People in Nashville cowrite songs. Generally, you meet up with someone at 11AM, sometimes at your house, sometimes in a writers room on Music Row, and you get amped up on coffee together. With the coffee’s help you do one of two things: One, you get to talking about life, about what’s going on in your life, and how those goings-on have got you to thinking about this one thing, and how this thing seems song-worthy. Or, two, you get to talking about song ideas you have, and if you’re me, you figure out if you can connect to any of those ideas personally, whether it be through your own personal life, your sense of humor, or your sense of empathy. A lot of songwriters talk about how cowriting is like getting into a room with another person, sometimes a stranger, and pulling your pants down.
I often think in a good cowriting session that the world would be a much more peaceful and lovely place if everyone talked to each other like two songwriters trying to get to the heart of a song. On one hand you’ve got two people who have agreed to admit that they are sensitive and vulnerable in both their experience of the world and the way they write about it. And on the other hand you’ve got two people who feel strongly and deeply about something, something that is true to them, and they have to work in such a way that the song, in the end, reflects that feeling. Inevitably, and hopefully, both writers compromise with each other, but they do not compromise their sense of truth or their sense of what makes a quality song. It’s a beautiful process that sometimes produces beautiful songs. And when you’ve experienced such a process and written such a song then there is no feeling quite like it.
Yet, though I’ve cowritten somewhere around 50 songs in my life, I’ve released only two cowritten songs myself (out of 40 released or soon-to-be-released tracks). I don’t know why, but I can’t really cowrite unless the song is for someone else, or for some other purpose. In fact, though I’ve made cowriting out to sound like the greatest thing ever, I am rarely as happy about the product of cowriting as I am about the product of solo-writing. Something happens to me in the process that keeps me distant from the work. When I wrote for EMI a decade ago, which is when I was thrown into the cowriting universe, I felt like the process was destroying me artistically. As over-the-top as it sounds, I would come out of writing sessions and feel like my soul had been assaulted, and I’d feel like the people I was writing with weren’t real artists. How could they be, with the types of songs they wanted to write? To me, they wrote all wrong. They wrote songs as a whittler whittles, from the outside in, tossing a title out like a block of wood and carving away at it until it resembled as closely and cleanly the title they’d thrown out. It was all about titles. I’d never written songs like this. I’d always written, say, to stick with the metaphor, as if I were suddenly trapped in a piece of wood and had to carefully claw myself out. In the end I’d turn around and look at the wood, and how I transformed it with my clawing, and I’d think, Hey, I made it pretty! In addition to that, it usually took a month or so for me to write a song, not a few hours. My metaphor-made-stupid aside, I was young, and so I thought my way was the right way. And I thought any song written with an inferior method was an inferior song. After I left Nashville, and EMI, I didn’t cowrite for more than ten years.
And now here I am in Nashville, about to sign a publishing deal again, and cowriting at least twice a week. What’s changed is that I can have fun with it now, and I can appreciate that as far as jobs go songwriting is a good one (not paywise, but satisfaction-wise). In other words, I don’t feel like my soul is under assault; perhaps because I spent ten years learning the layout of some of my soul and can therefore defend it. I’m also a lot more interested in different processes than I used to be. There are a few songs on my records (Holly, for example, off Vacations) that started as a title (or, in the case of Holly, a pun), and they turned out pretty good (in my opinion), and I’d like to be not so stuck in my one way of songwriting. With a less precious and defensive state of mind I’ve already learned a few really valuable things in my recent cowrites, and I’m glad for that. Still, despite all that, distance remains between myself and these songs. I’d like to think that maybe the more I practice it the more I’ll close the gap, because the gap makes me feel not just like I’ve done something kind of inferior, but kind of wrong. Which leads me back to the feeling I had at EMI, which, if history were allowed to repeat itself, could drive me away from Nashville songwriting again.
But maybe it’ll always be there, and maybe it’s a good thing to feel that way, and maybe I wasn’t all wrong in my youthful artistic righteousness. It could be that I just had it backwards. Because these days, when I get the feeling of having done something wrong, I no longer think it’s the result of some failure to defend my artistic soul against attack. Instead, I blame it on a failure to advance my artistic soul in its own offensives, to expand its empire. That’s a horrible way of putting it, especially after claiming that cowriting might be a way toward world peace. But I guess that’s the whole thing, ain’t it? It’s tough to fit souls together.
Like all songwriters, I have a pathological incapability for listening to other people’s music without thinking about how it was written. This manifests itself in a lot of different ways - I always try to guess the rhyme after the first lyric in a verse, for example, or I think “Hmmm, I wanna use that chord progression” instead of just appreciating it. In a recent interview with Conan O’Brien, Jack White says that he knows a record is good when he hears it without thinking about how it was recorded. That is to say, he by instinct doesn’t hear records or songs. Instead, he hears effects and reverb and levels. He really loves something when it doesn’t make him think about any of that.
