Volume 13, Issue 6 ~ February 10 - February 16, 2005
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They're Writing Songs About Love

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"I'll be waiting just in case again one day I'll see your face in some room I'd walk into."
-Dan Haas
They're Writing Songs About Love
How Chesapeake musicians woo, win and weep.
by Ted Daly

You'd think that people would've had enough of silly love songs. ...

Few would accuse Sir Paul McCartney of lyrical profundity, but he does know how to hook you in. Tell me his Wings song isn't playing in your skull.

Ever since Ug and Om decided to share a cave, we have dedicated the lion's share of our creative efforts toward putting love in descriptive terms. After eons of human relationships, hasn't love been said and done with just about every possible combination of words?

Every generation finds a way to announce itself as having become too cynical for serious paeans to the eternal bond. As he says goodbye to his lover, Bob Dylan sang "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright." A decade later, George Jones sang, "She Thinks I Still Care." At the millennium, funk-punk diva Betty Davis renounced love in her "Anti-Love Song."

"No I don't want to love you
'cause I know how you are
that's why I've been staying away from you
that's why I haven't called.

In a survey of North American disc jockeys ranking the most popular wedding songs of 2004, not until number seven do we find a song that is less than 20 years old.

  1. "Unforgettable" - Nat King Cole
  2. "Can't Help Falling in Love" - Elvis Presley
  3. "Can I Have This Dance?" - Anne Murray
  4. "The Way You Look Tonight" - Frank Sinatra
  5. "It Had to be You" - Cole Porter
  6. "What a Wonderful World" - Louis Armstrong
  7. "Endless Love" - Diana Ross and Lionel Richie
  8. "I Cross My Heart" - George Strait
  9. "I Swear" - Michael Montgomery
  10. "A Whole New World" - from Disney's Aladdin

Our fondness for older songs could be a sign that the genre is nearing its saturation point, even though more recent tunes round out the Top 10. Are today's lyricists discouraged? Are we witnessing the twilight of the love song?

Is McCartney right? Have people had enough of silly love songs?

"A huge percentage of my repertoire consists of songs about love: love between lovers; love between siblings; parent-child love; love of pets; love of God; universal love; love of life; love of nature; love of animals; love of creativity."
-Mary Byrd Brown
I look around me, and I see it isn't so. ...

"Seriously, I think you're making that up," says Rob Timm the afternoon drive DJ of WRNR 103.1fm in Annapolis.

"Rock and roll has always been about 85 percent ‘I love you' songs, and 15 percent ‘I hate you, you broke my heart and I'm dumping you or you're dumping me' songs," Timm continued.

"The love song will never die. It is the one universally relatable topic. If you look at popular music, a very large portion of what's out there is love songs, and the most beautiful among them, whether Cole Porter or Elliott Smith, stand the test of time."

At Valentine's Day 2005, the musicians of Chesapeake Country tell us they're still spending much of their time translating the complex language of love for themselves as well as for their listeners.

"Love songs have a very significant place in my repertoire, because it's really all about love," said singer-songwriter Deanna Dove, who calls herself "the female Buffett of the Chesapeake."

The love-song's special season opened the first weekend in February in Chesapeake Country with Valentine Lovesick Blues, stripped-down acoustic performance of songs "love gone wrong (and occasionally right)" by the national touring band The Remnants' chief songwriter Tom Boynton. Boynton, plus Tom Fridrich and Tristan Lentz, were playing their own in-and-out-of-love songs, as well as songs by Hank Williams, George Jones, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.

Concert organizer Mary Byrd Brown, a singer-songwriter on leave to recover from Lyme disease, knows the theme well. "I would say a huge percentage of my repertoire consists of songs about all flavors of love," Brown said.

Blues is only one flavor in Brown's songbook. "There is love between lovers; love between siblings; parent-child love; love of pets; love of God; universal love; love of life; love of nature; love of animals; love of creativity," she said.

Put simply, love is too broad and influential to ignore. "Love is all around me; it's everywhere I go," wrote Reg Presley in a song later made popular by The Troggs and later still by Wet Wet Wet. It cannot be avoided, for to do so deprives us of that very joy we have so much difficulty describing.

In the early 1980s, Foreigner gave us the song "I Want to Know What Love Is." Good luck finding a definitive answer to that one. All I can offer is that you will know it when you find it, or, as is more often the case, when it finds you.

Singer-songwriter Rob Levit, the musician-in-residence at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, wrote his experience answering that question in the song "After You (Elaine)," for his wife.

"Before I met her, I didn't know what love was," Levit said. Now, he says he does. "She taught me by loving me unconditionally."

"Today's love songs go much deeper and cover a lot more subjects. They make you think more."
-Deanna Dove
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs ...

Love songs can be sweet and soulful, or brash and wild - and anywhere in between.

"Today's love songs go much deeper and cover a lot more situations and subjects in depth," Dove said. "I think they make you think more, as opposed to arousing emotions, sexual energy and putting you in the mood, like some of the great soul and R&B tunes."

