Email exchange with ROBBIE FULKS, talking about songs and songwriting.
May 24, 2021
Hi Marshall, it’s been a while and I hope this finds you well.
I hear you on the Outlaw Country channel often, so you're in my thoughts.... I hope you've been well during this stretch of human history.
No complaints here on my end...
I wonder if you’d mind fielding a question with regard to a book I’m working on, about the behavior of songs in the world. Is there a time when a song left your pen, got out into the world, and had a totally unexpected life? Obvious examples: a song you tossed off thinking nothing of it only to watch it become a monster hit; or a personal, intimate thing that ended up being used to jack up crowds at football games or sell deodorant or something.
I do have one like that, a song called “(You're My) Favorite Waste of Time,” which I just made up one day, backstage at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh when I was in “Beatlemania.” The title got into my head for some reason, then off it went- easiest one I ever “wrote.” I don't think I ever even wrote it down, didn't have to.
I used to enjoy seeing songwriter Irving Caesar on the David Letterman show - sometimes he'd refer to songs of his as “good little breadwinners,” which is what “FWOT” turned out to be. Anyway, at some point after Pittsburgh I did a recording of the song on my 4-track setup at home - that's my version of the tune, the one that you've probably heard.
A couple times in my life, back then in particular when I was hungry to get something started, I signed pieces of paper that were stupid of me to sign, but that time (and other times too, thank God) I got rescued from my own stupidity: “Favorite Waste of Time” was briefly tied up in a short-term agreement with a publisher where they had a set period of time to get a recording artist to release a version of it - if they didn't, you got the publishing back. I got that song back just a few months before Bette Midler recorded and released it on her album, “No Frills,” which was her New-Wave Rock album. My wife and I saw her do the song at Radio City Music Hall and thought it sounded great, but the album was a “commercial disappointment.” Oh well.
But then about a year after that I started to get actual telegrams about a version of the song that was climbing the UK singles charts, by a guy named Owen Paul - first it was in the Top 20, then it's #9, then #3, finally #2... I remember being on a songwriters' panel at the New Music Seminar in NY that week- two seats down from me was Jim Steinman who had a Billboard magazine in front of him; suddenly he blurted out to the audience that I had the #2 song in the UK that week! Nice... Over the years the song has hung around, still gets airplay, and yes, has wound up in a breakfast cereal ad (in England and in France).
I can't say that when I wrote the song I thought, “This one could never be a hit” - in fact I was definitely thinking the opposite. But it did come out of left-field in the end.
Thanks for thinking of me, Robbie...
I’m sure there are subtler examples. My hypothesis is that there’s frequently an asymmetry between the private intentions of the songwriter and the social use of his work. I thought of you right away. Your talking on my friend Scott Bomar’s podcast reminded me that your memory and reflectivity are spot-on. Hope things are going great. Best, Robbie
If that seems off-base let me know. I’m not trying to be Leonard Bernstein about it, but I want to reflect intelligently on what’s going on in the minds of people like us when we make songs.
Ha! You triggered me with that question, meaning that I think it’d be fun to answer so I’ll jump right in.
Do you know one by The Ronettes called “The Best Part Of Breakin’ Up”? There’s a false ending, then a four-count on the bass drum brings everybody back in for the fade. I copied that four-count for the intro of “FWOT,” and I even thought that I got close to the bass drum sound on The Ronettes record; I wasn’t actually using a bass drum though - it was a marching band snare drum with the snares off (I was muffling it with my hand and hitting it with a drum pedal beater). Anyway, with the vocals I was hearing a sound like The Hollies (you were close enough). The bass drum was four-to-the-bar which right then to me meant “disco,” and for the overall vibe of the thing it was Phil Spector for sure. I know that his name is like an obscenity now but I still love the records, and they were a huge influence on me. The white-noise percussion all the way through on “FWOT,” that’s a Wall Of Sound thing. You hear that on most of my early stuff.