Monday, May 29, 2006

Why I Don't Write Songs

Ages ago, starting in high school, I was becoming a song writer. It was the sort of thing that grew more or less organically as a facet of my personality. I started by trying to revive a cut-rate guitar that my parents had bought my sister when she decided, abortively, that she wanted to learn to play guitar. By the time I got to it, not only was it warped and half-stove-in, it was more or less un-stringable, but with improvisation and the use of several gauges of monofiliment line, I fashioned it into something on which I could fashion rudimentary chords. This was followed by an acoustic guitar that was almost serviceable, which was followed by one that was almost not half bad. By this time I had gotten good enough that I could justify toying with a 12 string or two in my local music shop, up to an including the thousand dollar hand made Irish machines that, so far as I know, no one ever bought. And then, finally I bought one. My old Seagull 12. The guitar I wrote my songs on.

Or most of them. The crappy old 6 string was the travel guitar, so alot of the preliminary composition was done on it, but nothing really came together until I played it on the 12 string.

I had a partner in crime, who played electric lead guitar and helped write some of the songs, wrote a couple or a few himself, and hijacked a composition or two here and there, but that's not what this story is about. It's about lyrics.

I was proud of my lyrics. Manically so, not to say maniacally so. (That's for all of you who read "manically" wrong the first time.) My favorite one was set to a stumbling up-step riff that can be tripped up at speed, which is fun fun for me, so the lyric started as an after thought. But it was (is) called "Until I Thought Of You," and it goes like this:

I stare at the wall and things lose their meaning
I'm out of sight, I'm out of mind
And I feel heavy, the wall is leaning on me
Even thought I know everything is fine

Never felt this way until I thought of you
But I'm glad that I do every once in a while
Never thought this way until I thought of you
But I'm glad that I do every once in a while

(Get it? Felt this way? Thought this way? Duality ain't all it's cracked up to me, is what I'm saying there. Hah? Hah? D'ya get it??? Nah. No one else ever did either, so far as I know.)

Far away by time and distance
Far from hand but close to heart
I hear you breathing in my memory
I gotta have some place to start

I think of faith but faith has no meaning
I think of time and time goes by
I hear you breathing in my memory
Sometimes it's easy to to lie

Never thought this way until I thought of you
But I'm glad that I do every once in a while
Never felt this way until I thought of you
But I'm glad that I do every once in a while

I fall in love with things around me
I trip up stairs and I fall down halls
I breath the warm mist that surrounds me
Think of you and I'm back to my wall

Never felt etc.

And I feel fine
Until I think of you
And I feel fine
Until I think of you

It all mustr seem very mordant and petulant. The music, which is exhuberant and dreamy at the same time, saves it from that. But then, of course, the most common comment I've had is: you're mumbling, I can't understand the lyric. I've had less of that sort of trouble with a composition called "Watching The Sky," which is based on what I call a "strummed riff," C-maj7-D-Dsus-Amin, that I thought (and still think) sounds the way a flash of lightning followed closely by a clap of thunder feels. So the lyric then goes like this:

Thinkin' of you, thought I'd give you a call
Ain't no reason I should feel let down
Yes I still woncder why I care at all
Still wondering why I feel let down

In a world of lonely lives we find ourselves wondering why
We were let down
On this cold earth with no place in mind
Still wondering why we feel let down

And I'm watching the sky, watching the clouds roll in
Thinking where are you, thinking where we been
I'm watching the sky, thinking I can see
Signs of what will pass with time, and what will not be

Thinking of you as I walk the streets
Ain't no reason I should hope at all
Looking for laughter and praying for rain
Ain't no reason I should hope at all

Walking the sidelines in a twisted haze
Seeing faces but not knowing names
Laughing at thunder like a trick in the sky
To me it's music but I still don't know why

I'm watching the sky etc.

