Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Looking Back, Looking Forward

It's time once again to take stock of my year and set goals for a new one. I'm exhausted just typing that sentence. Many of you probably do the same thing on New Year's Eve. We torture ourselves needlessly and try to put a smiley face on our accomplishments the way Mrs. Walker did in second grade.

This past year I started a blog, finished a new CD, played about 60 concerts, gave several seminars, became a grandfather, made a couple new friends, wrote only two songs I really like, read a few good books and learned how to grow orchids. I have a friend who bought a few houses for nickels on the dollar and invested a million in bargain stocks. My net worth plummeted, if you can call a nosedive off the low board a "plummet". I have another friend who finally got that college degree she's always wanted. My wife keeps suggesting that I go back to school to get one of those framed pieces of paper but I have ADD when it comes to things like tests and practical knowledge. I'm only able to learn useless skills like orchid growing, and unimportant facts such as: a "jiffy" is the time between alternating current power cycles (1/60 or 1/50 of a second). Try to teach me to prepare a business plan or speak French and I fidget uncontrollably until the chair collapses.

I want to write a book next year. It doesn't have to be a long book, just 120 pages or so. It can be heavily illustrated. When I consider the fact that I put off recording most of my best songs for 20 years, it seems unlikely that I'll write a best seller. Money sees me coming and crosses the street. Fame is like a rented tuxedo that I wore one night and spilled salsa on so I can't rent it again. Not that money and fame bring happiness, they just have certain perks that would make my life more convenient. For example I could pay all my bills and get a new pair of glasses in the same decade, or I could stop getting calls from the NSAI in Nashville asking me if I'd like to have my songs evaluated by one of their professionals.

I chose this life, my wife always reminds me. Yeah, I say, but I was too young to have all that responsibility. Someone should have said, "You don't want to be 54 years old selling songs for nine cents apiece do you?" That might've been a wake up call. They should've stopped me before I spent thousands of hours making steel wires vibrate on a wooden box. How was I supposed to know I'd get paid $150 per night to sing for people in 1972 and $150 to sing for more people in 2008? A migrant orange picker gets a raise. A guitar picker gets permission to park near the dumpster.

This year flew by. I covered a lot of miles on the road and most of them also flew by. I should be a duck. Did you know that a duck's quack doesn't echo? I know things like that. Wish I could get paid better for these things I know. Do you need someone to vibrate wire on a wooden box cheap?

We have much to look forward to in the coming year. I'm very interested in what our president elect will do starting January 21. I'd like to see some people on Wall Street go to jail. I'd like to find out why the CEOs of Ford think the solution to Detroit's problems is cars that park themselves. I want Rush Limbaugh to actually talk to God and get his facts straight. I'd like to wake up one morning and see the headline: Blogojevich Spontaneously Combusts. I'd be thrilled to find out that Arne Duncan has read "Outliers" and wants to reform the entire education system in America. I would like to listen to Ozzie Osborne filibuster in the Senate. I'd like to see Kevin Federline get a bigger hat.

Here are some wonderful things I'll miss in 2009. I won't get to see the Mets and Yankees play baseball in those great old parks. There will be no new Paul Newman or Heath Ledger films, no more Freddie Hubbard solos, or Arthur C. Clarke novels. There will be no more enlightened Sunday Mornings with Tim Russert. George Carlin won't make me laugh at the latest culture craze. And, although this one only matters to me, I won't get to do a show at The Arts Scene with my late compadre Robert Hazard.

But there will be a few improvements in 2009. Bush will be gone, and not a moment too soon. We won't see another haughty young blond drinking Zima at the bar. If you go to Starbucks, you can just get coffee and not feel guilty for passing up the CD bin because it will soon be gone. You won't step in Volcano Taco toppings on the sidewalk. You won't see any more bewildered husbands being dragged into Linens 'N Things.

I take my blessings where I find them. I have a loving family and a roof over my head, and these are not given things anymore. I still live a creative life. I don't need an iphone or a Lexus to make me happy. I have a few intelligent, interesting, funny friends who always say the right thing at the right time. I have reasonably good health. I can cook. And it's no small miracle that I'm still here to wish you the best year of your life in 2009.

copyright 2008 craig bickhardt

Friday, December 12, 2008

Got Real?

"I always wanted to be a musician," the woman wearing the retail apron in the TV commercial says. She's referring to Rock Band, or Guitar hero, or some other video game that her family has discovered. "Now our family is always together!" another woman exclaims in delight as we see the living room "band" jamming in front of a TV. It's very gratifying to me, as a musician who has struggled for 40 years, to know that it's so much easier to play the guitar now that Wii has eliminated the need for practice.

Let's all stay home and be musicians! Why not? Should we be cynical just because MTV Games brought us Rock Band the video toy? I mean, wasn't it already obvious that MTV was for juvenile cretins who thought Beavis and Butthead were hysterical? Is it so terrible that MTV has now abandoned almost all content that features genuine music in it's programing and turned to home gaming?

I see a future where we each get our own TV network complete with a video game. We'll be able to broadcast ourselves and we'll be scheduled for 15 minutes of fame during which our network will link nationally with everyone else's network. Everyone will vote on whether your fame was worth watching, and you won't even have to do something special. You could maybe just scratch yourself in a funny way and be voted Funniest Scratcher.

In this era of Famous Me, I've noticed that there's quite a large crowd of talentless people trying to cram into the spotlight. Forgive me if I ponder for a moment whether the genuine and deserving talent runs the risk of being overlooked.

If this isn't bad enough, my friend Nathan Bell points out that we musicians face even more competition from Actors and other celebrities who have somehow decided that acting and celebrity-hood isn't enough, they must also be recording artists.

Nathan says, "...the music business is imploding and THESE people are touring, making cds, and eating up valuable payola while real musicians are learning the correct way to display their Wal-Mart name tag?"

This is a call for action friends. Stop the insanity. Don't give your kid Guitar Hero for Christmas, take him or her out to a few concerts instead. Don't watch Real Housewives of Orange County or Biggest Loser, read a good book. Don't buy a Kevin Costner CD, buy Nathan Bell's. Let's show them that "real" deserves some respect again-- real music, real TV programing (not low cost sensationalism), real movies, real concerts...

There's too much static, too many vapid distractions, too much splintering of the audience, too little call for serious art of any kind, too much attention given to shocking behavior, too much reward for titillating our prurient interests, too little pay for only having serious artistic talent.

Art requires nurturing (big investment), time (slow return on big investment), and commitment (hanging with it in spite of slow return on big investment). These are things that the entertainment industry doesn't believe in anymore. And it's no wonder. They've been encouraged, even pressured
by the consumer to deliver cheap disposable content, instant gratification, nearly free products (whether it be reality TV shows or a $15 per month subscription for unlimited mp3 downloads), and lowest-common-denominator content focused on sex appeal, sensationalism and violence. You can't have Dylan immediately and for free and in lingerie, folks, so there will never be another artist like him unless we change.

We have exactly the art and culture we deserve. This is what we wanted.

As for me; I'll continue to write this blog...I'll go out to hear live music...I'll still make records, not tracks (stay tuned for the new one)...I'll work very hard to write great songs that hopefully will move you...I'll play a real guitar on a real stage in front of real people who will leave the house to listen...I'll even come to your town so you don't have to drive too far...I'll post my music on the Internet so you can hear me easily...I'll give away some downloads even though this is my only job and I can always use the money...and...most importantly... I won't put you out of business.

Can I make it any more real for you?

copyright 2008 craig bickhardt

Friday, November 21, 2008

10,000 Hours

Hallelujah, I'm not alone.

I saw Malcomb Gladwell on TV last night and wrote his book title down before I went to bed ("Outliers"). One of the many points this welcomed book makes is that it takes about 10,000 hours of study/practice for someone to become an expert at anything in life. This number is based on research documented by Gladwell, and it applies to everything from legal expertise to becoming a great painter, or, by implication, a great songwriter. Can we produce a late blooming genius like Cezanne? Yes, says Gladwell, if he/she is willing to put in the hours. [
Read Gladwell's blog on this subject]

I've been banging this drum steady for months now, trying not to tire you with the truth as I see it. We may not all have the time, but time is the essential factor in great songwriting. A great song can be written fairly quickly as I've said in many of my blog articles, but only after the preparation, the background, the study, the practice has been undertaken.

