“It's the same old tears on a new background,
Seeing you as a fading photograph…
It's the same old song with a new melody…
To see you again is all that keeps me hangin' on…”
(“The Same Old Tears On a New Background,” Stephen Bishop)
“Down in Tokyo they got lots of crazy people…” No, that’s not quite how the song goes, but it has, indeed, been a long stretch of a journey from “Down in Jamaica…” to Down in Tokyo since 1970s-90s romantic love songs singer-songwriter Stephen Bishop and his “On and On” top U.S. Billboard hit song was last heard in Japan again after ten years last March at the Billboard Live Tokyo.
Walking across the hotel lobby and spotting the one and only suave idol Stephen Bishop sitting on a stool in the lounge bar was like flipping pages of memory lane when girls would scream crazy each time Stephen went onstage. Stephen is no stranger to the pop music lovers of his era—his melancholic and at times, bouncy compositions are joyfully hummed during class parties, outdoor trips, karaoke bars, and even sporadically echo in restaurants and shops. “It Might Be You,” “Save it for a Rainy Day,” “Careless,” “Everybody Needs Love,” “Separate Lives,” and more have also swooned an array of movie themes from “Tootsie,” “White Nights,” “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “The China Syndrome,” “Unfaithfully Yours,” “Summer Lovers,” and the list goes on. Never has a singer-songwriter’s tunes been so expansively covered by a hundred artists—Barbra Streisand, Eric Clapton, Art Garfunkel, Helen Reddy, Phil Collins, Steve Perry, Kenny Loggins, Phoebe Snow, and even the legendary Pavarotti for the song “Holy Mother.”
There is something irresistibly magnetic about Stephen’s songs that persist to linger for over four decades—they are best remembered for the simple, yet direct lyrical message that attracts an all too familiar story in anyone’s life. The carefree passage through both sentimental and humorous moments that his songs traverse is Stephen himself in his ultimate persona: an aura of fun and ease, which makes his music so difficult to dislike. Be the judge in this exchange of pleasantries, a day before his Billboard Live Tokyo concert last March 4th.
So, how many times have you been to Japan?
Japan would be the ninth time. My first time here was in 1980. Philippines is ten times. Argentina three times. Ireland six times. UK four to five times. I haven’t been to Japan in eight to ten years.
What made you decide to come back?
Well, they asked me (laugh). They waited eight years. They were probably waiting to get everything together. I thought Japan was probably all messed up (because of the tsunami)...
How would you assess your impression of Japan then, the first time, and now after ten years?
Japanese people are so different compared to Americans. Japanese treat everyone with respect; they are so kind. If you need help, they are generous and they help you—a whole different feeling here. In the U.S., people would say, “get out of here!” Here, people are very kind, everything just flows…it seems this way. My first impression before and now is still the same. I haven’t seen anything different. The audiences are so different though. They clap so short. I mean, like I’m still getting ready to finish the song, and they already stop clapping (doing the short clap gesture).
(laugh) I never noticed that. But, they would clap for a long time to ask for an encore.
Oh yeah, that’s different. But, in general, they just don’t clap long enough.
Well, your career has spanned…oh, like 40 years maybe? Your generation was the Beatles, then rock’n roll, then there was the funk of the 90s, and now I don’t even know what to call the music today…
I call it fastfood music, that’s what.
I know…looking back then and seeing the music we have now, how have you coped with music today?
You know, I have a stepson; he’s 15. He likes everything I don’t like. I never got into hiphop. It’s just not my thing. When I was 15, I told my stepson, “When I was 15, I listen to the music that I still listen to today. Back then we had the British invasion, Beatles, Rolling Stones, look, ok…is he going to be listening to that music at my age? Years later? He said “oh yeah…” I don’t think so.
True. I think what is so great about the music of your times was that before, music was very lyrical and people loved listening to and remembering the lyrics and they made people fall in love with the songs. Now, it’s like lyrics don’t matter anymore. People just want the beat, the rhythm; it’s almost like the songs don’t mean anything. How do you cope with this radical change?
