Tommy Tutone’s version of the truth about 867-5309 and why we write songs anyway
Tommy Tutone had some story about a girl he knew who had a studio with that number or something like that. They needed a story because they were out in public, fielding questions about the name and number. It pissed me off when VH1 ran a show recently about the song and made that story out to be the truth, though. They came down and interviewed me in Nashville, and I told them the story the way it happened. But they liked the other version, Tommy Tutone’s version. VH1 even claimed that Jim came to me to finish the song he’d started! It just goes to show you: don’t trust what you hear just because it’s on TV or the radio. The reality wasn’t interesting enough to be told true. A plum tree under a spring sky. My version should have been that Jenny was a six-foot-six black transvestite prostitute who smuggled coke for Oliver North and the CIA. The number was tattooed on the inside of her/his/its thigh.
The truth: It’s a rather amorphous and vague song about a weird guy in a stall fantasizing about a good time. And it’s got a hook a first-time fisherman could catch a great white shark on.
Who’d have dreamed what would happen with this song? It wasn’t even supposed to be on Tommy Tutone’s record. It wasn’t going to be a single, I’ve been told. It snuck out on the radio and stations got flooded with calls requesting it. It has had legs that have carried it—and me—many years down the road, and it looks to go a way further.
Maybe the secret is just to have good time and not worry about the end result so much. We writers try to do that every day. We always start our sessions telling each other that we’re done compromising, we want to write something great. But by the end of the day, we’ve acknowledged that radio wouldn’t touch this phrase, publishers would ax this line, or singers wouldn’t sing that word. So we usually don’t let the 867–5309/Jennys even live and breathe. They become 555-5555/Jennifers. They become Because I Love You. They turn into In the Heat of the Night. It’s hard to imagine this song being written in Nashville or L.A. today, that’s for sure. Or maybe it’d get written, but it wouldn’t get on a record. There are too many people going over the songs with a fine-tooth comb nowadays. Every word is scrutinized, challenged, and second-guessed, often by people who have never written a hit song in their lives.
Let’s talk about songwriting for minute. Why do we write songs anyway? I think that for those of us who don’t approach writing as industry—I hate the phrase the “music industry.” What is it, factories belching out crappy songs? I guess there is that aspect, isn’t there?—it’s a genetic or karmic compulsion. I grew up with music, but I didn’t write my first song until I was eleven. The skies are cloudy and gray, it’s a good time for goin’ away… Once I did that, the floodgates opened. I don’t write for other people. I barely write for myself. It’s not that conscious. I don’t set about to craft a song or a novel; the ideas carry me away in a sudden, unstoppable flood. It’s just something I do; it’s always been inside of me. The process of creation fires off endorphins in the writer and (we hope) in the audience as well. There is fantastic joy in the intensity of the doing. We play music, we don’t work music. People get that. That’s why we listen to music. The places music takes us can be fun, sexy, heartbreaking, or profoundly spiritual. Music is about us and for us.
I think that in the earliest human societies there were Cro-Magnons around the cave who told stories and sang and danced, just as there were shamans, liars (sometimes one and the same), great hunters, drunks, and regular working people. The singers and storytellers told the tale of the people for the people and for themselves. Music and art seems to come from somewhere else, somewhere outside the person. That’s why ancient people believed there were muses of music, dance, singing, storytelling, sculpting and so forth. Perhaps the muses exist. I’m a prove-it-to-me mystic, so I’ll have my suspicions. Creativity certainly feels like a gift. It’s tempting to believe in reincarnation. That would explain why we can sing and tell stories: we’ve heard it all before. One thing seems clear: people need music and stories. I have heard that the aboriginal people of Australia “sing” the world and the beings and places in it into existence with their songs. I can see that.
Say it for me, say it for me
Say it ‘til we understand the meaning
Remembering the feeling of a simple life…
I am not a studied songwriter. There are songwriting students by the millions, some of whom are very great writers. They can tell you who wrote what song and which songs are on what records and all that in thrilling detail. I’m not one of them. I’m just a guy who has heard songs at various times that have turned me on. Lots of songwriters talk about their folkie roots, James Taylor and such. Those writers can fingerpick. They write clever lyrics. Many of them are much more accomplished than I would be if I had five lifetimes to devote to music. If there’s anything I’ve studied all these years, it is world history. I just listened to the radio when I was kid and then was lucky enough to have buddies who found out about cool old music.
Everybody has a Top Ten list of this or that—books, movies, songs. My Top Ten songs are:
What I say
Walk Away Renee
You Really Got Me
Johnny B Goode
Long Distance Love
Subterranean Homesick Blues
Turn On Your Lovelight
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow
Number eleven would be a whole bunch of country songs like Nothin’ But the Wheel, Pocket Full of Gold, The Race is On, Mama Tried, Ring of Fire. Too many great ones. Number twelve would be a zillion other songs I’ve loved—let’s not forget Bob Marley and the Wailers, Latin music, Gypsy music, Mark Knopfler. Number thirteen would be the infinity of horrible, calculated songs that I’ve been stuck with thanks to the “music industry.” But my Top Ten are all songs that influenced my songwriting, or were reflections of what I already had in my musical pocket. They just said it better than I could.
I like raw music that hits the gut. I love the early rock-n-roll guys like Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, who would go out there and rip it up with just a guitar and an amp. Roll Over, Beethoven. 867–5309 is a bit like that, thank goodness. I also like music said something about the state of humanity, which is so sadly underdeveloped at this late date in history. Lennon, Dylan, Marley. Imagine. Blowin’ in the Wind. No Woman, No Cry.
And that’s the Truth….