Stephen Malkmus Sounds Off – American Songwriter

Stephen Malkmus

Stephen Malkmus

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks returned this year with Wig Out at Jagbags, the band’s follow up to 2011’s Beck produced Mirror Traffic. American Songwriter caught up with the former Pavement frontman in New York City via cellphone the day of the record’s release to discuss everything from his fear of digital technology to his true feelings on the Grateful Dead.

I like the new record. I really like the drum sound you guys got. Sorry if that’s a weird way to start the interview.

No, it’s cool. All of the interviews so far have been about me, and I understand that. It’s like personality deconstruction or something, and it’s not about what we actually care about, which is more the drum sounds (laughs).

It must be strange to have a public persona. I was reading Chuck Klosterman’s article about you and he made all sorts of sharp observations about your personality and mannerisms. I remember thinking that must be a little bit nerve wracking.

It’s really nerve wracking. And often when it’s wrong or makes me depressed I just try to think, that’s just inevitable with anyone who’s interesting (laughs). I look at really famous people like Bob Dylan and I’m like, they probably did that, eh whatever. And then I’m just a Portland dad, a normal guy, but I’m starting to think like a L.A. movie star or something; that’s a bad sign.

Your new record Wig Out at Jagbags comes out today, and the reviews are already in. How does that feel?

I don’t know, I wish the people would hear it first. But I imagine anyone who bought it had already read a review, and are gung-ho enough to be totally psyched and want to know what it’s about and stuff. Nils sent me something from the New York Times. That still makes my bourgeois heart flutter, because, y’know, my parents read that and (in high mother Malkmus voice) “you’re in the New York Times.” And y’know it’s like kinda cool, I guess. But I wouldn’t lose sleep if we didn’t have a review in there or something. It’s hard to say what it all means. We just want to play some shows, and have them be fun and full. That’s what bands want.

Let’s talk more about production. Even the most polished records you’ve made have had a raw sensibility to them. What keeps you coming back to that sound?

I think it’s, again, fear of the ’80s. Fear of technology, or digital technology. Levers and stuff like that, the things that ruined music and MTV and ruined like Replacements records or something. Combined with somebody like maybe Steve Albini. Y’know he’s a wise guy, and opinionated and clever, and you kinda trust him sometimes. He says reverbs is bad, and be natural (laughs). It’s like “yeah, I kinda agree with you.” And combined with also some 70s records I like, like Led Zeppelin, or things that are kind of corny and sound like that, and hold up. And even the dry sounds of Steely Dan, and wanting to apply that to our stuff.

On the record you joke about being stuck in the 80s, but you seem really knowledgeable about young bands, especially ones influenced by Pavement. Speedy Ortiz is one of your tour supports, and you’ve given shout-outs to Mazes, Yuck and Parquet Courts in interviews.

Well people tell me about it too, I’m not like scouring. Unfortunately I’m not at the record store buying every new record. People say “check it out Stephen,” and of course I like, I mean all of us like, people who like us. I don’t know if you’ve got a girlfriend or a boyfriend or something but, at least with me, I always just liked the girls that liked me. I didn’t really pick. I don’t know. Life picks you or something. So when I hear bands and they say, “We’re into Pavement and we thought they were awesome,” of course we’re going to have a predilection to like them, and want to be part of their scene and support them.

Last year Wilco and Built To Spill both covered Pavement in concert. How did you feel about their takes on your songs?

Those are bands and people that I feel copacetic with. I’ve had moments of clarity listening to their songs; they’re special, really musical bands. And they’re growing old gracefully type dudes. And positive. So I like them both, a lot.

The new record sounds like a wig out at jagbags at some points. In the Pavement song “Unfair,” you refer to yourselves as “the last psychedelic band.” Where does that come in to what you do now?

Some things you hear them and they’re just kind of fried, without taking acid. Like the 13th Floor Elevators, they don’t have to make a ten minute song to be psychedelic. Anything they do just immediately when you put the needle on the record, there’s this aura of danger and a little bit of insanity. So I guess when I’m thinking psychedelic, truly psychedelic, I’m thinking of the insanity to the sound. I don’t really feel that I am psychedelic. Unfortunately. Not me. I’m just too urban or urbane or . . . Of course I can reference that and stuff, and I love psychedelic music. The fact that I’m not psychedelic kind of hurts my feelings sometimes (laughs).

