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Excerpt from Songwriter's Notebook (12/31/06)

4 January 2007

Sometimes I’m so amazed by the infinite possibilities of songwriting, moreso than I am by the equally infinite possibilities of arranging a song with a band for performances and/or recording, let alone getting gigs and all. Songwriting can become such an obsession that there’s times in my life when I must force myself to turn it off; it can even get in the way of practicing my instruments (piano and voice)—for even though I often feel my songs come off better when performed with more rawness and simplicity than I find in most of my contemporaries, I do at times enjoy listening to and learning from other musicians who have a lower threshold of tolerance for the musically simpler and rawer sounds that often are enough for me to get off on.

That is one of the great things about working with other musicians, and one of the reasons I’m really excited about reforming CONTINUOUS PEASANT (or perhaps a band with a different brand name) in 2007, a band that take more risks as a band, that has more time to really work out a sound, that would in a way be much more democratic. Oh, I’d still have to be the songwriter and at least one of the vocalists, but I’d like there to be more songs that come out of grooves and improvisation, more instrumentals and jams that would allow and demand the other musicians to feel like more than a kind of backup band. I say ‘allow and demand,’ because the previous lineups of Continuous Peasant let themselves fall into the rut of pretty much coming up with a ‘signature sound’ for performances, while some of the best moments we had in the rehearsal space, at least for me, never translated into the performance. I wouldn’t be wasting ink in The Big Takeover bringing this up if I didn’t think it was an issue that plagues many more ‘celebrated’ bands today. But I’ll save my thoughts on band reformation for another day.

What I really wanted to get out today was how my own songwriting (or at least the way I conceived it) changed in various ways when I started doing more solo performances of my originals during 2006, songs that I have not yet begun to record. As I sat at my electric piano (still not able to afford regular access to an acoustic piano), working on new songs, instead of imagining guitar parts, basslines, or vocal arrangements, or hearing the drums in my head, or imagining them with my whole body, etc., I tried to imagine nothing but my voice and the piano. Working with a more limited palette, I started writing songs that I felt didn’t need a band so much; in fact, it started to seem that any band I’ve been able to find could very well hurt the songs—though ideally that isn’t necessarily true, but I think if I didn’t believe in that fiction for awhile I couldn’t have written songs that came off better in passionate solo performance than I felt my “band songs” did (it also allowed me to realize other ways to perform the “band songs” I wrote for, and performed with, Continuous Peasant, not that I wanted to do too much of that).

Though my songs may have never been all that complex before, I now found myself wanting or needing to make them musically even simpler—-partially out of expediency, because I’m more free to play more complex piano parts when I’m sharing the musical and/or vocal duties than I am when I play as a one-man-band (unless the song’s an instrumental). Yet, it wasn’t just a simplifying for the sake of performance, but a feeling that honing my chops by writing songs for the band I “fronted,” songs with verses and choruses and middle eights, and more non-verbal musical interludes, I, like many other musicians I know, had lost the immediacy of the source of the creative moment. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself; I’m still proud of what we’ve done in that mode, but since I’m amazed by the infinite possibilities of songwriting, I began to feel held back, that maybe it had become too much a formula.

Any good musician or songwriter knows there must be a balance between the restless energies unleashed by the infinite and a need for some kind of formula (and this is true across the spectrum of music; as true for say JOHN COLTRANE as for LEONARD COHEN, as true for JAMES BROWN as for THE BEATLES, etc)—-but one of the things that’s most liberating as one continues working as a songwriter/musician is that feeling that one can allow oneself to make public songs and sounds that one wouldn’t have before professionally recording at least fifty of them. And today, I’m excited by a song that came to me while taking a relatively short walk in downtown Oakland. Since the accident, I’ve probably squandered too much energy and time bemoaning the fact that I will never be able to walk like I used to—but sometimes something, oh you can call it ‘‘inspiration’ or ‘the body,’ ‘god’ or a ‘hot chick’ or a ‘certain slant of light,’ or whatever—-just snaps, and says ‘enough!’ in a laugh or a song. And today, while walking, I just started singing, and it was beautifully careless. But even though it was kind of unconscious, like not worrying what people sitting on benches, or other walkers, think or feel (many are wearing headphones anyway), about this singing freak, it wasn’t like I wasn’t performing too.

I’m also often amazed that it’s so rare that I ever see someone singing outdoors, or at their jobs, yea’ e’en in the marketplace! But it’s great when it happens, even if it’s only a cover version, or even if the person sings out of tune. Hell, I used to do it when I was 12 years old while I delivered newspapers! Not as much lately, even before the accident, but why? Because I had become the professional, honing those raw simple a cappella melodies into well-crafted songs, running back home to remember them or sometimes I’d take a portable taperecorder on those walks (and, yes, a lot of my best songs came when I was riding a public swingset), figuring out chords that could accompany them on the piano, writing pages and pages of revised lyrics (though some of those ‘dummy lyrics’ were amazing if I could remember them), to make it art!

Yet, today, here I was, and I felt the source came to me with a different kind of force that I feel needs to be honored, and incorporated into my art, even if only for the sake of a single song. Oh, it’s not necessarily more ‘naked’ than the songs that come when I’m sitting or standing at the piano, and right now I’m thinking I wouldn’t want to perform it strictly as an a cappella song (which JACQUES DERRIDA would call “phallogocentric,” uh huh), but that it could benefit from being cleaned up, ‘refined,’ etc. But it’s a really simple, repetitive, melody, sort of country, sort of folk, or gospel, in that there’s a feeling of simple affirmation that came out in the words too, though I wouldn’t want to publish them only on the page. Overthinking too many revised words to make it deeper ain’t going to do justice to this song. I don’t even think trying to come up with a ‘middle part,’ and ‘sparing the listener’s ears’ the potential boring tedious burden of ballad-like repetition is something I should worry about, with this particular song at least. Oh, I could always make it shorter, like two minutes, in performance and for recording, but the point is I personally got at least as excited by this simple ‘roots music’ tune as I got from all my more crafted tunes. It was so “anti-sleepist,” as BRYAN FERRY would sing, and despite what the false conscience of the ‘industry’ would say, it gave me a thrill, and my faith is that if it gives me a thrill, it will give others a thrill too. And I feel this simple song becomes some moral imperative (though by saying that, I don’t mean to take the joy out of it by sounding all pompous).

Yes, someday, maybe very soon (life is short), I may have to organize a lake-walk concert, and take out an ad to get people to join me for a lake-walk sing that wouldn’t be ‘communal’ in a boring “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” kind of way, but be more individual-based, with everybody singing different songs, like maybe they do in the shower, or maybe street-corner doo-wop bands (as in that beautiful anecdote LAURA NYRO tells about how she got her start) will make a comeback—-not necessarily as a replacement for THE STROKES or JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE singing ‘Dick in a Box’ on Saturday Night Live or Youtube, but as a viable co-existing option. In the meantime, this song has given me a lot to think about, a lot to live for. In a way, the lake and the sun and the sky may have written it, and even though it’s dark and I’m indoors and my voice is shot from singing it so loudly on my walk, I’m going to go back to it now.


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