Peter Case

On Songwriting

Dream On, Peter Case (Interview by Middle Mojo Magazine)

Peter Case left home when he was 16, taught himself to play country blues on the streets of San Francisco, and was in a couple of signal L.A. rock bands: The Nerves and the Plimsouls . For the last 25 years Case has worked as a singer-songwriter, building a lauded catalog of songs and a reputation as a musician’s musician. Springsteen and Prine and Ely are fans. Sir George Martin tapped him to play Beatles songs at the Hollywood Bowl. He returned from open heart surgery with 2010′s Wig!, a pummeling collection of blues, punk, and garage rock. We talked after a house concert he played at Boston luthier Yukon Stubblebine’s home.

Q: Before I turned my tape recorder on you were talking about arthritis.

A: Yeah. One of the things you take for granted when you’re younger is how many aspects of your creativity are physical. My problem is in my thumb, and everything I do comes through my thumb. I play guitar, I play piano, I write, I drive, I type, and I experience a lot of pain. Lately I know that there’s a price to pay for sitting down and playing piano, and it does hang me up. I’ll sit down at the piano and say “this better be good, I hope this is worth doing, because this is going to cause me pain.” The idea that “this better be good” is very non-productive. In fact it’s totally ruinous.

Q: What else has changed?

A: Songwriting’s a lot different than it was when I was younger and there are so many factors it’s hard to put your finger on. When you’re young, songs come to you. They come fast and it’s like getting hit by lightning. It would be quite a while until another one came or maybe another would come right away, but it always seemed kind of out of control. I didn’t have a writing discipline. I knew nothing about discipline. My life was very chaotic. I was pulling the pieces together of a very kind of shattered scene as a kid and I was on the run for a while.

Q: When did you start writing songs?

A: When I was a kid living with my parents I was writing songs regularly. Bands were playing them, older guys, and when I left, at 16, I didn’t start writing again for a number of years. I wanted to be writing. I wrote words and I played music but it took years before they turned into songs again.

Q: Why is that?

A: I was constantly hustling to make a living and I became very unfocused.  But I learned how to play blues during that period, how to sing and play old songs.

Q: What happened to make you start writing again?

A: Here’s what happened. Stop me if it’s not interesting. I started having these dreams and songwriters would come to me in the dreams. I had this one dream where I skipped out of high school and went to a record store and I’m going through a record rack. John Lennon’s in there, and he’s right at the next record rack. I see this record called Hothouse Madmen by the Sergeants, and it looks really good to me, and John Lennon goes, don’t listen to that. You shouldn’t listen to that record. And I said, it looks really interesting to me. I want to hear it. Then he disappears and they put on the record in the record store in my dream and it’s this incredible song I’ve never heard before. And then I wake up and I write the song and it’s called “Hothouse Madmen.”

Q: That’s extraordinary. Did you record it?

A: Well, I was in this band, the Nerves, and I started playing the song and I start singing the words and the other guys didn’t understand them. They didn’t want to play it. They had control of the band and they voted it down. They told me, if you write a lyric that would fit in with the band we’ll definitely do the song. I tried to rewrite “Hothouse Madmen” so the Nerves could play it. I wrote version after version of it and hated them all. I was going crazy from doing that. So I would skip out of school, in a manner of speaking, to write other songs. I wrote basically the whole early Plimsouls repertoire trying to write “Hothouse Madmen” and not succeeding. I never did get that song. Strangely enough the music for it became the first song on my first record. T Bone Burnett wrote the lyric for it.

Q: What’s the takeaway lesson?

A: The problem with songwriting is you can’t force it. So the song I was trying to force never came through for me but it pushed me into something else. That’s the lesson, that you need to apply yourself to things that don’t cramp your style. I think we all know that a dream is some form of revelation, and it happens so much faster and more completely than in the conscious mind. The conscious mind is like a cripple. The conscious mind is very slow. If you start doing dream analysis, which I’ve done, there’s all this information in the dreams, and when you start recognizing and adding these symbols up, it’s incredible. Songwriting is a form of dreaming, a form of dreaming that you let happen.

picasso-dream.jpg

Q: You’re a storyteller. Do stories present themselves in dreamlike fashion, too, or is there a more workmanlike aspect to writing lyrics?

A: Stories started adding up for me in 1985, mostly about things that happened when I was much younger in a period of my life that I never really worked out. The songs just came. Some of them, I wouldn’t even know what they were about when I first wrote them. And then I would realize, oh my god. You can’t just make up a story. For me, I want to feel some kind of authority from a story. I’m interested in discovering things and I use songwriting as a way to know my mind and to know myself. When I was little my father would get mad at me and yell at me and ask, what do you have to say for yourself? And I never had anything to say for myself. I would just sit there. He had a stuttering problem himself and he was passing it along to me, where I couldn’t talk and I couldn’t express myself. So songwriting is a way of stacking the deck so that you can say your best things. You find a way to say the most profound thing you can say. That’s why I love songwriting. When they ask me what I have to say for myself I don’t know. I still don’t know. I find things in songs that I don’t know.

Q: Do you have rituals? Has your approach to songwriting changed over the years?

A: I’ve had to change it every time I make a record. I can’t do it the same way twice. For some reason I have to always reinvent a new way to make songs, and that’s the impetus for writing songs. It’s weird. When I was in the Plimsouls I bought this boom box and took it on the road with me. I would set it up in my motel room and get my guitar and start rocking and wait until something happened. Then when I went solo, for the first solo record, me and T Bone Burnett were living together down in Texas and I was writing in the living room and I would sit there all day and write he’d come in at night and I’d sing what I had written to him. I’d read stuff, think about stuff, play other old songs. Then I got into this thing where I got this pen, this weird pen that wrote really tiny, and I wrote this whole other album in tiny little letters. I was drinking a lot of coffee and write these really concise lyrics. It was all written tiny in these notebooks. It seemed to me like every word was important. The next record I wrote with other people because after Blue Guitar I got married and we had children and all of a sudden I had no peace of mind anymore and no place to work. The publisher called up and said go write with other people so I wrote the record with Billy Swan, Fontaine Brown, John Prine, Tonio K, Tom Russell. It was communal writing. People generally think it’s my worst record and there’s a lot of different reasons for that, not just the writing process. I was distracted. Having children was super demanding. That’s when I started doing the dream thing.

Q: What exactly do you mean by the dream thing?

A: When you’re writing songs, sometimes you don’t really work on the songs. You try to get yourself more in the moment, more in tune with your dreams, less distracted. You put away all the books and stuff, whatever it takes. You try to work on yourself, you know? And maybe you try to be more articulate with people, and you try to be nicer to people, you try to do different things so that you’re in a better state of mind. You have to work on yourself. You don’t work on the songs. I mean, you do work on the songs, but the most important thing is to get yourself in a frame of mind, which could involve doing things differently in your life. You have to be living on the up, to the best of your ability dealing with things. You have to take chances, to feel alive. You have to be aggressive with yourself, to push yourself out on a limb. You have to do things that make you feel excited.

Q: Is it second nature now, getting yourself into that frame of mind, or does it get harder? You sound very alive on the new songs.

A: I agree that my songwriting does seem like it’s still alive, and one of the reasons is that I have not been successful monetarily. Every year starts out and the question is how are we going to get through this fucking year. And at the end of the year it’s, oh my god how’s it going to work? It’s a constant thing. But the nice part of that is it keeps you in touch with something really alive. It’s the world’s condition, you know? My heroes are blues singers and poets, Allen Ginsberg and Lightning Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. Those people taught me something, and what they taught me was that what you want to be, you already are. You can be everything you want to be right now. You’re it. You’re living it, you’re making it right now. John Lee Hooker didn’t need a hit record. Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell, they went out and made incredible music all the time and nobody knew them from Adam. I love Allen Ginsberg.

When I was a kid in San Francisco I had this group called the Frozen Chosen, we’d play on the street across from City Lights, and Ginsberg started coming out. He’d come over to the corner with us and say, hey guys, you mind if I sit in? He never introduced himself, but we knew who he was. We’d say, sure man. He’d say, can you do some country blues? We’d go yeah. So we’d play blues and he’d make up songs on the corner and sing to people going by. It’s 1974. Sailors and hookers and tourists and kids are going by and nobody ever stopped but he would make up these incredible songs. If you have that real love of a thing it drives you through it. I love words and I love poetry and I love blues music and I love rock and roll and I love it so much that maybe I could survive getting a million bucks for it. I know Bob Dylan did. He made it through. Some people do and some don’t.

Q: What made you start playing music?

A: I had a lot of problems and music was a solution to me, maybe on a level of the boy who couldn’t stop washing himself. I went through a period that I describe in my book a little bit where I lost my depth perception and nothing seemed real. It was a really trippy period that brought a lot of anxiety. Music was a solution to a lot of different problems I had.

Q: Is it still?

A: Yeah. Absolutely. As you get older, though, you get a few other solutions, you know? I’ve had different things in my life that have really helped me. I don’t put the same weight on music that I used to and in a way it’s been better. I’m still on the road all the time but, without getting too corny about it, I’ve got different things that people do to soothe themselves. Meditation, or whatever you want to call it. As you get older you find things like that. I was against it for a long time, but it has helped me.

Q: Does meditation help with songwriting?

A: Not necessarily. It helps with comfort.

Q: What were your ambitions when you were younger? Have they changed?

A: Ambition is hard to explain. I was taught that it’s not good if it’s for yourself. Ambition is for the music, for the songs, to make this beautiful thing that you can give to people or that you can leave. I remember I saw Lightning Hopkins in Boston in ’70, I had run away from home and was travelling around the country hitchhiking and I spent my last $3.50 seeing Lightning in Cambridge. It was so magical. It was such a powerful example of a person expressing himself. I felt the same way about Ginsberg, Art Blakey, sometimes people you’ve never even heard of but you just walk into a club. That’s what I feel like I’m trying to do, is to bring music into the world like that, where it lives in people and they remember it gives them some sort of comfort. Not comfort, but a beauty that makes life worth living. That’s the way I look at it. That’s the ambition. To create things that are beautiful or good and also are of value as you go along, to other people and to yourself.

Q: Value can be hard to quantify. And it seems like the pressure of measuring up would at some point start to feel like a real burden.

A: I don’t know if everything needs to be of value. For me it’s a creativity killer if I’ve got to prove the value all the time. I made this record, Full Service No Waiting, when my kids were starting school, and I had to be home to deal with that stuff. The kids would go to school and I rented this tiny room and I put a desk and a guitar in there and every day after the kids went to school I went straight to this room. I had a Smith Corona and I sketched out the whole album, what it was gonna be, starting with the first word of the first song, and I just typed the whole record and heard the music in my head. I sat there every day from, like, 10 to 3, and I thought it was some of the best music I’ve ever done. It ended up being 40 pages of legal typewriter paper, a big sheath of the stuff in tiny type. I would write the rhymes off the top of my head and create these rhythms, and a lot of lines didn’t make it but I kept going forward. I didn’t throw anything out. It’s an interesting work of art of its own. I’d go home to take care of the kids and I’d pick up the guitar and sometimes the song I heard in my head that day, I’d just sing through the whole thing. That would be it. That would be the music. I really enjoyed making that record.

Q: Where did you go from there? You said you make every record a different way.

A: Writing the next record I tried to do the same thing and it totally sucked.. It didn’t work. I had to try something different, so I wrote it on the run. You’ve got to trick yourself. You’ve got to get away from the rational mind. You’ve got to be thrown into some kind of new situation.

Q: Do you tell that to students in your songwriting classes? Does that advice apply to beginners?

A: I do, but they don’t necessarily get it. We’re at a more basic level. They’re not dealing on that level.

Q: Can songwriting really be taught?

A: Yes and no. You can help people that are songwriters. You can help them over their problems. But everybody in the culture seems to write songs. Everybody is a musician. The two things that are prevalent in modern life are advertising and music.  Music is the central activity people are involved in besides being receptacles for advertising.

Q: You had major heart surgery last year. How does illness and mortality figure into your music?

A: Hard to say. I really don’t know yet. I do know that I’ve never had my head in the sand about dying or anything but it definitely brought that to the forefront. Especially for a few hours in there at one point. And then I had a lot of time to think. I took some time off.

Q: Do you think Wig‘s immediacy and raw energy came out of that experience?

A: I think so. It’s funny. When I first came out of the hospital I was on drugs, you know. Somebody pointed out to me that I’m on morphine, and I’m listening to jazz. We’ve gone full circle here, you know? I’m sitting down at the piano and I’m stoned and playing these really weird chords, these weird jazz chords. I was listening to Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles, all these ex -junkies. I was just hanging out. Finally I’m like an old man, in one place on the couch. And I started to hear music. Literally I heard this music that I wanted to play and wanted to hear. Sometimes it gets real visceral, you know?

Q: You went through a transformation from pop guy to rootsy singer-songwriter.

A: When I joined the Nerves I turned my back on a lot of the things I’d been working on, the country blues that I’d learned how to play. I started playing electric bass and playing in these rock and roll bands. You know, I loved rock and roll, I really did, and it was a very creative period for me, but I also had turned my back on a whole side of my personality. I rediscovered it when I went solo after the Plimsouls.

Q: Have your powers as a songwriter increased over time? Have you lost things along the way?

A: Dave Alvin said to me that it gets a lot harder, because you’ve already written a lot of songs, and your new songs have to be better than the old songs, or somehow occupy a space that the old songs don’t occupy. I wrote “Two Angels” and I’m not going to write another “Two Angels.” I only felt the one, you know?

Q: People do it all the time. Not everyone places the value on pressing forward.

A: Well, I want to. I keep on feeling that this next one could really be something, you know?

Q: What do you mean by something?

A: I really want to make something that has a life of its own and is surprising, and is beautiful, and that I discover things in. When I was a little kid listening to music my mom would come in and say, does that send you? I’m trying to create that. I don’t know. You’re living in a world with Bob Dylan, such a heavy artist. He’s like Keats or Milton for our time. More so even than Ginsburg. Much more so. Most people don’t come close to that in their songwriting. And we all have to live with that.

Q: Do you think about relevance and your place in the culture? Does it impact your work?

A: Oh yeah. It hurts. It’s really difficult. Nobody cares about half of what you’re doing but you’ve got to feel like you’re doing something. I think gigs like this tonight, they’re important, though you don’t really see how, exactly. It’s often hard to see the present. That’s the art that Bob Dylan has: the ability not to see the future but the present, for what it is. The present isn’t really what’s advertised as the present. The present is this thing that’s being born every day. It’s not in the magazines, you know. I’ve had a couple of friends die in the past few years and it’s been really profound to experience what their deaths and their lives meant to me. You remember moments differently than you experienced them at the time. You go through a little of that and you see how valuable things are. The culture is a one-way ticket to nowhere, if you ask me.