I’ve heard stories about you and David Berman jamming on Dead tunes at parties, but you told Esquire that you weren’t much of a Deadhead. Can you explain your complicated relationship with the Dead? You put that riff from the Grateful Dead’s “St. Stephen” in the song “Cinnamon and Lesbians.”

(Laughs) Yeah. It’s interesting, but it’s pretty simple. I like the early stuff, recorded and live, like Pigpen and the acid-y stuff. And I like Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, and I don’t really like it after that. And I didn’t go to shows, and I don’t listen to bootlegs much. I’m approaching things from albums and what they recorded. That’s what I know. I’m the suburban guy who just got the albums. I just created my own vision of things; I didn’t really get into the scene.

“Planetary Motions” is a strange album opener, kind of a slow burn and maybe less accessible than some of the other tracks. You have a tendency to start some of your records off like that (Pig Lib, Wowee Zowee).

I know what you’re saying. A long time ago it was going to be the starter, before we even recorded the album. I have a demo of it and it actually has electronic drums on it, I played the drum parts (hums the part) with my fingers. That’s kind of derived from classic rock mixed with a hambone kind of rhythm. This is a long story. It wasn’t turning out like we wanted the song; we kept remixing it. We finally figured out how to make it sound good and it went it back to the front of the album. It was one of those things where you struggled all night. Double vocals is kind of boring and it’s basically one long guitar solo in a certain way (laughs). Or a riff. It’s either a riff or a solo at all times. Or a wah-wah. It’s just like a love poem to the guitar.

Did you try any new songwriting approaches on this record?

Eh, I don’t know. That “J Smoov” song is kind of like soul or R&B style on that one. I mean, I don’t know if you can say if there’s anything that “new” that I do anymore, for better or worse. I don’t go in and say “I’m gonna do something different this time.” I kind of wait for things to come to me, a little bit. I don’t try to force them to be different. I think that’s how my life is now: having kids. You’re watching them for what they are, and trying to see them, and not them through your eyes. See them through themselves. So that’s how I do the song thing (laughs).

Arlo Guthrie: Alice’s Restaurant – Video


Chances are that Arlo Guthrie’s royalty checks for the month of November are always significantly higher that than they are for the other months each year. For while there is a seemingly infinite number of Christmas songs in the pop music idiom, Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” is one of the few songs set during Thanksgiving.

Not that the holiday has all that much to do with the song. “Alice’s Restaurant” is living proof that truth is stranger than fiction. The first part of the story, a tale of small-town law enforcement run amok against the 60’s counterculture, actually happened to Guthrie, even though he added some exaggerated comic touches for effect. He was indeed arrested in Massachusetts for illegally dumping garbage for friends who lived in a former church, was brought before a blind judge, and had to pay a small fine.

Guthrie pretty much made up the second half of the song, a surreal visit to a U.S. Draft inspection station in New York, but the spirit of the story, that he was ineligible to serve in Vietnam because of his littering offense, was true. That bit of topicality meant that this shaggy-dog story hit home for a lot of folks even as Guthrie’s dry humor had them in hysterics.

In a 2005 interview with NPR to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the incident behind the song (which wasn’t released until 1967), Guthrie was asked why he thought “Alice’s Restaurant” was so resonant. “Well, you know, I wasn’t sure at first, but I thought it’s probably just a story of a little guy against a big world,” he said. “It’s just a funny tale, and I had–I still have–and I cherish the letters and the postcards and the pictures I got from the guys over in Vietnam, you know, who had little Alice’s Restaurant signs outside these tents in the mud and who would be quoting the song, you know, to their superiors or to each other when their superiors had no idea what they were talking about.”

Guthrie also benefited from the fact that the late ’60s were a time when the rules for pop music had loosened to the point that “Alice’s Restaurant”, essentially an 18-minute monologue bookended by refrains that turn out to be non sequiturs, could gain great popularity. “I was adding to it, and if it was funny and it was true, I kept it,” Guthrie said of the song’s evolution. “And if it wasn’t funny and people didn’t respond to it, I dropped it. And so it was really–you know, it was performance art that I just memorized the best parts of.”

Here we are nearly 50 years after Arlo Guthrie found himself an unlikely prisoner, and “Alice’s Restaurant” is still enthralling. Sing along to that deceptively inviting chorus this Thanksgiving and you’ll get to enjoy a little vicarious defiance with your turkey.

Live a healthier life, become a vegetarian!

View the lyrics below.

