Have you ever wondered about the meaning of a song lyric—a lyric that sounded like it meant something but on close examination, it didn’t? I'm not talking about Honey Cone's "Want Ads," in which so many of us mistook "young trainees" for "young Chinese." (That's another blog to which I look forward to writing.) I'm speaking of a line that makes no sense. Perhaps it was something you wrote yourself but you knew it wouldn't pass the smell test so you had to nix it. Maybe something from an Elton John-Bernie Taupin collab didn't ring true. But if it was evocative enough you probably embraced it.
I put forth that songwriter must know the rules before he/she can break them. For when she knows them, not only has she earned the right to take creative license, but she will likely have the skill to substitute that irregularity with nuance.
My long time friend and Music Industry veteran Jay Landers, told me a story recently involving a lyric that Barbra Streisand questioned. I found it so entertaining I thought I’d share. Take it away, Jay.
In 1969, decades before I became involved in Barbra’s musical life, she’d recorded a version of the Bacharach/David classic “Alfie,” that she wasn’t entirely satisfied with. After it was released on an album called What About Today, sort of a mixed bag collection of songs, she never gave it a second thought.
Fast forward to the year 1999. We're rehearsing for an upcoming New Year’s Eve concert with a 70-piece orchestra on a giant soundstage in Burbank. As you know, when it comes to musicians, time is money, and we had a lot of them. We were long past the "golden hour” and Barbra’s manager wasn’t happy.
Now a few weeks before this rehearsal, Barbra and I had been combing through her extensive album catalog looking for a surprise song to do in-concert that would round out the expected hits. I asked if she’d like to listen to her old recording of “Alfie,” a song I’d always loved. Michel Legrand's arrangement was still a little flowery, but to her surprise, the record wasn't half as bad as she’d remembered it. I suggested we have the show’s musical director Marvin Hamlisch modify the chart, and then she could try singing it in rehearsal. If it felt good, she could add it to the set-list.
So, there we were—approaching the Y2K year—on a cavernous soundstage, with grips and gaffers scurrying around. I’m sitting on a metal chair at the foot of the stage looking up at Barbra who is seated on a tall swivel chair behind the microphone...the meter is running—she starts to sing the immortal opening line, “What’s it all about Alfie” with this impressive orchestra behind her…it sounds magnificent. She continues on to the second verse…then as she’s navigating her way through the bridge, she starts waving her hand to Marvin, who stops the orchestra. She looks to me and says, “Tell me something…that line, ‘What will you lend on an old golden rule”—what’s it supposed to mean?” Punting, I said, “You know…the Golden Rule… do unto others.” Exasperated, she says, “I know what the "Golden Rule" is, but what does it mean “to lend on”?—is it like “lending”? Like getting a loan at a bank? I don’t get it!.”
Barbra’s manager looked at me waiting for the interpretation of this inscrutable turn-of-phrase I’d tucked away in my back pocket just in case the subject ever came up. Clearly, Barbra wouldn't start singing again until she found out the answer. He glared…I gulped.
Necessity being the mother of A&R intervention, I thought to myself, the easiest and most accurate answer to resolve this mini “crises" was but a phone call away. “Let me call Hal,” I shouted up to the stage. Of course, I didn’t know Hal David, but somehow, I found the number of Casa David Music. I explained to the secretary who I was…where I was, what I wanted…and “Can I please speak with Mr. David immediately?" She explained he wasn’t in the office, but wasn't more forthcoming. Then she put me on hold and the next voice I heard said, “This is Jimmy David…Hal’s son…who is this?” I started from the beginning and Jimmy said, “I don’t know what it means either. I’d be happy to ask dad, but he's in China…on a boat.” Undeterred, I said, “Jimmy, we’re going to make a live album and your dad’s song is going to be on it, but only if I can get an answer to this simple question. Do they have phones in China? Can you send him a wire or a ship-to-shore Telex or something?" Jimmy said he’d call me back. Twenty minutes later, my cell phone rang and it was Hal David calling from the China Sea. Clearly, his son hadn’t conveyed the actual question to him, only that he might get Barbra Streisand to record his song if he called me right away.
The musicians were milling around the stage…everyone was antsy…so I posed the question from Burbank to China as succinctly as possible—“Hal…Barbra is an actress who sings…that’s how she thinks of herself…she has to understand the lyrics in order to know what she’s supposed to be feeling. She’s unclear about the meaning of, ‘What do you lend on an old golden rule.’ I mean, she wants to know what it means?”
Without pausing Hal said, “It doesn’t mean anything.”
Hal continued, “I was just singing words to fill in the space in Burt’s melody. I sang, “What do you lend on an old golden rule” like a placeholder. But Burt liked it…he didn’t want me to change it, and that’s the story.” He added, “It's sort of an interesting lyric and no one’s ever asked me what it's supposed to mean before.” Then he added hopefully, “You could tell her it’s one of those lines that’s open to interpretation.”
“I’ll do that Hal. Thanks so much for calling...Bon voyage."
As I trotted back to the stage, I was trying to figure out a way to convey the essence of this conversation, giving a straight answer, but without killing the song’s chances.
“What did Hal say?” Barbra asked.
“I just spoke with him…he called from China."
“What did he say?” she asked again.
“He said, “It’s one of those lines that’s open to interpretation…and he wanted it to be that way…intentionally." Then I added, "He said to think of it like modern art…you can project your own feelings into the painting and they will always be correct...there’s no right and wrong interpretation.”
Somehow just knowing there was nothing to know satisfied Barbra. She sang the song beautifully…fully vested in the lyric. She found her own way to imbue the lyrics with personal meaning.
If you listen to the CD, her intro about the taxi cab ride is factually correct—except it wasn’t a taxi, it was a town car (taxi had a better ring to it) and it was her assistant who called the radio station—other than that 100% true.
Thanx, Jay! And as far as knowing the rules before taking the liberty of breaking them? I’d say Hal and Burt earned the right. And also Jay, I look forward to your book. You should write it.
Look closely. There's an mp3 file right below. Have a listen.