Just had a birthday. Yay me. Assuming medical advance-makers receive adequate funding the next few years, I can still pretend this is mid-life.
More than enough time for crises.
When I turned 30, my wife dug up cookbooks from the year I was born and found recipes to fix a group of our friends — and they were hilarious: I’m old enough that “fancy” recipes from that year are wildly unhealthy, calling for Spam here and Jell-O there, illustrated with lurid, over-saturated color photography. Each course brought down the house as she emerged with it from the kitchen. She slayed. What a night. What a great night.
A few days later she and I were walking near my office downtown. I was feeling ancient (apparently, I will always think “Ugh, I’ve gotten old without doing everything I wanted to by now”).
“Let’s go in and have a drink,” she suggested as we passed vintage jazz-bar and local treasure The Chatterbox, a hole-in-the-wall-ish almost-a-dive where, somewhat surprisingly, my ambitious friend and bandmate John had managed to book our jazzless rock band a few times.
“Sure,” I said. “Good idea.”
I’m a winter child, so entering a warm bar a few days after my birthday involves glasses-unfogging and coat-removing. Eventually I glanced around — hey, look! A couple of friends from work, waving. Should we sit with them? Wait, there’s your friend Robin! What a coincidence. Oh wow, a friend of mine from high school is up at the bar. And — and my accordion is onstage, leaning against a mike stand. Our band is set up to play The Chatterbox!
Yeah, I have an amazing wife. You’re jealous.
Couple sets, beers, applause. Another great night.
Ten years later, on my fortieth, we un-hiatus-ed the band to play the Chatterbox again. This affair was more modest — well-attended, well-enough-performed, not an amazing surprise like last time but enjoyable enough. Couldn’t stay too late since we’d hired a babysitter who had school the next day. Afterward, we bandmates were talking to Dave the owner and one of us said, “That was fun! We should do it again.” And Dave laughed, “Yeah!… maybe in another ten years!!!” We all laughed with him, hahahaha, but even now, typing this, I can’t say if Dave meant that literally or was jus’ joshing.
We took him literally. Calendar pages fell. When I hit a half-century, we called back.
By now, I had some country songs to play at the jazz bar.
Thinking of these as “singer-songwriter nights” and knowing a ten-year build-up would mean somewhat-pent-up demand, Dave agreed — we got the band back together again-again. So much fun.
In the Chatterbox is a beautiful upright piano, glossy, well-tuned, percussively responsive and a joy to play. It makes me sound better than I am. Recently I realized that as time, dammit, flies, I miss playing that piano.
So I violated the ten-year cycle and, a few months ago, wrote Dave an email suggesting a recurring showcase for songwriters. We’d call it “Song Shop.” My friends and I would be the house band and invite a series of songwriters to join us. Guest and band would trade originals, like a Nashville guitar pull, and “talk shop” about the writing process.
We’ve had two so far.
Hard to get my friends to talk about their songs, actually. Turns out.
Shop talk at The Song Shop!
I even wrote a theme song. Would you like to hear the first verse, chorus and pre-chorus (also known as the “lift,” where you build and build the suspense and release it with the chorus, which songwriting instructor Barbara Cloyd imagines as pulling back a rubber band and letting it go)?
First Verse: “Sittin’ in a circle, playing a song/Nobody knows if we’re playing it wrong/’Cause we made it up, so whatever we play/That’s how that song goes today”
Lift: “You’ve wandered in to The Song Shop/Is this your first time to The Song Sho — [draw this note out in preparation for jumping up to a much higher note in the chorus] — op?”
Chorus: “Gonna keep playing till we get real old/With our beer warmin’ up and our coffee gettin’ cold/Tryin’ to learn the changes and we never wanna stop/With our beer warmin’ up and our coffee coolin’ off/Feel free to browse The Song Shop”
Write what you know, they say. So I wrote about getting older. Learning the changes. Warming beer. Cooling coffee. Yeah.
Some of us just write songs and play them for people because that’s what makes sense. To us.
One of “us” is my friend Elizabeth in Nashville. I call her friend because I met her one time, we seemed to appreciate each other, she’s about my age, we have mutual acquaintances, we chat on Facebook and play Words With — yes — Friends.
Elizabeth has written and co-written songs that get on the radio (on Facebook she described getting a massage and as she tried to relax, a song she co-wrote came out of the radio at the spa, sung by her co-writer, the artist. Her post was teasing him that his voice was an invasion of her space at that moment).
She’s got Nashville cred and chops.
I, of course, still, have neither.
Another thing Elizabeth and I have in common, it seems to me, is an ongoing struggle not to become weary and intolerant of Nashville. Now and then I boast that modern country doesn’t bother me — that I hear the twangy pop-pap coming from the radio in the same way I hear the manufactured Hit Parade hits from before I was born, many of which are now held up as American Standards. Those old songs — older than me! — can be enjoyed ironically, yes, but also sincerely. Yet they’re the ones Orwell had in mind when he described their composition in 1984:
“The tune had been haunting London for weeks past. It was one of countless similar songs published for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department. The words of these songs were composed without any human intervention whatever on an instrument known as a versificator. But the woman sang so tunefully as to turn the dreadful rubbish into an almost pleasant sound.”
