"Money Changes Everything"
Artist: Cyndi Lauper
Writer: Tom Gray
Album: She's So Unusual
Chart Position: #27 US
Tom Gray claims his song "Money Changes Everything" was not born out of a personal experience with either the lack or the subsequent abundance of funds - even though he wrote it at the very beginning of his career, after a conversation with his landlady at a rooming house in Atlanta.
"Maybe the theme was there," he says, "because I wasn't very rich at the time, for sure. But no, I can't say that story ever exactly happened to me that way. The landlady was a friend. We were just sort of gossiping about this couple we knew, and she said, 'She's going to leave him as soon as she finds somebody with money.' And I said, 'Wait a minute, excuse me.' The idea of the song just appeared in my head right there. The keyboard part was something I'd been banging on the piano for a week or so. But I wrote the chorus very quickly and then the verses followed. The song was finished within a day or two."
Having just formed The Brains, he had an immediate outlet for the song, a gig at a place then called Rosa's Cantina. "We had probably played one or two shows at that time," says Gray. "The song got a really good reaction from the audience. You can feel it when that happens."
This was 1979, and in the DIY spirit of the times, the Brains used the money from a gig opening two nights for The B-52's at the Downtown Cafe, to make it into a single on their own label. "We pressed 1,000 and sold them, and then we pressed 1,000 more," Gray recalled. Soon it was being played over progressive FM stations from San Francisco to Boston.
In San Francisco, KSAN used it as their rallying cry when the station was taken over by a big corporation. In New York, the Dean of rock critics, Robert Cristgau, gave it a glowing review in The Village Voice, leading to the single winning a high placement the paper's "Pazz & Jop" Critic's Poll. Mercury signed them for their first album, to be produced by Steve Lillywhite.
Gray was perfectly prepared for money to change everything. "Then the company was taken over by a big German corporation," says Gray. "And everybody there, from the receptionist to the president, to the A&R man who was totally behind us, was changed something like the week before we went in the studio. So we're in the studio recording the album and nobody at the record company even knew who we were."
They didn't know who Steve Lillywhite was either, since Lillywhite was an album away from producing his first record for U2. "He'd just come off a Peter Gabriel album, which wasn't out yet. He'd done an XTC album, where we really liked the drum sound." One of the few complaints Gray had about the production of the album centered around "Money Changes Everything." "When I originally wrote the song I'd written three verses. When it got time to put it on the album, Lillywhite felt there was really only room for two. So on the original Brains 45, I'd sung a second verse that I liked better. But for the album, Steve talked me into singing the other verse that I'd left off, saying, 'Oh, it'll be great. Then collectors will have to have both versions.' I liked the verse that we'd put on the 45 better," Gray points out. "When Cyndi Lauper finally recorded the song, she used the verse from the 45, not from the Mercury album."
But that wasn't until 1983. By then the Brains were dead and buried.
I had a publishing deal with ATV. They pitched the song to Rick Chertoff, the producer for Rachel Sweet, and they passed on it. Six months later Rick Chertoff called back and said, "I got a new artist I think that song would be perfect for." Cyndi told me Rick came to her with a tape of six songs that he thought might be good for her to cover and she chose two off the tape. "Money Changes Everything" was one and the other was a Prince song, "When You Were Mine."
We actually played a gig with Cyndi when she was in her first band, Blue Angel. My roadies tell me this, but I don't even remember the gig. I was probably backstage and missed their act completely. Which I wish I had to do over. But, anyway, she had no name at the time. The album came out and I listened to it and I thought it was good, but I didn't really expect what happened. I put it on the shelf and I wished her good luck. When the album started taking off, it was just wild.
I remember I was living in this little dump of an apartment. Not the same one as before. My neighbor's playing his music too loud - and it was my own song, "Money Changes Everything."
