Larry Burnett of Firefall

by Shawna Ortega

Larry Burnett was with Firefall when they were one of the biggest bands of the late '70s. He talks about how observation, experience and a big bag of cocaine made an impact on his songs.
Shawna Ortega (Songfacts): I have to tell you that I have checked out your Web site and I appreciate your sense of humor.

Larry Burnett: Some people say, "Oh boy, this guy's an a**hole."

Songfacts: Oh, no. I said if your Web site is any indication, you've got a great sense of humor, and I'm going to enjoy this conversation.

Larry: Okay, well, you're chuckling already, so I guess that's a good sign.

Songfacts: Oh yeah. Okay, what we are is a virtual Behind The Music. So what I'm going to grill you about are several of your songs.

Larry: Okay. I'm thinking, God, I wrote these things 40 years ago. I might have to make up something.

Songfacts: Oh, it can't be that long ago. I'm not that old. Am I that old?

Larry: I wrote "Cinderella" when I was 16, I was in high school.

Songfacts: I was in high school, and I'm not that old. Come on.

Larry: Yeah, well…

Songfacts: It was… '75?

Larry: You're talking when it was recorded. That was ten years later. I wrote it in like 1968 or something like that.

Songfacts: Okay, I was only 6.

Larry: I was a very troubled teenager in California.

Songfacts: Actually, that's a wonderful segue. I read on your Web site that you sat down and it just came to you, and you wrote it when you were 16 in like, I don't know, ten minutes?

Larry: Something like that. It was already there, and I was just sort of this vessel. And poof! I went, whoa, that was interesting. It was a nice moment.

Songfacts: I have heard writers say that before.

Larry: Yeah, I mean, I know guys who sit down and they have a concept and they want to work a song around the concept, and rhyming words and yadda, yadda. It's like a construction project. And I have attempted that, and in my view failed miserably, or come up with a lesser product, I guess, at the end of something like that. But what I noticed when I was really young is that, wow, this thing happened, and if there's a way I can access that environment, then perhaps it will happen more. And so that's kind of me. I don't collaborate well because of that.

Songfacts: But you have collaborated.

Larry: I have, yeah. It's different. It's very different.

Songfacts: What is it like to collaborate? I don't imagine I would collaborate easily, either. Is it a nightmare for somebody like you?

Larry: Well, one or two times it has been. But I just have to sort of adjust myself, and I just have to not even think about what happens when I write. There's also a skill set, and if you can learn things you can learn this skill set, and sort of pretend your way through the skill set. Which is how I characterize it; I'm just sort of using this skill set instead of actually writing the song. And it comes in handy to know how to do that. And the guys probably that make the most money are the guys who know quite a bit about that skill set. They can sit down and just look at anybody, whether they know it or not, and both of them use that skill set and end up with a song.

Songfacts: Yeah, that's just words, though. I don't know that that's really life's experience that they're writing about.

Larry: Well, there's not that big an expectation out there among people who listen to songs that every song they listen to and hear on the radio is some profound life experience. There's just not that expectation. Music is a lot more passive than that. They're in their cars and they've got it on in the background, they're at a party, it's on in the background. They're "Ooo I love this song!" and that's about all they can say about any given song is "I like it," or "I don't like it." They don't have much more to say.

Songfacts: But believe it or not, that's what our Web site is all about. People really want to hear the stories behind the songs.

Larry: There's always been a crowd of folks that listen and reject stuff that doesn't qualify for whatever their criteria is. And it's generally a pretty small little subset of the crowd out there. People are doing other things, and sort of listening with one fraction of their brain to what's coming out of their radio. And they'll like something about it. They'll like the beat. Remember "American Bandstand"?

Songfacts: Sadly, I do remember it.

Larry: Okay, "it's got a good beat, easy to dance to. I give it an 82." And that's what most people kind of do, they just stay right on the surface. They're, "Oh, good beat, yeah, I give it a 93."

Songfacts: But I'm one of those geeks that like to pull out the liner notes and read everything.

Larry: I was that, too. And my heroes are not guys you hear on the radio, really. This may not be a great interview for you.

