Tales from the Rocking Chair songsmith – in conversation with Dean Friedman

The Dean: US singer/songwriter Dean Friedman, gearing up for his SongFest

The Dean: US singer/songwriter Dean Friedman, gearing up for his tour and next SongFest engagements

While four decades have passed since Dean Friedman’s biggest UK hits, admittance of a liking for him in trendy circles often remains reserved to cautious whispers here and there.

But Dean’s hip stock rose with the inclusion in 1987 of a certain song on Half Man Half Biscuit’s second album, Back Again in the DHSS, this master singer-songwriter yet self-confessed guilty pleasure becoming something of a cult hero.

And the 63-year-old who brought us ‘Lucky Stars’ and ‘Lydia’ in 1978 and his big US hit, ‘Ariel’ the year before, was again seen in a different light after respectful nods from luminaries such as Ben Folds and The Barenaked Ladies. That said, as Half Man Half Biscuit’s Nigel Blackwell warned, ‘The light at the end of the tunnel is the light of an oncoming train.’

He clearly moves in influential circles to this day, Dean’s latest tour including his second UK SongFest, two songwriting masterclasses involving, among others, Squeeze lyricist and past WriteWyattUK interviewee Chris Difford, former Bible frontman Boo Hewerdine, and folk singer/comic Richard Digance.

As he put it, “A good song is like a combination time machine and transporter device; with nothing but a handful of words and melody, it creates an instant universe capable of transporting the listener into another dimension, immersing them in a vivid, virtual world, filled with humour, beauty, pathos and joy. And every one of the incredible songwriters performing at SongFest does just that, in their own unique and wonderful way.”

Dean was over last year too, celebrating 40 years in the business with a sold-out tour and digitally-remastered re-release of 1978 LP, ‘Well, Well,’ said the Rocking Chair. And now he’s back, performing solo – on guitar and keyboards – and featuring songs from throughout his recording career, up to most recent fan-funded studio album, 12 Songs. And this year also marks his 16th appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

In addition to his familiar radio hits, album releases and regular concert runs, he’s written and produced several children’s musicals, composed TV and film soundtracks – including jingles and the music to ITV drama Boon (1987/95) – and wrote The Songwriter’s Handbook, based on his on on the secret workshops and masterclasses around the world.

I found him at home in upstate New York, ‘about an hour north of Manhattan’, his between-tour base for the past 30-plus years, and started out by suggesting his major schedule will see him away a long time in 2019.

“It’s funny. I do a little gigging in the United States, but for whatever reason the bulk of my touring circuit is in the UK and Ireland. It’s a little bit of a schlepp, but the audience make it worthwhile.”

UK Breakthrough: 1978's 'Well, well,' said the Rocking Chair.

UK Breakthrough: 1978’s ‘Well, well,’ said the Rocking Chair album opened the door for Dean Friedman

Your last visit was something of a triumph, numbers-wise.

“Yeah, most of the dates were sold out. It went really well. It was nice to reconnect with that (Rocking Chair) album and those songs, and folks turned out.”

That must be a comfort, all these years on.

“I appreciate that. The travelling can be a little tedious but it’s worth it to be able to share my songs with what’s always an enthusiastic audience.”

Your itinerary includes regular gigs and festival dates, including another Edinburgh Fringe appearance.

“That’s correct. I’d heard about it for many years, then I finally did it around 2001, and keep coming back.”

You’re also hosting, performing and producing those two SongFest micro-music festivals.

“That’s something I’m especially excited about. I love doing my gigs, but last year for the first time I tried something new, to share my audience with a couple of songwriters I consider really excellent. The first SongFest was last July, with myself and Boothby Graffoe, a brilliant comedian, singer-songwriter and performer, and then there was Tracey Curtis, from Wales, who used to be in a punk band, Shelley’s Children.”

You have some impressive names involved, including two of my favourite songwriters, Chris Difford and Boo Hewerdine.

“Exactly. It went so well last year that I was determined to do it again and to do one north and one south event. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that Chris Difford agreed to do it, plus Boo and Richard Digance, and all those involved.

“My criteria was that I didn’t want to focus necessarily on bands or rock or dance, although I love all those difference influences. As a song guy I really wanted to focus on people who write great songs, and someone like Chris Difford or Richard Digance for me personify a master songsmith.”

