I met and collaborated with the absolutely great Willie Dixon–a thrill!–when his songs were administered by Bug Music—he listened to one of my piano demos over at the Bug office, and had me over to work at his house in Glendale, a little cottage really, a very small place for such a definitive musical giant; his publishing suit against Led Zeppelin for “Whole Lotta Love” hadn’t been decided yet; when it was some said he would be compensated in the millions.
He reclined in a large leather upholstered chair in his office,leaning back and peering through bifocals, scratching away at lyrics in pencil on a little pad, with one leg swung up over the armrest, and the other foot firmly on the floor. A parlor grand piano was situated in the middle of the adjacent room, by the front door, in sight of his armchair and he’d ask me to sit down at the keys and pound out infinite repetitions of the two-handed blues groove to the song while he composed lyrics, all based on rhymes for smoke. We’d do that for a spell, then I’d come in and we’d discuss music and life.
“Everybody’s got to have their own style” he intoned with the voice of a mystic. “Sometimes the name of the style, the song, and the artist are all the same thing–identical–Bo Diddley. When I first met Chuck Berry he didn’t have a style. One afternoon he came in playing the old country and western song Ida Red, but he had it going a new way, and I told him ‘keep doing that so you don’t forget it while I set up the microphones; and that was Maybelline.”
“You gotta have your own style—,” he starts rummaging over the articles atop a shelf in the back of the office— “I got a style over here for somebody,“ and he comes up with two harmonicas, silver in his huge grip, handing one to me and commanding to just “play.” He assumed I could, so I did, playing a blues in cross-harp, what they call “second position,” the key of G on a C harp, while he lifts the other harmonica up to his mouth and starts wailing a strange lick, very eerie and keening.
It was the first I’d ever seen or heard of a minor harmonica.
“Major against minor,” he explained, “that’s a style for somebody.”
I’m playing Saturday, July 11.
Check out the great line-up!
Here’s something I wrote about Woody Guthrie for a French magazine a couple years back:
Woody Guthrie, the travellers friend, the truth teller, a hard hitter. The original poet with a guitar. He wasn’t famous in his time, only great. He lived the life of an unknown. The real rolling stone. His was the voice of America’s downside, outlaws, bums, hobos and other outcasts: therefore an incubator of ‘the other side of this life’ and the father, along with the Beats, of the counter culture and punk rock.
Woody was a rocker. Tracks like ‘Dead or Alive’ ‘Stewball’ ‘Lost Train Blues’ are all pure rock and roll, before that word was even coined. Stewball sounds and the walls come down, a one chord wailing jam, with a group made of Woody, Leadbelly, Cisco Houston, and Sonny Terry. This bunch of madman performed on some recordings called ‘The Stinson Sessions’ and I recommend you find it.
That’s some of my favorite Woody, hearing him collaborate with his pals. A true lonesome hearted outlaw rock and roll poet, and he hated lawyers, too, what bad can you say about a man like that?
The first time I really heard Woody’s songs, was when I was sixteen, on a hitch hiking trip on the East Coast during the winter of 1970-71. I’d gone a few hundred miles the day before, thumbing from Syracuse to Albany, where I got dropped off by an on-ramp to the highway. A light snow started to fall as I stepped up to the road and tried flagging another ride. The local drivers passed me by for hours, and the snowfall picked up. Finally, no ride, the sun went down, and a blizzard hit, snow falling so hard fast I could hardly see 10 paces Still no ride so I gave up and took a bus into town, feeling lonely as a clod and forsaken by my fellows. I found a place to crash in town, at a shelter for the homeless run by a church. The next morning they turned us out, and the world was covered in snow and ice. On my way to the edge of town I went by a little old public library in a decrepit brick building. I ducked in there to get warm for a minute before hitting the road again. They had a record area in back, a collection of old albums, and a little listening booth. I rifled through the records and picked out a Skip James lp, and an album of the songs of Woody Guthrie. I was stranded, hundreds of miles from home, lonesome, just about broke, felt like I was on fire, and it was just about the perfect way to dig Woody. He hit me hard and I never forgot it.
I just got home from a really fun tour, playing shows with my old friend Kevn Kinney, from the Georgia band Drivn n’ Cryin.” We sat on stage together each night, in two chairs (fifties kitchen-style, that Kevn bought in a thrift-store that we passed by in Wisconsin, lit by a lamp he found in another Goodwill, that say atop a bookshelf filled with used books we bought in Madison. This set-up helped give the shows a loose off-the-cuf “conversation” as we traded songs and stories.
We tried not to double up on stories as the tour progressed, so each night was pretty different, though some of the more popular songs had to be performed every night, including Kevn’s “Straight To Hell” and my “House Rent Party” and “Ain’t Going To Worry No More.” Stories included a crazy one about Kevn going naked on a camping trip, then getting lost in the woods, and my story of a trip in a blizzard, to see Lightnin’ Hopkins play, as well as one about a music business meeting I had with a powerful LA lawyer, that a went awry. And many others. We did good on the no repeat rule, but were finally scraping the bottom of the barrel, when a shout was heard from the side of the stage of ‘what’s the point?” during one of my tales. Oh well, the no repeats went for the drives too…but it was amazing even to me how long we could go on with the raps…guess there’s a LOT of water over the bridge at this point.
I love Kevn’s songs, always did since we first connected during a break in Atlanta, when we were introduced by Randy Blazak, during my 1986 tour for my first LP. It was great having this opportunity to catch up. It’s things like this tour that make me really glad to be a musician, it was just very satisfying, and a lot of fun.
I’m out the door in a moment to catch a plane to Texas, so I can play the Kerrville Folk Festival Saturday Night! I’ve been wanting to play Kerrville for a long time and it’s finally worked out. Also, a House Concert in Denton Sunday night.
Just announced are the tour dates I’m doing with my old friend Kevin Kinney from Drivin’ and Cryin’. See the tour page for complete listings.
Still working on getting the record out, should have some news on that front soon, I hope!
Theres a songwriters workshop on June 13 in Palo Alto, at Gryphon Music, which, if its anything like the last one there, should be a blast.
Hope to see you soon!
(This was transcribed from a tape of a workshop for the students at the Contemporary Music Center on Martha’s Vineyard. It was seven or more years ago, I think. The tape was transcribed by a student there at the time, Samantha Crain, who is a very talented songwriter and performer herself, and is known around the world at this point. Check out her music.)
“It’s very simple…
1) Get in touch with your feelings. Access your underground—the unconscious—always feeling the background.
2) Nobody can make any good music unless they, first, learn to play for themselves. Forget about exterior stuff—image, whether the stuff you play is any good or not, whether the audience is pleased or not, and all that superficial stuff—Go by your feelings and forget about whether the audience likes what you write or what you play.
3) Hard work. There is no such thing as talent just emotions and paying attention to them; and hard work
That’s the formula and in the end you can’t lose.
That’s from John Fahey’s book, How Bluegrass Ruined My Life.
Can you dig that? Get in touch with your feelings. Nobody can make any good music unless they first learn to play for themselves. There is no such thing as talent, just hard work. These are really important basic ideas about art. An even more important basic idea is that, if you’re gonna make it through this whole jungle of songwriting, music, the world, and how people treat you, you’ve got to decide what your values are. You need to have your basic values in place so that they’ll support you.
One of my basic values is that expression is good. All forms of human expression are good, as long as they don’t hurt someone else—physically hurt someone else. All forms of expression—nonviolent—are good. All forms of art are good. All art that is a form of expression of human beings and their situations to each other is a good thing. So any attempt that you are making at songwriting always has value, even if it’s the most dilapidated, run-down attempt that doesn’t come up to any of standards that you had beaten into you as a child—or whatever your problem is. It’s good because you are trying to find words, you are trying to find music, you are trying to make a drawing, or you are trying to communicate with other people—God is there any time two people are trying to communicate their hearts to each other. It’s good and this is an important place to start because sometimes, in music, the only good thing that will happen to you in a day is that you tried to do it and it was good. The studio might break down, the song sucked, but it was good because you’re on the path of songwriting.
There is no such thing as talent. I don’t know if you can dig that but what I’m saying and what John Faehey is saying is this. Everyone has their different talents; there is such as thing as talent. Some people can kick a football, some people can work on cars, some people can bake a wonderful cake, some people can make plants grow. It’s true that some people have something that make things fly. But that alone is not what makes art great. What makes it great is that people who are in touch with their feelings learn how to do it for themselves. By doing that you create your own code of what is good and what is bad. You create your own values about what you think is good, what you think is important, what your values in music are. That is your compass. You begin to develop your values and it will help you go wherever you want to go in this wilderness of art.
For me, some of my values are:
Expression is good. Vivid expression is better. Really vivid, true expression of things of the world done in a colorful way for songwriting is a major value of mine. My favorite things are the things that make me see, touch, taste, smell, experience the life of someone else as vividly as I can. The great songs you hear—think whatever your favorite song is, the one that got you here—there was some moment that got you here. There are a lot of moments for me. One of those is hearing Mr. Tambourine Man and it was so beautifully evocative of a feeling I felt within and when I heard it, it was so well written, it was such a description, it was so colorful and vivid that it created that reality within me.