Various Artists: Released! — The Human Rights Concerts 1986-1998 [American Songwriter]


American Songwriter

Various Artists Released! — The Human Rights Concerts 1986-1998
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Plowing through over 16 hours of music, documentary footage, interviews, home movies, videos and background information in this mammoth 6 DVD set (also available as a slimmed down double CD) of Amnesty International concerts from the titular years, it becomes difficult to separate the box’s substantial historical importance from its artistic qualities. Anything that brings more attention to this long standing human rights organization, that serves in part to release political prisoners, is a worthwhile endeavor. This lavish, sprawling long awaited release with its 14 hours of previously unreleased material will certainly accomplish that.

But on a purely visceral level, how often you’ll actually play the thing, even to cherry pick some of its best moments, is another question. The six discs adequately cover highlights of the 1986, 1988 and 1990 concerts held in various parts of the world, with some later clips to carry us through to 1998 and beyond. Many of the usual suspects such as Jackson Browne, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Tracy Chapman and Bruce Springsteen are here multiple times and their sets range from pretty good to pretty great.

The opening 1986 show from Giant’s Stadium in New Jersey—which accounts for 5 ½ hours of playing time– is symptomatic of some of the problematic issues. The show was originally recorded on videotape and even with current technological enhancements, both video and audio still sound like you’re watching VHS quality reproduction. The performances and some of the bands are not surprisingly dated (the Hooters, anyone?) which will tax even the most patient viewer.

Thankfully the recording quality improves as the years wear on, as do the hairstyles, clothing and camera work. Also, when playing to crowds this large, the performers tend to reach for the back row which, unless you are U2 or Springsteen, often doesn’t do justice to music that loses nuance in this setting. Some tunes are extended way past their breaking point, which might have made for an intense show, but can get tiresome in your living room. The producers obviously strove for diversity when choosing who made the cut, which means New Kids on the Block get sandwiched between Wynton Marsalis and Sinead O’Connor in the 1990 recap. The ’98 show programs world/hip-hoppers Asian Dub Foundation next to the country pop of Shania Twain and Alanis Morissette often heated musings. And while the hours of documentary footage are never less than enlightening, how often are you going to watch them?

Still, there are many inspired moments dotted across the discs such as Radiohead’s riveting 1998 set, Springsteen and Sting paring up for “The River” and almost everything by the always dependable Gabriel. If you are a fan of these acts, are looking to grab a previously missing piece of musical history, or simply want to support the worthy Amnesty International cause, this is something worth exploring more thoroughly. But for the casual listener, these artists have often done better live work elsewhere and sifting through hours of video to find the gems within, just may not be worth the effort.

The American Songwriter Interview: Lou Reed

Lou Reed

This awesome story originally appeared in 2009.

He is sitting right there on the sidewalk, eating red snapper, heavy-lidded eyes taking in the world around him and engaging with the various people who wander up-looking for that gen-u-wine piece of downtown authenticity. Lou Reed has always been a perpendicular player: someone who strikes gold, then blows up the mine, and that defiance of commercial convention makes him the ultimate rejectionista, the judge of hipper-than-what-most-think-you-oughta.

Lollabelle, his rat terrier, is curled beneath his chair, half-alseep, half-taking in the passers-by. Mostly bored by life as the best friend of the man who made nihilism seem like a trip to Disneyland, switch-blading the bourgeoisie conventions with the dingy reality of the people living in the cracks, she waits.

He is here on the brink of the reissue of Berlin, the follow-up of his wildly successful David Bowie-produced Transformer. What should have been a slam dunk-even Bowie wanted to be Lou, as Lester Bangs tells William Miller in Cameron Crowe’s coming-of-age Almost Famous-was a star-making car wreck of catastrophic proportions.

The song cycle scandalized and appalled fans with its unburnished take on junkie life, bottom-feeding whore-tricks and an obsessive love affair that resulted in Caroline losing her children (“The Kids”) replete with the shrieking of producer Bob Ezrin’s own children, who’d purportedly been told their mother was dead upon returning home from school.

What was a momentum-killer then, now more than holds up in modern light. An operatic take on downtown street life, it examined complexities of lust and obsession, jealousy and addiction’s bottomless pit. Disconcerting to listen to-if only for the relentlessness of the writing and arrangements-Berlin is an audio vérité concept album that captures the rest of that celebrated “walk on the wild side.”

An acclaimed man about Manhattan, Reed is the paramour of performance artist Laurie Anderson, a regular at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn, a compadre of Hal Wilner, a creative partner to John Zorn, John Cale and Bill Laswell, an alum of the Velvet Underground, a veteran of Andy Warhol’s circle and someone who seemingly knows every hipster, true blue-blood and creative engine in NYC.

