Sunday 23 Oct 2016

A Dubious Legacy
David Simmonds

I looked at my SOCAN statement this week. I didn't know it would create emotional turmoil.

SOCAN is the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada. It collects royalties for music composers from performances of their work, at rates established by a federal agency. After I began writing songs a few years ago, a friend advised me to register with SOCAN to establish copyright of my songs. That way, if some scoundrel from Nashville heard one of my songs, say, on the Amherst Island Community radio station, and retooled it as a massive hit for Porter Wagoner and Tammy Wynette, I would have some evidence to show when I created the work. It's a 'just in case' proposition: pretty much the same scenario as when our mothers told us to start off each day with clean socks and underwear 'just in case' we ended up in hospital having to disrobe. 

I dutifully registered with SOCAN and every so often catalogued a few songs. So far, it's been an effective threat. Nobody has dared to steal any of my songs to pass off as their own.

The royalty front has been completely silent as well. So imagine my surprise last week when my pal, Mark Despault, a Frere Brother, mentioned to me that he had heard “that song about crackers in bed” on CBC “Galaxie.” He was no doubt referring to my less-than-classic, “What Buddha told Leonard Cohen,” which contains the punch line “never eat chips in bed.”

The next day, I checked my SOCAN account online, and lo and behold, found that this and another song had received radio play in 2009 and 2010, earning me, wait for it, 42.96 in royalties. Not enough to warrant distribution, of course, but a four figure, all right, two figure plus decimal digits, sum nonetheless.

My initial reaction was to be overjoyed. After all, when I started writing music a few years ago, it seemed like a personal triumph just to complete a son. It was like winning an Oscar, if someone else wanted to sing it.

Then a more negative reaction began to creep in. It really wasn’t very much money at all. Especially, if you consider that in the last few days superstar Justin “Omigoshesocute” Bieber raised $40,000 for the donation of a lock of his hair. Singer, Nelly Furtado, disclosed, rather belatedly and sheepishly, that she had several years ago received $1 million for a 45-minute performance for Colonel Muammar-el-Qaddafi. If I were going to be in the game, I was destined to be a benchwarmer, unless I did something about it.

I thought briefly about seeking commercial success, and penning a popular hit with no intrinsic merit, together with a music video showing me pretending to talk through my song while holding a drink, derisively pointing my finger at the camera and pretending to be indifferent to the lascivious gestures of a gaggle of women with ample gluttei maximi. I decided I couldn't pull that off. I'm just not into finger pointing.

I also considered asking Sir Elton John whether he would like to work with me to develop a full stage musical version of “Chipmunk Strut.” After all, long before his knighthood, he penned "Crocodile Rock." We had animal songs in common; and he as probably looking for a way to build on the critical success of his score for the "Billy Elliott" show in order to sustain his legendary appetite for floral arrangements and sunglasses. Fear of rejection outweighed my drive for greater success.

More than that, I began to worry that the two songs that generated the royalties, to say it gently, were not how I envision my legacy. Chips in bed were bad enough. The other piece was a song entitled “Chipmunk Strut.” It starts,

Hey how are ya, I’m a chip - munk

Im a livin’ in a chip - bunk.

Hardly stirring stuff, but a money machine, I am sure.

Two images came to mind. One was of Hugh Grant, in the movie, “About a Boy,” playing an adult layabout who lived off the avails of his father’s wildly successful Christmas song, “Santa’s Golden Sleigh.” He didn’t cope very well with the fact that complete strangers would come up to him and with big goofy grins sing a few lines of the song into his face. Was I setting my son up for the same ignominy? The second was of false friends at my funeral reception, muttering and laughing words to the effect of "well, at least his songs earned enough to cover the pizzas at his wake."

What could I do about it? I could hardly just go back home and dash off a first cousin to “Imagine” or “Blowin’ in the Wind.” I would have done it already if life worked that way.

My worries eventually dissipated. Why should I consider myself a failure because there is no market for my fingernail clippings and Robert Mugabe isn't offering me a dictator's ransom to entertain him for half an hour? If my musical legacy is to make a few people smile, that's still a positive. In any case, few if any of us get to make a physical legacy that represents us completely: most of us leave a few shards that describe us haphazardly. We rely on the integrity of the memories of our friends and families to remember the whole of us.

As for my accumulating SOCAN account balance, I think I’ll just ask them to hold on to it and let the interest compound. It's a reminder that, while you can get ridiculously rich it you hit the crest of a popular culture wave - like Justin “Omigoshesocute” Bieber and Nelly Furtado - most of the time you'll be challenged just paying the rent and feeding the family. I admire the courage of people who determine to make the performing arts their livelihood. To talented young music professionals-to-be from the County, such as Tony Silvestri, Katie Shannon and Gavin Massey, to name only three: I hope you pass my SOCAN career stats in no time flat or sharp. You're naturals. 

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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