Every now and then I go through one of these oddball phases when I listen to the same song over and over and over again. I’m not sure why it happens, but I’ll be driving along with my iPhone set on REPEAT, irking the hell out of any unfortunate souls in the passenger seat.
This happened not all that long ago, when I probably played “Separate Lives,” the Phil Collins/Mary Martin tune, a solid 15 times driving home from San Diego. There’s one particular moment in the jam (“Well, you built that wall … yes you built that wall …”) that gets me every single time, and I simply need to re-hear. And re-hear. And re-hear.
Anyhow, I tried reaching Martin for a Quaz, but she never responded. In the process, however, I was reminded that “Separate Lives” was actually penned by Stephen Bishop, one of the absolute all-time brilliant pop music writers. So I found his website, sent an e-mail … and here we are.
In case you don’t know, Stephen Bishop is The Man: Nominated for two Grammys and an Oscar; Songs in 14 films (including the legendary “It Might Be You” from “Tootsie”); Eighteen albums, a slew of songs on the Billboard charts. And now, he can add the ultimate gem—Quaz No. 304.
Stephen Bishop, welcome to the land of the Q&A legends …
JEFF PEARLMAN: I was watching a video of you the other day, and it was last year—you singing, “It Might Be You.” And I was wondering … that song is about 35 years old …
STEPHEN BISHOP: Let’s add it up. It actually came out and was a hit in 1983.
J.P.: So 34 years ago. After that many years, does it get boring singing a song? Can it still have meaning, or is it just by rote and it’s singing without thought?
J.P.: If you sing a song the 7,000th time, can you be singing it and thinking about what you have to shop for later in the night? Can your mind be 1 million different places because you’ve done it so often?
S.B.: Oh, yeah. Years and years ago I was with my first wife, may she rest in peace some day, and I thought it would be a wonderful thing for me to treat her on Valentine’s Day to Frank Sinatra at the Desert Inn. This was, like, 1990-something. So there was Frank Sinatra—the amazing singer, such a history. And we’re watching him, and his son was conducting him. And he was singing and he was going, “Wheeeeen somebody loves you …” and then he’d turn and yell at his son, “You’re not conducting right! This doesn’t sound right! What are you doing!” And then—“Alllllll thhhhheee waaaaay.” He’d sing and sound perfect. Then he’d turn and yell again—“You call that a string arrangement? I think not!” Then—more singing. It was really funny.
J.P.: Your big break was when a friend gave Art Garfunkel one of your songs. How did that happen?
S.B.: Well, I heard about Leah Kunkel as a singer because I saw her name on the back of Jackson Browne’s debut album. So I knew who she was and that she sang on his album. And I was seeing a friend of mine, James Lee Stanley, singing at McCabe’s in a show years and years ago. I was rushing in and I was late, and he told me he was going to do some of my songs. So I wound up sitting next to this person and I leaned over and I said, “Excuse me, has he sung any of Stephen Bishop’s songs?” And she said, “No, Stephen.” We became really close friends and great buddies. So Leah had recordings of mine, and her husband Russ was doing some drum stuff with Art Garfunkel in the studio. I think the year was 1975, and Leah gave him a cassette to give to Garfunkel. This was in the days of cassettes. So he wound up listening to the songs and really liking them. I wound up coming in, and I met him. When I first came in he was in the recording booth singing the “Disney Girls” song. And I was like, “Wow! There’s a superstar!” I was only 24 or 25.
J.P.: So to have your first song used … appreciated by someone you viewed as a superstar, what did that mean to you?
S.B.: Well, it turned into a friendship. A 40-year friendship. We’ve been friends all these years. He’s a different type of guy. You don’t know many people who are icons. He’s an icon, and an icon is a different kind of a person. It’s a whole different thing. Some people would say I’m an icon, but I don’t feel like I’ve achieved my icon status yet.
J.P.: Why do you say that?
S.B.: Because I have a lot more music in me.
