Tag Archives: songwriting

Thoughts on Time and Loss

A conversation yesterday prompted me to think about time and loss in a personal way.

Think about it: as a musician, it seems like one is always surrounded by greatness in terms of performances and songs. Upon close examination, you find yourself watching a recent Neil Young concert documentary where he’s playing songs like “I Am A Child,” “Old Man,” or “Down by the River.” You see the Beatles on TV doing some of their great songs, or Paul McCartney in concert within the past few years, and you hear “Yesterday”, “Let It Be” or “Helter Skelter.” Put on Hank Williams record.

What do these artists and songs have in common? Age.

All the Beatles recordings were made before John, Paul and George were 30 years old. Hank Williams, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Ian Curtis, etc., etc. wrote and performed their best (in some cases, only) work in young adulthood. The Rolling Stones were in their prime in their 20s and 30s. Steve Winwood was 15 to 17, for heaven’s sake, in the Spencer Davis Group.

How does this relate to me, you may wonder?

I’ve been writing songs and playing music since I was eight years old. In the 30+ years since then, I’ve written probably 600 complete songs, composed countless additional melodies, and crafted lyrics for hundreds of songs that are still awaiting melodies. Many of these were captured on fragments of paper, journals, napkins, dozens of cassettes, a couple of CDs, and existed in NO OTHER FORM. It’s the rare song, and usually one from within the past 10 or fifteen years, that exists in digital recording form (MP3) or whose lyrics still exist – usually because I posted this information on my journal.

Thanks to Hurricane Katrina, any extant documentation in written or recorded form is lost forever. That means that my musical output that correlates to that of John Lennon, Hank Williams, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan from the ages of 8 to 35 may as well have never existed.

Imagine if John Fogerty, for example, had to start at age 40 writing songs and had never composed “Run Through the Jungle”. Or if Jimmie Rodgers had never written “Blue Yodel #5”.

There were some great songs in my younger days. From a perspective that I don’t have anymore. Because I’m 42, not 18 or 23 or 27. I’ll never fall in love for the first time again. Or a lot of other things for the first time. Or be as politically angry and energetic enough to scream about it. Or have a four octave range, for that matter. And just because you may have never heard those songs, doesn’t mean that they aren’t worth missing, or wondering about.

I suppose it’s the equivalent of having spent 30 years writing a 1,000 page manuscript, never making a copy, and suddenly having only pages 899 through 937. How do you recreate it?

How many great songs does a songwriter have? How many poems? Would W.B. Yeats have the same cultural significance if the only thing he could prove he’d written was “The Wild Swans at Coole” or “The Stolen Child”?

I used to think that my legacy would be the documentation of a life in art – from cradle to grave as a writer, musician, philosopher, bard. But instead, I find myself in a kind of reverse Rimbaud. Arthur, you’ll remember, gave up poetry at 19 to become a businessman, and never wrote another verse. I can only prove I started out at about 28. Elvis died at 42 – the age I am now. Where would he have gone had he lived, without having had those years from 17 to 41 documented and memorialized so thoroughly?

So many words, melodies, pictures, and recordings make up a true artist’s magnum opus.

Sometimes I feel as if I’ve suffered a literal and figurative lobotomy.

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Songwriter Blues

A songwriter walks on the slimmest of threads
to balance what’s in his heart versus his head;
sometimes, random thoughts will inspire him to sing
words that aren’t about his life or any damned thing.

Emotions in motion, a mood for a day,
the lines on the page don’t relate any way
to the life he’s living and good things he’s found;
sometimes in the looking glass things get turned ’round.

A song’s inspiration can come from nowhere:
a phrase from a movie, the shape of a chair;
from someone singing the line as you write
imagining your song is their song tonight.

Your loved ones imagine you’re talking of them,
and take your songs personally, now and again;
they don’t understand it just don’t work that way,
and feel hurt no matter what else you can say.

Sure, my life is in every song that I write,
some more and some less, some real heavy, some light;
but I’m not my lyrics, my poems or verse.
I work in third person, for better or worse.

