You wrote WHAT song?????
I’m always spellbound when an enormously influential person shows great humility, and also by that feeling of meeting someone who had affected my earlier life in some way, let alone the world, for that matter. This gentleman just decided to walk up to me and remark about “A Man and a Woman”, a great 60’s classic theme I was noodling around with at theBel Air Hotel. There are a million ways to play a song, and I guess I was having fun trying to find the millionth-and-first. He recognized the song and the movie it was from, and acknowledged the “treatment” of it in such a gracious way. We struck up a nice long chat.
After some time he said, “My name’s Bruce”. Though I didn’t recognize him, as we talked music and piano, I realized that he knew his stuff. All of a sudden, with true nonchalance, he laid this on me: “I wrote ‘I Write The Songs’”. The hilarity of him just rattling that off was quickly followed with my awe, as I saw he was perfectly serious. “I Write The Songs”??? I stopped playing and begged him to pull up a chair next to me. This I had to hear about. That song, love it or hate it, was a gigantic anthem, a cornerstone, if you will, of the mid-70s. A multi-week number 1 hit, Grammy winner, and recorded as a cover by at least 150 different artists, I kid you not. The story and lesson I was about to get are a permanent source of joy to this piano picker.
Bruce Johnston was actually one of the Beach Boys for a fair amount of time, and still toured with them at the time of this encounter. Funny how he became a bit more recognizable to me as the night rolled on. He has a career in music that gets more and more fascinating. He was in quite a few early bands and partnerships. He was a sought-after session singer for decades. I never knew that he actually sang on Elton’s recording of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”, as well as Pink Floyd tracks. Composer, producer, band member, he’s done it all. Somehow he never lost this benevolent, openly sympathetic, caring spirit that flows out of him.
He told me how he wrote “I Write The Songs” during a flood of inspiration while he was sitting in his car, and it just came together completely in the mind. He looked me in the eye and said, “Do you know what that song is really about?” I was too blown away to think properly, and although I had a wild thought to offer about it, I held back. I didn’t want to taint it with an answer that I was afraid might offend him. No boasting here at all when I tell you I should have blurted it out, because I would have been correct. After a long silence, accompanied only by my questioning eyes, he spoke but one word: “God.” It all made sense now, as I went over the words in my head. But he wasn’t preachy, it wasn’t a grandiose sermon, this wasn’t some opening pitch from an evangelist. In fact the word “God” was never mentioned again. The conversation never changed. It was simply a great, great song. We did a little jam of the song together, and he himself played the iconic piano intro. What a hell of a thrill (pardon the reference). The Captain And Tennille were the first group to release the song, but when Barry Manilow got wind of it, that’s what shot it to the moon and back.
That song has done more than circle the globe. In a very downplayed way, just like he was talking to a bandmate or recording studio colleague, he told me that it put all his kids through college, bought him an estate, and still "visits" his mailbox regularly. Unspeakably amazing, to hear all this from the author. Then, this author offered me some insight in a wonderful way. “It all really comes from what you’re doing here right now”, he said. “No matter what stuff I’ve done, and lots of it was luck, I get a real boost when I come into a place and there’s someone giving me what you are right this minute with your music. It might be someone else’s song, but it’s your music. Yours.” Incredible, yet true as I pondered that. I thanked him in some muddled, insufficient way.
It was what he said as he left, that was most excellent. As he shook my hand, and I thanked him for coming over and for talking to me, I uttered, off the cuff, “You’re the man”. Although I meant it, it seemed a bit awkward to say it, but I was so enchanted by what had gone on. He paused and said, “You’ll be the man, as soon as you believe that you are“, with a reassuring gesture and a nod. Thanks, Bruce. Later in the night, the concierge came up to me, glowing with the fact that Mr. Johnston had told her he’d had a great night in there, and had praised me. I thought back about his answer to the question of what the song was about. That’s when the enormity of his humility hit me: the song was really about……him.