J.P.: My kids listen to the radio all the time, and you’ll hear Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez and Twenty One Pilots … whatever. Maybe this is a dumb question, but why don’t you write songs for these people? Couldn’t you write Justin Bieber a really good song? Would you even want to write Justin Bieber a really good song?
S.B.: I would love to write with him. I listen to all that stuff. I listen to the radio every single day. I kid my stepson—he’s 15, and boy, he doesn’t like anything I like. And at that age, they’ve heard it all a million times before. So when you’re doing lyrics and melodies now, you can’t do stuff like, “I looove you soooo … eveeeerrry niiiight I think of making looove to yoooo.” That kind of song is so corny and it’s like a million years old. So he plays me the music he likes and it’s really different. It doesn’t have a lot of melody, or it has unpredictable melody.
J.P.: So if you wanted to write for the 21-year-old singer being heard now, would you have to change as a songwriter?
S.B.: A little bit. Yes, sure. It’s challenging. I’ve been working on this new song I want to get to my publishers to see if they can get somebody to record it. I mean, I had Beyonce sample one of my songs. In her last album—“Platinum Beyonce.” A song called “Ring Off.” She used the lick from “On and On” all the way through her song. And I thought it was going to be one of her singles. Talk about counting chickens—I had all my chickens counted. I thought it was going to be one of her singles. I was thinking that a single from Beyonce should be $400,000, $500,000. Oh, my god! What kind of boat will I buy? Then her mother, who the song is about, she divorced Beyonce’s father and she didn’t want the song out. It’s on the album, but it wasn’t a single.
J.P.: You still get paid, yes?
S.B.: Yeah. But airplay … once she’s on the radio with a good single, it’s a different thing. A wonderful thing.
J.P.: Do you like the modern music business? Clearly it’s about touring. You’re not going to sell albums. Apple Music makes everything downloadable for $10 a month. Do you find it dizzying? Do you like it?
S.B.: Now it’s … wow. It’s mostly appearances. Album-wise, I make a pittance now. I’m not complaining, and it goes up and down a bit. But what can you say? It’s not like the older days where … there were times … God, some of the airplay money I used to get from BMI, before they had everything changed. They had this rule put in where they stopped giving advances to people. But back then it was like, ‘Wow! The money!’ But it’s all gone now.
J.P.: I’m a 44-year-old sportswriter, and I find myself in this business feeling older and older. I go into a press box to cover a baseball game and a lot of the writers are in their 20s, and I think, ‘Fuck, I’m old.’ With music—when you look out into the audience, and it’s a bunch of people who are 60 who love “Tootsie”—does it make you feel old because people are still listening to your music? Or does it ever make you think, “Fuck, I’m old”?
S.B.: I do. I flash my mind to … we always go to the ASCAP Awards. And for years I’d go to see my friends, and everything would be great. In the last year, I didn’t recognize hardly anybody. And that’s kind of weird. But you know, you go around town here in LA and you see these restaurants you used to go to and now they’re chains. We used to go to the greatest Japanese restaurant, and now it’s something else. Weird. But it’s a part of life, right?
J.P.: The original reason I called you is because I went through a recent musical obsession with the song, “Separate Lives.” I’d drive and play it 10 times in a row, and I have no idea why. But I wanted to ask about that song. I consider it a great song. Truly great. But I wonder if you do, because you wrote the thing …
S.B.: When people ask me what’s the song of your career you’re proudest of, I say that’s the song. It was a really true song. At the time I had gone through this combination of things. That’s how I wrote it. I had been in touch with Taylor Hackford, and he gave me a brief concept of an outline of this movie [Jeff’s note: The exceptional “White Nights.”]. And at the same time I was going through this very big breakup with …
J.P.: Karen Allen, right?
S.B.: Ha. Yes, Karen Allen. It’s funny how all this stuff winds up coming out. You try and be classy and say, “With an actress,” but the power of Google. So we’d been together about 2 ½ years, and we had this romantic, young relationship and everything, and it was a tough one because I lived in LA and she lived in New York and we both shared a place in New York. We just had problems and she was being pursued by everybody she was making movies with. She was at her peak as a gorgeous thing, and guys from the movies—big stars—would call her trying to jump on her. And it all became part of that song.