Getting in touch with your feelings—that can be tricky. I remember when I was a kid I didn’t like being alone with my feelings. It was hard. So there was a time as an artist that I didn’t even realize I was having a hard time being around my feelings. I don’t know if you have the problems I had or not. My struggle is that I spent a lot of time as a musician writing away from feelings and I moved away from what I really felt. I would actually start writing a song about one feeling and by the end of it I’d be 1,000 miles away.
Sometimes feelings are terrible and you just sit there and say “Oh, my God!” and it’s hard to move, but you realize if you get in touch with feelings they pass. As you get in touch with the expression of them and you fasten on to the idea that it’s a good thing then it becomes part of your life—even when you are having a really difficult time. The recording of it, the expression of it, is a good thing and it’s a constant development of what you’re doing as an artist or a singer or whatever.
Does that make sense so far? The formula? Can you dig it?
The tricky part of the formula is to learn to play for yourself. Finally you have to learn to forget about exterior stuff. Forget about whether the stuff you play is any good or not. Think about that. Forget if you are any good or not. Forget if the people like you or whether they think you’re good or whether they’re pleased. That’s an essential part of the formula. You’re not just here to kiss audiences’ asses. You’re here to get in touch with your feelings and learn how to express it. That’s your job if you are going to be a singer of songs; you have to find things. The word troubadour, I think it’s from the French word trouber, I think that means “to find.” Anybody speak French? Nobody speaks French anymore, except French people. Have you noticed that when you want to make fun of something at someone’s expense you can always go at the French? They all tear the French up in movies. Everyone else, we can’t make fun of, it’s not cool, but we all just laugh at the French. They’re taking a whipping. And who cares? We hate ‘em. But I particularly love the French. Vive la France! I think France is pretty cool, but even I don’t feel like sticking up for them. But anyways…Whether the audience is pleased is not an essential part of songwriting. Flow is an important part of songwriting. Being in the flow of creativity and being able to get your mind around things that you already think and being able to experience your own senses and your sense memories—that’s an essential part of your song writing. Whether one of your buddies listens to one of your songs says they hated it, or it sounded like the Black-Eyed Peas, is not important. Your buddies are the worst critics. They say things like “Oh it sounds like…” or “Oh you’re trying to do a….” All those are bumps in the road. Consider that criticism, especially constructive criticism, is a form of abuse. People will think different things. They’ll say things like “I’m just trying to give some positive criticism but this song sucks…” They’ll look like they just stepped in something when they’re listening to you. But you can’t go by that, you have to go by your compass. You have to go by your own reason for writing.
I left school as a kid, I hung out with a bunch of musicians, I’d meet people once and they’d teach me things, I’d go see a gig and I’d learn something, or I’d talk to some songwriter. Now I’ve learned a lot from other people and teachers and I’ve developed a theory and my theory is that within every person there is a womb of originality. Every single one of you because of your natural humanness has the ability to come up with something original. It’s original because it comes from within you. It comes from your sense memories. There is nobody exactly like us, everyone has a completely different way of looking at the world. By the point where you are at now, you’ve already seen so much of the world, at 19, 20, 21, you’ve seen enough to write novels, books, plays, songs, for the rest of your life. The trick is to see what you’ve seen and to know what you’ve known. Be able to think about what you think. Catch yourself in the act of thinking. The trick is to remember what you remember. It’s all in there. You’ve all seen beautiful sunsets, strange countries like America, strange foreign rights like American customs, the way your family acts with each other, the people you’ve liked and loved and hated, your fears, your hopes. All this stuff, there is so much but the trick is to get in touch with it.
I say that there is no mediocrity. If you settle for stopping creative growth then that is mediocrity. But there is no other mediocrity. There is no inborn mediocrity. That’s the good news, there are no mediocre souls. There is only when you are stopped in your flow of doing what you want to do. Desire is a key to life; desire is a gift from God, some of them, anyway, or maybe all of them…I am not sure. Desire is what makes the world go round. If you have a fascination with music and songs, then this is something that is going to pull you through the world and put you on your path. There are a million different paths. Nobody is mediocre. Nobody is inborn with mediocrity. But you can really get hung up sometimes. But for everyplace you get hung up—if you work with it enough—it will yield if that is what you should be doing. Your problems in song writing can yield to thought, to prayer, to your capacity and abilities.
Does everyone have notebook to write in? Because we can do an exercise right now. It’s a writing exercise that comes from Pat Patteson who wrote Writing Better Lyrics. I don’t like the whole thing, I think it’s a very Nashville song writing type book and I don’t buy everything in it but it’s got some great writing exercises. Does anyone have a watch that I could borrow for a minute? This is called object writing. The idea is that as a songwriter or a writer, the thing you need to be able to do is to dive deeply into sense memories to bring up things to write about. The senses are touch, taste, smell, hear, see, and there are two more that we are going to use. The kinesthetic sense is the sense of motion in your body—whether you’re dizzy, whether you are moving fast or slow, whether you are upside down or something like that. The organic sense of your body which is hot, cold, how you feel, tingling, different sensations of the body that don’t really fit into the other senses so easily. The exercise is to write about an object for 10 minutes and dive deep into sense memories and just write where it leads. This is a good exercise to do upon awakening every day; it’s a good way to jump start your brain and memories. You can write about anything!
I’m going to do an example and write about microphone:
Yeah I remember my dad with a tape recorder mic. It was Christmas time and we got that new tape recorder. 1950s plastic. Space age modern. My dad in the overheated house by the Christmas tree, sweating, and he’s holding the microphone and he starts to stutter. He’s afraid of the microphone and I’ve never seen him stutter before. He paces around like a caged animal or a convict behind bars. He pulls the mic up to his mouth and loses the ability to speak. I felt scared. Years later as I spend my whole life working with microphones, I look at them and they look like insect eyes. Fly eyes and I bring myself to kiss the fly’s eyes. That’s a great idea to think about why you are singing. Sometimes they smell bad like when I was on tour the night behind the Cramps and I knew he just stuck it in his mouth. Sometimes the microphone shines like silver armor. It’s like a doorway into a whole different world. It’s like my nose. An extension of my nose like I’m a liar. The microphone like a snake. When I put my lips up to it, the lights dim and
You see where I’m going? I’m just going on microphone. I’m delving into my different senses. That’s just a rough version of it
You can start anywhere. Desert boots. My two black desert boots. Snow incrusted, smelly. Reminding me of that first time I got those shoes in 5th grade. They’re so nice the day you get them and by the time they’re done they are like two beaten mangy curs. Too tired and broken down to even get up and cross the street. I love desert boots. The flare of them when you first get them….
You just go with it…You know what I’m saying…Anything…It’s just free association…Just trying to use your senses.
Here’s fluorescent lights….
Overcasting their no shadows. Extra strong and casting a veil between my eyes and my hands and my mind like it’s not quite real. Nothing seems solid. It’s dreamlike. Living in a fish tank. At school, it’s fluorescent rain. Cold it is like a third degree scene. Resisting, itching. I want to cover my head with my arms and lay it down on my desk. The ticking second hand. Eternity between clicks. Nothing smells but rubber erasers, pencil lead, graphite and glue. I forget to breathe. This light brings out the reptile in me. Like swords of poison gas. Electric scrim. Isolated in class. Nausea. Step outside into the rainy afternoon. Soft colors longing for home. God keep me from fluorescence.
That was just a little writing exercise…You can start anywhere. You can write about car tires, bottles of water….You just get into it.
Rolling tires was a favorite sport. Like an honoree kid they go any direction they want or the way you want if you keep them rolling. Piles of old Goodyears out back of the station in wet leaves and dirt. Rusted barrels and storm refuse. Climbing on them and they scatter like lifesavers. Black liquorices, clean, new Firestones. I once worked with a guitar player who sold tire cosmetics. Shiny and wet like a dog’s nose. Old, bald, and burning. The smell of brake smoke. A thick cloud up your nose. A patch of black blood on the pavement. Tires hanging in trees. Rolling, stored up like candies. Rolled over and burning.
That’s my thing on tires. I want you guys to do this now. I want you to use all your senses. You can do this with an egg timer. It’s a great exercise to do every day, every morning. It’s a great way to get your mind working and making connections. Not necessarily connections that make sense but any sort of connections. This will help you when you are writing songs. If you are stuck on a song, you can use this exercise to get your brain and senses moving.
All the sofas of my life line up like a big long train and pull out down the track. The engine is the dining room table at my mother’s house. The one that I crawled up under as a kid. The sofas and couches near me were boats to me and big ‘ol laps the sofas and chairs. Holding me to their breasts where I’d fall asleep. Dad would come in and pass out on the couch. He’s all sweaty and red and snoring. He’d rise and leave and me and my buddy would hop up on opposite ends of the sofa, facing each other, cover our legs with a blanket, and kick the shit out of each other. Feetsies we called it. Old sofas, sad and sunken and newly possessed. Where’d I get all that sagging filthy junk? I’ve never bought one new to this day. The dust rises. The springs creak and poke. Moats of dust like angels. Tiny and in the sunlight. Dust flavored drool. Soaked armrests. The smell of a century of friendly parlor dust. My life on board the sofas from first kisses to last rights. Carry my tired bones.