Q: You put the Plimsouls back together in the mid-90s. Why did you want to reunite the band and did you get what you wanted?

A: The band was something I put a lot a lot of energy into creating. The Plimsouls projected rock and roll in an incredibly believable way and it’s a very rare thing to have that. We did it ’cause we could, you know? And I feel like it was a valuable thing at the time. Now we’re kind of at the end of it again, after ten years of being together again, maybe more. Fifteen. It’s sort of sad. We’ve had problems, but it was good, and it kept me younger in a way, too, to remember that. You know music gets in your body. Rhythm gets in your body. Maybe it got a little cerebral and I came back to the Plimsouls to tap into this thing that gave me another burst of youth, in a way.

Q: What is it about youth, or the qualities we associate with youth, that brings so much to bear on creativity?

A: It’s unbridled, uncynical energy. A freshness of life, you know? You have it when you’re young and it goes away. When you’re young, every room you’re in is so intense. Every person you talk to and everyone you meet, it could go anywhere. Anything could happen. With the Plimsouls you’d get this burst of energy and it would seem like something magical could happen, like you could walk through walls or something, just for a little while, you know, you would feel those walls come down. You’d feel once again like you were in this place that was very fresh. It’s hard to describe, really, but that’s sort of the role of music. I think it’s what people want from music. That’s what art does. It makes you feel the impact of being alive. Music allows you to feel things that are so big you can’t feel them until you hear the music. When you’re young, emotions come through your body. You feel them. And I think people shut them off because they’re painful. Plus they’ll get you in trouble, you know? Everything changes when you get older. I’m old now, man. I’m 56. I’ve been on the road a long time. These days I wonder, you can’t help it when you go on the road, am I going to make it through this tour? After the heart thing and all this stuff, you wonder, you know? There’s a lot of different aspects of being older that are weird.

Q: Are there good aspects?

A: Some of them are great. When you turn around 40 you get a bird’s eye view of life. I understand things that I never understood when I was a kid, man. I see people and situations and I know exactly what’s going on.

Q: Does that make you a better or a deeper artist?

A: I don’t know. Only if you can figure out a way to use it. You have to get at it somehow. And that’s the whole trick about art, you know? You got to keep going to that place. You’ve got to be willing to go out on a limb. That’s the trick.

Q: How do you get to that place?

A: I don’t know. Keep going. Hit the road. Have a heart meltdown. Nearly die. Keep doing rock and roll. Have no money.

 

Interview by Joan Anderman:

Joan@middlemojo.com.

 

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One Comment by Wayne Haught

  • Great, Great, Great interview with Peter. His songwriting wisdom is always worth spending time with. I especially like the part where he says that whatever it is you want to be you are already it! Also that Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell made great music without anybody much knowing who they were or that they existed even. Never thought about it that way before, but now that I am I like it.
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Songs to write

Assignment Zero:  25 titles, names of songs you might write someday,  appealing word combinations, subjects etc but compressed into one short phrase.

Song Assignment 1

1.  Write a song based on a desire,  about a person, place or time that you long for: someplace you would like to be, someone you would like to see, a time, or something you long to do. Compose the words as vividly as possible, so as to make a very clear picture of your subject, that appeals to the senses. Examples of this type of song  are the Byrd’s Chestnut Mare,  the Beatles’s Strawberry Fields Forever, etc…

[Remember, while writing:

      a) Use colorful, interesting, descriptive words.

      b) Sensory level : evoking taste touch sight smell hearing, plus the ” inner sense” of feelings:

          figures of speech

          description

          metaphor & simile

          imagery

      c) Try to avoid cliche. Keep writing sense bound  and original.

      d)  verse development.

      e)  also, be aware of sound: alliteration, assonance, long and short vowels, long and short tones. Use contrast.]

Assignment 2: Create a memory song of a particular moment,with particular people, in a particular place, real or imagined. Use simple chords. Paint the picture, as vividly as possible, using imagery, the language of the senses. Use a real melody, or talk, just make  sure it’s convincing.

Assignment 3:

1)  Write a song speaking “to someone that isn’t there.

Assignment 4:

1) Do several ‘sketches’ in song of another person, or persons, or

2) Do a full portrait.

The point here is to show how putting the focus on others can lead to some great songs.  Sometimes the song can be an ode, other times you may want to create a satire. Often it’s just a simple sketch of our experience with someone. On the other hand, if so moved by another’s story we can compose a  full biography or ballad. Anyway you go, observing other people and writing about them can open up a dynamic field of subject matter for songs.

Assignment 5: Write Like Mad (invention) 

1) Write several more verses for ‘this land is your land.’

2) Write 10 more blues choruses for one of the Joe Turner Songs

3)  Come up with a new verse for Bob Dylan’s ‘Sad Eyes Lady Of The Lowlands.’  Now also do this with any favorite song.

4)  Come up with a simple idea that lends itself to long invention, and write the song.

5)  Find the John Keats poem ‘Endymion’ (try John-Keats.com)  and read the first 40 or so line. Look through it and read a few parts. Check out the task of invention that he set himself here. As I said, this poem, though not recognized as great in its own right, JK on the path for much of his greatest work (The Odes.)

Assignment 6: atmosphere 

1)  Find three or four songs that you love the atmosphere or feeling of and see if you can notice specifically how the feeling is evoked.

2) Write a song establishing an atmosphere as best you can. This can be regarding a specific memory of an event or a dream, or  an atmosphere in your imagination.   Use concrete language, very little abstract language, that is convey the feeling without telling about it.

3) Songwriting has quite a bit in common with painting, a subject that we can discuss in the class. It’s much to the best to see Turner’s paintings, but a visit to this site in the meantime is could be a good idea, if approached with imagination.  http://www.william-turner.org/the-complete-works.html

[Examples for Assignment 2: people, place, and time]

1) create one-line sentences that frame the sense of PP and T for

the first stanza of poem/song etc.

Not unlike M. Gilmore who once wrote, tell stories like you are describing the

rooms you used to live in, like a walking tour. Immerse. Root.

2) create a song using some of the lines from part one. try to summon a picture and a feeling, then move it forward, developing over 3 verses.

Use a chorus, or refrain. Only use a few chords.

Borrow if you have to, but complete a piece.

Here is an example of step 1:

Rockford: IL, a rust belt city where the guys walked around with stumpy fingers

flicking ash into the beer cans from endless cigarettes, or gave themselves tattoos

in garages with pulled-down pretty painted doors, or road motorcycles into Yield signs,

pummeling their faces.

The Ensmingers: The kind of family that bought old 1960’s Mustang with rust-eaten holes in the floorboards,

planted peanuts and pear trees in the backyard with bird baths and and dead buried

guinea pigs, and played basketball on the warm drive-way until dusk

awakened swarms of eager mosquitoes.

1989: The sound of metal “hair band” ballads swooning across the FM airwaves in hair-spray

glitter and excess spun from Hollywood boulevard nights until Nirvana let loose flannel shirts, duct-taped drum sets,

and teenage spirit, sweeping the spandex under the rug.

Imperfect, no doubt, but at least you’re seeing a literal and figurative rootedness, a sense

of immersion, so when the writer crafts the song or story, these elements may persist and leak over

into the narrative, providing context and a field of association…

here is another example, the same type of work in rough meter and rhyme:

christian came over to try my door

someone I’d never even seen before

and marc was a good guy into sports

he had a big heart     it was made of quarts

his girlfriend amy always looked so sad

when she finally broke away guess that made her glad

the gang came by sunday afternoons

playing bongos and pots beat with serving spoons

we always sang a brand new made up song

with our shirts on backwards and our hats on wrong

Victoria was a grown up mystery child

she could put the why back into wild

the cottage was a big piece of varnished wood

if it ever caught fire it’d go for good

the place had highstools and a built in bar

like livin’ inside of a big  guitar

Sherman Hensley lived next door

he kept drivin’in and out but I don’t know what for

there were snakes and coyotes owls and coons

by midnight you’d see ’em by the light of the moon

i’d sit on the rug sometimes +

wish that they’d all go home

sometimes a songwriter needs

some time alone

another example, different rhyme scheme:

marianne came in from the Jesuits school

horned rim glasses and skinny as a pole

14 years old with long straight hair

that hung down to her waist she had teenage soul

marianne had a mad way of laughing

she’d surprise you with her force and size of glee

she’d confront me with the facts I wouldnt let no other

she was the perfect match for me

we lived in a small town around a small village

one edge was farmland and the other was steel

everybody knew everyone else’s business

and to the cops it was personal out on the street

Part 2: Now find a chorus for your verse.

assignment 7 

Write a song about a fight, a love affair, or both.

” A poem or a song about any kind of a fight will catch most every eye that can read.

 

A song or poem that tells about a love affair, legal or illegal, will catch most every eye & ear that can hear.

 

The fight can be one that leads up to a love affair, or your song can tell about  how a love affair led up to a fight. Love affairs & fights are all tangled up like dry leaves in a spider web.”- Woody Guthrie

 

“Write like mad.”

1)notice what you notice

2)catch yourself thinking

3)observe whats vivid

4)vividness is self selecting

-Allen Ginsburg

Leonard Cohen talks of spending two years on his average song: “not that they’re so great-thats                       just   how long it takes” -to really mine the core of what it was that got you excited in the first place     -’cause the job could be to create a song you can care enough about to really sing a number of  times.

 

COHEN:”I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs  quickly,but I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is.

I find that easy versions of the song arrive first. Although they might be able to stand as songs, they can’t stand as songs that I can sing. So to find a song that I can sing, to engage my interest, to penetrate my boredom with myself & my disinterest in my own opinions, to penetrate those barriers, the song has to speak to me with a certain urgency.

To be able to find that song that I can be interested in takes many versions & it takes a lot of uncovering.

…to penetrate the  chattering & meaningless debate…(that is my ordinary state of mind)…I have to come up with something that speaks to my deepest interest. Otherwise I nod off in one way or another. So to find that song,that urgent song, takes a lot of versions & a lot of work & a lot of sweat.”

Don’t think of words when you stop but to see the picture better.”

 

-Jack Kerouac

“Take a friendly attitude toward your thoughts.”

“The world is a hellish place, & bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering.”- Tom Waits

“Make it new.” -Ezra Pound

“If we don’t show anyone, we’re free to write anything.” -Allen Ginsberg

“You have to be aware of your dream before anyone else is.”-Dylan

” There is absolutely no inevitability, as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”

 

-Marshall McCluhan

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WHERE MY SPIRIT IS, I AM : Magical Aspects of Songwriting

WHERE MY SPIRIT IS, I AM : Magical Aspects of Songwriting

“Painting  isn’t an aesthetic operation, it’s a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange hostile world and us, a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires.

When I came to that realization I knew I had found my way.”  – Pablo  Picasso

“If you get an idea you just elaborate on it. If you’re singing about a house,  you talk about the shingles, you talk about the door, the window… there aren’t any rules.” – Lucinda Williams

” I’m the antenna. You just stick your finger in the air, and grab a bit of it.”  – Keith Richards

“Hope & Fear are :  Vision.”

                          – William Blake

What Unworldly Love…

“Can you name what you desire? I took one key -from one line in Williams “Unworldly love, that has no hope of the world, and cannot change the world to it’s delight.”

“So what eternal spring of feeling do you have in you, that you feel sure of, or that you feel unsure of, but returns over and over again, in dreams, and in waking moments of longing? What object of love, or what desire, or what delight, returns over and over despite the appearances, despite discouragement, and despite all rational calculation-even trying to repress it, it still comes through. What freshness of feeling, and what freshness of perception, comes through anyway, even despite blocking it, even despite, either the condition of not noticing it, or thinking you better not do it (you better go straight, you better get a job)-what comes through anyway? What unworldly love, that has no hope of the world, and cannot change its world to its delight,persists, and breaks through always, if only in dreams? because in dreams you get these great baths of eroticism or liberation or recognition. You know, your mother recognizes you, Kissinger recognizes you.”

-Allen Ginsberg, quoted by Anne Waldman, in “Howl, Fifty Years Later”

“Write like mad.”

Song Assignment 1

1.  Write a song based on a desire,  about a person, place or time that you long for: someplace you would like to be, someone you would like to see, a time, or something you long to do. Compose the words as vividly as possible, so as to make a very clear picture of your subject, that appeals to the senses. Examples of this type of song  are the Byrd’s Chestnut Mare,  the Beatles’s Strawberry Fields Forever, etc…

example:

PENNY LANE 

by John Lennon & Paul McCartney

 

/A              /F#m          /Bm        /E7

1. Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs

/A                /F#m       /Am

Of every head he’s had the pleasure to know

/Am7                 /F

And all the people that come and go

/E7

Stop and say hello

2. On the corner is a banker with a motor car

The little children laugh at him behind his back

And the banker never wears a “mac”

/D

In the pouring rain, very strange

 

/G            /Bm            /C

Ref.: Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes

/G                /Bm           /C              /E7

There beneath the blue suburban skies I sit and meanwhile back

3. In Penny Lane there is a fireman with hourglass

And in his pocket is a portrait of the Queen

He likes to keep his fire engine clean

It’s a clean machine

Ref.: Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes

Full of fish and finger pies in summer meanwhile back

4. Behind the shelter in the middle of the round about

The pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray

And though she feels as if she’s in a play

She is anyway

5. In Penny Lane the barber shaves another customer

We see the banker sitting waiting for a trim

And then the fireman rushes in

From the pouring rain, very strange

Ref.: Penny Lane …

/A            /C#m          /D

Ref.: Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes

/A                /C#m         /D

There beneath the blue suburban skies

/B            /D#m          /E

Ref.: Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes

/B                /D#m         /E              /G#7

There beneath the blue suburban skies I sit and meanwhile back

/B

Penny Lane

BE VIVID! 