When Cyndi came to Atlanta, touring for her first album, we sat up all night in her hotel room just talking and getting to know each other. She invited me to come to New York and write some songs with her. So I wrote several songs with her that were on later albums, although none of them was ever a single. We used to talk a lot. I haven't talked to her in several years now. We've sort of stayed loosely in touch, but not much. I remember the day she recorded "True Colors," she called me and read me the lyrics over the phone.
After her first couple of hits, people started calling me from New York saying, "It's the next single for sure!" And then "She Bop" comes out. I was glad it finally did come out as a single, but the album was running a little low on steam by then. Although it didn't crack the Top 10, having a single is a big deal, because people actually bought singles in those days. And the single that she put out had the studio version on one side and a live version on the other side. So that's like a double dip. And then the live version also was the B-side of the European single of "True Colors." That was awesome. When she first cut the song I was out there mowing lawns to try to eat. But in a year or so that went away. I ended up buying a house. I also bought a commercial building, which I still own. I bought the worst building on the block. It was kind of falling in. A plumber was using it just to store pipe. But it was a great location, so I rebuilt it as my own little recording studio. Now I rent it out.
I don't know if everybody knows that my band did the song first and that I wrote it. But in the business, it gave me a certain reputation. I worked some more in New York and Nashville and LA and traveled around a good bit. As a songwriter I was able to work with several other good people, although I never had another big hit like that. I didn't really have a band; for quite a while I was doing studio work. Maybe if I'd been a little more serious I could have thought more in terms of career. Like up in Nashville, there's a lot of little games you can play to advance your career. But I just enjoyed getting out there. I enjoyed hanging out with people like Carlene Carter. I wrote a song with her ["The Leavin' Side"] and got to meet Johnny Cash and June Carter and hear all these fantastic stories and hang around with them. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything.
I guess I could have been more calculating as far as advancing my career, and looking at it from this vantage point, sometimes I wish I had. I never took a staff job. I'm not really an employee type. I can't say the song really supports me, although it's certainly been a big boost over the course of my life since then. It's been re-released several times on different compilations and "best of" albums. At the height of the dotcom thing an internet bank called Wingspan used it on commercials for a month, so it was on all the major networks. I've got no qualms about that. It's been used in TV shows, too, especially in the '80s. I think it was used in a casino scene in Miami Vice.
In the late '80s, I was in Nashville working on a studio project and I went into a guitar shop and saw this lap steel. I thought it was pretty cool, real art deco looking. The next morning I woke up and said, "I've got to go back and buy it." Once I'd bought it I had to learn to play it. After that, I just got fascinated with playing this lap steel guitar. Everybody said, "You're crazy. What are you doing?" But I kept working on that into the early '90s. Then I had a son and I just wanted to stay home more and be a dad for a few years when he was little. So I quit traveling and just started playing lap steel with this guy I met in a music store, Mark Johnson, who lived just a few blocks from me. He played slide guitar and I played lap steel, and we just started getting together regularly and playing. Then I went to JazzFest in New Orleans and saw Ry Cooder and David Lindley playing together. I said, "Well, that's exactly what Tom and I do." So I came back and said to him, "Let's go out and do some gigs." We started out in coffeehouses and stuff and then added bass and drums and got louder. Then we started recording some CDs - that's how Delta Moon came to be, right around 2000.
With Delta Moon I didn't use "Money Changes Everything" at all until we recorded our own version of it. I'd always wanted to do it with a fiddle, so I played Appalachian dulcimer on it. And then after we already had it in the can, Cyndi came out with her all-acoustic CD - and what instrument did she play on it but Appalachian dulcimer! We hadn't talked or communicated about this at all. But she came out doing it with a fiddle and an Appalachian dulcimer and I was just like, "Whoa."
I go back and listen to the original one now and go, "Is that me?" It was so long ago. That was the first time I ever sang on a record. But I've never written a song that I've felt that kind of visceral connection with an audience when I get up there and sing it, even that first time. Some songs have come close. But that one, everybody just responded to it right away.
May 26, 2014