So now…we are gonna do this for 5 minutes to try this out…Do this…Dust…5 minutes
The balls of blowing dust in my first apartment. Didn’t know you were supposed to sweep it. Well actually I did. White balls of tumbleweed microscopic dirt and the dry taste and sneezy itch of my nose. Dust is what the world is made of. Nearly the same everywhere. Red dust, blue dust from sandings. Pine wood dust in dad’s basement by the bench. Dust in sunlight streaks. A ladder through the window and up through the tree tops. Dust black that blots out the sun. Dust on the speakers that leap at the bass notes. Puff puff puff. Visual music. The world of dust we all return to. We all return to dust in the grave. What kings and kingdoms in these dust. Shakespeare’s dust speaks on my shoes. Ancient odors. Poison dust, nuclear air poison. Doctors they said I was allergic after they found out that I was smoking.
Alright…Tom did you write one of these. Does anyone want to read theirs?
All these are really great…Everyone has a different perspective on this….These are all vivid and they can be great songs…
If you do this everyday for a month, you are going to see major changes in your writing. Make sure you use your senses. Everything in the world connects. There is a thing in Zen Buddhism called the 10,000 things and you draw 10,000 pictures of everything in your world. The tree outside, the door, your bed, the spoon. You draw 10,000 pictures. Well this is like the 10,000 things of writing. You just pick 10,000 things and write about them. You can do it for the rest of your life. Object writing is very fun and you can go out on any kind of magic carpet of memory that you want to go on. You can get very creative. Cause when you are sitting around 10 years from now, trying to write the big hit song, when you’re like in the big record deal and you need the new hit single and everyone is waiting for you to come out of the room. You need to be in shape. Being a songwriter is about being in form and in shape. And this is one of the ways to stay in shape besides just writing songs and rhyming.
Okay this is another good exercise. This is a good thing to do everyday. You write three pages every day. Your daily pages. They can be anything but you write three pages. You can write that the guy in the post office looked at me cross-eyed again. Pushing the pen to get your thoughts down on paper. It keeps you in shape and it also gets a lot of things clear from your mind. You can do an inventory of how things are going. You can write about the good things and the bad things. Where you wish you were, who you wish you were, etc. You guys have a notebook right? Songwriters have notebooks. See this is my notebook. I write new songs in here, ideas, whatever. And in the back I write song titles. I collect song titles. Like this one…Wake Me When I Die. I don’t know what that means. Day Job. Hello Central. Crime Car….I had this car once. It was a Red 69 Baracuda convertable. The cop pulled me over one day and I asked him why and he said I was driving a crime car. I said “what do you mean a crime car?” He said it looked like I had just commited a crime. I had another song idea. It’s A Free Country. I don’t know if they’ll be ideas. Anytime you get any kind of pressure on your needle, that is a gust of wind from heaven. Write down anything that comes to your mind. Anything that sparks your interest. Songwriters are like magpies. They collect things, information, song titles, quotes. I was in a room with a bunch of songwriters once and someone said something like “I’m as broke as the ten commandments.” Everybody get a pen and starts writing it down. That’s songwriters for ya. They are magpies. I used it on my album and I think a couple other guys used it on theirs. I’m sorry to say but it’s true. You gather material for your whole life. You gather titles for years. One of the greatest songwriters of all time, Woody Guthrie, says this: “Just the idea of the title for your songs is more than half the battle to get your ballad. I’ve got thousands of titles stored away like postal savings bonds. I spend hours and hours just writing down ideas for titles to my songs. I wake up in the middle of the night and jump out of bed and get a piece of paper and a pencil and write down the title to some ballad song on the upper end of some the paper and jump out of some other bed several years later and lay down the words to that ballad idea that hit be several beds ago. You have to have the financial means to be able to pay for a large number of beds if you have the least notion to ever be any kind of a ballad song maker.”
You get the idea now and years later you get the rest of the idea. Jumping out of beds is important for writing songs. You have to go when it calls. You know John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. One day he got a notebook and wrote Bayou Country at the top. Then he wrote Born in the Bayou. Proud Mary. Chugglin’. He wrote the big titles of his whole career down, on one page, when he had a little inspiration. Every once in a while a door opens and a ideas just come in. That’s why you got to be in shape. You need to be able to write them down.
I write every day. There is a tendency for your mind to go to sleep. One side of your mind wants everything handed to it on a tray. That’s what vegging out is. The creative side of your mind, sometimes when you are trying to switch over to it, it wants to fall asleep. You have to slow down and catch yourself thinking. I do those exercises a lot. Is this helpful to you? Sense memories can be things you dream about and the future.
One things that became important to me was speaking in tongues. I knew about that before I became a Christian. I got into it as a musician. There are things that just come out as whole phrase. “Excuse me why I kiss the sky” What is that? It’s just a phrase. It’s a tongue. Bob Dylan is constantly in tongues. Good shaped phrases that just come out.
Do you guys remember that song, Poor ‘Ol Tom, that I sang yesterday? I won’t do that one again but I just wanted to give you an example of songs that come out of your notebook. We have time? Okay I’ll do it. I explained yesterday that I had written it about somebody that I had met. That’s a true story. I was making a new album for Geffen and I had a few songs but I wanted to write a few more things. I’d been thinking about a lot of things and it was during the Reagan years and I wanted to write about homeless people and some of the things that were going on in society in regards to that. I felt like society was based on winners and there were people that were just being cast off. And I read a book about Mother Teresa by a guy named Malcolm Muggeridge and I was really impressed by Mother Teresa talking about how people don’t just need money but they need love and people to just look them in the eyes. And these things were affecting me. So I took a trip to San Francisco to write and hang out. During that period I met a man on the street and he told me his story and I went back and wrote it down shortly afterwards. This song comes from one story but the lines came from a lot of different places, my notebook, my mind, and other places.
(Sings Poor ‘Ol Tom)
Alright…what do we know about that song. I wrote it about a person. It was a true story. I’d been writing a lot so I was in a rhyming state. To be a songwriter you have to be a Rhymin’ Simon. You make up little songs about your shoes while you’re just hanging around. You make up songs about making tea in the morning. I make up songs with my kids all the time about washing clothes and a bunch of other stuff. Oh by the way I have to put my clothes in the dryer…..They better be dry before I fly. So you are always in shape, developing rhymes, that way when an idea comes you can make it in to something. But I just wrote down what the guy told me. I’m just gonna tell you a few of the lyrics and where they came from.