Songfacts: Let's go back to "Cinderella" for a second, okay? So you're 16, you sit down, this idea comes to you, and yet you have no experience behind this whatsoever. You don't know anybody who's going through the situation, or have known anybody that's going through it?

Larry: No. Here's the other thing. Most of the stuff I write, maybe one or two exceptions, I'm not in there anywhere. What is in there are observations. You look around, you see things, you see people going through stuff, listen to what they have to say about it, what it's doing to them. You just look and observe. So it would be my observations, maybe, that are there. But at 16 I certainly didn't have a wife or a girlfriend who was pregnant, and I was working my a** off trying to support us. None of that was going on. But it was certainly happening around me in other people's lives. You know, you notice it and you notice people are not happy with things, or they're angry or this or that or the other thing.

Songfacts: You just kind of absorb it without realizing it.

Larry: Like a reporter. An observer.

Songfacts: Okay, a more recent song, "Confidence Game." That sounds kind of like an in-your-face, this has been my experience and you know, I'm outta here, and you guys can just… I mean, "sticking a knife in somebody's back…" am I misinterpreting this?

Larry: No, I mean, there's a lot of clichés going on in the song. It's a fairly cynical take on things. But then if you live my life, people look at me and they say, "You're pretty cynical." And I go, "No, I'm pretty realistic, I think. I just sound cynical to you because you're not very realistic."

Songfacts: Is that another one of those ones that just came to you? Another reporter song?

Larry: Well, not so much. "Confidence Game" is sort of a widely known phrase. It's a crime, it's a con game. But it also has its sort of little double entendre, like "confidence, ooo… confidence." If you want to look at it like that. And I just sort of blended all that. And sometimes words just occur to me around something. In this case it was around "confidence game," this sort of phrase, that if you want me to explain them in too much detail, I won't be able to, because there's just the words that came and they roll off the tongue nice, and they have an impact. But there's not necessarily a story there or anything. And they just fit with the music. But there again, that one just sort of occurred.

Songfacts: You're just there to channel the words.

Larry: But I liked it. You know, it's funny, because after I write anything, I have to like it. Otherwise it doesn't get written, I don't finish. And it's like, this is stupid. Stop, you know. But if I like part of it, I'll keep going, and eventually try to get to where, Oh, ooo, okay, now we're done.

Songfacts: Is "Even Steven" kind of the same thing? Is Steven anybody that you knew?

Larry: (laughs) "Even Steven," there you go, that's another phrase. Everybody's heard of it, a common household term. Now, you spoke about collaboration, right? I collaborated with Rick Roberts on that, that would be the other guy in Firefall. For years, I write my songs, Ricky writes his songs, we as a band get together, we do them, and never the twain met. And then one night in Florida, Ricky says, "You know, we really ought to try to write something together." And I immediately kind of went Oh God, I knew this was coming. And the only reason the "Oh God" response was there was because I know how Ricky writes songs – at the time, anyway. What Ricky did was – and this is what he did with us, which is why I went "Oh God" – is he gets a big bag of cocaine and gets real high, and then he gets papers and pencil and starts writing down rhyming words on the right-hand side of the page. And then tries to attach sentences to each rhyming word, and then pushes everything around and tries to have it make sense, because, as you might imagine, it's not going to make sense right away, considering his approach to songwriting. So anyway, he said, "Okay, you and I should try writing…" BOOM – here's this big bag of coke, and I'm going, No, Ricky, I don't do this to make me perform better. I'm not that stupid. I get high, but not because it makes me better at anything. Anyway, so we struggled. Boy, we wrote for a long time. And for me it was an enormous struggle. For him it was just what he does, it was no big deal. And he kind of kept the thing going, you know. So that's how we came up with this song, "Even Steven." And there again, even the title – the two words in the title – rhyme. And if you read the lyrics, it's, in my humble opinion – or not so humble, very often – it's just a silly, dumb song. This'll sound silly to you, probably, but I came up in a weird kind of environment, and I've always considered myself to be, if nothing else, cool. (laughs) I'm like the coolest white man on the planet. And so, when we were done with this, and we're singing it and kind of burning it into our brains so we remember it, and I'm going, "This ain't cool at all. I do not want to be associated with this song ever." It's a lame, stupid song. At any rate, there it is, my name on it, it's on the record. It went nowhere, really, as a song. And I'm surprised – and flattered, to some extent – but I'm surprised that you chose that song as one to talk about. Because it's kind of a throwaway tune. But it was a collaboration.