I know, I know: You imagine a similar production process for the betcher-boots-I’m-smalltown/country-truck-mud-girl-beer-summer night-kickin’ back songs that have been haunting America for years past.
Honestly, these simple screeds of noun-saying do seem to be composed by the versificator, though I’ve discovered it’s harder than it seems to actually write one. But I do find them wearying. A bit? Yes. Two bits, even.
Here’s a Facebook post of Elizabeth’s from the other night: “I’m in bro country hell…”
Her Facebook friends replied with stuff like “Aren’t we all????”
Apparently she was at one of the bars in Nashville where writers get up to perform their songs — stages where songwriters strip the studio sheen off familiar hits, exposing a song’s joists and beams with nothing more than a guitar, mike and a few words of introduction.
These Nashville bars are true Song Shops. The original Song Shops.
She described what was happening: “A couple of 20 something millionaire songwriters playing a round of hit songs that always make me change the station. But it was a live show so I couldn’t…”
A friend of hers typed, “[song note emoji] dirt roads! Jacked up trucks! Blue eyes. (Which means white girls!) then let’s list off everything else we see around us! Boom. [money bag emoji] [sideways laugh emoji]” Elizabeth replied, “You got that [money bag emoji] right. I probably heard 7 or 8 #1 songs in that round. But also in the bag — [poop emoji]”
Another of her friends said, “I thought that was over! Say it ain’t so!” and Elizabeth replied, “When you’ve written a ton of bro hits, you play them forever…”
My band friend John, who got us those original gigs at the Chatterbox, hates when I play old songs. He wants me to write new ones. That’s a gift he gives fellow songwriters: he enthusiastically appreciates almost any song you write, then expects you to write another. Years ago, I remember suggesting our band cover Camper Van Beethoven’s “Shut Us Down” because I love writer David Lowery’s line, “I got some funny ideas about what sounds good.” “Aw, write your own song about that,” said John. I’ve been trying ever since.
John’s going to be the featured guest at a Song Shop someday.
Our last guest at the Song Shop was Joey, who works for Fort Wayne City Utilities and studied poetry at Indiana University (according to Facebook). He used to write songs and play guitar in one of those so-close-to-national-fame-but-not-quite bands, Johnny Socko. For our show Joey wrote a song about the solar eclipse that happened earlier in the week. A beautiful, mysterious song. We played it together, bringing it into the world as if it were a strange little mammal. We tenderly cleaned it off and held it up for everyone to see. People clapped. We moved to the next song.
Currently Joey is trying to write a song a week and post it on Facebook. Similarly, recently, Wade from Houston — a guy I’ve become social-media-penpals with because he started emailing me after this column started — re-posted on Facebook the homemade video of a great song he wrote a few years ago during his own song-a-week project.
A song a week! Such an ambitious, solemn pledge. Forcing finishing.
Imagine having 52 songs after a year. Then — well, what?
What do you do with a done song? Play it for other people, I guess. Should you ask those people for money? Um, maybe? How, where, when, who?
There’s no Etsy for songs.
Nashville is my Etsy.
But — what if everybody shopping one’s Etsy store is browsing for a bro-country song? I don’t have any bro-chandise. Right now, I’d rather work some more on Joey’s ethereal eclipse song.
Though if you can bear to turn on country radio, after a period of adjustment you find there are still a variety of songs coming from Nashville. I suppose there’s enough Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building-esque pros at work down there, like Elizabeth.
Pros over bros.
Later in Elizabeth’s Facebook discussion, someone says, “Let’s write one [sick green face emoji]!” She replied, “I was a staff writer for four years at the height of it. I’ve written more bro turds than I care to admit- and if one had gotten cut and bought me a house well I guess I’d be playing it every chance I could… [emoji with dollar sign eyes and sticking out a green tongue]” Later she said, “I am in to write a great song nobody would cut in a million years.” That comment got four likes and a heart.
I think Elizabeth should come to a Song Shop. All my Nashville friends should.
Then, quietly, if one of our “great,” presumably un-cuttable songs can subtly obey Nashville songwriting format expectations while remaining true to itself, maybe it’d be unassailable and saleable?
Unassailable and saleable!
But no. That’s not the spirit of Song Shop. The song is meant for the moment it’s performed. The merchandise only exists while we’re playing it. We get together, learn each other’s stuff, chat about it, 2, 3, 4…
Nobody knows if we’re playing it wrong.
Whatever we play, that’s how that song goes today!
Sic semper tyrannis! We do what we want! Yeah!
[pauses, gets text from bank that the account is overdrawn and funds should be added before close of business, becomes aware of ticking clock in background, sips beer, notices the beer is getting warm]
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