(There are nods there to both Shakespeare and Led Zeppelin, but you can work that out yourself if you want to. The first lyric was written while I was in a long-distance relationship, but not about the long distance relationship I was in, but rather about a chick who had a crush on me in high school; the second was written after a period of dissociation related to depression, bordering on psychosis, but, again, well after and not actually about said period of dissociation bordering on psychosis.)

Then there were a couple of story-songs, all dealing with hobos and dames and trains and card games, which, oddly enough, I wrote because it's the sort of stuff Harry Nillson used to claim he wrote about, although he never actually wrote about them. Me and my arrow . . .

The second and third to last viable lyrics I wrote were based on failed (or failing) relationships. Of those, only oen really survives, in that I still sing it from time to time. It's based on an incident from my abortive attempt at graduate candidacy for a master's degree in English. I had struck up a daliance with a cute undergrad, which had been working out fine until my burgeoning depression began seeping out at the edges. She simply couldn't deal with it, and we broke up because I couldn't deal with her not dealing with it. About a week after the break-up, she came by my rented garret-- I kid you not, a garret it was-- to pick up some stuff she had left behind, and this is the lyric I wrote later that day:

How can I stand here beggin , baby
And look you in the eyes
How can you stand there, watch me shaking
And still not realize
How can we let this go on
This thing we never planned
I'm not weak enough to tell you
I still don't understand

Two thing's in this world
That I never thought I'd lose
My pride and you
My pride and you

(It's called "My Pride and You.")

I'd like to thank you for stopping by
Thought you didn't have much choice
I wish that you would yell or scream
So that I could hear your voice
How can we let this go on
When we both know it will
I'm not weak enough to tell you
That I love you still

Two things in this world etc.

(Scat thingy, which I still sing despite the cat that I can now officially not reach the high not in it that I used to be able to almost reach, demonstrating, in singer-songwriter fashion, my willingness to reach for and display my limitations. Thena bridge thingy:)

Some day I'll find my voice
Some day you'll find my had
And then we'll tell each other what we know is true
That you love me and I love you

Until that day I'll sit here silent
In my cold and empty room
You go your way, I'll go mine
I'll waste the afternoon
How can we let this go on
We both know the night will come
You in your world, me in mine
Cold without the sun

Two things in this world
That I never thought I'd lose
My pride and you
My mind and you
My love and and you
My soul and you

The music is really kind of up-beat, the rhythm kind of recalling REM's "So. Central Rain." So that keeps it from being completely morbid. From that relationship comes the song I play but don't sing (more often than not), but still keep around, even though I don't consider the lyric viable. It's called "Hey Now No," and the title is from something Becky (the aforementioned undergrad) would say to me when I was being too hard on myself. I told her I was going to put in a song, so I did. The chord changes, I think, are terrific, defying convention while embracing an open signature, and I love to just play the changes, which is why the song is still around, but I occasionally feel obligated to sing the lyric, even though I never really finished it. (You'll probably see what I mean by that shortly.)

I been alone
Dark inside and locked up here in my happy home
I been untrue
And I'd be lying if I said all I thought of was you
I'm unsure
If your love is real, if your pain is pure
I don't care
If you gave your best, if you've paid your share

Now hey no
I didn't mean it that way
But if that's the way it is
Why don't you just go away
Now hey no
I didn't mean to hurt you
But if that's the way it is
There ain't nothing I can do for you

("Now, hey; no!" she'd say, in a plaintive and cheering voice. It was adorable as hell. She was a great kid, and to this day I'm just glad we split up before we tore each other to shreds. God Bless You, Mrs. McGillicutty, wherever you are! The second verse is more or less gibberish, and why I play it more than sing it:)

I called your name one night
The silence asnwered soflty I thougt it was you
I called your name one night
The silence answered softly I thought it was you
I called your memory back
But you turned and walked away, just a name with no face
I called your memory back
But you turned and walked away, just a name with no face

Now hey no etc.