I was with another actress—I was going through my actress thing. I was with Cindy Williams. Really funny and really cute and everything back then. After I broke up with Karen I started going with Cindy. She thought I was still with Karen and all this stuff. We wound up going to Italy and Cindy and I broke up in Venice. And then I called Karen thinking … I had been told by one of her friends she was still in love with me. Then she told me about this guy she was going out with and that was like the whole story right there.
J.P.: So is the song about Karen Allen?
S.B.: That, and the talk that I had with Taylor Hackford.
J.P.: I’ve heard two versions—the one you sing and the one Phil Collins and Mary Martin sing. How do you feel when you have someone else sing a song that you love … and they put their own imprint on it. As a songwriter do you like that, or does it pain you?
S.B.: Well, I’ve had my songs sung by quite a lot of people. You’ve seen my bio. I’ve had songs by Pavarotti, Eric Clapton, the O’Jays …
J.P.: Do you ever disapprove with a song and the way it’s done?
S.B.: Oh, yes. To tell you the truth, I think Barbra Streisand is one of the most amazing singers of all time. I’m a big fan—her “Lazy Afternoon” album is one of my favorites of all time. But she wound up doing my song, “One More Night,” and she really just threw it away. She didn’t do a proper version of it.
J.P.: She didn’t put enough into it, or she did it poorly?
S.B.: It was not a sensitive version. She could have done it amazing. But, no, it wasn’t a good version.
J.P.: Your new album “Blueprint” has a song with Eric Clapton. How did that happen?
S.B.: He played on my first album in 1976, “Careless.” We stayed friends. I stayed at his castle in England a few times. We became really good pals. I was staying there and Phil Collins invited me to come to his wedding. I stayed at Eric’s place, and at one time I went down to the study and Eric said, “Hey Bish, I have an idea for a song. Wanna write it, man?” I said “OK, what’s it called?” He said, “Holy Mother.” So I said, “Sounds interesting.” So I went upstairs and wrote a big chunk of it. Then he wrote stuff with it. He changed some things, made it more his own. And this version on my new album “Blueprint” is kind of my version of it. We wrote the original in 1984.
J.P.: When you record a 23-year-old song, do you have to change it for the times?
S.B.: I think so. I don’t think of myself as a 70s artist or an 80s or 90s artist. I’m an artist. And I exist for all time. I’m still doing it. And I just want people to listen and give me credit.
J.P.: Is it more about sales, or just people listening?
S.B.: It’s all about sales. Right now it’s all about sales. Making a good living. I just celebrated my 50th anniversary in show business. I still feel good. I still feel I can hold up.
J.P.: You appeared in a bunch of John Landis movies, including “The Blues Brothers.” What do you remember from that?
S.B.: When you asked that, right away I thought of when they were filming, and I was in John Landis’ … we were friends. We met the day of the LA earthquake in 1971. Through a friend. And we became really great friends, and so he had already done his first movie. So in “Blues Brothers” I was in the trailer watching … it was at night and they were filming outside. And I was watching the movie “Holocaust” on TV. The one with Meryl Streep. And I was really affected by it. And I thought, “This is really heavy.” I was feeling all emotional. And Belushi comes in like a bull in a china shop and he’s just stomping down the hall. And he throws me down onto the couch in the trailer and he kind of snickers—Heh-heh-heh—and he goes to the bathroom. And I said, “Fuck you!” I was really upset because I was in this kind of mood and I felt really terrible for these people. So I stormed out of the trailer and I walked around. And there was a huge mall there we were gonna trash, and I walked around for hours. And finally his gopher grabs me and says, “Hey, man, I’ve been looking all over for you. Belushi feels terrible.” Then he apologized to me later. From that experience, he apologized every time he saw me after that. He always apologized and always felt bad. He had two sides. He had this real jerk side and kind of a weird guy. And then he had this real generous little kid side.
J.P.: Do you have a process for writing a song?
