We’re all songwriters

Jeff Tweedy, a songwriter and musician best known as the leader of the band Wilco , has written a ton of great songs. He’s also written a couple of books. His most recent is How To Write One Song.

If you aspire to be a songwriter, there’s plenty of useful info in the book. And if your goal is merely a single song, the same holds true. (Tweedy is wisely lowering the “barriers to entry” with his book’s title. Writing a single song seems much less daunting than becoming a songwriter.)

But even if you never want to put pen to paper and create a song, you’ll still find plenty of creative fodder in Tweedy’s breezy and engaging book.

It’s not really about songwriting, it’s about creativity, in all its forms. The songwriting angle is really just an interesting construct, a device to get us to embrace our inner creative kid and ignore the critics, both internal and external.

I love that advice. Seems like we’ve heard similar suggestions before, right? Ignore the haters. Do what you love. Do it out of love, not out of a search for approval or fame or fortune. Trust the process, don’t worry about the end result.

It seems so simple, yet it’s difficult to put in to practice. Because we’re scared to be vulnerable.

Here’s the money quote:

I’m convinced the dreams we have for ourselves go unattained from a lack of permission more than any deficit in talent or desire. And I’m going to stress that when I say “permission,” I mean the permission we withhold or give ourselves to pursue those dreams.

jEFF tWEEDY IN hOW TO wRITE oNE sONG

Check out Jeff’s book… then give yourself a little more permission. One song at a time.

Sweet dreams!

Jay Bennett-era Wilco was the best.

Down with crass commercialism, Up with People… still!

Happy Super Bowl Sunday! Today I’m posting an “encore presentation” (don’t you dare call it a rerun) of a post that originally appeared waaaay back in February of 2016. That was a whole different decade. A more peaceful era. A time when we could congregate in large groups and see the bottom halves of people’s faces. “Gee, ain’t it funny how time slips away…” 

I’m reposting it for three reasons:

  1. So the three people who read it back then can re-read it and chuckle anew (fingers crossed!). 
  2. So I can add the accent aigu to the e in Beyoncé. That grammatical faux pas has been haunting me for five years… neither Queen Bey nor Jay-Z has spoken to me since I published the original post. (OK, they didn’t speak to me before, either, but that was coincidence, and now it’s causality. Facts!)
  3. Because my feelings about halftime extravaganzas have not changed one whit.  (Don’t take it personally, The Weeknd… or is it Mr. The Weeknd? The Weeknd Guy? Sir The Weeknd?) In fact, I’m starting a Change.org petition to bring back Up With People. And I’m counting on all three readers of this blog to sign it. 

Please silence your cell phones, sit back, relax, and enjoy today’s encore presentation:

The Super Bowl to end all Super Bowls (at least until next year) is just a day away… and already I’m sick of the hype. Not the hype for the game – I’m oblivious to that after years of Roman Numerals being shoved in my face XXIV/VII (see what I did there?). I’m sick of the hype for the halftime show. Excuse me, I meant to say “The Greatest Halftime Spectacle In The History of The Universe” or whatever they’re calling this year’s gig. They went with the Chinese Restaurant menu approach this year – one from each column – Coldplay for the aging wannabe hipsters, Beyoncé for the soul sisters, and Bruno Mars for… well, pretty much everybody else. And of course they have a corporate sponsor, because there’s a sponsor for everything. I’m surprised they don’t say “This Geico commercial is sponsored by Bud Light.”

Call me an old fuddy duddy (merely typing that phrase makes me an old fuddy duddy) but I actually miss the early Super Bowls before the greedy tentacles of the NFL and advertisers hijacked the halftime show. For many years, the “entertainment” (using that term very loosely) was Up With People – a group of overly earnest teens singing easy listening versions of the day’s top hits. Sort of like an Osmond Family clone army. Sure they were super cheesy and super lame, but who cares? It’s halftime – time to reload on food and drinks.

Now that was quality entertainment! 

Punk Rock Prophets

I recently finished reading yet another band biography.

I barely qualify as a casual fan of Bad Religion, but if there’s a book about a punk rock band, any punk rock band, I’m eventually going to read it. This particular tome turned out to be quite interesting. Bad Religion has been around for 40 years, so there’s a lot of history to cover. The band’s lead singer has a PhD in Zoology and has taught at UCLA and Cornell. The guitarist co-founder also started — and still runs — a very successful indie record label called Epitaph.

The book came out last August. I was struck by how prescient a few of the band’s songs were. Check out this passage, about a couple of tunes that came out two years ago:

We certainly experienced “Chaos from Within” on January 6th of this year… and it was fueled by “the Paranoid Style.”

But not all Bad Religion songs are focused on American politics. Their lyrics touch on other heavy topics such as religion, society, the media, science… you name it.

Waaay back in 1996, they released an album called The Gray Race that sounded the alarm about the global crises that can only be averted if we realize that the survival of the human race calls for cooperation beyond national borders. “We’re all in this together…”

One track on that album, “Punk Rock Song” sums up the challenge quite well in its final verse:

It certainly gives us pause to ponder. Not bad for a song that’s less than two and a half minutes long.

Bad Religion released a new song last Thursday. 41 years into their career, they’re still challenging us to think for ourselves.

“I think the song really is a celebration of enlightenment values that can be cultivated through enthusiastic learning and open-mindedness,” says vocalist Greg Graffin in a statement.

“So often we’re told what to think. But learning how to think (as opposed to learning what to think) is a true feeling of emancipation from the constraints of indoctrination that are so commonplace in our society.”

