“Search your parks in all your cities/You’ll find no statues of committees,” said old famous advertising guy David Ogilvy one day, beaming, I imagine, at having delivered an unimproveable couplet and affecting nonchalance, as if he could crank ‘em out all day. Ting! He dipped his head with amusingly false modesty and toasted lightly against someone’s martini glass with his nearly drained glass of scotch. I bet.
Ogilvy is one of the few old fifties-era Mad Men whose name is still posthumously bolted above an agency’s door.
He’s also a tidy symbol of “the old way” of writing ads: a copywriter works alone and broods Jon Hammishly and eventually has a hard-won epiphany that, at the last second, he passes off to someone with a degree of art skill to execute.
A guy named Bill Bernbach changed that in the early sixties. Now almost every ad agency pairs writers and art directors into teams whose inclinations and skills mesh: roughly the verbal person and the visual person, though both are responsible for the work overall, and either can influence the final result.
I’ve done it all my life.
So you’d think the Nashville tradition of co-writing would be natural for me.
I’m far more Ogilvish than Bernbachian.
When I was in a band, the guitar player and I wrote all the songs—but not together. Once we sat down with paper and tried. It was a Christmas song, for a Christmas album we were planning.
HIM: What do you want to write about?
Long pause while we watch his cat.
ME: Maybe something where there’s a pay-off line to each verse? So every verse is just leading up to it? Like, oh, the singer is describing all the things he doesn’t really want, that he just wants the girl to think he’s okay, and “that can be my gift this year.”
HIM: Hmm. [He nods.]
He shows me some vinly records he picked up.
HIM: I was thinking, y’know, Christmas comes every year and it always seems like this is the year we’re going to make it, that this is the year.
ME: Hmm. [I nod.]
An entire afternoon passes by unaccounted for.
HIM: I probably ought to get some stuff done around here…
ME: I think I’m supposed to be home soon.
We didn’t co-write again after that.
On Tuesday nights, though, I knew he was likely to bring a new song for the band to learn at practice. I didn’t want him to get too far ahead of me, so I wrote a lot on my own.
The basic method I had was to summon from the ether a random phrase, attach it to an earworm, and then test out different meanings for it as I mowed the grass or walked the dog or drove around town: All around the parking lot/We chase goodbye to Chris… What the hell am I talking about here?…
It was solo noodling.
In Nashville, though, a “co-write” is serious work. And it’s a noun.
The phrase, “Lemme know if you ever want to do a co-write sometime” is a standard farewell.
Like most cities, many Nashville citizens are looking to hook up—a chance encounter, a setup through acquaintances—and spend time together alone in a little room. But they’re only there to talk about love.
Or God, or honky-tonks, or farming.
One of them might idly strum a guitar and repeat a phrase that ends in “something something-eer” while the other tosses out rhymes for “beer.”
And they keep at it, even if it’s uncomfortable.
In advertising, we keep at it. But there’s an artificial topic: we’re trying to solve the problems of our clients. In Nashville, the topic is whatever is in your or your co-writer’s heart.
I am kinda self-conscious about my heart, and its contents.
But that’s what’s being discussed, in those little rooms.
Together the writers are plotting stories, like William Holden and that pretty script editor in one of those little Hollywood writer’s offices in Sunset Boulevard, arguing about what makes a good scene. Or Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett in a similar office arguing about whether the scene about arguing about a scene makes a good scene.
And, like JFK seeking to improve his social standing by marrying Jacqueline Bouvier, everyone is trying to “write up.”
My very first actual Nashville co-write was with my songwriting instructor, who had once co-written a number one hit.
I was writing up. There in her air-conditioned living room I sat, on a sultry Southern July afternoon I had taken off from work. My wife was alone in Indiana, managing the affairs of our young kids that day. And night.
As the afternoon passed, I was aware of the shift of light coming in the windows, left to right—first dappled through a maple, then harsher and brighter, then softer again, filtered through a tulip poplar. By the time the angled sunlight reached the poplar I was feeling guilty.
Click! Hummmmmmmmmmmmmmm, went the air conditioner cycling on. Chunk-ahhhh, went the air conditioner cycling off a few minutes later, introducing a big empty silence till it started again.
There were no guitars. There was no singing. There was just the story—the hardest part. That’s all we did that afternoon: we spent the whole time trying to determine the order of the “reveal” and which details would help the listener understand what was happening at exactly the right rate: too fast, and it was boring; too slow, and it was obscure.
I kept scribbling what we were doing in a Moleskine notebook, then crossing it out, then inserting words and marginal notations which would eventually be crossed out, too. Or I’d write “stet.” Then cross it out. Then “stet” the “stet.”
Normally the songwriting instructor doesn’t co-write, she says, unless she hears an idea that is really new, something she hasn’t heard before that catches her interest.
This is the idea I’d pitched her in an e-mail, which had landed me there with the Moleskine and the air conditioner and the guilt and the trees: There’s lots of signs that a relationship is getting serious, and one indication that you’re getting in deep is when your car has its own oil spot on the other person’s driveway.
Straightforward enough and kind of fun, I thought as I drove to Tennessee and knocked on her front door.
But: how much oil is enough to notice? How big should the spot be? What rate was the oil supposedly coming out, and how much time would be represented by a spot the size of, let’s say, a dinner plate? Is it even common for today’s cars to leak, or is that leftover thinking from the cars of the 70s and 80s? Is that important? Does everybody know that cars leak or should we explain that? Shouldn’t it be a truck? Is a truck good “shorthand” for the character? Is that too expected?
How do we, the listeners, know that the truck is only leaking a little bit and is otherwise running fine—if we can’t make that clear, it just sounds like he drives a junky truck.
More importantly: Does he not want to be in love? Does the oil spot bother him? Is he ready for commitment and this is a good sign? Is it a confirmation that she’s the right girl, or does he worry he’s in too deep? How long have they been going out? Who is he telling?
Remember: If the character is a jerk, nobody will want to sing the song.
The session stalled around suppertime. I’d made another appointment, so I clicked my pen closed and placed the little ribbon bookmark into the Moleskine and said I’d try to make sense of the notes.
“Maybe it should be a waltz? It seemed to me when you were running back over what we had, you were saying the words in three-quarter time,” I said.
“Well, there’s not many hits in waltz time. Those that are, though, usually turn into monster hits,” she said, but what she meant was I was getting way ahead of the process by mentioning the time signature: we didn’t even understand the story.
No statues for our committee of two.
And, eventually, I hope, a better song than I could’ve composed alone.