A song about leaving don’t mean I must go;
one that says I’m brilliant does not make it so.
I’ve got songs from good times, and others from bad,
and some drawn from thoughts someone else might have had.

A songwriter balances truth with a dream,
and finds hell and heaven, and points in between
where honkytonk angels and demons are poised
to drown out his voice with the tiniest noise.

05 MAR 2006

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Kris Kristofferson

Light up another cigarette, crack open one more beer
Let’s drink to those who lived and ended up with a career
Who suffered the indignity of having their gold panned
Who didn’t end up dying quite as young as they had planned

Light up another cigarette, and pour out one more round
Let’s drink to those whose wasted years are not yet underground
Who suffered the injustice of not suffering enough
Who didn’t end up dying to send their record sales up

Can you still be a martyr to a cause that no one knows,
a prophet in your own home town, a sheep dressed in wolves’ clothes,
if they all know you struggled, but still managed to survive
playing double sets in some old, empty dives?

Light up another cigarette, line up another shot
Let’s drink to those poor devils that the critics have forgot
Who didn’t spend their short, sweet lives in angst-inducing pain
Who stayed on at the grindstone and instead lived on in vain.

Light up another cigarette, tap that last pony keg
Let’s drink to those who carried on, and had to learn to beg
Who suffered in the shadows, while some comets came and went
Who paid the tab when others left, their money still unspent.

Can you still be a martyr in obscurity, unknown,
if your splash isn’t big enough, if your death cult hasn’t grown,
if they see you still living, and assume you haven’t cried
as much as those brave legends who all died?

Light up another cigarette, and fill up one more glass
Let’s drink to those whose lives are more than a grand epitaph
Who pay the price for living by pretending not to die
Who write the songs we all sing when the caskets roll on by.

27 NOV 2005

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Thoughts on Willie Nelson

Thoughts on Willie Nelson:

I read a quote recently where someone said (and I paraphrase) that “considering all Willie Nelson has done for America, he should be exempt from paying taxes for the rest of his life.” Well, I agree. Willie has got one of those voices (and by that I mean both his phrasing, dynamics and identification with his subject matter) that is unique in country music. It’s one of those voices that you love or hate. With me, Willie’s voice has always had the same appeal as Bob Dylan’s – the quality of the voice alone portrays so much more than any lyric it communicates. I’ve also been an admirer of Willie Nelson for as long as I remember. The first time I heard one of his songs, I was impressed by the way he used “ten dollar words.” To me, he’s one of the great lyricists in American music – comparable to say Sammy Cahn or Cole Porter. There’s always insider information available to the attentive student, and it’s always delivered in such a way that you’re never really quite sure whether or not you are among the select few who “get it.” That, in a song, is magical. There’s always a lot of talk about how Willie “bucked the system.” But I think, like any true revolutionary, Willie realizes that there was only so much he could do from the outside. That’s why his songs were so important when they were recorded by “Nashville” artists. You hear the strings, or heavy reverb, or whatever studio effects are added to enhance the cross-over potential, but underneath, like an artery coursing vital nutrients to the brain, there’s that bite, that essential life force. That, to me, is Willie Nelson.

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Obviously Lefty Frizzell

I’ve always been obsessed, thematically, with silence, journeys, and the contexts in which real “life-changing” epiphanies occur. It seems to me that one of these places is on the road touring (and it seems to be backed up by what I’ve read of folks who spend a LOT of time on the road). You either figure yourself out, or lose yourself, somewhere out on the interstate.

The title is an acknowledgment of Kris Kristofferson as a motivating force for me as a songwriter. It’s a Dylan-like off-the-cuff expression, yet intended as an homage to a type of singer-songwriter that really no longer exists.