1) notice what you notice

2)  catch yourself thinking

3) observe whats vivid

4) vividness is self selecting

-Allen Ginsburg

Song Assignment 2 Write a song using the imagery of something that frightens or threatens you.

example:

HELLHOUND ON MY TRAIL

By Robert Johnson

I gotta keep movin

I gotta keep movin

Blues fallin down like hail

Blues fallin down like hail

Umm mmmm mmm mmmmmm

Blues fallin down like hail

Blues fallin down like hail

And the days keeps on worryin me

theres a hellhound on my trail

hellhound on my trail

hellhound on my trail

If today was Christmas Eve

If today was Christmas Eve

and tommorow was Christmas Day

spoken : Aow wouldn’t we have a time baby

All I would need my little sweet rider just

to pass the time away huh huh

to pass the time away

You sprinkled hot foot powder mmmm

mmm around my door

all around my door

You sprinkled hot foot powder

all around your daddy’s door hmm hmm hmm

It keep me with ramblin mind rider

every old place I go

every old place I go

I can tell the wind is risin

the leaves tremblin on the tree

tremblin on the tree

hmmm hmmm hmm mmm

All I needs is my sweet woman

and to keep my company hey hey hey hey

my company

Wake Up The Language : Evocation & Metaphor

You could write the essence of all that great ideas in the history of literature, on a matchpack.   “The love you take is equal to the love you make,” “you gotta reap just what you sow,” “for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction”: a couple more and you’ve just about got them all. Collect the whole set.

This may be an exaggeration, but the point is :  if that’s all we had to say to each other, we’d go crazy with boredom, and we’d shut out the message anyways. We need and crave new ways of hearing old truths.

For the songwriter, it’s not what your saying, it’s HOW YOU SAY IT! Everyone in the world has a story. People are going through the most incredible things all the time. But, it’s the songwriter’s job to find and sing the stories. Troubadour: the word comes from the french      “trouber”: to find. The songwriter finds the stories, and puts them into the words that will hold the listener.

  Words that will hold the listener:

Colorful fresh descriptive language is the key to how we “make the cliche GO AWAY”. Drawing on our own sense memories and experience, songwriting is the art of evocation: evoking sense pictures in the listeners mind.

Definition: Evoke : 1. to call forth or summon ( a spirit, demon, etc.) as by chanting magical words; conjure up. 2. to draw forth or elicit a particular mental image or reaction, etc.

From an interview with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter: “When you put a rose somewhere ( ie in a song) it’ll do what it is supposed to do. Same way with certain jewels. I like a diamond here, a ruby there, a rose, certain kinds of buildings, vehicles, gems. These things are all real and the word evokes the thing. That’s what were working with, evocation”.

 

Words give off amazing energy when used in new combinations. Figurative language is the name of this tool: the art of metaphor and simile: talking about one thing in terms of another.

JULIA  

byLennon/McCartney

Half of what I say is meaningless

But I say it just to reach you, Julia

Julia, Julia, oceanchild, calls me

So I sing a song of love, Julia

Julia, seashell eyes, windy smile, calls me

So I sing a song of love, Julia

Her hair of floating sky is shimmering,

glimmering in the sun

Julia, Julia, morning moon, touch me

So I sing a song of love, Julia

When I cannot sing my heart

I can only speak my mind, Julia

Julia, sleeping sand, silent cloud, touch me

So I sing a song of love, Julia

Hum hum hum hum… calls me

So I sing a song of love for Julia, Julia, Julia

(We will also study the music to this: writing in the number names of the chords. The point here is the language : metaphor: oceanchild (a translation of his wife’s name, Ono) being the base, then windy smile, seashell eyes, etc. He’s speaking of a person he loves in terms of the ocean. Think of this, and the Waits songs, in context of the metaphor excercises below.)

Exercises:  x = y      the y of x      the x’s y   experiment with word combinations.

9TH & HENNEPIN

by Tom Waits

Well it’s Ninth and Hennepin

All the doughnuts have names that sound like prostitutes

And the moon’s teeth marks are on the sky

Like a tarp thrown all over this

And the broken umbrellas like dead birds

And the steam comes out of the grill

Like the whole goddamn town’s ready to blow…

And the bricks are all scarred with jailhouse tattoos

And everyone is behaving like dogs

And the horses are coming down Violin Road

And Dutch is dead on his feet

And all the rooms they smell like diesel

And you take on the dreams of the ones who have slept here

And I’m lost in the window, and I hide in the stairway

And I hang in the curtain, and I sleep in your hat…

And no one brings anything small into a bar around here

They all started out with bad directions

And the girl behind the counter has a tattooed tear

“One for every year he’s away”, she said

Such a crumbling beauty, ah

There’s nothing wrong with her that a hundred dollars won’t fix

She has that razor sadness that only gets worse

With the clang and the thunder of the Southern Pacific going by

And the clock ticks out like a dripping faucet

’til you’re full of rag water and bitters and blue ruin

And you spill out over the side to anyone who will listen…

And I’ve seen it all, I’ve seen it all

Through the yellow windows of the evening train…

From a 1968 interview with John Lennon, by Jonathon Cott

Q: “What is Strawberry Fields?”

JOHN “It’s a name, it’s a nice name… Strawberry Fields is anywhere you want to go.”

Q: “Songs like ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’ and ‘Penny Lane’ convey a child’s feeling of the world.”

JOHN:  We really got into the groove of imagining Penny

Lane– the bank was there, and that was where the tram sheds were and people waiting and the inspector stood there, the fire engines were down there. Itwas just reliving childhood.”

Q: “You really had a place where you grew up!”

JOHN: “Oh, yeah. Didn’t you?”

Q: “Well, Manhattan isn’t Liverpool.”

JOHN: “Well, you could write about your local bus station.”

Q: “In Manhattan?”

JOHN: “Sure, why not? Everywhere is somewhere.”

” The function of  poetry is, in part, to draw back upon our mind a paradise , if you like,  or equally, one’s less detestable hours and the outrageous hopes of one’s

youth.”  -Ezra Pound

‘to me Beale Street was the most famous place in the South. We got in at five or six in the morning and it was pouring down rain, but we just drove up & down, and it was so much more than I had even envisioned. I don’t know if I can explain it to this day-my eyes had to be very big, because I saw everything, from winos to people dressed up fit to kill, young, old, city slickers, and people straight out of the cotton fields, somehow or another you could tell: every damn one of them was glad to be there. Beale street represented for me something that I hoped to see one day for all people, something that they could say, “I’m a part of this somehow.”  – Sam Phillips

a thought for the week:

‘It’s not like you see songs approaching and you invite them in. It’s not that easy. You want to write songs that are bigger than life…. You have to know and understand something and then go past the vernacular. The chilling precision that the old-timers used in coming up with their songs was no small thing. ‘ -Bob Dylan

STYLE

style is the answer to everything-

a fresh way to approach a dull or a

dangerous thing.

to do a dull thing with style

is preferable to doing a dangerous thing

without it.

Joan of Arc had style

John the baptist

Christ

Socrates

Caeser

Garcia Lorca.

style is the difference,

a way of doing,

a way of being done.

6 herons standing quietly in a pool of water

or you walking out of the bathroom naked

without seeing

me.

-Charles Bukowski, from   Mockingbird Wish me Luck.

If I Was Washington 

By Townes Van Zandt

If I was Washington

Valleys would I forge for

If I was a fat man

Fun would I gorge for

If I was ghengis

Gold would I horde for

Wish I had a dollar a day

If I was a gouger

Gouge would I wish for

If I was a fisherman

Fish would I fish for

If I was a french whore

Frenchies I’d dish for

Wish I had a dollar a day

Turkeys are for flyin’

Chickens are for eatin’

I’m all for fun

Fun’s forbidden

Forbidden’s forgotten

And forgotten’s for gettin’

I wish I had a dollar a day

Buzzards are for circling

Circles are for heroes

Heroes for floatin’

Fiddles to nero

Fingers for countin’

Numbers for zero

Wish I had a dollar a day

If I was washington

Valleys would I forge for

If I was a fat man

Fun would I gorge for

If I was ghengis

Gold would I horde for

Wish I had a dollar a day

If I was washington

I’d wear wood teeth

If I was a policeman

I’d walk me a stone beat

If I was a singer

I’d stop right now

Wish I Had a dollar a day.

House Rent Party

She was standin’ on the corner of wonderland & woe

waitin’ for the light to change & wonderin’ where to go

take the bottles to the grocery? the records to the shop?

or step out on the sidewalk & make some traffic stop?

’cause the phone is disconnected

landlords at the door

tow truck at the curbside’s

here to repossess the Ford

& THERE’S A HOUSE RENT PARTY TONIGHT: EVERYBODY SHAKE!

we’re gonna blow the roof sky high/ see how much we can take

when they put you on the street/ you can sit & watch the dawn

but there’s something you can do when you’re last gold dollars gone

He’s in his double breasted jacket & some cherry wing tip shoes

big ‘ol hat with a feather high & a pocket flask of booze

but he can’t afford the treatments & there ain’t no other cure

sad to say without no pay he won’t get well no more

then the night falls up on broadway

the neon starts to shine

the dancers in the love act

are gettin’ ready for the grind

& THERE’S A HOUSE RENT PARTY TONIGHT: EVERYBODY SHAKE!

people come from miles around/ now we’re gonna catch a break

I know we’re gonna make it don’t care what I have to do

’cause I know you’d do the same for me as I would do for you

& THERE’S A HOUSE RENT PARTY TONIGHT

So I bought a lucky ticket/ & pinned it to the shelf

I put one away for you baby & kept one for myself

I’m gonna take my winnings/ I’m gonna disappear

I’m gonna start a brand new band/ we’ll play anywhere but here

’cause nothin’s comin’ in, sugar

nothin’s goin’ out

when there’s nothin’ left to talk about

seems all we do is shout

& THERE’S A HOUSE RENT PARTY TONIGHT: EVERYBODY SHAKE!

we’re gonna blow the roof sky high/ see how much we can take

’cause nothin’s comin’ in, sugar

nothin’s goin’ out

there’s nothin’ left to talk about

& all we do is shout

& THERE’S A HOUSE RENT PARTY TONIGHT…

(c2010 peter case)

“No Ideas But In Things”

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Waits & Songwriting

I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.

“I know a girl, she been married so many times, she got rice marks all over her face”

“She was sharp as a razor and soft as a prayer”

“I did my time in the jail of your arms”

“I’ve got a bottle for a trumpet, a hatbox for a drum…”

One look in his eyes… and everyone denies… ever having met him.”

Even Jesus wanted just a little more time, when he was walkin’ spanish down the hall”

“I stay in a place called ‘Rooms’… There’s a whole chain of them.”

“…and I’m standing on the corner of Fifth and Vermouth.”

“…using parking meters as walking sticks.

“Money’s just something you throw off the back of a train”
“You’ll be buried in the clothes that you never wore”
“My daddy told me, lookin back, the best friend you’ll have is a railroad track”
“She’s my black market baby, she’s a diamond who wants to stay coal”

“The piano has been drinking, my necktie is asleep… And the combo went back to New York, the jukebox has to take a leak… And the carpet needs a haircut, and the spotlight looks like a prison break… Cause the telephone’s out of cigarettes, and the balcony is on the make… And the piano has been drinking…”
“Kathleen was the first person who convinced me that you can take James White and the Blacks, and Elmer Bernstein and Leadbelly – folks that could never be on the bill together – and that they could be on the bill together in you. You take your dad’s army uniform and your mom’s Easter hat and your brother’s motorcycle and your sister’s purse and stitch them all together and try to make something meaningful out of it.”

If you’re paying attention there are always ideas, they’re growing under your feet.”

“lt’s [songwriting] like being on medication, a balancing act, and a lot of time for me goes into getting ready to do this whole thing. It has its own drama, what it does to your life because all of a sudden things that are part of your scope and you never noticed will figure in.. . going to the shoeshine, the Port Authority, the steam coming out of the manhole, the guy on the horse, the news. You drag these things home from your day and put them somewhere and you have three weeks to make something out of it.”

Childhood is very important to me as a writer, I think the things that happen then, the way you perceive them and remember them in later life, have a very big effect on what you do later on.” “That one [Kentucky Avenue] came over a little dramatic. a little puffed up, but when I was 10 my best friend was called Kipper, he had polio and was in a wheelchair – we used to race each other to the bus stop.”

Do you ever listen to music? TW: “It’s hard for me to sit down and just do that. I like it best when I hear it coming through the wall in a hotel room. I like it best on a bad speaker from a block away… ,you really have to watch your musical diet, especially when you’re trying to write something. A couple of years ago on my wife’s birthday we heard a song called “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” and it stayed in my head for so long.”

How do you write a song? TW: “New York is really stimulating. You can get a taxi and just have him drive and start writing down words you see, information that is in your normal view: dry cleaners, custom tailors, alterations, electrical installations, Dunlop safety center, lease, broker, sale…just start making a list of words that you see. And then you just kind of give yourself an assignment. You say, “Im going to write a song and I’m going to use all these words in that song.” That’s one way. Or you can get in character, like in acting, and let the character speak. The song “9th and Hennepin” came out like that.”

“I love reference books that help me with words, dictionaries of slang or the ‘Dictionary of Superstition’, or the ‘Phrase and Fable, Book of Knowledge’, things that help me find words that have a musicality to them. Sometimes that’s all you’re looking for. Or to make sounds that aren’t words, necessarily. They’re just sounds and they have a nice shape to them. They’re big at the end and then they come down to a little point that curls. Words, y’know, for me are really, I love ’em, I’m always lookin’ for ’em, I’m always writin’ ’em down, always writin’ down stuff. Language is always evolving. I love slang, prison slang and street idioms and –”

You like rap music because of that, right? TW: “Oh yeah, I love it. It’s so, it’s a real underground railroad.” JJ: It keeps American English living. Rap, hip-hop culture and street slang is to me what keeps it alive, and keeps it from being a dead thing. TW: “Yeah, it happens real fast, too. It’s….and it moves on, in like three weeks maybe something that was very current is now very passe. As soon as they adopt it, they have to move on.” JJ: It’s an outsider’s code, in a way. TW: “Well, it’s all that dope talk that came because you had to have conversations, that whole underground railroad thing where you had to be able to talk to somebody in the presence of law enforcement, and have law enforcement totally unable to understand anything of what you were saying. I don’t know if people really acknowledge as much as they should how the whole Afro-American experience, how it has given music and lyricism, poetry to daily life. It’s so engrained that most people don’t even give it credit.”

On the ride home Waits is still thinking about his afternoon with his children and horses. TW: “I heard a Mexican guy working with the horses today and the way he spoke to the horses was so musical, so beautiful, the way he would shape his body to get the right sounds. “I’ve always thought that in Mexican culture songs lived in the air, music is less precious and more woven into life,” Waits says. “There is a way of incorporating music into our lives that has meaning: songs for celebration, songs for teaching children things, songs of worship, songs to make the garden grow, songs to keep the devil away, songs to make a girl fall in love with you. My kids sing songs they have made up that I listen to and know by heart, and these songs have become part of our family life. You have to keep music alive in your life or else music becomes an isolated thing, just a pill you take.”

We drive home in virtual silence. TW: “Children don’t know the first thing about music and yet they make up songs and sing them all day long,” says Waits. “Who’s to say my melodies are any better than theirs?”