How soon can one put in his 10,000 hours? Let's assume you only have 10 hours per week to devote to songwriting. At that rate you'll need about 20 years of practice. Maybe you started when you were 15, so you can expect to reach your best at 35 (and that doesn't mean you won't continue to be at your best until you're 75). Why, then, do the major labels and publishers sign so many 21 year old artists and songwriters? Clearly the word "great" has lost some of it's meaning.

Are there exceptions such as Bob Dylan, who are so gifted at such an early age? Not necessarily. Maybe Bob worked a lot harder than most of us when he was young. Maybe he put in his hours at the feet of Seeger and the rest while we spent those years sitting on car hoods with a six pack.

Gladwell's book should come as encouraging news to most of you. If you've ever been made to feel that your time has passed because you're 29 and still unsigned, relax. You're still improving with age.

I have my own evidence in support of Gladwell's argument. I stared writing songs when I was about 15. I began writing full time when I was 27. Until that point I'd maybe put in only half of the necessary hours. I'd written a couple of good songs, even had a cut or two under my belt. But I knew I wasn't at my peak. When I began writing full time my skills improved very quickly, and by age 32 I'd nearly doubled my practice hours, and I'd written a song that I still rank as one of my best.

No matter how many voices we add to the growing criticism of music marketing trends at the major labels, it's unlikely that we'll change anything soon. For now, we can at least be content that we are in the right, and the data supports us. The industry should be mining 30-40 year olds, not 18-30 year olds. Or, if you want to market unripe talent, at least force these artists to sing songs written by those who have put in the practice hours.

copyright 2008 craig bickhardt

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Vital Vision

We can't sell a product people don't need. A song has to either move the audience, make them laugh or cry, or it has to become the soundtrack for their lives-- meaning it must be a song they fall in love to, or heal to, or commiserate with somehow. It must grow into something essential that they can't live without. This requires a motive on the writer's part, and some vision. Vision is the sense that connects perception to significance. It's when you see something, know why it matters, and convey that meaning to others. When the writer shares his vision, the listener begins to perceive what's behind the song.

Great songs don't usually happen by accident. They are deliberate acts of creation motivated by genuine emotion and a fascination with the process. You can't search for buried treasure unless you go to the right beach with a metal detector and begin scouring. Writing without purpose or vision is like sitting in a chair in your den and hoping there's treasure under the couch cushions. You'll just end up with a few nickles and dimes-- a cheap song.

I was thinking about a verse from Townes Van Zandt's "To Live Is To Fly". Here it is :

It's goodbye to all my friends

It's time to leave again

Here's to all the poetry and the picking down the line

I'll miss the system here

The bottom's low and the treble's clear

But it don't pay to think too much on things you leave behind

The thing I like about this verse is the wacky reference to the PA system. I get a sense of purpose from those lines. Clearly Townes was writing with some vision, otherwise why refer to a sound system in a club? Why give it significance? Well, maybe because it represents the highs and lows of the troubadour life in a detail that the rest of us overlooked. The purity and depth in the sound system equates to the ideal moment in a traveling musician's life-- after driving thousands of miles, eating fast food and sleeping in noisy hotel rooms on mattresses that are too soft or too hard, he gets those precious 90 minutes on stage during the best gig of the tour. Townes' motive was to accurately convey how this kind of life feels, and his vision made the connection. The chorus says:

To live is to fly

Low and high

So, shake the dust off of your wings

And the sleep out of your eyes

Having been on the road myself for many years, I can tell you this is not only accurate, it's perfect. There have been many days when the detachment of the road has felt like flight. It's an addiction. I'm never more alive than when I'm in flight, and the lows and highs on the road are more extreme than when I'm perched safe at home. Flight is freedom, but freedom sometimes means sacrificing a bit of security. Townes was living this song in the moment of it's creation (or re-living it, which is still valid). The remarkable thing about this simple chorus is that it captures some emotion and a rather profound philosophy in four graceful lines. How can a writer do this unless he is actually experiencing the song? We can't find the key to this type of communication unless we have vision. Vision is vital.

Where are you on life's journey? Can you show us? Can you open a window that allows me to see and feel what you see and feel? Do you have something in mind, something in heart, something in soul? Townes says later in the song:

We all got holes to fill

Them holes are all that's real

Songs fill the holes for many of us, or at least they clean the wounds so we can begin to heal. That's their purpose. But the world is choking on songs without purpose-- clever gimmick titles that strain at anything to say nothing. I hear tons of them and they never move me or touch me or make me smile or cause me to shed a tear. They just play in my ear for a few minutes and then they are forgotten.

Don't invent. Observe. Show us what you see. Much is revealed by the song in the end. As writers, we can't fake it. A great, true, core idea, and a deep emotional experience is the lifeblood of a song. Find the vital vision and follow it. See life and feel the words.

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt
photo copyright by wolfgang staudt (creative commons approved use)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

NMW Spotlight : Louvin Up Close

I thought I'd break tradition for this post and give you a little glimpse of my alter ego and the adventures of a performing songwriter. For my regular readers : don't worry, we'll be back to the chopping block next week. But for tonight Ninety Mile Wind goes "backstage" in Bethlehem, PA. for a first hand report on my show at Godfrey Daniels with the legendary Charlie Louvin.

The Silver Eagle was parked across the street when Larry Ahearn and I arrived for sound check. Larry is a manager who likes to travel with his acts, so he almost always delivers me to the door of my gig and makes sure sound check comes together on schedule. Charlie Louvin's band had traveled down from Woodstock NY where they'd done Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble show the night before. The bus's engine was still idling when we pulled up, indicating everyone was either sleeping or taking care of other business on board.

We faced some tough competition finding an audience for this show. The fourth game of the World Series was being played only 65 miles away, and The Who were also performing in Philly. But we were relieved to learn that the house was half sold out and walk ups were expected. Still, I'd figured Charlie would draw more people than the number of advance tickets we'd sold. Ramona at Godfrey Daniels gave us the same lament we've been hearing everywhere lately : show attendance is off by 30-40%, and it's the economy stupid.

Louvin's band sound checked first. When everything was set, Charlie got off the bus and came into Godfrey's wearing a gold Pittsburgh Steelers hat that Levon had given him the night before. He took the stage and exchanged a few comments with his eldest boy, Sonny, who plays rhythm guitar in the band. I heard Charlie say, "Where?" and he turned to squint in my direction. Then he stepped off the stage and came over to greet me. I introduced myself, not realizing Louvin is still as sharp as a pistol at age 81. "Yes, I remember you," he said, "we spoke on the phone a while back about your House song. Boy, you didn't leave nothing outta that one, that's a good song!" I should explain that Charlie cut This Old House (written by Thom Schuyler and myself) a few years back on a CD that's unfortunately now out of print.

Louvin and his band finished their sound check and I set up for mine with my percussionist and long time friend Tommy Geddes. Charlie was hanging around in the lobby when I decided to run through This Old House with Tommy. I had my eyes shut, and as I got to the second verse a raspy tenor voice joined me in harmony. I looked over and there was Charlie on stage next to me with a cup of coffee. He followed my phrasing almost perfectly and nailed the second chorus. When the song ended he leaned over and said with a grin, "Boy, you should be killed before you multiply!" I laughed and told him to feel free to join me for the song during the evening's set if he felt up to it. "I've got this head cold, but maybe I will".

After sound check we sat and talked about guitars until Charlie had to do a phone interview with a radio station in Australia. I decided to eavesdrop as he answered the questions that were coming from the interviewer. His eyes twinkled as he spoke about his storied past.

"Yes, that's right, we did a show in Alabama back then and Elvis was the opening act." A pause. "Well, yes, I met Hank a few times, I didn't really know him well, but I knew him." Another pause. "Well we used to harmonize all the time, we learned all the church music, shape note singing and the songs in The Golden Harp [a hymn collection published in 1868]" Then a longer pause and a sigh. "Oh yes, every time I sing I still hear Ira's voice singing his harmony parts." The interviewer asked him about his name. "Well it was Loudermilk. We was cousins of John D's, you know. So we took the L-O-U part, same as Loudermilk, and added the "V-I-N" from the VIN number on a car and came up with Louvin." He looked at me with a grin and winked, then spoke into the phone again, "Well sir, I'm in Bethlehem PA, where Jesus is from."

