Sunday, January 12, 2014

I Know Why The One Hit Wonder Sings

I remember watching “60 Minutes” several years ago and they had a special on singers and groups that were “One Hit Wonders”. They showed Don McLean, who in 1971, had a hit single entitled “American Pie”. It shot up to number one, stayed there forever, and when it came down, so did McLean’s career. Yet there he was, decades later,  loading his guitar and microphone into his car, driving from college to college, to perform in front of a dozen people or so in a small room, and some of those students had parents who weren’t born when that song came out.

Aimee Mann’s fortune rose with the 1985 hit, “Voices Carry” when she was with the group, “til Tuesday”.  Mann left the band, struck out on her own, and pretty much fell off of everyone’s radar. I personally love Mann’s music and think there have been fewer female vocalists that have had a better sound.  But the number one hit she saw so long ago is reduced now to a memory of what was. Mann’s is over fifty and her voice isn’t nearly as strong or as clear as it once was. I still love Aimee Mann and I always will.

McLean is almost seventy now. His website tells us that he played in front of a crowd of 100,000 last year but they don’t mention that he wasn’t the opening act. McLean, and a legion of other artists who hit it big one time, keep plugging away, year after year, playing that one song night after night.

I think they should.

I write. Nearly every day of my life I write something, even if it’s just some editing or a stray idea that needs to be fleshed out. A good 99% of what I have written is never seen by anyone, anywhere and there’s an even better chance it will not. I really and truly and honestly do not care. That isn’t why I write. I write because I have to write. It’s like breathing or eating or spending time with canines. It’s more of who I am than most people, even those close to me, realize.

Have to ever stopped and wondered how a person might feel when they go into a music store and they find their one hit, that one thing that made them famous for just a short while, in the Bargain Bin and the CD is selling for a dollar? I see music being sold dirt cheap in those great big containers with no rhyme or reason in the pile, and I see the dreams of people who worked hard to get where they were at one point. I see the culmination of a lifetime of talent. Or maybe it was just plain good luck that they were where a person needed to be at the right time that right place in front of the right audience and magic appeared.

There’s a local amusement park that has up and coming acts perform and they also have the Best of the 1980’s play there every once in a while. I won’t go, I can’t go, because I’m younger than some of those people on stage, a lot older than those people in the audience, and I want to remember the music and the artists as they once were. The image of Don McLean, looking every bit as worn and haggard as Bilbo Baggins without the Ring Of Power, is stuck in my mind.

But I still think they should play on.

There is something to be said for art for the sake of art. You and I have no idea, and there is no way of having an idea, of how many people there are right now who are performing flawlessly for their pets on some instrument, or singing angelically to their steering wheels, or typing out the Great American novel on a computer, and none of us will ever know it. Somewhere out there is the sketchbook of a dead artist and the book will be tossed away forever because no one bothered to look and the artist never bothered to show it to anyone, ever.

Right now, someone with a guitar is playing a song that no one else will ever hear. It will come and go like a slight breeze that one person feels but leaves this earth with that sensation. The strings, once they are still, will reach out never again and for this, we all are a little poorer.  Right now, there is a child who is writing but they will never be encouraged to go onward and keep writing, because her parents have no idea what writing is and so they will hope she learns to be a cheerleader or perhaps, learns how to cook fried chicken like her mother did.

Somewhere out there, is an aging rock start, who we know only because of a stay on the charts that made that person famous. They hate, really hate that one song, but the audience is more than willing to put up with five, maybe even six brand new tunes, just to sing along with that one song they know by heart. So the trade is made; I’ll sing that one damn song, and I’ll try to ignore that you’ve heard it so many times you’ve forgotten it isn’t yours, and in return you have to sit and listen to something else I’ve done, and I hope that one, just one person, likes it, kinda, sorta, maybe.

I know why the one hit wonder sings. It has nothing to do with trying to relive the past glory and it has nothing to do with hoping that the lottery can be won twice. It’s what they have always wanted to do, to sing, to play, to experience an audience, be it a sleeping dog, a steering wheel, a dozen bored students watching an old man from the past, or a roaring crowd of thousands. It is art for the sake of creating, performing, and doing something that regardless that it might survive only in a Bargain Bin, or a notebook, or in someone’s attic, is still the stuff dreams are made of.

Edit: Dannielle Spindler Swart has brought it to my attention that the song, 
"Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)" by McLean was also a hit so McLean was NOT a One Hot Wonder.  I apologize to everyone and please disregard everything I said about McLean and that comment about the Bargain Bin was certainly inappropriate to say about a two hit wonder. Thanks. 

Take Care,


PS. The guy in the photo above? You might not know his name but you have his number stuck in your mind forever. 


  1. One of my favorite songs, "Vincent".
    I played piano today for my cats; I wrote for myself.

  2. It's human nature to create, so much so some people don't even know they are doing it. The cook in the kitchen just throwing together a meal from what was left the day before payday... creating.
    The mother making up a lullaby because the colicky kid can't sleep... creating.

    Don McLean keeps playing because one, he apparently can eek out a living. And two, not because the old farts want to hear a song they know inside out, but because they want for 8 and a half minutes to remember the lives and loves that swirled around that song.

    I saw him around '72, open for Carly Simon at Philly's Symphony Hall, where she said, "Holy shit, stained glass exit signs."

  3. Oh, I just remembered, the day before I had to go buy the tickets for that gig, I blew a hole in #7 piston of my first "57 Chevy. People were counting on me so I yanked #7 spark plug, not wanting to start a crankcase fire, and drove all the way up Broad Street making a hellatious racket and laying a trail of smoke visible forever.

    Bye Bye Miss American Pie... ha ha ha

    1. Drove my Chevy to the concert and you could hear for a mile!