Q (1999): Mule Variations is a bluesier album than some of your more recent efforts. Is there a reason for that? TW: “Well, I don’t know where it all came from. Maybe I’m kind of re-examining my whole folk roots. My roots, as far as music, are perhaps diverse sometimes. Sometimes you try and find a way to reconcile the diversity of your influences. So you listen to Elmer Bernstein and you listen to Skip James and you like ’em both. And though you’ll never see them on a bill together, they can be on the bill together in you, right? In some way, in some form or another or on your record, you can have elements of those styles. It’s really my wife that started helping me see that you can find the place where Leadbelly and Schoenberg overlap. Or Cryin’ Sam Collins and Beefheart, you know, intersect with Monk or Miles

 

And “Get Behind the Mule” you have these characters like Molly Be Damned, Jimmy the Harp, the Pock Mark Kid. You hear the name and immediately that image comes to mind, like this woman I can’t get out of my head with no nails and 6’9″. Is your life populated by those –?… Who are they? Are they real people? TW: “Yeah, they’re all real people. Trade secret — they’re just folks, just plain folks. Read the paper, listen to the radio, look out the window, go to a cafe and eavesdrop. Correspond with people. It’s just people I’ve come across in … just names of people. Some I know, some I’ve heard of, some are famous blues guys from the ’30s, some are people I used to go to school with all mixed together.”

“The record becomes like a survival kit that people can take on camping trips.”

“The blues is like a planet. It’s an enormous topic. There are so many people, it’s like a phone book. If I tell ya who’s at the top, I’ll keep thinking of others… Son House, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Skip James…Jellyroll Morton, Memphis Minny, One-string Sam, I dunno. It’s an enormous topic, I don’t know where to begin. But you can’t ignore the impact that it has had and continues to have on the whole musical culture. It’s a tree that everyone is swinging from. Without it, I don’t know where I would be. It’s indelible and indispensable… Charlie Patton, Cryin’ Sam Collins, yeah. Anybody who’s first name is “Little.” Little Jimmy Scott, Little Stevie Wonder.”

(Raspy laugh) “I like weird things, ludicrous things. I have a notebook full of eerie facts. Don’t get me started on them. I could go on for ages and would confuse you – or probably even scare you.”

Q (1999): Where do you get your information from? TW: “I read papers. I read magazines, and if I find something that’s worth collecting, I’ll write it down in my little notebook. Just call it a hobby or a weird spleen.

“With Bob Dylan, so much has been said about him, it’s difficult to say anything about him that hasn’t already been said, and say it better. Suffice it to say Dylan is a planet to be explored. For a songwriter, Dylan is as essential as a hammer and nails and a saw are to a carpenter. I like my music and the rinds and the seeds and pulp left in, so the bootlegs I obtained in the ’60s and ’70s are where the noise and grit of the tapes became inseparable from the music, are essential to me. His journey as a songwriter is the stuff of myth, because he lives within the ether of the songs. Hail, hail The Basement Tapes. I heard most of these songs on bootlegs first. There is a joy and an abandon to this record, it’s also a history lesson.”

“Once you’ve heard Beefheart, it’s hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains, like coffee or blood. (The music) encouraged a lot of people to go into some kind of a cocoon and come out as something (different) than when they went in. “(But) it’s not just Beefheart (for me) . . . I like Tricky, the Staple Singers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Charley Patton. . . . You start out being the sum of those parts, and at some point you’ve got to decide when you’re soup yet.

“It’s important to travel your own path. Conformity is a fool’s paradise. I think I’m influenced by people just like everyone else is, but I try to fight the urge to conform. I keep wanting to use turntables and stuff, but my wife says no, she says that’s going to be like a ducktail eventually, or a flat-top or Mohawk. And I struggle with that… I mean most musicians don’t go to school, they listen to records. They sit down at one point next to a record player and put their ear up there and try to write the words down and wonder, “What the hell’s he doing on that thing?” and try to learn off it. And I assume somebody at some point will do that with my records. I hope they do that with my records, ’cause that’s what they’re for. It’s a natural cycle to the whole experience of evolving as a musician yourself, you hope others evolve. I love slave songs and work songs and jump rope songs, all those early beginnings, and where it’s going and where it is now and where it’ll be in ten years”

Tom Waits (2008): “Songs just like being around some folks more than others. They won’t just live anywhere. Birds like some trees better than others. We don’t know why… making up songs is just like coming up with something crazy to do with the air besides just breathing it. Seems like a waste to just breathe it in and then push it back out quietly. It must have excited the air to go through Lead Belly as ordinary oxygen and come out the other side as the Midnight Special or Silvie or Ella Louise or Rock Island Line. There’s a bird in South America whose song is so powerful and lovely, and who sings so rarely that when he does sing all the animals in the forest are quiet until his song is finished. They say to hear it brings luck, to see it insures you a place in heaven. Lead Belly was loud. I was born the day after he died, on December 7, 1949, and I passed him in the hall. He was as strong as Jack Johnson, he was louder than Caruso. Songs climb up some folks like a vine climbs a trellis. There is something in Lead Belly’s voice so urgent, “Come here right now and listen. Drop what ever you’re doing…” he’s hollering to you from the next hill over. It carried bold and impatient. He broke microphones, they weren’t prepared for his impolite delivery. When I first heard his voice, I knew it already. In mole communities they reward the brave ones. The ones known for tunneling beneath great rivers who faced the dangers involved in pulling off such an incredible feat of engineering, the ones responsible for taking other moles safely to the other side. Lead Belly is as much a part of the natural world as crows are, as dogs are, children playing in the yard are, trains are, jails are, second floor apartments are, and his songs are safe on the other side. And they’re all a part of you now.”

(UK), November 9, 2006. By Mick Brown)

Tom Waits (2007): “Well, the amazing thing about songwriting is that you don’t really go to school to learn how to do it. You just learn by listening to other people’s songs. You listen to Big Mama Thornton and Big Joe Turner and Big Irma Perkins. And Little Milton and Little Jimmy Dickens, Little Willie John, Little Stevie Wonder. All the littles — and all the bigs. And then everything you somehow absorb you will secrete in some way.”

Shore Leave

Well, with buck shot(2) eyes and a purple heart(3)
I rolled down the national stroll(4)
And with a big fat paycheck strapped to my hip-sack
And a shore leave wristwatch underneath my sleeve
In a Hong Kong drizzle(5) on Cuban heels(6)
I rowed down the gutter to the Blood Bank

And I’d left all my papers on the Ticonderoga(7)
And I was in bad need of a shave
I slopped at the corner on cold chow mein
And shot billiards with a midget until the rain stopped
And I bought a long sleeved shirt with horses on the front
And some gum and a lighter and a knife
And a new deck of cards with girls on the back
And I sat down and wrote a letter to my wife

And I said, baby, I’m so far away from home
And I miss my baby so
I can’t make it by myself
I love you so

And I was pacing(8) myself, trying to make it all last
Squeezing all the life out of a lousy two-day pass
And I had a cold one(9) at the Dragon with some Filipino floor show
And I talked baseball with a lieutenant over a Singapore Sling(10)
And I wondered how the same moon outside over this Chinatown fair
Could look down on Illinois and find you there(11)
I know I love you, baby

And I’m so far away from home
I’m so far away from home
Yeah, I miss my baby so
I can’t make it by myself
I love you so

Shore Leave, shore leave, shore leave, shore leave, shore leave
shore Leave, shore leave, shore leave, shore leave, shore leave
shore Leave, shore leave, shore leave, shore leave, shore leave
shore Leave, shore leave

Notes:

(1) Shore Leave
– Tom Waits (1983): “It’s kind of an oriental Bobby “Blue” Bland approach. Musically it’s essentially very simple. It’s a minor blues. I tried to add some musical sound effects with the assistance of a low trombone to five a feeling of a bus going by, and metal aunglongs the sound of tin cans in the wind, or rice on the bass drum to give a feeling of the waves hitting the shore. Just to capture the mood more than anything, of a marching marine or whatever walking down the wet street in Hong Kong and missing his wife back home. I worked in a restaurant in a sailor town for a long time. It’s Porkcola (port called?) National City. So, it was something I saw every night. It was next to a tattoo parlor and a country & western dance hall and a Mexican movie theater. So I imagined this Chinese pinwheel in a fireworks display spinning, spinning and turning and then slowing down. As it slowed down it dislodged into a windmill in Illinois. That same of… and then looked down on us. A home. Where a woman is sitting in the living room sleeping on chairs with the television on. When he’s having eggs at some grumulant (?) joint, you know, thousands of miles away.” (Source: “Tom Waits – Swordfishtrombones”. Island Promo interview, 1983)
– Tom Waits (1983): “Some of the stuff on Shore Leave is like sound effects, the low trombone is like a bus going by and I got a little more adventurous, I’m still a little timid about it but melody is what really hits me first, melody is the first thing that seduces me.” (Source: Unidentified Swordfishtrombones Interview (interviewer’s tape). Date: 1983/ 1984)
– Tom Waits (1983): “Underground” is the score for a mutant dwarf community. “Shore Leave” is a Chief Botswain’s mate’s nightmare with a bottle of 10 High and a black eye.” (Source: “The Beat Goes On” Rock Bill magazine (USA). October 1983, by Kid Millions)

(2) Buckshot: n.:
– A large lead shot for shotgun shells, used especially in hunting big game (Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin – Third Edition)
– One variation of the little metal pellets that fill a shotgun shell. An individual piece of buckshot is larger and more damaging than some other types, like birdshot. Larger pellets for larger animals (Submitted by Russell Fischer. Raindogs Listserv discussionlist. September, 2000).
– Waits might be playing with the common phrase “bloodshot eyes”:
– Bloodshot: blood·shot adj. Red and inflamed as a result of locally congested blood vessels: bloodshot eyes (Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company)

(3) Purple heart
– n. [1960s] (drugs) 1. amphetamines 2. (rarely) barbituates. (the colour of the pills) (Source: Cassel’s Dictionary of Slang. Jonathon Green 1998. Cassel & Co., 2000)
– Any barbituate or mixture of a barbituate and morphine used as a narcotic by addicts, esp. a Nembutal (trademark) capsule; a “goof ball” or “yellow jacket” Orig. W.W.II Army addict use, when the addicts would take or mix any drugs they could obtain from military medical supplies. (Source: Dictionary Of American Slang, Wentworth/ Flexner)
– American military decoration awarded to members of the armed forces of the U.S. who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy and posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those who are killed in action or die of wounds received in action. It is specifically a combat decoration.

(4) Stroll:
– n.: A road, highway, or street. c1935 jive use; some Negro use (Source: Dictionary Of American Slang, Wentworth/ Flexner).

(6) Cuban heels: mens boot, half boot or shoe with high heels (e.g. Manhattan half boot, Wincklepicker, Chelsea boot, etc

Get Behind The Mule

Molly Be Damned smote(2) Jimmy the Harp(3)
With a horrid little pistol and a lariat(4)
She’s goin’ to the bottom and she’s goin’ down the drain(5)
Said she wasn’t big enough to carry it

She got to get behind the mule, yeah
in the morning and plow
Got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow
You got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow
Get behind the mule in the morning and plow

Choppity chop(6) goes the axe in the woods
You gotta meet me by the fall down tree
Shovel of dirt upon a coffin lid
And I know they’ll come lookin’ for me, boys
I know they’ll come lookin’ for me

Got to get behind the mule, yeah
in the morning and plow
Get behind the mule in the morning and plow
Get behind the mule in the morning and plow
Get behind the mule in the morning and plow

Big Jack Earl(7) was eight foot one
And he stood in the road and he cried
He couldn’t make her love him, couldn’t make her stay
But tell the good Lord that he tried

Got to get behind the mule, yeah
in the morning and plow
Get behind the mule in the morning and plow, yeah
You got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow
You got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow

Dusty trail from Atchison to Placerville(8)
On the wreck of the Weaverville stage(9)
Beaula fired on Beatty for a lemonade
I was stirring my brandy with a nail, boys
Stirring my brandy with a nail

Got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow
Get behind the mule in the morning and plow
You got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow, yeah
Get behind the mule in the morning and plow

Well, the rampaging(10) sons of the widow James
Jack the Cutter and the Pockmarked Kid
Had to stand naked at the bottom of the cross
And tell the good Lord what they did
Tell the good Lord what they did

You got to get behind the mule, yeah
in the morning and plow
Get behind the mule, yeah, in the morning and plow
You got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow
Get behind the mule in the morning and plow

Punctuated birds on the power line
In a Studebaker with Birdie Joe Hoaks(11)
I’m diggin’ all the way to China with a silver spoon
While the hangman fumbles with the noose, boys
The hangman fumbles with the noose

You got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow
Get behind the mule in the morning and plow
You got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow
Get behind the mule in the morning and plow

Pin your ear to the wisdom post
Pin your eye to the line
Never let the weeds get higher than the garden(12)
Always keep a sapphire in your mind
Always keep a diamond in your mind

You got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow
Got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow
Got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow
Got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow

(1) Get behind the mule
Tom Waits: “That’s what Robert Johnson’s father said about Robert, because he ran away. He said, ‘Trouble with Robert is he wouldn’t get behind the mule in the morning and plow,’ because that was the life that was there for him. To be a sharecropper. But he ran off to Maxwell Street, and all over Texas. He wasn’t going to stick around. Get behind the mule. . .can be whatever you want it to mean. We all have to get up in the morning and go to work. Kathleen says, “I didn’t marry a man. I married a mule.” And I’ve been going through a lot of changes. That’s where Mule Variations came from.” Q: What did she mean by that? TW: “I’m stubborn.”

“There have been plenty of days when I’ve gotten up too late in the morning and the mule is gone,” he says. “Or somebody else is behind the mule, and I have to get behind the guy who’s behind the mule.’

(3) Molly Be Damned/ Jimmy the Harp:
– Kaufman/ Goldberg (1999): … On “Get Behind the Mule” you have these characters like Molly Be Damned, Jimmy the Harp, the Pock Mark Kid. You hear the name and immediately that image comes to mind… Who are they? Are they real people? TW: ” Yeah, they’re all real people. Trade secret — they’re just folks, just plain folks. Read the paper, listen to the radio, look out the window, go to a cafe and eavesdrop. Correspond with people. It’s just people I’ve come across in … just names of people. Some I know, some I’ve heard of , some are famous blues guys from the ’30s, some are people I used to go to school with all mixed together.”