In the back of the bus
watching cigarette butts in the ashtray
as the lights from the middle
of nowhere recede in the night
There’s a song on radio, softly it’s playing,
while some local preacher continues his praying
but forgiveness comes slow
to those who believe they are right

In the back of his mind
thoughts collide with the words that he’s forming
as the melody reaches
a sleeping form in the next row
There’s a song on radio, maybe he wrote it,
Maybe the next time the gun won’t be loaded
but memory serves only those
who believe it is so

In the back of his head
his eyes turn to observe through the window
As the fly-over country he’s crossing
slips under the road
There’s a song on the radio, sales figures pending,
It’s all about paying for years of pretending
but time sure ain’t money,
you never get more than you owe

In the back of the guidebook
it mentions a beautiful cavern
As the ice ages ravaged,
it found itself left underground
There’s a song on the radio, selling its wonders,
And out in the night there’s a brief clap of thunder
But hearing a warning is not much
like heeding its sound

In the back of the bus
with the strings of his guitar still humming
As the slow dawn approaches
and opens a wearying eye
There’s a song on the radio, worn out and faded
From one more lost cowboy who thought that he made it
But thoughts are the last thing you need
when you’re trying to get by

Stage lights just prove
that you came from the shadows.
They’re never a permanent high.


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Soundtrack for a New Age

Each historical age is determined by the predominant societal position given to the individuals, groups, nations or empires that can produce or have the resources to acquire whatever substance that age equates to its varied definitions of power. The Bronze Age – whoever could make the most bronze weapons and tools was the predominant culture; The Iron Age – same scenario, different metal. Once societies ran out of harder or more workable metals, they had to pause and re-evaluate their priorities. As a result, we had the Dark Ages – whoever could keep the most people in the dark about their own potential and thereby utilize the brawn of the world without the cumbersome benefit of its brain; the Industrial Age – the period during which those who appeared to be the most industrious were valued, when how much you had really first became more important that what it was you had so much of; the Computer Age – that period of time after we figured out we could get someone else to do the thinking for us, and ending just before the period of time when we began to realize we couldn’t tell the difference; and finally, we are in the midst of what some are calling the Information Age. Of course, because there are so many of us in this world now, and each of us more or less autonomously by consensus creates, borrows, buys, steals, inherits, creates, is allowed, is deluded into, or avoids their own separate, unique and individual opinion on the subject, whether we are at the beginning, in the middle, or nearing the definite conclusion of the information age is highly subjective.

My belief is that we are near the end of the Information Age; and that means that a new age is on the imminent horizon. I will outline my reasons for this belief, both in its ceasing to exist and clearly waiting to exist aspects, in a while. For now, let me just skip forward to my conclusion: The next age we are about to enter is the Wisdom Age, and unless we start thinking about gathering some of it together now, you and I and a lot of people on this planet are going to be on the bottom of the food chain, socially speaking.

The first question I would put forward to anyone I encountered in this new age would not be, “Do you speak MY language, stranger,” but rather, “Can you sing in your OWN (language)?”

At the conclusion of my initial interrogative statement I would commence to demonstrate a song of my own devising, in my own language. If there was no reply in kind, then that person would be required to locate someone of his own kind who could in fact sing a few bars. If that individual was willing to teach the first “stranger” something of the way of singing, then improvement of that culture could continue. Of course, there would be attempts, in the beginning of the age, where some would try to get others to sing on their behalf (which would of course give credibility to the singer and only by association improve the standing of the employer in some respects, and lower their believability in other respects), or would learn, by rote, someone else’s songs and try to bluff their way through (of course, a true singer would know that the song was not of the singer’s creation, and would know something was false in the communication). But this would rapidly prove the exception.

After the first exchange of songs in each of the singer’s native languages, translation of ideas and other information could ensue. Without a meeting of equals, an individual or group, no matter how extensive or impressive or overwhelming their other assets, had no basis for transacting communication and no wise way of achieving that objective. Unless two individuals can understand, through that shared experience of each other’s inner being that singing your own song weaves into reality, what really is important to the other person, there is no fair, equitable, honest, open, profitable or moral grounds for business, trade, marriage, treaty, alliance, division, disagreement, censorship, condemnation, ridicule, friendship, religion or warfare – in short, none of these partnership activities can occur. If you want any of those things but can not get your songs in order, you just have to wait. You’re obviously not ready for whatever it is you think you want. So you have time to work on your song and get it together.