Tennessee boy. This is just his story. I knew he was from Tennessee. In 1950, he was 17. He told me that. So I could rhyme that with: His mom had died, his first trip to sea. He told me that too. It all rhymed. Quiet kid who’d never seen the ocean. I invented that to fit between the two lyrics. Some of the lines I invented to rhyme and sound good. One of the tricks of songwriting is to make sure that the lines that are uninspired sound just as inspired as the lines that are inspired. That’s called art. That’s the craft of songwriting. I next had to come up with his whole story about how he went from being in the Navy to being an alcoholic and a degenerate basically. Well, not a degenerate. That’s not a nice word. I shouldn’t have said that. That was the wrong thing for me to say. He learned to work, he learned to whistle, he learned to gamble and he learned to fight. He learned to suck a bottle and go out whoring. This is the fact. Somehow he learned to stagger in at night. He was an alcoholic. He learned to find his way home drunk. Poor ‘Ol Tom was a name I adopted from somewhere else. He don’t know why his teeth gotta rattle, shiver, and shake. There I’m just going for sound. The night wind is free to blow wherever it pleases and he’s free to walk until the cold day break. I guess I just started to think of all this in terms of freedom and his freedom as an American and as a person who fought for freedom. Poor Ol Tom, he’s telling it all. His thoughts were roarin’ like a waterfall. Where does that come? It comes from when I was hitchhiking as a kid and all my thoughts were so many and so much that it was like when you are standing by a waterfall. My thoughts from being alone for so long were roarin’ in my head. I wrote it down when I was a kid and used it in the song. I thought Poor Ol Tom had been pent up with his own loneliness. He never cared about money and there’s no doubt, he never had much money to care about. That’s Rhymin’ Simon stuff right there. Through typhoons and calms. I talk about typhoons. I was reading Joseph Conrad at the time. All the stories take place at sea. Write down things about what you are reading at the time and always be taking in information. Proud to be serving the USA. He worked hard on board then he got promoted. He got VD, then it went away. There is similarity in the initials there. I had VD then it went away. That’s what he told me. Dude, VD doesn’t just go away, but that’s what he said to me. Poor Ol Tom he ain’t right. He went out in San Francisco on a Saturday night. There is the rhyming again. Sunday morning the ship set sail and Tom was resting in the Oakland Jail. Well he told me that he’d been over on Treasure Island, which is right outside of Oakland. So I took the liberty of saying that he was in the Oakland Jail because Treasure Island Jail didn’t sound right. It’s been 35 years since his incarceration. On a morals charge the words he said to me. I bring the song back into the present to remind you that I’m just making up a song about someone. It refocuses peoples attention on the present. It wakes up your attention when there is a change like that. Like in a movie, it’s a different angle, a different shot. Songs are movies. Songs are little movies that you can afford to make. From the brig on Treasure Island to the institution, they treated his depression with shock therapy. I use alliteration too which flows lines nicely. I’ll tell you about that later. Poor Ol Tom, he don’t know he has trouble recalling his history. At the drop of a coin he’ll start to ramble, how the whole damn thing’s a mystery. Mystery and history, that’s always a good one folks. Now I’m singing in the present. Present tense is the one that gets people’s attention the best. His eyes bulge out as we talk on the corner. He cried “Lord help me!” as they put him under. He sailed away on an ether sea. Sailing away on an ether sea is an image I had when I was a young child and I got my tonsils taken out. Ever since that day he wonders if the surgeons performed a lobotomy. In light of the Ramones song Lobotomy, which is a funny song, but this lobotomy song isn’t funny. But people kinda laugh. And then they realize, well that’s not exactly funny. But it’s just a moment where some people kinda laugh and other frown and some are just mixed up and so is he. He is mixed up. He doesn’t know whether he had a lobotomy or not. A veteran on the street that doesn’t know what happened to him. His story’s true. He’s got nothing to show, no one to show it to. That’s Rhymin’ Simon. The word for him is nevertheless. He fought for freedom never took a free breath. These are both saved from somewhere else. T-Bone Burnett once asked me: “What’s your word that sizes up your life so far?” Mine is nevertheless. That’s where I got that word in the song. That’s Tom’s word too. He’s completely down and out in society but he’s still forging ahead trying to find a way. The line about never taking a free breath, I wrote down in my notebook after I was having a fight with someone about freedom and they said to me “You never took a free breath in your life.” That hurt and it was true in a lot of ways and I was thinking about that a few days before I wrote this song. It’s for Tom and it’s me too. I am Tom. I am the guy that never had much money and never gave a flip. I am someone that has lived on the street. I have a lot of sympathy for him because I know what it’s like. I relate to it. I’m the person who fought for freedom never took a free breath, so are you probably. Things in songs come from all over the place. Songwriting isn’t a foot race. It’s not a rush. You have to take your time. They develop over time. Songs have to have a beginning, middle, and end. Even Love Me Do does. Which is what we are going to talk about next. Here’s the end… So as we make our way towards our destinations, fortunes are still made with flesh and blood. Can’t argue with that can you? Progress and love got nothing in common, Jesus healed the blind man’s eyes with mud. Fortunes are still made with flesh and blood was the obvious comment and then the inspirational thing was about Jesus healing the blind man. He’s basically saying you’ll be healed on faith and that’s what I’m saying in this. People like Poor Ol Tom just need love and attention and time and someone willing to get down with them about things. Not just some sort of program or something. The progress that our society makes and love are not the same thing. Bonnie Raitt came up to me one time and asked “Jesus healed the blind man’s eyes with mud?” And I said “Yeah, it’s in the Bible.”
Alright. I went to a sermon once. It was this guy, Bill McNabb. On the front of the church, The Brentwood Presbyterian Church, it said: “The Greatest Song Ever Written.” That was the name of the sermon. So he comes out with his banjo and most people in the church couldn’t stand the banjo. But he starts talking about the greatest song ever written and he says “Some people think it’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and some people think ‘Amazing Grace,’ but it’s ‘Jesus Loves Me.’” That songs the greatest song ever written because it tells you everything you need to know about life. “Jesus loves me. This I know. For the Bible tells me so.” And that’s true. That’s a good point. But I’m glad it’s not the only song ever written. My theory about songwriting is that all the great things have already been said. Everything that’s ever been said in history, in literature, in songs can be written on a pack of matches. What are they? Jesus loves me. You’ve got to reap what you sow. The love you take is equal to the love you make. There is a hand full of things that are the truths of life. If that’s all literature amounted to, the conveying of truths over and over, it would be so boring and we wouldn’t be paying any attention to it. What’s great about songs and literature is the way you say things, not what you say. There are only a limited number of worth while things to really say. But there is your infinite variations that you bring to it from you sense writings and your memories and your unique personality. That makes new ways of saying things. That’s what makes songwriting interesting and I just wanted to make that point. It’s the way things go together and the way things sound. It’s the simple ways you say things. It’s the style that you use in saying it.
You have to write 100 bad songs before you write one good song. You sometimes get beginners’ luck. I did it. I wrote a good one when I was, I think, 15 years old then I had feet of clay for a really long time. I couldn’t write good songs for a long time. My motto: Lower the bar. Lower your standards. Clearing the bar is the most important thing. Running, jumping, clearing the bar. Go back, run, jump, clear the bar. Move it up a half an inch. Run, jump, clear the bar. Move it back down, what the heck. Run, jump, clear the bar. You want to keep running and jumping and then eventually you’ll get to the seven foot leaps that make world records and the songs that make the world light up. Every time you get stuck, lower the bar because it’s more important to have flow than perfection. You’re never gonna have perfection. There’s always gonna be someone who doesn’t like your best song. They’ll just say “Hmmm.” If you ever go to England and do an interview, you’ll get over there and they’ll say “Well Peter where are you from?” I’m from Santa Monica. And they’ll just say “Hmmm.” Stuff like that. “Poor Ol’ Tom, Peter?” Yeah it’s someone I met on the street once. “Hmmm.” Just get ready for “Hmmm.”
Anyway, the Beatles wrote 100 or more songs before they broke through to be the Beatles that everyone knows. They wrote a lot of moon, june, and spoon lyrics that McCartney would sing every once in a while. They are all generally pretty terrible. Then they wrote one that was still pretty terrible but it was the one that broke through. I think it’s pretty great. It’s a really simple song that you all probably know and it’s called “Love Me Do.” This was the first hit record for the Beatles. The first thing I want to say about this song is: “Has anybody here ever said to anyone, Love me do?” Nobody in the world has ever said to someone that they love, Love me do. But it works as a song because songwriting is not always just common speech but it’s one step above that. It’s one step above the vernacular. In song world, love me do is the perfect thing to say to your sweetheart. Love me do. We’re gonna find out what we can learn from this first Beatles masterpiece. The first thing we find out is that it starts out with a hook. It starts off with a melodic figure that repeats throughout the song. The Nerves, my old band, would have called this a trademark. It’s a thing in music that is like a melodic phrase repeated, usually very simple and melodic, really catchy. The Beatles basically introduced it to rock music.
(Sings Love Me Do)
Quite a work. What can we learn from ‘Love Me Do?’ We can learn some basic things about the Beatles whole career from it. First, we can learn from that very catchy opening phrase and simple little melody. It’s a melody; it’s not a chord progression or anything. But as they get to the line “love. love me do, you know I love you, I’ll always be true…” we get to the most emotional line of the song so far. It’s the key line so far, it’s this: “So please…love me do.” And what that’s teaching us there is that the most emotional line is the one that also uses the long note. The Beatles are using contrast. Your songs need to use contrast. And one form of contrast – just like drawings need light and dark – songs need to have contrast. And the contrast here is between long and short. And we find that a lot of times in songs, long equals emotion. The emotion comes out on the long notes. That’s the place where the thing picks up its heat. “Love, love me do.” They use the nice sounding words “ooh.” It’s very French sounding. That’s why France is the Valentine language – very romantic. The sound of “please,” of pleading; the long vowel, the long note, the contrast to the rest of the song; wakes the whole song up, give the whole song an emotional shape there – enough so that you could even stand to listen to it twice in a row with no variation. Does that make sense? Contrast. You’re gonna write a bridge – what do you do on the bridge? There’s three chords they’re using so far – G, C, and D. You’ve used G and C. The 1, 4, 5 progression is G, C, and D. 1, 4, and 5 – Nashville numbers – G, C, and D. You’ve used G and C. What are we gonna do on the bridge? Where haven’t we been? Let me think. D! The bridge – and you get a variation there. It’s contrast, you’re going to the place you haven’t been yet. It’s in the palette of the song. The idea here is that he’s going to place he hasn’t been – he’s itching it where it hasn’t been scratched. Do you know what I’m saying? He’s going to the D note. The bridge often has to go to a variation. This is another form of contrast in your song, when you go to the place you haven’t been. It makes songs listenable; there’s nobody more listenable than The Beatles. For whatever else they did, they created ear candy – for better or worse, really. So that’s what you learn from The Beatles – it’s the art of the short tone and the long tone, and it’s the art of going where you haven’t gone for the bridge. The Beatles were always dramatically using chords.
Now we’re gonna go down to West Virginia, alright? And this is a classic song. Are you guys with me on all this stuff so far? I’m trying to tell you as much as I can in a short period of time.
This song is called “Dark as a Dungeon.” It’s an American folk song that’s actually written though, by a guy named Merle Travis, who’s a famous musician. He grew up in West Virginia from a coal mining family, but he wrote a bunch of songs and had some big hits. A guy named Tennessee Ernie Ford had the lowest voice in the world when I was a kid.
