Book Review: Carole Bayer Sager – They’re Playing Our Song

book-large-1Carole Bayer Sager

They’re Playing Our Song – A Memoir

Simon & Schuster

available now for pre-order/publication October 18

Not many people can write one of the greatest songs of the decade, first time out.

Nor can they follow it up with… one of the best love songs of the following decade; one of the finest movie themes of the decade after that; and the most enthralling Bond theme of all time.  Oh, and one of the most accurate break-up songs ever.

Plus some 400 others which include sundry Oscar and Grammy winners, movie themes, musical hits, superstar jaunts, breathtaking collaborations and much, much more.

Carole Bayer Sager, for it is she, admits she is not one of rock and pop’s most instantly identifiable heroes; towards the end of her autobiography, she relives her experiences as a guest judge on American Idol via the messages posted on a fan website afterwards.  Most of them described her as a badly Botoxed Joan Collins lookalike and admitted, they had “no idea who Carol Bager Sayer” is.

Well, and in case you’re still wondering about our first two paragraphs, she’s the New York lyricist who co-wrote “Groovy Kind of Love,” “When I Need You,” the theme from Arthur, “Nobody Does It Better” and “You’re Moving Out Today.”  Plus a bunch of others with Toni Wine, Marvin Hamlisch, Burt Bacharach, Bob Dylan, Peter Allen, Bette Midler, David Foster, Carole King and Carly Simon.

Who had three songs recorded by the Monkees.

Who collaborated with Michael Jackson, who was best friends with Elizabeth Taylor, and who went on a teenaged date with Paul Simon, during which they spent the whole time arguing over who was first to use the word “groovy” in a song title.  Carole won, by the way.

Her autobiography is a fair size, a fast read, and a thoroughly enthralling tale.  Relatively non-performing songwriters tend not to live the kind of lives that attract too much media attention, but that’s not to say they spend their whole time locked in a garrett, leafing through the rhyming dictionary.  Or, at least, Bayer Sager didn’t.

She doesn’t name drop, but there’s a lot of names getting dropped regardless – she calls up David Geffen with the same vague “I think I’ll…” as you or I might ring for a pizza.  She drops by Elizabeth Taylor’s house because she happens to be passing; she calls Michael Jackson down to guest on a song she’s recording for her own new album; and when her friends set her up on dates with eligible bachelors, it’s never with the guy down the road who looks kinda cute, it’s with the head of Warner Brothers Pictures.

The Paul Simon anecdote is the book’s first laugh out loud moment, following on from a lot of smirk-quietly ones; but it’s not the last.  Likewise, did you know that Leonard Cohen owns a piece of “When I Need You” (a huge hit for Leo Sayer in 1977), after detecting elements of his “Famous Blue Raincoat” flapping around Albert Hammond’s melody?

It’s little things like that which give the book its flavor.  While Bayer Sager is unflinching in discussing her teenaged neuroses and a complicated mother; ultimately failed relationships with Hamlisch and Bacharach; and a host of other personal details, she’s at her most enthralling when she details the writing process – which you’d never imagine could be so gripping.

Sitting in a rundown barn five feet from Dylan, trying to squeeze her own lyrics in around those that her collaborator is spilling out so fast.  Waiting to drop her first line in while Bacharach pauses, ponders and prevaricates at the piano, before heading off to work out for a while, and then take an age to consume a quick snack.

And listening with mounting amazement while Bette Midler outlines all the things that are wrong with Bayer Sager’s older songs – “why do you always use the same words when you write your songs?  …Why don’t you ever bother to find new words?  You’re lazy.”

To which Bayer Sager tries to formulate a suitable response, but Midler won’t hear of it.  Instead, she opens a book at random, and reels off the kind of words that Bayer Sager ought to be using.  “Curious.  Iconic.  Dangling.  Branches.”

Bayer Sager tries to change the subject.  She was there to write songs, so why don’t they do that?  “Let’s write a song about someone who’s breaking up with their boyfriend.”

Midler exploded.  They weren’t there to write “some sad break-up song like you always write.  Let’s throw the moron out of the house.”

And so they did, with a lyric that not only cataloged all the bizarre and unusual items that the exiting ex- could take with him (including, but not limited to Spanish flies, old tie-dyes, funny cigarettes, sixty-one cassettes, old day-glos, a rubber hose, baby fat and a mangy cat), but also loaned itself to some positively obscene rewrites among teenaged listeners of the day.  For the result, “You’re Moving Out Today,” gave Midler a middling US hit, and Bayer Sager a monster UK smash.  And it still sounds fabulous today.

This aspect of They’re Playing Our Song does peter out towards the end, as Bayer Sager places songwriting in her past and looks for other diversions – painting occupies her for a few years, but she really only talks about it for a handful of paragraphs; she’s involved in various philanthropic occupations, but again, she skims over them as well.

Happily married for a quarter of a century, with children and grandchildren, you get the feeling that she wrote this book simply because she needed to be doing something… in fact, she admits it when she says that the key to her artistry is the need to do “something creative every day.”

What she’ll do now this book is finished is anyone’s guess. But even if she disappears into utter obscurity, her contribution to rock and pop history will never be overshadowed.

One of the greatest songs of the sixties; one of the best love songs of the seventies; one of the finest movie themes of the eighties; the most enthralling Bond theme of all time.

Some of the most simplistically pleasing couplets of the age…  “it’s cold out, but hold out, and do like I do….”  “anytime you want to, you can turn me onto, anything you want to, any time at all”… it ain’t Shakespeare but it’s pure, pure pop.

Plus this song and that song and so many other songs; she even wrote the standard that titles her memoir as well.

Just one criticism, and it goes back to “You’re Moving Out Today.”

“Your nasty habits ain’t confined to bed

“The grocer told me what you do with bread….”

Well, what does he do?

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