Not many people would put you in the same category as Chris’ Squeeze, yet you’ve been on the scene around the same amount of time, and I’m guessing they’ve always been on your radar.

First Time: Dean Friedman's self-titled debut album, from 1977

First Time: Dean Friedman’s self-titled ’77 debut LP

“Absolutely, and here’s the thing, I grew up listening to all kinds of music but always had a special affinity for folk singers like Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and Bernie Taupin, storytellers who painted pictures in their songs.

“There was a narrative where you could really envisage what was going on, almost a cinematic quality. That was something I aspired to do, starting out and to this day, and someone like Chris Difford … I know Squeeze are acknowledged as a legendary band, but I think they’re even better than they’re given credit for. Someone like Chris, I don’t think he has any peers as a lyricist.”

I like the tale that Chris delivered his lyrics under co-writer Glenn Tilbrook’s door rather than face him about them.

“Well, whatever that quality is that allows him to do that, there’s a sort of casual, descriptive real world sort of concrete quality to his lyrics, yet they are sheer poetry at the same time.”

There’s a similar quality in Dean’s brand of story songs, something first heard by many of us in the UK on ‘Well, Well,’ said the Rocking Chair, via that album’s No.3 UK hit, ‘Lucky Stars’. I was only 11 then, but an older sister had it on cassette, and like so much defining music from that era it stayed with me. What’s more, a couple of recent spins suggest it stands the test of time.

He wasn’t the first songwriter to impress from New Jersey (Paramus in his case), the afore-mentioned Paul Simon and also Bruce Springsteen springing to mind, although the latter seemed to be way off his territory, style-wise, I suggested.

“Well, I admire the writing, and there’s another example with Springsteen. He uses language to depict a scene, a character, and the way he tells a story. It’s the language of the street, but it is so beautifully crafted, And the poetry just comes through. There’s a quote attributed to Springsteen when he was writing ‘Born to Run’, where he said his rhyming dictionary was on fire. And I get that!”

Sometimes I wonder if Dean was too clever a musician and lyricist for his own good, at least perception-wise. In a sense, I saw him as a man out of time, equating him with our own Gilbert O’Sullivan, although a few years later to the party. He was going against the grain really, I put it to him, breaking through at a time when he was surrounded by punk and new wave bands. And people do like to categorise.

“I understand that, and I do myself. Listen, I’m pleased to be spoken of in that company, and Gilbert O’Sullivan is another great songwriter – smart, giving heartfelt and sophisticated lyrics to equally sophisticated and beautiful melodies and hooks.

“And you’re right. I did Top of the Pops with The Boomtown Rats and Buzzcocks. D’you know what? (Boomtown Rats keyboard player) Johnnie Fingers came over, saying his little sister demanded he got my autograph. I said, ‘I’ll give you mine for her if you give me yours’. So I have Johnnie’s autograph.”

On a related subject, I recently listened back to some early Boomtown Rats, and there’s definitely a big Springsteen influence.

Hit Duet: Dean Friedman and Denise Marsa combined to great effect in '78

Hit Duet: Dean Friedman and Denise Marsa combined to great effect in ’78, and Top of the Pops followed

“No question about it, in terms of the instrumentation, not least the sax. It’s funny, you talk about that punk era and I don’t know if you’re familiar with the song, but I was stunned when friends from the UK first told me about a song by Half Man Half Biscuit …”

Ah, I was about to mention the Four Lads Who Shook the Wirral’s sublime ‘The Bastard Son of Dean Friedman’. Carry on, Dean.

“First I was kind of shocked. You know, ‘What is this about?’ But I did the figures in my head, realised that in order for it to be true I’d have had to father him at seven years old. And I listened to the track and it was great. I was cracking up. I’ve since met them, and was determined to get my revenge, which I did. I don’t know if you ever heard my song, ‘A Baker’s Tale’?”

Indeed, and I was listening again just that morning. And on a HMHB internet message board thread I saw that someone wrote, ‘He gets it’. That’s acceptance, I reckon.

“Well, they’ve genuinely embraced me, and show up at my gigs now. I did a concert six or seven years ago at the Robin in Wolverhampton (Bilston), and sang that song. And by the second chorus the whole audience were singing along.

“I first met Nigel and the boys at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We chatted a little, and I was a little shy, and he said he had the (Rocking Chair) album. People will still describe being a Dean Friedman fan as being a guilty pleasure, but it occurred to me that the whole premise of Nigel’s song was that he was being teased about that.