Here’s the thing about songwriting. You’re creating a weave. You’re weaving a whole spell as a songwriter; songs are like spells, they’re like magic spells. They’re a spell that you try to put people under. You don’t wanna wake them up from the spell. What you wanna do is cast the spell so that people enter into it and experience the song. So songwriting is, in a sense, casting a dream spell of your message of your song. It’s a little movie that people enter into. You don’t want to wake them up or jolt them from the song until the right moment – if you even want to at all. You want to have a weave of things that make the whole song go together. And along with the music and the melody and other things we could talk about, and the words that we’re talking about today, the thing that we’re gonna use is different word techniques that make the song – you want your song to seem as if it was received from somewhere, like it came up out of the earth, or down from the sky, or a bird brought it in, or God gave it to you over the telephone or something like that. A great song seems like it existed before you got there. And what this does – you convince people by all the different elements that are playing together harmonically in the song that they have to just give it up to the song. They can’t fight it, and they just give it up. You use the sound of the words, you use the sound of the music, you use the art of contrast, and you use the art of the sound of the words in terms of alliteration, in terms of assonance, in terms of interior rhyme. There’s a number of different things that make the weave. It’s not one dimensional. There’s the thing you’re trying to say, the way you’re saying it – the metaphor you’re using – and the sound of the words all going together to create like a weave that has so many different levels to it: people have to just sort of give it up. And this is sort of what makes it sound like a song. I’m gonna sing you a song that has a very obvious technique but I think you’ll see that it’s effective.
(Sings Dark As A Dungeon)
What are we getting at with this? You know what we’re getting at? Alliteration. The sound of repeated consonance for emphasis at the start of words. This is a big one. You hear it from Bob Dylan, you hear it from Eminem, you hear it from the Beatles, you hear it from everybody. It’s in advertising on TV. Those people are some serious word masters. This is way of adding emphasis into the tightly bound weave of your song. In this song he’s going…. Come listen you fellers, so young and so fine…You goes with young…Seek not your fortune…Fortune goes with fellers and fine…The dark, dreary mine….The D sound, there is a lot of the D sound…It will form…There is the F sound again…There is a lot of ffff ddduuuhh, ffff ddduuuhh, it sounds like a pick axe in a mine. Listen to this. It will form as a habit and seep in your soul, til the stream of your blood is as black as the coal. Blood is as black as the coal. The B sound. The stream and soul and then soul and coal. Here we are at the chorus. Dark as a dungeon, damp as the dew. Calm down! Danger is double, pleasures are few. Rain never falls, sun never shines. And that’s another type of repetition that links up two short phrases for a rhythm effect. It repeats the connecting word, never. It’s a rhythm. Dark as a dungeon, way down in the mine. The D sound. Remember, it sounds like a pick axe. Many a man…Lived just to labor his whole life away…L’s now he’s working the L’s…Like a fiend with his dope and a drunkard his wine, a man will have lust for the lure of the mine. It’s almost too much for our sensibilities now but it’s very clear and that’s why it’s great to study this song. The midnight, the morning, or the middle of the day, it’s the same to the miner….This is the deal, when you are writing your song and you have choices to make, you make the choice for unification of the song. You try to pull sounds together. You become very conscious of how a song’s words sound. And you work certain sounds that go with the feeling you are trying to put across. Instead of saying “dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew” you could have said “ it’s wet as a puddle and cold as the snow” but that’s not it. It’s not just what you’re saying, it’s the way you’re saying it. The man will have lust for the lure of the mine. It’s not a worker enjoys to dig in the cave. It’s not it. The man will have lust for the lure…..lust for the lure…you can’t get away from it. Once you start writing like this, the song has more power than just what you are saying. The last line is my body will blacken and turn into coal.
Okay, now we’re getting into the last part of class here. Bob Dylan’s breakthrough song—Bob Dylan is like the Elvis Presley of songwriting. Billy Swan said that to me once. I don’t really know what that means but…Elvis is a weird character but anyways. Bob Dylan is one of the greatest songwriters of all time. We all probably have things by him that moved us or hit us one way or another. The point of studying Bob Dylan is not to be like Bob Dylan, the point of studying all this is not to write folk music, this goes for all music. I don’t care if you’re writing R&B, or Christian Contemporary, Hip Hop, Heavy Metal, it doesn’t matter what you’re writing. It’s the same. It’s getting the sound of things so that they echo what you’re trying to say. It’s the art of language and the art of setting up songs. I’m going to play this song by Bob Dylan. This was the breakthrough song…This was his “Love Me Do.” He wrote hundreds of songs, a lot of songs you’ve never heard and then one day he wrote this. I won’t do all of it because it goes on for a long time. That’s one thing about studying Bob Dylan. There is a lot to study in a song.
(Sings A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall)
And it goes on from there…ya know, where did you go and who did you meet? This song was written when I was a kid about 9 or 10 during the Cuban Missile Crisis which to this day was the closest the world ever came to complete nuclear war. They didn’t really tell us at the time, that didn’t come out til about 10 years later how close we were. They were in red alert, the Russians had bombs, they were posed to fire. Everybody was just getting ready to go for it. It was horrible. You could just feel the tension. I remember my mother crying. Everything was just really heavy. It was terrible. Everybody was freakin’. Bob Dylan wrote this song and he thought it was the last song he’d ever write and he wanted every line in the song to be like the first line of a song. He just put all his ideas into one song. So we’re going to look at it here. For one thing, he does something that you can do in your songs but not too many people do anymore. It’s an interesting technique. He has two characters in this song. Two different voices—an adult and a kid. And the adult says “where have you been my blue-eyed son, where have you been my darling young one.” That’s repeated throughout the song. There is this adult voice and then there is a response by the son and it comes with a new chord, with a 4 chord, or a suspended chord. It creates a sense of rising but not like into the clouds or off the ground but like being suspended. He goes a new place with the song. He does these things that are taken from the Bible actually. In the Old Testament, the first line is repeated a lot in the prophets or in Song of Solomon. Instead of having rhyming you repeat the first line of the sentence over. I’ve done this….I’ve done that….I’ve been here….I’ve been there….That’s the organizing form. Not rhyme. None of it rhymes. It’s called a litany. I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains….here we are back with Merle Travis and the alliteration. I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways. Walked and crawled rhyme in a way called assonance. It’s a rhyme of vowels. It’s not a true rhyme but a rhyme of vowels. He uses the six crooked highways because he then says I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests. Seven sad not eight sad forests. He emphasizes the S and uses seven sad forests. He’s using it for unity in the song. It’s all about unity in the song. Instead of saying I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways, he could have said I’ve hiked and I’ve knelt on 13 winding byways. But it wouldn’t have sounded as cool. This is how you write with economy. There should be no extra words in your songs. Extra words are a waste of time. You pay by the word just like you do with telegrams. You don’t want any extra sounds or words in your songs. I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans. A dozen dead…you know…not six dead or nine but a dozen dead. Ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard. Miles in the mouth. See what I’m saying with all this. Do you ever think of your songs like this? These are good things to think about.
When you are making choices about what to have in your song, you make the choice for unity. When you’re making choice and you pick something you pick it because it has the unity and the force to say what you want to say. It has the grace. Okay, the chorus. Bob Dylan’s choruses are often very simple. His songs are really complicated and they have a lot of ideas but his choruses are always really simple. You know the song “Like A Rolling Stone.” All those words and then the chorus is just “how does it feel? how does it feel? to be on your own?” It’s simple. It’s when everyone sings. The chorus is from the Greek thing when everyone on stage sings together. On “Like A Rolling Stone” which is about a persons great fall in life, everyone comes together and just wants to ask “how does it feel?” And that’s a chorus. How does it feel? Feeeeel. E. It’s the long vowel again. It’s the emotion. The chorus is all about how it feels. It’s not about the idea anymore, it’s about the feeling. It’s very simple and great songs are about one thing and they have a simple chorus. I can’t get no satisfaction. How does it feel? In fact some of Bob’s songs are so simple they sound foolish if you stop the clock on them. It’s a hard, it’s hard, it’s hard, it’s a hard rain. But what does he do? He does the same thing as they do on Love Me Do. It’s that long vowel on the A in rain. That’s where the emotion comes in, a, the singer can jump on that note. There is contrast with all the other short words. Dylan drives that “rain” right into the wall and into your ears. It’s after the simple sum up of the song. It’s a hard, it’s a hard… Who else would say it like that? It’s a brilliant song because it’s such a memorable chorus. By the time you get to the second one the audience is singing along. This is songwriting in it’s simplest and most elegant and beautiful form. One more thing, Bob Dylan is delivering an indictment in this song about the 20th century’s values and the society, it’s bankrupt-ness, it’s lack of God in life, it’s lack of human values. The last verse says I’m gonna go out and sing this song where executioners face is always well hidden. Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison. The pellets of poison are flooding the waters. Where the people are many and their hands are all empty. Where hunger is ugly and souls are forgotten. I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it. I’ll reflect it from the mountain where all souls can see it. I’ll stand on the ocean until I start singing. Which is sort of an echo of Christ walking on water. But I’ll know my song well before I start singing. And that’s the last line of the song because he just realized he wrote the longest song in the history of pop music and that he would have to learn it all before he sang it. All these things are an indictment of our society but he’s not saying “And I indict this society for its capitalist values, and the right wing conservatives are robbing the pensions.” That all may be true but it’s not what he’s doing. He’s using imagery to convey a poetic truth which is more vivid then if he would have said anything else. There is a language that is poetic and powerful and it’s not always just being a journalist. Sometimes it is but in this case, the rule of writing is SHOW DON’T TELL. You show people things; he shows you in the song about 30 different pictures of life and he lets you decide. He says it’s a hard rain is gonna fall but you feel it. You’ve seen all these pictures. You’ve seen the child behind the dead pony. You’ve seen guns in hands of young children. He just shows you the pictures and you get to feel it. That’s what allows your audience to feel something from you song, not if you tell them It’s so sad, I’m sad and you should be sad too. It doesn’t work. Like the great Robert Johnson song…This is the last thing I’m gonna play. Have I said that a few times? Well this is great songwriting. He was one of the great blues singers from Mississippi. He died when he was 28 years old, he was murdered. But he was a great poet and blues singer. He made some great records and influenced many many people. One thing that was mysterious about him was his ability to convey pictures in songs. Here is one of his songs.