I went outside to get some air before the show started and found Charlie's bass player Mitchell Brown doing the same. We had a conversation about the bus that was still idling across the street. "That bus is a lease. Charlie's bus got totaled in a head on collision in New Jersey a few weeks ago," he said. Recalling that Ira Louvin died in a car accident, I shuddered and asked, "Was anybody hurt?" Mitchell held out a stiff forearm, "I broke my arm. Charlie was fine. He had an insurance check in his hand the next day and bought something, I don't know what."

The show started at 7pm. I was introduced by Steve, who also does sound at Godfrey Daniels. "Wow, lots of gray heads here tonight," I said. "We like that. Now, if you forget where you are there's a big sign behind me that'll remind you!"
I did my usual 30 minute opening act set.
Here's the song list:

You're The Power

Even A Cowboy Can Dream
The Real Game
Where I Used To Have A Heart
Sugarcane Street
This Old House
If He Came Back Again

Larry was sitting behind Charlie on the benches in the rear of the room. Apparently Charlie slid forward on his seat as if to stand up and come to the stage twice during This Old House, but decided against it. Ah well, I can still say I once harmonized on stage with the great Charlie Louvin. After the show he caught my arm in the lobby and leaned into my ear, "Don't worry, I won't upstage you!" he said chuckling.

Louvin's set kicked off with a rousing version of "Worried Man Blues". He quickly followed with some Carter family and Delmore Brothers tunes.
The band was tight, with lead guitarist Joe Cook stepping out in nearly every song to display a dazzling array of Telecaster tricks and hot licks. Kevin Kathey laid down a solid backbeat, although he was playing somewhat restrained to keep the volume low in the small room. Mitchell and Sonny locked into the groove.

Louvin's voice was weak in the mix at first. The combination of the slightly overpowered sound system and his head cold made his voice seem a bit frail. But the set picked up energy and the sound came together, and by the time he sang "This Damn Pen" (a great ballad he'd cut with Willie Nelson) his weathered tenor took command of the stage. He also gave me another shout out for This Old House, "I don't know how many times I've driven by an old abandoned house and wondered what kinda stories it could tell. He even got the extra key in that song!"

His repartee with the crowd was humorous and unaffected. He ditched political correctness at one point saying, "I'm gonna do this slow song. Normally I'd get down off the stage and go out there to get me some beaver to dance with, but not tonight."

Charlie Louvin has earned his accolades. His influence on country and bluegrass harmony reverberates down to today in the work of younger artists such as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. It can even be found in the seminal country rock of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. It's a legacy that few artists of his generation can match. One wonders what will happen to country music when the last of these old giants is gone. One thing's for sure, they aren't making any more of 'em.

Thanks to Larry Ahearn and Tom Hampton for the photos.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Song or Sonic Collage

Ansel Adams used to say that before he took a picture he'd already factored every aspect of photography and dark room expertise into the shot. He knew what film ISO he'd need to use to get the proper effect, what Aperture and shutter speed would be required to capture the light and detail, what lens he'd use, what time of day the shot needed to be taken, where he'd probably have to dodge and burn in the dark room to get the light to pop, etc. Nothing was left to chance, even if chance ultimately played a role in the final product-- creative accidents still happened, but their opposite (creative disasters) were minimized. For Ansel Adams, "craft" and "skill" were paramount to the "art" of his pictures. The three were inseparable, and there were no shortcuts.

In today's world of digital photography, it's possible for anyone to achieve certain professional effects with the camera. No longer does the amateur have to study the craft of photography or spend years in the dark room learning about the volatility of chemicals and photo paper because virtually any effect or operation can be applied to a raw digital shot to give the photo some of the same effects it took Adams many hours to create. Because creative disasters have been virtually eliminated with "undo", creative accidents play a much greater role in the final products of amateur photographers. In general, there's more experimentation, but less knowledge of the fundamentals. More haphazard shooting because it's inexpensive, less planning of the shot.

Does this mean anyone can be Ansel Adams? Hardly.

Of course, this is a songwriting blog, so why am I writing about photography? I can think of no better metaphor to explain what has happened to the art of songwriting since "craft" and "skill" have gone the way of the dodging wand.

I was recently asked to coach a songwriting duo who were planning to do a CD. A friend of mine was producing the duo but he felt the songs were not up to par so he asked me to take a listen and make some critical suggestions. Once again I found myself in the position of trying to explain the difference between songwriting and something I call the sonic collage. The songs had some fine moments, but they weren't focused, they were full of lyric contradictions and irrelevant lines. The melodies sometimes had catchy phrases but they weren't repeated or they were in places that distracted from the main melodic themes (if there were any at all) or they didn't draw attention to the hook. The songs were all too long-- not just by commercial standards, but by any standard of human interest (the self indulgent factor). They were obviously written in a stream of conscious method, probably in less than an hour or two, with no re-writing attempted.

I made my comments to the pair in a carefully worded email. My friend said the duo was very interested in what I had to say, they even agreed with some of it, but ultimately they just wanted to get into the studio and cut the CD they'd already written. The money was burning a hole in their pockets and after it all, it was their record label...

Why study songwriting when you can make anything vaguely resembling a song
sound good with Protools and judicious editing? I'm sure my friend will cut a decent CD, but they'll spend more time cutting, pasting and undoing than was spent writing the tunes. In fact it seems that a song is now just the vehicle that gets you to the cutting, pasting and undoing part. It's all about how soon you can get in there and piece it all together into the sonic collage, better known as the modern song. Then you can either go home and learn the song off the record that you've made, or else you just perform to backing tracks. And the best part : almost anyone can do it. All those boring years of study, all those highly educational creative disasters that can't be "undone", the lessons that teach you to do the work before you spend the money, the "skill" and the "craft" that goes into the art of song; unnecessary.

Unnecessary until one day you get on stage next to someone who has spent the time learning the skill and craft behind the art, and put the energy into the song before spending the money on the record. Then you will pull out your sonic collage and sing in earnest, trying to convince the audience they are being communicated to. But your sonic collages won't stand a chance against the real songs. The real songs will hit their mark while you send out lilting melodies and random thoughts like bubbles in the breeze.

Do you think I'm wrong?

Come and sit here on the stage with me...

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Marriage In Meter

I had a friend once named Jack Keller. Jack passed away a few years ago, but I think of him often. He was a Tin Pan Alley trained songwriter, born and raised in Brooklyn. He took his craft to Hollywood for a while, writing for the Monkees and cranking out themes for TV shows, ultimately landing the theme songs for "Bewitched", "Gidget" and "Seattle". He wrote plenty of other hits, some you know and some you don't. He ended his days writing in Nashville for the same publisher I wrote for (EMI). This was back when EMI was just a fledgling company doing business as Screen Gems-Colgems-EMI in a little cottage at 1207 16th Ave South.

Jack could often be heard behind some closed door lecturing a young writer about his poor prosody, "Dat's not da hit ! Here's da hit (plunking single notes on the piano) da, da, da, DA, da, DA. Ya got too many syllables. Dat don't work. It's da marriage, I'm tellin' ya, da marriage!"

I wrote with Jack enough times to know that once he found "the hit", you didn't mess with it. He was a stickler for every line being perfectly constrained to the melody he'd composed. It didn't matter how good you thought your line was, if it didn't match syllable for syllable with his melody, he'd shoot it full of holes then calmly smoke his pipe until you thought of something better. His melodies were little gems of simplicity and distinction, nothing generic about them at all. Each note held it's place with purpose. But, man, did he ever insist on doing it his way.

Maybe you're saying to yourself, "What a stubborn guy". Thing is, he wasn't merely stubborn. He was right, maddeningly right. Every time I worked with him I learned more about the art of how NOT to compromise a hit melody for the sake of a line of lyric. His restrictions made me (gasp) a better lyricist! It forced me to find not just the right concept for a line, or the right rhyme, but the sequence of words that made the melody, concept and rhyme shine brightest.

Before you begin dismissing me with arguments about Bob Dylan and John Lennon, yes, I know. The discipline is broad. But hear me out for a moment. There are plenty of writers you can study to learn about loose meter, but few examples these days of the true Marriage.

You see, lyrics can to be both meaningful AND metered strictly. That is, in fact, the immortal challenge of both songwriting and poetry. Anyone can say a thought, but only a great writer can say it so concisely that it can never be said better again.

