Who are your biggest influences?
If you make any kind of art, chances are someone has asked you this question. People ask me who my biggest influences are all the time. I always have a hard time answering them, particularly in short form. The truth is, I don’t think I can choose who influenced me the most. There’s certainly a lot of stuff I love and admire. There are artists whose work I hope to emulate in some way in my own work. But who’s writing has actually had the strongest influence on my own style or my own sound? …I have no idea. I don’t think any of us get to choose that. We just have to try to make the best stuff we can and someone else can decide who’s influence is the strongest on our work.
Still, I’m tired of shying away from the question. So today I’m going to attempt to answer it. And since I’m not standing at a merchandise table, hoping to get a drink of water with 5 minutes to go until my next set, I’ll take my time answering. Once again: I don’t know if the influence of any of the greats I’m about to name has rubbed off on me or not. I can only say that I hope it has or I guess it has.
P.S. The song title that appears in quotes after every influence is not necessarily my favorite song by that songwriter. It’s just one song that I think is a good example of what I love about the songwriter’s work. In the case of the Beatles, I list one Paul song, one John song and one George Song.
So here goes…
Part I: The Chosen Few
The Big 3
Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Randy Newman are roughly my parents’ age. I started listening to their records as a child and I’ve spent most of my life admiring their songwriting. I’ve listened to their records over and over and over again and gone to see them all in concert on numerous occasions. The level of their craft is a standard up in the sky that I don’t think I’ll ever get near, but I’ll die trying. I think Bob Dylan might just be the greatest lyric poet of the popular song form and I’m not exactly original in thinking so. He also wrote some of the most enduring tunes ever and delivered them in a really original, personal voice. Paul Simon combines so much lyrical intelligence and craft with so much catchy melodic brilliance and originality that it makes me dizzy. His songs were exquisitely recorded (the other two guys made great records too) and he’s definitely the grooviest of the three. Randy Newman’s composition and harmonic sophistication are way out of my league. I fell in love with his dark wit and his use of different 1st person narrators for his songs in my teens. Newman’s New Orleans R&B heritage is alive and well in his music too. That was a big deal to me. The strength of the American roots in all three of these three giants was and is something very close to my heart and to my own aesthetic.
“Mr. Tambourine Man”
“Something So Right”
Joan of Art
Joni Mitchell is so damn musical and artistic and poetic and individual that it overwhelms me. I’d love to be even a little bit like her but I don’t think it’s possible. The originality of her melodies and her sounds, her deeply groovy rhythmic sense and the intelligence and elegance of her lyric poetry kicks my ass every time. Her stylistic journey over the decades has been remarkable. She really followed the muse where it took her and her craft and natural musicality are just astounding. I started listening to cheap copies of Joni’s 70’s albums as a kid in the 80’s. I first learned about her through her association with huge light rock acts like James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills & Nash. None of them come anywhere near Joni Mitchell’s artistry in my book.
Another Big Bob
Bob Marley wrote a few lifetimes worth of hits and enduring anthems in his own short lifetime. His songs are light and heavy, fun and serious, full of deep grooves and catchy lines. You can hear them once and sing them to yourself for the rest of your life. I’ve never been anywhere in my life that Bob Marley’s image and music weren’t all around me. He managed to make music that was 100% Jamaican and yet music that people in every part of the world could relate to. He managed to make songs about weighty and important topics that set the world dancing.
“Trench Town Rock”
The Heights of Lowe
I started listening to Nick Lowe in my early teen years. I heard one of his songs in the background in the film Rock n Roll High School and I wanted to find out who that guy was. I’ve been listening to Nick Lowe and going to see him play ever since. I have all of his albums and I love most of the songs on all of them. There are thousands of Nick Lowe fans around the world today, but I still feel that he is greatly under -appreciated. Poetic intelligence, grace, swing, human kindness and subtlety aren’t exactly championed broadly in our contemporary world, particularly not in my neck of the woods. Nick Lowe’s work has all of those qualities in spades, much like the great pop song composers of the Great American songbook. …His songs are playful in that classic songbook way and often very funny too. What can I say? I love his songs. I love his records. I love his shows. I love his career.
