I met Van and another man at a party and though I was attracted to the other guy, I called Van. That’s how I did things in those days. I wrote lyrics, Van told me he wrote melodies, so when I suggested we get together and go over some material, Van invited me to his small duplex on the west side of Manhattan where he had his piano.
That first day, sitting on his couch, watching this tall guy with broad shoulders and curly brown hair play such wonderful melodies, I was happy. He looked like a cowboy, tall and lean, with his checked shirt and leather vest, his dark moustache, but an intellectual cowboy, his green eyes very alive. Years later, when I saw a film with Samuel L. Jackson, I thought they looked remarkably alike, except Van wasn’t Black.
That afternoon Van played a piece of music I liked, and I asked him to repeat it again and again. Then he made a tape of it. We agreed I’d call when I’d completed the lyrics.
“This melody is amazing. Can’t you hear Anne Murray singing it?” I said excitedly. Anne Murray had a hit out at the time. “We must know someone who knows someone who knows Anne Murray.” I didn’t even like Anne Murray.
“Why don’t we write the song first?” Van said.
We started meeting a few times a month and each meeting we would work on a new song. “This is terrific,” I said at our third or fourth meeting, about the melody and chorus. I got up to get a glass of water, all the while scribbling lyrics. Where was my glass? By the time we’d polished the song enough so I could sing the lyrics, I was bursting with enthusiasm. I grabbed another glass and poured more juice. “This is terrific,” I repeated. “Can you hear how great it is?”
Van lit another cigarette, inhaled deeply. “I like it,” he said. I continued scribbling, taking a break to get another glass from his cupboard for some coke to recharge me. When Van got up for a drink of water, he looked around at the drinking glasses scattered on every flat surface.
“Can’t you keep track of one glass for one afternoon?” he grumbled. “Do you need service for eight?”
Van smoked Marlboro cigarettes and drank coffee that he brewed in a Melitta drip. Woe be the day that he ran out of filters. He had to suffer the indignity of using paper towels to siphon out the grounds. He was often irritated, as if he’d never absorbed quite enough caffeine or nicotine to satisfy him.
But however different our personalities were, we liked working together. And when we both ended up living in Brooklyn, about seven blocks from each other, we met often and spent a good part of those days or evenings composing.
“Can you get me a turkey sandwich at the deli, while I work out this melody?” Van asked reaching in his pocket and handing me some money, after we’d been working for a few hours.
“You do good, Ninatchka, foraging for food,” he said, when I returned with our lunch.
His usual nickname for me, when he was relaxed and in a good mood, was Clallolle, a sort of Peter Sellers, quasi-French version of my first and middle name, Claire Lola.
“I feel like Nanook of the North coming back with the kill,” Van said one particularly snowy day, when he returned from the corner store with cigarettes, ground coffee, sandwiches and chips. “Here, Clallolle, some seal meat.”
We lived in our own windswept thoughts, trying to write something surprising and melodic, braving the elements.
Even though Van was the musician in our duo, I couldn’t help contributing what I thought of as my intuitive musical understanding.
“I like the melody here and here, but this part is drab,” I said as Van played a tune. “Can you go like this?” I asked and sang a few bars.
Van rolled his eyes. “You’re just going up the A scale,” he said irritably. “Leave the melody to me.”
When I came up with lyrics for the second stanza, Van played the piano and I sang.
“We can’t fit that many beats,” Van complained.
“Why can’t you squeeze in the words on the upbeat?” I suggested, gallantly showing him how it could be done. Didn’t Dylan squeeze in whatever words he wanted?
“Now you’re comparing yourself to Dylan?” Van groaned.
“Is one sound really so much more difficult to say than another?” I asked when he protested that my words were hard to pronounce.
When we got to the hook, I suggested a simple interlude between the two verses, citing a song on the radio.
“Sit down and let me work,” Van groaned.
To Van’s chagrin, I was adept at comparing myself to a wide range of songwriters, not only Dylan. When he complained one of my lines was too sentimental, I acidly replied, “Rogers thought Hammerstein was too sentimental too.”
“Do you always have to defend yourself?” Van asked.
Despite how irascible and prickly we were, we wanted to finish the song, but at the end of the long day, we were both too tired to continue.
Worn out and edgy from all the time spent in a smoky room drinking too much coffee, we were itching for a quarrel. It wasn’t hard to get one going. I asked Van for a cigarette.
“I have only two left.”
“So, give me one. See, smoking makes you selfish. You care more about a cigarette than about a friend.”
“For Godsake buy your own cigarettes,” Van said as he continued to smoke in front of me.