Greg Graffin, Bad Religion

Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer

From an old article by Brian Doyle, republished this week in The American Scholar:

Can I ask you a strange favor? On Monday night, December 22, go outside with your kids, or your friends, or your neighbors, and start a bonfire… And when it is going well, when it’s leaping and steady and warmer than you remember bonfires being, stand around it with your friends or your loved ones, and tell stories, and laugh, maybe have a beer, maybe even sing a little.

Mr. Doyle asked us for that favor because Joe Strummer (musician, singer, songwriter, co-founder of The Clash) died on December 22, 2002.

his favorite thing to do was gather friends and family and make bonfires and stand around the fire telling stories and laughing and singing. 

Brian Doyle, in the article linked above.

My friend Kevin read the article recently, and was happy to oblige the request. He organized a firepit gathering at my neighbor Mark’s house on Tuesday night. We were a day late for Joe Strummer Day, but better late than never. It was a wonderful way to celebrate the spirit of a man who touched a lot of lives with his music and his stories.

I’ve read a lot of autobiographies from rock and rollers. Many of them include “the first time I met Joe Strummer” tales. And I’ve yet to read an unkind word about him. From all accounts, he was generous with his time, and liberal with his praise and encouragement.

Joe was only 50 when he passed away. The folks gathered around the fire on Tuesday have passed that milestone. I hope we’re able to keep Joe’s spirit burning brightly.

Think of it as a way to say hey to Joe Strummer, who was a good man, much missed; but think of it too as a way to honor what he cherished and savored in his own life: the way standing or sitting together matters, and telling stories matters, and laughing matters, and singing matters. That’s Joe Strummer’s true legacy, I think, more than the records he sold

Brian Doyle’s piece is quite short, and well worth the read. Mr. Doyle passed away in 2017. Like Joe, he left us with food for thought, with something to savor, with fond memories.

See you next December 22nd. Until then, keep the fire burning.

Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer
I think he might have been our only decent teacher

Lyrics from “Constructive Summer” by The Hold Steady

Semi-hillbilly and proud of it

When I three years old, my mom passed away. When I was six, my dad packed up his four kids (ages 9, 8, 6 and 4) and moved us from uber-urban Jersey City, New Jersey to really rural Hagarville, Arkansas. (Population: 300 if you count the cows.)

I like to call it a “reverse Beverly Hillbillies.” (Culturally, anyway… we never were rich.) I guess my dad wanted to get a fresh start of sorts.

I vividly remember the first day we went to our new home in Arkansas. The property was bordered on one side by a dirt road, and on another side by a cow pasture. There was a propane tank near the driveway… I thought it was a submarine. I got burrs in my socks from walking in the ankle-high weeds, and had no idea what they were. In some ways, I felt like I’d landed on another planet.

Like this, only with more chicken coops next door.

We gradually adjusted… I adopted the University of Arkansas Razorbacks as my college sports team, and I even had a slight Arkansas drawl when I moved away to go to college in Cincinnati.

But the “Land of Opportunity” never quite felt like home, mainly because we were “Yankees” and had no relatives within 600 miles in a place where so many of the ties that bind have to do with close kinfolk.

“Seems the land of opportunity for me is just a curse” – John Hiatt in “Tennessee Plates”

However, it was a good place for four motherless kids to grow up. We could be what I like to call “free range children.” Hiking, biking, fishing… exploring the world without adult supervision and learning more about self-reliance.

I’ve only been back once since 1985. Dad’s long gone, my siblings live elsewhere, and the house is slowly being reclaimed by nature (watch out for the burrs!). “There is no there there” as Gertrude Stein famously said.

But I still have a soft spot in my heart for The Natural State. It’s where I went from a boy to a… er, boyish man (and not a “Mannish Boy”).

So when I heard a new tune called “Arkansas” by Chris Stapleton, I got excited. Especially because it rocks.

When I worked as a lifeguard for a couple summers at the city pool in Morrilton, Arkansas, the city employee who managed the pool would switch the radio station playing on the P.A. system from rock to country… and I’d raise holy hell. I remember him telling me “when you get older, you’re gonna like country music.” I still don’t care for mainstream country music (a.k.a. “bro country”) at all, but Stapleton’s not mainstream.

“Arkansas” is on Chris’ new release, which is really good from start to finish. The album is called Starting Over. That reminds me of Arkansas too.

The Tom Petty Diet

You hear a lot about “eating clean” these days.

But what are you feeding your brain? Check out this clip from the Broken Record podcast — it’s an episode with Tom Petty’s daughter Adria, and she talks about how her dad fed his brain and nourished his soul:

I love that clip! First of all, I love Tom Petty, and I think this clip helps explain how he was able to continue to make great music for 40 years.

“He would feed the well with only this really, really good information, and take all the rest away. He didn’t really take a lot of noise and negativity into his diet.”

Adria Petty, talking about her father Tom

[Semi-sidebar: The Broken Record podcast is great if you’re a music fan. You’ll find interviews with established artists like Bruce Springsteen and Santana, and up-and-coming artists like S.G. Goodman and Deep Sea Diver. If you’re a Tom Petty fan, you’ll love the episode with Adria, as well as the interviews with Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. Check it out.]

Even if you’re not an aspiring rock star, there’s a lot to learn from TP on how to “eat clean” for your mind, your heart and your soul. It’s way too easy to binge on empty calories… endlessly snacking (or doomscrolling) on tweets, spending hours at the all-you-can-eat Facebook buffet, sucking down pop culture listicles, stuffing yourself with “reality” TV, bellying up to the 24/7 news bar. There are countless temptations that can consume endless hours of your time on earth, and they mostly just weigh you down with “noise and negativity” as Adria put it.

Instead, take a cue from Tom Petty, and read a good book, watch a classic movie or a documentary, listen to some great music.

If you eat clean, you’ll feel better.

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