Annapolitan Boynton had heard one flavor of love - love gone wrong - covered in depth when he wrote the heartbreak song "Don't Sugar Coat It."

"During hour five of our 10th break up," Boynton recalled, "the woman who ruined me had the floor. She was filibustering big time, cataloging everything wrong with me and us. I mean chapter, verse, sub paragraphs, addendums, footnotes, codicils. She even threw in a pop quiz to make sure I was paying attention. She was excoriating me. She was a human fire-machine spitting molten lava down into the very fabric of my battered soul."

Been there, done that, every lover says - though not in words so to the point as those of Boynton, who has been in the business a quarter-century. But wait ... we haven't gotten to the song yet.

"Staggered, barely clutching the bloody tatters of my imploded heart," Boynton said, "I looked into her liquid-flame eyes and as I was leaving said, ‘Don't sugar coat it babe. Tell me how you really feel.' In that instant the melody, the hook, the first verse, chord changes were all born."

Don't sugar coat it my baby
Don't tell me things you think I wanna hear
Now is the time for us to speak girl
Say it in a voice that I can hear ...

Heartbreak songs, the ones DJ Timm lowballs as comprising 15 percent of rock and roll, can also work in reverse. We'll call them heart-mending songs for lack of more poetic nomenclature.

Guitarist and songwriter Dan Haas' song "Words" falls into that category.

"It was at a point when I had all but destroyed our relationship," Haas said of the song's origin. Girlfriend Sami had been "in Sierra Leone for a month and I missed her terribly," Haas said. "But when I went to hug her, she stiff-armed me and said it was over. I was crushed. Fortunately she has a very kind heart and allowed me to explain myself."

Haas threw open the window of his heart, resigned but clinging to a thread of hope, as he sang, "I'll be waiting just in case again one day I'll see your face in some room I'd walk into."

Haas sang his way back into Sami's heart.

Ray Saunders of the band RockFish said he "leans toward love songs that tend to be more raucous," citing lyrics by Michael Franks: "I don't know what you got, but it don't take a genius to see that whatever you got, well it's hot, and it's meltin' me."

The tone is playful, but the words allude to the side effects that love brings: We sweat; we have butterflies; sometimes we even become ill. True love is so essential to the human condition, but so foreign until we find it, that it sometimes brings measurable physical consequences.

Acoustic guitarist Doug Segree finds near perfection in Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes." It is a song that, he says, "is powerful and emotional."
For some, it's the picture that a song paints that makes the click. Ray's bandmate Susan Berman has many favorites. Notable among them is Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You." "I could drink a case of you ... and I would still be on my feet" is the line she dwells on. "It has the feel of a smoke-filled bar," which Berman says she finds comforting and familiar. "The song also acknowledges that love isn't perfect and is often painful," Berman says.

Love makes its own case, according to Annapolis favorite Brian Ewald, who in addition to his solo gigs also plays with several bands, including Starbelly and Jarflys.

"I wrote a song several years back called ‘When I See You,' Ewald said. "Over a relatively short span of time, I had lost several people for whom I cared a great deal. One night at a gig I was feeling rather depressed, and I thought it might be cathartic to jot down some ideas during our break for what I intended to be a very dismal song.

"But as I was thinking and writing about getting home to my wife, I became so overwhelmed by how fortunate I was to have her in my life that all of sudden everything seemed okay. By the end of the song it had taken a whole new optimistic tone."

I watch the strangers passing by
And everyone I see
Is spending time with the ones they love
And I wish you were here with me.

The fact that any two humans ever connect so deeply that they can contemplate eternal union is itself miraculous. Yet science suggests that there is not only one perfect match for each person, but a great many - thousands, even perhaps millions. Along the way, every experience, good or bad, affects the way we feel about love. Mary Byrd Brown says she "specializes in love songs, even though I've failed in relationships."

Poet Alfred Tennyson would surely console her. "'Tis better to have loved and lost," he wrote, "than never to have loved."

Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You" acknowledges that love isn't perfect and is often painful," says Susan Berman of Rockfish. "I could drink a case of you ... and I would still be on my feet," she says, "has the feel of a smoke-filled bar," which Berman says she finds comforting and familiar.
I Love You

Poets and songwriters are way ahead of academics in their understanding of love. Do they just know their market? Do they function as antennas to the greater consciousness of humankind, channeling our collective dreams and desires into digestible fragments that help us understand that simultaneously powerful and inadequate word we fall back on to label our feeling: love? Does it matter?

More likely, songwriters and other artists are simply unencumbered by the fallacy that love can be reduced to clinical terms and research designs. From the dawn of communication until today, love songs keep coming. Musicians still write them, and listeners still fall in love to them.

Some of us find that perfect song, the one that says everything you could ask of it, a sort of automatic writing on the heart, a permanent inscription that affirms the fact that your soul is not alone.