The Brooklyn-based Sky Captains of Industry’s debut record, Rocket City, pulls me totally out of my own writer-ness. It presents itself in such a way that I have nothing to add to it by wondering why the hell E.W. Harris says “Barack Obama” in the first part of “Love Shark.” He just does, and it makes sense in context. Rocket City is just so fucking successful at what it does that I, when I listen to it, believe completely in the parallel universe the band has created. Every note and nearly every lyric, especially when understood in the context of the record, is perfect. There’s nothing there for me to doubt and the end result is appealing to me as a fan of great art to such an extent that it shuts up the part of me that wants to know how they did it. (Well, almost, as we’ll see.)
This is a particular accomplishment, in the narrow and narcissistic way I’m judging it, because I know all the members of the band, and I knew them all before they were in the band. I’ve known most of the songs from the time they were half-written little acoustic numbers being played in the back-room at our regular Brooklyn pub. Hell, I’ve played with all the members of the band at different times, and E.W. Harris produced my own record. By all precedents, I should be comparing the songs as they exist on the album to the evolutions I know they’ve taken. In fact, I thought that would happen. Like most people in my social circle, I was waiting for Rocket City with varying degrees of patience for something like a year before it finally came out. And I’ve had plenty of conversations about it since then that worked around the basic theme of “I was really nervous that this thing wasn’t going to be as good as I hoped it would be, considering how great their show has become. And, um, it’s better than I expected.”
All of the members of the Sky Captains - and here I include the various guest Captains that appear from time to time on Rocket City and at their shows, in addition to the core of E.W. Harris (vocals, guitar, synth), Don Paris Schlotman (bass, vocals, synth), Jasper Lewis (guitar, vocals), and Lindsay Dragan (drums, vocals) - are excellent songwriters on their own. This strikes me as superficially problematic. Songwriting collaboration, I confess, has always been a mystery to me so I’m dealing at least somewhat from a place of my own weakness of imagination. Still, I would think that even in the best of situations, there would have to be arguments and bruised egos. Put at least four and sometimes up to six songwriters into a room, as The Sky Captains of Industry do, and the best I’d expect is chaos and the end of several friendships. Rocket City, though, represents a triumph for collaboration.
E.W. and Don have both told me that, to varying degrees, they accomplished this by a mutual understanding of - and dedication to - a Rocket City concept that predates the existence of the band. Rocket City (the place) has its origins in a dream E.W. had some time near the turn of the century, itself inspired by a dream his friend Dr. Cool had just prior. (Speaking of Dr. Cool, knowing E.W. and Don personally just blurs the line between the supposedly fictional Rocket City of the album and their actual lives, which are populated by people and stories that wouldn’t be at all out of place in the Altered States of America.) During periods of studio tedium while Don and E.W. were working on Don’s album Mother Transit Authority in late 2010, the two began talking about a concept album built around E.W.’s old dream (which never totally left him) and the shell of the song that would become the title track.
A lot of ideas that start that way, in the inevitable Four Loko and American Spirit haze of delirium during endless hours mixing the same 20 seconds of song, fizzle out. For people of a certain disposition (I include myself, and I doubt E.W. or Don would mind that I include them), lots of ideas that started in some kind of “awww, man, that would be awesome!” conversation become, in the end, no more than the conversation itself. In the case of Rocket City becoming Rocket City, though, the story of sticking with a great idea and the story of how a bunch of writers with their own styles, influences, and egos can blend together into something so spectacular are the same.
E.W. and Don started playing as the Sky Captains in the spring and summer of 2011, playing a set heavy on stuff from their solo projects that was peppered with some of the earliest Sky Captains tunes (“Rocket City”, “Factory”, and “Time Traveler’s Lament” among them). According to both of them, they had a wide-ranging bunch of discussions of what exactly Rocket City would be. Their major musical influences (Bjork, Radiohead, and assorted noisemaking sci-fi scores for E.W., Joe Jackson, The Talking Heads, and assorted noisemaking sci-fi scores for Don) would all make appearances. More important, though, was the story and the point they were making with it. Both agree that E.W. served as sort of a “guardian” of the concept, while Don was the major idea-man. Neither of them had a particular interest in a specific narrative, so they approached writing the songs for the record in two ways. Sometimes an idea (usually Don’s) would spawn a song, and sometimes a song that one of them had incidentally written would make sense in the larger context.
Jasper Lewis, the lead guitar player and (like everyone) co-writer and co-singer, joined the band around New Year, 2012. (His first gig as a Sky Captain was January 31 of that year at Spike Hill in Brooklyn.) His recently released solo record, The King of Ideas and the Weirdo Kid, highlights the eclecticism of his tastes and abilities. He’s a literal music student, but also a genuine student of music, and King of Ideas ranges from straight up Tom Petty-like rock and roll to gorgeous acoustic ballads to something like RnB.
