How do you write? Do you use a computer? Do you write longhand?
It's changed over the years through technology. In the old days, it was just longhand on a notepad. Some of the early things I wrote for Elton were just written longhand on a sheet of paper. Some were typed. The way that I've developed over the years now, one of the things I need now as a security blanket is a guitar. I always write with a guitar and chord things. It gives me more of a melodic structure. It's sort of like Linus and his blanket. I sort of need it in order to write. It's very hard for me to sit on a plane with a notepad. I can write lines and title ideas, but to construct a song I need to be in my office at home with a guitar on my knee and a pad and a piece of paper and a computer. I'll write things down and then transfer them to my computer, so that I can actually see it better.
I look at it on the computer and then just chord stuff on the guitar to give myself an idea. It has nothing to do with the ultimate melody. It just gives me a better sense of the rhythm of the lyric. That's the way it's done.
Do you email them to Elton?
Now I do. Again, it's not as calculating as it might seem. Once he gets them, he looks over them, reads them, ingests them, but he won't work on them again. He never works on things outside of the studio these days. He likes to set up a writing booth in the studio. Maybe he'll go in a day or two before we start recording and he'll start writing in there. They he will just run a tape in the control room and everything he works on goes on tape so he can refer back to something if he loses track of it.
Then I come in the studio also, so we can discuss things. I can give him what I call "bullet points" on songs. If something has a Leon Russell feel to it I'll say, "When I wrote this I was thinking Leon Russell or Leonard Cohen . . . Dylan." It could be a myriad of different things, but it gives him a kind of idea to at least start him off. It doesn't mean those songs will sound up like the artists I've given him, but it just kicks him off. They are always interesting.
My favorite song on the album is "My Quicksand." Can you tell me what inspired that?
I can never say what inspires things, though I'm contradicting myself with what I said earlier. But there are certain songs that you just get a first couple of lines and the songs form themselves. With a song like "My Quicksand," I had the title and I thought, "This is a good metaphor for sinking in a relationship." I started off with that, and whatever came into my mind that was relevant was the first couple of lines. The thing is, some of my songs could be three songs in one. You can get a triple metaphor in a song where it's relatable on different levels to different people.
I always like to have a little mystery in the songs, where you can't quite tell. There are the obvious ones, but there are certain songs with a little mystery to them. Even "Home Again," the single, although it seems like a straight-ahead song, it's really not. If you listen to the verse, it's a little all over the place. Is it one person talking about that? Is it several people's feelings of what home again means? To me, home again isn't obvious as it seems to certain people. To me, it can be a metaphor for a lot of things. It's a state of mind. It certainly doesn't mean that I want to go back to where I came from. In fact, that's the last place I want to go. [Laughs] So it's slightly contradictory on my part, but at the same time it means a lot more than what it means to the average person.
I've heard a song like "Levon" 10,000 times, but I still have no idea what it means.
The interesting thing about that is that people keep bringing that up. I notice when it's mentioned lately, I don't know if it's because of the passing of Levon Helm, who I was a huge fan of, but people always . . . In fact, Robbie Robertson himself said to me that it confused Levon when he heard the song, because he didn't understand how it related to him. The thing is – and in the press I've seen "the song was inspired by Levon Helm." No, it wasn't. It never was. I just liked the name and, I don't know . . . As it says in the song, "Because he likes the name." [Laughs] I just noticed that. I just quoted myself! Oh, dear.
It's the same as with so many of our songs. People think they're about something that they're absolutely not about. That's the beauty of writing songs. That's why I don't like to explain what a song means to me, and some of the early stuff I'm not sure I really know anyway. I'm quite happy to admit that. That's what makes them interesting. It's what I say about abstract painting. Andy Warhol never explained what his paintings were about. He'd just say, "What does it mean to you?" That's how I feel about songs.
Paul Simon always talks about how people interpret his songs, and they have nothing to do with what he had in his mind at the time, but sometimes they are far more interesting than his original concept. You have to maintain a little mystery. That's so important to me. There are songs, of course – I've written so many that are very straightforward. You don't have to ask me what they mean. There are some that are incredibly cryptic.
But going back to "Levon," quite honestly, it was written so long that I really don't know what was in my head at the time. It was a free-form writing. It's not David Bowie throwing words into a hat and picking them out. It's a totally different way. I think that Bob Dylan did that, too. It was just lines that came out that were interesting.
I think back in the Sixties, Dylan would write hundreds of lines, total stream-of-consciousness, and then use four or five of them.
Exactly. Mine isn't as complex as that, but it certainly is. It's almost like writing a weird kind of science fiction. There's nothing with confusing or mystifying the listener. I think it makes it more interesting. Going back to Dylan, that was the greatness of Dylan in the days of Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. I think he started out with a theme. Take the song "Highway 61 Revisited," with a biblical reference opening it. Then it goes a totally different place. In essence, that's a lot of what I do with my songs. It starts in one place and goes off in another.