“What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding”
Old Man Young
The first time I remember hearing Neil Young was in about 7th Grade. I thought “Gee, this guy sounds weird.” By the end of that afternoon, I was hooked on the weird guy’s sound. I have listened Neil Young for most of my life. His songs are deceivingly simple. There’s alway some great little Neil Young twist, some chord change nobody else would have made. The reckless abandon with which he follows his own creative muse has always been an inspiration, however difficult I may have found it to live up to. I’ve seen him in concert a few times. Every time he blew me away. I like his loud electric stuff as much as his sweet acoustic stuff. I don’t always love his songs but I admire how willing he is to try things and fail. His powerful yet laid back pocket as a rhythm guitar player is as exciting to me as his screeching wild solos. I was inspired to play a Martin D-28 guitar largely because his just sounded so damn good.
“Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”
Taj Mahal and the Ancient Temple of the Blues
Before I knew much about the blues, I knew Taj Mahal. My best friend had a cassette copy of The Best of Taj Mahal that practically became the soundtrack to our high school friendship. I fell in love with Taj’s melodies, with the rasp in his voice, with the groovy feeling in all of his stuff and the folk sounds of dobro, blues harp and fretless banjo. It was rootsy and catchy and full of emotion. I still perform his songs often to this day.
“Farther On Down The Road”
The gates of the blues just opened up to my curiosity from there and I never get tired of the blues. I spend a lot of time listening to very old blues. Perhaps the mightiest of all blues songwriters is Willie Dixon. Most blues artists cover at least one if not several of his songs.
“The Seventh Son”
Tin Pan Alley Cats and Brill Builders
If you’re trying to write songs with lyrics in English, you’ll do well to get to know the writers whose songs are now referred to as the American songbook. I’m constantly amazed at just how much content craft and poetry these people could pack into a three minute song (or a few hundred three minute songs!). The songs of the “songbook” are incredibly hard to write and incredibly easy to listen to and they were written wide open for a myriad of interpretations. Once I started to listening to standards I was hooked on…
Irving Berlin “The Song is Ended”
Johnny Mercer “Accentuate the Positive”
Hoagy Carmichael “Stardust”
Cole Porter “Anything Goes”
George & Ira Gershwin “They all Laughed”
Harold Arlen “Stormy Weather”
Yip Harburg “Over the Rainbow”
Dorothy Fields “The Way You Look Tonight”
Billy Strayhorn “Lush Life”
Jerome Kern “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”
Richard Rodgers “Blue Moon”
Lorenz Hart “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”
Oscar Hammerstein “It Might as Well be Spring”
and the list goes on…
In American pop music of the 50’s & 60’s, some of the very greatest songwriting was coming out of two buildings full of song publishing companies in midtown manhattan, the first of which was known as the Brill Building. If I could be a fraction of a fraction as good or as prolific as a few of the great pros from those times, I’d die a happy man. My favorites among the Brill Building’s legendary songwriting teams…
“The Look of Love”
“Save the Last Dance for Me”
If you lived during the second half of the 20th Century in the US, then Motown was a part of your life. Like the Brill Building, Motown was a factory of pop production. Unbelievably catchy song after unbelievably catchy song was turned out by a team of super sharp writers, only to be preformed by the finest, most soulful young singers backed by the hottest, funkiest studio section around. Motown songs have been a part of my musical conscious and unconscious for my whole life. The songs written by Motown’s greatest songwriters, beginning with label-founder Berry Gordy himself, have a lot to do with what I think of as a song. I could only hope to write one half as good as one of the thousands turned out by Motown.
“You Can’t Hurry Love”
“I Heard it Through The Grapevine”
“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”
The Poet at the Center of the World
What do you know about Chuck Berry? I think you should know more. It’s been a long time since his famous records came out on the Chess label in the 1950’s. If people think of Chuck Berry today, they mostly think of a guy with a red electric guitar, singing “Johnny B. Goode”. How many of his songs do you know? Probably many more than you think. To me, Chuck Berry IS the story of Rock n Roll in America. He came from the place where North meets South and East meets West. Onto the pop scene he emerged at the height of America’s post-war prominence in the dead center of the 20th century. His songwriting style was as informed by T-Bone Walker and Louis Jordan as it was by Hank Williams and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He was a poet, an outlaw, an outcast, a household name and a middle American businessman all at the same time. There would be no Beatles or Stones or so many others without Chuck Berry. Few rappers have equalled his word-slinging prowess and in every one of his songs he made his lyric craft sound effortless.
