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Rod & Sunny: Photo by Bob Gentry 8/5/1999

A Thought for Today

Life takes its hues from the colors your mind and heart provide it.


Today's Flight Plan deals with a single letter and a subject I've unintentionally been avoiding for much too long.


 I sent this earlier to "rods friends" and then I found your website. I would never have recognized you with that Talmudic beard you have sprouted. It is nice to see you are still active.

Rod, I wanted to check on how you are and what you are doing. If you remember, I was general counsel at Liberty records from 1965 to 1970. We made a deal with you to put out one of your recordings. Also, in looking at your biography, I see we were born in the same year. At this age, Seasons in the Sun has particular meaning to me.

Anyway, I have several of your albums, but nothing on CD. I really love your music and the Jacque Brel adaptations.

I just downloaded Seasons in the Sun from the Internet. It is such a fine work, and at our age (I was born in 1934) we all have thoughts of our mortality. I got the song from Napster, which well may be on the way out if the record industry has their way. The nice thing about Napster is you find virtually every song. The MP3 files are huge, and I can't see anybody using this to download a complete album or make it their music collection. For me it was much faster than searching through my large collection of now obsolete 33 1/3 albums

As far as piracy is concerned I tend to agree with Napster that a single song for an old fan or a potential one, would make them go to the store and buy the CD.

I would love to talk to you again. I have always admired your songwriting talent. I don't know if you have broadband Internet, but I will send you separately the digital version of Seasons in the Sun. MP3 files are quite large, so if it is too big, or Yahoo will not allow such a large file to be sent, you at least will have this letter.

Dear Bob, A nice and very unexpected pleasure to hear from you. It has been a long time and I remember that you were very helpful to me at Liberty. We're close on birthdays, I was born a year earlier than you.

My feelings are really mixed about Napster. I haven't downloaded anything yet, frankly I'm not sure about the ethics of it. Your file didn't come through, so perhaps it was too big. A friend, Eric Yaeger, turned all my CD's into MP3 files for me, but so far we haven't offered any from the website.

As a record collector, it certainly is nice to have so much music available for downloading, but I worry a lot about the songwriters and artists not being paid anything for their creations. My songs are like my kids and I want them treated right. They also continue to support me. Songwriting is what I do to make a living.

In Saturday's New York Times my friend and one of the great contemporary songwriters, Mike Stoller, who with his writing partner, Jerry Leiber, has given us all so much pleasure, wrote an op-ed piece that's very much worth reading. It just might give you another point of view. I urge you to read on.

The Missing Voice in the Napster Courtroom
By Mike Stoller

Much of the discussion in this week's hearing in federal appeals court over whether Napster violates federal copyright law focused on how online music service affects big record companies and recording artists. But they are not the only ones being hurt by Napster, which helps people share music over the Internet, and companies like it. Songwriters like me, who depend on royalties they earn from the sale of their songs, are also being injured.

In 1950, when I was 17, Jerry Leiber and I had our first song recorded, "Real Ugly Woman," by Jimmy Witherspoon. Over the next 50 years, Jerry and I composed many now-familiar songs, like "Hound Dog," Jailhouse Rock" and "Love Potion #9" in many different musical styles, from rhythm and blues to jazz and rock. Our songs were recorded by many great artists, including Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Peggy Lee, Jimi Hendrix and The Coasters.

But whatever the style and whoever the artist, there has been one constant: the songs that I have written have been my bread and butter.

Writing a song - the music and the lyrics - can take anywhere from 10 minutes (as in the case of "Hound Dog") to five years. But no matter how long it takes, it is always a gamble. A songwriter makes nothing until a song is marketed in the form of a recording for sale to the public, and unless that record of the song sells, a songwriter gets nothing for it. Each time a Napster user downloads a copy of a song I have composed, I am deprived of the royalty that my work should have earned me.

Some of those in favor of Napster say that making music available free of charge on the Web "frees" artists from the control of the recording industry. Many say that since making music is an art, artists like me should do it simply for the love of it. But how free can artists be if we must spend most of our days doing something else to make a living?

Where would I be today if anyone could have recorded "Hound Dog," and anyone else could have copied that recording, without paying Jerry Leiber and me? I might have occasionally written some music for fun, but I would not have had the luxury to compose full time. Who knows what songs I might not have written?

I fear for the 17 year old songwriters looking forward to a career in the music business today. Napster and companies like it are threatening not only my retirement, but the future of music itself. In fact, by taking the incentive out of songwriting, maybe pushing itself closer to a time when there won't be any songs for its users to swap.

© Copyright 2000 by Mike Stoller & The New York Times. Used with permission

In all honesty, Bob, I find the Napster argument you mentioned "as far as piracy is concerned I tend to agree with Napster that a single song for an old fan or a potential one, would make them go to the store and buy the CD" bogus and a bit too convenient.

It surely wouldn't apply to most of my recordings, since about 80% of my albums are thematic in nature. That means downloading the whole album would be the norm for my work.

Songwriters, with the help of ASCAP, BMI and The Songwriters Protective Association, have had to fight year by year, congressional bill by bill to get the rates we're paid by record companies increased, the terms of copywriter ownership extended on behalf of our estates and fees public establishments pay for the use of our works to performing societies, more evenly monitored.

