Would You Like to Play the Guitar
Lyrics Pat Donohue, © Pat Donohue
Music ("Swinging on a Star") by Johnny Burke & Jimmy Van Heusen, © the Bourne Company
Would you like to play the guitar?
Carry money home in a jar
From a coffeehouse or a bar,
Or would you rather get a job?
A job is the thing that makes you get out of bed
And work every day until you're dead.
Your back is achin' and your brain is numb
And you just can't wait until the weekend comes.
But if you don't want to starve or beg or rob
You're gonna have to get a job
Or would you like to play the guitar?
Drive for miles and miles in your car
And pretend that you're a big star?
Or would you rather book the gig?
The agent's the guy who takes his twenty percent.
What he says isn't always what he meant.
He'll clean you out in ways you never thought
Because he's good at business and he knows you're not.
And then he'll sue if you ever make it big
Cause he's the guy who booked the gig.
Or would you like to play the guitar
For a living ~ hardee-har-har!
I'll admit it's kind of bizarre.
Or would you rather be the wife?
The wife is the one who has to rescue our butts.
She's either a saint or else she's nuts.
She gets impatient and she gets annoyed
Cause she's the one who must remain employed.
And by the way if you want to wreck your life
Become a gittar player's wife
Cause all the monkeys aren't in the zoo.
They can be trained to play guitar too.
Some do a whole lot better than you.
But even if you don't go far
You could be worse off than you are.
At least you're playing your guitar.
So how come the title track of the album isn't on the album? It's a long and sad story.
The parody was written by Pat Donohue. Pat is best known as the guitarist for the Guy's Shoe Band, the house band of A Prairie Home Companion. However, in his own right, he is an outstanding songwriter, a very funny man, and an amazing guitarist with a great solo show.
I had made up a pretty fancy solo guitar arrangement of "Swingin' on a Star", and when I heard Pat's parody, I had to learn it. It was to be the title song of ...Or Would You Rather Get a Job? I had it all recorded; the cover art was done. All that remained was to take care of the paperwork of getting permissions from the copyright holders.
That is usually a pretty straightforward process. You sign the forms, pay the royalty fees per a standard formula (called the statutory rate), and you're in business. Pat was happy to accept 1/2 the statutory rate for the lyric portion of the song. So I looked up the copyright holder of "Swingin' on a Star" so I could pay the royalties for the music. This turned out to be the Bourne Company, a New York City music publishing house. I wrote them a letter explaining the project, and asked how to take care of the royalties, since it would only be for the music, not the lyrics.
I got a 2-sentence e-mail in reply, saying, in effect, "No, I did not have permission to record an alternative set of lyrics to "Swingin' on a Star". Now wait a minute. First of all, do I even need their permission? Isn't parody a form of free speech? What about Weird Al Yankovich? I did a little investigation with an acquaintance who is an exec in the music business.
It seems that it isn't as simple as all that. If the parody is a commentary about the original song, then it is protected speech. However, if it is merely another set of words to a piece of copyrighted music, then one needs to get permission from the music's copyright holder to record this nonstandard use of their intellectual property. And I had the misfortune to pick a song owned by the Bourne Company, and the person of one Ms. Beebe Bourne. And it seems that Ms. Beebe Bourne is well known in the music industry as being one of the meanest, most small-spirited litigious bastards in the entire mean small-spirited litigious industry! This is a woman who, I'm told, once sued her own mother over a dispute in the business.
Now whether "Would You Like to Play the Guitar" is or is not a commentary on "Swingin' on a Star" is a fine point of law, and depending upon which side of the bed the judge got up on, I might actually win that dispute. But I can't afford to be sued and win! So I figured I would throw myself upon the mercy of Ms. Bourne and see if I could get her to do a random good turn to a total stranger. I mean what possible harm could it do to her or her company for an independent recording with no distribution to record this parody in the minuscule quantities I was intending AND to pay her royalties?
After several attempts I got her on the phone. She never gave me a chance to get a word out. She leapt down my throat and ripped out my intestines with her teeth, waved her lawyers in my face, and told me in no uncertain terms that she would sue me for willful copyright violation if I ever put one note of that parody in a recording. Put the fear of God into me for sure.
So, you can read the words. You can imagine it to the tune. You might even sing it to yourself in the bathroom with the doors closed if you're sure that Beebe Bourne's spies aren't lurking under the sink somewhere ready to throw you in the slammer, and take your car and your house and your first-born. But you won't hear it on my CD.
Postscript: July 30, 2002
So if the parody speaks to the original song, then it's legal, huh? OK, I found a way to make it legal: Write another verse.
Would you like to play the guitar
To the tune of "Swing On A Star"?
Don't put that in your repertoire.
Not unless you own the song.
A song has a copyright that lasts a long time.
To mess with the lyrics is a crime.
And if the publisher is Beebe Bourne
You'd best not record it or be well forewarned
That she'll trot out her lawyers, right or wrong
'Cause she's the one who owns the song!
© 2002 Mike Agranoff
November 3, 2005
I have just been informed that Beebe Bourne has recently passed on. I thought of calling them up again and seeing if the surviving Directors of the company are as nasty and unreasonable as their late unlamented leader. But even if they were ameanable to allowing me to record the parody, it might gain me a good recording, but I'd be losing a great story. I think I'll leave things as they are.
I got the following e-mail from another of the late Beebe Bourne's victims (who prefers to remain anonymous).
I just stumbled upon your hilarious article about the beloved Beebe Bourne. I had to write you to let you know that I have been in that very same position. In my job, I am asked by Producers to get rights to use songs on Television, and when I started working here about six years ago, one of the first negotiations I ever had to perform was with Ms. Bourne.
She scared the crap out of me!
Your description of how she reached down your throat and pulled out your intestines was exactly how I felt!!! After the most gruelling five minute phone call of my life, where she snapped at me, ridiculed the offer I made her, and beat any sense of confidence I had in my knowledge of copyright our of me...she mercifully agreed to our use of the song, but only under the very strict condition that we would not be altering it in any way, shape or form.
I consider myself one of the lucky ones...A colleague of mine wasn't so lucky. After a conversation with Beebe, she locked herself into the ladies room and didn't come out for half an hour - only to emerge red eyed, and shaking like leaf!
Although Beebe has
passed on, it's still scary calling the Bourne Company...I still feel that
familiar tightening in my stomach as I dial the numbers - praying that I'll
get the answering machine...dreading the angry voice on the other side...
Anyway - thanks for the article - it was a great read - I hope that one day you get to record your version of the song! Cheers!