With a Julian Schnabel film capturing the staging of Berlin-its own sort of Rorschach of the subconscious dream-states and impressionistic scenes the work evokes merging with the initial performances of the album once most charitably deemed “challenging”-it seems Reed’s reviled-at-the-time-of-release work is being vindicated. Not that he works for approval; indeed, he works to scrape all that’s inside him to be written.

As locals stopped and he exchanged neighborhood news, and caught up with people he rarely sees, Reed was not so much the snarling pre-punk, as much as a man respected for his uncompromising wrestle with his muse. With one of his most polarizing CDs-more so than Songs for Drella, Metal Machine Music, Magic & Loss or even the wildly pop New Sensations-finally performed in public, it was a good time to weigh the weight of creation, the reasons songwriting matters and how he views the reality of what he does.

As a writer, is it more important to be great, or true? What do you value?
Certainly those two words go together. It’s hard to imagine one without the other. But the real thing is: do you like it?

That’s pretty clean.
It’s kind of a weird thing to do…

It’s a very weird thing to do, and yet…
If you grew up listening to rock and roll songs, it’s kind of an obvious thing…

Because it’s the only thing worth anything. It’s immediate. It’s not like going to the movies is the same as listening to music. It’s kind of weird to even be thought of as a songwriter. “Oh, is that what I am?”

Do you think of yourself as a songwriter?

Then how do you think of yourself?
Artist. Sometimes, it’s with music and words. Sometimes, it’s photos. Other times, it’s electronics. Whatever it is… But being a songwriter, that’s pretty good.

Do you think the truth or the connection point is pretty true to all those things? Or does it shift with the medium?
It’s the same. Guaranteed. Look, being a songwriter…We met a guy in Chile the other day, a cartoonist. Laurie had done a show, and I’d played guitar. The guy created a cartoon out of it. He came the next day with it, and it was really good. A whole page thing, interpreting songs… And he said, “I’m a cartoonist.” I thought, “That’s a fun thing to say about yourself…” Like, I’m a songwriter. I do a couple things. One of them is being a songwriter.

I saw your show at Hermès. The pictures of New York.
It was also in the Kasher Gallery. There was a book available. That was book number one. Now, there’s book number two, which is also out. I’m working on book number three.

Do they come from the same place?

Can you say where that is? Can you define it?

Do you know where it starts?
If I could, it would mean I could do it whenever I wanted-and I can’t. I have no idea how to go about it. I really don’t. I get asked all the time… Believe me, if I could, you’d’ve heard “Son of Wild Side” by now.

Would you go back? Expand on that reality?
No…I’m not in the same place.

And yet you went back to Berlin. There was a film. And it’s so impossibly evocative… Was it a homecoming? A reclamation?
It was a performance.

Going back to that thing of all things… My major interests are the lyrics of that. It wasn’t the Velvet Underground. No, [Berlin] was something else: the one that almost sunk the ship. Funny… That’s the one to go back to?

Were you driven to it? Or pulled?
Susan Feldman from St Ann’s… I’ve known her a long time. She’s asked me this every year for a long time. Susan’s the reason John Cale and I did Songs for Drella. I’ve done a lot of things for Susan. I did The Raven for Susan. She’s the only person who would have us…and I love that she does. I was there with Laurie, Fisher Stevens, Richard Belzer-doing readings from my thing-The Raven, which is rewriting Edgar Allen Poe. That was really fun. So much of the language is hard to understand…A lot of words were arcane when he started writing, architectural terms. Then the rhythm of it all-and he did the first detective story. But also the psychology of Poe. “You were made for him…” Susan said, “Why don’t you do this…?” She was like “I love [Berlin] so much. Why don’t you just do the whole thing from beginning to end, the way the record is-the way you meant it to be?” I was out of work again, so I figured, “Why not? Maybe it will be great fun.”