“Brown Eyed Handsome Man”
The Gentle Master
I don’t think I could admire anyone any more than I admire Allen Toussaint. His songwriting, his playing, his arranging, his production and his demeanor were all just as good as it gets in American music for me. Steeped in the musical heritage of his beloved New Orleans, Allen Toussaint wrote, played on, produced, arranged and otherwise championed the cause of so many great pieces of music, it’s hard to fathom. There is a sober, gentle wisdom and and a deep kindness that shines through the narratives of all of his songs, intertwined with a forever playful, funky spirit. I went to go see Allen Toussaint play a few of his great solo shows at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan. One time I was even able to go backstage and talk with him. It was one of the great thrills of my life. If you want to enjoy the songs of Allen Toussaint, you’ll have to listen to any one of the hundreds of artists that recorded songs from his enormous catalog.
“Freedom For The Stallion”
The Son of No one
My freshman college roommate listened to Paul Westerberg right about the same time that my brother started listening to him. By winter break that year I was getting Westerberg in both ears. However many years later, I never gotten over the guy’s stuff. I don’t know what to tell you about Paul Westerberg. You should listen to the Replacements and all of his solo albums. There’s a melodic sense, a sense of tone and emotional immediacy that Paul Westerberg has, that very few people are able to achieve. His diamond in the rough is a million times better and less full of it than countless dudes who have been written up over and over again as diamonds in the rough. Lyrically, he doesn’t get me every time, but when he does he has some mighty powers. I listen to all of the solo albums and selections from 4 or 5 of the Replacements records all the time to this day.
“Black Eyed Susan”
Simple, little, laid back, bluesy, funky, country, rock n roll songs that no one else could come up with in a million years. This rather obscure and totally groovy songwriter and guitarist from Oklahoma had and continues to have scads of wannabes, most notably Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler (I’m a huge Knopfler fan). Every time a JJ Cale song comes on it’s a miracle to me. I play several of his songs in my own shows regularly.
The Funky Kingstonian
I’ve been a reggae fanatic since I was a 10 or 12 years old. I got started with all of the singers on The Harder They Come soundtrack album. Toots & The Maytals had two songs on that record and Toots remains a favorite of mine. In his 50+ year career, Toots has kept his gospel roots integral to his soulful reggae songs. I’m a lifetime admirer and I’ve tried very consciously over the years to make some of my simple compositions sound like Toots. I’ve covered lots of Toots’ songs over the years and gone to see him in concert 4 or 5 times. The guy wouldn’t know how to do a bad show if he tried.
The River Man
My friend Derek Lee gave me a dubbed cassette of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon to take on a road trip when I was 20. At first, I just thought I was hearing some obscure acoustic variation on early Pink Floyd, but I liked it, so I listened on and found a whole lot more. Nick Drake’s writing and playing optimize ‘deceptively simple’. The three albums that this sad-hearted guitar master made in his short lifetime are gems. Nick’s voice and his mind-bogglingly beautiful playing get under my skin every time. There’s a swinging, jazzy sensibility to his stuff that set him apart from all the other acoustic singer/songwriters of his time. There’s also a joy and a groove that mingles with the melancholy in his voice which has been sadly missing in the work of his imitators. The minimalism of his chord changes, and the elegant simplicity of his poetry is something I’ve always aspired to.
Grand Ol’ Country
I don’t remember when I was mature enough to admit that I liked country music as much as I do. I was probably in my early 20’s. Among the songwriters I’ve listened to most from what most would call the country world…
“Love is Like a Butterfly”
“On The Road Again”
“You Ain’t Woman Enough To Take My Man”
My parents had a Jazz compilation with one Mose Allison song called “Ask Me Nice”. The song had everything I loved; groove, blues, swing, word play, intelligence, humor, individuality and understatement. I don’t pretend to be any kind of jazz player. But I always wanted to make groovy, funny, soulful, smart tunes like Mose. He’s a rare cat.
“Your Mind is on Vacation”
Part II: Contemporaries
If I’ve played with you or heard your songs, I’ve probably tried to glean any good ideas I could from you and your way of doing things.
When I was just starting to write my own songs, I made friends with a kid in my freshman dorm called Garrett. Garrett would later be known as G. Love. Garrett was way into the blues and he was already an experienced gigging singer/songwriter when we were just kids. He was focused and disciplined and practiced a lot. I sat in his dorm room and learned how to play a lot of chords from him. He was very encouraging. We listened to a bunch of cool records and talked a whole lotta music. I tagged along to a bunch of his early gigs tried to learn what I could. I feel forever indebted to him.
“This Ain’t Living”
Over the past 5 or 10 years, I’ve played on a great many shared bills . The majority of those shared bills have been with just a handful of singer/songwriters, now all good friends. I’ve had a good chance to listen to their songs over the years and I’ve definitely spent a good amount of time wanting to write something as cool as something they wrote.
