Eugene Weekly : Music : 4.3.08

The Song Sort of Remains the Same
Kaswell still a performer

Do you ever wonder what goes through Keith Richards’ mind when he’s in an elevator and he hears the watered-down, Muzaked version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”? Does he shake his head in sadness at what his song has become? Or does he mumble, “Nice one! That’s another nickel toward new blood?” Or what about when Prince is grocery shopping and he hears “When Doves Cry” trickling out from the supermarket speakers? Does he stand on his shopping cart and sing along in the aisle? Or does he buy some more raspberries and cream without even noticing? It must be a little surreal for a songwriter to hear his or her songs pop up in strange places — on cell phones, in car commercials, at the dentist’s office. For Gordon Kaswell, when he made a phone call and recognized the hold music as a song he had helped write decades earlier, it wasn’t weird as much as it was proof that songs may change, but they never die.

The song is “The Performer,” and Kaswell, a local musician, co-authored the tune in the early ’70s with Kenny Vance, the founder of the throwback doo-wop group Jay & the Americans. Although the song never came close to the popularity of “Satisfaction” or “When Doves Cry” (in fact it never even reached the charts), “The Performer” has never completely disappeared. For Kaswell, the song has been like an out-of-touch old friend, popping up in different forms and in unexpected places. Initially, it was a rock tune with a Latin/jazz flavor, foreshadowing the Latin craze that would come about in the late ’70s/early ’80s. It sounded like Steely Dan before Steely Dan, which makes sense because Vance produced Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s first record. Vance was also the music director for Saturday Night Live and he performed the song on SNL in 1977. The exposure didn’t help the song as Vance and Kaswell had hoped, and it faded away for a decade.

In 1988, Vance re-recorded a slower, jazzier version of “The Performer,” and it started to receive airplay on jazz stations around the country. This was when Kaswell heard his composition while on hold. During the next 20 years, the song would sink and then resurface without ever vanishing for good. Kaswell discovered that it was featured in a Lifetime made-for-TV movie called A Murderous Affair; it was also played on a late night Skinemax production called Desire; it was recorded by Jackie Allen, a Chicago jazz singer; it was being performed by Sally Kellerman aka Hot Lips Houlihan in the movie M*A*S*H as part of her cabaret act; and now the original version is being included on a DVD box set reissue of the early years of SNL.

Since co-writing “The Performer,” Kaswell has continued to write and perform music. He’s currently fronting a Hot Tuna-ish acoustic guitar and bass duo, but he cannot forget his one “hit” song. It just won’t let him forget. In another 10 years, he’ll be on the bus and he’ll recognize a ringtone. It’ll be “The Performer” — but this time the rap version.

Gordon Kaswell. 7 pm Friday, April 4. 5th St. Beanery.