Songfacts: In the '70s I had four Firefall albums, and I had the album that that song was on. And believe it or not, I actually always wondered about it. So there you go.

Larry: What did you wonder about it? I mean, what does that mean, you wondered about it?

Songfacts: I wondered who is Steven?

Larry: Oh, who's Steven. (laughs) Steven's nobody. We grabbed a household phrase, even Steven, and then we thought, Oh, Steven, we have a guy here. Let's use even Steven, this silly cliché, and create a character, and just keep snorting coke until we have this character. It was kind of horrible.

Songfacts: I'm sorry. (laughing) All right. Well, we'll get off "Even Steven."

Larry: You may or may not be pleased to know I haven't done any dope or drank in 23 years. But that's what "Even Steven" was all about. That's what fueled it, and that's just because Ricky felt obligated for us to collaborate. Everybody else in the band was going, "Oh, this is going to be weird."

Songfacts: How long did it take you guys, just one night? Or, I mean, I know it was torture and it probably seemed like longer…

Larry: No, it was a few hours. Well, several, probably. It was overnight, so I'm not quite sure when we started. But all of a sudden the sun was out.

Songfacts: And you're still wide awake.

Larry: Oh, yeah. It was horrible.

Songfacts: Okay. "Piece of Paper." And specifically, there's a lyric in there, "Remember the place that you left me that time? Well, I'm calling from there…" Probably doesn't mean anything, either, but I just have to ask.

Larry: See, there again – you're probably not even going to publish this. This is another example of just a bunch of words occurring to me. I get fascinated with words. It's not always a story, just sometimes there's just some words that sound really kind of cool, along with whatever music has occurred to me, too. And so there again, this is a batch of words that roll off the tongue kind of cool. And consequently, the songs that are the products of that end up being kind of mysterious, right? And it's always fascinating to hear people come up to you and go – like you just sort of did – they start talking to you and, "You know, I really caught that thing in the second verse that you meant when you said this." And I'm going, "Fascinating. You caught that, did you? Wow." And I'm clueless. I'm just kind of listening to whatever it means to them, and I'm going, Cool. So it's left up to the listener to kind of develop a meaning sometimes. And I'm always fascinated at what they end up with. Anyway, it was just a series of words that all strung together kind of nice, and I had this music rolling under it, and obviously, I mean, the sound of it and the lyric, it's a woefully sad kind of song.

Songfacts: It is.

Larry: You know, you left me and all that. So there's a mood to it and everything that I guess I was feeling really bad about something that all that sounded so good to me.

Songfacts: Should I fascinate you with what I thought?

Larry: Yeah.

Songfacts: About the line, "that place where you left me," I'm thinking rehab – maybe you're calling her from rehab?

Larry: No. See, there again, I wrote that song before I got into Firefall. It was one of those songs. I was like 19, 18. Most everything off of the first couple of records I wrote between 16 and 19. The whole reason I was in that band was I lived in Washington, D.C., and on Sunday nights at the time there was a widely known club called The Cellar Door, and on Sunday night – I mean, they had Ray Charles and Bonnie Raitt and John – they had all these people there during the week, and on Sunday nights they had something that today would be called open mike day, I guess. And I used to go down there on Sunday nights and play. I'd play these little songs that I'd written. And the sound man there, who I am still friends with to this day, Jimmy Geisler, he used to record me. He thought I was really good, he recorded me. He had a little tape deck and a light and sound booth. And then during the week when all of these real people would be coming through, he'd be handing them these tapes going, "Hey, I've got this guy writing songs, I think they're pretty good. Give him a listen." I think he handed tapes of me on stage Sunday night at The Cellar Door to everybody – just everybody came through. Anyway, Rick Roberts was playing solo, and he came through as the headline act. And he gave him one of these tapes. And Rick went, "Ooo, I'd like to meet him." And so Jimmy hooked me and Rick up, you know, he called me up and said, "Come down to the club tonight, this guy wants to meet you finally." And so those songs that I was performing then when I was like 18 and 19 on this little stage at The Cellar Door, I had a boatload of them. And anyway, two or three years later when we finally got Firefall together, that's what we started out with, I had all this stuff already written.