Was it?
Yeah, great fun. When we toured Europe, I really had it down. The one that’s on film with Julian, that’s really just opening the door… That’s why Bob Ezrin was conducting. He didn’t want to be onstage. I said, “Well you have to…I can’t do the guitar and those cues and those words… I can’t.” Turns out I could; but at the time, I needed a guiding hand. There’s a lot going on. Bob still has the arrangements. Those aren’t my arrangements. I wrote the songs and the melodies, but all the arrangements were Bob’s. The core band is my guys, and then Steve Bernstein and the horns, the strings… that’s [Hal] Wilner. The choir: the Brooklyn Youth Choir. Rupert Christy was all the keyboards, all the synthesizers, if you want a breakdown, and Anthony Dejewell would work overtime with the choir…

Not too many [songwriters], when they write songs go for broke. When someone does who’s really good, it’s astonishing. There’s a reason a three-minute song can devastate you, or make you get up and dance, stop what you’re doing and go, “What is that?” It just hits you. And it’s a very potent thing you’re playing around with. Some people don’t like that: they don’t like the subject matter, what it’s about-they don’t like the musicians. I’d always say, “Well, you know, the ending of Hamlet‘s not so uplifting…What do you think about Othello and Desdemona? What can we learn from this?”

Now there’s jealousy. And Berlin, if it’s about anything, it’s about jealousy. Talk about a universal emotion?! No one hasn’t been jealous; amongst all the other things, but big time, the guy’s jealous! He’s being killed by jealousy. A lot of things are going on on top of it all….The green-eyed monster it is.

I’ve read all of that Poe, who is also a master of knowing about paranoia, ache, loving, unrequited love. On The RavenBerlin is great and all, but The Raven? Oh, God…Elizabeth Ashley. No one got to hear this, and it’s sad, because she is epic in this.

We worked so hard on these guitar things, these electronic sounds. It’s awesome. And she’s behind it all. She’s a volcano. It’s wonderful to see someone turn emotions off and on like that.

If I really had my way, I would’ve started out as an actor and stayed there. Or write-write myself a role, write monologues.

My lyric book is coming out. They’re going to put The Raven, stuff I’ve written since it was [first] published. Brando in the car, talking: “I coulda been somebody…I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which, let’s face it Charlie, is what I am. It was you Charlie…”

You could hear it. It’s so obvious. Why’d you do specifically that?

Or Liz doing Blanche DuBois [sings the line] : “I have always depended…on…the kindness…of… strangers…” There you go. But you have to write that book that well. It’s an obvious thing to do with music…

In a weird way, it is obvious.

It’s so obvious; it fails to qualify as an idea. My teacher, Delmore Schwartz, wrote this story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” which is a line from Yeats…and, like, in five pages with very simple language; it’s one of the most devastating short stories. T.S. Eliot wrote him a letter, saying, “This is one of the greatest pieces of writing.”

There’s not one polysyllabic word in it. I said, “You know, if you can do this, why would you do anything else?” I mean, wouldn’t that be something? It’s just so obvious.

What else would you do? [A man scuttles across the street diagonally]

What is he doing? He was doing hieroglyphics or something in the middle of the street; guess he decided it was better to cross it. You could write a song called “People Watching”…It would be so easy, but not as interesting as actually watching people.

A song is like a short story, only in half the time. It’s a very short amount of time. That’s what lyrics are: the shortest stories.

It’s funny. You think you’re well-read ‘til you sit down with another person, then you find out… That’s how I feel. I’m not as well-read as I’d like. I could only read Finnegan’s Wake when Delmore read it to me. When he read it, it was great. But alone, it was very hard… you had to read it with a dictionary. Just the sound and the poetry was so thrilling.

It’s weird. I’m Irish, so it’s part of the canon…
One would think…

Completely different experience sitting on a page versus being an articulation.
Someone really smart, who really knows Joyce…like Delmore. When you devote your life to it: He had all the books and they’re all referenced with the arrows, and this to that. He was deep into it. If you’re not going to get that deep into it, you’re not going to get as much out of it.

But when someone that deep reads to you, you get their knowledge of cadence and what it all means.

My Dad loved Finnegan’s Wake, so he read it to me growing up.
He’d read it to you? That was very special.

Well, we’re Irish. That was part of the steepage.
One of the greatest books ever written. It’s up there with The Bible. How many books are up there with The Bible? Ulysses? You have to include Ulysses, so that’s two for Joyce. You’d have to put every Shakespearean play up there…

Now what happens when you include songs? “Mack the Knife”? “The Seven Deadly Sins”? Who I’m I talking about…Weill… and…

You got me…
We can Google it. Weill’s writing partner?

It’s funny. When the [album] advance came, I’d forgotten how… compelling? No, uhm… operatic this was…
In what sense?It was such a tiny, finite story, yet such a huge reality it became intensely intimate. I was thinking, if you go over it, it’s really three people: Caroline, the guy and Jim. That’s three. Then you have Lady Day, Caroline’s fantasy.

Three. The triangle.