“I always knew you were selfish but this extent surprises even me,” I glared.
This sort of heartwarming and productive exchange would go on for a while until I left, but not before we made plans to get together the following day.
Once, when we were working late into the evening, I asked Van to walk me home.
“I’m not going to walk you home, Claire,” Van responded, testier than usual. “The neighborhood is safe. I’m sure nothing will happen.”
“Oh, you’re sure, are you? You want to take that risk?” I asked, furious.
“I’ll take that risk,” he assured me. “Call when you get to work,” he said offhandedly as I slammed the door.
Our friends thought we’d make money from our songs. I was already preparing my acceptance speech for the Grammy Awards ceremony. Who knew, if the songs were successful enough, I might be able to do what Carole King did and record an album of my own material. Was her voice so much better than mine?
“Yes,” Van informed me.
I wanted fame and money but writing songs was about more than that. Van played a melody and as the words began to formulate in my mind, I felt energy rise in the core of me. There is something primordial about singing. When my lyrics fit into Van’s melody and something beautiful evolved, a feeling of great happiness came over me.
I learned about rhythm and flow and sound from Van. Each finished song felt like success.
We decided to go into a studio and record several songs; we were each committed to spending what meager savings we had on this project.
Van had recently met a drummer who agreed to help us for free. The drummer knew a guitarist. A friend of mine said she’d play cello on the tape. We were looking for a singer whose voice would suit our material. When I suggested I could sing at least one of the songs we were planning to record, Van was incredulous.
“Claire, you want to spend my money and yours and go into a studio and sing our songs off key! You can’t be serious. You can’t carry a tune!”
How dare Van be so rude. I may not have always been able to hit every note, but didn’t I have soul, energy, that certain something? Janis Joplin didn’t always sing on key either, did she?
“Oh my God, now you’re comparing yourself to Joplin!”
Van suggested we record my singing on a little cassette player. After listening to the playback of my rendition, I could see he had a point. However, I was still convinced that studio reverb and double tracking could perform miracles on a voice like mine.
As luck would have it, I met a professional singer who also lived in the same building I did on Eastern Parkway. Beautiful, tall, slender Cheryl had already been on albums as a backup R&B singer. She had a gorgeous voice, perfect for our mix of soul, rhythm and blues, and pop.
Van and I congratulated ourselves on our good luck when Cheryl agreed to come over. He played a song once, after handing Cheryl the lead sheet. When he played the melody the second time, she sang the song perfectly, note for note. What a professional she was. We were ecstatic. If our songs didn’t sell with Cheryl doing the vocals, they never would.
We spent many sessions practicing together, and then we recorded several songs. I called a number of record companies to set up appointments with executives in charge of new material. Someone agreed to see us at Warner Brothers. A producer at RCA said he’d listen to our tape as well and we had an appointment with a talent scout from a small new label.
Most of our appointments followed a similar routine. Van met me in Manhattan, taking a break from work. We’d sit in the waiting room for twenty, thirty, forty minutes. By this time, I was brimming with anticipation, ever hopeful our big break was about to occur.
Finally, we were ushered into the office. The producers had names like Tommy Love, and Jeremy King. They spent fifteen minutes telling us about the latest hit record they’d worked on, or who they’d heard at the club the previous night, or which sexy woman had come on to them. We smiled and listened, waiting until they finally asked to hear our tape. They rarely listened to all the songs. Once a producer turned the tape off after listening for less than a minute. “You can’t use the word tantamount in a song,” he explained and handed us back the tape.
Burt, an executive from Sony Music, regaled us with stories which illustrated the fact that selling songs was a matter of luck. It seems that one of Roberta Flack’s musicians was playing a song his friend had written, as the band warmed up. Roberta came into the room while he was playing, listened, and asked him to play it again. It turns out the song was Killing Me Softly. We wondered how we could get an opportunity like that.
When I went to Paris on holiday for ten days, I looked up the French office of Sony and, without making an appointment, I showed up at the building, tape in hand. Although there was only one person who ran the office, a young woman, she must not have been busy because she agreed to listen. Many French musicians were singing songs in English, she assured me, and she was friends with some American singers as well. As she turned the machine on and Cheryl’s rich voice soared over the speakers, I was happy. I liked these songs.
So did the executive. She told me to leave the tape with her and she would try to place our material. I left the office floating, dreaming of our Paris debut. I rushed to a pay phone, after cashing a bill and filling my pockets with change. What time was it in New York? About 9:30 in the evening. I put change in the phone and dialed Van’s number.
“Van,” I said, when he picked up. “I’m calling from Paris. You won’t believe what just. . .” click. The line went dead. I put more change in the slot and called him back.