S.B.: Usually I write from titles. I really like titles. I need titles. I just need titles. It gives me something to center on. It’s how I’ve pretty much always written. I’ll see somebody and they’ll say, “Your nose looks strange.” And the next thing I know I’m singing, “Yooouuurreee noooosseee looookkks strrraannge.”
J.P.: Wait, so you’ll come up with a title before you’ll know what the song is about?
S.B.: Um, yeah. I need a title.
J.P.: Like, ‘Cardboard Boxes in the Rain”—you need that?
S.B.: I mean, if I hear something that’s a really good line I write it off to the side. But mostly, yeah, I need a title. Sometimes I’ll use titles that I decided not to write a song on and I’ll put that in the verse. But more often than that, I need a title.
J.P.: Are you a different songwriter now than you were 30 years ago? Better? Worse? Different?
S.B.: I think you have highs and lows in your songwriting career. There was a time when I was writing all the time. Like 10 songs a month, but most of them were really weird, like “There’s a Hair in Your Enchilada,” and “Beer Cans on the Beech” and “She Took All My Kumquats.” Weird songs. And I’m kind of like … I sometimes I feel like I don’t get appreciation as far as being the real thing for a songwriter. I’m like the guy who actually came to LA in an old car when I was 18-years old and walked around Hollywood until I got a song publisher deal and made $50 a week. Lived on $50 a week for like three years, riding a bicycle. My dad wouldn’t co-sign insurance for a car.
J.P.: Why did you want it so badly?
S.B.: I guess partially because it was really the only thing I could do. I did some jobs and stuff where I broke things or crashed cars. They made me realize this was pretty much the main thing I could do. And I’d stick to that. I’m not very good at a lot of other stuff. I can do voiceovers and stuff. I’m trying to get more work doing that. I’ve done some work doing that. It’s fun. But I don’t know. The entertainment world these days is a tough one.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH STEPHEN BISHOP:
• Five all-time favorite male singers: Right away I would say No. 1 is a tossup .. the thrill I get would be John Lennon in his early Beatles days, like when he sang “Bad Boy” and when he sang “I am the Walrus.” To me that was phenomenal singing. But also, Frank Sinatra. He’s second. He’s mind blowing. Three I guess would be Sam Cooke. I mean—there’s a line in one of my songs, “There’s a little bit of Sam Cooke in everyone.” All us singers picked up something from Sam Cooke. Four, I guess, would be a tossup between Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger. And Kenny Rankin ranks in there somewhere. Some would say, “Where is Elton John?” I was never a big Elton John fan. But you know who I forgot? Marvin Gaye. What a great singer.
• My wife and I debate Elton John vs. Daryl Hall: You know what’s weird? When Elton John first came out, I thought it sounded like Jose Feliciano. Isn’t that weird? Some of his delivery is like Jose Feliciano.
• What’s the strangest song you’ve ever written?: I have this one song that’s really funny called “The Farts.” I wrote it when I was 15. It goes like this: “What by yonder window breaks/Me lady makes a fart. Her husband says for goodness sakes/When she tells him it’s an art …”
• How are you feeling about President Donald Trump?: Oh, boy. There’s a question. It’s just so hard to say how you feel now. So I’ll say this—no matter what, it’ll come off like … the way I feel, it’s all going too fast. I think they should slow down a little bit.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash?: Not totally. But I’ve had some good scares, sure. The time I went to the Dominican Republic. That was like a ride from another planet. That was so bumpy.
• I’m 44 and I’m taking piano for the first time. Why is it so much harder for me than my kids?: It’s easy for children to adapt. They’re so geared to learning at that age. They’re all about learning. Every day they learn something new. We’re all learned up. I think that’s very bold. I lot of people think I play piano. I can’t play a note, really. I’m terrible. I have a beautiful grand piano and it sits there. I’m a guitar player. Have since I was 13.
• How’d you meet your wife?: We were in this tea place. I had some coffee earlier in the day and it upset my stomach. I was in there and she was behind me. I asked her if she knew of a tea that helps your stomachache or something. It’s really stupid.