My world has been defined by the written word. Newspapers, magazines, radio, television, documentary films, speechwriting a time or two, novels, plays, short stories, flash fiction, non-fiction books, and songs, lots and lots of songs. I write in French and I write in English, and a few songs I’ve written have featured both languages.
I’ve been writing songs since I was a kid. I write them for people I love and people who’ve left. I write to tell stories that can’t be told in any other way. Sometimes my own songs make me cry. I often sing them myself when we record even though I don’t have much of a voice, and I depend on friends who can indeed sing to make me sound better. Years ago I played the open mic circuit. I may start again one of these days.
I first picked up a guitar when I was sixteen, but I never developed any real skills, so that in spite of years spent with the instrument, I’m not a good player. I can bang out a rhythm and pick out a simple melody, but that’s about it. I’ve messed around with twelve-strings, dulcimers, autoharps, bass, mandolins, kotos, harmonicas, Melobars, and even a concertina. My favorite instrument now is the pedal steel guitar, a devilish contraption that incorporates twenty strings, levers, pedals, finger picks, and a metal slide. I’m not very good at the steel either, though I’ve been told I do an interesting version of Little Wing and a passable Wicked Games.
For me, the beautiful part of creating a song is working with others. I come up with a hint of a tune, or a phrase that catches my interest (latest one, “I would sail on a ship in a bottle”), and eventually I pick up my guitar—a beaten up 1946 Montgomery Ward acoustic—and I work out a simple series of chords. I fit the words to the music and the music to the words. There’s a fascinating and complex geometry to this, and it takes time. I’ll know the song is worth doing if I find myself humming it, if the words please me enough that I’ll carry them on a folded sheet of paper in my back pocket. I’ll add and delete words and phrases for days and weeks and sometimes months.
Working with others on a song is a transporting experience. The end product never comes out as expected—it’s always infinitely better than anything I could ever imagine or manage alone. The first hint of a musical phrase comes unbidden in my head. My friends and co-creators find interweaving melodies, percussions, harmonies and rhythms. Tempos change and images are altered; a simple musical phrasing might repeat itself like a mantra. The words and notes become a flowing entity.
Whenever a song is finished, there is a vast and deep satisfaction as we recognize we’ve constructed something never before heard. There’s a bit of sadness as well. It always astounds me to remember that Western music comprises only thirteen notes. The permutations of these are almost infinite.
I’ve had the privilege over the years of associating with people far more talented than I am who saw fit to spend hours of their lives working with me to craft something we hope will be memorable.
I’m thinking of all this because last night in the little sound studio housed in my basement, I had the privilege of recording with my long-time friend Mike, and a new friend, Cyndi, and together we put the finishing vocals on the most recent tune I’ve written. Now Mike will work his magic, mixing, limiting and equalizing, blending sounds seamlessly. He will spends days refining our efforts, and soon, we will have a new song.
Mike and I and a collection of occasional singers have been meeting on Thursday evenings for six or seven years. Yesterday was our last time making music here as I am selling my house.
After they left, I began unplugging the computer, the MOTU sound card, the speakers and synthesizer, the amp, and the microphones. It struck me that an awful lot of music has come out of that room, and an amazing wealth of talent played there. There were drummers who threw sticks at me, and guitarists who could never quite master the break in Brown-Eyed Girl. Singers burst into tears, voices were raised, not always in song. People quit, some never to be seen again, others to reappear somewhat shamefaced a short time later. All who came here gave of themselves.
Thank you Mike, Cary Lee, Jessica, Crystal, Jerry, Rich, Jim, Nate, Lee, Bob, Tiffany, Becky, Audrey, Gary, Cyndi, Peter, Kim, Caroline, Al, Kelly, and the dozens of others who came to my house to make music.
It was a blast, wasn’t it?