“To my mind, Nigel Blackwell is the most literal lyricist in the whole punk idiom, the most literate and cleverest lyricist – I don’t think there’s another punk band that comes close to his writing and mastery of the craft and use of words.

“Maybe I’m over-thinking this, but in that regard – and it’s not for me to say – it wouldn’t surprise me if on some level in a songwriting sense he is my bastard son! If he grew up listening to my albums, and I might be flattering myself too much, I like to imagine he might be my literary bastard son.”

While ‘Lucky Stars’ and other fine songs from that album take me back to a place and time, it was a while before I heard my personal favourite of his, ‘Ariel’. So I was a little surprised to learn that was his big hit in America.

“Well, it was the first single off my first album. It really kicked off my career in the States. It was more of a turntable hit, but I attribute that more to politics and my record label at the time. And when I perform it on tour in the UK the audience considers it one of my hits, along with ‘Lucky Stars’, which I usually end shows with.”

I have to ask, whose fault was it that his ‘Lucky Stars’ co-singer – possibly Lisa’s nemesis – Denise Marsa (who Dean’s been reunited with and played live with in recent years) didn’t get a proper namecheck on that single? She was a big part of the appeal of that track (and in 2003 Dean said, ‘That guy Nigel was hip to the fact Lisa and I didn’t just do lunch’).

Trail Blazer: 2001’s The Treehouse Journals was one of the first crowd-funded albums

“That was down to my idiot label, the same label that took ‘Jewish girl’ out of the edited version of ‘Ariel’. But don’t get me started! It made no sense. She’s credited on the album, but … they were just idiots, that’s all I can say.”

Going right back, were you from a musical family? What inspired you to first pick up a guitar?

“My Mum was a professional singer and actress, so there was always some Broadway show tune on the piano. I grew up in a house full of music, so it was inevitable it was going to be part of my life. And when I started getting $15 for a coffee house gig at the university I thought, ‘This is not bad. I get to play what I want, have fun and people will pay me for it. That’s what started things off.”

Later, I see you were on the wedding and bar mitzvah circuit with Marsha and the Self-Portraits. Had you been honing your own songs from an early age?

“I got my first guitar when I was nine. I learned four chords and started singing Beatles and Monkees songs … and it’s sad that Peter Tork has just passed away.”

Absolutely. This big Monkees fan concurs with that sentiment. Did you ever get to meet Peter?

“I did. We did a gig together. I opened for him at a gig in New Jersey, six or seven years ago. He was playing with his (Shoe Suede Blues) quartet. A very genuine guy.”

We mentioned Half Man Half Biscuit, and you’ve got a fair bit of kudos from artists citing you as an influence, like North Carolina’s Ben Folds – whose 1997 Ben Fold Five single ‘Kate’ was in homage to ‘Ariel’ – or covering your songs, like Ontario’s Barenaked Ladies and Minnesota’s The Blenders tackling ‘(I Am in Love with the) McDonald’s Girl’.

“Well, ‘McDonald’s Girl’ was banned by the BBC and that pretty much derailed my career – that’s how I got kicked off my label. But a year or so later, I heard The Barenaked Ladies’ cover, their first hit in Canada, even though they never put it on one of their major studio albums. That led to more exposure, then a band called The Blenders on Universal Records had a No.1 with it in Norway.

“Then when the internet came along, the song went viral, a capella groups at colleges, universities and then high schools all over the United States then all around the world doing their own versions. And then, 30 years later, I finally got a call from McDonald’s, asking if they could license it for a national TV and radio campaign. I said, ‘Yeah, that’s great, but what took you so fucking long?’”

Masterclass Act: Dean Friedman, ready for this year’s SongFest intake in Crewe and Wareham, and not just being nice

Fair question. Between adverts and soundtrack work, kids’ musicals and video games, I see a jobbing musician getting by. Has the industry treated you well over the years, not least in the last 20 or so years when things have changed immeasurably.

“That’s an understatement! Yes, I’ve always considered myself a multi-media artists and producer, although there’s usually a strong musical component to whatever I do. Even when I was doing virtual reality video games for Nickelodeon Television and Fuji TV, I still had a great time doing the music for those games. It’s the same with the interactive children’s museum exhibits, for museums around the world.