– Slightly abridged passage from: “The Miners” volume from the Time-Life series “The Old West. Chapter “Highjinks in the hard-living mine camps”: “A number of the prostitutes were piquantly named — the Irish Queen and the Spanish Queen, Little Gold Dollar, Molly b’Damn, Em’ Straight-Edge, Peg-Leg Annie, and Contrary Mary. (The names of the customers of these ladies also were not without distinction: Jack the Dude, Johnny Behind the Rock, Coal-Oil George, Jimmy the Harp, and Senator Few Clothes.) Moreover, the reputations of the ladies were adorned with sentimental tales that helped to promote the legend of the Whore with the Golden Heart… Molly b’Damn was described by an Idaho contemporary as “an uncommonly ravishing personality. Her face gave no evidence of dissipation, her clothes no hint of her profession. About her, at times, was an atmosphere of refinement and culture.” Occasionally, “she quoted with apparent understanding from Shakespeare, from Milton, from Dante.” (Submitted by Kurt Gegenuber. Raindogs Listserv discussionlist. August 2, 1999)

(4) Lariat n.: A lasso; a rope for picketing grazing horses or mules

(7) Big Jack Earl: Jack Earle was born Jacob Ehrlich, a baby so tiny that doctors feared he wouldn’t live. He weighed four pounds. But immediately, he began to grow incredibly; by age ten he was over six feet tall. He finally topped out at 7 feet, 7 1/2 inches (other sourves claim he was 8′ 6 1/2″ tall). He was discovered by Hollywood as a teenager and offered a job acting in comedies. He made over fifty of them, until one day on the set when he fell from a scaffolding. When he woke, he found he was blind, due to a newly-discovered tumor on his pituitary gland. Doctors attempted to shrink the tumour with X-rays which miraculously both returned his sight and stopped his incredible growth. He enrolled in college, during which he went to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus where he saw Jim Tarver, billed as the tallest man in the world. Jack considered that odd, since he was taller than Tarver by several inches. He joined the circus and travelled with them for fourteen years. Upon retiring from the circus, Jack became a successful travelling salesman and was intensely creative. He painted, sculpted, was a prize-winning photographer and a poet. He even published a book of poetry called “The Long Shadows”. He starred in Tod Browning’s “Freaks” (1932)

– Jonathan Valania (1999): Who is Big Jack Earl? Tom Waits: “Tallest man in the world. Was with Barnum & Bailey. If you see old archival photographs, they used to put him next to some guy that was like a foot tall. Big hat, tall boots. That’s why “Big Jack Earl was eight-foot-one an d stood in the road and he cried.” Imagine a guy eight-foot-one standing in the middle of the road crying. It breaks your heart.” (Source: “The Man Who Howled Wolf “. Magnet: Jonathan Valania. June/ July, 1999)

(8) Dusty trail from Atchison to Placerville: This might refer to the historic “Overland Stage Line” to California (Overland Mail Company: Atchison, Kansas to Placerville, California).

(9) Weaverville: In the gold mining days the historical Weaverville stage coach crossed a rugged mountain range along the then-Weaverville Stage Road between California’s Northern Sacramento valley to Weaverville California.

(10) Rampaging v. intr.: To move about wildly or violently (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin – Third Edition) The chapter on the Jesse James gang from: “The Gunfighters” volume from the Time-Life series “The Old West” is titled “The rampaging sons of the widow James.” (Submitted by Kurt Gegenuber. Raindogs Listserv discussionlist. August 13, 1999)

(11) Birdie Joe Hoaks
– Tom Waits (1999): “I read in the newspaper about this gal, 12 years old, who had swindled Greyhound. She ran away from home and told Greyhound this whole story about her parents and meeting them in San Francisco. She had this whole Holden Caufield thing, and she got an unlimited ticket and criss-crossed the U.S. And she got nabbed.” What did they do to her? TW: “They took her bus pass, for starters. I don’t think she did hard time. Me and my wife read the paper and we clip hundreds of articles, and then we read the paper that way, without all the other stuff. It’s our own paper. There is a lot of filler in the paper and the rest is advertising. If you just condense it down to the essential stories, like the story about the one-eyed fish they found in Lake Michigan with three tails, you can renew your whole relationship with the paper.” (Source: “The Man Who Howled Wolf “. Magnet: Jonathan Valania. June/July, 1999)

– Tom Waits (1999): “This one gal, her name was Pretty Jo Hoax. Her name was Birdy Jo Hoakes. She pulled this beautiful hoax. She told the ticket vendor at Greyhound that her aunt in California had sent a dispatch to the office in West VA. Some money had exchanged hands, and there was supposed to be some sort of cyber ticket. This was going to make it possible for her to ride the Greyhound continuously. One of those all-day passes. The whole thing was that she created in her mind, she managed to three card molly a ticket! They finally busted her and took away her ticket! But, before they caught her, she crossed the US something like 100 times! But, if you’re out there, Birdy, my hat’s off to you!” (Source: Sonicnet: host: Goldberg. April, 1999)

Gun Street Girl

Fallin’ James(2) in the Tahoe mud
Stick around to tell us all the tale
Well, he fell in love with a Gun Street girl
Now he’s dancin’ in the Birmingham(3) jail
Dancin’ in the Birmingham jail

Well, he took a hundred dollars off a Slaughterhouse Joe(4)
Bought a brand new Michigan twenty gauge
He got all liquored up(5) on that roadhouse corn(6)
Blew a hole in the hood of a yellow Corvette(7)
A hole in the hood of a yellow Corvette

He bought a second hand Nova from a Cuban Chinese
And dyed his hair in the bathroom of a Texaco
With a pawnshop radio quarter past four
He left Waukegan(8) at the slammin’ of the door
Left Waukegan at the slammin’ of the door

I said, John, John, he’s long gone
Gone to Indiana, ain’t never comin’ home
I said, John, John, he’s long gone
Gone to Indiana, ain’t never comin’ home

He’s sittin’ in a sycamore(9) in St. John’s Wood
Soakin’ day old bread in kerosene(10)
Well, he was blue as a robin’s egg and brown as a hog
He’s stayin’ out of circulation till the dogs get tired
Out of circulation till the dogs get tired

Shadow fixed the toilet with an old trombone
He never get up in the morning on a Saturday
Sittin’ by the Erie(12) with a bull-whipped dog
Tellin’ everyone he saw, ‘They went thatta way, boys’
Tellin’ everyone he saw, ‘They went thatta way’

Now the rain like gravel on an old tin roof
The Burlington Northern pullin’ out of the world
Now a head full of bourbon and a dream in the straw
And a Gun Street girl was the cause of it all
A Gun Street girl was the cause of it all

Get ridin’ in the shadow by the Saint Joe Ridge
And the click clack tappin’ of a blind man’s cane
And he was pullin’ into Baker on a New Year’s Eve
With one eye on the pistol and the other on the door
One eye on the pistol and the other on the door

Miss Charlotte took her satchel down to King Fish Row
Smuggled in a brand new pair of alligator shoes
With her fireman’s raincoat and her long yellow hair
Well, they tied her to a tree with a skinny millionaire
Tied her to a tree with a skinny millionaire

I said, John, John, he’s long gone
Gone to Indiana, ain’t never comin’ home
I said, John, John, he’s long gone
Gone to Indiana, ain’t never comin’ home

Bangin’ on a table with an old tin cup
I sing, I’ll never kiss a Gun Street girl again
I’ll never kiss a Gun Street girl again
I’ll never kiss a Gun Street girl again

I said, John, John, he’s long gone
Gone to Indiana, ain’t never comin’ home
I said, John, John, he’s long gone
Gone to Indiana, ain’t never comin’ home

Notes:

(1) Gun Street Girl
– Tom Waits (1985): “Gun Street Girl is about a guy who’s having trouble with the law and he traces all of these events back to this girl he met on Gun Street right there on Center Market right in Little Italy there.” (Source: “Rain Dogs Island Promo Tape”, taped comments on songs as sent to radio stations, late 1985)
– Tom Waits (1985): “I tried to make it a tale in a tale, y’know? Where is the end of this tale? Y’know? There’s: “Telling everyone they saw the went thataway”. There’s this girl tied to a tree with a skinny millionaire and a guy coming into Baker with a pistol and a… So I just tried to throw it all in there and make it like eh… “What the hell’s going on around here?!” Y’know? It’s like when you wake up in the middle of the night and you try to remember something that you don’t, you remember just pieces of things? Y’know?” (Source: “Nightlines Interview” Nightlines on CBC Stereo (Canada) conducted by Michael Tearson. Date: New York. Late 1985)

(2) Falling James
– Falling James is a real person. He is a transvestite guitarist who plays with a rock band called “Leaving Trains”. Waits was apparently amused by some of the anecdotes that Falling James might have told over the years, one of which could have included something about slipping in the mud in the Lake Tahoe area (Submitted by: Gary Duncan. Raindogs Listserv discussionlist. September, 2000. Drew Slayton. E-mail message to Tom Waits Library. October, 2001). Further reading: Leaving Trains site

(3) Joe, a: n. [20C] 1. A generic name for a person, e.g. joe average, joe citizen, the average man in the street; also one who has a job or position, e.g. joe plainclothes, a plain clothes policeman, working joe one who is employed etc. 2. a stupid or offensive person (Source: “Cassell’s Dictionary Of Slang”. Jonathon Green. Cassel & Co., 1998. ISBN: 0-304-35167-9)

(4) Birmingham: Also mentioned in Swordfishtrombones, 1983: “Some say they saw him down in Birmingham, sleeping in a boxcar going by.”

(5) Liquored up: adj. [1920s+] (US) drunk (Source: “Cassell’s Dictionary Of Slang”. Jonathon Green. Cassel & Co., 1998. ISBN: 0-304-35167-9)

(6) Corn n.: Liquor, esp. corn whisky, home made or illegally sold (Source: Dictionary Of American Slang, Wentworth/ Flexner)

(9) Sycamore tree
1. Any of various deciduous trees of the genus Platanus, especially P. occidentalis of eastern North America, having palmately lobed leaves, ball-like, nodding, hairy fruit clusters, and bark that flakes off in large colorful patches. Also called buttonball, buttonwood (Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin – Third Edition).
2. Sycamore (American Sycamore): Platanus occidentalis. In keeping with its size, Sycamores have the largest leaves of any native tree in North America. Frequently, the trunk of a Sycamore will be divided into several large, secondary trunks. The bark of the Sycamore perhaps is its most striking feature: mottled creamy white and brown with the darker bark of older trees peeling away from the lighter-colored, younger bark. Typically, the Sycamore grows on bottomlands, floodplains, and on the banks of streams. The tough, coarse-grained wood is difficult to split and work. It has various uses, including butchers’ blocks. A few birds feed on the fruit, and several mammals eat twigs and bark. The related Oriental and London Planetrees are ornamental shade trees, frequently planted along streets. (Source: OPLIN: © 1997 Ohio Public Library Information Network (OPLIN) & The Ohio Historical Society (OHS))
– The tree which Zacchaeus climbed to get a better look at Jesus.
– Also mentioned in Wrong Side Of The Road: “Poison all the water in the wishin’ well and hang all them scarecrows from a Sycamore tree.”

(10) Soakin’ day old bread in kerosene: WW-II survival countertracking technique, to escape a tracker dog trailing ones scent, by carrying bread or tobacco soaked in petrol, gasoline or kerosene.

(12) Erie, on the: Sitting by the Erie: Not taking chances; hiding. Underworld use (Source: Dictionary Of American Slang, Wentworth/ Flexner)

(13) During the 1999 Mule Variations tour Waits often combined this song with “Ain’t goin’ down to the well

Downtown Train

(Rain Dogs studio version, 1985)

Outside another yellow moon
Has punched a hole in the nighttime
Yes I climb through the window and down to the street
I’m shining like a new dime
The downtown trains are full with all those Brooklyn girls
They try so hard to break out of their little worlds
Well, you wave your hand and they scatter like crows
They have nothing that will ever capture your heart
They’re just thorns without the rose
Be careful of them in the dark
Oh, if I was the one
You chose to be your only one
Oh yeah
Can’t you hear me now
Can’t you hear me now

Will I see you tonight
On a downtown train
Every night it’s just the same
You leave me lonely

Now I know your window and I know it’s late
I know your stairs and your doorway
I walk down your street and past your gate
I stand by the light at the four way
You watch them as they fall
Oh baby, they all have heartattacks
They stay at the carnival but they’ll never win you back

Will I see you tonight
On a downtown train
Every night, every night it’s just the same
Oh baby

Will I see you tonight
On a downtown train
All of my dreams they fall like rain
Oh baby, on a downtown train

Will I see you tonight
On a downtown train
Every night, every night it’s just the same
Oh baby

Will I see you tonight
Oh, on a downtown train
All of my dreams just fall like rain
All on a downtown train
All on a downtown train
All on a downtown train
All on a downtown train
On a downtown train
Downtown train
Ooooh, baby
All on a downtown train

Notes:

(1) Downtown Train
– Michael Tearson (1985): “Downtown Train” Tom Waits: Yeah, that’s kind of a pop song. Or an attempt at a pop song (laughs). You know? (sings: la-la -la-la-laaa). MT: It’s got some other people playing on it. G.E. Smith from the Hall and Oats band, Tony Levin on bass… TW: Yeah… Ehhh… all nice guys. MT: How did you bring those particular players into this one? TW: Ehm… Well, they were all well paid… MT: That helps… TW: … believe me… (laughs) A triple scale. All real nice guys. I tried that song with the other band and then… It just didn’t make it. So you can’t get the guys to play like this on some of the stuff. I just couldn’t find the right guys. MT: It also gives the album a different kind of dimension there. TW: Mmm… MT: A little bit of a different sound. TW: Yeah a little bit. Yeah, that was hard to do cause I wasn’t sure where I was going. It was kinda unfamiliar. (Source: “Nightlines Interview” Nightlines on CBC Stereo (Canada) conducted by Michael Tearson. Date: New York. Late 1985)

Who Are You

Well, they’re lining up to mad-dog(2) your Tilt-a-Whirl(3)
Three shots for a dollar, win a real live doll
All the lies that you tell, I believed them so well
Take them back, take them back to your red house
For that fearful leap into the dark(4)
Oh well, I did my time in the jail of your arms
Now Ophelia(5) wants to know where she should turn

Tell me, what did you do, what did you do the last time?
Why don’t you do that?
Well, go on ahead and take this the wrong way
Time’s not your friend
Do you cry, do you pray, do you wish them away?
Are you still leaving nothing but bones in the way?
Did you bury the carnival, with the lions and all?
Excuse me while I sharpen my nails

And just who are you, who are you this time?
You look rather tired, are you pretending to love?
Well, I hear that it pays well
How do your pistol and your Bible and your sleeping pills go?
Are you still jumping out of windows in expensive clothes?
Well, I fell in love with your sailor’s mouth and your wounded eyes
You better get down on the floor, don’t you know this is war
Tell me, who are you this time?
Tell me, who are you this time?

