Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Heartbreak Behind Our Greatest Ballads

There is a moment in my novel, Poet Of The Wrong Generation, when our protagonist, Johnny Elias, experiences a stunning revelation. As a lifelong music fan, he always thought of ballads as a three minute escape into someone else’s melancholy. Never had he pondered the significance behind the poignant lyrics and melodies. But after a crushing betrayal by his long time love, the young poet is awakened to the reality of true inspiration via his own heartbreak. He finds the spark to compose a tear-jerking ballad entitled, We’ve Already Said Goodbye.” It’s a song that puts him on an unlikely trail to musical stardom, while unintentionally sending her down a path of desolation.

          Throughout the history of pop music, there have been countless songs of pleading, anguish, longing and finality. Unrequited love and despair are almost certainly the greatest source behind the most heartfelt songs ever written. Here below is a unique look at some of the more heart-wrenching ballads and the stories behind the musical heartbreak.

          In 2011, British songstress, Adele topped the pop charts with her power-ballad, Someone Like You. It’s the torment of a spurned lover, wishing her ex well in his newfound relationship, but begging not to be forgotten. A bittersweet goodbye from someone who believes she has lost the love of her life. Although not confirmed by Adele, speculation is that this tune was penned about photographer, Alex Sturrock, who dated the singer on her 2009 US tour. Says Adele about the song: “We were so intense I thought we would get married. But that was something he never wanted... So when I found out he does want that with someone else, it was just the horrible-est feeling ever. But after I wrote it, I felt more at peace. It set me free.”

Eric Clapton and Patti Boyd
          Layla by Eric Clapton is considered perhaps the ultimate ballad in classic rock, and one of intense desperation. It was penned by rock’s most revered guitarist in an attempt to win the affections of Patti Boyd, then the wife of his best friend, George Harrison of the Beatles. The song, composed in 1970, was the first grand gesture made by Clapton over a four-year courtship that eventually led to the breakup of the Harrison’s marriage. The ballad’s subject, Patti Boyd told Rolling Stone magazine: “Eric turned up one day when George was away. He said. ‘I've got something for you to hear,' and he put it on in a cassette machine and played it. And I said, 'Oh, gosh, this is unbelievable!' And he was just looking at me and saying, 'This is for you, I've written it for you.'" Clapton would go on to marry Boyd in 1979. They would divorce in 1988, but the song (released in 1972 by Clapton’s band, Derek and the Dominos) remains a timeless example of musical pleading, epitomized by the second verse:
I tried to give you consolation. When your old man had let you down.
Like a fool, I fell in love with you. Turned my whole world upside down.
was not the only rock classic in which Boyd inspired. She was earlier the subject of George Harrison’s classic Something on the Beatles Abbey Road album. Later, she was the “beautiful lady” in Eric Clapton’s standard, Wonderful Tonight. Patti Boyd is almost certainly rock and roll’s greatest muse.

            Walk Away Renee by the Left Banke just might be the quintessential pop ballad of the 1960s. Rolling Stone magazine ranks it as one of the top 200 songs of all-time. It is a recording so unique (featuring strings, harpsichord and a flute) that it helped to inspire a musical sub-category called “Baroque Rock.” And yet, as impassioned as the song comes off to the listener, it is not a traditional break-up song, but rather one written to prevent one of a different kind. In 1966, the band’s keyboardist and primary songwriter, Michael Brown, found himself falling hard for Renée Fladen, a young beauty who just happened to be the girlfriend of the group’s bassist, Tom Finn. A month after meeting his muse, Brown’s infatuation grew, prompting him to pen the now legendary, anguished song. In the chorus he begs her to “just walk away,” rather than allow her to come between him and his band-mate. Brown said of his unrequited feelings: "I was just sort of mythologically in love, if you know what I mean, without having evidence in fact or in deed. But I was as close as anybody could be to the real thing." Renée herself was said to be on hand in the studio during the recording of the song, and her presence left the songwriter frazzled. In an interview with, Brown stated: "My hands were shaking when I tried to play (the harpsichord), because she was right there in the control room. There was no way I could do it with her around, so I came back and did it later." Walk Away Renee went on to reach # 5 on the pop charts, and was later, famously covered by The Four Tops and Linda Ronstadt. The original is 2:48 of tormented pop music perfection.