Classical composers use a rigid, almost mathmatical theme-and-variation approach to melody. Once the theme and variations are establish you don't deviate. Beethoven wrote his Ninth in the rhythm : "dit dit dit DAH. dit dit dit DAH." Not "dit dit dit DAH, dit di-dit dit DA-DAH". This theme business is one of the hallmarks of good composition. Many barriers have been broken since Beethoven, but we haven't always improved things. What is it that makes a song memorable to begin with? Isn't it a certain amount of repetition along with deceptively employed variations of that rhthmn? Are we really helping ourselves by pushing the envelope of theme and variation to the point where the average listener can longer even find it? The echoes are essential. The melodic echoes are the DNA of a melody. Without echoing themes a melody unravels too far.

I break the rules, too. I like Dylan as much as anyone and when I take liberties with the meter, I usually tell myself I'm following some branch of the songwriting tree that sprouted from his work. Sometimes I'm happy with the results, but many times my weak meter is just because I'm too lazy to get it right. Do you break up the Marriage with intent or out of laziness? Many writers seem to not know the difference. It takes some objectivity. You've got to know where that pulse lies and pick it up throughout the song.

The next time you're cramming all those extra syllables into your verse lines because you just need to get all the information into the song, ask yourself if it can be pared down for the sake of the meter, the pulse, the DNA of the melody. You won't be sorry you tried. Maybe you'll hear old Jack Keller's ghost say, "It's da marriage!"

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

Friday, September 12, 2008

Finding The Reverence

A friend of mine recently went to hear Jimmy Webb speak about songwriting. Jimmy talked about how the American songwriter is in decline because younger writers no longer study their creative ancestors.

We can debate whether this is a temporary trend or a sea change, but it's the premise of Webb's argument that interests me. There's a difference between pushing the art forward, and abandoning the past altogether. Sometimes what appears to be a clean break is actually a brilliant and rather large leap, but we must still be able to determine that it is a forward leap and not merely the abandonment of disciplines and principals that have governed the art of songwriting since the days of the Childe Ballad authors.

A song cannot be whatever we say it is any more than a novel can be four words and a cover. You might ramble from melody to melody with no sense of theme, weak symmetry, no fixed choruses, and I will admit that you've written something. But I would no sooner call it a "song" than I'd call a grocery list a "poem". Yet some have even attempted to get away with that hoax, and as a result poetry has also been in decline.

It isn't enough that a songwriter can claim an influence, he must also demonstrate what he has made of that influence. Dylan wasn't copying Woody Guthrie, nor was he just singing like him and abandoning everything Woody stood for in his writing. He was taking the leap forward, and in retrospect we can see it clearly today. When we look back from some future vantage point, will we clearly see the reverence for the past in any of the current songwriters on the scene? I can't name many I'd include on the list of reverential writers, maybe Josh Ritter, Brett Dennen, and a couple of others.

The field appears to be dominated by writers who lack the discipline or the reverence. They have the talent to sing and play instruments, they have the recording skills and the software to get it down, they have the drive and the incentive to be famous, and they have street teams on social networks to promote them. But having all these things seems to make them rather impatient with study. The one thing they apparently do not have is any abiding interest in what happened before they got here. Sure, they've listened to Sgt. Pepper and they've already stolen a few production ideas from that classic. They own a beat up copy of Blond On Blond from their parents' record collection. They listened to that LP long enough to discover that Dylan sometimes makes obscure allusions and that he writes a lot of songs with four or five verses.

But this is merely the "trappings" of influence, no different than donning a Nehru jacket and saying you're influenced by the Beatles. Influence in the reverential sense means being involved with more than the superficial aspects of the past, it means tracing the roots and analyzing the elements.

It's safe to say that never in the history of our culture have so many superficial similarities existed between the musical artists of today and the musical artists of a previous generation. Look at the clothes, hair styles, images and artwork and you'll see 1969. Listen to the CDs and you'll hear production that reminds you of the Byrds, the Beatles, "Positively Fourth Street" and Joni. But check out the songs. The lyrics are unfocused, the choruses unmemorable, the ideas lack the motive to really communicate. It reeks of self-indulgence. Simply put, no one has told these folks that they haven't worked hard enough, that they haven't written their best song, that they need to develop their instincts and hone their craft. No one has said, "No".

Could it be that the break down of the old model music industry is to blame for the deterioration of the American songwriter too? It certainly looks that way. In the past when a songwriter was told, "It ain't a hit, sonny" he went away and wrote a better song. Now that same songwriter just goes home and cuts a record. The resulting morass of mediocrity has lowed the standards of artist and listener alike.

Try as you might, you cannot become truly accomplished at anything without study. You may think songwriting frees you from that awful obligation-- the one you hated every night as you did your high school homework-- but it doesn't. I have studied songwriting as long and as hard as any doctor ever studied his profession. I've also studied poetry just as long and hard, because I believe it has a lot to teach me. My advice to all the young songwriters out there is this : take the time to really study and find some reverence for what got us here. Just because you feel an impulse to write a song doesn't mean you're ready to take on that responsibility (yes, you are responsible and accountable for what you put into this world). You must allow the well to fill before you draw water.

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

Thursday, September 4, 2008


They say there's no road map for success, but I say there's a compass. Your True North might be different from someone else's, but I'll wager plenty that you know where it is if you've really searched for it. Only a fool would look at his compass and then follow someone else's best guess about the route to travel. That's all it is-- advice I mean, a best guess. No matter who it comes from, it's a guess.

Can you look at where you are now and where you want to go, and navigate sensibly? All successful writers do this. If you have a mind, a heart, and some talent,
you can plot the course. The problem is not coordinates, it's courage. We need to have the resolve to go in the direction our compass points. If we seek advice at every step, we're undoubtly going in circles. Maybe an occassional reality check to be sure the needle isn't stuck, but nothing more.

The successful writers that I know all burned bright at the start. Even through their mistakes they remained true to their course. They made some adjustments
according to how others reacted to their work, but not major course corrections. The reason their song catalog is so deep is because they covered that much ground in the time that most of us spend zig-zag tentatively to our vague destinations.

If you don't know what you're trying to communicate, how you're trying to communicate it, and why you'd even bother, then you are going nowhere. If you must ask
someone else the question, "Is this any good?", it probably isn't. If you really feel the song, you don't need to ask.

What's the mystery here? Why is it so hard to connect with what we feel? We say we've lost objectivity, but is this a lie or a delusion?

Every time you eat an apple you can tell if it's sweet or sour. You've eaten the same fruit all your life but you always know if this is a delicious apple or a bad apple.
When you love someone you never tire of seeing their face. You don't lose objectivity about it. It remains beautiful as long as you feel love for that person. Could it be that you've never felt anything for your songs? Do you love what you write, or do you simply write songs the way you'd paint a wall-- cover all the spots, hit the corners, and roll out the rest as fast as possible?

I've mixed metaphors here, so back to the compass.

I took my eye off the horizon and the needle too often when I was younger. Now I never look away. This blindness, this lack of objectivity, the big lie we tell
ourselves-- it's a problem we must address. We must decide for ourselves what level of commitment, what depth of feeling we have about our own work. You might hate the hit that's sitting at #1 this week, but you figure it's a good idea to write one just like it. I guarantee you that if you do this you'll fail every time. The biggest copyrights are the songs some writer passionately loved, passionately wrote, and passionately believed in. That applies even to those tunes you happen to hate. Remember this : for every song on the radio that you dislike, there's a writer behind it who believed whole-heartedly (and even if I'm wrong, you won't fail by heeding what I say because you'll simply write a hit that you love).

If you don't believe in your songs; if you don't cherish them like children; if they don't make you cry or laugh or dance for joy; if they are merely exercises or
"completed songs", probably no one will record them. We must write what we love, write what tears us up inside and get to the bottom of the feeling, write what we're very intent on communicating, write what we can't live without expressing. Anything less will not move an artist to invest his or her career in our work.

Go ahead. Look at that compass now, and be honest about what star you follow. Because if you ask the person next to you what star you should follow, he just
might steer you off the edge of the world.

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Van Ronk's Last Cigar and Other Fables

Dave Van Ronk's last cigar is now just a small circle of ashes scattered around a bush in the middle of a park in Grand Rapids, Michigan. That's where songwriter David Massengill smoked it after holding onto it for a couple of years. Van Ronk gave it to him shortly before he died in 2002. It was Dave's last cigar by his own admission, dug from the back of a dusty shelf at a party. Massengill, being the true sentimentalist, just couldn't smoke his friend's parting gift without due ceremony. He thought of smoking it often, but the cigar took on legendary significance among a close circle of mutual friends, so he couldn't. There were anniversaries and other times when it almost seemed proper, but no.

