Graham Reid | | 4 min read
What can you say about Don McGlashan, official Arts Laureate and Living Legend?
That he has written songs which explore the dark underbelly of New Zealand life (White Valiant) but also those of great beauty (Anchor Me, Andy)?
That he has explored brittle post-punk (Blam Blam Blam), avant-garde percussion (From Scratch), performance art and film (The Front Lawn with Harry Sinclair), soundtracks (Angel at my Table), pop-rock (The Mutton Birds), psychedelic rock (his cover of Nature) . . .?
That many of his songs have become part of our collective autobiography (Dominion Road) and that he brings a keen intelligence to his advocacy of music and the creative arts in New Zealand cultural life?
His career stretches back four decades and he has been reviewed and interviewed at Elsewhere, but he has never been taken back to ground zero for a Famous Elsewhere Songwriter Questionnaire . . . until now. And it's timely becase he is out on tour again (see dates below)
The first song which made you think, 'Now that's a well crafted piece of work' was . . .
Johnny Horton’s “Sink The Bismarck”. I was about 4 or 5. And I loved the way it told the ripping yarn about the famous German battle ship and kept the tension ratcheting up verse by verse. I think I learned it by heart and made several long car trips unbearable for my brother and sisters.
Complete this sentence: The first song I wrote was . . .
Again, about 4 or 5. I was way up a hill on an island in the southern Hauraki Gulf. Words and a tune came to me about the clouds talking to me, or something. I remember breathlessly running down the hill to tell my family, leaping gorse bushes and sheep tracks.
The one songwriter you will always listen to, even if they disappointed you previously, is?
Bob Dylan. Although he’s never really disappointed me. Even when he’s not trying, he’s streets ahead of everyone.
As songwriters: Lennon-McCartney or Jagger-Richards; kd lang or Katy Perry; Madonna or Michael Jackson; Johnny Cash or Kris Kristofferson?
Lennon & McCartney over Jagger-Richards, just for depth, range and consistency. I don’t know enough about KD lang’s, Katy Perry’s, Madonna’s or Michael Jackson’s songs to compare them usefully. Kris Kristofferson over Johnny Cash as a songwriter. So many great songs that so many people have covered, (For The Good Times, Me & Bobby McGee, Help Me Make It Through The Night...). But it’s a near thing. Cash hasn’t written as many songs, but when he has written things, they’ve been superb (Folsom Prison Blues, The Man Comes Around).
The three songs (yours, or by others) you would love everyone to hear because they are well crafted are . . .
There are so many... but today: Nick Lowe’s “Stop Light Roses”; Paul Kelly’s “If I Could Start Today Again”; Nick Cave’s “The Lyre Of Orpheus”
Melody first? Words or phrase first? Simultaneous?
Lyric ideas and fragments first, then music, maybe for the first verse and a bit of a chorus - then from then on all the strands pretty much develop simultaneously.
The best book on music or musicians you have read is . . .
Lately: Richard Hell’s memoir “I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp”. Scurrilous, egotistical, sprawling.
If you could co-write with anyone it would be . . .
Hal David, if he was still alive. I’d learn so much about the alchemy that happens when natural speech turns into lyrics; when ideas can be both utterly everyday and yet indelibly universal. I met him once, and he was so cool. No time to pontificate or hand down advice - he just wanted to tell me about the latest thing he was working on, and he was in his 90s.
The last CD or vinyl album you bought was . . . (And your most recent downloads include . . .)
I just found an album of Richard Harris’s “A Tramp Shining”, in a second hand shop. It’s a kind of concept album, all written and produced by Jimmy Webb in 1968 at the height of his powers. The big single was “MacArthur Park”. I’ll need to get a turntable to listen to it. (I should get one anyway, as next week I’ll be releasing the first vinyl I’ve made in 30 years - a special edition of my latest album “Lucky Stars” with art work by the wonderful Anns Taylor.)
One song, royalties for life, never have to work again. The song by anyone, yourself included, which wouldn't embarrass you would be . . .
John Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind”. Beautiful, surreal, enigmatic; it contains mysteries that can’t really be de-coded, and yet it’s still one off the most covered songs in the English language canon.
One line (or couplet) from a song -- yours or someone else's -- which you think is just a stone cold winner is . . .
Again, there are so many. But today:
“She was married when we first met, soon to be divorced I helped her out of a jam, I guess, but I used a little too much force” (Bob Dylan, Tangled Up in Blue)
Songwriting: what's the ratio of inspiration/perspiration?
33.3% inspiration, 33.3% perspiration, 33.3% respiration - because you have to breathe in the world in order to catch something from it. Then you make that into a song.
Ever had a song come to you fully-formed like it dropped into your lap?
One of my first songs, ‘Don’t Fight it, Marsha, It’s bigger than both of us’, was a bit like that. I awoke having dreamt most of it.
And finally, finish this couplet in any way you like: “Standing at the airport with an empty suitcase at my feet . . .” (You are NOT allowed to rhyme that with “meet” however)
“Standing at the airport with an empty suitcase at my feet, The bastards confiscated all my lovely Reindeer meat”