Paul Anka Interview: At 75, So Square That He’s Hip

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He wrote ‘My Way,’ Tom Jones’ biggest hit and The Tonight Show theme
Paul Anka in 2011 via his Facebook page

Photo courtesy of Paul Anka Productions

Hip to be square? Was that ever the case? Maybe back when Huey Lewis proudly sang that hit song to his preppie fan base nearly three decades ago? But today?

Not sure I ever believed Huey on that one. But geek culture has only accelerated since that song was a #3 hit in 1986, carving out its own definition of hip. And nowadays, the hip/unhip worlds are more entwined than ever (or at least more in the eye of the beholder). An embrace of irony helps, too, of course.

With Tony Bennett turning 90 (on August 3) considered über-hip by the entire universe even before his duets with Lady Gaga, well, could Paul Anka—yes, he of “(You’re) Having My Baby” fame—be far behind? The Canadian-born singer-songwriter turns 75 this Saturday, July 30, so let’s consider his hip credentials:

• Like Bennett, he finds that zone between schmaltz and sincerity. He’s done his duets with the stars (Leon Russell, Dolly Parton, Tom Jones), and made an art form out of taking well-known rock songs and thoroughly revamping them. On 2005’s Rock Swings, he put a jazzy Anka twist on everything from Bon Jovi to the Cure to Nirvana.

• Trip back, for a moment, to 1957: There he was on top of the pop charts, a 16-year-old Canadian kid with a hit single called “Diana,” a song he wrote at 15. It sold some 20 million copies and remains one of the best-selling singles ever by a Canadian artist. He was a pioneering teen idol, Bieber well before he came to be, a one-man boy band, if you will.

• Go back even further, and you’ll find Anka as a kid hanging out at his father’s Ottawa restaurant, the Locanda, with journalists, politicians and businessmen. “I was pretty precocious, a pretty aggressive kid,” he admits.

• At 15, he headed on his own to Los Angeles in search of fame and fortune, and then took off to New York, where he wrangled a meeting with record exec Don Costa and won a label deal with ABC/Paramount Records.

• In 1957, he was on that fabled first cross-country rock ’n’ roll cavalcade billed as “The Biggest Show of Stars” tour: Anka, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, LaVern Baker, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, the Drifters and more. Good company. They played 73 shows in 80 days, making Anka a live rock concert trailblazer.

“It was very gratifying, very emotional and very passionate,” Anka recalls, “because it was the beginning and egos were checked at the door. Even though we were kids and we had little egos, we were this little band of pioneers. Other than our fans, everyone was against us. We were piled on a bus making 300 bucks a week. To me, that was a lot of money.

“It was hard work, but with a bunch of guys where you really loved their music. There was a broad base of experience and learning. You got over the fears. What I took from that and what I learned from the Rat Pack in Vegas was you learned to fail and it was OK. Today, in this media-driven society, you can’t do that. You fail a couple of times, you’re gone. Back then, we weren’t afraid to go out and make mistakes…. You take that journey for quite a few years until you come out with some wisdom about how to deal with success, life, what you are.”

• Anka has made his bones as both writer and singer, and though he doesn’t write much anymore, he’s written so many tunes that he can’t recall how many. “I don’t know accurately,” he confesses, estimating the number at “200, 300, 400 songs.”

Among them are the A-side to Buddy Holly’s double-sided posthumous hit, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore”/”Raining in My Heart” (#13 in the U.S. and #1 in the U.K.). And good guy that he is, Anka gave the songwriting royalties to Holly’s widow Maria Elena. His catalog also includes the theme to The Tonight Show, seen here in Johnny Carson’s final show.

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Also: Tom Jones’ biggest hit, “She’s a Lady”; the theme to the 1962 epic star-studded blockbuster movie The Longest Day (in which he also played a U.S. Army Ranger)… and, of course, Frank Sinatra’s signature song and the timeless lounge lizard anthem, “My Way.”