When I started acting and directing, triangular staging… You can always look for that. Wherever you’re standing in the world…

Wilner knows everything. You can call him up and go, “Who wrote… what year…what color is the label…” He’ll know.

It’s amazing. It was…just, uhn! [Wilner’s research arrives via iPhone] Kurt Weill was a German, and is an American composer, who worked in the ‘20s until his death. He has the same birthday as me.


Wow… that’s really heavy
That’s really, really heavy. Good God.

How do you feel about that?
Good God….Who knew? He died at age 50. This is Google. It’s not responding. You got me this far. Bertolt Brecht. We’ve got it. Gooood-byyyyye. Isn’t it great? To be able to just research something like that?

It boggles the mind.

Have you seen Shazam? It’s for the iPhone. If you hear a song you like, you turn it on-and it will go find it. Straight from iTunes for your 99 cents.

They’re just leading us around. I’ve got the iPhone. I had the other phones. But with a screen like that, and what this thing can do…It’s not a successful phone, but that’s AT&T.

AT&T is bad everywhere-except Europe. They’re great in Europe because they’re part of some other thing.

T-Mobile went completely down and out. So many customers, their chips were fried.

The chips were fried…
That’s a good line — for something. You could use it in the interview: the chips were fried/ baked in the oven in 1972/ only to have the cake pop out at St Ann’s Warehouse/ St Ann’s Warehouse popovers.

When you…
Holly what?

Holly Ann…
Wow, there’s an Irish name: Holly Ann Gleason. You go to Gleason’s Gym…?

Gleason’s Gym. The most famous gym in the world…OK, what do you want to know?

When you made Berlin… you’d made Transformer
Yes, the worst thing anyone has ever thought of doing.

Then why did you do it? Such a hard left. It was brave…
Not really. That’s the last thing I’d say. Really, that’s what got written, so that was that. That’s what got written down. That was what was there. I’m happy to get any idea about anything. It’s so hard.

I think you have excruciating standards. You don’t just write lines… You…
When there’s something to work with, I do. When I really work on it, level it, that’s what I’m gonna do. [But] that’s why the albums are so different, because that’s what I got written-and I was happy to get that.
No one wanted an album called Magic & Loss. The head of the record company called, and said, “Lou… Do you know what that’s about?”

The thing is: I had two friends I lost. There was nothing contemporary to listen to to help deal with that, or about that. I’m not the only person who’s had that happen. Everybody’s had that happen… So I wrote about that.

Why? Because that’s what got written.

Why? Because that’s all I could think about at the time; that’s what went on.

I can’t change it. I don’t try to change it. I’m lucky I can write a sentence.


I don’t believe you. Again, it’s a question of quality. You won’t accept less than great.
I wrote a little thing called “Banging On My Drum,” “I’m banging on my drum/ I’m banging on my drum/ I’m banging on my drum/ I’m having lots of fun…banging on my drum.” That was the whole lyric, and it’s really a fun song…

Yeah, Chuck Berry.
Of course. From there to Magic & Loss… They’re all tied together. The unity of rock.

I believe that. If you’re just lofty, that’s precious.
I’ve never been lofty.

You have your moments…
I know, but never lofty. That’s not the word I’d use.

Pick your word.
Umm…I’ve tried to fly into the sun. Like Icarus. Look what happened to him.

When you went back to Berlin, how did it compare?
I had nothing to compare it to…I don’t sit around listening to my own records. I didn’t re-experience Berlin. It was more like landing on another planet. I recognize that. You know what writing is: it’s an amalgam. It’s many things.

But there’s always truth in the amalgam.
Yes. There has to be truth. If you don’t believe it’s true, it’s a waste of time. You have to believe the person singing is capable of what they’re singing, [that] they’re telling the truth. Why else would you be doing it?
In my stuff, the guy is…what’s the word I’m looking for…flawed.

Philip Marlowe is flawed. I think, “Wouldn’t it be great to be Philip Marlowe, except rock?” Because Philip Marlowe is. I thought when we did the autobiography of Andy [Warhol], it was such a great way of learning about somebody that soon other people would be doing it. There’d be a whole genre of biography CDs. Didn’t happen.

You have to have a life to support that.
Malcolm X? Martin Luther King? John Kennedy? George Washington? Bach? Are you kidding? There are all these people you could tell what they did, how they did it, their story. It’s art, not a piece of fluff.