Finally, almost burdened by the acquired weight of it, one night on the road he said "what the hell"... in Grand Rapids of all places (I was too entertained by this tale to ask him why he'd brought the cigar from NYC to Michigan). He partook of the sacred rolled leaf with a friend who was also a songwriter. There they shared it in reverence, blowing smoke rings at the moon and invoking Dave's ghost. Then they gathered up the tobacco ash, every speck of it, and made a gray ring on the earth around a bright shrub in loving tribute to a musical legend. Thus was a small piece of Van Ronk's history laid to rest under a conspicuous bush in Michigan in the form of a big fat cremated cigar.

Now, try to forget this simple story. If you're like me, that may be a difficult thing to do. Fortunately my friend David Massengill has turned it all into a beautiful tribute song on his latest CD "Dave On Dave" just in case you manage to forget it.
"We took to the road and he showed me the ropes
'Never count the house* kid, keep dreaming your hopes
And keep an eye open for the bizarre'
Lessons I learned from Dave Van Ronk's last cigar"
(Copyright 2007 David Massengill Music ASCAP)
(*i.e., don't count the number of people in the audience)
The story and the song both demonstrate that it's the quirky romance of life that makes it all worth talking about in the first place. It isn't the mundane rituals of our day, not the false romance we like to delude ourselves with-- the cliched candles and wine; not the ruts we're stuck in or the dashed dreams.

It may be too idealistic of me to expect this of everyone else, but before I write my next song I'll ask myself if I have a story to tell. Is the story worth repeating, and would I tell it to a stranger in a bus station at midnight?

If you have one, and if you would tell me, I will listen. Give me the strange, the beautiful, the haunting, the unlikely. I'm thirsty for it.

The best stories are usually the unnoticed incidents that gain significance in the story-teller's words. On the surface they are events hardly worthy of a sentence in the newspaper, yet told properly they resonate deeply and make the daily headlines seem crude and transitory. It's what we make of our tales, how we mythologize them, not how grand they are in reality.

My friend James Keelaghan sings one called "Kiri's Piano". I challenge anyone to find a simpler and quieter, yet more compelling story than this:
Kiri's Piano lyrics.

Nashville used to tell us good stories. Tom T. Hall was a master. So were Johnny Cash and Shel Silverstein. Darrel Scott, when he manages to get one cut, still reminds us of what Nashville used to be in the days when artists weren't afraid to portray authentic characters in songs.

Today it's all about the artist, not the story song. Everyone seems desperate to define who they
are in a genre with 150 other singers who sound just like them, but they make the mistake of trying to create unique PR rather than having unique stories to tell and unique characters to play in their music. As a result, the differences between popular artists are as deep as page one of the tabloids. It's the fear of being swallowed by the whale of consolidated media, I suppose.

Yet I still have hope that some mainstream artist among the crop of younger torch bearers will finally realize that story-telling and role-playing made Johnny Cash, and Marlon Brando great. Oh, please stop trying to tell us how different you are in your bio, and just be different when you pick songs.

Find your stories.

Stories give us the barest implications about the mysteries of life-- the life that we never seem to fully grasp. The big picture is too large for our frame, we must have it scaled down to viewable size. A story is a way to attach tangible form to our least definable emotions.
It's part of the eloquence of life's quietest truths.

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

Friday, August 8, 2008

Another One Gone Too Soon

Robert Hazard 1948 - 2008

When they call my number
On the day I die
Gonna rise up singing
In the azure sky
(Lucky Hat - Robert Hazard)

It's unfortunate that I must report on another death this week. This time it's a friend and songwriting colleague who should be far better known than he is.

When I first met Robert Hazard we were both skinny kids performing on the local Philly scene. It was roughly 1979. He was the more popular performer by far, and there was no mystery as to why. I watched his shows many times, in awe of his total command of the stage. He was the kind of entertainer who made you completely believe in his fantasy for 90 minutes. He had that intriguing combination of aloofness and fire that was emblematic of many rock stars of the day. Stalking the stage like a film noir character in black leather and a thin tie, Hazard sang in a vaguely Bowie-esque style, and yes, he drove the girls crazy.

Along with his back up band The Heroes, Hazard quickly took the city by storm. When I say he took it, I mean literally. His first independently released EP sold over 300,000 copies in the Philly area alone. He was a household name here in the early 80s. By the time Cyndi Lauper cut his anthem "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" there was a sense of inevitability about Robert's success.

He signed a record deal with RCA and had some chart action with a couple of singles, "Escalator of Life" and "Change Reaction", but as many local icons learn, major labels don't always know how to make you a national star. In retrospect, the songs seem permanently rooted in the era of Wang Chung and Billy Idol, with little indication that there was a unique songwriting genius behind them. But this was just one of Hazard's artistic incarnations. A much more compelling one lay dormant.

Eventually he burned out on the image he'd created with this music and took a hiatus from full time performing during which he discovered a knack for buying and selling antiques. Except for some forays into new bands (Hombres) and independent CD releases, and the occasional reunion with various members of The Heroes, he mostly kept a low profile at his home in New York's Adirondack Mountains.

But all the while he was sharpening his songwriting skills and going back to his roots to find inspiration for what he wanted to say next. In 2006, with a new collection of songs under his belt, he found interest at Rykodisk Records. The new songs bore no resemblance to his music of the 80s. They were poetic, mature, deeply artistic and compelling. His CD "Troubadour" was released in 2007 and made a brief splash on the Americana scene with a couple of charting tunes. But the national spotlight still largely eluded him.

When I moved back to Philly in 2006 we quickly became closer friends out of mutual respect. He'd mellowed, but he still had the fire I remembered from the old days. We did a few shows together and in our talks he
eventually warmed up to the idea of the intimate, acoustic In The Round format. We booked a couple of shows to try it out, but sadly we only got to do one of them.

It was a mild June night in Doylestown. We'd brought the wonderful Terri Hendrix and the legendary Lloyd Maines up from Austin, Texas for our show at Puck. What followed was one of the best nights I've ever experienced on stage. The chemistry between all of us was magic. The songs and stories complimented each other as we traded the spotlight for two hours. It was certainly one of Robert's finest performances. He knew he had a serious medical problem that night but he put his concerns aside and gave all.

When I received the shocking news of his death on Wednesday (from post-surgical complications for pancreatic cancer) I realized immediately why that show had such a glow on it.
In retrospect it was not only his final performance, but a very brave one as well.

I've been listening to Robert's song "Troubadour" for the past couple of days. The song speaks for many of us who feel as if we're lifers on this musical journey. He's been in the same joints we've all been in, and known the highs and lows of road life as well as anyone when he sings:
"The spotlight's a light bulb, the stage is a floor
If this place don't like me there's ten thousand more"
It takes a lot of passion to live this troubadour life-- passion and a restless side. Robert Hazard was a passionate, restless soul. Now he's free.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Un-Endowment For The Arts

Ben Gall is out of business this weekend. The lights are off. The art that hasn’t been crated for storage hangs mute and neglected on the walls, and the grand piano near the stage is silent. Ghosts and the echoes of songs haunt the place, but no one goes in or out the door anymore.

Ben, an entrepreneur who originally came to America from Holland, was the proprietor of one of the area's most beloved establishments; a combination art gallery, café, and performing arts center called “The Arts Scene”. For a little over a year Ben went to work every day trying to sell wonderful three dimensional mixed media and metal sculptures, stunning photographs and colorful oils from all over the world. He supplemented his art business with his second passion; music. The art didn’t sell very well, but the music…the music often drew overflowing crowds.

It was the atmosphere, not just the entertainment they sought. This was a place where grownups could spend an edifying evening surrounded by the work of passionate people from all artistic genres. It was a cocoon you didn’t want to leave, and Ben could often be found after midnight discussing some South American painter’s work with a couple of folks who wandered in out of curiosity, stayed for the music, grabbed a bite to eat, and forgot the hour. That’s the kind of person Ben is, and to his credit no one heard him complain as he struggled to keep the doors open from month to month. In spite of a lack of art sales, he loved what he’d created in his little Mecca in the suburbs of West Chester, PA.