(Sings the Robert Johnson song)
It’s very simple. It’s got three pictures. Here’s the line he wrote in his notebook: Love in vain. That’s an idea for a song. Three simple pictures over a blues progression. I followed her to the station. You can see him walking behind the girl. He’s got her suitcase and she’s not talking to him. It’s like a little movie. The train pulls in the station and he looks her in the eye. It’s a simple song-movie. You can’t help but cry. He’s lonesome; he feels so lonesome. The train pulls from the station and now he’s watching the blue light and the red light on the back and he says the red light’s my baby and the blue light’s my mind. It’s so simple. Bob Dylan takes a million different images and this is just 3 different images. That song is just as effective as that Bob Dylan song, I think so, maybe even more effective.
Here’s a quote from Keith Richards: “As long as I can introduce some new twist in those same three chords, we’ll stay in business.” The world’s highest paid musician. Where does whatever is going through your mind today develop into something that could be a song? Where is the place where mundane things become a song? Find that. See if you can catch your own inner dialogue. Then say to yourself “where can I find a thing I could write a song with?” Use three chords and a simple melody. Use alliteration to intensify meaning. Use contrast. Try to achieve clarity. And write a song, using three chords. That is my assignment. And do all those other things for the rest of your life.”
In the cottage up in Laurel Canyon I was writing songs daily, living with the door open, digging the air and the fire-blue howls of the coyotes in the night, as they would burst out suddenly from an invisible spot right below my bedroom window and tear up the hillside. I was living alone, and for first time in ten years, wasn’t a member of a rock and roll band. Once in the early morning hours I’d heard a marauding band of raccoons outside going through the cans, and when I came out on the steps to yell at them, they just stopped rummaging for a second and stared at me, then went right back to rifling through the trash. They didn’t seem to be that impressed by my solo career. But, sometimes, looking off the porch at night, I’d see a big tufted owl, up over the road, balanced on the power line, a silhouette against the dark sky, and that sent a chill down my body. Big snakes would crawl out of their skins and holes, disappearing into the brush by the side of the dirt road. We were high above the city, which could be glimpsed, silent in the distance, all sparkling, darkling lights. “My bands all gone,” I’d say to myself, “I’m on my own, where is it all going now?”
The Plimsouls could’ve made a million bucks, it had seemed, but now, it was over, and instead, I was broke and owed at least a million bucks, between the tax and the lawyers, and other of the band’s creditors. They were all coming straight for me, that’s how it felt, and that’s how the record business works, on any musician bold enough to take a bite of the bait. I’d reached for the rock’n’roll ring, almost grasped it, then slipped. The ring had moved on, but there was something else brewing inside me, another kind of music, and I could hear it in the ether, alive in the atmosphere, coming in more clearly everyday. I had a vision of what I could do, and it was based on the music that’d excited me, in my days before the Nerves. I was gonna take a page from Robert Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Bob Dylan. I was gonna lay the songs out there, stripped down, on my own, alone.
Some big packages of phonograph records had begun to arrive in the mail, out of the blue. I opened up the first one and found perfectly clean copies of several Bob Dylan albums. I didn’t know what it was about, but I opened the other packages and was soon glad to be in possession of the entire Dylan vinyl catalogue. The return address was his publishing company, but with no name or contact there. I never found out why they were sent, but I started to listen to his records again. It had been a while since I’d really poured over his work.
I was disorganized up there in the canyon, living alone, banging on the piano I’d rented, with records scattered all over the couch and floor, and notebooks too. All I did was write and demo songs. There was never anything in the refrigerator except beer. On the shelf were boxes and boxes of sake. And I powered down coffee like mad when I wasn’t drinking beer or wine, sake or brandy. Not being much of a cook, I took all my meals out, down on Sunset Boulevard usually, at one of the places down there. My two favorites were Ben Franks’s twenty-four hour diner, and the famous natural food restaurant The Source, where I could pretend I was doing great things for my health.
One night I was sitting in a booth at the Source, picking at an avocado, beet, and bean sprout salad, when I realized Mohammmed Ali was seated at the very next table, in discussion with a number of men. I listened in, couldn’t help it, and from what I could pick up, straining my ears as best I could, the guys were from the Olympic Committee, doing their best to convince the Champ to host the Olympic Boxing that was coming up in LA later in the Summer. I was trying to be cool, and not let on I was eavesdropping, but I nearly fell out of my seat when I heard Ali tell them, “I threw my medals in the river.” He was turning them down, and they were beseeching him. His no was solid, no matter how they begged, and finally he got up to walk out, right past my table. He was big as life, looking very strong, totally cool, and he winked at me as he walked out.
Another time I was up at Ben Frank’s restaurant in the small hours of the morning, sitting at the counter drinking cup after cup of the bad coffee they served there. David Bowie was just a few seats down from me at the counter, wearing a khaki coloured jacket, drinking the coffee too, leaning on his elbows and absently chain smoking, looking off into the imaginary distance. No one else seemed to notice him there, or seemed to care. That’s the way it was in Hollywood, it still had a few surprises left in it back then.
I was studying songwriting, trying to catch a ride to the next level, looking to tap secret power, pouring over the Song Of Solomon in the Old Testament, Robert Browning, the complete Hank Williams catalogue, and the ABC of Reading by Ezra Pound. EP laid it down as “dichten = condensare,” poetry as concentrated verbal expression. To condense. Highly charged language was the goal. Every word, every note is important to the whole. Whenever I saw the word poetry I read the word “songs.” I was consciously trying to expand my mind on the subject. I had a box set of Lotte Lenya singing the Brecht-Weil songs from Three Penny Opera and Mahogany, and I followed the lyrics in print in German and English. I was developing a love for condensed, colorful , concrete language. The best songs told their story by referencing the world of people and things directly, vividly evoking the senses. Dylan’s records reflected all of this in a big way. And I was digging Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, plus all the pre-war blues, and somewhere in there I was still working on the lessons I’d learned as a street singer, as one of the Nerves. I was brewing up a hybrid.
I’d work on songs alone up at my pad for days, then flip and need to go out and make contact with friends. I never really dated anyone, didn’t call it that anyhow, but I was seeing a few people. Cathy turned me on to the Love ‘Forever Changes’ album one night. I couldn’t get that out of my head.
Songwriting. It’s all part of it. Life’s a weave, all the little things you see and hear, the more important things too, what’s weighing on your mind, it all goes in to the songs, even if you don’t intend it. In 1984 I was at a place where I was looking back a little, since I was at the end of an era in my life, and starting a new one. What was I even doing in California? I’d been out on the West Coast about 10 years at this point. It seemed like a long time. I was single, living alone, so there was lots of time and silence to feel the truth coming up through the floorboards of that little wooden shack. I’d just ended a relationship with a woman I’d been convinced I was in love with. It was the first time I’d ever let myself go that far emotionally, or been so wrecked by a break up.
And other things were complicated too. The band broke up, not at the bottom, but at a point where there was still some popularity left for what we were doing. It was me that was the problem, I saw through it, had a realization on stage in Lubbock on one of our early tours, and I just didn’t see myself being able to go on. It was the music, I felt this other thing calling me. I’d written one song, “Oldest Story In The World” that reflected the new groove, and the band played it well. But we were all getting really spaced out. Maybe drugs had something to do with that.
I had to follow the songs, the band wasn’t necessarily into learning the new ones. They weren’t getting along. There had been a drunken brawl one night, that hadn’t involved me. Two of the guys had baited and attacked the other one. I didn’t dig it, but no one was listening to me. I was hung up by the musicianship, and lobbied to have my friend Gurf Morlix join the group. Maybe with Gurf on board, we could do something beautiful musically. Gurf was incredibly talented on guitar, pedal steel, and harmony singing. I’d been seeing him play since we were kids, both growing up in the same town. At this point he’d already played for a few years in Texas, backing Townes Van Zandt down in Houston. He could add so much to the group, and did for a little while. But the band was rude to him, and rejected him, like a patients body might reject a transplanted heart, and even tho’ Gurf played with us for a few months, it didn’t really work.