Songfacts: Well, how gratifying to get the stuff that you wrote when you were just a teenager into something that's selling millions of albums.

Larry: Oh yeah, believe me, the first time I heard "Cinderella" on the radio, I kind of went, "Whoa, that's pretty wild."

Songfacts: I can imagine. Are you still in touch with Rick Roberts?

Larry: Not so much. We have been in touch over the years, and Ricky's not in really good shape. He might not even remember me right now. He's not in great shape.

Songfacts: I'm sorry to hear that.

Larry: He just kept drinking and he's in bad shape. So, I've stayed in touch with him as much as I could, and then lately less and less. I haven't talked to him in about a year and a half.

Songfacts: Okay, we'll leave Rick alone.

Larry: There's nothing current, really. He just stays home and collects his royalty money and stays alive.

Songfacts: All right. What else do I have here? "Poor Baby." What is "Poor Baby"? Talk me through that.

Larry: (laughs) Well, there again, "Poor Baby", I grew up with a mother who, whenever I was overdoing it, over being upset about something, she'd kind of look at me and go, "Oh, poor baby." Again, sort of the household thing. I hear women doing it with their kids these days, "poor baby," sarcastic thing. So anyway, it's something I heard a lot. It's something I imagine many of us hear a lot. So there again, it's already in people's minds. And what the song is kind of about is adult women. I mean, if you become familiar with the lyrics, the chorus is "poor baby, you're always needing more, baby, to even up the score, baby, from a long time ago." It's like adult women who haven't gotten over something and keep acting out. Adult men do it too, but I'm a guy, so I'm going to write about women. Women who keep acting out weird sh*t throughout their entire adult life based on something stupid that happened that they never quite got over, it traumatized them when they were 8, 10, 12, 15, whenever it was.

Songfacts: So you have no sympathy, is that what you're telling me? (laughs)

Larry: Do I have no sympathy? That would be a way to characterize it. At some point you've got to get over it. At some point you have to grow up. At some point you have to latch onto something that gives you forward motion, rather than hang onto something that keeps you standing still. So yeah, I'm a big fan of people outgrowing whatever.

Songfacts: You've done that yourself.

Larry: I would like to think so. You might find people who'd say, "No, Larry hasn't outgrown any of that sh*t." But I've spent some time and worked on it.

Songfacts: It's a continual thing. You have to work on it every day.

Larry: Yeah, you have to be vigilant. The first thing you have to do is know that you're an idiot. And then work on stopping being an idiot.

Songfacts: I do have one more that I wanted to ask you about. I'm actually not familiar with this song, but the title just flew out at me. "Sharpshootin' At The Senator."

Larry: Oh, wow. Where'd you get that song?

Songfacts: There's a re-release of Elan, and it's a bonus track.

Larry: "Sharpshootin' At The Senator" is exactly what it sounds like it is. It's a song about assassinating senators.

Songfacts: It is not. Is it really?

Larry: Yeah. It's sort of me trying to observe something I actually hadn't ever really seen, which was the mind of a guy who would assassinate a political figure. And it's really heavy, hard rock cool, so it's a cool song. We used to play it in person and people would go nuts. We loved playing it. It was intense. We recorded it in an Atlantic Records recording session, and we were going to put it on an album, and it was on one. And we submitted the album to Atlantic Records, and they sent it back after a while and said, "That ain't going on this record."

Songfacts: That's a little touchy.

Larry: So here's what I find out years later, the reason it's not going on that record was during our recording session I had taken a trip north, visited my mom, brought some of the basic tracks along from the session to play for her and family who live around here. She heard the song. She got very worried. She didn't say anything to me about it, but she heard the song, and she went, "Ooo. I don't know about that."

Songfacts: Was she worried about you, about what you were thinking?