Written by: Tom Waits and Kathleen Waits-Brennan
Published by: Jalma Music (ASCAP), 1992
Official release: Bone Machine, Island Records Inc., 1992
Arrangement and lyrics published in “Tom Waits – Beautiful Maladies” (Amsco Publications, 1997)

Known covers:
Solemn Sun Setting. Human Drama. 1999. Triple X
This Is Our North Dakota. No River City. September, 2003. Six Little Shoes Records

Notes:

(1) Who Are You?:
– Barney Hoskyns (1999): You’ve said that you tend to bury directly autobiographical stuff. What about Who Are You? Should we know who that’s about?Tom Waits: Gee, I dunno. I think it’s better if you don’t. The stories behind most songs are less interesting than the songs themselves. So you say, “Hey, this is about Jackie Kennedy.” And it’s, “Oh, wow.” Then you say, “No, I was just kidding, it’s about Nancy Reagan.” It’s a different song now. In fact, all my songs are about Nancy Reagan.” (Source: “Mojo interview with Tom Waits”. Mojo: Barney Hoskyns. April 1999)
– Tom Waits (1992): “It’s a cynical song; the kind of stuff you’d like to say to an old girlfriend at a party. Who are you this time? Are you still jumping out of windows in expensive clothes? A thing you’d like to say to anybody who maybe raked you over the coals.” (Source: Bone Machine press kit, Rip Rense. Late 1992)

(2) To mad-dog: v. [1990s] (US Black/ prison) to stare at intensively and theateningly (cf. bad eye). [mad dog, such animals fix their targets with an unwavering, aggressive stare] (Source: “Cassell’s Dictionary Of Slang”. Jonathon Green. Cassel & Co., 1998. ISBN: 0-304-35167-9)

(3) Tilta whirl: A tilt-a-whirl is a standard American carnival ride. Riders are strapped to the inside of a cylindrical section, which spins at a high speed. The ride then is lifted up on a metal arm, and the whole thing tilts in different directions (Submitted by Russell Fischer. Raindogs Listserv discussion;ist. September, 2000)

(4) Leap in the dark: Thomas Hobbes is reported to have said on his death-bed, “Now am I about to take my last voyage- a great leap in the dark.” Rabelais, in his last moments, said, “I am going to the Great Perhaps.” Lord Derby, in 1868, applied the words, “We are about to take a leap in the dark,” to the Reform Bill. (Source: “The First Hypertext Edition of The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable”, E. Cobham Brewer. © 1997-99 Bibliomania.com Ltd)

(5) Ophelia: Could be refering to Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Ophelia, daughter of Polonius the chamberlain. Hamlet fell in love with her, but after his interview with the Ghost, found it incompatible with his plans to marry her. Ophelia, thinking his “strange conduct” the effect of madness, becomes herself demented, and in her attempt to gather flowers is drowned. (Shakespeare: Hamlet.) (Source: “The First Hypertext Edition of The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable”, E. Cobham Brewer. © 1997-99 Bibliomania.com Ltd)

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Details

Clamping the mind down on details. some exercises and then a song. or two.

William Carlos Williams: “It is in things that for the artist the power lies, not beyond them. Only where the eye hits does sight occur”

–haiku, I think, is a clever method to get ourselves to write/see/picture simultaneously.

First, most people during early school years actually did write some form of it,

and might recall it with fondness or joy, or embarrassment and scoffing. Either way,

many of us can remember the act of really writing, before we began an endless series of quizzes and bubbles and dumbed down education.

So, we tap into what Wayne Kramer might call, original joy. Like hearing an effective pop song for the first time, and trying it yourself for a few seconds, dreaming of the Monkees. Even if it didn’t pan out,

it tapped into your creative impulse.

In this exercise, I could care less about counting syllables, but I am concerned with three crisp lines.

The first two must relate/offer images of nature — you must immerse the reader, your must draw the picture

in words, you must avoid abstraction and empty language, vessels of nothingness. You must engage.

The third line is the repository of understanding, the link: eureka/satori/understanding, of how the first two

interrelate, how two juxtaposed images, by and of themselves, create a unifying element, stir

an association, and become packed with potential meaning, however latent.

Now, as you model this (I’ve even done this with fellow writers and teachers, and trust me, they

are just as stumped and shy as students at first), you can also show other writerly techniques, devices,

conceits, tools, etc.

For instance, I use a variation of this, imperfect, no doubt, but useful:

sun slants through trees barely naked

crow caws as moths whir

spring is here

Now, again, I don’t aim for profundity as much as potential.

I can exhibit:

Alliteration (sun slant / crows caw)

Parallelism (slants/caws)

Onomatopoeia (caw)

Inverted syntax (trees naked/ naked trees … a play on Whitmanesque lines,

“I saw in Louisiana a Live-oak Growing” rather than proper

formal English, which begin with prep phrase, “In Louisiana, I saw…”

Personification (naked trees)

Near/off/imperfect rhymes (whir/here)

etc.

Gray clouds drift through skyscrapers

Birds fly in V-patterns

Winter awaits

But, most important, the images confer a crispness, a photograph-etching-eye glimpse

quality…

So, we set to work making two similar works based on our own sense of nature

Now, to get that started, we’ll  do an immersive activity, like shut the lights off,

and then silently recall a meaningful place of nature, and then flush out our senses in memory, all five, one by one, silently, in our active brain, then we pop the lights on, and scribble first thoughts best thoughts

regarding images/sensations we recall, on notepads we write

the two haiku based on those impressions and scribbles…

–narratives

Next lesson, nailing People, Place, and Time. As we know, narratives do not

stem from vacuums, they come from environments, even latent and subtle, but

always from a sense of PP and T.

We create one-line sentences that frame the sense of PP and T for

their exposition, the first section of their narratives, or first stanza of poem/song etc.

Not unlike M. Gilmore who once wrote, tell stories like you are describing the

rooms you used to live in, like a walking tour. Immerse. Root.

Then I’ll  write my own as the class scribbles, and last time it was something akin to:

Rockford: IL, a rust belt city where the guys walked around with stumpy fingers

flicking ash into the beer cans from endless cigarettes, or committed suicide

in garages with pulled-down pretty painted doors, or road motorcycles into Yield signs,

pummeling their faces.

The Ensmingers: The kind of family that bought old 1960’s Mustang with rust-eaten holes in the floorboards,

planted peanuts and pear trees in the backyard with bird baths and and dead buried

guinea pigs, and played basketball on the warm drive-way until dusk

awakened swarms of eager mosquitoes.

1989: The sound of metal “hair band” ballads swooning across the FM airwaves in hair-spray

glitter and excess spun from Hollywood boulevard nights until Nirvana let loose flannel shirts, duct-taped drum sets,

and teenage spirit, sweeping the spandex under the rug.

Imperfect, no doubt, but at least I give them a literal and figurative rootedness, a sense

of immersion, so when I craft my song or story, these elements may persist and leak over

into the narrative, providing context and a field of association…

–from david ensminger

–Kerouac Sketches

“Change now to

Dungaree shorts, gaudy

Green sandals, blue vest

With white borders & a

Little festive lovegirl ribbon

In her hair Carolyn prepares

The supper- ….

She prepares the aluminum

Silex for coffee – never

Puts an extra scoop for

The pot – makes weak

American housewife coffee

–but who’s to

Notice, the Pres. Of the

Waldorf Astoria? – She

Slams a frying pan on a

Burner – singing “I hadn’t

Anyone till you….”

“-The

gray sky above has

a hurting luminosity to the

eye & also rains with

tiny nameless annoying

flips & orgones –

life dusts of Time –

beyond is the vast

aecidium green Erie

pier, a piece of it,

with you sense the

scummy river beyond-”

So there is NYC…go find it still.

Or if you be in Colorado:

“…the one skinny

revolving windmill in

the Vast, – lavender

bodies of the distance

where earth sighs to

round – the clouds

of Colorado hang blank

& beautiful upon the

land divide-…”

And then, for Jack, a family home:

“…a pink-tinged pastel,

the No Carolina afternoon

aureates through the

white Venetian blinds

& through the red-pink

plastic curtains & falls

upon the plaster, with

soft delicate shades – here,…”

“The only thing that can save the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world. That’s what poetry does. ~ Allen Ginsberg

Here’s a few of my favorites from Jack Kerouac’s Book of Haikus:

The windmills of
Oklahoma look
in every direction

Iowa clouds
following each other
into Eternity

Two cars passing
on the freeway
– Husband and wife

Windows rattling
in the wind
I’m a lousy lover

Two clouds kissing
backed up to look
At each other

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Editing & Finishing

 

Once you’ve got a first draft down…

1) a. Is the melody defined? Is there a note for every syllable of the lyric?

b. Is the rhythm defined?

c. Do the chords support the melody?

2) Is there contrast between sections?  Or do the same musical ideas repeat in different sections of the song? This can often hold a song back. The different sections need to be different musically, creating sympathetic contrast. Also, a middle eight needs to get far enough away from the verse that the verse feels and sounds fresh again when you return to it.

3) The phraseology of the song: syllables and accents.

a) counting syllables

b) accents—do they fall in the right places?

4) Are the strongest lines in the key positions (before the chorus, at the end of a verse, end and beginning of a bridge…)

5) development: How does the song develop, verse to verse, section to section? Does it move forward enough to keep interest? Often a song that feels flat has stunted development between verses. The song needs to move forward lyrically.

6) Is there filler? How much? Where? How you handle filler lines is important. It can be done with style.

7) Are we free of cliches? Can the cliches be turned around, reversed? Or should they be removed?

8) Imagery. More on this Tuesday!

Waits: “You have to make yourself some kind of antenna for the songs to come to you. So you have to make yourself a kind of a musical yourself. You have to be of music and have music in you—someway for songs to want to live in you, in or near you. You gotta be real quiet sometimes if you want to catch the big ones. You wanna go into a teardrop or through a hole in the plaster. You wanna go someplace you’ve never been before.”

“Songs are really simple. You hold them in your hand. I can make one right now and finish it. But because they’re so simple, it’s like birdwatching, you know, you gotta know something about birds or you won’t see anything: just you and your binoculars and a stupid look on your face.”

“I heard a Mexican guy working with the horses today and the way he spoke to the horses was so musical, so beautiful, the way he would shape his body to get the right sounds.   I’ve always thought that in Mexican culture songs lived in the air, music is less precious and more woven into life. There is a way of incorporating music into our lives that has meaning: songs for celebration, songs for teaching children things, songs of worship, songs to make the garden grow, songs to keep the devil away, songs to make a girl fall in love with you. My kids sing songs they have made up that I listen to and know by heart, and these songs have become part of our family life. You have to keep music alive in your life or else music becomes an isolated thing, just a pill you take.”

“Children don’t know the first thing about music and yet they make up songs and sing them all day long,” says Waits. “Who’s to say my melodies are any better than theirs?”

Finishing

“What does it need?”

“…almost a medical Frankenstein process. What does it need? It’s very beautiful but it has no heart, or it has nothing but heart, it needs a rib cage, or whatever. I’m usually good at the medical questions about music.”

“You can change everything if you want. If you don’t like the way something is, you can totally change the bone structure of a song or three or four songs in the way they work together….I like to just keep changing the shape of ‘em, & cut ‘em in half & use the parts that I didn’t want on that one on another one.”

overwrite

Dylan:  “I overwrite. If I know I am going in to record a song, I write more than I need. In the past that’s been a problem because I failed to use discretion at times. I have to guard against that. On this album, “Lonesome Day Blues” was twice as long at one point. “Highlands” [a 17-minute song on “Time Out of Mind”] was twice as long originally.”

Cohen:

“To find a song that I can sing, to engage my interest, to penetrate my boredom with myself and my disinterest in my own opinions, to penetrate those barriers, the song has to speak to me with a certain urgency.

To be able to find that song that I can be interested in takes many versions and it takes a lot of uncovering.

Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it… I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.”

‘I always try to turn a song on it’s head. Otherwise, I figure I’m wasting the listener’s time.’  —BD

‘The greatest guiding principle: boredom’

Make a list of your fifty favorite words, then write a page in your notebook, exploring each one. discuss them in terms of things, the sensual world.

Every word, every note, every beat is important

If you get stuck, move on.

” Develop a friendly attitude towards your own thoughts and ideas.”

William Blake–“Without unceasing Practice nothing can be accomplished Art is Practice. Leave off Practice and you are Lost.”

William Burroughs: Kerouac… he was a writer. That is, he wrote.

Andy Warhol : “You think too much. That’s ’cause there’s work you don’t want to do”   –quoted in Lou Reed’s song Work, from Songs For Drella.

Leonard Cohen: On his relatively paltry recorded output and how he sets about the creative process, he is blithely dismissive of his talents. “Writing an album, it always feels like I am scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to get the songs together,” he says. “I’ve never had the sense that I’ve had a multitude of choices. There is no sense of abundance – I’m just picking at what I have. It’s like what Yeats said about working in ‘the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’. I do get discouraged by the work.

“It is a mysterious process, it involves perseverance and perspiration and sometimes, by some grace, something stands out and invites you to elaborate or animate it. These are sacred mechanics and you have to be careful analyzing them as you would never write a line again. If you looked too deeply into the process you’d end up in a state of paralysis.

He does confess to a troubling kind of perfectionism. “I wrote 80 verses or something for Hallelujah . That song was written over the space of four years and that’s my trouble – I can’t discard a verse. I have to work on it and polish it. I can work on a verse for a very long time before realizing it’s not any good and then, and only then, can I discard it.

‘ Just the right phrase can go a long way.’  -Chris Rock

Robert Graves–“Poetry is rooted in love and love in desire, and desire in hope of continued existence.”

Assignment: write a song about something you desire. Flesh it out with details.

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notes 5/17 memory

Songs Of Memory: Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, & another.

It’s been said that the Irish needed these songs of memory in  order to create space during endless bad weather days in crowded apartments. Whatever the reason, Irish literature and songs abound with stories and songs of vivid, emotional  recollection. Raglan Road is a classic of this genre, and was recorded by many  artists, including  Van Morrison on his Celtic Heartbeat  album. The tune is traditional, known as ‘The Dawning Of The Day.’  The lyrics are by a reknowned Irish poet. Try checking out these tunes on you tube etc, if you can.

Raglan Road

by Patrick Kavanagh

On Raglan Road on an Autumn Day,

I saw her first and knew

That her dark hair would weave a snare

That I may one day rue.

