This Is What It Is

So far on this Break From Most Everything, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what to do this year, writing-wise, and all I’ve come up with is something that was starting to nag me as 2006 waned to a close. In fact, it was nagging me so much that I almost made it my New Year’s resolution, in spite of the fact that every year I traditionally resolve not to make any New Year resolutions.

That “thing” is to take my music seriously in 2007.

I’d say here are a lot of reasons for the decision, but, in much the same manner that my subconscious “picks” the next book project as I wrap up the one in progress, so it picked songwriting for 2007.

Can’t say that I blame it. My writing has stalled out for the moment. There are a lot of factors at work in why it has, and most of them have already been mentioned in these pages, many of them unto death – so I won’t rehash them here. There are some new ones, too, like the computer. The hard drive of the iBook ceased to exist a couple of weeks ago. Luckily I had a bootable backup on a Firewire hard drive, and it boots from that. I was able to gain access to salvage the most recent documents by booting up the Mac OS install disc, but haven’t had time since to see if I could get the drive working again.

So at this point in my life, writing has become less a goal and more like a hobby that I no longer have much time or patience for. Kind of like having a bass boat taking up space in your garage. I’m sure I’ll go back to it, but right now I feel like I need a break1.

The music, on the other hand, is quite economical by comparison. I’ve had songs fall into place in as little as an hour or two (of course I’ve had some that I’ve worked on for years and still don’t have right). Going to an open mic night to play might consume one evening – unlike a novel, it doesn’t need an extended series of successive evenings in order to get to a decent stopping spot.

Plus, my wife thinks my songs need to be out there so they can get put into movies, or so someone like Travis Tritt can cover them. I never really thought of myself as writing country songs – at best I thought I’d be classified at Alternative Folk (although maybe a better description would be Annoying Folk).

Anyway, these are the things that have been on my mind. I even came up with a plan for Taking The Music Seriously In ’07 that looks something like this:

  1. Getting some kind of recorded version, even if it’s just me on the acoustic guitar in a one-track take, of all the songs I’ve finished writing up to this point (I’ve got about 40).
  2. Going through my song notebooks, making a list of all of the “mostly finished” songs, then going through and finishing them. And recording some version of them, of course (I don’t know how many of these there are).
  3. Digging out my instruction books and seriously work on improving my guitar skills. I don’t know if I’ll ever successfully play barre chords, but there’s lots of open chords up and down the fretboard, too.
  4. Start playing out again2. After all, what’s the point of doing all of this songwriting stuff if not to get them out there somehow? Besides, my musical mentor Henry J says that “You don’t really know a song. even if it’s one you’ve written, until you play it live.” And there’s a lot of wisdom in that.
  5. Perhaps getting some equipment to help the process along a bit. I have lots of candidates: a travel acoustic guitar; a nice electric for recording; some kind of inexpensive keyboard I can use to play bass and drum parts when recording; an acoustic guitar amplifier with a mike and stand so I have my own small live sound system. All this, of course, is easier thought of than paid for.
  6. Doing something about my singing voice, be it with this book or something – or someone – else.

So now maybe you’re thinking, yeah, this is a really nice list, but what are you doing about it? Well, let’s see. I’m trying to save my change in a jar for something on the #5 list; I’m hoping to make the list I talked about in #2 later tonight; I dug out my recorder to inventory what songs I had recorded but not documented for #1. My wife has offered to help me with #6 – she’s a great (and a well-trained) singer. Oh, and for #4, I played at Muggswigz on Tuesday night.

It was kind of an odd thing, really. The first and only time I played there, some 15 months ago, I described it as feeling like slow motion. That didn’t happen this time. Instead, I got the other-worldly feeling around the time that I decided to go down and play. It was like something deep inside me was pushing me to do it, and I looked for all sorts of excuses to talk myself out of it. But my feet moved forward almost on their own, and before I knew it, I was sitting with Henry J, waiting for my turn, tanking up on soothing Spearmint tea.

I’d planned for four songs, not knowing that this was the number you were allowed to play – but I ended up only doing three. I didn’t want to push my luck. Even though my first performance was 15 months in the past, this one was easier. I felt like I had better control over what I was doing, and this time only my legs seemed to be shaking. Maybe they didn’t have enough to do (like just the very act of standing wasn’t enough).

I opened with the song I closed with last time, Dirty Old Rabbit. I lost the first couple of lines because I forgot that you have to have your lips just a few microns from the surface of the particular microphone they have in order to be heard. Tip number two for me: Breath control. I’d sing a line, exhale, then inhale for the next line. Problem was, when I exhaled, I breathed right onto the mike due to the proximity, creating a windy sound. Okay, got to work on that.

After the first song, I stole a joke from Tom Lehrer (“For my first encore…”), then went into Another Year. I kept thinking my vocals were way off on this one, but Henry J told me later that I sounded fine. Sounds like I have some mental gremlins to get out of my system.

Then I finished with One More Cigarette. Botched the chords near the end, but I remembered Henry J telling me the first piece of advice he ever got before playing out – “No matter what happens, keep playing”3 – so I did, and got through to the end.

I think that took care of the terror part, because once I sat down, I thought, Okay, if they get through everyone and ask for people to go up and do one more, I’ll go. That wasn’t the case, but on the other hand, my brain is making moves for me to go back and play four more songs next Tuesday, and I don’t find myself trying to back out of it at all.

So. A big step for me. A big big step. But in a way, it’s just a baby step, isn’t it?

See you next Tuesday, maybe.

Listening: Johnny Cash, Luther Played the Boogie (The Essential Johnny Cash 1955-1983)


1 Although actually, it’s not so much a break from the writing as it is a break from trying to find time to write when there’s so much else going on in a moment. I’ll be living in a different world a year from now.

2 Not that I ever really started playing out, with only one previous coffeehouse appearance.

3 Although he was given that advice more in dealing with things happening in the place where he was playing, e.g., fistfights, sudden nudity, stabbings, fires, etc.

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