I’m not sure exactly when I came across the trick of using one story to tell another, but it had to be some time after I discovered that stating the obvious usually makes for a lousy song.
Telling two stories at the same time ain’t exactly easy. For one thing, both stories need to deserve telling. Each needs to work on its own level.
And there’s a very fine line between leaving your listener distracted and confused, and leaving them to discover the deeper meaning. You have to resist the temptation to tell them there even IS a deeper meaning. That’s what they have to discover for themselves.
I’ll admit to thinking that the guitar is the best instrument to write on. But I know better.
Joni Mitchell wrote “A Case of You” on the dulcimer, for crying out loud. How do you think “You’re the Tops” would have worked out if Cole Porter had written it on the guitar? Please.
Beethoven, when he went deaf, wrote entire symphonies just in his mind. Parts for 50 or more instruments playing all at once. Think about that for a bit….
Have you ever seen an Appalachian hand clapper perform using nothing but skin and bones (and knees and thighs and…) singing “Walk the Dog”?
It doesn’t take an instrument. It just takes an idea, or a feeling, or wisp of a melody, or a lick that clicks. That’s most where songs start.
Some instruments are easier to write on when the words arrive first. The guitar is like that. Chords are like blocks of furniture you can move around here and there when you’re putting a room together.
Pianos are great for finding a melody. It’s amazing what one finger can do.
I don’t know if a song was ever written on a tuba, but I’m guessing there’s one out there. If you wrote it, hats off to you, mate. That must have been one tune fairly busting to get out.
And if one of the best songs ever written (the aforementioned “A Case of You”) can be mined from the three strings of a dulcimer in a modal tuning, anything, my friend, is possible.
The point here is that it doesn’t matter what you start on, it just matters that you start.
Because I write primarily on the guitar, here are a couple examples of how a song got started for me.
The Lick that Clicks
Not Bored with this Chord (Yet)
Sometimes you find a set of chords in a key that just works for you. Simply playing them suggests possibilities.
Paul McCartney found the melody for “Yesterday” long before he came up with “all my troubles seemed so far away”, etc.. He called the song “Scrambled Eggs” for the longest time.
McCartney says the entire melody came to him in a dream while staying at the family home of his posh girlfriend on London’s Wimpole Street. At the crack of dawn, the legend goes, he lept from bed to a piano, trying to remember what he’d dreamed. One can just imagine McCartney in his jammies perched at the Steinway Concert Grand in the Conservatory, waking up Jane Asher’s parents at 5:30 in the morning with ‘Da-dee-dee…. da da dee dee dee dee da dee dee…’ wafting up the grand stair case from below. One suspects The Pater was not amused.
I’m Not Blind
And sometimes, it starts with a lyric fragment that is flat out begging you to find a place to sing it.
In a softball game many moons ago, a woefully inebriated second baseman let a Bucknerian dribbler I’d hit scoot right between his legs. As I huffed and puffed in to second, he wiped his brow and said, “Whit, a few more years ago I would have had that.”
Talk about your penny from heaven. Even as toasted as I was my own self, I knew THAT had to be a song one way or another. The result, a 12 bar lament from an epically (temporally) confused soul, is clickable below. And thank you, Dr. Bob, who is a far better doc than second baseman. Though he hasn’t received a writing credit yet, I suppose he will have to now if the song ever sees the light of day beyond here.
First: at it’s best, songwriting forces you to look inward and to grow in the doing of it. I’m pretty much living proof that it’s the doing of it that counts the most. If I’d stopped writing songs because no one heard them, there certainly wouldn’t be the number there are – and you and I wouldn’t be staring at this page. As the Bhuddists say – it’s the journey, not the destination.
Caveat Emptor: At its worst, songwriting kicks your ass up and down the street.
Second, not to get all metaphysical on you, but a big part of what we songwriters – or any artist – is trying to do is deny the existentialist’s perceived truth: in the end, we are all alone.
Any creation that strikes a welcome chord in another heart, or brings a nod of recognition of something shared with just one other soul – whispers and sometimes even shouts: we are not all alone. We can be heard. Perhaps, even, understood.
My guess is that all art is a result of wanting to be heard and understood.
What It’s Not
I won’t be writing about getting the songs you write heard. Or making money from your songs. I’m the last one who should be writing about any of that. I never put my songs out there, for various reasons (some of which I’m even aware of.) I won’t be writing about how to get them recorded, copyrighted or published. There are plenty of generous, knowledgable, successful people ready to help you with that. (See the links page.[coming soon])
What the blog will be about is the why and how of songwriting. Getting the song inside, out. How I – and (I hope) others make that happen.