So Gurf and I started a group, The Incredibly Strung Out Band, with Victoria Williams and Warren Tornado Klein. Our other buddy Mike Bannister joined up on percussion, and we had a lot of fun playing around town, often just riding around singing and playing in the back of Mike’s huge old blue Mercury Park Lane. It was a lot of fun, and stimulating in a rambling ragtime kind of way. Which was exactly where I was at at the time.
The new songs either came or they didn’t. Mostly I worked at the piano, making them up, singing as I played, then recording them on to a cassette recorder. I was writing a lot, but they didn’t all stick, not by a long shot. I was looking for something, not sure how to get there, but I figured I’d know when I did.
Earlier that year I was in the LA airport on my way to a Plimsouls show somewhere, and I ran into my friend John Hiatt. He was waiting to leave on a plane to London, and all he had for entertainment on the plane was a crossword puzzle magazine. So I got curious and started doing the puzzles in the daily paper, and got hooked. Everyday I’d do the crossword in the LA Times, and then started doing the New York Times crossword too.
And then the stories started to happen.
I was sitting at the counter in Ben Frank’s one afternoon, drinking black coffee and doing the crossword puzzle in a newspaper, when the lines came to me. I wrote “out past the cemetery down by the willow bend,” in the margins of the paper. I was thinking of my hometown Hamburg New York, the old graveyard I used to walk through, above the winding Eighteen Mile Creek. “Half a mile from the railroad track.” That easily fit into the picture. “Last seen together these two lovers hand in hand…took a walk in the woods and they come back.” I wrote all of this in pen on the margins of the paper. The lyrics were pouring out in rhythm as fast as I could write.
Out past the cematary, down by the willow bend
Half a mile from the railroad track
Last seen together, these two lovers hand in hand
They took a walk in the woods and they never come back
They took a walk in the woods and they never come back
Metal from the radio, it rang out through the fields
Just when they thought they’d found the track
Through a patch of four leaf clover that vanished in thin air
They took a walk in the woods and they never come back
They took a walk in the woods and they never come back
Never before in history has this town been so up in arms
You never heard such misery as those bloodhounds ‘cross the farms
Between God and the police they were protected from all harm
Until they walked in the woods and they never come back
They took a walk in the woods and they never come back
They never come back
They never come back
Sirens wailed emergency, no evidence was removed
You never heard such theories, but none of them could be proved
For the missing children, no conscience could be soothed
They took a walk in the woods and they never come back
Well,that was fifteen years ago,I guess we’ve come a long, long way
I never heard the end of it, you know, I couldn’t stay
When I’m not stuck for time or money, I still wonder ’bout that day
I took a walk in the woods and I never come back
I took a walk in the woods and I never come back
I never come back
I never come back
I took a walk in the woods and I never come back
I was thinking about my home town that I’d left for good ten years earlier. I was thinking about specific places there, and particular people, but the whole song took shape before I even had time to figure out the meaning. It just arrived. I paid my check and left a tip at the counter, picked up the newspaper, and still scribbling as the words hit me, I made my way across the parking lot to my car (a red ’69 Barracuda ragtop with hounds tooth interior) and I got in, putting the paper on the passenger seat. I started it up and drove East on Sunset, took a left on Laurel, and continued on up to Kirkwood, all the time getting lines for the second bridge.
I had most of the song as I pulled up in front of my place. I ran up the steps opened the door, and grabbed the Gibson Hummingbird laying on the couch. I sat down, spread the newspaper in front of me, and began to strum. I played an F#m chord, picking up the first finger and replacing to create a bass line in a rolling rhythm on the bottom string. I pretty much sang the whole thing right then, first time through. I had the words, and the music just came. I’d never played anything like it before.
I knew this was a different kind of song, and it was a mystery even to me, yet it seemed to be saying something to me, too. The lyric told a story but the song had a rock ‘n roll drive, with folk roots but also something that still related to the Nerves. I played it again and taped it onto a cassette, then copied the lyric from the newspaper onto a notepad. While doing that I wrote the last verse, the “fifteen years part.” The song was complete. It probably took about twenty minutes, but that included the drive home from the Strip.
That afternoon and evening, I played it again and again. I was pretty excited. It was like I’d broken a code. This was the first song I wrote that was all there even if I just played it solo, and it became the basis for everything I was going to do for a long time.
The Nerves were playing the Daryl Starbird Hot Rod Show at the Cow Palace in early 1976.
The place was huge, it was one of our first gigs, and we were anxious, even though nobody was paying any attention to us—they were all there for the cars. But Daryl Starbird himself gave the introduction to the crowd, in a loud, clear voice, over the PA, heard throughout the hall: “Ladies and Gentlemen, now, on our main stage, I’m proud to present, for your listening pleasure: THE NERDS!”
I just about fainted. The other guys were looking at me like they were going to jump my ass. “C’mon man!” hissed Jack, “didn’t you spell it for him?”
We always had to spell it. Maybe I forgot. Oh well. We went out and played a set, and no one listened. We put everything we had into it.
When we were done, Jack and Paul cornered me, and said: “You gotta go straighten him out on the name before we play the next set. Get goin’! And make sure you spell it for him!”
So I headed out, across the main floor, past all his beautiful award-winning custom hot rods, his famous bubble-topped” Predicta” “the Futurista,” and the “Cosmic Ray,” through the Cow Palace, to the lobby, up an elevator, through security, talking my way past officials from the show, finally—about—15 minutes later—arriving in a room at the top of the Cow Palace, a very private, exclusive, quiet, office type room, where two men were engaged in a deep conversation. One of them was Daryl Starbird, the famous custom car cult hero. I just stood there, a few feet away from them, until finally they stopped talking and Starbird turned to me” “What can I do for you?” he asked. He seemed kind of pissed that I’d interrupted him.
“Mr Starbird, when you introduced us on the main stage, you said we were ‘The Nerds.’ That’s not the name of the band. It’s The Nerves. N-E-R-V-E-S. Nerves. The Nerves.” I finished and just stood there looking at him. He looked at me. “N-E-R-V-E-S,” I repeated.
“Okay, Okay, I got it.” And he waved me out of the room.
I went back out and made the trek, 15 minutes, down the stairs and elevator, through the lobby, past the hot rods in the main hall, through the security to the backstage.
“Did’ja tell him?” asked Paul.
Yeah, man. So the Nerves hung out for an hour or more, whatever it was until our next show. It seemed like a long wait. We were cracking jokes, bitchin’ about how stupid everything was, making fun of it, smoking, and just generally doin’ our thing and killing time. After a while we tuned up, me and Jack arguing about the pitch for a spell, and then it was time for us to go on, finally. We were nervous, again, and there were a lot more people in the hall. It looked like might we actually have a good-sized audience for this one.
We stood by the side of the stage, waiting, and finally we hear Daryl Starbird’s voice very concise and clear over loudspeaker, introducing us to everyone in the arena: “Ladies and Gentlemen: I’m proud to present, for your rock ’n’roll listening pleasure, from San Francisco, three great guys, THE WORMS!”
Dream–I’m cutting class from Hamburg High, skippin’ out on school, so I cross the street and go into a little record store on the corner and begin looking through the bin for singles. I come to one that really catches my eye. It’s in a very colorful sleeve and in wild type the cover reads ”Hothouse Madman” by the Sargents.
I want to hear the record, but John Lennon is a few feet away, going through records in another one of the bins, and when he sees me with the Sargents record, he flips out and comes over saying, “I don’t want you to listen to that record.”
I say “Well, I want to hear it.”
Lennon says “Don’t listen to that record!” and he tries to take it from me.
I resist, and then take it over to the counter and ask the clerk to play it through the store. He does and it’s incredible, an amazing, blaring, bright-red rock and roll song, and I love it!
Somewhere in the middle of his dream I realized this is a new song I’d never heard before, so I woke up, jumped out of bed, grabbed my guitar and a pen, and got the thing down. The chords to the song included some I’d never played before, and they sounded bluesy, jangling, propulsive. The chorus jumped up to a falsetto on “HOT-house Madman, hothouse madman.” I played a guitar solo in the middle of the arrangement, rockin’ on the low strings. It had a really fresh sound. I was there in the front room of the pad, making my girlfriend Kit listen over and over. She seemed to be going for it, and I was excited and kind of amazed at the nature of the song, and its dreamy inspiration. The music was simple, original, seamless, and rocked like crazy. The words were strange, but I felt like I understood them. They were about living off the land, on the street, an outlaw. It was part of my story: “In the dark I’m waiting, near the break of day, crouching in the bushes, when they come my way.” I played it for the guys in the band later in the day, after rehearsal over at Pat’s. I could tell they dug the tune, and the chords and groove were going over, but it freaked ‘em out. Hothouse madman? What’s that supposed to mean?