There is, of course, no shortage of guitar players in Brooklyn. E.W. and Don knew that with Jasper they’d be getting a collaborator as well as a great guitar player. Jasper’s playing goes way beyond filling in musical gaps, instead changing the entire tenor of some songs. It’s impossible to overstate how much he brings to the table. The ideas around Rocket City were reasonably well-formed by the time Jasper joined the band, but it didn’t take him much time at all to be fully on board. Jasper’s contributions to the band, in some ways, highlight the enormous attention to detail that E.W. and Don have paid to the Rocket City project. What I mean is, they didn’t ask Jasper to join the band because he’s a great guitar player (which, make no mistake, he is.) They asked him to join the band because he was the best possible guitar player for the band. Simple as that. (It’s also a testament to how good an idea Rocket City is, and how well E.W. and Don are at presenting it, that Jasper would agree to become a full-time Sky Captain. He has no shortage of prospects as a solo performer and a sideman, but he’s chosen to throw himself in with these guys. It’s a perfect match both ways.)
Through 2011 and 2012, the Sky Captains played with the ultimate rock-and-roll cliche - a rotating cast of drummers. Their first (and still occasional) percussionist was the Groove Lobster, E.W.’s trusty drum machine. As with Jasper, though, each of the drummers the Sky Captains have played with have brought something specific and meaningful to the overall idea. Four of them, including the Groove Lobster herself, are credited on the album. (The humanoid three are Casey Black, E.W.’s brother Phil Harris, and Lindsay Dragan.) It would’ve been an easy choice for the band to just use whichever drummer was playing with them at the moment on the record, but the truth is - all of them are necessary. Phil brings a bizarre combination of musical talents to the table (in addition to drums and percussion, he plays saw and kora (!) on the album), Casey would claim not to be anything as a drummer but in fact adds a very specific percussive element to the sound of the band, and Lindsay (who plays with the band full-time now) sings gorgeous harmonies and plays perfectly off Don.
It’s my impression from watching the evolution of the songs over time, from hearing Rocket City itself, and from talking to the Sky Captains both socially and in the attempted formalities of “interviews” for this review, that one of the biggest reasons for their success in corralling the talents and egos of all these songwriters is that everyone is completely committed to the band as a band and to the idea of Rocket City as an idea. (This, I’ll note, explains the lack of jealousy about the others’ songwriting - what I mean is, in a band, it’s expected that when some songwriting member is hoarding good material for a solo album, that will create resentment. All of E.W., Don, and Jasper have been writing killer material for themselves during the time Sky Captains have been together and none of them mind - if it’s outside Rocket City, they don’t want it for the band anyway no matter how good it is.)
Although E.W. is the nominal front-man of the group, singing lead on most songs and also producing and engineering the album in his Bed-Stuy studio, the Sky Captains are actually a well-cultivated blend of the talents of every member of the band. Without any of of the people who play on the record or in the show, either one would be something different than (and less than) it is. Nobody operates as a traditional sideman. The band is not a democracy exactly, but if it’s a dictatorship, the dictator is the Rocket City concept. E.W. may be the guardian and originator of that concept, but every member of the band past and present has had a part in creating it. They didn’t find a magic potion to subsume their egos, but such is their dedication to making Rocket City properly (and here I use the present tense verb because, as E.W. told me, the recorded version isn’t the finished version - it’s just the recorded version) that losing arguments about lyrics or arrangements or vocal effects doesn’t hold the sting it otherwise would.
And what is the concept, exactly? Rocket City is, if we must genre-ize things, a work of science-fiction. A sci-fi concept album, I suppose. As I mentioned earlier, it eschews a narrative format, presenting itself instead (as Chris Michael, the announcer at the beginning of the title track, called it in his review) as “a series of vignettes” that explore the post-apocalyptic American landscape, the capitol of which is Rocket City. (Don’s extraordinary cover art for the album would have us believe Rocket City is New York, but I think that’s too easy.) I would make the argument that the album (and the band more generally) didn’t invent a fictional setting for their stories so much as they’re working in a parallel universe to our own. It’s beyond allegory, and more like magic realism. Robots, aliens, and rockets may be the backdrop, but the record shouldn’t be confused with escapism.
E.W. thoroughly rejects the idea that Rocket City is any kind of philosophical allegory, but he agreed with me when I suggested the allegory might be political. Rocket City presents a dystopian vision, sure, but it’s one that is fundamentally optimistic - the opposite of Ayn Rand, if you’ll permit the easy comparison. Time and again, the tracks on the record reflect the spirit of the band itself - collective action to a greater accomplishment. For evidence of this, I’d point you to the “we” that gets into trouble in “Factory”, “Dog Eat Dog”, “Mermaid”, “The Rock Saved Us”, “The Cans”, and “Gone Fission” as well as the call for the audience to join the collective in “Rock & Roll Shoes.” We don’t find much at all - sorry, Ayn! - that suggests that any one can save the day. The songs have narrators, of course, so the group activities are presented through individual experiences. But the narrators and, through the “come on, climb aboard” invitation in “Rock & Roll Shoes”, also the band and we the listeners, have a consistent point to make: we’re all in this together.
(A quick parenthetical pseudo-paragraph in which I explain why I think “Rock & Roll Shoes” is the ultimate in this idea. It’s all right there in the hook - “it’s gonna save the rest of your heart”. Yes, you’re fucked up and broken and shitty things have happened to you, but if you come with us, man, we can at least keep you safe for the rest of it. Much of the beauty of rock and roll as a subculture is in that exact sentiment.)
