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Writing Songs for Tony Bennett?
photo: David Skinnell

by Dr David, Editor / Publisher

Late one afternoon last week I attended a garden party. It was a little ways outside of town. I wasn't sure exactly where I was going and when I got there I wasn't sure whether I had arrive or not. I had the map the hostess emailed me, but, since my cellphone didn't have service, I couldn't call. I had been knocking on a large metal door for a few minutes when another extranjero came walking up. Yes, he was also attending the party. Yes, we were in the right place. My new acquaintance found the metal bell and gave it a pull.

After a brief moment the hostess opened the gate. I'm not sure how she heard the bell, because it was some distance through a compound with various residences to the one that was hers. The wind had come up so we went inside for the promised concert by her father, an 80-something year old man, who played an Indian instrument, the sarod, quite masterfully. He was accompanied, quite virtuosically again, by a tabla player, a young man of 21 years, who began playing at ten years old while living in India. This was all the more remarkable because this was only the second meeting of the two musicians.

They played for 25 or 30 minutes, then came a 15 minute intermission. No one left. Everyone returned for the second half. Aside from the great beauty of the performance, the music raised my consciousness.

After the concert, the man with whom I had entered, G., and I chatted over hors d'oeuvres. He told me that he too was a musician and a composer. He invited me to come visit his studio. After a while we left together and walked a short distance down the road to another compound, this one private and his.

Afternoon had turned to evening. It was already dark. Inside the compound, minus the streetlights' illumination everything was cloaked in shadow. We moved down obscured paths, beneath silhouettes of trees, beside the forms of fountains, through doors that separated one section of the extensive grounds from another. In the moonless night G. pointed out various structures, all set back, as casitas and others as (full) houses. Unbeknownst to me we were winding our way to another building. We entered and he turned on some lights, revealing a spacious, high-vaulted room, his studio.

We entered in the middle of the room. Directly in front of us was a platform containing an electric keyboard set in front of three computer monitors, two large and one, in the center, enormous. Aside of these were 2 banks of speakers, each consisting of 6 or more speakers of various sizes stacked up on each other. Then there were two high cabinets containing amplifiers, various recording devices and who knows what.

To the right of that platform was a sound-proof recording booth. I did not discover that, or notice the large window that opened onto it, until my next visit, because that first evening we went to the left. There I came upon bookshelves with archives of compositions, large work spaces (calling them "desks" does not do them justice) and a couch, all surrounding a baby grand piano.

Tony and his wife

G. sat down and played, regaling me with his music and stories of his 45 year career and, before that, his touring Europe as a child with his musician parents. He told me about a concert, given by his parents and their band, performed under duress in a crowded theater in Sicily that erupted in gunfire, a boisterous mafia chieftain, a high speed Ferrari escape... He told me his songs have appeared on over 40 albums. Some of which you know. He told me he was currently composing songs for Tony Bennett. He showed me a somewhat rumpled, large photo of Tony, about the size of a magazine page. In it Tony held a large hand-written note with this message, "Hey G. where the hell are my lead-sheets?" G. played me some of those songs, still works in progress. He told me what musical geniuses his parents were. He mentioned that his mother had provided him with most of his lyrics. They had been a team.

The whole afternoon and evening made for a very fanciful experience: the Indian music, the new acquaintance, the walk through the shadow compound, the fully equipped studio, G. performing at his piano. For someone like me, who leads a well-ordered, routine life, it was, to say the least, a very unusual experience; "otherwordly" is the word that comes to mind.

When it was over G. was eager for me to come back. Goodnight, goodnight. We'll get together soon.

I've always had a way with words, having written a couple of books, hundreds of poems and now these articles. I say, only half-jokingly, "Words have gotten me into and out of a lot of trouble." I also have a natural sense of meter and rhyme, which would make me a song-writer, if I were a musician. My encounter with G. got my hopes up. Here I thought was an opportunity. I have words without a melody. G. has melodies without words.

At least he lacked lyrics of a high caliber. For instance, one of G.'s songs for Tony tried to rhyme "impossible" with "improbable." That rhyme itself, while not impossible, seemed to me highly improbable. I wrote him the next day suggesting "unstoppable": "The love which once seemed impossible, Now seems so unstoppable." Over the next few days I composed a song, lyrics which I thought would fit well with 94 year old Tony's repertoire. It was a love song. Here is the first stanza:

Lying here beside of you, your hair a golden billow,
The morning dawns, your eyes still closed, your head upon the pillow,
I kiss your cheek to wake you up, you give me a caress,
This has to be the moment that I love the best.

