Unsung Heroes

Who do you think of when you hear the song "Dude (Looks like a Lady)"? Regrettably enough, you probably think of Steven Tyler, the scrawny, fat-lipped lead singer of Aerosmith. If someone asked you who wrote the song, you'd probably assume Tyler. One thing's for sure: The name Desmond Child wouldn't leap to mind.

But the Miami Beach native did indeed co-write the song. Unbeknownst to the world, Child shares writing credits on a whole list of rock staples, including the Bon Jovi power ballad "Living on a Prayer," and hits by Cher, Joan Jett, and Alice Cooper.

Child is a professional songwriter, and as such is a nearly invisible force in the personality-driven world of music. It's not that he and other songwriters get a bum rap. In most instances they get no rap.

Rouge, the band Child fronted back in the Seventies, released two albums on Capitol, toured nationally, and even appeared as musical guests on Saturday Night Live. The band never broke big, though; it just broke up, in 1980. Child kept writing songs. By the late Eighties he had forged a solid reputation as a songwriter and producer.

In the summer of 1996 Child, who grew up in Miami Beach and has now returned here to live and work, served as a panelist at a songwriting workshop held at Criteria Studios. There he met two Miamians -- Ellen Moraskie, an executive at Warner/Chappell music publishers, and Chrystal Hartigan, a freelance special events coordinator and a member of the National Academy of Songwriters. The three got to talking about the local music scene. All of them lamented the difficulty that young artists, and particularly songwriters, had in getting their material heard. So they decided to do something to remedy the situation. With the help of some other music insiders, they launched Songwriters in the Round, a monthly get-together organized by and for songwriters.

The event takes place the first Tuesday of every month at Miami Beach's Park Central Hotel on Ocean Drive and allows aspiring and accomplished musicians to showcase songwriting in all genres. "So many people are unaware that the singer hasn't always written what he or she is singing," Hartigan says. "We wanted to create a forum for songwriters to get recognition, and maybe other good things would come of it."

The idea was not to create a pressurized environment in which local musicians could audition for industry scouts, but to provide a laid-back atmosphere that allowed amateurs to rub elbows and network with big-name talent.

"There's something fantastic and approachable about hearing a songwriter perform his work in the most basic way -- probably the way he wrote the song," Child says. "We have no great master plan. We aren't trying to do anything except meld the local music community with the national one. The schmooze factor is high here, and this is the only local event that has that kind of reach."

After eighteen months, the gatherings are healthier than ever. Moraskie, Child, and Hartigan take turns lining up national talent to perform. Recently some of the expenses, such as flying artists to Miami, have been assumed by sponsors like American Airlines and the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). A five-dollar admission fee helps defray other costs.

The evenings are usually arranged around a theme; last month's was Red Hot Latin Night. The festivities always begin with 90 minutes of aspiring songwriters. Some of the two dozen amateurs on hand this Tuesday night have traveled from as far away Boca Raton. One by one they make their way through the scattering of tables and chairs toward the performance area, which features a stool, a few microphones, and a grand piano.

Dark-haired women with guitars warble earnest but not very memorable tunes. Fortysomething men pound out plaintive ballads on the piano. Twentysomething guys wail a bit too intensely. Some of these performers are trying to make a living as full-time members of bands. Most, however, hold down day jobs. For some, Songwriters in the Round is a rare opportunity to play in front of a live audience, one possibly peopled with music industry bigwigs.

Robert Bidney, age 42, an executive for Gold Coast Advertising, has written jingles for Swim 'N' Sport shops and the Sports Authority. His dream, though, is to make it as a country singer. For the past nine months he has attended the songwriters' gathering in hopes of being discovered. "That would be great," Bidney says. "There aren't enough songwriter events down here, and this one has such solid backing. You never know who could be listening."

Tonight he performs his contemporary country ballad "Daring to Dream" on the grand piano. With his close-cropped beard and lean build, Bidney somewhat resembles a country star of some years back, Lee Greenwood, and his voice has the same clear, yearning quality. His number receives spirited applause.

Unlike the crowds in many musical venues around town, this audience listens intently and claps enthusiastically for even the most bizarre composition. This supportive vibe extends even to the evening's stranger offerings.

Enter Seth Rottman. A short, clean-cut-looking twenty-year-old, Rottman has come from Boca Raton armed with an acoustic guitar and a four-song demo tape of original material. Very original material. He strums his guitar and shakes his hips as if he's trying to keep a hula hoop aloft. The lyrics that come out of his mouth are out of this world. The song "Alien" deals with space creatures. Not just being abducted by them but being molested as well; he finally exacts revenge by taking out a knife and "chopping off his alien balls."

After a slew of performances by amateurs, stagehands arrange four stools in a semicircle. It's time for the professionals -- the writers who have the record deals -- to serenade the crowd. Past participants have included Joan Osborne collaborator Eric Bazilion ("One of Us"), vocalist-writer Billie Myers ("Kiss the Rain"), Alanis Morissette's writing partner Glen Ballard ("Ironic"), and country music sensation Kostas, who has written for the Mavericks, Travis Tritt, Patty Loveless, and others. Tonight's tunesmiths: a quartet of Latin songwriters including Brazilian Cesar Lemos, Venezuelan Juan Carlos Perez-Soto, Cuban Fulano de Tal, and Puerto Rican Obie Bermudez. Perez-Soto and Fulano de Tal have just released debut albums on Polygram Latino and BMG, respectively.

An hour of rousing rock en espanol (and sometimes Portuguese) follows. Bermudez, Perez-Soto, and Lemos play acoustic guitars; rocker Fulano de Tal plays an electric guitar. Although each musician croons his own songs and nothing has been rehearsed, the songwriters accompany each other, and quite naturally. The result is striking, as if they have been playing together for years. During one number the musicians encourage the crowd to join in, and the room suddenly swells with the sound of syncopated clapping and a chorus of "Ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-oh!"

Three-quarters of the way through the set Ellen Moraskie brings the action to an abrupt halt and introduces special guest Jonathan Richman, the legendary songwriter whose Modern Lovers have been cult favorites since the Seventies. Richman is obviously here by invitation of one of the organizers, but no one in the audience appears to recognize him. Although Richman recorded an entire album in Spanish a few years ago, the Spanish-speaking musicians don't seem familiar with his work either.

He stands stiffly next to the songwriters, who gaze at him in amazement (they are clearly puzzled), and croons inaudibly in Spanish for about a minute. The songwriters, hoping to help his cause, attempt to provide musical accompaniment. But Richman is determined to sing a cappella and shushes the guitars. He finally surrenders the mike to polite, if puzzled, applause, allowing the Latin singers to resume.

Near 11:00 p.m. the show ends, after the pros have done about twenty songs and three encores. They hang around for a while, graciously chatting with the amateurs and imparting a few tips on penning the perfect pop song. Whispers abound about whose album is coming out soon, who might get signed next. No one wants to go home.

At last, the stragglers pack up their instruments and file out. Some will return next month. Others won't be seen or heard from again. The professionals stick around a little longer, reminiscing about the days when they were the dabblers. "They didn't have to do too much asking for me to agree to this. It's amazing, perfect; all improvised, no rehearsal," says Cesar Lemos. "People come here from all over the world. We get to hear them and they get to hear us. I'll definitely be back."

The next Songwriters in the Round takes place February 3 at the Park Central Hotel (640 Ocean Dr, Miami Beach). Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Admission is $5.

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Nina Korman
Contact: Nina Korman