Saturday, 21 June 2014

Gerry Goffin and The Man with the Golden Ear

The recent death of Gerry Goffin has been widely reported, and the importance of his contribution to popular music appropriately acknowledged in the British newspaper obituaries and articles I have looked through. You will find plenty of detailed obits online, and this post is not intended to compete with these, only to add a few personal notes.

One is very personal indeed: the memory of an evening in 2003, walking home from work, when the verse from It Might As Well Rain Until September popped into my head for some reason, and I was struck afresh by its simplicity and perfection: it's not particularly clever or witty but it sets up the song as well as any equivalent introduction crafted in pre-rock'n'roll days by the sort of writers who used to throng the Brill Building.

I immediately thought of the person I could share that thought with, the friend who would undoubtedly get it, and understand why it was important. Then I remembered that from now on it was no longer possible to do that.

Which is probably why those words of Gerry Goffin's had come to me in the first place. They said everything without a word wasted.

As it happened I was in the middle of reading Rich Poldolsky's book on Don Kirsher and Aldon Music, The Man with the Golden Ear, when I heard the news about Goffin's death. As might be expected, it has a substantial amount on Gerry Goffin and Carole King; Goffin talked directly to the author for the book. It's not the best written book in the world and has a certain amount of extraneous detail: the author is obsessed with letting us know, in the body of the text, the circumstances of each interview. I'm also not entirely sure that he understands the term "ironic" - which, given his penchant for employing it, is little short of ...

But these are minor flaws. It's still very readable and enjoyable. I would recommend Ken Emerson's Always Magic in the Air as a more stylish book and perhaps a better general introduction to the Brill Building pairs of songwriters.There's no doubt, however, that Podolsky assembled an impressive list of contacts, and it's a useful complement to Emerson's book because you do get a lot of extra detail from individual players which you don't find in Emerson. I haven't crossreferenced Emerson for the purposes of this post, but Podolsky quotes Goffin as saying, matter-of-factly, when asked about Neil Sedaka's attitude to Carole King joining Adlon, that Sedaka didn't want the competition.

There are some interesting details in Podolsky about the writing of Up on the Roof.
 By the time Gerry started writing full-time, he was the only one at Aldon with family responsibilities ... While everyone else was enjoying a freewheeling lifestyle in the music business, Goffin went home to his tiny three-room apartment to change diapers and write songs. ... While the rest of the Aldon songwriting commune continued to distract teenagers with light and airy songs, Goffin's preoccupation with his own problems and the Cuban Missile Crisis led to his creation of Up on the Roof.

Carole had written the melody first and suggested he write something about getting away from it all. The idea for the lyrics came to him while sitting on a friend's rooftop on West End Avenue in Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson River ... But he was stuck for  one final rhyme.

"I went to Jerry Leiber", Goffin recalled. "He was like the big daddy. I needed a rhyme for roof, and he said, 'How about proof?' Then I had it: 'I found a paradise that's trouble-proof.' And he laughed and I laughed too. Then I wrote 'There's room enough for two up on the roof.' I was very proud of myself. Looking back, I think it's my best song."
Leiber also worked with Goffin on the bridge, says Podolsky:
Together he and Gerry came up with the solution. Said Leiber, "I suggested: 'On the roof's the only place I know / Where you just have to wish to make it so.' I was always afraid that people would think that I lifted that line from Snow White." 
 There is also the intriguing information that Goffin had hoped, or rather prayed, that Leiber and Stoller would get Ben E King to sing it, but he had left the Drifters by that point. (It's Rudy Lewis who sings lead on the Drifters' recording.)

Incidentally, does anyone share my feeling that Ben E King ought to cover Tony Orlando's hits, given that Orlando was singing in King's style? Bless You as sung by Ben E King would make perfect sense.

I am now trying to remember whether Ben E King sang Up on the Roof when I saw him at the Jazz Cafe in Camden. I recall being slightly put out when he sang the Drifters hits he hadn't recorded, as though he was giving in to the imperfect memories of less than dedicated fans who just thought: "This is the Drifters guy, let's hope he sings all the hits." So if he did sing Up on the Roof that night in Camden, that would actually have been alright after all.

And I suppose it makes more sense than copying himself being copied by Tony Orlando; that way Elvis lies.

To close, the demo for Up on the Roof: 

Review of Always Magic in the Air by Ken Emerson here.
Review of Ben E King at the Jazz Cafe here.
Post about Goffin and King's When I Did the Mashed Potatoes With You here.

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