“Hi,” Van said again.
“I’ll make this quick,” I continued. “I actually got in to see someone at Sony. A young woman. She liked the tape. She is going to. . .” click. I’d run out of time again. These phone calls were expensive. I put in all the change I had left.
“What’s happening?” Van asked, annoyed when I called him a moment later.
“I didn’t put in enough change,” I said.
“You’re kidding!” Van said. “You’ve been doling out coins? I thought you were using some sort of Morse code.”
I never did hear back from the Paris office, though I tried calling several times after I returned to New York.
“Don’t you think Barbra Streisand could sing this?” I asked Burt during one of our meetings, once I was back to my New York sales mode. He was especially enthusiastic about this particular song and agreed it might be right for Barbara.
Burt sent it to her agent. The agent liked it and passed it on to one of her secretaries. It ascended the ranks, penetrating the inner circle that surrounded The Great One. Burt called to say a musician who worked with Streisand thought it was a very good song. But then, after several other people listened to it, her personal secretary decided it wasn’t for her. Van’s initial reaction was not as effusive as mine, nor was his disappointment as great. Although I’m sure he too had his dreams.
It occurred to me that we could be more ambitious, write a song cycle that explored various aspects of one story.
Van shook his head.
“It doesn’t interest you?” I asked.
“No, it doesn’t.”
“You know, when Rogers asked Hart to write lyrics for Oklahoma, the project didn’t interest him either. He didn’t think it would go anywhere. Just saying.”
Van said he would take the chance of missing out on an incredible opportunity that might not come again.
What caused a rift between us was, ironically, the success of one of our songs. It made it onto a Whitney Houston album that was massively popular. The problem was, it wasn’t our song exactly, but the lyrics in the hook and the melody were unmistakably ours. The credit, and the money, went to the person listed as the songwriter on the album. How could this have happened?
We called Burt and he did not return our calls. Had Burt passed it on to another songwriter without giving us credit?
We met with a lawyer who explained that it was difficult to prove that lyrics and a melody were stolen, and the fact that our song had not been recorded prior to the Whitney Houston album made the case even more challenging.
Yes, we argued, but we had a tape that was made in a studio prior to her album, and we had the lyrics and lead sheet mailed back to us in a sealed envelope, which proved when the song was composed.
“To fight a big record company, you need deep pockets. Sorry to have disappointing news,” our lawyer said.
Though we tried not to blame each other, our arguing mode kicked in. When Van noticed a listing of credits on one of Whitney’s albums, we both recognized the name of the woman from Sony Paris I’d given our tape to when I was in France. He thought she was probably the one who cheated us. He didn’t actually say it was my recklessness that caused the loss. But we stopped getting together.
I went to Vancouver on holiday shortly after our rift. My parents paid for my plane ticket out of sympathy. They wanted to boost my spirits. And it worked. I met my future husband in Vancouver. After traveling home and back for a few months, I moved there permanently. My first book of poetry was published in British Columbia a few years later. And perhaps the best gift, my two children were born here.
More than ten years passed when Van called to tell me he was coming to B.C. on his way to Hawaii and would love to visit. He was working for a radio station now. I invited him for dinner and to meet my husband and sons.
My husband knew about the Whitney fiasco, but my sons didn’t. And so, over dinner, Van and I revealed the details. It was all so long ago, it seemed like a bad joke. Even as I shrugged my shoulders, I remembered how much I loved writing songs with a composer as good as Van. Despite disappointments, the intensity and exhilaration of collaborating with a musician gripped me in a way that was unique and irreplaceable.
“So,” I said to my sons, “Van and I could have been rich and famous. We were that close.”
My oldest son was quiet for a few moments. Then he said, “Mom, if you became well known and made money from that record, you would have never come to Vancouver or met Dad or had us.”
Everyone was quiet. I could hear my heart beating. “That’s true,” I said. “Good point.”
“I learned a lot from writing songs,” I told him. “To this day I’m wary of the word “tantamount.” I laughed, “Though I still can’t curb my tendency toward grand dreams.” I started laughing again. “I type up dedications to books that I haven’t finished writing and conduct mock radio interviews in my head. But when I do these things now, I hear Van, saying, “Why don’t we write the song first, Clallolle?”
And then I burst into tears. I sat at the table with my family and with Van, filled to breaking with sadness and joy.
Carole Glasser Langille is the author of four books of poetry, two collections of short stories, two children’s books and a recent non-fiction book, Doing Time about giving writing workshops in prison. This is her first feature on The Fictional Café.