Unreciprocated affection is the spark that ignited the 2007 chart-topper, Hey There Delilah by Plain White T’s. Written by lead singer, Tom Higgenson, the acoustic ballad is about a long distance couple who talk about their future plans of her finishing school and him becoming a famous guitar player. It was inspired by track and field athlete, Delilah DiCrescnzo, an Olympic hopeful when she met the songwriter in New York. In an interview with USA Today, Higgenson said: "I thought she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. I told her, 'I have a song about you already.' Obviously, there was no song. But I thought it was smooth." Delilah was, in fact, involved in a committed relationship. She made it clear that she was off limits. Still, the creative seed had been planted.  The band’s guitarist Dave Tirio explained: "I remember when we met Delilah back in the day. Tom was just kind of flirting with her and he was talking about writing a song about her and she responded by goofing around and saying ‘oh where is my song? I want to hear this thing.’ He got about four lines in and just writing about how she’d gone off to school and how much he missed her. Then he kinda spun that into what would you want to say to any girl in your life that you were totally head over heels for; all the things you would want to cram into one little conversation." The ballad slowly climbed the pop charts, eventually hitting # 1, more than a year after its release.  DiCrescnzo, the song’s muse told ESPN: “It’s catchy, melodic. It’s very romantic. It means something to everybody — especially for anybody who ever yearned for someone.” It was nominated for a pair of Grammy awards including Song Of The Year. Delilah attended the ceremony with Tom Higgenson. The song didn't win, and while it was technically their first date, Delilah made it clear that she was still committed to her boyfriend. No matter, this unrequited lust managed to inspire one of the biggest songs of the decade.

Yesterday by the Beatles is the most covered song in music history. Paul McCartney’s 1965 opus has been recorded by some 3,000 artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley to Placido Domingo. McCartney has often recounted that he composed the timeless melody in his sleep one night when living in the London home of his longtime girlfriend, Jane Asher. However, the lyrics are not about Asher, but rather about another great love which he lost many years earlier. Paul’s mother, Mary McCartney was a nurse and midwife; the primary earner in their household. She was on call for deliveries at all hours, and Paul has periodically expressed his memories of seeing her biking off to the hospital because the family did not own a car. Mary died from complications of breast cancer surgery in 1956. She was only 47. Paul was just 14. When informed of his mother’s death, young Paul’s initial reaction was cold and thoughtless. “What are we going to do without her money?” he asked his grieving father. These words, he says, still haunt him. In Yesterday he sings: “I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday,” a line of regret, wishing he could take back his youthful insensitivity. In 2013, Paul told Mojo magazine: “With 'Yesterday', singing it now, I think without realising it I was singing about my mum, because I think now, ‘Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say, I said something wrong…’ I think the psychiatrist would have a field day with that one.”

 I Will Always Love You may best be known for the
chart-topping rendition by Whitney Houston in 1992 for the film The Bodyguard. But this bittersweet song was actually composed by country legend, Dolly Parton in 1973. Like many great ballads, this one spotlights a parting of the ways. However, in this instance, it is not the separation of lovers that she sings of, but rather the dissolution of a professional partnership. Country music author Curtis W. Ellison stated that the song "speaks about the breakup of a relationship between a man and a woman that does not descend into unremitting domestic turmoil, but instead envisions parting with respect – because of the initiative of the woman." In 1967, country star Porter Wagoner gave an unknown Dolly Parton her big break by hiring her to appear on his weekly TV show. Over seven years, Dolly went from being Porter’s musical apprentice to an escalating star. In 1973, she elected to exit the show and forge a solo career. On her final episode, Dolly debuted her new song inspired by their platonic breakup and her mixed feelings at leaving her mentor behind. She told the CMT network: “It’s saying, ‘Just because I’m going don’t mean I won’t love you. I appreciate you, and I hope you do great, and I appreciate everything you’ve done, but I’m out of here. And I took it in the next morning. I said, ‘Sit down, Porter. I’ve written this song, and I want you to hear it.’ So I did sing it. And he was crying. He said, ‘That’s the prettiest song I ever heard. And you can go, providing I get to produce that record.’ And he did, and the rest is history.”

