This post concerns the magical, mysterious, honeydew-fed process that is songwriting.
I wrote my first song with lyrics, “U.V.A.,” when I was 19. I had been wanting and trying to write a song for years by that point, but when I sat down to play my guitar that day (2/24/89, in case you’re wondering), I had no idea I would actually write one.
I started tinkering around with some songs I already knew (probably by Elvis Costello or Billy Bragg) but grew bored and soon realized I didn’t want to play anything I typically played. I came to a full stop, looked at my still left hand resting on the fretboard, and started strumming. Liking what I heard, I opened my mouth to see what would come out. Two hours later, the song was finished.
This is the point at which I should have said (and maybe did say) “Man, that was easy.” I was more preoccupied, however, with one central question: where in the fuck did that song come from? I don’t mean the raw material, because that much I knew all too well: a girl, longing, and all that that entails. After looking at her across rooms, sending her anonymous love letters (complete with epigrams of Romantic poetry and the just-coined phrase “unrequited visual affection”), writing a terrible short story about her, phoning her pretending to be someone else, and finally telling/showing her who I was, I stuck it all in a song.
What I mean is, how did this song come leaping out of me? Answer: I don’t know. I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now.
This same process has repeated itself many, many times over the last 21 years, and one running theme that became apparent early on was my propensity to horde song titles and write a song based on one of those horded titles. Below is a list of some of the songs I’ve written title first, from whence they came, and about what they are (as Yoda would ask), at least as far as I can recall.
“When I Grow Down” – A friend of mine and I were walking in between classes when she saw an unctuous frat boy we both disliked and said, “I like Barry SO much. When I grow down, I want to be just like him.”
“Bowhead” – As I once said to introduce this song, I wrote this while trying to learn the Greek alphabet off shirts in Perry Cafeteria.
“Beneficial Neglect” – This was the title of a paper my wife wrote in grad school. The song itself is about the one and only day I ever spent in daycare. And what a traumatic day it was.
“Going Dutch Means You’re Ugly” – I’m proud to say I just thought this phrase up out of nowhere, all by myself.
“Mullet Boy Enumerates” – While watching TV one day, I witnessed a local commercial that featured a mullet-sporting dude who was counting off on his fingers the benefits of whatever business he was hawking. Almost reflexively, I said out loud, “Mullet boy enumerates.” Months later, while consulting a list of titles to select one for a newly written song (which ended up being called “Life-Size Stencils”), I found “Mullet Boy Enumerates” atop this very same list and vowed that I was going to write this song tonight, by gum. So later that night, I picked up my guitar, said “here goes,” and wrote the song in 30 minutes. It was coming so fast that I had to write the lyrics down on a notepad lying nearby; I used one sheet from the notepad for each of the song’s verses, and I still have them as mementos (hear it at http://www.myspace.com/thepersiansms).
“Tomorrow Wants to Extend” – This is one crazy story. Back when I taught freshman comp, in the midst of a grading marathon, I leaned back in my chair, resting my head, looking up at the ceiling. Except that, due to my location in the room, I ended up looking not at the ceiling but at the backside of a student’s folder (at the bottom of a stack of research papers, probably as yet ungraded), the lower third of which extended out beyond the shelf, which is why I could see it at all. On the folder’s backside was (nay, is – I still have the folder, am looking at it right now) written the following, in this layout:
Florida Power & Light
Wants to extend
I must have sat there for five full minutes staring at that phrase, wondering how a selfish, smug, agnostic fool like me could deserve such a gift. I still wonder, actually (hear it at http://www.myspace.com/thepersiansms.)
“Spasmatron” – Thank you, Alec Eiffel, thank you, for discarding this gem of a song and title into my grubby mitts. When Alec and I were in Men from Nantucket, he offered me the music to a song called “Spasmatron,” the vocal melody and lyrics for which he apparently no longer liked. The music kicked unholy ass, so I wanted to do something with it. After months of nothing at all, inspiration struck on my way to the Gulf Coast for a vacation. Following a pit stop in Hattiesburg, my family and I piled back in the car and headed south. My wife and daughter went immediately to sleep, and my mind started looking for something to do. For reasons unexplained, Alec’s song leaped to mind, and all of a sudden (or, as an old redneck boss of mine used to say, “all of the sudden”), words started coming. Fast. By the time we got to the hotel in Biloxi, I had written every word and sussed out the entire vocal line and had, in fact, been singing it all softly to myself for miles so as not forget what I’d wrought (no pen or paper, no confidence in my ability to use pen/paper and traverse Highway 49 safely, no desire to awaken the ladies). The nanosecond we got up to our room, I grabbed the hotel stationery and wrote down the words, and then I called our answering machine at home (no ubiquitous cell phones at that point, kiddies!) to make sure I’d remember the vocal melody. The song exists in more or less that very form to this day and is, in fact, one of the Persians songs people seem to like the most. Sadly, I no longer have the hotel stationery or the recording of my frantic late-night, long-distance phone call (hear clips of this song at CD Baby and iTunes).