I did many shows at The Arts Scene. The room was always packed to capacity because Ben loved to promote musical events and music fans loved to hang out there. The Kennedys played there recently, as did Mark Erelli. But on any given night you’d be just as likely to encounter Al Bien and a group of friends gathered in a large circle in the center of the room trading songs and singing together. Sometimes there'd be an open mic night, or a showcase for a music school and it’s students. Al recognized the potential of The Arts Scene before anyone else and he brought the community together at many of his regular Wednesday night gatherings. Ben loved it all, and his fellow entrepreneurs at Café Menta in back made sure everyone was well fed.

We’ve lost a treasure this weekend, and the loss represents part of a much larger problem in America. Ben made the point when he spoke at his closing party on Wednesday evening. Our entire budget for the National “Endowment” (a silly word in this context) for the Arts in America is $125,000,000. Less than $.50 per capita. By contrast, in Ben’s much smaller homeland of Holland with its population of just 30 million people, the National Endowment for the Arts is more than ten times that amount. Think about that for a moment, and try to wrap your head around the concept that we’re willing to pay more for one morning’s cup of coffee than for an entire year’s worth of art grants. It’s nothing short of criminally negligent on our part.

What does it say about America that we don’t fund our public schools well enough to teach our youth about art? What does it say about us that we’ll spend billions on bridges to nowhere and almost nothing to help keep havens like The Arts Scene thriving?

It says we've lost the understanding that the imagination is essential for the good of all. Without programs that nurture the imagination, our youth fails to develop the inventiveness that drove America to it's peak productivity in the mid-twentieth century. Art is a product of the same process as utilitarian invention, and you can't lose one without damaging the other. We're creating a society gutted of it's creative spirit, which leaves little hope for the soul of our nation as a whole. Sure, we'll produce lots of experts in the paper chase, but few who excell in the pursuit of substance.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Voices of Comfort and Protest

My recent experience as a judge in the Mountain Stage Newsong contest has redeemed my faith in songwriting as an art form. Although there seems to be a tendency in general for artistic writers to enter contests while the more commercial writers do not, that wasn't the case with Newsong. What I found instead was a group of writer-artists passionately pursuing personal expression whether aimed at mainstream Nashville or a slot on the Mountain Stage radio show. The contest atmosphere breathed familiar somehow until I recalled my early days in Nashville and realized that the exchange of creative energy in those days was very similar to the virtual exchange taking place in this Internet based contest. The competition wasn't so much for the fist full of dollars as it was for the title of 'best communicator'.

There is an art form thriving out there, we just have to look in some unlikely places to find it. You certainly won't hear it in the mainstream media. You may not even hear it so much on satellite radio, where many repackaged mainstream acts have retreated.

I was most curious as I judged the entries as to where the act was working and what, if any, measures they were taking to promote themselves. It ran the gamut. There were tight bluegrass acts working two nights a week in local watering holes; there were closet songwriters who'd worked in complete obscurity for 30 years before finding the nerve to go public; there were self-promoters with some flair and obvious previous training; there were even nationally touring acts that had managed to stay below the radar somehow.

I was taken with the one common thread in all of it: honesty. A writer can say true things: the sun rose today. He can also say honest things: the sun rose today but I didn't care. The difference is striking when it comes to a song. It all goes back to who you are, how much you know about yourself, how willing you are to be vulnerable and open, whether you'll risk saying what you feel, think, perceive, and hope for in life. And saying it all with that inner voice we only seem to find in desperate moments.

I wrote about character last week, and this is where the bullet meets the bone. It's easy to spot a song that's superficially packaged to appeal to a world in denial. It's also easy to spot a song that's so evasive as to be inconsequential, or so shallow as to qualify as a jingle rather than a song. What's so bad about evasive songs and jingles? Nothing really, unless that's all we hear. Then those songs contribute to the wash of opiating culture we're all going numb under. As the world gets more irrational, the opiates get more powerful. It becomes more rare for honesty to break through and shake us back to consciousness.

Yet that's how I feel today after listening to dozens and dozens of young and not so young artists being honest, if nothing else. I feel as if I've been taken to a remote compound and fed gallons of coffee, been slapped about the head, had a few glasses of cold water thrown in my face. I feel as if I've been shown dozens and dozens of microcosms I didn't notice before. I've seen short "movies" of daily life in remote places where real issues meet real lives and the result is a life and death struggle for an entire community. Ask yourself when you last heard a song that made you care about the ecology of a remote mountain valley, or the fair use of a waterway in Appalachia, or the death by late spring frost of a farmer's crop?

Whether any of these songs actually wins the contest isn't important, and I don't have final say about that. What's important is that these songs were written.

I may be fighting a losing battle here, but I'm not alone. It could be that some of you reading this wonder what all the fuss is about. I'll tell you. The very survival of the art of songwriting. If you can go back to your day job merrily and turn on the radio humming the latest tunes, I'm not talking to you. But if you feel a genuine loss of quality in your life because great honest songs are hard to find, keep reading, I'm with you all the way.

Songs used to comfort us in times of crisis. We are in the midst of a terrible crisis as I write this. Need I elaborate? No, I don't think so. Where are the songs to comfort us?

Songs used to protest injustice. We are being oppressed by an aristocracy of politicians and CEOs who won't be happy until they bleed us dry. We are being screwed by HMOs and other insurance providers, lied to by our government, conned by financial institutions, over-taxed, over-worked, over-opiated. Where are the songs of protest?

Where are the songs of protest and comfort? Where is our voice? Where is our honest song?

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

Monday, July 14, 2008

The True Character's Voice

The true character has a voice. I don't mean simply male or a female vocal chords saying something. I mean a voice as distinct as one human being from another, no two the same. The voice will ring genuine.

Today the Voice has largely disappeared in the Nashville commodity song. We hear tune after tune featuring the same indistinct characters; the one-size fits all "proclaiming her independence" diva, the bad-ass southern boy...

I can always tell whether a writer is inhabiting his character or not. He will discover things that can't be discovered any other way. If you find yourself thinking about words rather than digging into your character, you're too much at a distance. Your character will be weak, and your song will be less because of it.

The character is revealed by how he says what he says, by how he does what he does, by how he appears to himself in the lyric. Small words can make a huge difference. The art operates on many levels:

"Well I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head that didn't hurt

And the beer I had for breakfast

Wasn't bad so I had one more for dessert

Then I fumbled through my closet for my clothes

And found my cleanest dirty shirt

And I shaved my face and combed my hair

And stumbled down the stairs to meet the day"

(Kris Kristofferson "Sunday Morning Coming Down")

We must become the song we're trying to write. We must find the voice.

Forget the superficial "commercial" goals if you want a true character. These calculations only enter the picture after the hard work is finished. You can always back away from a risky proposition in a lyric, but if you don't allow yourself to
find that proposition first, you aren't really writing.

"Just like the sun over the mountain tops

You know I'll always come again

You know I love to spend my mornings

Like sunlight dancing on your skin

I've never gone so wrong as for telling lies to you

What you see is what I am

There is nothing I could hide from you

You see me better than I can

Out on the road that lies before me now

There are some turns where I will spin

I only hope that you can hold me now

Til I can gain control again"

(Rodney Crowell "Till I Gain Control Again")

The true character's voice will speak distinctly; he will be three dimensional; he will come to life for a three minute duration and be unforgettable afterwards.

At times it can be hard to hear the character's voice. It will be drowned beneath the voices of the commodity music industry, or by the advice, the endless well-meaning advice and criticism. Sometimes 16th Avenue itself seemed to have a voice when I was writing in Nashville. I had to learn to turn it off and find the essential voice, the only one that knows what the lyric must say if it's to be an honest song.

If all of this seems abstract to you, perhaps you haven't considered what a character is. A character is not an exterior creation. You don't picture someone leaning on a lamp post and say,"Ah, a character!" You must go inside and find someone you know, an alter-ego of sorts, someone drawn from accumulated observation and experience, but not the Ambassador you present to the world. The Ambassador isn't very interesting. He's safe, smooth and packaged to prevent the need for damage control.

"Pack up all your dishes
Make note of all good wishes
Say goodbye to the landlord for me
That son of a bitch has always bored me
Throw out them LA papers
And that moldy box of vanilla wafers
Adios to all this concrete
Gonna get me some dirt road back street"
(Guy Clark "LA Freeway")

We must be more than keen observers. We must absorb life in order to embody a true character.

"Mansion On The Hill" (Bruce Springsteen)

"Millworker" (James Taylor)

More than anything I can think of, it's the voice of the character that defines the great songs. Are you censoring that voice or allowing it to speak?