Someone had to kick me good and hard to do this. I wondered whether anything I have to say wouldn’t just be more noise in the blogosphere. But it dawned on me eventually: not my call. Just as it never has been about my songs. Someone else will decide if they’re boring or not.
If this thing finds readers, well and good.
Further – if it encourages someone else to try their hand at this dubious proposition – writing songs in hopes someone might hear you and even better, understand what you’ve been flailing away at living in these times… all the better.
Busted: Not All Atruism
Just in case you were wondering: no, you haven’t heard one of my songs. It usually takes supper at my place or yours (and only if you ask specifically for me to drag along a guitar) for any of my songs to get heard.
And to be honest, that’s one of the things I’d like to see changed with this blog – or whatever it is. If I got rolled over by the proverbial bus tomorrow – that would be all (s)he wrote for my songs. No one else knows one, plays one – or even hums one. No one (besides me) has even forgotten one. And I’ve forgotten a good number of them. What does that tell you? For most of them, I’m OK with that.
But there’s a few I might like to leave behind. It’s that being heard and understood thing again. I’m no different. A good song, like a good painting or poem or novel – ALL good art, has no expiration date. Unlike ourselves. Art is our attempt to be heard and understood during – and beyond – our time on this uncertain planet.
I wrote my first song when I was 14. I’m 64. Doing the math… Crikey. Half a century of songs. Not possible.
Never thought of myself as a songwriter, regardless. But it had to start somewhere.
Honest souls of my gender who took up songwriting as earnest young fools will likely admit, it started having mostly having to do with girls. As opposed to having girls, which we didn’t – but wanted to. Pretty desperately. Later, it became, of course, about how to keep them – or lose them – or get them back again.
But eventually, if you settle down and the dust gets a chance to settle, and you’ve kept at it, come the memories. And the songs fill themselves with the people and stories that made them.
For me, except for those few early, foolish years, songwriting has been something I’ve done when I wasn’t busy doing something else. Computers, demanding jobs and family come to mind. Even golf, though that came later. But through those years, I wrote when there was something inside looking for a way to get out, mostly. In kitchens, on back porches and doorsteps, more than a few roofs. A song might bubble to the surface every year or so, if I gave it the time to reveal itself. Sometimes I even wrote down the words. A few might have found their way on to a tape, which ended up in a drawer or a box or a high closet shelf. Mine or someone else’s. A later bunch are even languishing in a digital backwater of my iTunes library somewhere.
But 50 or 60 songs? Really?
Thereabouts. I counted the other day. Hard to believe there were all that many. A throw away birthday ditty here, an epic peaen to roast a pal there. A sad, loving few got sung at funerals, never to be heard again. And there were some that scratched the surface (or a little deeper) of what my life was about, as best as I could figger at the time. I hid from the ones that were too painful or difficult to write, though they were in there somewhere. And there were a few that tracked me down no matter how hard I hid from them. A song for my late brother found me in a park in Paris. My wife’s mother spoke to me all the way from Texas the night she died and told me what to say (I think). I found a way to say goodbye to a long ago girl friend which got me in deep trouble with a passel of lesbians in Berkeley. It’s true: the stories come if you wait long enough.
Camera Cuts To the Present
In the past decade, my writing has dwindled as I’ve grown settled in ways and places where problems don’t seem to require a six string Martin, a quiet corner or step, and something down deep I can’t quite put my finger on.
I noticed last fall that, for the first time in 50 years, there were no callouses on the fingers of my left hand. Soft as a baby’s butt are they. Pitiful. My guitars sat untouched in their corner for months, shaming me with silence, like a good dog will when you haven’t walked her in too long. A walk she knows – better than you – you both need.
Eventually, I put them away under the bed in the guest room, in their hardshell, velvet lined cases, toggles snapped well shut. Their own safe room. Or so I thought.
I told myself I wouldn’t take one out until I heard it calling me loud enough to wake me up from the sleep of a dead man. And I wasn’t at all sure I’d ever hear that call again.
I can’t say I’ve heard that call. And yet, for some reason which echoes faintly of an old feeling I can’t quite put my finger on, they are back in their corner, those two. Have been for about a week. Even have new strings. A couple of days ago I noodled out a nice little acoustic Chris Martin ColdPlay song I’d long hummed but never bothered to learn. By the way: no callouses are a bitch. I’d forgotten.
New callouses have started.
I have a few ideas. We’ll see. Stay tuned… film @ 11.