The Net is a wonderful invention and a big part of my life, but this site for instance, generates no income. I could not afford the cost of its upkeep and the personal time it takes away from my writing without dipping into those royalty checks, generated by my songs, for funding. 

Like Mike, I wish the court debate placed more emphasis on the artists responsible for recorded music than the recording conglomerates. It might have given the argument a more human face.

Record companies should have seen this coming and by now worked out something with Napster that would have benefited everyone; the artists, the companies and the fans. Alas the record industry has been notorious for ignoring change and even attempting to thwart some (the DAT format is a good example and those of us in the business of recording know how in the early days they tried to dismiss the Compact Disk.)

The main reason I bought back my masters from various companies, including Liberty, Bob, is that I felt the bigger the companies got the less they cared about the individual artist. 
(Notice I use the words bought back.) If I fail and when I fail, I like to be in charge of that failure. 

I hope all of this works out because The Net isn't going to go away, but as Mike pointed out the songwriter just might.

I'm surprised that as an attorney once involved with intellectual property, you no longer recognize it. Of course you're entitled to your viewpoint, but I'd be awfully curious to know what caused you to change your mind. 

The bottom line is still this: It's theft to download or steal something that doesn't belong to you or that you don't have permission to take. In friendship, Rod.

PS: What's "rod's friends?" It must be a site I haven't discovered yet.

Tomorrow our loveable Webmaster Ken Blackie returns with "This One Does it For Me." I hope you'll join me in checking it out. I'll be back in this space on Thursday. Sleep warm.

                         RM 10/9/00 Previously unpublished

notable birthdays Antonio Bandaras o James Calrelle o Harry "Sweets" Edison o Johnny Green o Helen Hayes o Ivory Joe Hunter o Richard Jaeckel o Thelonious Monk o Harold Pinter o John Prine o Bob San Souci o Joanna Shimkus o Dallas Smith o Adlai E. Stevenson III o Julia Sweeney o Tanya Tucker o Giuseppe Verdi o Ben Vereen o Ed Wood, Jr.
Rod's random thoughts Every generation gap should have some kind of bridge - even if it's only made of love.

The true believer always questions; only sheep are silent.

God never holds back.


Images compound.
You threaded traffic,
head above the walkers
on a Monday winter day -
your stride and gait
as though in purpose,
when you were only strolling
               to be strolling.
I think of you in motion,
Never languid on a couch with bonbons
or prisoner to television
             after supper and the dishes.
The dozens of you in every hour
afraid of what you'll miss
while not revolving.

I see you running,
eyes at constant blink.
The head inside the skull
                 in narrow roll.
Brain ever working,
left to right, head to front,
             no cell celibate.
A smile always,
or some other decoration
that will not leave your face reposed.
Your arms go 'round me
and even then adjust.
                           Busy fingers.
Your hands at times at needlework.
Writing letters. Sorting papers.
                            Jigsaw puzzling.
Stroking Sybel, our first cat.
and at the window box
you water in a pattern
that the plants appreciate.

In a hurry always,
to and never from.
Ever tiptoe poised atop a ladder
at the topmost bookshelf
rummaging but little through the volumes
since they are stored and catalogued
                                      in secret thought.
Your lips part not so much in conversation
                                       or the yawn
but more in silent thinking.
Perception bubbles to the surface
but every sentence is commuted
before it finds its oral frame.

I see you. Often are you here
                         in steady glide.
You float and sift through afternoons
that hurry with you.
The two of you impatient for the night.

Motorlike, without the noise.
Ferris wheel, sans calliope.
Metronome. No clicks.
You are clockwork without time.
And yet nerve endings never show.
Your gait is more the music box
that needs no eyes to be appreciated.

I watch afar at times
           and do not enter in.
But when I ride the carousel
I ride with you in sync.
Observer, I am only that-
no pressure to be up and in the circle
as you do autumn acrobatics.

You somersault in summer too.
No season and no hour favored.

Abed you take your ease alive.
Love does not pass between us
                  it comes shuffling.
Arms and legs and eyes converge.
Never, never hammer-like or slithering,
above the bed we sail
                     not caught in pillow.
We do not copulate, we flow as river,
no finish line or starting gate-
              no end and not beginning.
I am a third
that sees the two of us at love
as if reporting to the city desk.
One mouth between us over there
                      how can we breathe?
Air flows in and out of us
              as fair as air is fair.

We are each other's wheel
and axle well aligned.

I know one is the common noun
            in lovers' conversation,
but looking on at distance
I see us onelike and no other way.

It all comes rushing to me in a rush
these decades later.
Perfect, unembellished memory.

I'd lay at rest
what I dredge up each day
             if I were able.
I am not.
I go hiking Stanyan Street
                    as if to crystal thought.

I must be seeking punishment.
There is no perfect peace or crime
while time is arbiter.

A child's balloon, bright red in color,
                         floats heavenward
until it's but a dot, then nothing.
Somewhere off beyond it's magnified,
                             becomes a globe.
So too the thought
that feeds upon itself grows larger, rarified.

                          -from "Suspension Bridge," 1984

© 1969, 1984, 1988, 2000 by Stanyan Music Group & Rod McKuen. All Rights Reserved
Birthday research by Wade Alexander o Poetry from the collection of Jay Hagan o Coordinated by Melinda Smith
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