We have entered a political season in which just about everything seems to divide us from one another. Friends, here is a photo that depicts something upon which EVERYONE can agree. And that something is that Summer of ’69 is one of the greatest songs ever. And this guy’s the one who wrote it!
Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Jim Vallance!
Vallance visited New York City and came by to have lunch and talk songwriting. We hung out for hours just going over and over why that particular craft has yet to yield to algorithm (there have been attempts …) and why a perfect pop song might be evidence of the divine spirit at work.
Jim has been my acquaintance for about 20 years but only became a friend recently. The thing I love about Jim’s songwriting is his incredible flexibility. You already know his hits written with Bryan Adams – ’69, Run to You, Cuts Like a Knife, This Time, Heaven, It’s Only Love. You can tell how important Jim was to the partnership, because all of Bryan’s stuff during their feud is awful, even the hits All for Love, (Everything I Do) I Do It for You and especially Please Forgive Me, which is widely understood to be the worst song ever. (Seriously, you’ve got to wonder about what Mutt Lange brings to the table after he ruined The Cars, but I guess Highway to Hell and 4 and Back in Black stand the test of time…)
In any case, Vallance-Adams was a songwriting juggernaut. They wrote songs for Kiss and Bonnie Raitt in the same year! Jim wrote Now and Forever (You and Me) by Anne Murray and Edge of a Dream by Joe Cocker.
A decade ago, I mentioned to him that my single favorite Rick Springfield song is Kristina and he modestly told me, “Yeah, I wrote that one. It used to be called Jamaica and Rick asked me if he could change it to a girl’s name.” Jim wrote the mega hits Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone by Canadian popsters Glass Tiger and Rag Doll for Aerosmith. He also wrote Spaceship Superstar, which I am positive formed the basis for about half the songs that David Brent sings in The Office. That was for Prism, who had another great Jim song, Don’t Let Him Know – I think Jim played all the instruments on a couple of their records, too, but he’s super modest about this stuff. (Try to forgive him for rhyming lies/alibis.)
The way we became friends is that Jim used to have this amazing blog where he shared the story of how each song came to be. These included deeply personal revelations about how he and Bryan fell out (thank G-d they reconciled!) or about how the Romantics were total dicks when they came by for a songwriting workout.
Jim’s blog no longer lives. He told me that some sort of technical glitch brought the whole thing down, and he’s such an earnest person—again, he’s Canadian!—that I believe him. But I couldn’t help feeling when he told me that he actually took it down on purpose (or at least didn’t work too hard to get it going again). My antennae told me that what actually happened is Jim got a bunch of stuff off his chest and then, having done so, thought it was too mean or too revealing to leave out there in the wild.
Either way, the demise of that blog is such a shame — it really was amazing. He had lots of early demos of familiar songs and alt versions. There’s a podcast called Song Exploder where this guy in LA, Hrishikesh Hirway, sits with a different musician and tells the story of how a great song took shape. There’s also a really good book called Anatomy of a Song that details the creation of 45 great songs. For example, Smokey Robinson tells the story of My Girl and how he went in and Robert White, guitarist of the Funk Brothers, started walking around and playing the guitar lick that comes in after the bass starts. White says, “That’s not it,” and Smokey says, “My butt!” and insists he keep it. He says Berry Gordy gave him a $1000 bonus for writing it for The Temptations.
So anyway, I fell in love with Jim’s song stories long ago and we’d chat about politics and everything else. He explained at lunch how brilliant Stephen Harper is (always loved that guy) and it’s adorable how Jim is totally into Canada. He also had a very perceptive and merciful take on Bryan Adams, telling me that Bryan was so broke when they first met that he never had bus fare and then worked his ass off writing songs until finally Cuts Like a Knife hit. We talked about a ton of stuff and he had a million great stories.
But the best part is how proud of his son he is. Jimmy Vallance is half of Brooklyn electronic band Bob Moses. Just before our lunch, Bob Moses got a Grammy nomination.