I saw the danger, yet I walked

Along the enchanted way

And I said let grief be a falling leaf

At the dawning of the day.

On Grafton Street in November,

We tripped lightly along the ledge

Of a deep ravine where can be seen

The worst of passions pledged.

The Queen of Hearts still baking tarts

And I not making hay,

Well I loved too much; by such and such

Is happiness thrown away.

I gave her the gifts of the mind.

I gave her the secret sign

That’s known to all the artists who have

Known true Gods of Sound and Time.

With word and tint I did not stint.

I gave her reams of poems to say

With her own dark hair and her own name there

Like the clouds over fields of May.

On a quiet street where old ghosts meet,

I see her walking now

away from me,So hurriedly.

My reason must allow,

For I have wooed, not as I should

A creature made of clay.

When the angel woos the clay, he’ll lose

His wings at the dawn of the day.

Van’s group Them recorded this rocker in 1964. The music is a rave up, but Van’s words capture a memory of a particular person, and moment:

Mystic Eyes

One sunday morning

We’d been walking

Down by

The old graveyard

The morning fog

I looked at you

Yeah

Those mystic eyes

Mystic eyes

Mystic eyes

Mystic eyes

Mystic eyes

Mystic eyes

Mystic eyes

Ah, mystic eyes, ah.

VM’s first solo hit in the states, Brown Eyed Girl tells a detailed tale of memory and desire, to a catchy three chord tex-mex style progression.  Note: la la chorus.

Brown Eyed Girl

Hey where did we go,

Days when the rains came?

Down in the hollow,

Playin’ a new game,

Laughing and a running hey, hey

Skipping and a jumping

In the misty morning fog with

Our hearts a thumpin’ and you

My brown eyed girl,

You my brown eyed girl.

Whatever happened

To Tuesday and so slow

Going down the old mine

With a transistor radio

Standing in the sunlight laughing,

Hiding behind a rainbow’s wall,

Slipping and sliding

All along the water fall, with you

My brown eyed girl,

You my brown eyed girl.

Do you remember when we used to sing,

Sha la la la la la la la la la la te da

So hard to find my way,

Now that I’m all on my own.

I saw you just the other day,

My how you have grown,

Cast my memory back there, Lord

Sometime I’m overcome thinking ’bout

Making love in the green grass

Behind the stadium with you

My brown eyed girl

You my brown eyed girl

Do you remember when we used to sing

Sha la la la la la la la la la la te da.

The Astral Weeks songs took us deeper into the vivid memories of his home Belfast. The structures are built with simple chordsand improvised melody variations:

Cypress Avenue

Well, I’m caught one more time

Up on Cyprus Avenue

Well, I’m caught one more time

Up on Cyprus Avenue

And I’m conquered in a car seat

nothing I can do.

I may go crazy before that mansion on the hill

I may go crazy before that mansion on the hill

Don’t know how to speakfaster and my feetcant keep still

And all the little girls rhyme something

On their way back home from school

All the little girls rhyme something

On their way back home from school-a

And the leaves fall one by one, by one

By one, by one, by one, by one

Call the autumn time a fool

Yeah, my tongue gets t-t, t-tied

Every t-time, I just

Ev’ry, time I try to speak

Yeah, my insides shake

Just like a leaf on a tree

Yeah, I’m goin’ walkin’ by the railroad

With my cherry, with my cherry wine

Believe I’ll go walkin’ by the railroad

With my cherry, with my cherry wine

Way far past the rumblin’ station

Where the lonesome, lonesome engine drivers pine

Now, Wait a minute,

Yonder come my lady

She got rainbow ribbons in her hair

Yonder come my lady

Rain-a-bow,

Ribbons in her hair

Six white horses and a carriage,

just returnin’fromthe fair

And I’m caught one more time

Way up on the avenue

And I’m caught, way up on cypress avenue

And I’m conquered in a car seat

nothing I can do.

(Instrumental & string orchestra)

When ever he wants to, VM whips out one of these simple chorded, groovy memory numbers. What makes them so catchy?

Cleaning Windows

Oh, the smell of the bakery from across the street

Got in my nose

As we carried our ladders down the street

With the wrought-iron gate rows

I went home and listened to jimmie rodgers in my lunch-break

Bought five woodbines at the shop on the corner

And went straight back to work.

Oh, sam was up on top

And I was on the bottom with the v

We went for lemonade and paris buns

At the shop and broke for tea

I collected from the lady

And I cleaned the fanlight inside-out

I was blowing saxophone on the weekend

In that down joint.

Whats my line?

Im happy cleaning windows

Take my time

Ill see you when my love grows

Baby dont let it slide

Im a working man in my prime

Cleaning windows (number a hundred and thirty-six)

I heard leadbelly and blind lemon

On the street where I was born

Sonny terry, brownie mcghee,

Muddy waters singin Im a rolling stone

I went home and read my christmas humphreys book on zen

Curiosity killed the cat

Kerouacs dharma bums and on the road

Whats my line?

Im happy cleaning windows

Take my time

Ill see you when my love grows

Baby dont let it slide

Im a working man in my prime

Cleaning windows…

This is a masterpiece of conjuration, spoken word, a moment in a particular place, ‘way, way back in time’:

On Hyndforth Street

Take me back, take me way, way, way back

On Hyndford Street

Where you could feel the silence at half past eleven

On long summer nights

As the wireless played Radio Luxembourg

And the voices whispered across Beechie River

In the quietness as we sank into restful slumber in the silence

And carried on dreaming, in God

And walks up Cherry Valley from North Road Bridge, railway line

On sunny summer afternoons

Picking apples from the side of the tracks

That spilled over from the gardens of the houses on Cyprus Avenue

Watching the moth catcher working the floodlights in the evenings

And meeting down by the pylons

Playing round Mrs. Kelly’s lamp

Going out to Holywood on the bus

And walking from the end of the lines to the seaside

Stopping at Fusco’s for ice cream

In the days before rock ‘n’ roll

Hyndford Street, Abetta Parade

Orangefield, St. Donard’s Church

Sunday six-bells, and in between the silence there was conversation

And laughter, and music and singing, and shivers up the back of the neck

And tuning in to Luxembourg late at night

And jazz and blues records during the day

Also Debussy on the third programme

Early mornings when contemplation was best

Going up the Castlereagh hills

And the cregagh glens in summer and coming back

To Hyndford Street, feeling wondrous and lit up inside

With a sense of everlasting life

And reading Mr. Jelly Roll and Big Bill Broonzy

And “Really The Blues” by “Mezz” Mezzrow

And “Dharma Bums” by Jack Kerouac

Over and over again

And voices echoing late at night over Beechie River

And it’s always being now, and it’s always being now

It’s always now

Can you feel the silence?

On Hyndford Street where you could feel the silence

At half past eleven on long summer nights

As the wireless played Radio Luxembourg

And the voices whispered across Beechie River

And in the quietness we sank into restful slumber in silence

From Dylan’s classic album Blood On The Tracks:

Simple Twist Of Fate

by Bob Dylan

They sat together in the park

As the evening sky grew dark

She looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bones

’Twas then he felt alone and wished that he’d gone straight

And watched out for a simple twist of fate

They walked along by the old canal

A little confused, I remember well

And stopped into a strange hotel with a neon burnin’ bright

He felt the heat of the night hit him like a freight train

Moving with a simple twist of fate

A saxophone someplace far off played

As she was walkin’ by the arcade

As the light bust through a beat-up shade where he was wakin’ up,

She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate

And forgot about a simple twist of fate

He woke up, the room was bare

He didn’t see her anywhere

He told himself he didn’t care, pushed the window open wide

Felt an emptiness inside to which he just could not relate

Brought on by a simple twist of fate

He hears the ticking of the clocks

And walks along with a parrot that talks

Hunts her down by the waterfront docks where the sailors all come in

Maybe she’ll pick him out again, how long must he wait

Once more for a simple twist of fate

People tell me it’s a sin

To know and feel too much within

I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring

She was born in spring, but I was born too late

Blame it on a simple twist of fate

I wrote this song of vivid memory when a family member passed away. It’s on my album HWY 62:

The Long Good Time 

by Peter Case

Mother was doing her ironing

while listening to Nat King Cole

Teenagers came & went in cars

all tuned to rock’n’roll

Locusts were buzzing on the Summer street

Windows were open in the screen door heat

The feelings passed now I can’t recall

How we never thought that we had it all

 

Everyone everyplace everything has been erased

that’s the way it goes

First the laughter then the light now they’re all gone

& locked up tight where the cold wind blows

But we’ll all meet again at the end

of The Long Good Time

We’ll all meet again at the end

of The Long Good Time

 

Sweet little flowers called snowdrops

in the backyard with the fresh mint leaves

A cherry tree with a rope to climb

& robins nests under the eaves

My band was playing in the basement

driving folks out of their minds

Mother called down from the top of the steps

“Boys, play that nice song about suicide”

Everyone everyplace everything has been erased

that’s the way it goes

First the laughter then the light now they’re all gone

& locked up tight where the cold wind blows

But we’ll all meet again at the end

of The Long Good Time

The powers cut, the house is cold

the books are boxed, the furnitures sold

memories drift, our souls drift too

the world keeps turning

whats it turning to?

Me and Pa were circling the table

fighting the war with our fists

Papa said to Mama, “The boy’s insane

there’s a viper in our midst”

Years later we made amends

guess those ribs didn’t hurt no more

You could even say we became good friends

when we saw what we had in store

Everyone everyplace everything has been erased

that’s the way it goes

First the laughter then the light now they’re all gone

& locked up tight where the cold wind blows

But we’ll all meet again at the end

of The Long Good Time

We’ll all meet again at the end

of The Long Good Time

Assignment: Create a memory song of a particular moment in a particular place, real or imagined. Use simple chords. Paint the picture, as vividly as possible, using imagery, the language of the senses. Use a real melody, or talk, just make  sure it’s convincing.

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Hendrix, The Poet

 

to David Ensminger, for Joe Carter:

In response to your question: “What do I believe are the poetic qualities of Hendrix’s lyrics?”

First of all, he created memorable, and dynamic original phrases of speech, blazing lines that stick in your head forever. I think he had more of these in three or four albums than the Beatles, for example, made in their whole run:

“‘ ’scuse me while I kiss the sky!” (from purple haze)

” I know what I want but I just don’t know/ how to go about gettin’ it” (from manic depression)

“will it burn me if I touch the sun?”   (from love or confusion)

‘there ain’t no life nowhere!”   and

“”i don’t live today/ maybe tomorrow, I just can’t say” (from I don’t live today)

‘let me stand next to your fire’  and

‘move over, rover, and let Jimi take over!”  (from fire)

castles made of sand/ fall in the sea/ eventually  (from castles made of sand)

“aw shucks/ if my daddy could see me now’   (from up from the skies)

”if all the hippies cut off all their hair/ i don’t care/ I don’t care”  and

“if six turned out to be nine/ I don’t mind/ I don’t mind
’cause I’ve got my own world to live through
and I ain’t gonna copy you”            (from if 6 was 9)

’she’s walkin’ through the clouds/ with a circus smile/ running wild’   (from little wing)

This just touches the surface, off the top of my head.

These are great powerful, forever memorable and meaningful original phrases, with a rhythm and punch present, in the best American tradition, which often has a punchline-type diction, and often lands with an accent of sound and meaning on the last word of the phrase. It’s the “American Sound” and Hendrix has his own version of it, big-time.

2) Secondly, he used the poets tools. Jimi was a natural poet. But, I think he was helped in his quest to write great songs by studying strong sources, that themselves were tapped into poetic tradition.  These would be:

A) Exceptional soul music songsmiths like Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding, James Brown, and Don Covay.  From these he learned how to form the premise of a song around a powerful, but simple idea, with a catchiness, and simplicity of phrasing. The imagery in these writers work is reflected in JH’s songs  like ‘Remember”  ’You Got Me Floating” ‘Little Miss Lover’.  Is it poetic? I believe this type of writing at it’s best IS. Also, he knew Chuck Berry and Little Richard, both for the great SOUND of their words, and for their INNOVATION. Chuck Berry is a chronicler of American Culture and in his way, Hendrix was too, (though of a more psychedelic era.) Little Richard spoke in tongues “a wop bop a loo bop a wop bop bop” (from tutti frutti)  Hendrix excelled at this, in all of the above examples and many others.

B) Bob Dylan: a huge and liberating influence on JH,  “Songs can be about anything”.  Dylan was a path to the Beats for Hendrix, using the poetic tools of vivid imagery, alliteration, assonance, dissonance, as well as his art of twisting phrases that Jimi adapted.   Listen to the album “Blonde On Blonde,” to hear all these poetic tools being used. It was reportedly one of Hendrix’s favorites, along with “Highway 61 Revisited.” He learned a lot from these, eventually covering ‘Like A Rolling Stone” in his US debut.   Dylan would say “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken”   which could easily be a Hendrix line.  Colorful mad twists of rhythmic language.

C) The great blues singers and songwriters: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Elmore James, and others.  He topped the imagery in these writers most forceful material, in songs like “Voodoo Child”  ”If 6 was 9″  and others. It’s a strain that runs all through his work. Rhythm conveying emotion, mythic bragging imagery like JH’s “knock down a mountain with the palm of my hand’ etc is from songs like Dixon’s ‘Hoochie Koochie Man’, or Muddy Water’s “Just To Be With You”

And intimate talk like Jimi’s acoustic 12 string version of “Hear My Train A-Coming”  (be sure to watch this on  youtube if you haven’t yet) (a great performance of a great piece, his emotion so close to the surface he nearly cries, common for him but very clear here) (great poetic lines like “I’m gonna buy this town/ and put it in my shoe”)

I think it’s important to recognize how deeply JH studied and played into the tradition he was coming up in. He made sure he knew EVERYTHING about R+B, Blues, and Rock and Roll. He knew the songs, the licks, the grooves, and he knew about what went into making up the WORDS. He played with everybody who was great, and he listened and learned intensely.

I think Wind Cries Mary is one of his best: Mary is his mother (tho’ her name was Lucille) also the Virgin Mary; a feminine deity or principle he looks to for protection.  His sorrow in the wake of events leads him to feel the whole creation is calling out for this missing feminine spirit.

