Always Remember Where You Are

On a road trip to Nashville many years ago my companions were two noble but struggling Canadian songwriters, Steve Fox and the inimitable Melwood Cutlery. The drive from Toronto to Nashville took sixteen hours, all of which were fueled by stale doughnuts, the bitter brown sludge that 24 hour gas stations like to call coffee and a non-stop string of expletive-filled musician jokes, many of which I could not possibly repeat in this little story. Like an idiot, I had stubbornly insisted on taking the wheel for the whole journey and by the time we finally pulled into the motel parking lot, my head was spinning like the well-worn winter tires on my car. Even the bed that welcomed me seemed to have a solid white line running down the middle of it. My martyrdom had come at a price.

The next morning, after an onslaught of grease and coffee and more grease and even more coffee, I felt strangely better. As Melwood and Steve toodled around Printer’s Alley checking out the bars for entertainment, I sat quite contented on a park bench in the bright Nashville sunshine reading the New York Times. You know, doing the tourist thang. A short time later, a straggly thin kid with dreads walked by and handed me a flyer. It read: “Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame Concert”. I looked it over. Wow. David Gates (from the band, ‘Bread), Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller, (Jailhouse Rock, Yackety-Yak etc.) a bunch of other killer writers and the coup de grace: Jimmy Webb (Wichita Lineman, MacArthur Park) - one of my all-time idols. Now these are all names that may not resonate with every reader but suffice it to say, the lineup was legendary and not to be missed.

Impulsively, I decided it would be a good thing to take Steve and Melwood to the concert and without telling them, scooted off down to the box office that happened to be only a few blocks away and graciously bought three tickets. They weren’t cheap but hey, opportunities like this didn’t come up that often.

That evening found us in velvet red soft seats with about 2,000 others and as the lights dimmed, I had a feeling we were in for a memorable night. Sure enough, the performances were stunning. Superb song after superb song. I could feel Melwood and Steve sinking lower into their plush seats in sheer humility. Each songwriter sang a maximum of three songs and was allowed to play guitar or piano but here was the kicker: there was no back-up band so if they couldn’t play an instrument, they had to sing ‘a cappela’! That’s right, no accompaniment. I remember Mike Stoller beating his chest with his fist to at least get a rhythm happening.

Eventually, it came time for the featured guest to perform: the incomparable Mr. Jimmy Webb. After enthusiastic applause, he sauntered over to the grand piano and regaled the audience with hit after hit. He even showed some self-deprecating humour that was refreshing when he confessed that the lyrics to MacArthur Park were by in large, unintelligible and “….ahem…..we won’t try to figure out what it took to come up with those words…”

So far so good. He had the audience in the palm of his hands. The spotlight caressed the sleek black grand piano as his fingers flew up and down the ivories in languid arpeggios. He began a little banter. And then this:

“…..Well…it’s certainly great to be here in Nashville and…well…..I know that there’s bound to be a great bunch of songwriters here tonight and they’re going to understand what I’m about to say. You know, fellow writers, sometimes you get real lucky and one of your songs becomes a big hit. And you’re real grateful. It’s really cool when this happens. You say to yourself, gosh, that’s my song on the radio! Trouble is…… (a pause for dramatic effect)…you don’t quite like the version that came out…you know, the vocal wasn’t quite the way you imagined it could be and the arrangement a little lame…”

A few chuckles and knowing nods from the audience.

A condescending turn of the head, a few more glistening notes from the piano and then a tantalizing series of chord movements that rang a familiar bell. Many in the crowd began to cheer when they recognized the song. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, this was one of those hit songs whose version just didn’t do it for me. I just felt that…..” “Hey wait a minute buster…… !!!”

A lady had yelled out from the audience.

The piano crashed to a dead stop. Jimmy Webb swung around and looked out wide-eyed into the blackness, a deer caught in the spotlight.

“Huh?”

Somewhere in the front rows, a lady had stood up shaking her fist at the stage. The singer for that song was in the audience!!! (It was somebody really famous like Reba McIntire). And boy, was she angry!

“Yeah, that’s right. I’m talking to you straight now! I made you a truckload of money. That was a damn good rendition of your song that I did…I gave you a freakin’’ hit…..you’re so lucky…..”

As an abject and stunned Jimmy Webb sat frozen, the entire hall exploded into laughter.

Jimmy began to blabber.

“Well, gosh honey… ….no, I didn’t mean it that way….of course, honey…you did a great job….aaahhhh….I was just trying to explain to the other writers here…aaahhh…..”

Well, of course he just wound up digging himself deeper and deeper and drawing even more howls of laughter from the crowd.

The great Mr. Webb had foolishly forgotten that he was in Nashville, the international mecca of songwriters, the Home of country music for God’s sake. He should have known that there was a very, very good chance that the performer of his song might very well be in the audience. And now it was too late.

After clumsily digging himself into a hole halfway to China, he finally gave up with a pained grin.

“Well, I guess I won’t be doing that song here tonight after all.”

And the moral of this story is: when you are a performer, always remember where you are!

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