Saturday, October 7, 2017

Tom Petty & the Dying Breed of Singer/Songwriters

I’m writing this a couple of days after the death of singer/songwriter Tom Petty. I’m not one of those people who likes to wax eloquent on social media every time some musician or entertainer dies. Nor am I someone who dwells on the circumstances of their death or the pathos of it all. But when I heard that Petty had died, I felt sad. For myself mainly. There is one less good singer/songwriter alive. As I said in a simple post on Facebook, “In this unpredictable world one could always predict another great song from Tom Petty!”

Singer/songwriters like Petty are literally a dying breed. I am talking about people who sit down with a guitar or piano and pull out something magical out of thin air to share with the rest of the world — completely on their own. This is a unique gift that is not given to all musicians. Even the most talented ones do not have this ability to put lyrics and melodies together time and time again. Full disclosure: I am a singer/songwriter. It is also the genre of music that I enjoy the most.

The singer/songwriter era started in the 1960s with The Beatles and Dylan. Until then, songwriters worked mainly for publishers and created songs for other people to perform. This meant they only wrote songs that had commercial value. Singer/songwriters, on the other hand, could express their emotions more freely. And so it was for the next few decades. The sheer volume and quality of songs created by singer/songwriters during this time is quite mind-boggling. However, this is a genre that is slowly dying out. I think humanity will be poorer for it.

In the world of rock music today, one can literally count the prolific singer/songwriters that are still alive: Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Van Morrison, Mark Knopfler, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, Carole King, Sting, Paul Williams, Barry Gibb, Ian Anderson, John Prine, John Hiatt, Steve Earle, Paul McCartney, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Steven Stills, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Neil Diamond, Robbie Robertson, Gordon Lightfoot, John Fogerty, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, Paul Simon... I’m sure I’m leaving out a few, but my point is that these numbers are not being replenished in great numbers by young singer/songwriters today. I will add John Mayer, Sufjan Stevens and Jack White to the list of younger songwriters. They are prolific and write good songs even though they are not that young anymore.

I am not considering songwriting duos and collaborations in my definition of singer/songwriters because I think their songs are different from a song created by one person completely on his/her own. Partnerships like Bono/Edge, Jagger/Richards, John/Taupin, Henley/Frey, Gilmore/Waters, etc. have created some memorable songs. However, they usually don't reflect the soul of the writer the way a song written by a single individual does. I am also leaving out professional songwriters who pitch songs to other artists. They are craftspeople who have an entirely different raison d'ĂȘtre than singer/songwriters.

Maybe, it's just me, but I like seeing the soul of the artist reflected in his or her work. Most of the authors and singer/songwriters I like have this in common. Even in detective fiction (the genre I like the best for easy reading) there's a big difference between the novels of John D. McDonald, Colin Dexter or James Lee Burke to those of Agatha Christie, Lee Child and James Patterson. Although I enjoy all these authors, I appreciate the former more at a deeper level.

It's the same with music. I can enjoy any song with a good melody and lyrics that I can relate to -- but songs that come from the heart and speak of a personal truth of the performer are far more appealing to me. Once you discover a singer/songwriter or an introspective author, you are in essence taking a journey with them as they live their lives. What they go through, what they believe in, who they are, and their view of the world is usually reflected in their creations. You don't need to read the tabloid papers to find this out. And, what makes them artists is their ability to express the core of their humanness that audiences can extrapolate to the human condition in general.

This is what I lament the most about Petty's death and the marked decrease in the numbers of singer/songwriters today. Who are the prolific young songwriters of today who will someday have a body of work like those of the songwriters mentioned above? Jackson Brown was sixteen when he wrote "These Days." Cat Stevens was 21 when "Tea With The Tillerman" was released.

I've been at open mics (the first stop for any aspiring singer/songwriter) for a few years and I find that most performers these days do mainly covers. Others have a couple of original songs but still usually perform covers. Some have original songs, but sound very unpolished and have no aspiration beyond it just being a hobby. Very rarely does one see a singer/songwriter with material that is original and convincing.

Maybe the musical tastes of audiences have changed. If Dylan had appeared on the scene today instead of in the 1960s would he have had the same impact?

Or maybe there's no future in being a singer/songwriter these days... and any money in it either. I'm not very encouraged by some of the related news I've been reading recently. Guitar makers like Fender, Martin, etc. are posting big drops in sales. The percentage of kIds learning how to play an instrument is at an all-time low. Record companies that take on aspiring singer/songwriters are almost non-existent.

I was watching an excellent interview with Petty on YouTube from a couple of years ago, after the release of his last studio album, Hypnotic Eye." One of the things he talks about is the magical nature of where his songs come from, and the ability to tap into a certain place to get the songs. "But I'm afraid to stare into the light for too long," he says. I know exactly what he means. It's the same place I get my songs from. You don't know where the songs come from but you feel fortunate to be able to get them.

So, what's the future in music? I sometimes sense a regression to a time before the advent of singer/songwriters -- when songwriters and performers were two separate professions. Most popular music has followed that dichotomy and continues to do so today.

Or, I could be wrong about singer/songwriters dying out. The Internet allows songwriters to reach audiences they never could before. This may produce a new breed of singer/songwriters who can write, record, and get out their music successfully without a middleman. I'm trying to do it myself.

Time will tell. But right now, I'm looking at all the singer/songwriters who have shaped my life dying one by one and feeling sad that I will not be hearing anything new from them.

Tom Petty & the Dying Breed of Singer/Songwriters

I’m writing this a couple of days after the death of singer/songwriter Tom Petty. I’m not one of those people who likes to wax eloquent on s...