Wednesday, June 01, 2016

The B Side, by Ben Yagoda

The B Side: The Death of Tim Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song, by Ben Yagoda

My mother loves the theater and my father loved movies, so I grew up with the sounds of Broadway and Hollywood in the house. I'm as familiar with the music of Cole Porter, George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Duke Ellington as I am Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The B Side traces American song craft in the early 20th century, including the rise of ASCAP and BMI, the payola scandal, and the shift in prestige from writers to performers. It is sometimes difficult to read a book about music; words are for the eyes, but melody is for the ears (and both nurture the soul). This story often contains long lists of titles, such as "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)," "I Got Rhythm," "Always," "Stormy Weather," "They Can't Take That Away from Me," "You're the Top," "Sophisticated Lady," "Swinging on a Star," and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." I find it virtually impossible to see these names and not pause to hear the tune in my head, making this a very long read, albeit an enjoyable one.

One critique is that the author clearly has a distain for rock-and-roll that often seems arrogant. In places this comes across as broad overstatements such as "the pop music of every era offended and mystified the older generation;" while more true than not, I'm certainly an exception as are many of my friends. In other places, the sentiment is imperiously haughty: "But it isn't possible for [songwriters such as Willie Nelson, Brian Wilson, Smokey Robinson, or Paul McCartney] to write a standard—or, as Keith Jarrett found out, it is possible, but really hard." I believe "Yesterday" and "The Tracks of My Tears" are every bit as good as "Night and Day" or "Puttin' on the Ritz." Yagoda's point is that in his opinion rock is less musically and lyrically sophisticated than a standard, but he seems to have deliberately forgotten that beauty is in the eye of the beholder—or in this case, the ear...

First Sentence:
While not quite on the level of a Richard Rodgers, a Cole Porter or an Irving Berlin, Arthur Schwartz was certainly in the top echelon of American songwriters.

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