Performing Songwriter

In a rare departure from my glued-to-the-couch routine, I hit the town two nights in a row last week, both times to catch singer/songwriter types at smallish clubs. Each evening, I downed precisely three pints of beer and stayed out until -- get this -- 12:05 a.m. Spring break, baby! Yeah!

During the second night, it dawned on me that every song being performed chronicled a romantic relationship in some advanced state of decay. I realize that personal despair often births sublime art (see under "Tracks, Blood on the"), but gosh, does every single refrain have to be such a downer? Enough with the woe-is-me-and-you already. So I broke out the Takamine on Saturday morning to embark on my new career as a well-adjusted, sensitive singer/songwriter -- just like James Blunt, minus the menacing sarcasm. Among the songs that spilled out of my soul during that emotional session were "You're Really Super!," "Having Relations With You Is Nothing Like That Time When I Slammed My Hand in the Car Door," and "(I Am) Emotionally Available."

What I learned: writing songs is hard. Which is why I wonder about the utility of Performing Songwriter as anything other than a quickie read for music fans, whether or not they're currently attempting to melodize their sophomore-year poetry.

As a broadly targeted music magazine, it works just dandy, what with its linear approach (Q&As aplenty) and easy design. But as a guide for would-be Carole Kings, the March/April Performing Songwriter offers precious little illumination on what distinguishes a good song from a great one. Songwriting, it seems, isn't easily taught or explained.

The chat with Jimmy Webb ("Wichita Linesman") comes as close as the mag gets to an in-depth exploration of the songwriting process, but it feels rushed at a mere two-plus pages in length. Similarly, the piece on Adam Schlesinger, one of the two primary Fountains of Wayne scribes, does a better job of outlining inter-band dynamics than it does capturing what it takes to write hyper-catchy pop songs.

Performing Songwriter sags when it follows the generic-music-mag script. The "New Release Spotlight" casts its warm glow on the same three artists featured in every other publication (not to mention the Sunday Best Buy circular) this week, while the reviews are flush with the type of phrasing that simply doesn't exist outside the world of music criticism ("even when he sings, his words serve not as narration but as tools to craft an overall feeling"). And like so many March/April issues before it, Performing Songwriter toes the on-second-thought-Yoko-Ono-really-doesn't-sound-like-a-grieving-rhino line. The mag gets bonus see-you-in-hell points for presenting a cleavage shot alongside her ramblings.

What I like very much about Performing Songwriter is content from the mag's vault, presented as part of its 100th-issue victory lap. Nearly every bit of the old stuff, whether story-behind-the-story quips about Elvis Costello and Martin Short or photos (Jack Nicholson with The Monkees! John Wayne and Bob Hope with America!) from the archives of lensman Henry Diltz, pulses with energy. Its vitality, in fact, contrasts sharply with the "fresh" material, suggesting that the title's best days could be behind it.

The issue could go a little lighter on the self-congratulations. The editor's note, for example, recollects how an investor told her that "this magazine was too important to let money stop it" (funny, the other day I heard some guy on the tee vee saying the same thing about universal health care). A quick "mazel tovs all around" would've sufficed.

Maybe I'm at fault here, as I grabbed Performing Songwriter expecting more in the way of process-oriented content. That said, magazines that don't deliver what they promise tend to disappoint readers, and disappointed readers tend to take out their frustration by, you know, reading something else. Anybody truly interested in honing his or her songcraft should just grab a copy of a record by one of the underappreciated greats -- say, Freedy Johnston's "Blue Days Black Nights" -- and learn by listenin'.

Published by: Performing Songwriter Enterprises, LLC
Frequency: Eight issues per year
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