Today I heard an interview with the principles of the cast from the show “breaking bad”, they stated that the success of this show was primarily due to the writers. I thought about how this applied to good songs as well. It all starts with the writer.
Breaking Bad was arguably the best show on TV the last few years, because its creator and showrunner, Vince Gilligan, was known as a good man to work for – someone who managed to balance the vision and microscopic control of the most autocratic showrunner with the open and supportive spirit of the most relaxed. He was a firm believer in collaboration. The writing team for the hit show was Vince Gilligan, Thomas Schnauz, Peter Gould, Moira Walley-Beckett, and Sam Catlin
“The worst thing the French ever gave us is the auteur theory,” Vince said flatly. “it was total nonsense”. You don’t make a movie by yourself, you certainly don’t make a TV show by yourself. You invest people in their work. You make people feel comfortable in their jobs; you keep people talking.”
In his room, he said, all writers were equal, an approach that he insisted had less to do with being a Pollyanna than with pure, selfish practicality. “There’s nothing more powerful to a showrunner than a truly invested writer,” he said. “That writer will fight the good fight.”
Gilligan started his path to TV with a semi-successful career in feature films. His TV break came with The X-Files, where he rose to executive producer and penned some 30 episodes before returning to the frustrations and snail’s pace of feature-film making, working on Hancock, a movie about a surly, alcoholic superhero. In the midst of the endless rewrites, in 2005, Gilligan was on the phone with an old friend and fellow X-Files writer Thomas Schnauz. The two were complaining about the state of the movie business and wondering what they might be qualified to do instead. “Maybe we can be greeters at Walmart,” Gilligan said. “Maybe we can buy an RV and put a meth lab in the back,” said Schnauz.
“As he said that, an image popped into my head of a character doing exactly that: an Everyman character who decides to ‘break bad’ and become a criminal,” Gilligan recalled. It was a powerful enough image that he got off the phone and began jotting down notes.
The heart of the show came together in a hurry. The main character, Walter White, is a mild and beaten-down high school chemistry teacher who finds himself diagnosed with lung cancer. Inadequately insured, with a baby on the way, he is desperate to provide for his family when he’s gone and hits on the idea of going into the meth business with a junkie ex-student named Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul. Thanks to White’s chemistry expertise and relative (by the standard of meth dealers) discipline and devotion to quality, Walt and Jesse’s product becomes much in demand. Legal, familial, and moral complications ensue.
Just as the hit show “breaking bad’ was inspired by a random conversation many popular songs were inspired by not only random statements but real life experiences, sometimes from the depths of despair. Take for example Eric Clapton’s song “Tears in Heaven”.
Clapton wrote this about his four-year-old son Conor, who died when he fell out of a 53rd floor window in the apartment where his mother was staying in New York City. Clapton wrote this with Will Jennings, who has written many famous songs from movies, including “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer And A Gentleman and “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic. Jennings wrote the lyrics to many of Steve Winwood’s hits and has also written with B.B. King, Roy Orbison, The Crusaders, Peter Wolf and many others.
Clapton knew of Jennings from his work with Steve Winwood. Jennings revised the lyrics as Clapton and his band worked on it in the studio. They had no idea it would be a huge hit. Says Jennings, “It was furthest through from my mind, really. I was so involved in the sensitivity of the subject, and I didn’t even think about that. I’m passionate about all the songs I write, but it was just in another place entirely, another category.”
This won Grammys in 1993 for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Male Pop Vocal. Clapton was nominated for nine Grammys that year and won six. Clapton’s 1986 album August is named for the month Conor was born.
Clapton wrote about this song in his 2007 autobiography: “The most powerful of the new songs was ‘Tears in Heaven.’ Musically, I had always been haunted by Jimmy Cliff’s song ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ and wanted to borrow from that chord progression, but essentially I wrote this one to ask the question I had been asking myself ever since my grandfather had died. Will we really meet again? It’s difficult to talk about these songs in depth, that’s why they’re songs. Their birth and development is what kept me alive through the darkest period of my life. When I try to take myself back to that time, to recall the terrible numbness that I lived in, I recoil in fear. I never want to go through anything like that again. Originally, these songs were never meant for publication or public consumption; they were just what I did to stop from going mad. I played them to myself, over and over, constantly changing or refining them, until they were part of my being.”