But you believe in heft… depth to the truth.
You have to visualize a really vivid, very quick [truth] where you can feel the attitude of the person you’re singing about. It’s very 3-D. You have to be able to picture it. For me, the red Porsche hopped over the curb and ran over the small dog. That’s real quick. There you go. You’re a hard person to flame, standing over the pizza oven…

We can do this all day. One of them will work. There’ll be another one… on a good day.

And you write ‘em down?
Used to. Then I just stopped. They don’t come back either. That’s what’s really strange. I know if I don’t write it down, gone forever. So I listen to in my head for me. They go wherever they go.

For yourself.
Broadcast from Radio Lou. Listenership: 1.

That’s all you need if it’s truly about creation…
Whatever it is. I’ve never understood it. I gave up trying to understand it. Didn’t get me anywhere. It was a long time ago…

Ever feel like it spins you around?
Well, it takes two to dance. Two willing partners. You can’t have one person being recalcitrant.

Is that the muse?
Whomever. Sometimes, you lose interest. It’s more interesting to do tai chi… to do a spinning kick with a spear.

A spinning kick with a spear?
I was doing that this morning. Tai Chi Chen with master Ren Guang Yi…

One last question.
Go ahead. I like you, Little Irish Rose.

When you look back on your work, do you ever startle yourself… ever look at something you’ve written and think, “Damn…”
I never do that stuff.

But going in to do this…
Many “holy shit” moments.

In a good way?
You know, “Oh, my God… look at that.” You certainly laid that one out.

Berlin was a staggering record.
Does it hold up? Hmmmm: “Lotta ways to say that…” “How do you do that chord change?…,” “Wow, didn’t hold much back on that one…”

On the other hand, I was never arrested for breaking someone’s arms. You know why? Because it never happened. That’s called writing.

[My God he was brilliant!]

Does The Marvin Gaye Estate Have A Blurred Vision of Copyright Ownership?


American Songwriter:  Andy Lykens

The interesting thing about copyright infringement is that it escalates. In reality, a case should be pretty cut and dry, and you should be able to tick off a number of boxes in a checklist to determine whether something constitutes infringement or not.

But because of what infringement implies, there is so much more that goes into a legal battle involving intellectual property. Lots of people are afraid of it these days but usually not for something like this – a plain ol’ case of “you stole my music.”

In case you’re unfamiliar, Marvin Gaye’s estate is currently suing Robin Thicke, claiming he borrowed a bit too heavily from Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” in his gigantic hit, “Blurred Lines.”

What makes this case interesting is from an outsider’s perspective you can tell there is just a lot of bad blood between MG’s estate and Robin Thicke’s troop. It started earlier this summer when Thicke preemptively sued the Marvin Gaye estate to try and secure indefinite protection from further legal hassles with the upset family members.

Now, after having gone back and forth in the press a lot this summer, Gaye’s estate has decided to come out swingin’ (and not like Sinatra).

Gaye’s family’s big argument will be centered around an interview with GQ where Thicke happened to mention Marvin Gaye in the same sentence while describing his writing process.


They also had a musicologist compare the two works and he has stated that “Blurred Lines” blurred the line between ‘evoking an era’ and ‘stealing.’

But what exactly can you copyright?  Let’s take a look and maybe we can figure out if this is just a case of people getting a little too grumpy, or if there is a justifiable reason to believe Robin robbed Mr. Gaye.

What Is Actually Protected?

A song is a complete musical work – chords, lyrics (if there are any), melodies and titles all tied up with a pretty bow on top.

Copyright infringement usually takes place when you outright mimic a combination of those elements.

You can’t copyright a title on its own, a general sound, drum beats or chord changes. However, you can obviously not create an instrumental version of a song with words and claim it’s a new work.

What is similar about the two songs?

For me, the commonalties are the cowbell, and the fact that there’s a bass groove. I think if you listen at only the groove elements of each track, you can definitely hear similarities. Robin also doesn’t help his case by singing in falsetto for the first part of the first verse (although, the verse does sound completely different to me).

The lyrics are obviously different and the melody isn’t even close. In fact, after the first few seconds of each song the parity quickly fades.

But at the beginning, I can see where there may be some confusion.

Because it’s all subjective and like pretty much everything else, one expert can make a statement only to be outdone later by a different expert, or at least one who’s willing to make bold claims based on big paychecks, this may very well go to court.

And again, Thicke having mentioned that he wanted to mimic Gaye’s style in a national magazine is not great for his case.

Of course there’s selective memory.  “I do not recall saying that.”

So who’s right? 

That may be up for a judge to decide.

Marvin Gaye’s camp would of course have you believe that him saying he based his song on an MG groove and “let’s do something like that” is infringement.