But then there are songs like "My Father's Gun." I can close my eyes and visualize the entire story. It's almost like a mini-movie.
Exactly. Again, without being contradictory, that's a song that's a guy coming back from the Civil War. It's very easy to understand. It's about inheriting your father's will and strength. You're right. It's a mini-movie, and so many of those Tumbleweed songs were. Then you get a song like "Son of My Father," which is slightly odd, because it's a bit like the old Dylan songs from The Basement Tapes, with those cryptic vignettes.
Yeah, like "Come Down in Time," with the "cluster of night jars."
That was me being very English for once, which is very unusual. [Laughs]
People are always shocked to learn that you wrote "We Built This City."
[Laughs] That's kind of interesting. That was voted the worst song of all time in Spin or something, which I don't necessarily disagree with, considering the way it turned out. [Laughs] Though I shouldn't say that, because it was an incredible successful song. It will probably help send my children to college, and I like that they play it at sporting events, being a sports fanatic.
Anyway, there's an interesting anecdote about that song. I wrote it with Martin Page. The original song was a very dark kind of mid-tempo song, and it didn't have all this "We built this city!" It had none of that. It was a very dark song about how club life in L.A. was being killed off and live acts had no place to go. It was a very specific thing. A guy called Peter Wolf – not J. Geils Peter Wolf, but a big-time pop guy and German record producer – got ahold of the demo and totally changed it. He jerry-rigged it into the pop hit it was. If you heard the original demo, you wouldn't even recognize the song.
Then a song like "I Am Your Robot . . . "
Oh my God! [Laughs hysterically] How could you bring that up? That will go in . . . That's a far worse song than "We Built This City."
It's a really bizarre song, but I kind of like it.
You know what? I don't even remember the song. I just remember the title. It was on one of those batch-of albums when we were really not real stellar and on the top of our game. I'd rather not think back on some of that stuff.
I've heard Elton say that he thinks [1986's] Leather Jackets is the low point. Do you agree?
No. I think there's actually a couple of good songs on there. I certainly don't think it's the low point. I think one of the worst albums we ever made, though it does have one of our best songs on there, is [1982's] Jump Up! It does have "Empty Garden," but the rest of it is just junk. I was never a fan of [1997's] The Big Picture, either. I thought that was one of the most anemic records we made. In fact, it was miserable being in the studio, since it was all done on machines.
That's what made [2001's] Songs From the West Coast so refreshing to hear when it came out.
That was definitely the turnaround. The sad thing is, a lot of those records that we made pre-West Coast and post-Blue Moves, there were a couple of decent records. The unfortunate thing about them is that they'd have a couple of really good songs on them, but because the rest of them were sort of lackluster, those songs got lost. I always thought it would be a good idea to take individual songs off those albums that are really good and have somebody redo them and have a compilation album. So many of them are really jazzy, and I'd love to get people like Diana Krall and have them do versions. People have never really heard those songs, and there are some really good songs on there. Sometimes the production didn't help them out, either.
What happened where the quality control sunk to the point where you made Jump Up!?
I don't know. I suppose you could blame it on narcotics. Who knows? We've all had our demons and all ridden the dragon, as they say, but it's not real complimentary to our artistic skills. Maybe it works for some people, but I don't think it served us well. I think we just got tired. We got . . . It just didn't work. There are so many things that you could throw into the mix that made it just go south for a while. I really have no idea. It's really foggy.
It's funny to think that you've had the same job since you where 19, 18 . . .
Try 17! [Laughs] And I'm glad I still got it, because I don't know how to do anything else. [Laughs] No, yes I do, I suppose. That's ridiculous. I've done a lot of other things, but it's definitely what I do best.
I recently wrote a couple of songs with Burt Bacharach. How do you turn down that chance? Unfortunately, nothing has happened with them yet. They were in a bit of a country vein. I've written with Burt before. It was fun to write with him. There's always somebody that comes along. I've love to find a young kid that I could work with in the same way that I work with Elton. I mean, Elton works with other people when he does his musicals and other projects. I'd like to find somebody. There are projects I have on the back-burner that I'd like to get off the ground. As of yet, I haven't been aggressive enough about them. I suppose if I could, I'd move them along. But I've got time.
Do you think it's going to be another seven years before the next album?
I don't think so. I think there's a new fire in our belly. Quite honestly, I don't think it will be too long before we are in the studio again. This album has been too satisfying. We've yet to see how it will be received in sales and charts and that, but it's already doing very well in England. It was released earlier there and came in the charts at Number Three. That's satisfying. But we'll see here in America. Hopefully word of mouth and whatever kind of publicity we've had on it . . . Elton has worked himself silly doing promotion work. We'll see. I think we're having too much of a good time writing and recording now. If we do something, I don't think it'll be too long.
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