Such is the attention to detail, and on content and form colliding in the most beautiful ways, that the triple lead vocal on the Don-penned “Factory” has a Rocket City-specific reason for being. (I assumed that it was a matter of just taking advantage of the band’s ample resources - if you’ve got four great singers, why not use them all?) E.W. concedes that Jasper phrases the first verse better than he used to, but also says that the three lead singers works as a sort of exposition for the story. If the album actually is about collectivity as expressed through individual narrators, what better way to show not tell that then to give us three narrators right up front. The lyrics may be all “I” and “my” but the fact of the three singers introduces us to the group from the get-go.
Speaking of attention to detail, I want to draw attention to the tracks “The Great Inland Sea”, “The Rock Saved Us”, and “It Matters” (the latter two featuring performances by guest-Captains Casey Black and Niall Connolly, respectively.) Spoken-word-over-sound-collage is an E.W. Harris production trope, especially on his 2010 solo album A Waste of Water and Time. “Supernova”, the first song on that record (which also featured in the earliest Sky Captains sets,) is (in his words) “a context experiment” in which members of a live audience read aloud whatever they happen to have with them (I’ve seen it done with novels, poetry, newspapers, it doesn’t matter) over the chords and the chorus of the song. The idea being, whichever words are read will change the meaning of the music (and the lyrics in the chorus) and simultaneously the music and lyrics will change the meaning of the text.
I’d argue that the three tracks mentioned above are proof that the experiment worked. While all of them serve the concept album purpose of tying together tracks and sounds to form a more cohesive whole, the content of “The Rock Saved Us” and “It Matters” fully support (maybe even explain in a way the live show doesn’t) the record’s theme. The mutant played by Casey in “The Rock Saved Us”, for example, interprets the motivation of cannibals in, well, in very un-Randian terms. “It Matters” is a beautiful Niall-penned poem with Phil’s kora playing behind it. “Nothing’s built to last…it matters how you are.” Here again, as in “Rock & Roll Shoes” and throughout, we have the twin ideas that things can be terrible and there can be destruction, but that we’re still responsible for being Good People. These three tracks, not songs, are also not interludes for the record or transitions between up-tempo and down-tempo. Not just that, anyway. They’re integral parts of the album - Rocket City is incomplete without them, both musically and theoretically.
As for the music, I realize I’m closing in on 3000 words here without ever talking about it. To be honest, I expect whoever’s gotten this far (hi, Don!) to know what it sounds like. The music, and here I’m repeating myself to the point of self-parody, reflects that same idea of collectivism and collaboration. Every band member is providing something singular - each song, like the album as a whole and the band as a concept, is less complete without any of its parts. The Sky Captains of Industry is made up of great musicians who write great songs, and that would be enough on its own insofar as a band of great musicians playing great songs is always something worth listening to. They haven’t just done that, though. They’ve combined their influences and individual styles seamlessly in service of the idea. When the idea is that we all gotta work together to get through the shit, it’s not (I hope) too much to say that the way the band works is also a reflection of that point. So what does it sound like? I dunno. I think describing music in words is asinine. Here’s as close as I can get: Buddy Holly fronting a band of robots and hobos, but only if he’d learned to sing opera and also spent three years listening to nothing but Pixies and Radiohead. See? That’s bullshit, and it doesn’t explain anything. So I think I won’t bother.
What I’ll close with, then, is something E.W. said to me about “Gone Fission” and its place in Rocket City and Rocket City. “There’s no one thing that’s gonna solve everything,” he said, “I’m about to blow up. We’re trapped in this thing. We have to do something about it. Everybody has to do something about it.”
The Sky Captains of Industry will be playing a record release show at Mercury Lounge in New York, NY, January 27th at 8PM.
There is the kind writer’s block that everyone knows about, and there is the other. The kind where you’ve got an idea for a song that’s so good that you’re intimidated by it, or scared to write it because you don’t wanna write it wrong. Or you start thinking that it it’s such a brilliant idea that maybe it could never be written. Not by you at least.
I have such an idea. When it came to me I stopped in my tracks on a bitter cold and rainy night on some Williamsburg block, already late for a show, to sing the piece in my head into my phone. A simple chorus melody and a phrase. I’ve thought and thought about it, and played and played around with it, but nothing I do is good enough. The piece is still all I have. The voice memo is dated 8/15/12.
Perhaps Jasper Lewis can help me out. If you’ve heard Jasper’s music you know, like I do, that he is a serious-ly good songwriter. But his writing and performing also have an enviable playfulness to them. I have had the thought while listening to Jasper play that he writes great songs because he somehow allows himself to write great songs; like he invites the great idea to dinner, and then instead of having an intense staring contest with it until it either relents or storms out of your house (which I am prone to doing), he serves the idea some jello and tells it a dirty joke. He seems to truly entertain an idea. Here, in Jasper’s words, is some insight into how he pulls it off:
Keeping it real
One of the most challenging things for a songwriter is knowing what to do with a really good idea. I don’t mean a pretty good idea, like, “hey that lady in the coffeeshop used a funny colloquialism let’s write a song about it,” or “I’m sure mad at my girlfriend today.” I mean a really good idea like “this is the one, my hallelujah, my like a rolling stone, my rolling in the deep.” That kind of idea.