But Marvin Gaye isn’t the first one to pair a funky bass line with a cowbell (and let’s all pray he’s not the last). Of course, Robin Thicke wouldn’t be the first one to have to payout for having a groove too similar to an existing work.

So is it inspiration, or infringement?

Let us know in the comments after you give the two songs a listen – we’d love to hear your thoughts.

Videos: The Compose Yourself Songwriter Course

The Beatles

The Beatles

Below, you’ll find the latest videos in David Alzofon’s Compose Yourself songwriting series. Put on your thinking cap, tune up the guitar and get ready to learn a few new tricks. We’ll be uploading this page each time a new video is ready – check back often!   Be sure to subscribe to David Alzofon’s songwriting series in his YouTube channel, SongwritingABCs, because the videos will be coming out much faster.


Below, you’ll find the latest videos in David Alzofon’s Compose Yourself songwriting series. Put on your thinking cap, tune up the guitar and get ready to learn a few new tricks. We’ll be uploading this page each time a new video is ready – check back often! Don’t miss Alzofon’s Measure For Measure column in American Songwriter.

Lou Reed, “Perfect Day”


Stunning song. Stunning life. We were lucky to have him.

Whenever a great musician dies, it’s customary for grieving fans to look back through the body of work left behind for something movingly elegiac in an effort to say a proper goodbye. But such a task was never going to be easy with Lou Reed, who passed away on October 27 at age 71, simply because Reed’s songs were always coming from way too many angles to snugly serve any single purpose.

The most obvious candidate, at least musically, would seem to be “Perfect Day”, the lush ballad that became one of Reed’s signature songs practically from the moment it appeared on his second solo album, 1972’s Transformer. Produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson and featuring Ronson’s swirling string arrangement and piano flourishes, it really is a gorgeous track on the surface.

Yet there’s something gently unsettling about it. Maybe it’s the eerie stillness that permeates the song or the dirge-like pace. Maybe it’s the way that Reed sings the line, “It’s such fun” as if he were being lobotomized. In any case, there’s always the feeling that this idyllic day is just a tiny oasis in a dark desert.

Still, the narrator manages to snap out of his stupor to thank the one with whom he’s spending this “Perfect Day.” “You made me forget myself,” Reed sings, slivers of emotion creeping into his voice. “I thought I was someone else, someone good.” With cutting simplicity, it’s clear that this day isn’t just a good time for this guy. It’s his temporary redemption.

As for the haunting refrain that Reed intones in the closing moments of the song, Bono spoke about its subversive nature in his tribute to Lou in the most recent edition of Rolling Stone. “It’s been sung by all manner of earnest voices, including mine and children’s choirs, since it was written in 1972,” Bono wrote. “It never fails to give me some kind of extra ache as they sing the last line, ‘You’re going to reap just what you sow,’ oblivious of the icy chill suggested.”

If you doubt the dark side of this seemingly benign song, check out the chilling way it was used in the 1996 film Trainspotting, director Danny Boyle’s portrait of young heroin users. Yet you could easily imagine it in a romantic comedy as the soundtrack to a sappy montage of a young couple enjoying a picturesque afternoon.

That’s the kind of dichotomy that was commonplace in the music of Lou Reed, so, come to think of it, maybe “Perfect Day” isn’t a bad summation of the man and his work after all. It’s beautiful, brutal, and impossible to pin down.

“Perfect Day”

Just a perfect day
drink Sangria in the park
And then later
when it gets dark, we go home

Just a perfect day
feed animals in the zoo
Then later
a movie, too, and then home

Oh, it’s such a perfect day
I’m glad I spend it with you
Oh, such a perfect day
You just keep me hanging on
You just keep me hanging on

Just a perfect day
problems all left alone
Weekenders on our own
it’s such fun

Just a perfect day
you made me forget myself
I thought I was
someone else, someone good

Oh, it’s such a perfect day
I’m glad I spent it with you
Oh, such a perfect day
You just keep me hanging on
You just keep me hanging on

You’re going to reap just what you sow
You’re going to reap just what you sow
You’re going to reap just what you sow
You’re going to reap just what you sow

Lou Reed – Musician
Born: March 2, 1942, Brooklyn, NY
Died: October 27, 2013, Southampton, NY
Height: 5′ 10″ (1.78 m)
Spouse: Laurie Anderson (m. 2008–2013), Sylvia Morales (m. 1980–1994), Betty Reed (m. 1973)