Somewhere on the planet, virtually every minute of the day, someone is playing a song with John Capek's name attached to it.
This news will no doubt surprise you, since John Capek is not exactly a household name. In fact, unless you actually work in the music industry, or follow it closely, I'll wager generous odds you've never heard of him.
Yet there it is: In clubs, on radios, in elevators, in supermarkets, wherever music is playing, there's a decent likelihood that the musical gifts of this Prague-born, Melbourne-raised, L.A.-savvy, Toronto-embraced composer are somewhere on display.
If Capek's name rings no bells, try these: Diana Ross, Joe Cocker, Toto, Chicago, Olivia Newton John, Little River Band, Heart, Manhattan Transfer and Amanda Marshall. Capek has written for and worked with all of them.
Not convinced? Rod Stewart, Sheena Easton, Dan Hill, Bette Midler, Cher, Amy Sky, Patti Austen, Natalie Cole, Bonnie Raitt and Kermit the Frog. He's worked with those folks, too, either producing, arranging, scoring, keyboarding or writing.
And going back a little further, some of Canada's finest: Rough Trade, Mainline, Ian Thomas, Ken Tobias, Downchild Blues Band, Stan Rogers and the Good Brothers.
In a career that spans more than three decades, the fiftyish Capek has written the music (and occasionally the lyrics) for some 1,500 songs, including Rod Stewart's monster 1991 hit, Rhythm of My Heart (lyrics by Marc Jordan).
The Capek-Jordan duo are about to have another hit -- an offbeat love song, Charlie Parker Loves Me, which is on Stewart's just-released album, Human, and will probably become a single. (The original version of Charlie Parker is found on Jordan's CD This is How Men Cry, which has been nominated for a Juno Award as best Canadian jazz recording of 2000.) L.A.-based composer Steve Kipner also gets a music credit on the song. Stewart's CD also features another Capek-Jordan number, Soul on Soul.
Jordan calls Capek "the Bill Evans of rock 'n' roll," an allusion that recognizes the composer's distinct musical phrasing.
"I'm not just interested in chords," Capek explained during a recent interview. "I'm interested in the stuff that goes between the chords, the subtlety in the music."
Capek himself seems to inhabit the same ambiguous space, a quiet, observant man far more comfortable expressing his ideas on 88 keys than in words. "If you ask me how I'm feeling, I'd much rather play it than say it." One old friend, Toronto writer Lennie Wise, calls Capek "the prince of darkness, on account of his essentially gloomy view of life. You can sit with him for two hours and he won't say a word."
To some extent, the secret of writing successful pop music is being able to anticipate the Zeitgeist. Capek remembers Kipner running into his house in L.A. and playing what he called the greatest song of his life, Let's Get Physical. Capek concedes the music did nothing for him, but Kipner had found a way to tie traditional romantic themes and sexual allusion to the burgeoning fitness craze of the 1980s. The song, recorded by Olivia Newton-John, was a number one hit for 10 consecutive weeks.
Similarly, Capek's own music is often been ahead of the curve. Rhythm of My Heart was written seven years before Stewart popularized it. In fact, it was first recorded by a Dutch Elvis impersonator and then by a Celtic rock band in England. The powerful ballad Soul on Soul has also been around for some years.
But if his songs have earned Capek several million dollars through the years, he has little materially to show for it today. That's the result of two devastating divorces, the second of which left him about $1.25-million in debt. Only now, he says, is he about to climb out of the black hole of bankruptcy.
"A lot of people would never recover from this sort of thing," he says. "I've found my way out of it by writing songs and focusing on what I do best."
With his third wife, the folksinger Bat-Sheva, he now divides his time between Toronto, Los Angeles and Baton Rouge, where his two children (from the second marriage) reside. In his one-bedroom, third-floor walkup in Toronto's Cabbagetown, the entire living room has been converted to a makeshift music studio. There, he typically works 16-hour days, editing and reediting compositions.
Ironically, Capek concedes that he doesn't care much for pop music. At his recent wedding, where Dan Hill, Marc Jordan and Amy Sky performed, the band was not allowed to play anything written after 1915. In fact, not long ago, Capek incurred the wrath of the Songwriters Association of Canada, which had asked him to name his all-time favourite songwriters. His list: George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Kurt Weill, Marc Jordan and John Capek.
For the most part, Capek has teamed with Canadian lyricists, largely, he thinks, because they spring from the image-rich folk traditions of Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and others. "There's a certain story-telling sensibility that you can hear in Marc Jordan, in Sarah McLachlan, even in Alanis Morissette. It's poetry as much as it is lyrics. Even when I'm in L.A., I end up writing with Canadians."
The son of Auschwitz survivors (his mother actually was spared the gas chambers by the fickle finger of Dr. Josef Mengele), Capek arrived in Melbourne from Czechoslovakia at the age of three. His father, a classically trained concert pianist, had given up the piano for the security of chemical engineering. He had lost everything in the war, including his first wife, parents, cousins, aunts and uncles. The only way he could immigrate to Australia was as an indentured servant. For four years, the Capeks lived in someone's garage, with one cold-water tap. For no wages, his father tended gardens; his mother cleaned.
Capek still carries with him the horror of his parents' camp experiences. He remembers his mother waking up screaming in the night. He remembers his father, forever haunted by a decision forced on him as director of an orphanage in Theresienstadt: to identify a boy who had stolen food, thus sending him to certain death, or have the Nazis transfer every child in the orphanage to Auschwitz. "My father made the only choice he could have made and had to live with it the rest of his life." Both parents later gained success in Australia. His father started another engineering firm. His mother was decorated by the Queen for community service.
But his own darkness, Capek insists, is laced with a more characteristic dose of Czech irony, of the kind employed by Kafka, Kundera and his own namesake, Karel Capek. He started playing piano almost as soon as he could talk. He, too, had a classical grounding and regularly won local and statewide piano competitions, playing his own compositions. By his teens, heavily influenced by Little Richard, Ray Charles and Chuck Berry, he was playing in bands.
Like his father before him, Capek initially hedged his artistic aspirations by taking an engineering degree and working for a while in the field. Unsatisfied, he quit and started teaching, but finally resolved to plunge into music. He came to Canada for the first time in the mid-seventies on a working holiday and, in a sense, has never left. Lately, he spends less time arranging and producing, and more time writing. He expects to have two songs on the next Cher album, and he and Jordan are writing for a new all-girl trio, The Alice Band, produced by former Warner Music U.K. chairman Rob Dickins.
Even after all these years and all these hits, Capek concedes he can't predict whether a song will click. "I had no idea Rhythm of My Heart would last more than six months and it's still earning royalties." What he does know is that when he tries to write outside of his strength -- "if I try to write for Christina Aguilera or a Coke commercial -- it doesn't work. I'm really good at what I do, but I can't pretend to be something else."