Now, the problem with these ideas is that they are just that, ideas, they aren’t things. A really good idea is not a really good thing. It’s just not. When faced with a really, truly great idea it’s easy to lose perspective and get jammed up. No matter how hard you try, and how many re-writes you perform, the thing will never be as good as the idea, or as Socrates once put it, “I’ll be back in five minutes bro, don’t rufie my hemlock.”
Ideas don’t exist though, and these sorts of really good ideas are a special kind of disruptive annoyance once you allow them to take hold. When faced with a really good idea the best thing to do is to turn it into a pretty good thing as quickly as possible. Get it over with. Here’s a few things to try next time you’re stumped by a really good idea.
a) Shoot yourself in the foot. Do you play guitar? Great. Write this one on the piano, or the kazoo, or without accompaniment. Write it without words. Distract from the goodness of your idea with the badness of your playing. A little rough will make the diamond shine all the brighter.
b)Be obvious. Stop trying to be poetical and just say what you mean. Blatantly and awkwardly, if necessary. A great example of this is the song You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told) by the White Stripes. Now that’s a really good idea. You can almost feel Jack White’s impatience as he waits and waits to get to the point.
c)Give yourself a deadline. The sooner the better. Have a great idea at work and finish writing it before you get home.
d)Embrace your flaws. The details and mistakes that keep your thing from being as perfect as your idea are the details and mistakes that make you human. More than your great idea, they are the things that your audience will relate to. Don’t try to cover them up or you will just confuse people.
Until it’s finished, you won’t be able to think of anything better.
Jasper Lewis is based in New York, and sometimes New Jersey. He’s just released a great new record, The King of Ideas and the Weirdo Kid, which you can sample and purchase here.
I read recently this article on The Atlantic’s site, in which the writer, Noah Berlatsky, excoriates author Jeffrey Eugenide’s advice to writers. In short, Berlatsky says that Eugenide’s encouraging young writers “to write as if they’re dead…without regard to popularity,” is ” just bad advice.” He closes the article with the advice to “write, in short, as if you are alive, both because the alternative is cramped and stupid, and because you don’t have any other choice.”
Spats of this kind feel silly to me, and I get the same kind of feeling from them that I get from reading about how Jonathan Franzen hates Twitter. What gets me is that these writers, especially Berlatsky, seem to assume that, one, there is one way of writing that works best for everyone, and two, that their audiences are helpless and mindless enough to choose permanently one way of writing over another because a published author said so.
When I was in high school my dad bought Jimmy Webb’s book, Tunesmith, for me, which contained advice and stories about his songwriting career (which, if you don’t know, included his writing Wichita Lineman, MacArthur Park and many other big hits). I was excited by the gift, because I was just starting to write songs, and with the gift my dad, a songwriter, was showing love and encouragement. I also felt like reading it would be a step toward being a greater writer. There were a few good tips in there, like never noodle around without recording it, and other practical stuff like that. But I remember turning a page and reading something very near to this: “The amateur songwriter’s greatest single failing and one that is immediately obvious to the listener is that the writer does not know exactly where the song is going.” Thinking on it now, I suppose that maybe he meant that an amateur songwriter might call a song complete even though it meanders more that it should. Okay, I guess, but who’s to judge that? When I read it at sixteen, though, I didn’t read it like that. What I read was that I shouldn’t start a lyric without first knowing where the lyric was going. The sentence had quite an effect on me: I slammed the book shut, threw it across the room, and never opened it up again. It was total bullshit. Back then, I started every song of mine from word one and didn’t know where it was going. Today, especially when I write alone, I write that way about 85% of the time. Sure, I was and still am an amateur in some ways, but to Webb I guess–because I don’t write his way–I’m an amateur through and through. Bullshit!
I’ve written Eugenide’s and Berlatsky’s way, successfully. And I’ve written Webb’s way successfully, too. So perhaps everyone should write all three ways like me, right? After all, I have a record deal and was a professional staff songwriter for a while, so I am an AUTHORity, right. Of course not. There ain’t one way to write. There are many.
Please, fellow writers, do continue to talk about what works for you, because I for one find it very interesting. (And don’t I find it interesting because it’s different for so many people?) But quit saying that your way is the best and only way, because it’s condescending, and so obviously untrue.
Brooklyn singer songwriter and instrumentalist, Don Paris Schlotman, answers my songwriter questionnaire:
Outside of music, what or who has the greatest influence on your songwriting?
Reading books has probably been the largest influence, followed by movies or just things overheard from friends/strangers.
How do you name a song?
It just comes to me. Sometimes the title is just the obvious refrain, sometimes it’s a chance to explain the lyrics or set up the idea outside of the actual lyrics.
Generally, what are your lyrics about?