“To me, it all shares a similar process, like getting a new instrument, like a computer synthesiser. It’s a new toy to play with and experiment and explore with different sounds or colours – it’s just another palette to create something with, whether it’s sound or colour. They’re very much related.”

You were one of the first to go down the direct to fans’ online pledge line, loyal supporters probably helping you through on a few occasions.

“I couldn’t pursue my music, touring or recording without it. As far as I’m aware, Marillion was the first band to announce such a project. But as far as I know I was the second, and probably the first solo artist.

“That was when I did The Treehouse Journals (2001) – a good six years before Kickstarter and Indiegogo launched. I was an early adopter of the internet and it was by virtue of being able to reconnect gradually over the years with my audience that I’m able to do what I do.”

For those who lost touch beyond the second album, would you advise they start with 1981’s Rumpled Romeo and work forward through the catalogue, or head to 12 Songs and work backwards?

Half Measures: Dean Friedman, looking for his Wirral-based bastard son, Nigel Blackwell

“Ah … well, gee, that’s a very good question. D’you know what – ha! – it depends whether they want to start with their own adolescence and gradually approach their mature self, or whether they want to start from where they are and gradually get back to where they were.”

Have your children followed you into music, or have you put them off?

“They’re both really talented musicians and writers as well. They both work in the entertainment field in TV and film, writing for cartoons and what-not. Again, there’s always a musical component to what they do. Growing up with a Dad in the business I think they benefitted to a degree from having no illusions about the industry.

“They knew it was a hard job but if they were committed to their art they could get satisfaction out of it and hopefully make a living at the same time.”

Is that the advice you give anybody else about this industry?

“Yeah, don’t have any illusions. If you’re just doing it to get rich and famous, there are probably other ways to do that! But if you’re doing it because you love doing it, your chances of winding up satisfied with what you do and how you spend your life are going to be increased and enhanced.

“The other thing I would say is to operate on a parallel path. Prize your art and craft, hone it, prove yourself, try and be as good as you can be but on a parallel path do whatever you need to do to keep the electricity turned on. If and when you get an opportunity to exploit it commercially, you’ll be ready for that opportunity. If you just wait for it, it’s not going to happen.”

And what are the chances of you sharing a stage with local-ish lad Nigel Blackwell at the Epstein Theatre in Liverpool or the Old Courts in Wigan on this tour?

“Well, I know he has trouble crossing the Mersey, so it depends what time it’s on. But you never know.”

Guitar Man: Dean Friedman, heading for a venue near you in 2019, four decades into his recording career

Dean Friedman’s 2019 UK tour takes in visits to Belfast, Crescent Arts Centre (April 19), Dublin, Arthur’s Pub (April 20/21, the latter at 4pm), Conwy, Theatr Colwyn (April 25), Bury, The Met (April 26), Birmingham, Pizza Express Live (April 27), Liverpool, Epstein Theatre (April 28), Wigan, The Old Courts (May 1), Doncaster, Doncaster Little Theatre (May 2), Stockton-on-Tees, Princess Alexandra Auditorium (May 3), Nottingham, Poppy & Pint (May 4), Grimsby, Central Hall (May 5), Norwich, The Garage (May 8), London, Bloomsbury Theatre (May 11), Henley-on-Thames, The Crooked Billet (May 13/14), Swansea, The Hyst (May 16), Pentrych, Acapela Studios (May 17), Leek, Leek Arts Festival /Foxlowe Arts Centre (May 19), SongFest, Springfield Country Hotel, Wareham (July 20/21), East Hagbourne, Fleur de Lys (July 24), Abergavenny, The Priory (July 25), Henley-in-Arden, Henley Guild Hall (July 26), SongFest, Wychwood Park Hotel, Crewe (July 27/28), Otley, The Courthouse (July 31), Dumfries, Theatre Royal (August 1), Livingston, Howden Park Centre (August 2), Glasgow, Oran Mor (August 3), Edinburgh Fringe Festival – St Andrew’s & St George’s West (venue #111, (August 14/15/16). Tickets are available from www.deanfriedman.com or the venues, prices from £24 to £55.

For SongFest details and to register for Dean’s songwriting masterclasses, try www.SongFest.live. Ticket prices are £48 (Saturday or Sunday) to £68 (weekend), with registration £195 for two, 90-minute sessions, each prior to a performance (4pm to 11pm Saturday and 3pm to 10pm Sunday).

And for all the latest from Dean, head to www.deanfriedman.com

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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