The Story of "All I Wanna Do", Redux

Written by Dan Schwartz

I was talking to Paul McGowan a week or so ago, and he asked again about how the song’s lyrics came about. This is as I remember it:

Originally, on Election night 1992 [November 3rd, Clinton was elected—for obsessives like me—Ed.], there was the usual Tuesday night gathering. By the time I got there, a song was well under way. David Baerwald, like an excited kid, yelled out “Dan! Country disco!”

Sure enough, everybody, the four guys with Sheryl, was engaged in playing some sort of country-ish riff with a disco kind of beat to it. Sheryl was singing something about an ex-boyfriend, which gave rise to the working title, “I’ll Still Love You”.

I grabbed a bass – my memory is that it was a ’70 Guild M-85 II – but waited until they were done before overdubbing the first bass line that popped into my head. In fact I think the only ones present when I did the bass line were Baerwald, sitting with me, and the engineer; everyone else was continuing in “party” mode upstairs in the lounge. And that was it: one night’s work.

But as work on the album progressed, Bill Bottrell had a rethink, and began redoing the song entirely on his own, based on our parts from the first version— adding bits of the other guys as needed. There was a story told among us at the time that Sheryl couldn’t come up with any lyrics acceptable to her producer. That might be, but it strikes me as unlikely. I think it’s more likely that Bill did what he was planning to all along, and that was to use a poem that he had in mind.

When he was building his studio, Toad Hall, he knew it shouldn’t be like any other place. He found two adjacent spaces, at least one of which had been a former bank, in a neglected area of Pasadena which is now known as the Playhouse District. Back then there was the Playhouse next door, next to that that a hoity-toity florist, and Vroman’s Books. Everything else was a little beat-up. Around the corner were Cliff’s Books, a pretty great used bookstore — and a carpet place. Bill bought something like six or eight carpets there, to hang on his 16-foot cinderblock walls over fiberglass batting.

The back wall of the studio was a floor-to-almost-ceiling bookshelf, which he stocked full with odds and ends purchased at Cliff’s. He used the books for diffusion. And I have to say — it worked beautifully. Now it’s fairly common, but I suspect Bill was one of the first, if not the very first, to do it.

Anyway: amongst all these used books was a self-published, small volume of poems by a little-known poet named Wyn Cooper, who taught at Middlebury College in Vermont: a Little Red Book. And among the poems in the book was a poem called “Fun” (about, essentially, two men in conversation, who know that they’re drinking themselves to death).

The story goes that when Sheryl couldn’t come up with anything, Bill handed her the book, opened to “Fun”, and said, “Here — sing this.” But as I wrote, I think it was less random; more likely it was his plan all along. Bill came up with the chorus out of the words of the poem. This might have worked out really well for Wyn — he was given 40% of the publishing on the song — if not for Warner-Chappell taking most of that from him. Sheryl later, in interviews, said it was a mistake and that her lawyer was going to straighten that out. But as far as I know, that never happened: another tale in the grimy music business.

But, for me, that great irony was that I would hear from people about their little kids singing the song, and yet I knew that it was a song about alcoholism.

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