y clear recollection of the first time I ever heard rhythm and blues was when I was listening to the Yankees, sitting on my father's lap. I'm a New York kid, so I am a Yankees fan. When I was at the peak of my passion for the Yankees, I was twelve years old. I would score the games as I listened to them on the radio. Ball one, strike three -- that kind of thing.
The game would come on in the afternoon, and I would be on the back porch of my house in Queens getting my score card all set up. Pencil ready. I didn't want to miss a thing. The radio would be on a half hour, twenty minutes early, game wasn't even on yet, but on that station was Martin Block and the Make-Believe Ballroom. The kind of popular music he was into I couldn't stand. It wasn't rock 'n' roll and I didn't like it. It was corny, grown-up music, but one day he says, "Now here is a record I'm getting lots of requests on, but I have to say this record is so bad that if it's a hit, I will eat it." And the record was "Gee," by the Crows. And I'm filling in Rizzuto, Coleman, and I realize, this is the first thing I've ever heard on his show that I liked. He said it was bad, but I liked it.
New York was a pool of sounds, but only one station was playing rock 'n' roll, the station Alan Freed was on. But he wasn't on every day of the week, only six days a week, so on Sunday, I would look for rock 'n' roll on the radio and the closest thing I could find to it was gospel, a church station. I had never heard gospel music, but it sounded kind of close to what Alan Freed was playing. It wasn't as good as the rock 'n' roll station, but with no other choice on Sunday it was good enough.
On the way to searching for it, I found a country music station coming out of New Jersey. The first country tune I remember hearing was "Jailhouse Now," by Webb Pierce. Hilariously funny and corny song.
Early rock 'n' roll drew from a lot of different elements, situations you would never find today with the rigid programming they have on the radio. Today, if you have Johnny Cash, the Everly Brothers, and Elvis Presley, they'd be on a country station. Back then, those things were mixed into Top 40 -- Roy Orbison and Gene Vincent with groups like the Platters and Ruth Brown. Fats Domino, Jimmy Clanton, Frankie Lymon, it was all called rock 'n' roll, which made for a very rich musical era. Different sounds, different cultures.
Folk music was part of it, too. Pete Seeger singing in Spanish, the pure country of Woodie Guthrie, Joan Baez singing in different languages. So folk was another overlay on top of my first exposure.
Also, my father was a band leader. He had a band at Roseland for twenty-five years. He played on Saturday nights and Thursday afternoons, and the band that was on before him was a salsa band. So I was always interested in and exposed to a lot of different sounds.
I was in Paris in 1965, right before Simon and Garfunkel broke. I was roaming around Europe by myself, doing folk stuff. It was there I met Los Incas at a concert. I was booked, and they were booked, and that was the first time I had ever heard South American music. They gave me an album of their stuff, and "El Condor Pasa" was on the album. The Simon and Garfunkel record of "El Condor Pasa" was recorded over that preexisting track. So that's where it all comes from, and the notion was, if I liked the music, if it sounded good to me, it was popular. For me there was really no distinction between one culture and another.
I write in my head. I hear it all in my head. I think in terms of textures and sounds first. It has taken me all these years to realize that I don't get into writing a piece of music until it sounds right in my head. When I put those sounds down on tape, I begin rearranging them into some kind of harmonic pattern. Once I have the harmonic pattern, I improvise on it. I might go to the guitar to technically work out what scale I'm in. When everything is right, it comes out musical. If something else is off with the harmony or the scales, then maybe the premise is off. Either I'm putting in an inappropriate melody, or I haven't constructed my textures properly.
Every time I've made a record that hasn't been a good record there is usually considerable lying going on. I think something may be wrong, but then I get misinformation. Other people whose opinions I have faith in say it's good. And because I don't know how to solve the problem I think I feel in my head, I keep going. Then I find out when the guy in the street says, "Boy, that is bad."
A lot of my lyric writing is instinct I can't explain. The truth is, I don't know why "Losing love is like a window to your heart" came out the way it did. I can't tell anyone why it comes. It just comes.
When I started doing music, music was in real danger. It's still in real danger. My theory is that every time the industry gets powerful and corporate thinking dominates what the music is, then the music really pales. There was a great burst of music in the mid-Fifties, and it came from unknown artists and tiny labels. Columbia and RCA didn't want any part of it. They didn't think there was a market for it. They were thinking corporately. The people who were making the music weren't thinking about what was going to sell. And then, the first time the industry started to get a little cynical about it, that's when you had Fabian and Frankie Avalon. That was about teen idols, it wasn't about music, it was about image. The reaction to all that was the Beatles. Folk-rock came out of Greenwich Village. It was anticorporate, left wing.
I knew the minute I wrote, "Like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down," that I had a very clear image. The whole verse was set up to hit that melody line. With certain songs you just know it.
When I was working on Graceland, I was thinking, "If I don't make this interesting, I well never get my generation to pay attention." They are not paying attention anymore to records. They were at a certain point, certainly around the time of Bridge over Troubled Water, but they no longer look to records to have their lives illuminated. They look to movies, or literature. I said, "Here is a group of people already attuned to the language of rock 'n' roll. They are used to listening to information, but they've stopped listening to the music because in their minds it's no longer saying anything to them." I thought, "If I don't make this record interesting, nobody's going to listen to it."
Of the people I know, no one says, "I can't wait for so-and-so's next album." It used to be people couldn't wait for the next Beatles album, or the next Stones album. So with Graceland I thought, "This is really it. If I don't make this really interesting, then, well, maybe it will sell a half a million albums, but I won't have any effect on the thinking."
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