Which happens to be the second-most-covered pop song ever after “Yesterday” by the Beatles, recorded by, in a varied short list, the likes of Elvis, John Cleese, Tom Jones, Nina Hagen, Pavarotti, U2, Robbie Williams, R. Kelly, and Christopher Lee (heavy metal version, of course). And was most notoriously done by Sex Pistol Sid Vicious, whose version, Anka confesses, “destabilized” him when he first heard it. “For a moment,” says Anka. “Once I settled down and investigated it I could see the guy was sincere. He went to Paris to do it, and it meant a lot to him and that was his only capability. He sang a certain way and that was it. By then I’d heard eclectic versions of it, but nothing like that! After I studied it I thought, ‘Everybody’s entitled to do their own thing, man.'”

Was Vicious trashing it, or was it a tribute? Or maybe both?

“It might have been both,” says Anka, “ but I also think it was an anthem for him. He was doing things his way. I don’t think it was an out-and-out trash at all.”

• He may not exactly be classic rock, but he certainly showed he knows the music on Rock Swings, on which he covers, first, somewhat obvious choices like Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life,” Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” and Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven.” But also songs by Oasis (“Wonderwall’), R.E.M. (“Everybody Hurts”), Van Halen (“Jump’), Soundgarden (“Black Hole Sun”), the Cure (“Lovecats”) and Billy Idol (“Eyes Without a Face”), among others.

Related: See what the Top 10 hits were on the radio 50 years ago!

• He even recorded modern rock’s greatest anthem, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I tell him it was the first time I could understand the words.

“It’s amazing that you said that!” Anka exclaims. “You know who said that to me? Dave Grohl called me and said, ‘That’s the first fucking time I ever heard the words!’ It’s my favorite track.”

The way Nirvana plays it, it’s nasty and snarly with that cranky, distorted electric guitar squawk serving as a hook. Anka’s version is about 180 degrees away from that – maybe he was pulling a reverse Sid Vicious. How did he envision it?

“If you’re a musician,” Anka says, “when you dissect a song and put it in front of you with notes and chords, you [try to] keep the integrity of what your limitations are, of what you’re really capable of doing, to get the optimum out of something. Not over-reaching. You sit there and you find the tempo, the vibe. A great song is a great song and it can be done in any fashion. It can be redone as a ballad, it can be redone as a Latin song.

So, what is “Smells Like Teen Spirit” actually about, then?

“Truly, I have no idea,” says Anka. “I think it’s about a gathering of people hanging out or planning to hang out. It certainly dictates that – ‘Load up! Load up!’ – and then it gets into this libido thing, and esoterically what it feels like when you’re high, but not without a purpose.”

When I mentioned Anka’s birthday to him last year on the phone, a week or so before it happened, he immediately crowed, “I’m 98!” The joke being you can do that when you a) Appear to be that old from the perspective of youth (75, 98… what’s the difference?) and, b) You’re still out there proving yourself night after night. “I got older, but I haven’t changed,” Anka says. “I’m certainly humbler because I’m still around.”

Paul Anka is on tour! Click here for ticket info.

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan

As a high school baseball player growing up in Maine, I used to pump myself up for games by playing Raw Power by Iggy & the Stooges –the ultimate adrenaline rush. My friends and team mates didn't quite get it. They liked Chicago (the band). But that was OK: the punk rock revolution was around the corner, and that's where my musical taste locked in with many others, bored with corporate rock. Yes, I had Slade, Mott, Bowie and Roxy to get me there, too. That punk (and post) period was a time of extreme excitement (friction, joy, conflict) that inspired me to write about what I loved. And it opened the doors to even more worlds.

I wrote about pop music and other arts for the Boston Globe for 25-plus years, with more than 10,000 stories to my credit before leaving in 2005. Since then I’ve freelanced for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Herald, Where magazine, Boston Common, Yankee magazine online, Time Out Boston, US News & World Report, the Cape Cod Times. I host the XFINITY on Demand music/interview show “Boston Rock/Talk,” and write and edit www.jimsullivanink.com, which serves as a critical guide to arts and events around metro Boston.
Jim Sullivan
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