Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Simple Song

"A simple song is the hardest to write," a quote often attributed to folk singer Pete Singer, is a great aphorism because it is so true.  To a point.  A simple good song is hardest to write (Pete, of course, only had good songs in mind).  "Oops I Did it Again" is obviously quite simple and is not thought by many to be a particularly good song, except perhaps by Richard Thompson (as illustrated by its inclusion in his 1000 Years of Popular Music with tongue firmly in cheek). By the way, I think this app may be reason alone to steal my wife's IPAD-how cool does this look?

Think about it.  As great an album as Blood on the Tracks was, "Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" certainly doesn't get stuck in your head, at least not mine.  I find it mostly tedious as a story song.  In contrast, take "Fourth of July," penned by Dave Alvin and recorded by Alvin solo and by the band X when Alvin was with them.  I've loved this song for years and played it as a cover many times.  Recently, I was sitting around with my old friend Paul noodling around with covers and I pulled it out for us to play.  It struck me like a sort of revelation that Alvin tells a compelling, emotionally resonant story of two people in two verses, a chorus and a one line refrain:

She's waiting for me when I get home from work
But things just ain't the same 
She turns out the light and cries in the dark 
Won't answer when I call her name 

 On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone 
The Mexican kids are shooting fireworks below 
Hey, baby, it's the Fourth of July 
Hey, baby, it's the Fourth of July 

She gives me her cheek when I want her lips
And I don't have the strength to go
On the lost side of town in a dark apartment 
We gave up trying so long ago


Whatever happened, I apologize 
So dry your tears and baby, walk outside
It's the Fourth of July

It's a simple, direct and powerful story, arguably more of a vignette--yet it tells us more about the couple in the song that most long narratives ever do.  This couple was once happy, but he comes home to find "things just ain't the same."  Their apartment is dark (as noted again in the second verse), but it's light outside; in fact, it's the Fourth of July, but they're arguing so much neither realizes it until he walks outside to smoke a cigarette and hears fireworks.  The last verse ends with a vivid description of hopelessness and resignation: "On the lost side of town in a dark apartment, we gave up trying so long ago."  Yet, the song ends with a hint of promise when he tells her to "dry your tears and baby, walk outside," because it is, after all, the freakin' Fourth of July.

The songs I wrote as a kid and more recent ones tended to be needlessly wordy.  It's easy to find yourself stacking a nice turn of phrase on another simply because you like the line, even if it doesn't do much for the song's story.  As a prose writer, it was engrained in me that you must be disciplined enough to kill your children (er, words, not offspring literally, as tempting as that can sometimes be).  Learning to be ruthless in editing yourself and letting go of every word that isn't essential is perhaps the most difficult trick to writing anything.  It holds just as true for songs and poetry as for prose.

Whenever I feel I'm losing my way and just need to keep it simple, I reflect on how much emotion and story line Alvin captured in so few words.  The song is a masterwork of Americana and American songwriting generally, but sadly, like most of Dave Alvin's work, it's criminally under appreciated.   

Saturday, July 30, 2011

First Steps

When I started playing music and writing songs again in May, I had no intention of making a serious business of it.  The very first song I started to work on was a pointless piece of crap using the Missouri town of New Madrid as the setting for the narrator to talk about what a loser he'd become there.  The ready metaphor provided by the town is that it sits on a huge fault line that, when it ruptured in 1813, made the earth shake so hard that the Mississippi river is said to have ran backwards.

Although its gone through scores of rewrites, the song remains unfinished.  I think it's never come quite together partly because I was mispronouncing New Ma-DRID and partly (mostly) because I wasn't writing what I know.  But because I had an idea and pursued it, while working on a dud, other ideas came to me.  I view "New Madrid" as the awful song that became the grandfather to some decent ones.