Larry: No, she was worried about the impact that a song like that would have on the world and on people. And then how that would reflect on me, and everything about it.

Songfacts: I can imagine. At the time.

Larry: I don't think it was dangerous. It was powerful, but not dangerous. I could have been wrong. Anyway, so here's what my mother does. Unbeknownst to me, she writes a letter to Ahmet Ertegun, the Chairman of the Board of Atlantic Records, and he gets it. And she identifies herself, "I am Larry Burnett's mother." It was like a four-page letter that she went on and on and on about how he might not want this attached to him and his record company. And she made some really good points, actually. And I didn't find out until years later. So anyway, Ahmet and Atlantic, they're thinking that's a pretty cool song. Bunch of guys, they don't care. So he gets this letter from my mom, he reads it, and he decides at that moment after reading my mom's letter to pull the song from the album. And I find this out two years later from our then-manager, who's a friend of mine, named Jack Royal, and he had a copy of the letter. And he says, "Larry, come here." And he says, "Remember all that sh*t that Atlantic was giving us about a couple of songs?" He said, "I want you to read something." And then I read it and I went, "Whoa," and I read the signature at the bottom, and I went, "Ooohh, this is my mother." He says, "Yeah," he says, "You know where I got that?" I said, "No." He said, "Ahmet gave that to me." He says, "This is why we didn't put that thing on the record." So anyway, I was really surprised to find out that suddenly it's a bonus track on this CD. But it's about how a guy could become so unhappy with how things are going. People blame sh*t on all kinds of stuff, they don't take much responsibility. It's convenient to blame things on the government. And "my personal problems are because Senator Somebody isn't representing me right, so my family's suffering." And somewhere in the chorus of the song is "sharpshootin' at the senator, buddy, use your gun. Sharpshootin' at the senator…" shoot, I can't even remember my own words. It's been a while.

Songfacts: You're not alone. I've talked to other artists who couldn't recall their own words.

Larry: So that's where that came from. It was an imagination. It was imagining somebody that unhappy and willing to kill a political figure.

Songfacts: I guess it's a relief to know that it's not feelings that you were harboring.

Larry: Oh no, that didn't have anything to do with me. Like I said, most of these songs, I'm not in them. I look around and go, "Boy, there's some crazy sh*t going on in the world." There's some nutty people, and what on earth is going on here?

Songfacts: Are there any songs that you can tell me about that you are in? You, personally?

Larry: (laughs) My point of view is in everything in some fashion. But is there a song specifically about me? Well, I have a song called "No Money," it's on that solo CD that's on the Web site. It gets lots of laughs, actually, in person. And it's about… I've been divorced twice, I'm not proud to say, but after my first divorce I was devastated. I'm going, "Jesus Christ, that wasn't supposed to happen." So all of a sudden now here I am, I'm older and now I've got to, like, date. Oh God. So, I started building up my courage, go out and be okay and confident. And I'm thinking, You're a good guy. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You're smart, you're respectful, your mom raised you right. And what are women looking for? They're looking for a good guy. You're a good guy. So I went out and what I discovered is that, no, I was wrong, that's not what women are looking for. They're looking for a guy with money, for the most part. They will tell you many things, but when you get to the part where there's no money, then they go, "Oh, oh God, I've gotta go. I'm sorry." So after a couple of dates I came home and I was laughing. I'm going, Boy, this is really weird. And that song "No Money" just came out. And it's all about that. It's about bumping into two women and getting to the point in the conversation where they discover that there ain't no money, and the chorus is, "No money, no deal, it doesn't matter, baby, how I feel. The things they told you about love ain't real, because no money, no deal." And like I say, it gets a lot of laughs. It's kind of cleverly written in a way that people go, "Oh, funny." Or else a lot of people have noticed the same thing that I noticed, and that's where the laughter's going. But it's kind of a tongue-in-cheek reporting of my own experience with going out and dating. Gee, women are just looking for a nice guy. I'm a nice guy.

Songfacts: How long ago did you write that?

Larry: A couple of years, two years, three years.

Songfacts: Okay, so that's just a recent one, then.