“Keep The Light On”
“Origin of the Species”
“The Long Way Home”
Part III: The Inner Core
The water I grew up drinking
As I’ve mentioned many times in this blog, I first heard the Beatles when I was 4 or 5. I loved their music instantly and I wanted to do what they did. I’ve listened to the Beatles’ music most days of my life since then and it’s only gotten better to listen to. They were surely an influence on me as they were on 45 Godzillion other people.
2.All I’ve Got to Do
My Soft Beginnings
“Only The Good Die Young”
My 5th and 6th grade music palate was dominated by Billy Joel. I had every album from Cold Spring Harbor up to An Innocent Man. A lot of my earliest impressions of what a song was and what a record was came from Billy Joel. My mother was a big Billy Joel fan and an even bigger fan of James Taylor. JT’s music played all the time in our home and in our car. He was also a very early model of what a singer/songwriter was to me.
“Fire & Rain”
“Jamaica Say You Will”
When I was about 13 or 14, I found a Jackson Browne record at some flea market somewhere. I got way into his first few albums and one of the first concerts I ever saw was a Jackson Browne concert. In my earliest notions of being a singer/songwriter myself, he was the image I had of what a being singer/songwriter would be like/sound like.
Once I heard Van Morrison’s Moondance album in Junior year of High School, I became obsessed with his records. I really wanted to be Van Morrison for a good while there. I wanted to write soulful songs that were as folkie and country as they were bluesy and jazzy and I wanted a horn section and a gospel choir to back me up too.
Punk Rock In The Home
My older brothers had a punk rock band. They listened to punk rock records around the house and they took me to many punk rock shows. I was never as deeply intrenched in punk rock as my brothers were but I came away from their influence a huge fan of the Clash and the Ramones, and later I discovered the Velvet Underground and fell hard for them. I’ve written a lot about the Velvets in past posts on this blog. I really hope that you’ll listen to the Clash and the Ramones too. The Clash were so much more than just a punk rock band. A million cool influences collide in their sound. You can hear pop, rock, reggae, English folk, R&B, funk and country in their songs. Their studio musicianship was sharp and exciting. Joe Strummer’s hoarse, super-energetic, often satyrical singing was always inspiring. Mick Jones’ pop craft took the whole thing to a higher level of musical sophistication. The Ramones had a far more narrow range, but their records always sounded great and featured a screwball, outsider intelligence that I really love. I love the sound of Joey Ramone’s singing voice. His sense of pop and satire really were really something special.
“Not My Place in the 9 to 5 World”
“Here She Comes Now”
The Posters on my Suburban Walls
1980’s New York area Classic Rock, Classic Soul, Lite Rock and Oldies radio had a lot do with my musical formation as did MTV. I listened to hours and hours and hours of:
Black Sabbath / Ozzy
Huey Lewis & The News
Creedence Clearwater Revival
The Bee Gees
KC & The Sunshine Band
The Rolling Stones
Jefferson Airplane/ Starship
Sam & Dave
Gamble & Huff
Curtis Mayfield / The Impressions
Hall & Oates
Sly & The Family Stone
Parliament / Funkadelic
Phil Collins / Genesis
Steve Winwood / Traffic / Spencer Davis
…and the list goes on and on and on and on and on…
…But What About Leonard Cohen?
I love a whole bunch of Leonard Cohen’s stuff, from all periods in his catalog. I can’t pretend that I’ve spent as much time listening to him as I have spent listening to most of the other people I mentioned, but I really like him. I’ve listened to a few of his albums on repeat over the years. I’ve gone to see him in concert and read some of his writings. He’s one of the best lyric writers I’ve ever heard/read.
…And What about Tom Waits?
I think the guy writes very well, but I have yet to really have my own personal Tom Waits freak out. A lot of my friends have been totally crazy about the guy over the years. Once again, I can’t pretend that I’ve spent as much time listening to him as so many other people. I have listened to him some and there are for sure a bunch of his songs that I just love from all different points in his career.
If I’m being honest, I know I’ve spent many more hours in my life listening to Joe Walsh or Jimmy Cliff. But I don’t remember anyone ever coming up to me after a gig and asking me if I was influenced by either one of them.
“Sitting in Limbo”
….How about you?
Who are your biggest influences?
Yes yes yes yes and yep. And also thanks for the nod, Milty, the influence is mutual.
That’s Lorenz Milton Hart.
Great piece, Milton.
Speak soon, \° JEFF