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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Strange Songs, Inc.



Ann Landers at Work
Dear Ann Landers:
                 
Here’s my problem,
I’m gay and I’m in love.
Her name is “Hilda” and
When I’m with her
Trumpets blare above!

She’s a lesbian; she says I’m not her type,
And I confess I wish she were a man.
But
She’s just Hilda—wonderful Hilda!
So what should I do,
Ann?

Ann Landers was a newspaper advice columnist who retired in 2002, and this little song is one of the many I’ve written in my life, most of them comic in nature. As mentioned in a prior post (see “The Boot Camp Fiasco,” April 21, 2010), writing songs has occasionally gotten me into trouble (my very first song was a nasty little ditty about my sister, which was not popular with its immediate subject), but for the most part the songs have been well-received and I’m proud of them.

I’m a Gilbert and Sullivan aficionado (see “A Fanatic’s Tale—This Isn’t Pretty,” April 11, 2010), and their works have heavily influenced me, particularly Gilbert’s clever lyrics for patter songs. But my touchstone consists of the wonderful comic songs of Tom Lehrer. If you don’t know them, I highly recommend downloading them from iTunes or buying them online. No one has ever written comic lyrics more beautifully, cleverly, intelligently rhymed than Lehrer. His masterpiece is called “Smut,” but it’s too long for repetition here. Instead I’ll give you one of his shorter pieces, “The Old Dope Peddler,” sung to a melody dripping in nostalgia:


Tom Lehrer at Work
When the shades of night are falling,
Comes a fellow ev'ryone knows,
It's the old dope peddler,
Spreading joy wherever he goes.

Ev'ry evening you will find him,
Around our neighborhood.
It's the old dope peddler
Doing well by doing good.

He gives the kids free samples,
Because he knows full well
That today's young innocent faces
Will be tomorrow's clientele.

Here's a cure for all your troubles,
Here's an end to all distress.
It's the old dope peddler
With his powdered ha-happiness.


Gregory Stobbs at Work
In the 1970s two of my law students were talented musicians and when they became interested in my songs, we embarked upon the project of making a record. These two remarkable people changed my life. Gregory Stobbs, now a lawyer in Michigan, has spent his life trying to keep his love of music from devouring him. After taking piano lessons for many years he suddenly realized he could play anything at all he liked on the piano just by thinking of the melody, at which point he more or less abandoned reading sheet music. This talent proved very useful for our album. All I had to do was write out the melody line and Greg would take it from there, producing some terrific arrangements of the songs. Tim Ihle, now a member of the California bar, is also a major musical genius. He’s the best pianist I’ve ever seen at sight-reading music. The first time he looks at the music and plays it he might stumble here and there, but the second time his performance will be flawless, and on the third he might add some ornamentation. Both are fine singers, not only having beautiful voices, but real ability to sell a song, and, in my songs, they also demonstrate their exquisite comic timing. Compare that with my croaking: I can hit the notes all right, and I’m loud, but there is nothing pretty about those notes, and no one wants an album of me singing, say, love songs.


Tim and Greg at Play
Tim, Greg and I formed a trio we called “Strange Songs, Inc.” and we were the primary singers on the twelve numbers that made up the album, itself named “Strange Songs.” The whole process was great fun (frequently, of course, marijuana was involved if we weren’t actually recording one of the songs—we’d been appalled by the result if we recorded them while high). Some days we’d work hard, and others we’d just clown: singing songs in one key while the piano played another, or singing alternate measures in the same song, etc. The Strange Songs themselves had screwy titles like “I Don’t Like Your Dog,” or “The White House Bathroom March.” Time has changed the meaning of one the numbers. It’s called “Rap Session” because in the 70s “rap” meant having a conversation, which is what occurs in the song. I ought to change the title, I guess, given the modern meaning of “rap,” but for some reason I’m loathe to do that (I’m very pleased by the nuttiness of the song itself). Tim’s finest moment is “The Specialty of the House,” in which he’s a pitchman with a velvet voice selling a service that grows more alarming as his description proceeds. In “Take Off Your Clothes,” Greg sings happily what every straight man’s really thinking when trying to make conversation with a woman he wants to take to bed right now.


Linda Howard

Two of the songs involve others. In “The Carolers” Greg is backed up by The Strange Songs Choir as they recreate a Christmas Carol adventure that ends badly. The other is a solo for Linda Howard, then a law professor at Ohio State, and a renowned amateur soul singer. She asked me, perhaps in jest, to write a soul song for her. I replied it would have to be a “strange” soul song, and bravely she agreed. The result is “Baking Cookies,” a favorite of many who own the original LP (issued in 1977).


I’ll close with the lyrics to one of the shorter songs, but if anyone reading this wants the full experience, the entire album can be downloaded (after hearing the individual songs gratis) by going to http://douglaswhaley.bandcamp.com/releases.

                                               "A Very Strange Love Song"

                                        I’ll untie you when you say you love me,
                                        When you say you love me, you’ll go free.
                                        Don’t be stubborn—
                                        You’ve been here one week now
                                        And if you’ll just speak now
                                        Liberty!

                                        Not just freedom—
                                        There’s food—a toilet
                                        Hon, I love you,
                                        Please don’t spoil it.

                                        I’ll untie you when you say you love me,
                                        When you say you love me, you’ll go free!


The Album Cover (created by David Merry)
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Related Posts:
"The Boot Camp Fiasco," April 21, 2010
"The Evil Big Birthday Song," November 5, 2010
"'The Carolers': A Comic Christmas Song," December 7, 2010
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

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