One evening, amid some raging drama with my seventeen year old son, I sat down and started strumming.  For years I had wanted to capture in a song how I felt about what was unquestionably the pivotal event in my life.  On Friday April 1, 1977, April Fool's Day, I walked down my rural driveway to catch the school bus.  I was fourteen.  It was a beautiful, cloudless Colorado sky.  My Dad had had left for his job as an appliance repairman hours before while I was still sound asleep.  The next memory I have is an assistant principal at my junior high poking his head in the door during a test in my second period.  I was whisked out of the classroom and told my father was taken to the hospital.  Someone, I don't remember who, drove me the long fifteen minutes back to my house to get my Mom, who was on the telephone in tears. As vivid as certain of these memories are, it's odd I don't remember who drove me, then us, to Penrose Hospital in Colorado Springs, twenty more minutes away.  We hurried in to a waiting room outside the ER.  My Dad's friend from work, Jake, walked over to us from down the hall.  My mother had only to see the look in his eyes to collapse in grief and tears.  I had to wait for Jake to put his arms around me and whisper in my ear "he's gone, Bill."

Flash forward thirty odd years.  Amid some ordinary family chaos, I sat down and picked up my guitar.  The line "Your deep growl of good morning" popped into my head, followed by "A hug with weathered hands."  I don't know how many times I tried to write a song, poem or story about him, but this time something clicked.  The chorus emerged:

I wish the day you died
Was just a joke on April Fools
How I hoped it was a lie
And I prayed it wasn't true
Then I saw your body lying still
They said there was nothing they could do
I still wish the day you died
Was a joke on April Fools

The finished song is here.

I showed the lyrics to my wife.  She cried.  Thinking she might be too close to the actual event and emotions, I played it for friends who seemed to like it.  A bit later, at a gathering for her parent's fiftieth wedding anniversary, I nervously played it in front of a small audience.  In spite of what was undoubtedly a less than stellar performance, it moved both my father-in-law and my wife's stoic brother to tears.  I still don't know if it's a great song, but I think it's pretty good.  And, quite unlike "New Madrid," it came from writing what I know.

A few more songs started to follow.  After I had seven done and had stopped tinkering (for now) with most of them, I started to think about trying to promote them.   I took the first step of registering copyrights.  While it's a little confusing at first to sort through Forms PA and SR, etc. (even to a lawyer), it's relatively easy to register your copyright electronically through the Federal Copyright Office.  I filled out the forms and uploaded home recordings I made with Reaper and my Zoom H2, along with pdf files of the lyrics. 

I registered my songs, but then what?  I started thinking about uploading them so at least I could direct someone--anyone who might feign interest--to an URL where they could listen.  I'm neither a strong singer or guitar player, so this part really brought out my insecurities.  I found a dizzying array of sites to "showcase" your songs, Soundcloud, Purevolume, Lastfm, Reverbnation, etc.  Browsing through some I found pages for the likes of Radiohead and other established artists which told me right away I surely didn't belong there. I found "" and it seemed more my speed.  I listened to a few of the artists.  Some were clearly professional and polished.  Others were not. A few I could even call more or less in my league.  So swallowed hard and posted.  The world didn't end and I wasn't met with a stream of derision.  Someone actually posted a positive comment. I was emboldened a little and went on ""  To my shock and gratitude, a few people I don't even know "fanned" me.

These are all baby steps.  I have no delusions about any kind of music career this late in life.  I actually mostly like being a lawyer.  But I am enjoying the hell out of the process of making music.  If, as a result, I ever even sell one song, it would be gravy beyond belief.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Heat Dome

Kansas City would be a garden spot if not for the weather. Seriously, 104 degrees? At 8 pm...Like all of the Midwest, we've been suffering under a stagnant "heat dome" for the last couple of weeks.  Most of central and south central Kansas hasn't seen any rain since June.  Excessive heat warnings have been issued almost everyday.  The heat has been linked to two dozen deaths in the metro area alone.  This is a brutal, unforgiving heat wave and my thoughts are with those poor souls, mostly the poor and elderly, who are suffering (and dying) in it.

About the only thing this kind of weather is good for is writing songs.  After years of barely touching my guitar, last summer, for no apparent reason, I suddenly decided that I had to have a black Gibson Les Paul Studio that was hanging in Bentley Guitar Studios here in Parkville.  Months of me playing it frequently enough to know I'd probably stick with it this time resulted in my wife giving me my Eastman E10D for Christmas.   I started writing songs in earnest in May of this year.