts with fans screaming their favorite lyrics back at the stage.  Note the effect of the electric guitars, bass, and drums on the experience of listening to the song.  In comparing the two versions, note also the different settings that establish the rhetorical situation, with Collins and Seeger sitting at a table (people could bring folk music into the domestic setting, with family members singing together) and The Byrds performing in a concert setting, insulated by the equipment needed to amplify electronic music, for a loud, responsive (mass) audience.

Yet another example drawn from Dylan’s early work.

Pete Seeger introduces Bob Dylan to sing “Mr. Tambourine Man” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 (not the year he went electric). The Byrds perform “Mr. Tambourine Man'' in 1965 on Hullabaloo, with Frankie Avalon showing up at the end to go to commercial.  The notes under the clip state that the vocals were live while the music was a pre-recorded track. And why not, as a bookend to the Hurston audio where this section started:

Bob Dylan, his son-in-law Peter Himmelman, and Harry Dean Stanton perform “Hava Nagilah” (part of the Yiddish folk canon) at the Chabad telethon around 1988.  Whatever the young Dylan stated about being born into the wrong family with the wrong name, we can view this as a kind of return to his roots.  You can find another clip of Dylan playing a Chabad telethon with his Traveling Wilburys bandmate Tom Petty–now that’s a mindbender.

Not Just Folk(s)

Joni Mitchell, with David Crosby under the birch trees as Eric Clapton watches intently, at Mama Cass’ house, 1968 (Photo © Henry Diltz)

Joni Mitchell figures prominently in the Laurel Canyon section to come, but she began as a folksinger in Canada (as Neil Young did, among others).  Paying her dues at folk venues in Toronto and New York, she noticed that certain folk songs “belonged” to certain performers (remember the Van Ronk anecdote); rancor ensued if one poached a song another singer had claimed.  She determined that she thus had to write her own songs to own them (we’ve all benefited if that’s even close to the genesis of her songwriting).  The recent Grammy Award show brought an early Mitchell song, “Both Sides Now,” back into the spotlight, though folksinger par excellence Judy Collins made the song into a sixties hit that helped launch Mitchell’s career (much as Collins’s recording of “Suzanne” did for another Canadian, Leonard Cohen, not really a folkie but certainly part of the New York scene).

Listening to many songs from the sixties from writers/performers raised in the folk genre (though likely with deep awareness of early rock and other genres), we can hear in the lyrics how writers work through the boundaries of genre song by song.  You may have your own favorites from the period.  Listen to “Sugar Mountain” by Neil Young, the just-mentioned  “Both Sides Now” and “The Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell.  Listen for two kinds of detail (parallel to the earlier analysis of Simon’s “America”), what we might tentatively call the generic/universal detail theoretically accessible to all contrasted with the personal/autobiographical detail specific to the artist’s experience.  Through the transition to the singer-songwriter genre, at the dynamic ever-shifting confluence of folk, rock, confessional poetry, folk tales, and the contemporary short story, the listener’s expectations and modes of identification with the artist and the song transform as the boundaries expand to welcome what might formerly have remained private experience, included in a song only after filtered through pop and folk genre conventions that disguise or re-imagine the personal detail. 

Dylan occupies his own lyrical space to some degree, with his words overflowing and thus obscuring or turning to myth whatever personal experience catalyzed his narratives, however diligently Dylanologists search for biography in the songs.  How can we reach any conclusion about “Like a Rolling Stone” or songs from the 1976 album Blood on the Tracks (now that’s a fine pun) such as “Tangled Up in Blue” or “Shelter from the Storm.”  Leonard Cohen, generally considered a songwriter who worked from life experience, layers images and literary/biblical reference into narratives we can easily read as biographical, as in “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “So Long, Marianne,” “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” and perhaps most memorably in “Hallelujah” (a song featured in Shrek and covered compulsively by admirers). We can ask what genre best contains that ubiquitous song—certainly the rendering of love serves as counterpoint to the traditional pop love song, drawing on the generic timelessness of folk, adhering to a challenging rhyme scheme (consider how Cohen tests the boundaries of what listeners will accept as rhyming with “hallelujah”), and creating a pain-laden landscape of emotional distress verging on despair.

Allow me to offer an analogue in relation to academic writing as we reach the end of this section.  First, think of your own academic writing experience and how you’ve submerged/processed your personal lived experience.  Can you think of occasions in your academic writing life in which you’ve shared your experience directly?  Can you think of writing in which you (and perhaps those most familiar with your life) can discern the shadow presence and prodding of your experience in the prose?  Can you most easily think of situations in which you’ve consciously made your lived experience invisible even to yourself, taking on the academic persona convention requires?

Consider your students’ writing in the same way.  We ask students to develop projects in which they have a stake.  We may encourage them to share with the reader the personal connection to their topic.  Many student writers learning academic genres use narrative introductions and conclusions to dramatize their personal connection to their topic or issue and to return the reader to that context at the end.  Some choose to continue weaving personal experience throughout the argument.  How do your students manage that strategy?  To what degree do they experience genre confusion if previous teachers emphasized that arguments rely on logic and evidence, not personal testimony based on experience?  Finally, can we imagine the equivalents of the “folk RBA” or the “singer-songwriter RBA,” drawing on all the genres available to the artists we’ve discussed so far? When we think about a popular textbook like They Say, I Say or the pattern-production of generative AI, we encounter the limits of genre conceived perhaps too narrowly, closing off genre choices available to us and our students.

The genre/mode assignment in PWR 2 and classroom activities in general offer opportunities for genre play as a form of invention.  You likely ask students to read in a range of genres scholarly, journalistic, and popular to show them genres in action.  You might share writers you consider equivalents of the singer-songwriters discussed above and below to expand students’ available means of persuasion in academic writing.  What writers do you consider genre-changing trailblazers?

Here ends the first part of Coming to Genre: Part Two.  Next quarter we move west, first to Detroit and then to LA.

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