Weird shit like computers, monsters, ghosts, pirates, rockets, and hot lady cops. Inside the metaphor of that weird shit, they’re usually about heartbreak and other common human conditions and things like food, dancing, and opportunities to use puns.
Where do your songs come from?
It’s always different, but most of my songs begin life as a short line, phrase, or melody that gets stuck in my head while doing otherwise mundane tasks. By the time it gets to my guitar or bass, it’s usually quite different, something I am not sure I like or not.
What is the best analogy for the songwriting process, and, briefly, why? (My answer is a wrestling match, if that clears up the question.)
Dancing with the devil in the full moonlight. No wait. The zoo - everything is wrapped up in pretty cages and enclosures and people aren’t generally allowed inside. If they do get inside, they sometimes get eaten or mauled.
What is your songwriting pet peeve? (Or, what do you most frequently get annoyed with in other people’s songs?)
I don’t think I have any. I get annoyed by stupid lyrics I guess (see: “lonely is the night, when you find yourself alone”), but am pretty open minded about most things, sometimes even including stupid lyrics.
Are there any songwriting rules you impose on yourself? If so, what are they?
Only to keep moving, like a shark so I don’t drown.
Ryan Morgan laments his aging, and pop music’s failure to age with him:
“Just finished my annual tradition of making myself listen to the Billboard Top 20 Songs of the year just ended. Summary: nobody writes verses any more, and I’m getting old, and pop music hasn’t changed much at all since 2004, both in terms of the way the songs sound and the actual people who are performing them.”
I try (kind of) hard to like pop music. My wife sings and dances to it in the car, and I wish I could do that. You’d have to be stupid not to recognize some of the great infectious little (actually, big) melodies in pop music. Why, some are beautiful like diamonds in the sky. But I agree with Ryan, verses are kaput.
I wrote a song called Radio Hit when I was a confused, religious, moral 20 year-old asshole. It was a genius piece of horribleness–a screed against “audio porn”–the “hit” in the title being the violent kind (get it??). It had a lyric that raged against “midriffs and their melodies,” which is hilarious now, as it’s cringe-worthy writing, and I quite like midriffs now that I don’t hate my own desires. Anyhow, there was one line in there that might be salvageable, in the bridge:
Thank you for teaching me a brand new meaning of pop/Pop, you’re gone
Which is to say, pop songs these days don’t feel like they’ll last. They ain’t timeless. Maybe ageless, but not timeless.
(For context, see previous posts One, Two, Three to the Gut, and One, Two, Three to the Gut - Track 2, in order.)
Ryan, I am trying to think of any act of violence outside of sport that has bettered the world, or raised us up in some way. War is the first thing to come to mind, as in something like a “good war,” where a bad man is defeated through violence because violence is the only way to defeat him. But even a “good war” is a war, and no side gets out clean. Some bad man throws the first punch and draws us down, even if necessarily, to his level. Dehumanization is what you’d call it I guess. And we don’t celebrate the death, violence, and animal behavior that comes with war when it’s over: We celebrate the survival of our value system, the victory or our way of civilization over the others’.
You ask if I would really go back and hit these people. For Marcus, at the football field, and for the gay-bashers in the movie parking lot, I suppose the answer is actually No, I wouldn’t. I thought about your saying that there is some desire in you “to see bad people hurt,” but you recognize that “it is, at heart, a deeply uncivilized notion.” I have, when it comes down to it, very little desire to see bad people hurt. Even the baddest people, say, your Saddam Husseins and Muammar Gaddafis–some part of me did want them to suffer the violence and death they inflicted on others, then another part of me saw them getting hung or beaten to death and didn’t feel okay about it. I have even less desire to to see bad people hurt by me, especially when violence hasn’t been introduced into the situation. Neither Marcus nor the assholes in the parking lot threatened or introduced violence, so maybe my introduction of it would have symbolized a few steps backward, away from civility. And now that you’ve really got me thinking about it, Marcus seems like some sort of hero for civilization, some sort of teacher. After all, he did in fact think I’d called him nigger, so if any violence was called for it would have been his to mete out. But he said only, “I know you want to hit me.” He didn’t challenge me or provoke me, just told me how I felt, and correctly. With the group gathered around he could have been a science teacher, using me as an example of how a Homo sapien will bare its teeth not only when its corporal safety is challenged, but when its sense of justice is challenged. Had I hit Marcus (who had a big fat gut just like so many statues of a certain other teacher…) it would have been sad, unreasonable and less than civilized.
I can’t tell you if I’d hit Ben or not. I go back and forth. He did hit me after all, and I’d like to think I can (and would) defend myself without relying on authorities or alternative justice if I need to. (Of course, retreat was actually the best defense in terms of my physical safety, as it resulted in no more physical injury.) Had I hit him, I guess it would have done little good, save for allowing me to preserve some playground dignity. I’m sure that I’d have been disappointed in whatever punishment the teacher gave anyway, because, well, I’d say he hit me first (just like Hitler!) and she wouldn’t care. With or without Ben the revelation of subjective justice through my teacher would have inevitably come from someone else, and probably soon. I don’t know about Ben.
