The Lyrical Miracle


(Eric Shansby)
By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, September 13, 2009

Things I've always really, really wanted to do before I die:

1. Muscle an inside fastball into the gap in right-center for a stand-up triple, driving in the tying and winning runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning in the seventh game of the World Series. For the Yankees.

2. Write a song.

I have never entirely given up on either goal, but I have to admit that with every passing year, each has become more unlikely.

You'd think the song might be within my grasp, but I have discovered there is an enormous difference between writing the sorts of things I write and writing a song, especially the part involving having deep human feelings that rhyme.

The closest I have come to being a songwriter is knowing one. Christine Lavin, the folk singer, is a good friend of mine. Chris has no problem whatsoever having deep human feelings and turning them into songs, such as the one titled, I swear, "Regretting What I Said to You When You Called Me at 11:00 on Friday Morning to Tell Me That 1:00 Friday Afternoon You Were Gonna Leave Your Office, Go Downstairs, Hail a Cab to Go Out to the Airport to Catch a Plane to Go Skiing in the Alps for Two Weeks. Not That I Wanted to Go With You; I Wasn't Able to Leave Town, I'm Not a Very Good Skier, I Couldn't Expect You to Pay My Way, but After Going Out With You for Three Years I Don't Like Surprises."

A few weeks ago, Chris e-mailed me the lyrics of a song she was working on. She needed my help because she knew that of all her literary friends, I alone (I don't mean to brag) had amassed enough idiotically useless historical information to know whether Franklin Pierce had ever actually signed the Ostend Manifesto. (I did; he hadn't.) This fact turned out to be central to the narrative of her new song, titled "Attractive Stupid People." Chris wrote the song after hearing Sarah Palin speak. It's a musical observation about how the world has always been run by good-looking nitwits. (Pierce, one of our crappiest presidents, was considered handsome in a 19th-century sort of way, in which allowances had to be made for do-it-yourself gopher-pelt haircuts.)

In addition to setting Chris straight on the Ostend Manifesto, I also suggested a new final verse. She liked it and put it into the song, which she performed in public for the first time that very night.

To my surprise and delight, Chris said she wanted to give me joint songwriting credit. Unfortunately, she said, to make it official, I would probably have to join ASCAP, a songwriters' organization. This was like being told that unfortunately, in order to marry Natalie Portman, to make it official, I would probably have to sleep with her.

Giddily, I joined ASCAP, so now I am a bona fide, card-carrying professional songwriter, despite the fact that I have never actually written a whole entire song or even most of one.

The story would end here except for what happened next. It turns out Chris had also asked another friend for advice on "Attractive Stupid People," and she is partially crediting him, too. These credits will appear on the jacket of her new album, "Cold Pizza for Breakfast." My other song partner is Ervin Drake.

You may or may not have heard of Ervin Drake, but you probably have heard "It Was a Very Good Year," which he wrote and which has been sung by thousands of artists, including Ray Charles. He also wrote "Good Morning Heartache," which he personally gave to Billie Holiday, who made it her theme. He wrote "I Believe (For Every Drop of Rain That Falls)," which I am pretty sure is the only song independently recorded by Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, and Larry Chance and the Earls. Ervin Drake, 90, is a songwriting legend.


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