Barry, Billy and Bowie: Three B’s of Summer Singer-Songwriter Reading

by Scott Anthony Andrews
Co-Chairperson of the Regina Regional Writers Group
of the Songwriters Association of Canada

Summer, a time for reading and reflection. During vacation, I packed my e-reader with books about three songwriters that shaped my youth—and that of many others:  Meyer’s The Bee Gees: The Biography (2013), Schruers’ Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography (2014), and Egan’s (as editor) Bowie on Bowie: Interviews and Encounters with David Bowie (2015).  The Bowie book read as immediate, intimate and compelling, as the story recounts itself, kind of emerges really, through Bowie’s interviews.  One can easily imagine Bowie speaking in the present, whenever the date. Schruers’ Billy Joel and Meyer’s The Bee Gees (with Barry Gibb at the helm) are traditional biographical narratives. Each work reveals the complexities that seem inevitably consequated of significant musical success. The trials unbridled celebrity brings are remarkably consistent across theses three stories and somewhat predictable; however, my interest here lies not in Barry’s, Billy’s and Bowie’s fame, but rather in their song-writing craft.

~songwriter as poet,
songwriter as diarist,
songwriter as artist~

A few years ago, I visited the Mozart Museum in Vienna. Along a back wall was an example of twelve orchestral manuscript pages that Wolfgang notated each and every night…after teaching, composing, practicing, etc.  Twelve pages a night, every night. Mozart worked at his craft ceaselessly; today, we might say he was consumed or obsessed. So too did Barry, Billy and Bowie travail tirelessly.  Songwriting was one of the myriad activities each did amongst a very crowded field of musical activities and demands. Perhaps unlike Mozart; Barry (and the Brothers Gibb), Billy, Bowie were active songwriters across several generations; all three have had sustained careers. In reading through the three works, each songwriter took musical risks in their own ways. So, there are significant similarities amongst these songwriters:  work ethic, risks, longevity; but there are also differences in the ways in which each of them approached the work of songwriting.

There is not, of course, one way to write a song. There is not, of course, a/the definitive technique that each of these songwriters used; there is not, for example, the Bowie method, the Barry method, the Billy method, etc. Not only did each songwriter evolve throughout his respective career, likely each used different processes with respect to songwriting at any stage of his career.  With that caution in mind, it is interesting to note generally and to compare how each writer approached the task. The interest lies in creating opportunities of synergy and identification for us, as (comparatively novice) songwriters.

~The space between words and their referents can be imperfect and somewhat mysterious within lyrics, and can be an effective component of a great song~

Meyer’s paints Barry Gibb as prolific and intuitive, he does not read music.  Meyer suggested that Barry could easily write a song while at a recording session.  What resonated most for me was Meyer reminding us that the Brothers Gibb wrote lyrics with a degree of abstraction; the words were not always concrete.  To me, the space between words and their referents as lyrics can be imperfect and somewhat mysterious within lyrics, and at the same time be an effective component of a great song.  At times, it seems words that operate as general thematic adherents to a song that is important; or words as sound-scapes within themselves that is at issue. Indeed, the BeeGees lyrics were often quite ‘hooky.’ I sometimes write in those ways, and it was reassuring to be reminded that one of the most successful songwriters does, at times, as well.  Further, being able to notate music is a blessing and a curse; notating can become inhibiting to creativity, for me. Mr Barry Gibb’s example reminds me to not only trust my musical intuition but to write from that place, and to do so with vigour and commitment.

~ Joel’s lyrics stay fresh and easily storied; they remain shimmering having been polished over and over~

Billy Joel is, most obviously, a piano player.  Schruers’ Joel understands the roles of consonance, dissonance and resolution within chord structures and musical lines. Indeed, Joel has released a classical CD, Billy Joel: Fantasies & Delusions, Op. 1-10 – Music for Solo Piano (2008). Writing songs within a general backdrop of musical theory may accused one of being methodical, although certainly not staid in Joel’s case.  Schruers describes Joel’s processes as emergent, as unhurried; apparently Joel worked and re-worked his lyrics, and to a degree melody. To me Joel’s lyrics stay fresh and easily storied; they remain shimmering having been polished over and over.  Of the three, Joel comes across as the most personal songwriter, one who shares his highs and lows, particularly with songs like “Piano Man,”  “New York State of Mind,” and “She’s Always a Woman.”  The song and video for “Uptown Girl” famously cast Christie Brinkley, who would later become his partner.  I found the back story to the song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” quite illuminating. Joel had met a young friend of Sean Lennon’s who claimed that it was ‘hard being young in his generation. ’ This song recounts challenges faced by the youth of Joel’s vintage, and by implication, any other generation.  Joel reminds me of the power in writing from the personal, and of re-writing and of re-writing.

~Songwriting as a songwriter may be different
than songwriting as an fine artist~

Bowie’s Bowie is artist-as-songwriter.  Early in his career, Bowie created the unforgettable characters Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke.  Bowie wrote from the characters’ perspective with some confusion as to whom he was ….Stardust or Bowie…or…  As a song-artist Bowie was quite outward looking toward various other artistic genres. He served as an interviewer for Modern Painters magazine in the mid 90’s. Bowie was a fashion icon.  H e was unafraid to bring in new and interesting talent into his work.  It seemed that songwriting for him was akin to a fine artist with a palette of colours and textures from which to choose. Songwriting as a songwriter may be different than songwriting as a fine artist. In these ways, Bowie probably looked beyond music to other artistic endeavours, such as clothing design, painting, sculpting, etc. both as content and strategy more than the others. From Bowie, I think of a complete or total artist, as songwriting within and from various artistic genres. As well, I try to hear textures within songs, instead of chords and resolutions. There is something too about Bowie’s courage and engagement to actively re-invent his art.

As much as we may learn from each of these great songwriters regarding technique and style, perhaps their most important lesson is their example to remain true to one’s own passion—whether that be songwriter as poet, songwriter as diarist, or songwriter as artist….or anywhere between or within these three.

Egan, Sean (Ed.)  (2015). Bowie on Bowie: Interviews and Encounters with David Bowie. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, pp. 419.

Meyer, David N. (2013). The Bee Gees: The Biography.  Boston: Da Capo Press, pp. 389.

Schruers, Fred (2014).  Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography. Random House,  pp. 400.