On Butler University campus, cavernous Clowes Hall serves as Indianapolis’ Official Home of Random Culture on Tour. We’ve seen a heterogeneous set of performances there, from Ladysmith Black Mambazo to Ed Asner in Born Yesterday to some Japanese Drummers to Les Mis to David Sedaris.
I have a mental malfunction in which the main way I approach enjoyment of any performance is through the fantasizing eyes of an introverted extrovert, as if I were the one up there performing, or the author of the piece being performed. Why, I could write a musical; I could write a play—I could write a book and read from it!
“Tonight when we get home I’ll get started,” I secretly plan to myself as I offer my applause.
When I was a 6th grader learning Elton John songs on the piano, I used to practice the beautiful chord progression against the soaring melody of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” or that wonderful weird augmented B-minor 7th that gets pounded out in 4/4 at the beginning of “Bennie and the Jets.” As I played these, or the songs I’d make up, I’d imagine a vast, appreciative crowd out to my right, just beyond the edge of the conjured stage the dining room had become.
Basically I am a pathological dreamer, with a vaguely pathetic desire to perform. Or have my stuff performed.
Bravissimo! you would all say.
Thank you very much.
So this particular evening at Clowes, four chairs sat in simple pools of light. Out walked Guy Clark, Joe Ely, John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett. They sat down.
They were having A Guitar Pull.
Each played one song, usually with some commentary or story leading into it. We would all applaud, then the next one on down the line would go. Each songwriter ended up playing four or five songs.
Lyle served as sort of the host of the evening. The others seemed somewhat shy—even John Hiatt, who grew up in Indianapolis and had a built-in hometown advantage and the only truly mainstream radio songs of the four performers that evening. Lyle affected jealousy when John lit into “Thing Called Love.”
Then at one point, Lyle asked the somewhat grumpy Guy Clark, “Guy? I wonder if you’d tell us about the Nashville tradition of the guitar pull.”
“What about it?” said Guy. He was gruff enough that it seemed less like banter and more like he was irritated at being singled out.
“Well…” said Lyle, and paused long enough that we all laughed, sympathetic to his discomfort dealing with irascible Mr. Clark. “Nothing, I guess. I was just thinking it was something you knew a lot about.”
“What’s there to know?” said Guy. He relented. “Some people say it started at Tootsie’s, a bar across the alley from the Ryman Auditorium where the Grand Ol’ Opry used to be. After the show, writers would go in the back room there and pass a guitar around.”
Lyle accepted the brief explanation and the evening continued.
Of course, I imagined sitting up there to the left of Lyle in a fifth light pool.
One Saturday night in Nashville, after the first seminar where I played demo recordings of my songs for publishers, the seminar leader had us all back to her house for beers and a guitar pull.
At this point in the story, if I’m telling it within earshot of my wife, she shivers. She pales at the notion of having someone hand you a guitar with the expectation that you’ll sing a song you wrote. “Is everybody paying attention to me? I’m going to sing to you! Something I wrote one day! I’m certain that it’s good and you’ll enjoy the experience of looking at me while I perform!” The idea makes her a little queasy.
But I was ready.
Around the circle the guitar came. Each seminarian did a song for the rest of us. I was somewhere in the middle, so by the time it was handed to me—or, I guess, by the time I pulled the guitar from the hands of the person to my immediate right—the group was warmed up.
One of the songs I’d played for the publishers was a “fun song” I’d written while on vacation with the family. My sister-in-law had traveled in our minivan with us and would watch our kids while my wife and I walked on the beach. We were strolling along, looking across a bay at a little wild tropical island state park while the kids played safely by the waves in front of our rented pink stucco budget condo, my in-law reading a beach novel and keeping an eye on them. “It’s almost paradise,” one of us said, with an undercurrent of irony. Then the hook just appeared: “Yeah. It’s paradise lite.”
Sometimes it just happens like that.
So I wrote “Paradise Lite.”
Basically it’s some funny couplets (“Well, we wanna go Jamaican/But I used all my vacation” or “Is that Jimmy on the phone? Is/He bringing the Coronas?”) and a catchy little chorus where you draw the “ah” of “almost” out in a sing-songy melody: “It’s ah-ah-al-most paradise/It’s Paradise Lite.”
The publishers were lukewarm on it. They see a lot of ditties in the course of their day. “This line?” said one publisher, singling out the phrase that kicks off the chorus. He found my eyes—which is always disconcerting—and said in a low, calm tone, “This line here, ‘Bring your friend, her friend and a blender’…? That’s real good.” By which I assume he meant the rest of it was just okay.
I’m still pleased with it. The rest of the seminar attendees were supportive.
So when my turn came that night at the guitar pull, I launched in. And by God (and I’m talking about the God that certainly at times like this must be in Heaven—the capital H Heaven), it was glorious. It was a frozen moment, Michel Gondry cinematography, the room of fifteen or twenty people singing along with me as I executed the straining warble I resort to in situations where “singing” is required—the lot of them belting out the chorus and harmonizing like a choir on the “ah-ah-ah” of “almost.”
Who was that with the basic Mel Bay Guitar Method chords and chunka-chunka strum pattern in the middle of it all? Why, it was me, singing and playing a song I wrote, accompanied by a group of twenty talented backup singers!
I have never felt as happy in a situation that did not involve my wife or kids in some way.
Probably I should have written another, separate check above and beyond the seminar fee just to express my gratitude.
And if Lyle Lovett ever asks me about the Nashville Tradition of the Guitar Pull, I’ll cheerfully tell him everything I know.