Thursday, August 24, 2017

Diane Warren’s Protest Song | Lefsetz Letter

Her name is on the building.

That’s the power of songs. It buys you six floors on Cahuenga, you’ve got a permanent piece of the rock, it illustrates…

You made it.

Do you know how hard it is to make it?

Music ain’t like Wall Street, where your relatives give you a leg up, ensure your career. Sure, your name might get you a gig on the business side, but on the creative side? It’s every person for themselves.

And all that education you’ve got, that fancy degree, it don’t mean nothin’ in Hollywood, where it’s only about hits, can you write one?

This is a completely different business from performing. Where you can go on the road and earn bucks in this crazy era. No, either what you write goes up the chart and coin rains down…

Or it doesn’t.

Diane comes from Van Nuys. There are some upscale communities in the San Fernando Valley, but that’s not one of them. Her father sold insurance. Her two siblings were much older.

But she was born to write songs.

Now when you hang with the business people you get loudmouthed glad-handers. If you ain’t got the gift of gab, you ain’t gonna make it on that side of the aisle. It’s all about relationships, and if you’ve got smarts, you can make it to the top, otherwise there’s no room for you. The people my age are either running the enterprise or they’re out. Because people are lining up to work for free, and no one wants to hear about your family commitments on your fat salary, they’ll just hire someone younger and hungrier who will give them their all.

And Diane Warren is hungry. She shows up at nine every morning and writes till…whenever. She’s got friends, she goes out to dinner now and again, but her work is her life. She doesn’t feel like she’s sacrificing, but to an outsider..? No kids? Almost no vacations? No weekends? But that’s what it takes to make it. And you only work this hard if you’re driven.

Diane is driven.

So she e-mailed me.

Normally we see each other at restaurants. We’re strangely simpatico. Diane has no airs, maybe a bit of self-discomfort, but she’s open, she’ll talk and reveal, and we connect. So when we spoke on the phone and she asked me to come to her studio to hear the song she’s most proud of…

I said I would.

But I didn’t expect her to own the building.

It’s where Mike Caren and Atlantic Records used to be set up, next to the Hotel Cafe. You can drive by and see her name, even if you can’t get in, security is just that tight, there are weirdos everywhere these days. But when you’re a wannabe, and we all were at one time, these establishments are iconic. Not only the Capitol Tower, I remember coming to L.A. in the sixties and noticing Liberty Records was across the street from our hotel. I had no idea who Simon Waronker was (although I was a huge fan of the Chipmunks!), never mind his son Lenny, but I got up my gumption and crossed the street and a receptionist who couldn’t have cared less answered my question, gave me a list of titles for the new Jan & Dean album, they were my favorites.

All over L.A., there are edifices wherein…

The magic is made, in the room where it happens.

So the last time I was in this studio, Flo Rida was cutting a hit.

But Diane told me it was owned by SOLAR, but then Dick Griffey lost it in a divorce, and then Death Row moved in (there are still bullet holes in the ceiling), and then Atlantic and I probably missed one or two residents, but Diane’s there now. She’s moved from her abode around the corner, her office of 32 years, with her studio that’s never ever been cleaned.

She doesn’t want anybody touching her stuff. Not because they’re gonna compromise a new tune, move a lyric sheet, but because it’s HER STUFF! And she needs to feel comfortable there.

Me too. My place is a dump. No one can come in. Same with her old studio. Some stuff may have not been touched in years, but we know exactly where it is.

So the story is the song was written for a movie, about Thurgood Marshall, coming out in October.

You see Diane had the couplet in her head for a while now:

It all means nothing
If you don’t stand up for something

But when she found out about the movie and the producer said he was open to a song, she went to work.

She sits at a keyboard and…

She says she can’t describe her process, but if you’re a creator you understand it. She puts her fingers to the keys and…

Something comes out.

The chorus in twenty minutes. The second verse took longer thereafter.

And then…

Days to do the first verse.

Every word counts. Hell, there was that recent song a star wanted to cover, but this person rewrote the lyrics to the point it was lousy. Diane said no, she will bend, but she will not break.

And this is different from the collaboration city that dominates the music business today. Sometimes Diane co-writes, but most of the time…

It’s just her and the keyboard.

So she played me the tune from her phone.

I chuckled. I came all this way and I’m not listening to the full spectrum master? I mean we were behind the console, with the keyboard customized for Pro Tools, and the zillion faders, with the Yamahas and the Genelecs and the no-name speakers in the wall, and the music was playing through there…

And I immediately got it.

“Stand Up For Something” was gonna get nominated for an Oscar. There was no doubt in my mind. It was gonna play great in the film, have gravitas.

But I wasn’t as sure it was gonna be a pop hit. Because today pop is all hip-hop and…

But “Stand Up For Something” is performed by Andra Day, with a rap by Common, and the rap isn’t overdone and it was not calculated, Common ran into Diane and when she told him what she was working on he asked…

And the whole number is shy of four minutes and…

The chorus is anthemic.

It all means nothing
If you don’t stand up for something
You can’t just talk the talk
You got to walk that walk, yes you do

Finally someone singing it straight. A counterweight to a society where money is everything and if you ain’t got it, you don’t count. Kinda like that inane Louise Linton, wife of Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, who thinks since she walks in designer clothing she has the answers.

She does not.

You can have all the money in your hands
All the possessions anyone can ever have
But it’s all worthless treasure
True worth is only measured not by what you got
But what you got in your heart
You can have, you can have everything
But what does it, what does it mean

Criticize Warren if you want, but she made it and you didn’t. That’s America for you, full of sour grapes. Someone else has your job, you coulda made it if only…

If only what? If you put your nose to the grindstone? If you didn’t do so much dope? If you put yourself in uncomfortable positions? If you moved to Hollywood and got kicked around before you broke through?

Now you can write songs about love all day long. And love makes the world go ’round, it truly does. But now, thinking people are starting to wonder… How long is that world gonna last? Are we gonna get cooked by heat or blown up in war and we haven’t seen this level of tumult since the sixties.

And in the sixties, we had anthems that engendered belief and pushed us forward.

Diane Warren is doing her part.



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