Maybe this will help put things into a bit of perspective:

Imagine walking down the sidewalk on an early spring morning, a light mist still hanging in the air in the coolness of the day. You could be in a metropolitan area, or out in the middle of the desert (of course, the construction and very nature of your sidewalk will vary depending on that first choice). There could be thousands of other people involved in this selfsame activity, or you could be the only one. For the sake of this illustration, imagine yourself and at least one other person who will become aware of your presence at about the same time you gain awareness of them.

Now imagine that instead of having a set of headphones on your head that is fed from Sony Walkman, you are accompanied in the open air by a group of between two and six musicians, all accompanying themselves using whatever acoustic (that is, non-electrically powered) instruments, devices, accessories, tools best describe and reproduce the music that describes you. This may take a while to imagine, and of course, at different times, the group may be composed of different and perhaps interchangeable individuals and/or attachments. Chances are you’ll have several varying groups, but at least one or two. Now imagine the body of work that they might perform. It might be songs from the radio, ambient sounds, religious hymns, classical works, etc., etc. At least one of the songs must be an original work (exactly how original is always going to be a problem, it always has been, but I think the nature of the problem will probably change in the future), the performance of which you take an active part whenever it comes into rotation, or by request, whichever comes first. Since this discourse will get confusing unless we somehow divide its parts into recognizable segments, let’s call this first imaginary product in the course of this analogy “The Soundtrack of Your Life.” Don’t worry if you think you might have left something out – there’s going to be ample opportunity in the future to expand your repertoire.

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Just a Quick Thought on Tragic Heroism

As a singer-songwriter born in the 60s and raised in the 70s and 80s, I suppose there are two major shadows under which I labor: I refer to the long shadows cast by Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. I am influenced by both, in different ways — but that’s the subject of another tale.

Listening recently to a Springsteen collection, I was struck by a notion. That is that both Bruce and Bob deal primarily with sketchings of tragic heroes. Now, we can very simply define a hero (non-tragic) as someone who responds to extraordinary circumstances and in the process, becomes extraordinary, if only for a brief moment in time. The tragic hero, on the other hand, is someone who is not changed from their basic state of ordinary or extraordinary by the nature of these circumstances.

For Dylan, the tragic hero is an extraordinary individual who is forced to reconcile themselves with ordinary times. For Springsteen, on the other hand, the tragic hero is the ordinary individual who is embroiled in an extraordinary life. The tragedy for both writers is that in both cases, their heroes fail. Dylan’s extraordinary hero does not improve their ordinary situation. Springsteen’s ordinary hero does not rise above their state to absorb the extraordinariness of their time. Both seem trapped, not so much by the mundane nature of either their surroundings, or their personal outlook, but rather by a sense that what really matters is somehow beyond their grasp — and almost beyond their imagination to reach.

A further significant difference is that often, Bob Dylan is the tragic hero himself, as opposed to Bruce Springsteen, who merely assumes the mantle of the hero for the purposes of illustration — at least in the later works of both. There is cross-over in their early years, both ways.

Lastly, it is important to note that the immersion in this world of the ordinary, for Dylan its events, and for Springsteen, its people, has marked each writer in different ways.

Dylan, it seems to me, tends to reach out to the extraordinary that he is sure exists in all humankind. Springsteen, on the other hand, tends to try to communicate with people at their most ordinary, believing that once they acknowledge their shared ordinariness, that acknowledgment itself will result in the development of extraordinary people.

A slight difference, perhaps, but I think very important. The difference between extraordinary ordinariness, and ordinary extraordinariness. Or to put it another way, the magical mundane versus the mundane magical.

What truly defines the subjects of both writers’ songs as tragic heroes, however, is something even more sublime — and that is this: without being immortalized in song, their stories would not even command a moment of our collective attention. This world, that focuses so much on attaining some level of control, no matter how much it costs to acquire the temporary rights to that illusion, does not take kindly to reminders of those who have either lost control, or willingly given it up; reminders that you never really have control, and what control you may think you have isn’t really of much use in the greater scheme of things. Unless, of course, those reminders have a good beat and you can dance to them.

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