Saturday, March 24, 2007

My 11th Blog-iversary.

Today marks several special events. One is 11th anniversary of this blog. I've bragged and bragged enough about that. But I like being historical. How many chances in a lifetime does someone get the chance to be among the first to start a world-changing trend?

Second, I want to thank my friend, Devin Richards. He gave me a very thoughtful gift, something I hadn't really thought of. He wrote me an email, "How can you brag about being a total geek and a historical blogger and you don't even own your own name as a URL???" He was appalled. But it's true. I have been using so long, it never occurred to me. So, as a gift for my blog-iversary, Devin bought me Thank you, my friend! You're not only a gifted singer and friend, but you are a gentleman and a geek. When you click on, it directs you to

The last thing is something very personal. Today is also the birthday of my friend Amy Lynn Shapiro. Amy has become very special to me in many ways. I met her, cyberly, quite a number of years ago. She had stumbled upon my diary in the middle of the night and, because she was needing some support and encouragement for some personal issues she was struggling with, she stayed up most of the night reading the entire thing.

Then she shot me a note which I quickly answered and we became almost instant friends. Amy, then a teenager, was a baby poet who wrote blank verse, almost intentionally arcane to the outside reader. She was always blistering with talent, but the poems were obscure in meaning. She was clearly, as a poet, working within an inner world of her own. I always encouraged her because she had a gift for a turn a phrase and it was clear that she was brilliantly smart.

The most time we spent together were at little gatherings of the "TLS family." These were readers of the diary who, through The Last Session, had also joined a discussion list on Yahoogroups called, appropriately, TLS. It doesn't get much traffic these days as most of the participants have grown up and and away. But back then, we had several gatherings around various local productions of TLS: Denver, Baltimore (the wildest one where we all stayed in a bad part of town in a hotel where there was about six inches of space below each hotel door) and in Columbus, Ohio.

Amy and I got to know each other in Baltimore. She carried around a notebook filled with scribblings -- as most writers do -- and I recall one morning when we sat in a bedraggled coffee shop together talking and chatting and making fun of the store next to the hotel that sold brightly colored suits -- 3 for $99!

It was also the last time most of our circle of friends would see Dickie (Richard Remley), our beloved friend and mascot who provided much of the heart and soul of our group, and who died after the turn of the century. Our little group of friends never quite got over the death of Dickie. I still tear up just writing his name down or thinking of him.

Anyway, this past year, when we finally got to New York with The Big Voice, it was Amy who came front and center as our volunteer. She was there at nearly every performance. She helped in the box office. She helped house manage. She ran errands. She sometimes sat in the balcony. Sometimes downstairs. We had numerous dinners and lunches together and she brought in more audience members than I can count. Her circle of friends seemed endless. She worked with the NY Gay Mens Chorus and, as we were there, was even accepted as a member in full standing, proudly singing with them at their most recent concert.

Finally, at one point toward the end of the run, as Amy (who has endless reserves of energy) and I talked -- and I don't even remember how the subject came up -- I suggested to her, or she suggested to me, or Jim suggested to us, somehow the subject came up of her becoming a lyricist.

Just so you know, back in the days of National Academy of Songwriters, I held many songwriting workshops. Sometimes as moderator and sometimes as instructor. Because of my many interactions with new writers, one of the things I learned is that poets usually make TERRIBLE lyricists. To the outsider that might seem counterintuitive, but it's true. In fact, during my tenure there, I never met a single poet who was able to make the transition.

Stephen Sondheim, the great theatre composer/lyricist discussed this once in a lecture. But to put it bluntly: lyrics are bad poetry and poems are bad lyrics. Poems are meant to be read at your own pace and pondered. They are complex. They have multiple meanings. They are usually obscure or, at the very least, not obvious. One reads them, digests the words slowly and then goes back over them again, discovering new layers of meaning. Poems stand on their own.

Lyrics -- especially theatrical lyrics -- on the other hand, are, as Mr. Sondheim put it, hitched to a train: the music. They fly by the listener at a set pace. They are direct and must be grasped and understood immediately. If a listener has to stop for a moment to ponder verse one, then the listener will miss what is flying by in verse two. Lyrics must have structure and form. They must rhyme. When they don't rhyme, the ear hears it and thinks it has made an error of some kind. And it's jarring.

Poets usually hate this kind of stricture. Also, and this is the hardest part, lyrics must be somehow incomplete. They have to allow an opening for music to have a place in the overall message of the song. It's like a marriage. Each person might be fine on their own, but when they meet their mate for life, they suddenly become parts of a Whole and people can't imagine them not being together.

If a lyric stands perfectly well on its own, then the music becomes incidental and unnecessary. There is an art to lyric writing, but the CRAFT of lyric writing is probably more important than the art of it. A great crafty lyric, paired with music that perfects it, becomes the art. On its own, it's a naked child, shivering in the cold. Consider the following lyric (one which appeared in my high school English textbook):

Let it be
Let it be
Let it be
Let it be
There will be an answer
Let it be

Beatles fans will recognize this song as, well, "Let It Be." On the page, it dies a horrible death. But when paired with the music of Lennon/McCartney, it's beautiful. (Our English textbook writers were trying to make the textbooks more relevant for us).

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that Amy agreed to allow me to tutor her in the ways of lyric writing. We had only two weeks left in New York. I quickly gave her some pointers and an idea for a song. I said, "Write a comedy song about someone auditioning for a show and on their resume is every possible job you can imagine. Then end each phrase with..." and I gave her a punchline. Miraculously, she went off and returned about two hours later with an almost perfect lyric. Seriously.

So, examining it, I shared it with Jim and we gave her a couple more ideas for the song and how to end it. Very GENERAL notes. I didn't want to write the song for her. I just wanted to direct it in a direction and let her do the work. An hour later, she came back with the rewrite.

And it was just about perfect. Jim gave it a funny title and a final little punchline -- as he does with my stuff commonly. And suddenly a lyricist was born! Over the next two weeks, she turned in 14 more lyrics. 14! Like many new lyricists, she stumbled here and there, but each new turn gave us the chance for another lesson in craft. What impressed me was how skillfully she rewrote. And even more impressive, how she hungered for criticism.

She would coax me, "Tear it apart! Destroy it! Tell me what's wrong!" It was as if she fed on the negative comments. And each time, she would come right back at me with a rewrite. Over and over again. Suddenly, I was besieged, "Give me another idea!" "I want another concept!"

So, I dedicate this blogiversary to Amy. I know she's going to have a long, brilliant career.

HAPPY BLOG-IVERSARY TO ME!! Happy birthday to Amy!
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The Steve Show #screamcry

My first show since my surgery. With Blake Zolfo.