“So Help Me Something” – I earlier called myself an agnostic, though the older I get “atheist” is a more apt description. My irreligiosity can be petty, and one manifestation of this is my tendency to avoid saying the word “god” in any oath or adage (I find replacing “god” with “Bob” to be particularly rewarding, partially in honor of one of my heroes, Guided by Voices founder Bob Pollard – “In Bob We Trust,” “A Mighty Fortress Is Our Bob,” etc.). Yet one day I subconsciously decided to replace the deity with an all-purpose placeholder, and out popped “so help me something,” followed in close succession by the vocal melody and the song’s structural idea (chorus first and immediate). All this came so fast I sang into the VoiceNote function on my cell phone for safekeeping and then spent several weeks fleshing out the rest of the song’s details. (BTW, I posted about this song on the Persians’ myspace blog – you can read that at http://blog.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.ListAll&friendID=44061880&MyToken=ffaca06d-b665-4b77-b27c-70499250f78fML; scroll to the entry for May 26, 2006.)
“Orange Is for Eyebrows” – My Persian drummer’s younger daughter is a hellacious artist, and one of her drawings had this phrase as its title. What I like most is that such a sunny creation helped spawn a most malevolent-sounding song. Yar.
“That Kind of Funny” – This is a weird one too. While listening to They Might Be Giants’ fantastic “kids’” album No! for the umpteenth time, I started focusing on just why I find these songs funny. During the very first song, “Fibber Island,” I homed in on a couplet that had always caught my attention: “Here on Fibber Island we have mittens in our hair / You might need to stare to see the mittens in our hair.” I find this pair of lines hilarious but not in a knee-slapping, ow-my-face-hurts kind of way; something about the bald-faced repetition, coupled with the question of whether these lines even can legitimately be said to rhyme since they’re mostly composed of the same fucking words, made me say out loud, to absolutely no one, “It’s funny, but not that kind of funny.” Later that night, I sat down to play guitar, and this song came pouring out, a slacking, smartassed tale of two people on the outs who crumple to an end over a cynically metaphoric card game. Probably one of my better compositions all around (hear it at http://www.myspace.com/johnbrocatomusic).
“Are You Wearing Argyle?” – I spent many, many undergraduate hours scribbling song lyrics inside notebooks while sitting in core courses devoid of all pedagogical objective. I’m semi-proud to say I’ve carried this tradition over into alleged grown-up life, using worthless “meetings” as opportunities to forge things from the smithy of my soul, etc. So it was that one day I sat in a meeting with my legs stretched out in front of me (we were in an auditorium), and I happened to get a peek at my argyle-patterned socks. For reasons I will probably never understand, I instantly had this vision of a Tim Gunn-type maven standing over me asking, with barely contained derision, “Are you wearing argyle?” I actually laughed out loud, and then I quickly sobered up and commenced to writing the song, which was finished by the end of the meeting. I even had tiny chord-change notations above the lyrics so I’d remember what I wanted my hands to do (hear it at http://www.myspace.com/johnbrocatomusic).
“Mallory-Free” – Wife said to sister-in-law, “So, how’s your brother doing?” Sister-in-law said, “Oh, he’s fine. He called me the other day to tell me he’s officially Mallory-free.” And I just sat there, outwardly mute but writing and strumming decisively inside (hear it at http://www.myspace.com/thepersiansms).
The “Sparkler” songs – This, in my not-so-humble opinion, makes for the best story of all. The music and ethos of Dayton, Ohio’s Guided by Voices (defunct since 2004) have had an incalculable influence on me, and one of my favorite direct effects comes from the 1996 GBV documentary Watch Me Jumpstart, in a scene where Bob Pollard discusses how he’s been writing songs his whole life (3000 total is his estimate at that point) and what the process is like. Pollard says when he was in high school, he used his yearbook to create bands and their oeuvre: he would cut out (with scissors!) head shots of people and put them together, and then he’d create album covers and liner notes, and then – for me, this is the critical part – he’d create song titles for the albums. And then he’d write those songs, which is supposedly how some of the best GBV songs came to be.