Depending on who you ask, that perfect love song ranges from Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine" to Nat King Cole singing "I Love You (for Sentimental Reasons)" to The Doors' "Light My Fire" to the Neville Brothers' "Utterly Beloved." Deanna Dove's favorite is Van Morrison's "Have I Told You Lately that I Love You."

"As I was thinking and writing about getting home to my wife, I became so overwhelmed by how fortunate I was to have her in my life that all of sudden everything seemed okay."
-Bryan Ewald
I think everyone should wake up every morning listening to this anthem," she said.

Brown says her favorite is a "homegrown MBB piece called "Corners of the Sky." It's sung to a lover who is far away. Listen at marybyrdbrown.com/music.html.

You know I try to touch
Every heart in every corner of this room tonight ...
Can't you hear my song from my corner of the sky?

Acoustic guitarist Doug Segree finds near perfection in Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes." It is a song that is, he says, "powerful and emotional, a simply amazing song front to back." The arrangement is spare and haunting, allowing a voice with extraordinary range to carry lyrics that push the trees away that had blocked the view of the forest. "I am complete," Gabriel says. Could it be that easy?

To say it simply is not enough. It must also be profound. When a songwriter fails to coordinate these qualities, the result is hapless and lackluster. Mariah Carey once sang, "You've got me feeling emotions." Excuse me, could you be a bit more specific? True artists reach into us, pull out our emotions and display them, enabling the listener to chew on the words and taste them.

Some of us keep looking. I've never come across a love song that moves me in its entirety, but there are a great many pieces of songs that affect me so profoundly that when one comes on my car radio, I have to pull to the side of the road.

That deficiency never bothered me until the countdown to my own wedding. We invited all guests who wished to speak - or, as we were to learn, sing or interpretive dance - at the reception. As co-guest of honor and anchor of the lineup, I would have many tough acts to follow.

I sweated over this problem on many a long drive to Chestertown as I finished my long-overdue college degree. This much I knew: I am neither a poet nor a songwriter. I've made attempts, none of which I will share.

I don't dance. I don't play the piano. But like many of us with too much time on our hands, I've done a bit of acting, so I knew that this day's performance would be the most important of my life. I couldn't let down my wife - or the guests who'd be seeing our relationship on public display.

I scoured centuries worth of tomes of poetry and tones from Chaucer to Ogden Nash. I found some great stuff, but none that said everything. Opening Day drew closer and closer, as my fingernails got shorter and shorter.

"Before my wife, I didn't know what love was. She taught me by loving me unconditionally."
-Rob Levit
I investigated the song fragments that occasionally bedeviled my driving skills, but inevitably I found that their parent works were far less representative of my feelings. Eventually, the list of random lines began to coalesce, shifting and arranging themselves according to time, place and order. Hey, I thought, this is starting to sound like a poem! Though I was now indebted to a long list of songwriters, I had something that was intensely personal, if not wholly owned.

Alas, I can't say for certain that it was the content of the quasi-poem that, to a person, reduced the audience to tears. No acting skills were required. It is nearly impossible to witness a grown man, his voice quavering and trying not to break as he pushes out each syllable, without going to pieces.

So the next time you find your mind sticking on a particular line, listen closely, pay attention. This just may be your song.

What's wrong with that, I'd Like to Know ...

~ About the Author ~
In previous lives, Ted Daly has been a tennis professional, a broadcaster, a chef and an occasional actor. He now works as a freelance writer. He, his wife and his daughter Fiona live in Arnold. He broke into Bay Weekly last week with "For 2,700 Marylanders, the Lure of the Beach Knows No Season."
The Author's Silly Lovesong

We'll have a ball at the (local parish) hall.
Family, friends, come one and all.
We'll get a table near the street, in our old familiar place,
You and I, face to face.
And we'll drink, and dance with one hand free,
A bottle and my friends and me,
And we'll laugh and toast to nothing, and smash our empty glasses down.

I met a young girl; she gave me a rainbow.
Oh, the hours we spent inside the coliseum,
Dodging lions and wasting time.
What would I do without the nights, and the phone,
And the chance just to talk to you?
I asked myself when you said you loved me,
Do you think this can be real?
In your eyes I see the doorways of a thousand churches;
The resolution of all my fruitless searches.

Four walls I built one winter.
She came to share my name.
And soon, if we're lucky, we'll be unable to tell what's yours and mine.
We can go hiking on Tuesday; with you I'd walk anywhere.
We can discover the wonders of nature growing in the rushes
Down by the riverside.
Flowers on the hillside blooming crazy;
Crickets talking back and forth in rhyme;
Blue river running slow and lazy;
I could stay with you forever, and never realize the time.
So I looked at the scenery; she read her magazine.
And the moon rose over an open field.

Sing and dance, I'll play for you tonight.
The thrill of it all.
Everything will sound like a rhapsody.
The breeze will stop to listen in, before going its way again.
Me, I'll sit and write this love song, as I all too seldom do,
And build a little fire at midnight.
It's good to be back home with you.

And every one of those words rang true,
And glowed like burning coal,
Pouring off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.