It’s imagery that creates a dimension of feeling that goes beyond normal songwriting: I call that poetic.
After all the jacks are in their boxes
And the clowns have all gone to bed
You can hear happiness staggering on down the street
Footprints dressed in red
And the wind whispers Mary

A broom is drearily sweeping
Up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life
Somewhere a queen is weeping
Somewhere a king has no wife
And the wind, it cries Mary

The traffic lights they turn up blue tomorrow
And shine their emptiness down on my bed
The tiny island sags downstream
‘Cause the life that lived is, is dead
And the wind screams Mary

Will the wind ever remember
The names it has blown in the past
And with his crutch, it’s old age, and it’s wisdom
It whispers no, this will be the last
And the wind cries Mary

I hope this helps you as you consider Jimi Hendrix the poet. I could go on a lot more than this. It’s an interesting subject. Have you see the book Cherokee Mist with so much of his writing in it? I recommend it. Another great one, maybe the best book about Hendrix, is Greg Tate’s “Midnight Lightning.”

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The Tale of the Peter Case lp: I go solo in 1985, taking chances, and “unraveling the mysteries of music”

 

 

“If this record doesn’t sell a million copies I quit the business.”

T-Bone Burnett was addressing the visitors to the control room of studio B at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, on a distorted radio shack bullhorn.

It was early Spring 1986, and we were listening to a playback of my first, self-titled solo album, a collection of songs and music that was considered a big departure. The material had begun the journey to vinyl two years before and run into a gauntlet of trouble and interference. Though I’d spent the previous ten years playing in some “perfectly good rock n roll bands,” I was hearing music in a whole new way. It was a personal, musical, and spiritual upheaval.

“Unraveling the mysteries of music.” That’s how I expressed it— “the quest for musical fire,“ after a popular caveman movie that was exhibiting around then. I’d travelled back and forth across the country a lot by this point touring in the bands. More recently I’d been delivering some cars for an agency in LA, making the fast and vast transcontinental drives, and the songs were coming during those jaunts. And I was praying on my knees a couple times a day.

One day, a wag asked in my direction, “What’s the one word that describes your life?”

And I said, “Nevertheless.”

The stories started to happen: On Sunset Boulevard one long afternoon, at the counter in Ben Frank’s, I was killing time, drinking black coffee, chain-smoking Camels, and doing a newspaper crossword puzzle when the lines came in on the ether: “Out past the cemetery down by the willow bend…” I wrote them in the margins of the page.

The lyrics began pouring out faster than I could write. It took shape before I even had time to figure out what it was. I paid my check, left a tip at the counter, picked up the newspaper, still scribbling as the words hit, and made my way across the parking lot to my car, then across the town to my pad.

The tune was nearly complete as I pulled in front of my place. I double-stepped to my front door, opened the lock and got in, grabbed the Hummingbird guitar laying on the couch, spread the scribbled-on Times out in front of me, and sang. “Walk In The Woods” was done in five more minutes. I’d never played anything like it before. It didn’t necessarily sound like a chart hit, but as a song it was undeniable. I felt like I’d broken a code. The arrangement was all there even if I played it solo, and it became the basis for everything I was going to do for a long time.

I kept writing in all sorts of situations, and finally the record was coming together. We went into the studio in early 1985.

Jerry Marotta, was crazy-eyed intense, big, bushy-headed and wired to go, able to turn a four-four beat inside out at the drop of the one, and fascinated with torturing his Linn Drum machine beyond any reasonable limits: He’d open it up with a screwdriver, get into its inner workings and scramble, putting the snare drum chip where the cymbal was supposed to be, the triangle into the kick drum, getting it ringing on all the off-beats, until the groove would be so contorted it was hard to even tell where the “one “ was. Very refreshing.

I demonstrated to Marotta my lick for “Three Days Straight” and he came up with an insane driving groove on the Linn, then the two of us went into the main room at Sunset Sound and recorded the song, with Jerry playing the full drum kit along to the Linn, really rocking it, while I played and sang. The playback blew us away. His brother Rick Marotta, popped in to visit, listened to a minute of the tortured Linn drum part, the manic groove all tied in knots, and said, “I’m telling Mom!” That’s Victoria Williams on harmony with me, and Warren “Tornado” Klein on tamboura. That instrument always makes a profound effect wherever its placed. After this session we snuck into the tape locker, and for laughs, overdubbed tamboura on all of the tracks on Marshall Crenshaw’s soon to be mixed new album. It sounded great but I don’t think he used any of it.

 

 

“Small Town Spree” was an intimate solo recording that Van Dyke Parks came in and transformed, writing and conducting the string arrangement. I got to hear my harmonica solo in front of a string quartet. Thanks, Van Dyke!

Mike Campbell came in brandishing a giant swordscape of twang over another song finalized on caffeine at the Ben Frank’s counter, back before coffee was delivered by a Brinks truck. “Satellite Beach” was composed on one of those cross-country drive-away trips that ended at a vacant motel over-looking Cape Kennedy. Challenger was on the launching pad.

Jim Keltner I’d met a party, and invited to the studio the next day. “Pair Of Brown Eyes” is the result. Elvis Costello had sung the song for me during a party one night in T-Bone’s room at the Le Mondrian Hotel, and then asked permission from the Pogues for me to record it, as their version wasn’t out yet. Besides Keltner, the band on this track is Van Dyke Parks on organ, T-Bone on acoustic guitar, David Miner on bass, and Roger McGuinn on the Rickenbacker 12-string.

Keltner also played the huge sounding drum kit on “Old Blue Car,” at Capitol Studios, with Fred Tackett on guitar, and Jerry Scheff on bass. Someone produced a case of beer, put it out into the middle of the studio floor, and the producer kind of danced around it, conducting while the rest of us played. That’s a live take. Steve Berlin commented with a laugh, “Guess you don’t care if you get any harmonica sessions.”

T-Bone himself may possibly be the Sergeant Bilko of rock ‘n’ roll. Who else would convert the control room into a gamblers paradise where we watched the horse tracks at Hollywood Park & Santa Ana on retractable screens with the bookie on the phone line too? Who else but a Bilko would covert the faders on a Neve soundboard so it become a roulette wheel, with all of us laying bets, until the instant the Geffen A & R staff showed up at the door and all this madness disappeared with a wave and a blink. “Yes sir, no sir, of course, of course” was the code in the moment, but the second they departed the screens appeared, and it was back to the races.

It was the last night of recording and all through the studio no one was stirring their drinks; they were pouring ‘em down like they were trying to put out a fire. Or maybe it was just me. I’m not sure. I do know Mr. Burnett’s pal Sam Waterston was out in the studio, positioned on a microphone, orating in a very sonorous voice, over the track of “Satellite Beach.” God knows what kind of a text, it was T’s idea. It seemed absurd and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Pray For Rain

In Los Angeles every day’s brilliant & blue
The sun shining brighter than a worn out shoe
Hands on an old piano—pen to a sheet
Awaiting the lyric that sails down the street
Tea when you’re thirsty—booze in the fridge
Power in numbers but I ain’t got the didge
Where’d everyone go? the bands disappeared
Premature start on that old age they feared

Curly, Larry & the Edge had the top down today
Nobody’s walking on Malibu Bay
Who am I kidding—as I nervously jink?
Throw down the empties & scour the sink
I hadn’t yet realized what’s known to be true:
The best way to get’ em’s when they comin’ at you
I was stirring the pot tossing cards in a hat
Air unpredictable—had it down pat
& some that show up aren’t the ones you expect
But you take down the message long distance collect

SO—the record company sat on it for nine months, and it seemed at one point it would never be released. We said “well some artists just hang their paintings in their own yards” which was comforting and depressing both. And it seemed like that would be it, but…

Nevertheless! It came out. T-Bone never quit the business but the record found its audience, and I still sing these songs whenever I perform on the road. People are always telling me about the impact the record had on them, and thirty years later I’m still proud of every cut.

Always remember, your giants have thick, tough skin.

Now let’s see you do it!

[ BTW this CD is available from Omnivore Recordings, remastered with many groovy bonus tracks from the sessions, and new photos by Greg Allen]
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About Jokerman by Bob Dylan. I wrote this 15 years ago…

Let’s see, it was October 1983 and I was still in the Plimsouls, but we had come in from the road, and had wound down, and I was just knocking about, living alone in a tiny pad up in Laurel Canyon (in the same cottage the Melvins eventually moved into, after I split). I  was writing songs for what was gonna be my first solo LP, and felt like I was on the moon, ’cause I was living at night, isolated, kinda living in my dreams & musical ideas, and I didn’t have to show up anywhere or for anything, it was woodshed time.

It was a good time, I was 29 years old, freed up for the first time from a lot of things that had been bugging me.

So I picked up the new Dylan LP at Tower on Sunset, and took it straight back home, and threw it on, and was completely transfixed by “Jokerman.”

The first thing that got me about it was the Sly and Robbie groove, unlike anything I’d heard before: it’s not rock or reggae either, but something new, very open. As usual with a Dylan record you hear every word. He delivers that very clearly.

On first listen the song hits you with a strong sense of life, of what it’s like to be alive in the world at that moment, a sense of NOW. The complexity, color, seductive sensual lure, sense of danger, of freedom, of possibility that one feels in the world, call it the Modern World, is all communicated so vividly, that the flash of recognition I felt upon hearing it, EVEN THOUGH I HAD NO REASONABLE IDEA WHAT HE WAS ON ABOUT, gave me a rush of Companionship. So that’s the first thing about the art of his songwriting, he wins you with the representation of what it’s really like to be alive. And you feel that before you understand it.

I think “Like A Rolling Stone” did that for its time. And the song “Dignity” hit me with that kind of force, when I first heard it on the radio, and had to pull the car over. And it’s a hugely exciting thing.

I’m not sure to this day that I could say I understand the song really. But I find it really moving.

The lines about ships, mist, snakes, glowing eyes, all were like kindling and I went up in flames when he hit “freedom just around the corner for you — but with the truth so far off what good will it do?”

That’s what I mean about him reflecting the true complexity of being alive, instead of the party line, which would be something like,  ‘”Gotta get free!” or ‘”I’m free — but with freedom comes responsiblility.” You know, “freedom good!”

I was in a period of my life when I felt a bit of freedom, but the nagging thoughts about the validity of what I was doing were unexpressed, kinda murkily swimming about in my mind, then PRESTO! Dylan’s said it, and I’m pushed into a new dimension of thought. All of this I just felt though on that first listen.

“So swiftly the sun sets in the sky…” yeah especially if like me you’re getting up in the afternoon and turning night into day, “You rise up and say goodbye to no one.” Check.

“Shedding off one more layer of skin, staying one step ahead of the persecutor within.” He does it again with this one, shedding off skin, sounds good, that’s what I was trying to do, reinvent myself, renew my musical vision, evade the weights and mistakes of my past. “One step ahead of the persecutor.” It was like he was reading my mind, I’d been guilty for my impulse to ditch the band and go solo, though it seemed necessary from a purely artistic point of view. So, those lines hit me too, and grilled me. As they would anybody I think, who was actively going through the kind of changes life threw on individuals at that time, which is still THIS TIME, by the way. The struggle of freedom, guilt, knowledge, power, foolishness that we all experience.

It’s a good song; there’s just so much in it. It seems alive, almost.

The chorus is so stripped down, it’s more tricky. “Jokerman,” that’s him singing about himself, and maybe about Jesus in verse three, and maybe about the silence of God at the end. But it’s also anybody, the Fool, jokers, trying to get serious, by that I mean, living with their eyes open, not “asleep neath the stars with a small dog licking your face” an image of a childish, maybe foolish sort, but also attractive in a way, hmm. The nightingale’s tune, it’s been pointed out that that’s like Keat’s Nightingale, the muse, or Imagination, flying high by the moon, that is, almost in the dark, moony, lunar, almost lunatic inspiration, like the subconscious, or unconscious (I mix them up!) which it always seems like Dylan relies on. For example, he always used to insist the songs come “through him” and the creation of his early work had to do with “power and dominion over the spirits.”

Is that clear at all? It does seem like he is singing, at least in part about himself. And it’s relevant to you and me, to the degree you want to apply it.

There’s a great difference between his best work and his other stuff. “Jokerman” is one of his great songs, right in there with the best of the early work, and the best of the ’70s. “Neighborhood Bully” doesn’t have this kind of impact, whatever you think of its message. “Man Of Peace,” likewise. I think “Union Sundown” is a great piece of work, but as a song lyric, though it’s good, maybe someone else could have written it, he merely covers the subject. Another song like that, from a later album, is “Everything’s Broken” from O Mercy. It’s strong, complete, but not necessarily “Dylan-esque,” in that it’s not communicating that super-vivid and 360 degree sense of life, of what it’s like to be alive at that moment. And when you hear the songs that have that quality, it’s like a mirror, or a trick window, you almost feel as if you’re looking through reality, getting a glimpse “behind the screen” and that’s what makes it so valuable.

So some of it is cold, detached, etc. but people need to hear his great stuff. His Greatest Hits, Vol 3 is pretty powerful, for that reason.

If you don’t get Bob Dylan, you don’t get much, in my opinion. Complaints about his voice are a sure sign of ignorance of music and history. It’s not really a matter of taste. It’s a matter of mind or not. I know as time goes on it may be harder for younger people to get in on. But it’s worth trying to find the door in, a whole universe opens up.

A lot of it is down to words. Can you relate to another mind, as related in language. Beyond the either/ors of binary choice. Dem or Republican? Hot/Not? Young/Old? Yes/No on this or that.

Bob Dylan uses roots music to tell his story, his way. That’s what I try to do as well. But you have to know your limits. Dylan is the best at that, he’s got that “bullshit- detector” that lots of people talk about. It better be real or forget about it.

I grew up in a house when blues and jazz and early rock and roll were just coming out, and the records were comstantly being played on our record player, and my sister and her friends (who were all about the same age as Dylan) were attempting to play the music,too, on piano and other instruments. And that ’50s music was all blues-based, or country. And then there was Elvis, who I experienced as a three year old. And he had the feeling on the Sun Records, and the early RCA, and I just soaked it up, but also the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Link Wray (the first HEAVY guitar) Richie Valens, Fats Domino, the great Little Richard and Jerry Lee on TV shows like Bandstand, and all of that is blues.

Then Dylan and the Stones, Beatles too, and I followed the streams and first heard Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Carl Perkins, and Buddy Holly.  I just loved all of that so much. And it got deeper from there, Howlin’ Wolf, and Robert Johnson, McTell, Gary Davis, etc.  I just loved it and listened endlessly. And kept TRYING to play and sing it, and I HATED what I sounded like at 17, 18 years old, so young and white and reedy. It was EMBARRASSING.

The story of all this is in my book, As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport, which I’ve been posting bit by bit for the last few months.

Somewhere in there it all opened up to me, but you still gotta keep a sense of humor, and the bulllshit detector trained on yourself, so look out!

And then you gotta work to be YOURSELF,  to sing through the influences.

I think I need to write a part two of this!

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