Understanding Arthur Alexander

Arthur alexander

Nothing kills the enjoyment of music for some people faster than trying to analyze it. But I’m obsessed with solving the mystery of Arthur Alexander. His body of work is small. His songs are musically and lyrically simple, even simplistic. Almost nobody but the most dedicated music lovers remember his name today. Yet he was the only songwriter to win pop music’s Triple Crown: His songs have been covered by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, arguably the three most respected songwriting acts in rock and roll history. Dusty Springfield, Ry Cooder, Roger McGuinn, and dozens of others1sang them too.

I’ve been wondering about these tunes for 45 years now, since I was ten years old. Maybe I’m getting closer to understanding them, But I’m not there yet. After all, his chord progressions were basic. His lyrics seem banal on paper: “Every day I have to cry some/wipe the water from my eyes some.” “Oh my name is Johnny Heartbreak …” “Me and Frank were the best of friends …” But by at least one objective measure – the artists who covered him – he was the greatest rock songwriter who ever lived. Subjectively, his best songs are impossible for me to resist as a listener and indescribably rewarding to sing.

So who the hell was this guy, and what made him so good?

He had a brush with R&B stardom as a singer, but really made his name as a songwriter in the 60’s. Yet even after the Beatles and Stones covered him he had trouble collecting royalties. He lived out the next 25 years as a bus driver, interrupted only by one small hit in the 70’s. Then he then enjoyed a brief comeback in 19932 before dying suddenly.

I was first introduced to Alexander, like many of my generation, by the Beatles’ cover of “Anna.” That track is a great reminder that, before he went on his odyssey from musician to activist to martyr to Apple icon, John Lennon was one of the great rock and roll singers. Alexander’s songs lean to melodrama, and Lennon milks this one for all it’s got. Alexander’s simple vocal patterns leave singers a lot of room to fill the space, and Lennon's able to pull out tricks Alexander hinted at in his original recording, like the Buddy Holly-ish pseudo-yodels that punctuate the bridge (“oh-oh-oh-oh …”)

That’s one of Arthur Alexander’s secrets: His lean song structures make them a pleasure to sing. And his recordings provide suggestions rather than instructions. Where other writers fill every measure with musical and lyrical acrobatics, Alexander’s are spare frames singers can hang their hearts on.

Emotionally, each song has a story arc. If you wrote songs using the Syd Field screenwriting method they’d turn out a lot like Alexander’s. They’re three-minute mini-operas full of conflict and resolution. Take “You Better Move On,” which the Rolling Stones covered in 1964: A poor boy’s talking to his wealthier rival, and he humbly admits he can never give his love the good things he wants her to have. But then he turns on his competitor … “I’ll never let her go,” he says, “I love so.” Then the air fills with tension. “I think you better go now,” he says quietly, “I’m getting mighty mad.” Soft-spokenness can be more menacing than a raised voice, and Arthur Alexander knew that.

Sound corny? Lame? Yeah, maybe. But listen to this cover by Mr. Ironic Distance himself, Randy Newman (before Newman launches into his own “It’s Money That Matters” ):

There’s no distancing in Newman’s performance or Mark Knopfler's accompaniment, no sense of anything but the drama in each moment. That’s the best thing about Arthur Alexander’s songs: They’re irony-proof.

The best AA songs underscore their emotional shifts by staying in a pretty narrow melodic range on the verses to build tension, then going much higher on the bridge to increase emotion, and finally going back to the original melody but in a resolved emotional state. Alexander probably picked up some of these tricks by singing country music. Singing open-hearted C&W tunes like “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight” probably gave him a feel for these techniques.

But that’s still not the whole story. What’s missing?

Manfred Clynes might have a clue, but his research is controversial. Clynes, a classical pianist turned research scientist, believes that musicians who play a composer’s music – even in their heads – reproduce a distinct biological pattern for each composer. Not for each piece – for each composer. He goes so far as to say of Rudolf Serkin, one of his test subjects: We asked him to think Beethoven, and he would think Mozart. But we could tell by looking at the printout. So he cooperated, and we got the same shapes. That was probably the most exciting moment of my life.”

Is that it? Is there a neurological “Arthur Alexander signature,” common to all of his work? Or is it something else? But Alexander has his share of weak tunes, too, ones that don’t convey the same power. Where is his signature in songs like “Genie in the Jug”? (As an aside, I went to school with Manfred Clynes’ kids. I performed in San Francisco's Coffee Gallery in North Beach with his son Darius in 1971 or so – along with past and future luminaries like Wavy Gravy, Peter Case, and the notorious and flirtatious drag queen who called herself “George.”)

Daniel Levitan’s book The World In Six Songs suggests that one evolutionary role music has played is to convey emotion more accurately than speech. That could be useful, for example, in convincing a competing tribe that you’re sincere about peace. Says researcher Ian Cross: “… let’s imagine the possibility of access to a parallel system of affiliation, unity, bonding. And … one that conveys an honest signal – a window into the true emotional and motivational state of the communicator.”

Whew. That’s a lot of academic-sounding verbiage to quote about the guy who wrote “the rain falls around me/loneliness has finally found me/and I’m in the middle of it all.” But we might be on to something now: sincerity. Arthur Alexander’s songs come, open-handed and seeking peace, like an emissary from the other side. I trust their emotion. I have since I was a little boy, and I will until I die. He couldn’t structure a melody like Stevie Wonder, or write a lyric like Bob Dylan. But his songs made me trust him. They made me trust the person singing. They made me trust the song.

Forget all the analysis: They made me want to sing.


1The Internet’s filled with claims that Elvis Presley and the Who also covered Alexander, but that’s wrong. As far as I can tell they covered songs that Alexander sang but didn’t write. You just can't trust that Internet …

2A collection of Arthur Alexander tracks recorded around this time, Lonely Just Like Me (Halftone), is one of the best introductions to his work.