I cannot describe how much I love the idea of this process, and from the time I heard it I wanted to do it myself. So, while driving around in the summer of 2006, I got behind a car with a bumper sticker that read as follows:
GET IN SIT DOWN
SHUT UP HOLD ON
I thought two things: (1) What a stupid bumper sticker (yeah, like every other one’s a peach); and (2) What a kickass album title. I chewed on this for a few days, wrote down the bumper-sticker phrase, and (cue the Magic, the Mystery, the Honeydew Feeding) tried to let my mind pick the band name that would appear above and the song titles that would appear below the album title. I honestly don’t know how to explain the “tried to let my mind pick” thing; it’s sort of like seeing it on paper (through the, um, mind’s eye, etc.), but it most definitely involves a lack of effort – if I push too hard, the good stuff gets blown away. After 30-40 seconds of faux-clairvoyant not trying, what I had on the page was as follows:
Sparkler – Get In, Sit Down, Shut Up, Hold On
2. Being a Saint
3. Pony-Stolen Sickness
4. Sometimes a Ghost Is All You’ve Got
5. Football Blood
6. At Five in the Morning
7. Whose Notepad Are You?
8. Swing on By
9. Nobody Said You Couldn’t Say…
10. Lifetimes of Bionic Shyness
This I liked, but what happened next was even better. I’ve always let the muse come to me; this time I wanted to get all up in her ambrosia-sucking grill and shit. I made a solemn vow I would actually force myself to write these songs. (The only other time I’d forced myself to write was a country song called “Me and My Kind,” which went rather well.)
A week or 10 days probably went by before I could make time to attack this little project with the available time I hoped it would require. When the night came, I walked into the practice room, set down the Sparkler list in front of me, turned on my amp, strapped on my guitar, looked at the first song (“Welcome”), and began. About two minutes into the song, I stopped to turn on my recorder, because what was coming out seemed so good I was afraid of losing it all. I restarted “Welcome,” this time with the “record” button pressed, and when I was finished I began “Being a Saint,” again while recording. I performed these steps for every song on the list. After three hours, nine of them had discernible, sustainable content and structure, and six of them were damn near finished. I was amazed but cautious, since I was all too aware that a few hours could show me how good the new songs weren’t. Mais non – I woke up the next morning (unable, by the way, to remember from memory how any of those tunes went) and was ecstatically surprised to find that I thought all of the nine near-songs were keepers. Hell, more than that, really – I thought they were badass. Still do.
If memory serves, in two weeks I was totally done with the damn-near-finished six; I then made completed demos for my brother Persians, as always, and – happy day! – they liked them. We have since played them live many times. Some of these are available in raw demo form at http://www.myspace.com/johnbrocatomusic.
Since Sparkler, I’ve repeated this process several times in head and on paper but haven’t written the songs yet. My two favorites are below. The first is a band name inspired by GBV, whose song titles and lyrics provide me with a limitless supply of ideas: Kicker of Elves, my handle on this blog, is a GBV song title; I also occasionally gig as Ex-Supermodel, another GBV song that features a loud snore and the repeated lyric “So I write music for soundtracks now”; and the documentary title Watch Me Jumpstart is also a very excellent GBV song.
Sheetkickers – Daze of Wine and Poses
1. No Thunder
2. As You Were
3. Time Is In My Side
4. Hallowed Ground
5. Respectable Neighbor Society
7. Have You Ever Made a Mistake?
8. Be There When the Lights Go Out
9. Shorten It Up
10. Daze of Wine and Poses
11. Ask Around
12. There Is a Better Way
This second example just popped out last week. While reading Cormac McCarthy’s biblically awesome Blood Meridian, I stumbled upon several pristine phrases that I wrote down for future use, including “drygulch phantom,” “deputation of spastics,” and “Whitneyville colts.” This last phrase, which refers to a famous make of Old-West gun, really stuck in my head as a badass band name, and this badassedness peaked to a point last week where I spewed forth the following.
Whitneyville Colts – Berate This Place
1. Ancient Jazz
2. Berate This Place
3. Conqueror Worms (Are At It Again)
4. Dams Have No Soul
5. Executioner’s Revenge
6. False Confessions
7. Get ‘Em While They’re Warm
8. Happy for Me, Sad for You
9. I Can’t Explain No Satisfaction
10. Jesus Was a Tenor
11. Knock-Knock (Give Me Back My Underwear Blues)
12. Left at the Y
13. Malediction Forbidding Morning
I envision Whitneyville Colts as equal parts Johnny Cash, Josh Homme, and the Drive-By Truckers. I fully plan on recording these songs this coming summer.
OK, all done now.