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Figure A Song Makes (Homage to Robert Frost)

I re-read one of my favorite creative essays recently. It holds up well, and it applies perfectly to great songwriting.

"The artist must value himself as he snatches a thing from some previous order in time and space into a new order with not so much as a ligature clinging to it of the old place where it was organic." (Robert Frost - The Figure A Poem Makes)

Frost's point is that as artists we are not merely recorders of life and fact. We must be more inventive than journalists, whose job it is to tell an accurate story. Accuracy isn't art. Art is wild.

There's a difference between detail and fact. Details can describe the way a red scarf blows in the breeze. Facts can tell us exactly what time of day that breeze came along. Details can intrigue, facts can impose.

All too often I'm listening to a song and suddenly, out of the blue, comes a fact that ruins my interpretation of what's going on. I was riding on my own current within the song and hit a crosscurrent that the writer didn't know he/she had set in motion. That's why a song is best felt rather than contemplated. We rationalize too much anyway. Better that there are some mysteries rather than unsatisfactory explanations.

Frost also says in this same essay,"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." One could write volumes about this simple truth. Extrapolate this quote and apply it to songwriting, and it's still true : No tear for the writer, no tear for the listener. No hair standing up on the back of the writer's neck, no hair standing up on the listener's neck. The lesson is "Feel what you write and allow for the unexpected."
"Half the moon is shining tonight, and half the moon is pitch black
I've got half a chance that you might turn around and come back"
(Hugh Prestwood - Half The Moon)
You can tell a story from a safe distance, or you can climb inside and feel what the character in the song feels. Allow yourself to be surprised by what floats to the surface. This is usually accompanied by a limbic reaction-- the rush you get when the line feels perfect. Remember to allow for the madness (see my previous post here)
"I'm just one man, sometimes I wish I was three
I could take a .44 pistol to me
Put one bullet in my brain for her memory
One more for my heart, and I would be free"
(Mickey Newbury - Nights When I Am Sane)
It must be more felt than seen ahead like prophecy. It must be a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader." (Robert Frost - The Figure A Poem Makes)

I hear too many logical lines in the songs I evaluate. Throw out logic sometimes, cross the threshold and dare to look for something more mystical.
"I wanna wrap the moon around us
Lay beside you skin on skin"
(Tony Lane and David Lee- I Need You)
Many writers get confused about this when they take their songs to Nashville. People tell them "it needs more imagery", "it needs furniture", "it needs edge", "it needs to be more clever", "it needs more attitude", and yet they never say, "you've got to surprise me with the emotion", which is the very thing that most people respond to in a song.

Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting." (Robert Frost - The Figure A Poem Makes)

Allow the song to take possession of the process and become what it wants to become.
Go along for the ride and be willing to risk it all on an impulse. For it to be vital, you must invest yourself in it. If you merely invest time in it, there are no guarantees that it will mean anything at all in six months. If you invest your soul and your emotional fiber in it, maybe it will also move others the way it moved you. We must have faith that our emotional involvement during the creative process will leave its mark on the work.

And we should remember that whatever is worth writing, is worth writing well.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Some Lefsetz Wisdom

"...prior to MTV, there were different genres of music. All with notable successes. But MTV anointed specific stars and everybody else was either a has-been or an also-ran. You were either a winner or a loser. Now MTV plays no music, radio listenership is declining and a hit record doesn't generate a career, doesn't even allow you to fill the building in most cases." - Bob Lefsetz

I wonder how many songwriters are even aware of the truth of this statement? The "hit song industry" is dying. Some of us were early victims, but apparently many writers still believe the naive advice of such organizations as the NSAI, who continue to promulgate the notion that songwriters are being groomed for staff deals all over Nashville when in fact there are no staff deals to be had unless you've just been a finalist on American Idol, or you already have a satchel of valuable copyrights (proven chart hits) to hand over with the deal.

If you are spending all your energy writing the Nashville hit, you aren't preparing for the future, it's as simple as that. What you
should be writing are great songs that can be spread virally by, and to, music fans of all ages. Eventually radio will no longer "serve up" the formulaic hits, the packaged and vetted songs that have had the the heart and soul, the "cream", skimmed off the top before they're marketed. People no longer look to radio and the record industry for guidance about what's good, what's worth hearing. The jig is up.

" The AM radio hit was the cherry on top, not the starting point. Sure, FM radio helped, but the endless touring at a low price cemented the deal. That touring was today's file-trading, today's spreading of the word, outside the system. Does the system build or kill acts? Is a hit record the best thing that can happen to you, or the worst?"

Faith and Tim can't fill the arenas anymore. Tickets are ridiculously overpriced for these top heavy tours. It's no longer practical to conceive of an industry based on entourage-touring. A tour is barely doable in a van with a trailer unless you're U2 or the Stones.

What shows are people paying to see? They pay to see low priced quality shows featuring artistic singer-songwriters such as John Prine or Josh Ritter. They pay to see jam bands at festivals. They go to clubs to hear the latest alternative acts in the mold of Death Cab, Radiohead, or Cross Canadian Ragweed. What do you, the songwriter, pay to see? If Carrie Underwood and Gillian Welch are playing in town on the same night, and you can see Gillian for $30, but you have to pay $75 to see Carrie, is there
any question about which show you'll attend?

Is there even going to be an industry for songwriters in ten years? Yes, but it might be the type of industry that reflects the Bernie Taupin career rather than the Brill Building or Music Row staffwriting career. Indy labels sign nothing but self contained artists-- singer-songwriters and bands that write their own material. Why? Well, for one thing, the Indy audience isn't naive. They
know who writes the songs, and they value great tunes. Secondly, it's just easier to work with, and promote, artists who don't have to find songs or careers through outside channels. So, surviving the climate change might mean honing your skills as a collaborator-- and not just as a co-writer of radio ditties, but as a substantive artist who can collaborate with other substantive artists.

In the future you may be at a disadvantage if you don't understand the difference between song art and radio fodder. Turn on AM radio and listen to the pandering lyrics, the inane topics, the Gerry Springer-Dr. Phil mentality run amok. Who needs to pay for this when it's already sent out through the airwaves on radio and TV everywhere for free, all the time? Pay for it? Hell no! I need to
escape from it! Now find a quality podcast, or listen to Woodsongs, or Mountain Stage, or Doug Lang's excellent Canadian broadcast called Better Days. This is where the real music is circulating.

I'll let Bob have the final word.

"...what it's come down to again... Are you any good? Can you play your instruments? Can you write innovative material? Can you touch people's souls? Can you change their lives? Can you infect them to the point where they'll come to your show for years?
That's the future of this business. Not dominant superstars, but tons of journeymen, super-serving their fan base."

Thursday, June 12, 2008

NMW Spotlight: Barry Alfonso on The Internet's Multitudes and Tribes

As an independent journalist and music critic, Barry Alfonso has contributed articles to Rolling Stone Magazine, The San Diego Union and the LA Times. He was assistant editor of Songwriter Magazine and has written press material for various record companies. He has interviewed people as diverse as Eugene McCarthy, William Burroughs, Count Basie, and Captain Beefheart, as well as labor activists, World War II veterans, Depression era artists, and others. In 2005 he was nominated for a Grammy Award for his liner notes to Peter, Paul and Mary's "Carry It On" CD. His book "The Encyclopedia Of Christian Music" (Billboard Books, 2002) is considered by many to be the standard for the industry. In addition to these accomplishments, he is the co-writer of the #1 Pam Tillis hit "In Between Dances" and the theme song from the Tom Cruise blockbuster "All The Right Moves".

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Ninety Mile Wind : Most of us would agree that the IT Revolution has changed the mindset of the intellectual property creators and the audience. What would you say are some of the biggest differences between the music of today, and that of decades past- before the Internet?

Barry Alfonso : I'm not sure that the music itself is very different from what was being done ten or twenty years ago. It's just that there is more of it, with different styles and genres being appreciated simultaneously and nothing completely going out of fashion. Just about everything new I hear is loaded with reference points that harken back a generation or more. Not much difference there. It's the factors surrounding the music that have changed, who makes it, how they share it and who consumes it.

What's going on now reminds me of descriptions of what happened after Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828. Before that, ordinary citizens used to call respectfully upon their country's leader. After Jackson took office, the rabble came pouring into the White House, tracking mud in, spitting on the carpet, breaking the dishes and so forth. That's what happens when you throw open the doors and the un-genteel people are allowed in. It's healthy and good ultimately, but things get messy and stuff gets destroyed as well.