I emailed it to G. He invited me over. Yesterday I went.

In the daytime the gardens, grounds and the buildings, among them various studios, showed to wonderful effect. The place was like a fairyland. We went first to his studio and worked on my song. He asked me what melody I had in mind. I sang it as I imagined it. He began conjuring, on the piano, orchestrating my very basic tune. I was in, for me, the very novel position of singing along, trying to come in at the right moment, my untrained ear trying to keep up with his highly accomplished experimenting. I was pleasantly off-balance, not knowing what was going on.

After an hour we took a break. He showed me further around the compound, which he shares with his wife, his brother and a tenant. I met and was charmed by his brother, who is also a musician and his wife, who is highly interesting herself. The wife is definitely the ballast in the ship. G. and his brother are the sails, blowing in the wind. Such is often the way with artists; they need that extreme openness and sensitivity. These men, one senses, spend their time enclosed in the compound, not venturing out much at all. The woman, tough creative in her own right, is much more down to earth. It's obviously she who takes care of business. We sat with her in one of her kitchens and had tea, accompanied by the 6 large dogs they've saved from the street. They're all, dogs included, good souls.

G. and his brother are highly intelligent, highly animated, positively bubbling over. The compound is an oasis of creativity. The hours I worked with G. were highly improvisational, illuminated unsteadily as if by pyrotechnics; alternately brilliant, flaring colorfully, and obscure, tense as he searched for the next phrase. Everything was new to me and happening back to back. It was a little like being in Alice's Wonderland, but without any negativity. It was genius and a little mad, both of which fuel creativity, no? It was a lovely, madcap four hours. It was also my own Midsummer Night's Dream, a comedy of errors.

The comedy of errors was revealed at our leave-taking. He asked me to come back today. I brought up the issue of money, about getting paid. The conversation continued by the same brilliant, but flickering light. I've had friends who were jazz musicians. I've had friends who were inner city blacks. Then and now this was a repartee, a call and response, quite different than linear conversation.

To make our rather complicated exchange rather simple here; I brought up the issue of getting paid. I was referring to my getting paid, about my being compensated for my time, talent and words, my services to him as a lyricist. But he thought I was talking about his getting paid, about my paying him for his orchestration of my songs, songs that he thought I wanted to perform myself. When I was talking about his getting paid from Tony, he thought I was talking about his getting paid from me. I was talking about my making money from songwriting and he thought I was referring to my making money with my own hit song.

It was all very awkward as we were skating around the subject(s), being sensitive to each other, not really coming out and addressing things directly or directly enough. Until finally, I did, making it clear that I wanted to help him write songs, his songs. The conversation entered a different phase.

He confessed that the deal with Tony Bennett is old. The rumpled photo of Tony asking for his lead-sheets is obviously also old. And in it, you recall, Tony is even then complaining of G.'s failure to deliver. G. is not sure if the deal still in effect.

Down here in Mexico, G. admits he has been out of the game for a while. In response to my questions, he tells me, sure, people are still selling songs. But he does not address my offer to collaborate with him.

I figure we must give artists a lot of latitude. Probably it is all those hours spent alone in the act of creation. Then there is the extreme sensitivity and idiosyncrasy that often marks the creative process.

As I drove home yesterday I felt stoned, though I hadn't had a drop. It was a natural high. Maybe I will wind up as his lyricist, as more ballast with him up in the sails. I will go back, but not today. The brew there is heady and today I've got to keep my feet on the ground. I'm still working for my living.

The whole thing reminds me of a another song, Isis by Bob Dylan. The singer meets a man:

"I knew right away he was not ordinary."

The man involves him in a tomb robbing escapade and dies during the process of breaking in:

"When he died I was hopin' that it wasn't contagious,
But I made up my mind that I had to go on.

I broke into the tomb, but the casket was empty
There was no jewels, no nothin', I felt I'd been had
When I saw that my partner was just bein' friendly
When I took up his offer I must-a been mad."

G. was "just bein' friendly." I doubt that I'll ever be writing songs for Tony Bennett, but I believe I've made a new friend.


Dr David is looking for authors to contribute to San Miguel Sunday. He is also looking for people who want to add more meaning to their lives. See his new website below.

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