The Third Great American Songbook

Review: Marc Myers, ‘Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop’

Still from "Sugar, Sugar" by The Archies

Maybe the only thing most people remember about the musician Michael Nesmith is that he played with the Monkees in the mid to late 1960s—although you do sometimes hear the story that his mother created Liquid Paper.

It has the shape of an urban legend, the kind of silly rumor that similarity of names would produce back in the pre-Internet era, but the tale of his inventor-mother turns out to be true: Bette Nesmith Graham really did invent the typewriter correction fluid in 1958. She sold off the resulting company to Gillette in 1979 for $48 million—and it was a brilliant move, unloading the invention at perhaps its peak value, given that the dot-matrix printers of the computer revolution would soon render Liquid Paper without much of a market. She died in 1980, leaving an inheritance that would finally dig her struggling son out of the financial hole he had been in since he paid an absurd premium to escape his contract with the Monkees in 1970.

Fewer people know that Nesmith also wrote some songs along the way, including a near hit for the young Linda Ronstadt called "Different Drum." But the jazz critic Marc Myers remembers, and in a Facebook post in October 2013, Nesmith noted, "I had a nice talk with Marc Myers at the Wall Street Journal the other day. He does a column called ‘Anatomy of a Song,' and we were talking about ‘Different Drum.' I tried to explain the idea of the spiritual center of a song, but I don't know how well I did."

Nesmith's Facebook post is a wonderful summary of everything that's fascinating, silly, naive, charming, and pretentious about the figures chronicled in Myers’s Wall Street Journal writing—and in the new book that gathers 45 of those columns about popular song (in homage to the 45-rpm singles on which they first appeared). The book runs from Lloyd Price's 1952 "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" to R.E.M.'s 1991 "Losing My Religion." The entries tend toward an interview format, an oral history with songwriters, performers, and producers all given their say about how, for example, Dion's 1961 "Runaround Sue" began life as a sing-along at a party, or Pink Floyd's 1979 "Another Brick in the Wall" was prompted by the group's desire to hide from their fans behind a brick wall.

There's an odd dichotomy in Anatomy of a Song, for Myers in the book seems a highly developed critic, fascinated by the technical aspects of musical production, and yet at the same time the least judgmental writer about music since the folding of Teen Beat magazine. He's not trying to produce breathless fan writing or promotion; all the songs he examines have that inexplicable power of persistence, classics that have entered the permanent deposit of popular song, and none of them needs a sales agent. Myers's goal in Anatomy of a Song is to produce a "love story." It doesn't "purport to be a list of the best songs ever recorded," he writes. It is instead "a subjective collection of music milestones," aiming at "a starting point for conversation and debate."

The result is surprisingly sweet. In his account of the 1968 country standard "Stand by Your Man," Myers reports that Tammy Wynette never gave up her hairdresser's license—because pop success is a fickle, uncertain thing and "you never know" which way the wind's gonna blow. The 1973 success of "Midnight Train to Georgia" began when Farrah Fawcett mentioned to songwriter Jim Weatherly that her boyfriend Lee Majors was on a "midnight plane to Houston." Dorothy Morrison was the lead singer for the Edwin Hawkins Singers' surprise 1969 gospel hit, "Oh, Happy Day," and she was never paid for her performance on the record. But, in Myers's telling, she betrays no bitterness. The song brought her the recognition that would lead to performances with the likes of Van Morrison and Simon and Garfunkel, and a fine career in an American music that celebrated her Christian faith.

And somewhere in all that Marc Myers hints at what Gram Parsons once dubbed the "Cosmic American Music." Anatomy of a Song includes plenty of Brits, of course, from the Rolling Stones to the Police and the Clash. But out of them all, there emerges a sense of what we might call the third Great American Songbook: the unpublished, nearly indefinable collection of pieces that expressed the musical sense of a nation. We had the first set of songs back in the nineteenth century, a broad gathering of Methodist hymns, Appalachian folk songs, Stephen Foster compositions, and Civil War marches. We got the second set in the twentieth century: From the 1920s through the 1950s, Broadway's stages, Hollywood's films, and Thomas Edison's phonograph would combine to conjure into existence the great performers and great songwriters who gave voice to the art of their times.

And then we had the music of the 1960s—that strangely golden age of baby-boomer art that gave us the Beatles and Bob Dylan. Gave us the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys. Gave us the murderously peculiar Phil Spector, too, and the bubblegum hits that ran from the McCoys' 1964 "Hang on, Sloopy" to the Archies' 1969 "Sugar Sugar." Gave us the impulse that continued on at least through the early 1990s, the point at which Myers ends Anatomy of a Song (on the not unreasonable grounds that it takes at least 25 years before we know whether a song has the power to persist in cultural memory).

As Myers interviews them, the people who wrote, performed, and produced this music reveal that they both did and did not know what they were doing. Sometimes it was just ordinary people who had a lucky moment when talent and the times combined to generate success. Sometimes it was joined with a pretentiousness that would lead them to pronounce grandly about the "spiritual center" of minor pop songs. Often there was present a genuine professionalism and a hard-eyed feeling for commercial possibilities. And always the people involved had a sense of the American music, the third songbook, sounding in their ears.

The critical ability of Marc Myers shows in his selection of topics and his persistence in hunting down the right people to talk about their songs. But his talent as a writer shows in his willingness to get out of the way and let them talk about their songs. Too much of what we think we know about music is like Liquid Paper: corrections typed in afterward. Myers pushes his subjects to recollect what had really happened that day in the studio, that moment when the song first came to mind, that instant when the radio began to play it.

And why not? The generation that produced the music covered in Anatomy of a Song is fading fast, and every week seems to bring another obituary. The Wall Street Journal’s editors were right to encourage Myers to write his column on "iconic hits," and Myers was right to gather them now in a book.