There's also a quality of illusion here. Just because the common folks could barge in on the President didn't mean they could change everything. Jackson and his party could pass some bills the ordinary voters liked and could appoint some of them to office. But the rich weren't exiled and their money wasn't confiscated.

I think the current situation in popular music resembles this situation in some ways. There's a sense that the grand old mansion of The Music Business is trembling because all these obscure and unvetted people are trampling through it. Everyone is as worthy of respect as everyone else and everyone has a shot at being a star, supposedly. But this sense of equality is somewhat illusionary and deceptive.

NMW : Perhaps by trampling through it and maybe snatching a souvenir ashtray or a swatch of curtain here and there, some recording artists are saying that the "grand old mansion" is just a quaint reminder of the past, not relevant anymore, and it should be dismantled. How do you see this "illusory and deceptive" equality that you mentioned playing out by example?

BA : All of this is driven by technology, of course. And one of the unfortunate things about technology is that the novel becomes the normal very quickly, you don't notice how extraordinary something really is.

To pick one small example, millions of individuals now think nothing of setting up website pages presenting themselves to potentially millions of strangers across the planet. All these pages look basically the same, whether nobody visits them or everybody visits them. Bob Dylan can have a My Space page the same as a little old lady writing poems in Mandan, North Dakota. And they all have "friends." Bob and the old lady are the same - except for the fact that they are completely different. They both have a shot at reaching a college student in Seoul - except one shot is much better than the other. But the potential is there, and that is the great American promise. And that potential is what has kept the USA from tearing itself apart since its inception. Seemingly, this same potential will sustain countless songwriters and other creative people as they figure out how much response they need to justify their acts of creativity.

NMW : It's also the sense that the response, whether real or illusory, is more immediate now, that's what's driving the whole thing. The Internet really has emboldened the American Dream by making it more possible for an entrepreneur or an artist to reach their target audience or target clients faster than ever before, at least for as long as access isn't controlled by providers, corporations or governments. Seems like a very big societal sea-change, and potentially a healthy change for the musical arts. Given your knowledge of history, have there been any parallels in the past I wonder?

BA : This is new. This is a profound change, but an ambiguous one. I can't honestly lament the slow collapse of the old music business order - it's like watching the Soviet Union atrophy.

Technology has driven entertainment for a long time - the invention of railroads enabled minstrel companies and theater troupes to reach isolated parts of America two centuries ago. Was that any more fundamental a change than the invention of the Internet? At the risk of getting a little too metaphysical, I'd say that the great distinction between railroads and the IT revolution is the lack of physicality - the person who stepped off the train was flesh and blood and the images moving across the computer screen are ghosts or imaginary beings. Democracy in communication and the arts has allowed just about anyone to turn themselves into as many ghosts as they can extract from themselves. Cyberspace is haunted by trillions of ghosts now. Web pages are like lost worlds floating in space, sometimes long divorced from the people and circumstances that created them.

This is very American and very democratic. But there's a danger in getting too comfortable with this situation. When the extraordinary becomes banal, everything is possible and nothing really matters very much.

NMW : It's almost like Walt Whitman's poetry where he spoke to future generations; "If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles. ... Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.." He really was the first one to speak to America as a ghost. It's interesting that he shunned the physical spotlight, lived as a recluse, and was a great self-promoter by somewhat devious means; writing reviews of his own work under fictitious names and that sort of thing. All of this sounds very much like the Internet of today, and I can't help but think Whitman, especially, would love it.

BA : Walt Whitman can be seen as a disembodied voice of the People. He said, "I contain multitudes" - but I question whether he wanted everybody to contain multitudes. The math on this is interesting! Whitman was a benign egotist who unashamedly sang of himself. He extended the ideas that [Ralph Waldo] Emerson had about attuning every person to their own inner vibrations and making everybody the center of their universe. But here's that paradox again - if everyone does it, everything is equally valid, and then nothing is. Now, medically, everyone can be healthy. But aesthetically, all art, even all sincere art, cannot be good. I think that's what I'm mostly trying to say here.

NMW : So, have we lost something in all of this individual free expression, perhaps too much expression, and do you think the great stuff will eventually rise?

BA : Well, I think great things will continue to surface, but they may not reach as large of a public as they did before. And the whole ability to decide on what "great stuff" is has been eroding over the decades.

It's been true for a long time that an underground exists in the arts along with the mainstream and that the two realms are often hostile to one another. But in the past, the underground has aspired to influence the mainstream, and the mainstream has turned to the underground for vitality and new ideas. I think that process is in danger of being diffused or diverted. The underground is now a series of discrete tiny caverns with labyrinthine passageways linking them at obscure angles. These little separate cells are becoming self-sustaining and those artists inside them may not feel the need to break through the walls and reach out to others. They are developing their own languages and customs, like an isolated tribe.

NMW : Internet Cultural Anthropology might be a future subject for specialization. I see a new career on the horizon!

BA : Sometimes when I'm in a certain mood, I'll feed in some odd combination of words into a search engine and see where it leads me. Generally, I can come up with a blog or two based upon any incongruous phrase. And what I see when I go to them are people individually expressing themselves and singing their Songs of Themselves about bad hair days and beloved pets and a disappointing cheese sandwich. These things are so specific, so personal, that when you read enough of them they all blur together. I think that the blogosphere is becoming a vast snow bank of extremely individuated snow flakes that add up to a blindingly blank landscape. All those little details ultimately cancel each other out.

NMW : That's an interesting metaphor. We really can't absorb it all, can we? It almost makes us paralyzed by the available options sometimes. All the more reason to know exactly who you are and what you're trying to do with your art or music, or you'll simply disappear in the "blank landscape". Personal expression is a good thing but...

BA : Too much of just about any good thing should be questioned. That goes for individual expression as much as anything. I don't think we should go back to the days of kings and rich patrons controlling the lives of artists. That kind of elitist system is obviously bad. But so is the leveling of the artistic hierarchy to the point that almost no one can make a living at their craft, because something nearly as good by somebody else is available for free a click of a mouse away.

NMW : And that gets back to the difficulties of Internet promotion. I've experienced this first hand. I read recently that Judas Priest was using Tunewidget to promote a soon to be released single. Yet this approach would probably not work for an unknown artist who doesn't have the "viral" potential of a huge fan base. What are your thoughts on what this fracturing of the market into "isolated tribes" means for an aspiring artist trying to establish and sustain a viable, long-haul career in the Song Of Myself Internet world? Are their some reasons to be optimistic?

BA :
I think that any moment of change creates reasons for optimism, if only because there are new things to rebel against. An advance in technology is the hardest thing to resist –you just can’t fight the Machine, literally. But you can question the way that the people in charge are teaching you to use that technology.

For all the vast possibilities opened up by the IT revolution, artists are still very vulnerable to the effects of decisions made by those with power. Issues involving intellectual property rights and net neutrality are obvious examples of this. Small tribal communities out in the wilds of cyberspace cannot protect themselves if they remain isolated. And I worry that, for many of them, the temptation to live on a small island of like-minded souls is very strong.

The reason why Whitman’s Song of Myself wasn’t just an exercise in trivial egotism is that he sought to find a universal connection with others. Whitman was a man of great empathy and compassion, but I also think that he needed to find commonality with others for his own self-protection, if not sanity. From what I’ve read about his life, he had that combination of pride, calculation and delusion that so many great artists have. As resolute as he was, his voice could easily have been lost. The huge scope of his vision saved him. If he’d gone underground and stayed there, he would probably be forgotten today.

: Many people of his day had that huge scope you speak of. In some ways technology has not broadened our scope but narrowed it. We’ve become more adapted to specializations and less able to “take in” the big picture. What solution do you see in the future?

: I do feel a measure of hope about what's happening out there, if not a Whitman-sized faith in humanity. Discarding corrupt, dying forms – and the old-model music biz is one of them – feels good. The challenge now is not to push against something harsh, but to resist sinking into something soft, inviting, lulling. You can see yourself traveling through the IT world as if you were driving your own private automobile, where you zip down the highway with a few friends inside, the outside world flashing by in a blur. Or you can see yourself sharing a larger vehicle with people you don’t know or agree with. It’s a less cushy ride, but it’s a lot more real.

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Barry Alfonso can be reached at and you can sample more of his writing at his website

Copyright 2008 by Craig Bickhardt and Barry Alfonso