Jack Segal: reflections on a songwriter

I thought this was going to be easy. I have so many Jack Segal stories that I figured I could just dash off some paragraphs on the wit and wisdom of the man with no problem. I was wrong. There are just too many stories. So, here are a few of my own random recollections. To those who knew Jack (many far longer than I did), they won’t be that enlightening. But for those who never had the pleasure, let me introduce you to one very special guy I got the privilege to call friend.

The Teacher:

I first met Jack in 1988. It was suggested to me (I don’t remember by whom) that I check out the songwriting workshop at the Songwriters Guild of America. I couldn’t have been less interested. I had been a struggling songwriter for a number of years, had attended every songwriting workshop from New York to LA, and was certain that another class would have nothing new to offer. But then I learned the guy teaching the workshop wrote “When Sunny Gets Blue.” Well, if you play piano (as I do), and have spent endless hours in nameless piano bars (as I had), you play “When Sunny Gets Blue.” So, I decided to give it a try. From the very beginning, Jack, was a thorn in my side. He was direct (some say ruthless) with his critiques and unforgiving when it came to structure. He was also seldom, if ever, wrong. And that, maybe more than anything else, pissed me off beyond all reason. I remember walking out of the workshop every week swearing to never return. But I’d get home, stay up to the wee hours going over Jack’s notes (always in red ink), and rewrite to the point of a stroke. By morning, I couldn’t wait to get back to the workshop and show that “bastard” what I’d done. Getting the nod of approval from Jack felt like winning a Grammy.

The Mentor:

In 1994, I was asked to teach a songwriting workshop at the guild. There were so many reasons why I wasn’t the guy to teach a workshop – others having better resumes topping the list. But my biggest hang-up was “what would Jack think?” After all, this was Jack’s domain. Hell, the big black chair in the meeting room practically had his name on it. So, I called Jack and told him that I was considering teaching a workshop. His reaction? “It’s about damn time!” Then I expressed my concern that I wasn’t the right guy for the job because (fill in the blank). He told me to shut the @#%& up and that I was the right guy for the job because I was going to be the guy in front of the room, that made me the right guy for the job. To this day I’m still fuzzy on that logic. But then he said: “Phil, treat every songwriter with respect and remember just how hard it is to write a good song. You do that, you’ll be fine.” I was never fuzzy on that logic.

The Songwriter:

Jack was one of those songwriters that you sharpened your pencil for and wrote down everything he said. He was a walking rhyming dictionary and spoke in poetry. Collaborating with Jack was just plain fun. A few years ago we had a writing date set up. Now by this time we had written a number of songs together so I knew Jack’s routine and wasn’t surprised when he arrived early. On this day however, Jack, was a little earlier than usual – and he didn’t walk into my office so much as he danced in. “Phil, let me play you my Sinead cut!” Sinead O’ Connor had covered Scarlet Ribbons and Jack was blown away by her arrangement. What blew me away was how this almost eighty-year old guy was bouncing off the walls about his “Sinead cut.” Like it was the first cut he’d ever gotten. I didn’t even know he knew who Sinead O’Connor was. I remember thinking at that moment, “There’s a songwriter. Can I be him when I grow up?”

The Storyteller:

Some of my favorite times with Jack were spent on the golf course. Though not a long hitter, Jack, was always down the middle of the fairway and flat-out wicked around the green. I, on the other hand, was usually two hundred fifty yards to the right and in the woods (I also couldn’t read a putt if my mother’s life depended on it). But none of that mattered because golf with Jack meant stories. Truly a history lesson in early pop music: Mercer, Kahn, Porter, Gershwin, Nat, Bird, Sinatra, Billie, and on and on. From Tin-Pan-Ally to 52nd street, from Broadway to Hollywood, Jack had lived it and talked about it. Not in an “I remember when” kind of way, more in a matter of fact kind of way; like those legendary people and places were my realities as well as his and I somehow was worthy to be a part of the conversation. I should have told him what that kind of inclusion meant to me as an insecure young songwriter.

The Counselor:

A few years ago I was going through a rough time personally. Jack and I got together for lunch one day and he asked me, “How you doin’, pal?” Uncharacteristically for me, I told him. He sat there and listened as I poured my heart out. He didn’t judge, he didn’t ridicule, he just listened for over an hour. Finally, I asked him what he thought. But instead of answering me directly he started sharing some of his darker times. That led me to share some more dark times. Then it was his turn again. Eventually it got to the point that Jack blurted out in the middle of me talking, “Goddamn, I wish I could still drink – this is depressing!” I almost fell out of my chair laughing. It was a wonderful afternoon. I’ll never forget the last thing he said to me that day. He said, “Swannie, you know you don’t have to live the songs you write. Right?”

The last time I talked to Jack was about five months ago. We’d written a song together and he called wanting to rework it. But I was out of town and told him that it would be a few weeks before I could get to it. He understood but said that he’d had a revelation on the song and was anxious for us to fix it. We never did. That was our last conversation.

Whatever success I now enjoy I owe in large part to Jack Segal. He taught me more than how to write a song. He taught me how to be a songwriter; to see the world differently, to not settle for just okay, to take five minutes more and make it perfect. Not a bad lesson for life when you think about it. Jack, in his later years, became a man of great faith. That comforts me. Because in my mind, Jack, is somewhere at this very moment fixing that song of ours. If that’s the case, then I’m also sure tonight he’ll be holding court over one really cool workshop. And if John Lennon, Stephen Foster and Mozart know what’s good for them…they’ll do the rewrites. Read the red ink boys.

Here’s to you, Jack.

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