Larry: Now, I will tell you this. There was a guy years ago named Howard Blume, he was a publicist. He was the number one guy in L.A. at the time. And we actually had a meeting with him. We were thinking of engaging him and his servitude. And everybody in the band – we had some idiots in this band, and I was one of them.

Songfacts: In Firefall?

Larry: Oh yeah. We were nuts. All of them have been. Personal habits and sh*t. Anyway, everybody at that meeting, everybody in the band was very concerned about controlling what was said in the press about us. And we were looking to Howard to be the guy to do that. And Howard listened to everybody, and he was kind of smiling and chuckling, and he said, "Look, here's the deal guys. Honestly, I don't care what they say about you," he says. "As long as they're saying something." He says, "My job is to make sure that they spell your name right." He says, "That's my job." And we went, "Ooo." Anyway, I thought about that and I thought, Well, of course. You want to get famous, he don't care what for, he's just there to make sure everybody knows who you are. So anyway, I will repeat that because I thought that was a giant pearl of wisdom. Make sure you spell my name right.

Songfacts: L-A-R-R-Y, and two T's on Burnett, is that correct?

Larry: That's right. No "e" on the end. I'm happy. If you just spell my name right, I'll love whatever you do.

Songfacts: Oh, and your PR rep told me that I cannot misquote you, and so I absolutely promise that I will not misquote you.

Larry: What he told me, he said, "I told her you were kind of funny about being misquoted."

Songfacts: He did.

Larry: It's silly, it doesn't really matter. You don't have to get all funny about it. But over the years I've read things and I go, "I didn't say that. What is this guy talking about?" And it's mostly funny. There again, we'll go back to Howard Blume: "I don't care what they say about you, as long as they spell your name right."

Songfacts: People remember you.

Larry: I've learned to look to see how they spell my name, more than whether I'm quoted properly or not. So if you can do it – if you can pull this off and get every word I say and all the "umm's" and "er's" and all that stuff, boy, that'll be great. I'll be bowing down to you.

Songfacts: Yes, just pay homage. I'll let you know when the Songfacts are uploaded.

Larry: Okay. My PR guy checks in every day, two or three times, reporting to me, as important as that makes me sound.

Songfacts: I was important enough to get re-forwarded to you. I was important enough to talk to you.

Larry: Absolutely. My deal with him is anybody I deal with that has to do with PR, I'm always telling the Howard Blume story. I'll talk to anybody, I don't care. It's all good. And we just have to make sure they spell my name right.

Songfacts: I appreciate that. But you have to make me feel important now. Say, "It's been really important talking to you."

Larry: Well, this year I'm only talking to two people, and you're one of them.

Songfacts: And your mom's the other one?

Larry: I'm not sure who the other one's going to be. Maybe no one.

Songfacts: Okay, you recovered from that nicely.

Larry: Sometimes I just speak without thinking.

Songfacts: I do that all the time.

Larry: Well, Shawna, it's been delightful, and I thank you very much for taking the time, and for being interested.

Get more at larryburnett.com.
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 2

  • Bill Lusk from New York, NyGreat interview!!
  • Gary Breen from Williamsburg VaLarry Burnett what a talent!! Awesome guy ,great interview! Thanks
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Dan ReedSongwriter Interviews

Dan cracked the Top 40 with "Ritual," then went to India and spent 2 hours with the Dalai Lama.

Charlie Benante of AnthraxSongwriter Interviews

The drummer for Anthrax is also a key songwriter. He explains how the group puts their songs together and tells the stories behind some of their classics.

Facebook, Bromance and Email - The First Songs To Use New WordsSong Writing

Do you remember the first time you heard "email" in a song? How about "hater" or "Facebook"? Here are the songs where they first showed up.

Colbie CaillatSongwriter Interviews

Since emerging from MySpace with her hit "Bubbly," Colbie has become a top songwriter, even crafting a hit with Taylor Swift.

Protest SongsMusic Quiz

How well do you know your protest songs (including the one that went to #1)?

Timothy B. SchmitSongwriter Interviews

The longtime Eagle talks about soaring back to his solo career, and what he learned about songwriting in the group.