It was always a bitch to get songs into the Nerves repertoire. Jack would always try to tear em apart. He liked to edit everything down, and in the process he’d disemboweled your song if you weren’t careful. He’d be chopping the lyrics and melody up until he’d gone too far to find his way back. This was especially hard on story songs, and he even ruined some of his own. It almost worked sometimes, but he had songs where the first verse repeated three times with no change and that was it. So it was a gauntlet. My song “When You Find Out” was in. It was undeniable, I guess, a powerful melody and poignant lyrics over inventive chords hw couldn’t tear down. Jack worked that one over for hours, alone and obsessed, sitting there with his guitar at the end of the rehearsal room, ignoring me and Paul, trying to pry the chords apart, to prove that it was somehow put together wrong, but it was tight, and finally he gave up exhausted, and the band learned it.
On one of our road trips up the state I was trying to sell Jack on “Hothouse,” and he told me that if I rewrote the lyrics to “Hothouse,” we’d do it, and I said okay, great.
So I started trying to work on it again, getting nowhere—at first.
As soon as we got back to Hollywood, at the end of the tour, I went up into my fourth floor digs on Wilton Avenue and started in on the “Hothouse Madman” again. I set up to work on the kitchen table, with a portable typewriter, a bottle of beer, a stack of paper, some notebooks, and my guitar. Every night I’d take another crack at “Hothouse,” knocking off more lyrics to fit the melody. The hang-up was always the same: the chorus. Nothing seemed to work there, at least not as well as the original. Compared to “Hothouse Madman,” everything else felt weak, awkward, contrived. Each day as the sun went down I’d sit at the table and try again, there by the open window of summer, listening to the sound of my next-door neighbors The Screamers having one massive punk rock bash after another, but I was never really tempted to leave my post. I knew I was gonna break the code, if I kept writing.
I wrote and wrote, banging away, and never seemed to get any closer. After a while, I started writing other songs that occurred to me, just to break the boredom. “Hothouse” was dead stuck, but “One Way Ticket” just poured out. “Everyday Things” I wrote on a break from the serious task at hand. I made up nonsense songs, limericks, rock ’n roll story songs, and blues. I was finally getting my writing together without even realizing it. The act of constantly trying to tailor words in rhythm to the melody of “Hothouse” was so difficult as to be impossible, but it was great catalyst. After going through that for a few months I felt I could write anything.
Anything that is, except a new lyric to “Hothouse Madman.”
In the dark I’m waiting
for the break of day
crouching in the bushes
when they come my way
soon the rose sweet fragrance
tangles with my blood
I wake up when the sprinklers
cover me with mud
theres a vagrant in the garden
they say he means no one no good
I think I’d better watch out for the
The Nerves first rehearsal was a gas, more like a party. It was in a borrowed apartment that belonged to a friend of Jack’s girlfriend Connie, somewhere west of the theater district on Sutter Street. Pat Rush, the speed freak, was there to blow harp, and Sitka Pat, the street musician that frequently played out in front of the Swiss-American Hotel, would play lead guitar. It turned out he had grown up with Jack in Alaska, though they’d come to SF separately. He had an unusual expression for what he approved of: “That’s jam-up!”
An older black man named Koko was sittin’ in. He was a street singer too, and always played a harmonica taped to the broom handle neck of a washtub bass that he thumped on in crazy rockin’ jump-time. Koko was a big drinker, had lost all his teeth, and sounded a bit like Rice Miller, aka Sonny Boy Williamson II. I think Pat Rush invited him. Sitka Pat invited Pat Rush. Jack invited me, though, and along with the other guests, it wasn’t clear what the roles were supposed to be. I didn’t have an electric guitar or amp, just my Yamaki Deluxe. Jack wanted me there, so I went, ’cause I was curious, drawn. This band thing was fascinating in its possibilities. I pulled my guitar out and rocked along in another dimension, even though no one much could hear the sound over the electrics.
Jack and Sitka Pat got their arrangement of “Hanging On The Telephone” down, while Pat Rush vibrated, twitched, commented through his high velocity mustache, and every so often even blew some licks on the harp, generally irritating Jack. Koko, the bluesman rocked and drank wine, his speech getting more and more unintelligible to the rest of us, until after a while no one could understand a word he said, except Pat Rush, who held a great lively running conversation with him in the corner.
The next session was a few weeks later, across the bay in Oakland, in a black residential neighborhood. We met in the garage behind the house of the drummer of Bobby Freeman’s Condor Club band. He was great on the drums, and Jack wanted him on the “Hangin’ On the Telephone” demo.
We were all smoked up to the moon. Jack was on bass, Sitka Pat played loud electric lead through the Matthews amp. Pat Rush was nowhere to be seen, I guess he and Koko hadn’t made the cut. I banged on acoustic guitar percussion and percussion, but as the day went on I felt progressively farther from the action, which was intense and everything, but I wasn’t digging it.
Jack sat in a straight-back chair facing the drummer, shouting at him, and getting red in the face, trying to get this guy who was used to playing jazz, 50’s R&B and strip house show band grooves, to play a fast and driving straight eighth note groove, without fills or anything fancy. Every time the guy started to give it more of his feel it, Jack yelled over the electric blare “yeah…yeah…YEAH! …N)!” On and on. Jack turned red and the whole thing kept going.
It was an assault: a loud, driving, catchy song, but also intense and screaming. Nothing I’d heard had ever sounded like this.
This was the first blast of new music that would be coming from everywhere in a few years. It was like being present at a birth. I knew it was historic, but I had my own thing goin’ on. I got restless and went outside, and while I waited for a ride back to the city with Pat and Jack, I played my new song “When You Find Out” on my guitar, to pass the time.
I was on my usual midnight spot, in front of the Swiss American Hotel, strumming and singing the 13th Floor Elevators hit. “You’re Gonna Miss Me.”
He was leaning against the no parking sign, lighting up a Chesterfield, watching me. He had short hair, looked he’d just got out of jail–or the army. Whatever it was, he didn’t really fit in with the scruffy Broadway outlaw scene all around us. Blue jeans, white deck sneakers, and a blue/green wooly sweater. He looked kind of straight.
The next evening I saw him go walking by across the street with his arm around a good looking, long haired chick, and they headed up a few doors to the Condor Club. She was wearing a full length winter coat like the Condor dancers favored, and after she pushed through the curtains and disappeared into the club, the he ambled back, and listened to me play some more.
On a break, I bummed a cigarette, and started talking to him. He loved Roky Erikson’s wild harp on the end of “Miss Me.” I was surprised he knew Roky’s name; nobody else seemed to. He said his name was Jack Lee. He was a songwriter, came from Alaska, and dug the music I was doing. He wanted to put a band together.
I was interested in hearing his rap, but needed to make some dough that night. I went back, picked up my guitar and started playing a Lazy Lester song called “I’ve Got A Secret Weapon,” singing loud over the traffic, and making a couple bucks of change off the passing tourists and nightcrawlers. Jack hung around, then approached me again on the next break.
“How much, on the average, do you make out here a night?” he asked. I lied and said “Fifty bucks.” He lied and said, “I’ll pay you double that if you join my band,” and that was the beginning of the Nerves.
He invited me up the street with him, to share a joint.
I packed up my Yamaki Deluxe and we headed up Broadway past the strip clubs, to Stockton Street. We took a right and walked another half block, up to where a white Ford Country Squire wagon was parked on the curb. He unlocked it, we got in, he lit up, and we smoked.
We were sitting there watching the traffic go by. I hadn’t eaten all day, so I was already a bit light headed. Maybe that’s the reason the light, the sky, the pigeons, even the hair sprouting out of my head, all seemed very chaotic. My new friend here was intense, and pretty weird.
“How you gonna make it?” he asked me.
It was like I was standing knee deep in water at the bottom of a well, and Jack had leaned over and yelled down to me from the top.
“Huh? What do you mean, make it? I am making it.” I slowly answered.
“No, how are you going to make it in music, man? You know, make records, get famous. Play concerts around the world? You know what I mean: How are you going to make it?”
I’d never thought of it like that before; it had never even occurred to me as a serious subject. I was playing music for a living already, wasn’t I? I mean, vaguely, as something that could happen in the distant future, had I considered a big career in rock and roll? Maybe. Derek and I had talked about it, but had gotten nowhere. Johnny was running from the law, so he wasn’t interested. I had kinda figured I wanted to be like my heroes, a nomadic blues singer, or some kind of wandering troubadour
I had nothing to say for myself.
Jack asked if he could borrow the guitar so I got it out and passed it to him, and he started to sing, sitting right there in the car, all cramped behind the steering wheel, turning my way. The song was a loud fast one that he’d written himself, and his face turned crimson as he sang: “Don’t leave me hangin’ on the telephone! Don’t leave me hangin’ on the telephone!”
Impressive. He played another one and turned an even brighter shade of red. This one was “I’m a new man living in wide world! I’m a new man, living in a wide world.” It had a driving beat and a great melody. I got caught on the hook. This one was for me. A wide world that was my dream. Starting a new life, a million miles away from my past. Yes…
I told him I’d think about it.
He split, and I walked the streets of North Beach, thinking “Man, I had better get busy.”