That was a dozen years ago or better. Over tha last ten years, I have thought to write songs, but none of them ever came together. I have written a few complete lyrics, among them one entitled "Jimmy Lives in Atlanta Now," about my trip to Atlanta to embark on a career, a stupid thing that lots of people do for the wrong reasons; one called "What Goes On In That Room," an imageric imagining the goings on in the script-writing sessions for Your Show of Shows; and something called This Thing Called Life, a pastoral tossing back and forth the notion that there is something besides just living to this thing called life. But I never really purusued them.

For a while I thought that maybe I figured I was done with all that. For a time I held in reserve the notion that I might one day find fame and fortune as a musician, and although I do still play, and compose, I don't really think of it as a possibility. Not to say that I don't occasionally fantasize about it-- I do, most decidedly-- but I am not harboring anything you could call a delusion. Also there's the realization that I'm not the best singer, but hell, that never stopped, f'instance, Neil Young, Tom Petty, David Byrne, others you could finger. And then there's that mumbing thing, which more than one person has said about more than one of my songs. But still. The fact is that these days I compose, but don't write songs. I do these nifty little chord compositions that fill up three to five minutes, and I aspire to keep doing them, regardless of whther or not anyone's listening. And I think I finally figured out why.

Here's the anlogy: a while back, we had gone out with a friend to see the barnad new King Kong movie. We had got here early, but before supper, and our friend was hungry. She went to the snack bar at the megaplex and came back with a hot dog and stuff. It all looked good, andf I said so. SHe offered a bit, but I declined. It looked and smelled good, and I was hungry, but "Nah," I said; "I'm having too much fun chewing gum."

I had a piece of gum in my mouth, it was still fairly fresh, and thus minty, and I didn'
t want to chance ruining it my steering a bite of hot dog around it.

So that's why I don't write songs anymore, I'm having too much fun chewing gum.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Jerry Lee Has Read Carl Hiassen

So as it turns out, the seasonal job which I predicted would put my blog on hiatus still has me hiating, for reasons which I still can't tell you. Suffice it to say the after the first two projects ended, I volunteered (along with about a hundred others) to stick around and work on the next project. So I'm hiating. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

In the meantime, I started reading a book by Carl Hiassen-- one of the attributes of this particular project is sitting around waiting for the work to come in, which we do rather quickly, then sit around waiting for more work to come in. For the sake of decorum, it is recommended that we bring (or borrow) reading material, in order to spend the down time quietly, as some of us will be completing work while others of us are waiting for more.

SO I had finished reading In the Heart of the Sea, an excellent book by Nathan Philbrick about the ramming of the whaleship Essex by an (apparently) enraged bull sperm whale,* I picked up a book by Carl Hiassen. I had heard good things about his stuff; social parody, dissection of the madcap culture of South Florida (or, as the denizens sometimes refer to it, the F-state), skewering of corrupt officials, etc, etc, etc. So I picked one up.

The one I picked up is entitled Skin Deep. (I know, I know.) It had all the ingredients: social parody, dissection of the madcap culture of South Fla, skewering of corrupt officials, plus a critique of the possibly crooked practice of plastic surgery, etc etc etc. Yeah. I didn't like it.

Which isn't to say it wasn't good. I finished it in a coupla days, and I could see a fair amountof it happening in my head, could even put some face on the roles for an imagined movie (Tom Berenger as the strong, silent retired cop, Mercedes Ruhl as the intrepid TV producer), but it just . . .

Well, it had the feeling of just being too damned easy.

I mean, one of the subplots/plotlines/whatever involved parodying Geraldo Rivera. Seriously. Dude, WTF?

So, if nothing else, I have now read a Carl Hiassen novel. Which is not to say I will never read another one, just that I no longer feel like I should make time to read a Carl Hiassen novel. Which, y'know, I have from time to time.

*The book also details the practices of whaling up to and in the 1830's. They had it coming, the pricks.