And so I guess one could ask (one being the number of people who read things on this blog): Why in the hell would I write that I’d go back and punch them if I wouldn’t? Because when I wrote it it felt true. And even when I posted it it felt true. Your point that “art may just be the best place to put that shit” is taken. Because I edited that post like crazy, and I rewrote it a number of times over a couple of weeks. (I didn’t, say, just punch it out.) All that work wasn’t done because I was looking to get the facts straight. It was done because I wanted it to read cleanly, and because I wanted it to express the thing I was feeling, which was a rage at all the things I’d never expressed, and a frustration with myself for not expressing more today. (The reason I started a blog was to get myself to write more, and express more.) When it did feel right, I posted it. In other words, it had become a piece of art for me, and the process had been almost identical to my songwriting process, and so I labeled the paragraphs like they were parts of a song.
It’s pretty ridiculous. When I was writing that I admired people who’d been in bar fights, I was thinking of people like Norman Mailer, who was known for that kinda thing. That’s what I was thinking, that he was known for that kind of thing. But he wasn’t known at all for that kind of thing. He was known because he was a writer, and the fact that he may have fought in bars makes him, I dunno, more interesting. But people who only get in bar fights aren’t interesting. Hell, I guess I wouldn’t think of you as being interesting (actually, I guess I wouldn’t even know you) if you were just a dude who’d smashed some guitars. But the fact that you’ve smashed guitars is interesting now that you’ve have used guitars to write the kind of songs you write. I guess the whole thing comes down to my admiring expression and the people who express. But you’re right. Though punching is a kind of expression, it’s dumber than art. Violence only leads to more violence, or a temporary end to violence. Violence leads to maintenance of a status quo or a degradation of it. It makes me think of other dudes we’ve talked about outside (the appropriately named) Path Cafe, like James Baldwin and Paulo Freire. Now those were two dudes who had every reason to resort to violence. But they both wrote instead of punching, and they wrote warnings to other groups of people, who also had every reason to use violence against their oppressors, and they said, in essence, don’t throw the punch, for if you do, you adopt the practices of your oppressors and eventually, perhaps, become the oppressors yourselves. Had they thrown punches, I s’pose I’d have never taken their point, or been fired up by the way they think, or talked about them outside Path.
I think I may have not really addressed all the good stuff you mentioned in your response, and instead focused on (or got distracted by) your question of whether or not I’d really go back and hit those guys. All the same, I think you’re right. I wouldn’t punch them, and I shouldn’t. I appreciate your making me think about it.
My pal and fellow songwriter, Ryan Morgan, sent a thoughtful response to my last post. I know Ryan from the Big City Folk scene in New York. He is a great songwriter (and conversationalist). You can, and should, listen to his music here.
The thing is, your memories of when you wish you could go back and be violent are all in response to some injustice or another - arbitrariness on the playground, mistaken identity at the football game, homophobia in the parking lot. And in all cases, you’re in effect being targeted for something that isn’t your fault. So the rage is, in a sense, just. At least a response to injustice.
It’s an interesting venue for something like anger and violence, which are normally so visceral and instinctive. I’m thinking of violence as catharsis. Or as defensiveness. Or, anyway, as something less pure than what you’re describing. We are, after all, talking about hurting someone. You’re talking about hurting people who deserve it, like a vigilante, once principles or authority have refused to dole out appropriate punishment. I find that really interesting, because it’s an appropriation of a very carnal desire to what is in effect a very civilized end. Like the death penalty, or drone attacks.
Do you really wish you would have hit those people? The offender in the second story is the kid who really did say nigger and then slunk from your side when you were falsely accused. Shouldn’t he, rather than the black kid who knocked you out of the air, be the target of your nostalgic fury?
Anyway, when I was younger, I used to punch holes in walls, and I smashed the first three guitars I owned to bits. As an adult, I took on the habit of shooting handguns at paper targets, but it was always more for sport than catharsis. Still, yes, I think there is in me some desire to see bad people hurt. But I recognize that it is, at heart, a deeply uncivilized notion. Art may just be the best place to put that shit.
My friend Ben punched me in the stomach on the playground. We were in kindergarten. It didn’t really hurt that bad, but it shocked the hell out of me. I’d never been punched before and I couldn’t comprehend the violence. I remember I flamed up in anger, but before I could react with that anger I started crying, and the anger came back toward myself, as outwardly I was then a boy who was crying in front of everyone and that was a bad thing to be. Next thing I knew I was running to the teacher on playground duty, feeling ashamed as I did, but feeling that I had to use those tears somehow. When I told the teacher what happened, she said, “For the rest of recess you stay on that side of the playground and Ben will stay on that side of the playground.” My mouth fell open. I was a kid with a deep moral code and I expected the adult judge to enforce the code. But she was punishing us both, and Ben was getting the better half of the playground. Maybe I deserved it for being such a wimp and tattle tale, but it was a sick moment. There was the introduction to violence followed quickly by the realization that justice means different things for different people. I guess I felt I was better than punching, that we all should be. I am not better than punching now. If I could go back in time I would go to that playground and punch Ben as hard as I can.
