Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Perils of Songwriting

One of the good things about being back in Memphis is being around muscians again. I'm not talking about professional musicians--of which there are many here--but just your average, everyday, I've-got-a-guitar-and-an-idea musicians. I love just sitting around on somebody's deck, especially on hot summer nights, hammering out totally average versions of truly beautiful songs. I love it when somebody says, "hey, y'all remember this one?", and then breaks out something that I forgot I knew. I love it when, in the course of these impromptu sessions, I find that missing chord to a totally familiar tune that I never could figure out on my own. (This recently happened to me with Lucinda William's song "Those Three Days," which is kind of embarrasing since I think there are only like three chords in the whole song.) And I love, love, love it when people play their original songs. There's nothing like hearing a song sung by its songwriter.

Many years ago, here in Memphis, Keith Sykes used to host a monthly "Songwriter's Night" in a dive bar downtown. He would invite all of his old Nashville/Austin/Memphis/Key West songwriter friends to come and play. It was unbelievable. These guys who you've never seen or heard of--and who looked like they had been rode hard and hung up wet too many nights in their ragged lives--would sit on a bar stool with a Coors Lights and a guitar and play songs that had made the likes of Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw millions of dollars... though the songwriters themselves were still struggling to pay rent. One night when I was there, a man with a ukelele said, "here's a song I wrote that you mighta heard..." and then proceeded to play "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress." Bet you didn't know that song was intended to be played on a ukelele!

On the other hand, the bad thing about being back around all these musicians is that it has made me painfully aware of the fact that (1) I am very rusty, having not played much since the demise of Philbilly Cadillac, and (2) I have soooooooooo much still to learn about songwriting. I'm a pretty amateur musician, and an even more amateur songwriter. I've written a few good songs in my life, and a whole lot of bad songs... but I've never written a great song. And I really want to do that before I die. It's the holy grail that I've been pursuing for almost 15 years now. And many of my friends here are amazing songwriters, which only stokes the fire of my frustration.

(An aside for my philosophical readers: One of my longtime friends here, Amit Sen, wrote a song several years ago called "A Priori." It's a really great song, but those of you familiar with Kant will probably appreciate it more than the average listener. You can listen to it here at the website of his now-defunct band The Apostles of Love Song Orchestra, or ALSO. Even if it's not your style, you gotta appreciate the difficulty of writing a song called "A Priori"!)

I'm not sure what the secret to writing the perfect song is. As a deconstructionist, I should know that there is no "secret," but I want to believe there is. So, I'm soliciting suggestions. Tell me what you think makes a great song. Or give me an example of what you think a great song is and maybe we can pick those apart together until we find the pixie dust...


petya said...

see...i've always thought you are a great songwriter! there's that little tune you used to do with the cadillacs...dead flowers or something...i always thought it was great ;)

LEIGH said...

oh, would that it were true!

sorry, petya, but "Dead Flowers" is a Rolling Stones song... but it is a good start to the conversation. What makes that song so great? Other than the obvious great heroin-references, like: "I'll be in my basement room/ with a needle and a spoon/ and another girl to take my pain away."

melanie said...

I don't know what the secret is either, so I'll just send a shout out to my favorite rock 'n' roller, The Boss. I think you should sit down and read all the lyrics from "Greetings from Asbury Park" and "The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle," where you will find a full range of outrageous metaphors and where every automobile is, deep down in the depths of its engine, just as human as you and me. You and Bruce both love to tell stories and my favorite of your songs is a story about getting drunk at some field party, so you will surely find some inspiration in "Spirit in the Night," Bruce's story about getting drunk by some lake:

"Crazy Janey and her mission man were back in the alley tradin' hands
'long came Wild Billy with his friend G-man all duded up for Saturday night
Billy slammed on his coaster brakes and said anybody wanna go on up to Greasy Lake
It's about a mile down on the dark side of route 88
I got a bottle of rose so let's try it
We'll pick up Hazy Davy and Killer Joe and I'll take you all out to where the gypsy angels go"

Man that's a fricking great way to start a story. And by the way, if you want to write a great song, it never hurts to write in a place for Clarence Clemmons to go nuts on the saxophone :). But I'm with Petya even though I know you didn't write Dead Flowers--the songs I've heard by you are pretty awesome.

kgrady said...

leigh: About the "Dead Flowers" thing, you don't yet realize just how funny this really is. See Petya was just pulling your leg, but there's no reason you should have known that, because...

Once upon a time, Petya actually did hear "Dead Flowers" for the first time at a PC show, and thought you guys wrote it. She disabused herself of this idea, however, when she "learned" that it was in fact a Guns 'n' Roses song! (They covered it on their "MTV Unplugged" album.)

LEIGH said...

petya: oops! sorry!

melanie: i went back and read some of the lyrics from "Asbury" ans you're right. they're super. the other great thing about The Boss, i think, is that he somehow manages to write what are, musically speaking, the simplest songs. i'm thinking in particular of ""Glory Days" which i think is one of the greatest rock songs.

kyle: thanks for the correction... but i expected you to weigh in on this topic! remember all the nights we compiled lists together? "Top Ten Songs You Love But Are Embarrassed to Admit"..."Top Ten Sad Songs"..."Top Ten Dylan Songs That Are Not On The Album Highway 61 Revisited"...