Sometimes, even the mundane, everyday tasks can provide good fodder for a song of heartbreak. In 1995, Alaskan folk singer, Jewel, burst on the music scene with the raw and sentimental, You Were Meant For Me. This song describes those early days after a breakup, when she attempts to go about her daily routine but cannot shake the doldrums of being alone. As Jewel makes breakfast, showers and dresses for the day, all she can think about is how empty everything is without the man she loves. The tune is haunting, yet peaceful, sung with great vulnerability to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar. Some of the most poignant lyrics are found in the song’s bridge:
I go about my business, I'm doing fine
Besides what would I say if I had you on the line?
Same old story, not much to say
Hearts are broken, everyday
I was probably 19 when I wrote You Were Meant For Me,” says Jewel to Songwriters Universe. “It was this naïve, sweet longing, and then you grow up and you actually fall in love, and you realize how hard it is and how much work it is. You start to realize that the difference between lust and love is that you actually stick around when it’s hard when you’re in love. You find that you can’t leave and the hard things seem worthwhile, and you’re actually able to find poetry in the daily struggle of building a relationship.” The song hit # 2 on the Billboard singles chart and was the most played radio song of 1996.

Of all the heartfelt ballads in pop music history, perhaps the most gut-wrenching of all is Without You, most famously sung by Harry Nilsson in 1971. It is the story of two lovers who have gone separate ways, and the singer proclaims that he “can’t live if living is without you.” Paul McCartney described it to VH-1 as "the killer song of all time." The verses were written by Pete Ham of the band Badfinger (inspired by his girlfriend at the time, Beverly Tucker). The chorus was composed by his band-mate, Tom Evans (about his future wife, Marianne). The two separate compositions, referring to real events in the songwriters' lives flowed together to create the song. Pete Ham had written a tune originally titled: If It's Love, but the chorus was lackluster. The second verse was written first.
"Well I can't forget tomorrow, when I think of all my sorrow, I had you there but then I let you go, and now it's only fair that I should let you know... if it's love."
Events in Evans' life would lead to the completion of the track. While on tour he had met the woman who would become his future wife, Marianne. One evening she ran off after an argument. He wrote a song called 'I Can't Live'. Its chorus: "I can't live, if living is without you, I can't live, I can't give any more.” And so the merging of the two songs created something exceptional. Ham's verses, warm, sweet and sentimental. Evans' chorus, intense, dramatic and heartbreaking. Both Ham and Evans said they did not consider the song to have much potential at the time Badfinger recorded it. Though the band would score several top-40 hits, this would not be one of them.

Harry Nilsson was best known in 1970 for his hit Everybody's Talkin,' from the movie, Midnight Cowboy. He heard Badfinger's recording of "Without You" at a party, and decided to cover it for his album Nilsson Schmilsson in 1971. The song was released as a single in October 1971, and it stayed at number 1 on the U.S. pop chart for four weeks. It features one of the rangiest male vocal performances ever recorded. His injection of all-out passion turned a good song into a great one. Mariah Carey's 1994 cover version is faithfully based on Harry Nilsson's emotional recording rather than the Badfinger restrained original. It reached number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Without You remains Carey's biggest hit across Europe. It became her first UK number 1 single. The ballad is a perfect storm of heartache and hopelessness, piano and violins blended together in a recipe of delicious sorrow. 

Gut-wrenching ballads have been written and performed through the decades by a wide array of tormented, talented artists. Whether folksy, piano driven, hard rocking, or tinged with country twang, all of these truly-inspired classics find a way to transport us to a place where melancholy never fails to tug hard on our heartstrings.

Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format. CLICK HERE TO ORDER YOUR COPY.

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