THE READING ROOM: Kenny Loggins on Movie Songs, Influences, and a ‘Gumbo’ of Genres
Kenny Loggins has many musical claims to fame: movie songs like “Danger Zone” from Top Gun, “Footloose” from the original movie, and “I’m Alright” from Caddyshack and we as his solo records and his hits with Loggins & Messina, like “Your Mama Don’t Dance.” Now, in staccato prose, Loggins carries us through every stage on his rock and roll journey in his animated memoir, Still Alright (Hachette).
Fortunately for us, Loggins doesn’t dive deeply into his debaucheries or drop us into his fever-dream hallucinations. He includes enough of those rock and roll shenanigans for fans palavering for lurid details, but his memoir focuses primarily on the music and the reason he came to play. The music bug bites him early: “Some guys cut out magazine pictures of girls or cars to hang on their bedroom walls. I cut out pictures of guitars,” he writes. Loggins’ earliest musical tastes revolve around folk and jug band music, but as with many musicians, The Beatles dramatically changed the direction of his life. He remembers seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show: “I’d never heard of the Beatles, but that night I sat on the floor in front of our black-and-white Sylvania, transfixed. Like so many future rockers, the arc of my life changed dramatically over the course of that hour. I stopped playing folk music then and there.” Loggins’ first band is called Five Downing Street, and in his second band, Second Helping, he plays songs by Buffalo Springfield (of which Jim Messina was a member) and The Byrds.
By the time he’s 17, Loggins has already written two of his best-known songs — “Danny’s Song” and “House at Pooh Corner” — and he’s hanging out with other musicians and songwriters that will eventually lead him to a partnership with Jim Messina. “I happened to trade tunes with a couple of guitar players, Jeff Hanna and Jimmy Ibbotson, from a group called the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. They had released five albums at that point, a career’s worth, but what excited me was that they were talking about their sixth, and how they needed songs for it,” Loggins writes. “I played them some of my tunes, and they liked them so much that they invited me to meet their manager, Bill McEuen, at his home in Laurel Canyon. Bill’s brother John was the group’s banjo player, and he was there, too. I played a bunch more songs for them, and before I knew it, they said they wanted four of them for their new album, Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy: ‘House at Pooh Corner,’ ‘Santa Rosa,’ ‘Prodigal’s Return,’ and ‘Yukon Railroad.’ I didn’t know it at the time, but the sound of that album was inspired by a new country-rock group named Pogo, which would soon change its name to Poco, and which featured a guitar player named Messina. The guy kept coming into my life before he ever actually came into my life. We were satellites circling in increasingly closer orbits.”
Loggins’ thoughtful reflections on the process of songwriting turn this memoir into more than a run-of-the-mill rocker’s reflections on a life of sex, drugs, and, oh yeah, rock and roll. Songwriting occupies the center of Loggins’ narrative. As he looks back on “Danny’s Song,” for example, he reflects: “I must have done something right, because to this day ‘Danny’s Song’ remains one of my most popular tunes. I still lean on it as a trademark number, my quintessential Kenny Loggins folk thing. That song helped me realize that when I wrote about things close to my heart, those songs would matter to other people too. I also write pop tunes, of course, but the ones with lasting impact are the songs with meaning. The songwriters who influenced me most were introspective, like Tim Hardin, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, and, of course, Lennon and McCartney. For me, James Taylor was America’s poet laureate, the most important of the inward-looking songwriters. Their tunes resonate with a deeper kind of seeing that, as a teenager, I was desperate to learn.”
The process of writing “Danny’s Song” also teaches him a lesson: “It came out directly, with no editing. There are lines I might not have kept later in my career, but at seventeen years old I never expected millions of people to hear my music.”
When Loggins and Messina part ways, Loggins has already moved in the direction of jazz and R&B. “I spent the last year of Loggins & Messina writing like mad for my solo career: smooth jazz-and R&B-inflected pop, a synthesis of styles my collaborators and I made up as we went along. I didn’t think of it in these terms back then, but we were literally inventing a new kind of pop music, some of which would end up on my 1977 record, Celebrate Me Home.”
Eventually of course, his songwriting takes him into the movies, and he reflects on writing the song “Footloose”: “Putting it all on paper shows just how many influences can go into a piece of music. Bowie, Mitch Ryder, Duane Eddy, Paul Simon, Chuck Berry, Little Richard — all in that one song. Those influences were part of my DNA, the rock of my youth, and it makes sense that they’d show up all at once. That’s the history of rock ’n’ roll: a constant gumbo in the making, alive and cooking.”
In the end, Loggins returns to songwriting: “Ultimately, it’s all a balancing act. As important as creativity is to my sense of well-being, I also don’t want to make music that no one will hear. If I write something I’m proud of, getting it out into the world still feels important to me … Stardom comes and goes. Pop culture is a fickle lover. Let it go. The process is still more important than anything else, including the results.”
These days, Loggins is getting ready to play two shows in July with Jim Messina to mark the 50th anniversary of playing the Hollywood Bowl to support their first album, Sittin’ In. He’s also playing a series of “At the Movies” concerts — one a month between June and December —as well as doing three shows called “Still Alright: An Intimate Evening of Stories and Songs” in June.
To quote the song from which the memoir’s title is taken: We don’t need to worry about Loggins (if we ever did), he’s still alright. His appealing memoir celebrates him home in fine form.