BY ERIK CHRISTENSEN
May 2, 2014
One of my songwriting heroes, Jason Isbell, said something recently that really struck me. I scribbled it on the inside cover of my notebook: “Inspiration likes to find you busy.” The gist was that you should work on your craft, not just wait around for inspiration to strike.
I’m a big fan of songwriter interviews, liner notes, and “Behind the Music” documentaries. I’d like to think my favorite songwriters slaved over their lyrics, worked and polished the verses and choruses until they were as tight and cohesive as a Shakespearean sonnet. Hard work, Thomas Edison’s “inspiration/perspiration” dictum, nose to the grindstone, yes?
But…I’ve also heard about songs that come quickly, “out of nowhere,” and suddenly there is a song on the page that wasn’t there before. The poet Garcia Lorca called it “duende,” the creative spirit that resides in all of us. He referred to a “mysterious power that all may feel and no philosophy can explain.”
Songwriters? It’s time for a top five list of the out-of-the-blue variety.
Number one: Townes Van Zandt, the bard of Texas country music, said that sometimes songs would just fly in an open window. “Sky songs,” he called them, and for someone who spoke about the craft in almost every interview, he would always acknowledge the mystery, the unknown presence that seemed to fill him up at times. Townes was famous for working and reworking his songs until every syllable was right, but I remember an interview in which Susanna Clark said that Townes called her up in the early morning—many times—to play her a song over the phone that had just come to him.
Number two: Bob Dylan, “License to Kill.” Back in the days when I would take home a new vinyl record, sit down on the floor and play it loud through headphones, no lyric went without scrutiny. I remember being blown away by this couplet from the song on the “Infidels” album:
“Oh, man is inventing his doom
His first step was touching the moon…”
Wow, I thought. What an interesting statement about hubris and technology, maybe meaning that we’ve overstepped our bounds and pushed technology too far. A few years later, a Rolling Stone journalist asked him about those specific lines in the context of technology and responsibility and I almost dropped the magazine when Bob said “no, not really,” the idea just came to him quickly and he thought it sounded cool.
Number Three: “Yesterday,” the most-covered song, recorded by hundreds of artists, came to Paul McCartney in a dream. He woke up one morning with the melody, and—as the story goes—played and sang it for family and friends, sure that it was somebody else’s song he was just mimicking. The original lyrics, meant to just be nonsense syllables while he worked out the final copy, were a bit simple: “Scrambled eggs/baby I just love your legs.”
Which brings up an important point: while the origin of the song was a gift, showing up unannounced, Sir Paul spent a few weeks singing “Scrambled eggs” over and over again, and refined it into a song loved by millions.
One must meet the muse halfway. No one can pinpoint where this stuff comes from, but craft and hard work are still part of the equation. As Mr. Isbell stated at the beginning, inspiration likes to find you busy.
Number four: And speaking of dream sequences, journey back now to Clearwater, Florida in 1965. One night after a Rolling Stones gig, Keith Richards woke up with a horn line buzzing in his head. He sang it into a cheap cassette recorder at his bedside, and said a musical phrase that seemed to match the feel of the riff: “I can’t get no satisfaction.” He woke up the next morning, hit the rewind button, and said the tape contained the exact “Satisfaction” riff we’ve all heard, followed by 40 minutes of him snoring as he fell asleep and left the cassette running. Three months later: a number one single, and maybe the Stones’ most famous song.
Number five: While I would never assume to be in their company, all of the above have influenced me to keep my notebook at my bedside. With everyone from Federico Garcia Lorca to “Keef” from the Stones as my guide, I know what to do.
I have woken up to scribble down a dream, or a line, or a scene that has popped into my head. I have written down songs almost verbatim, like dictation. I have also worked on song ideas endlessly, playing the same chord sequence around the house for months, driving everyone crazy.
Last month, I woke up, knowing I had blinked awake in the middle of the night and had scribbled something down. I seemed to remember it was kind of a funky, braggadocio line, some character flaunting his high-class, refined taste. My notebook said:
…sometimes I like to paw at the comfort
of a custom mattress
I always fall out of favor
With a southern actress…
What the heck? I have no idea where this came from. There are also a few lines trying out a “boom box/way she walks” line. Crazy. I’m definitely no smooth operator, bragging about my lifestyle. I’m not confident enough to espouse my exploits to anyone, or even talk about myself that way.
What I AM, though, is smart enough to know this could be an interesting character study, and I’m stubborn enough to mess with it and figure it out. I also know that with a snarky guitar line and maybe some Little Feat or Booker T and the MGs background music, it could be a really cool song.
It’s a “sky song.” And I happened to have the window open. Stay tuned.
Erik Christensen teaches at Oak Harbor High School, writes songs and poetry, and waits patiently for the Seattle Mariners to develop their young pitchers.
Erik Christensen Band will play at Mo’s Pub in Langley from 7 to 9 p.m. on May 7 and at Blooms Winery in Bayview from 3 to 5 p.m. on June 15.
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Nice article, Erik!
I am reminded here of Leonard Cohen’s words: “If I knew where the songs come from, I’d go there more often.” Amen.
Keeping busy and hoping that inspiration notices,
Great blog, Eric. Van Zandt always said that “If I Needed You” came to him in dream while he was living with Guy and Suzanna in Nachville. There are some conflicting reports about this according to one of his biograhpers…