Well, you just go where the wind blows. I just keep doing my shows, doing what I’ve been doing. I wished I had some magic…mostly I keep doing albums and shows. I’ve always been writing songs. I wrote a new song for the new movie “Benjie.”
Wow. So, you’re still doing that—writing for movie themes.
Do you still play the clarinet?
Oh no. That was in an orchestra in high school. I switched to guitar to be a cool guy (laugh).
In the span of 40 years, was there ever a break? Like a pause when you just stopped writing?
There’s a break now (laugh). No, you know people ask me this and I tell them, “I’m a minister now. Do you want me to talk to you about the Lord?” They go “ahhhhh…” (laugh) I tell them I’ve become a plumber (laugh). You know, music is all I know what to do. I was never good at anything else. I still do concerts in the U.S., I’ll be performing on a cruise to Mexico. I don’t know, vitamins keep me up (laugh). Or maybe I would just be a cook.
(laugh) Maybe a Japanese cook.
Yeah. I would run my own sushi bar. Lately, I have just been working on getting Trump out of office.
(laugh) Oh, that shouldn’t be hard, right? Do you inject some of those political stuff in your music, too? ‘Cause you are mostly known for your romantic songs.
Well, there’s that romantic side, but there are also weird stuff (laugh). “Blue Window” in my latest album “Blueprint” talks a bit about that—things going on in life.
Now, going to Art Garfunkel, he was like the turning point in your career, right?
Yes. I met him through a friend Leah Kunkel who sang the song I wrote “Under the Jamaican Moon.” She gave Art a cassette of mine, and he loved my songs, and that was it. He recorded two of my songs on his “Breakaway” album. I sang on his albums; he sang on my albums; in “Bish,” “Red Cab to Manhattan,” “Careless.” My songs are recorded by Pavarotti, Eric Clapton, Steve Perry, Phil Collins, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Art Garfunkel, Kenny Loggins, Four Tops. I really don’t mind.
Having collaborated with so many great artists, is there someone whom you’ve always looked up to, someone that might have changed your philosophy of music, of life in some way?
Well, I don’t know about that, but you know, I met Stevie Wonder and it was like…Ohhhh…Stevie Wonder, he is like God to me. I was at backstage at The Forum some years ago. Phil Collins was playing and I was singing at the background in front of 25,000 people. After the show, Leland Sklar, the bass player was talking to Stevie Wonder. Stevie left down the hall; he was about like 50 meters away from me. I told Leland, ”I don’t think he knows who I am.” And, from so far away, Stevie heard me and yells back “Yes, I do! On and On…”
Wow…that’s fantastic! So, what did you do? Did you run to him, hug him? (laugh)
No…I just went “oops”… I was gobsmacked. So many other artists also inspire me: Beatles, John Lennon. Steely Dan. I like Chainsmokers and their song Closer.
Okay, you know there’s this radio program in the UK I learned called “Desert Island Discs.” So, they have a celebrity over and ask him, “If you were stuck in an island what seven albums would you take with you?” What would be yours?
Oh okay, I’ll try that. Let me see. Seven? Okay, 1 = ”Roundabout” Yes, 2 = ”Rubber Soul” Beatles, 3 = ”Sgt. Pepper” Beatles; 4 = ”Silver Morning” Kenny Rankin; 5 = “Buffalo Springfield Again” Buffalo Springfield; 6 = Mine (laugh) “Romance in Rio”; 7 = Mine again, “Blueprint”; and 8 = “Tuesday Night Music Club” Sheryl Crow. Now, I think that’s eight.
Cool. And, if you only had one day in Japan, what would you do?
Just one day?? Hmmm. One day in Tokyo…I’d go to Tokyo Tower, have a nice hot bath and get a Japanese massage, then get a great Japanese meal.
With gratitude to Billboard Live Tokyo