A Little Night Music

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This is an absolutely true songwriter story

I can only speak for myself. But I’d be awfully surprised if I was the only songwriter who has the kind of dreams I’ve had regularly as long as I’ve been a songwriter (which is pretty much my whole life). I’d be out somewhere – in the car, etc., a radio would be playing, and all of a sudden I’d be hearing someone singing a song that I’ve written. I’d spend the rest of the dream trying to find a telephone, so that I could call the radio station and find out who it is that’s been pirating my work. And, most importantly, to find out how much money the pirate had made on my song.

There is good reason why a songwriter would have these dreams. It isn’t as much that you would expect a national act to steal your song -- the situation in my dream. The real danger in composing music on a regular basis is the possibility of "writing" a piece that you’ve heard on the radio once or twice, and subconsciously regurgitating someone else’s work. I actually had that experience once, in 1975. I had written what I thought was a fairly mediocre song one afternoon, and then took off in the Electra to hook up with a friend. As I was driving down 22nd Street, a song came on the radio having the same melody and chord progression as the one I had just finished. My guess is that I had heard it for the first time the day before and paid no attention to it. But it must have been trapped in my mind strongly enough to resurface the next day. I won’t say what the song was, because if I was going to steal someone’s work intentionally it definitely wouldn’t be Barry Manilow’s.

Anyway, one night many years later I took Pam and Kristie to the Drive-In (for those who remember what a drive-in movie was) and stayed for the entire double feature. We returned home very, very late, maybe one or two in the morning, and Pam was asleep before she even hit the pillow. I lingered a little, sitting up in bed with the television on but the sound turned way down.

Just as I’m about to drift off, a public service commercial comes on, for Hospice of Iowa. Way, way in the background – almost as if coming from a room on the other side of our little house – was this plaintiff piano music. Although barely audible, something about it wafted out from the TV set and shocked me back awake.

That music sounds familiar, I thought.

It sounds like something I wrote.

Wait a minute. That is something I wrote.

But this wasn’t like the dream, because as I listened to the tune I soon realized that it was me playing on the commercial.

How could that be?

The next thing I remember, I was waking up on Sunday morning. It was a while before I even remembered what had transpired in the middle of the night. I passed it off as a new variation on the old dream.

But before the weekend was over, I saw that commercial again. It wasn’t a dream.

I figured out what happened. Four or five months earlier I had seen a notice in the Des Moines Register that the Des Moines Arts and Recreation Council (now the Metro Arts Alliance) was auditioning acts for Jazz in July, its month-long jazz festival featuring a concert in a different location in the Des Moines area every day in July. I knew that, of all the styles of popular music in which I had dabbled, I was not a jazz player. But maybe I could fake it. I wrote a couple of what I considered to be jazz pieces and scheduled an audition at Hoyt Sherman Place.

I passed the audition. Which meant I had to write enough "jazz" to fill a whole 90-minute concert. One of the individuals conducting the auditions was a local independent producer named Kent. Kent was so impressed with my two jazz pieces that he offered to buy me an hour at Triad Studio. I would come in, sit down and play my instrumentals. The agreement was that, in the end, I would have an hour-long demo and Kent would be free to use whatever came out in his productions.


One of the tunes I recorded that day was a short, soft ballad simply titled "Love Song". That was the music that Kent set in the background of the Hospice of Iowa commercial. Every time I was in a car or anywhere else over the course of the next year and that commercial came on, I made sure that everything stopped and people listened to "Love Song".

My Jazz in July Concert was at noon on July 26, 1989 in the lobby of Capital Square (coincidentally the building in which my current office is located). Parenthetically, I think the Arts and Recreation Council immediately came to the realization that I really wasn’t a jazz player. July 26 was the last time a single act was scheduled for a Jazz in July Concert. Several years later, I was appointed chairman of the Jazz in July Planning Committee, a seat I held for 6 years. My guess is that I was selected to make sure that nobody like me ever again sleazed their way onto the Jazz in July calendar.

One Saturday afternoon before July 26 I was practicing my set at home. In the little house on Evergreen Avenue, my Rhodes 73-key electric piano (the instrument I played on the road with Baby Lester in the Buggybumpers and my only keyboard at the time) was relegated to the northwest corner of our dark, damp basement. The washer and dryer were also in the basement.

As I ran through tunes, our daughter Kristie came down with some laundry and silently worked on it across the room. I played through "Love Song", the ballad. I had no reason to think that she had ever heard the Hospice of Iowa commercial, or was aware of its significance.

But when I reached the little vamp at the end of the song and faded out, Kristie looked up and, at the appropriate point, muttered, "Hospice of Iowa."

At that moment, I knew I had a hit.


"Love Song" by John Burns

My Muse