When I was 12, I went to high school football game with my friend Nate. Our favorite thing to do at the games was to stand behind the goal posts and try to catch the ball after a field goal attempt. That night there were about 25 other kids back there and they were mostly older than us, so our chances of catching the ball were low. Still, a field goal was kicked, the ball went long, and I was fast, so I was able to sprint back and get to it. When I saw that it was going to bounce I dove, and in the middle of the dive I was knocked out of the air by a huge black dude, who ended up with the ball. As he walked triumphantly toward the end zone to throw the ball back to the ref, Nate, who had seen the mid-air knock, lifted his head toward the guy, and, under his breath said to me, “Nigger.” But he hadn’t said it quiet enough. A dude close by turned and said, “What you say?” But he wasn’t looking at Nate, he was looking at me.
“I didn’t say anything,” I said, and I felt good and moral because I was telling the truth. “You said nigger,” he said, and then he turned to the guy who’d caught the ball, who was now walking back from the fence, and he said, “Marcus, this guy right here called you a nigger!” “No I didn’t!” I said. I turned to Nate and he was just looking at the ground. Marcus walked up to me. He was a foot taller than I was, had a big ole gut, and his head was shaved. His head was steaming, too. I could see it in the stadium lights, hot smoke from his sweaty skull floating up into the cold air. He came within a foot of me and stopped as his friends gathered round. “You call me a nigger?” he said. “No,” I said. “I heard it, man!” said his friend. “I didn’t.” I said. “You calling me a liar?” the friend said. “No,” I said. “Well what you wanna do?” Marcus said to me. He was staring down into my eyes and I looked right back at him. And I balled up my fists just in case. “You wanna hit me?” said Marcus, “I know you wanna hit me!” I let my eyes travel from his face to his big fat gut, right there in reach, and I did want to hit him. I wanted it bad. Here again was a failure of justice, a betrayal of a friend, and anger, and I wanted to punch his fat stomach and make my fist go through. “You wanna hit me?” he repeated. I looked at him one last time, squeezed my fists, tensed my arms, and . . I walked away. Behind my back the kids called me names and laughed as I retreated, Nate in tow. I walked behind the bleachers where nobody could see me, and I cried. Nate looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Why are you crying?” “I don’t know,” I said. If I could go back I would punch Marcus in the stomach, and after I was done getting my ass kicked by all of his friends I’d find Nate, who would no doubt have fled, and I’d punch him too.
I was walking to my car in the movie theatre parking lot, 16 years old, when I heard a voice yell out, “Hey, faggot!” I made the mistake of turning to see the speaker, a slightly older dude who had two friends with him, and I realized he was talking to me. He was maybe 20 yards away. “Are you gay?” he asked me, in a kind of evil way. I took a second to think of what to say. And incredibly, I said, “Yeah, I’m gay.” I wasn’t gay then, and I’m not gay now–I didn’t even know a gay person then–but I said, “Yeah. I’m gay.” The guy opened his eyes real wide and laughed, and his friends laughed, too. I balled up my fists at my sides, ready for a fight, and they started walking toward me. But I changed my mind and walked as quickly but cooly to my car as I could. The car was close by and I got in, started the engine fast, and pulled away. As I waited to turn out of the parking lot onto the street the dudes pulled up to me and the driver, the same kid who’d asked me if I was gay, rolled down his window. He puckered his lips and smacked them in this sick way. “Hey faggot, you want a kiss? You want a blowjob? Lips are lips, right?” His friends laughed hard, and I pulled out onto the street.
I didn’t and I don’t know why I told them I was gay. It makes no sense. It was a lie and it put me in danger. The only sense I can make of it is: Those kids were being jerks, to me, and well, to gay people, and this pissed me off. So, in the moment I must have made a heroic and stupid decision to represent all gay people. It’s as if my full reply was, “Yes, I’m gay, and what’s wrong with that?” Moreover, it must have been that saying No, in my mind, would have been to somehow ally myself with the homophobes, like, “No, dudes, I’m cool just like you guys are.” Saying No could have also made me look like a liar to them, like they’d made their minds up that I was gay, and that my denying it would have made me a coward. I guess I stood up to them a little bit in that way. But if I could go back, stupid as it would be and for whatever stupid reason, I would fight them.
There are phases I go through when I feel something pent up, and I joke around that I want to go out and get into a fight. Once or twice when I lived near a not-so-nice place in Brooklyn I walked late at night into those streets to tempt fate. But nothing ever happened. Sick or not, I admire my friends who fought with their brothers when they were younger and people who have been in bar fights. The reason why is I’d like to know how it feels. Meaning, I’d like to know how it feels, less the punch and more the expression, and the close connection to another human. I guess I’m not a violent person. Violence scares me and baffles me. But I’m terrible at raw expression in real life, and I wish I weren’t: I admire people whose nervous systems have less inhibitors than mine. So I write a lot of songs with a narrator who knows his mind and speaks it, and about characters who say and do bold things out of hurt and anger. Because, to my chagrin, I have rarely been able to. The only place I’ve ever been able to throw a punch is in a song.