Saturday, May 31, 2008

Giant Steps

I've received some interesting comments and email about my previous posts on the subject of great songs. It seems we may not all agree on what makes a song great, but I think most of us have the ability to recognize special things for what they are.

About a dozen years ago I wrote a song for my son, Jake, who has a disability. It was a very personal song, something I never intended to capitalize on. I sing the song sometimes, but I've never made a recording of it other than the original work tape made shortly after it was written.

For his entire life my son has struggled against adversity, prejudice, even downright malice from insurance companies that have tried to penalize him for his congenital condition, cerebral palsy. Jake's a great guy, full of humor and determination. He wants to be a writer someday and he's good at what he does. The song celebrates his attitude and the way he has inspired me through the years.

There's a link to this song, Giant Steps, along with the lyrics at the end of this post. The link will remain active for about a week to ten days. The mp3 download is free, you don't have to buy anything or join anything, or give me information about yourself to get it. I just want you to have a song that I feel is special. I want you to listen to it, live with it, and compare it to what you hear on the radio and TV. I'd like you to share the song with friends. And if you don't think it's so special, then throw it away. But if it moves you, tell others why purposeful music matters, and please let me know or leave a comment here, I'll pass it along to my son because it's his favorite song.

Here's the "loose" story behind the song from an old journal entry :

"My young son has begun to talk about his dreams; strange dreams to him. He’s falling and calling out to someone below, Please catch me, but they can’t hear and they don’t answer. In his terror he falls until he awakens.

He stands before me now, cut on one knee, an elbow, and both of his hands. This time it’s his lame leg, not his dreams, that sent him tumbling head first. As he throws the heavy limb ahead of him, he sometimes throws it too far to the right and the cross up sends him sprawling on the grass if he’s lucky; on something less forgiving if he’s not. Gravity is his enemy, always conspiring with the roots of trees and the shoulders of washout stones to bring him down.

He has fallen in the drive this time. The bloodied skin is raised like Braille from the impress of the gravel. While his sister sings to him, I minister to his wounds, visiting the stations of his pain with alcohol and cotton. I gently wrap the gauze around the backs of his hands and he turns his palms upward in a saint-like gesture, blessing me with a smile.

Then I go inside to write a long overdue letter to a friend. I tell my friend I’ve been on a kind of precipice myself, fearing the winds that threaten to sweep me off the ledge I’m clinging to. There are days when life with my son is challenging, and a dark horizon looms three hundred and sixty degrees around me. And then there are those days of singing blue sky,when I know I’m a lucky to have him. On those days my heart is an eagle’s feather and I am made for rough winds.

My friend is trying to be helpful when he says he’s there for me. He says to call if I need him. I would call, but my voice is lost in the chasm between us. The closest of friends can drift apart under duress.

What can I tell you, son, about those dreams that alarm you? This flesh is too heavy for the spirit’s wings to lift us. Each of us in his way is a child of the falling-dream, an echo of the unanswered call. Ours is a constant prayer for the sudden awakening."

The song can also be streamed from My Space if you don't want to download it:

Giant Steps (Craig Bickhardt)

You’re just a little boy clinging to your father’s hand
Your legs are working hard keeping up with your old man
And it gives you a feeling you can’t explain
To you this big old world is just a game
Taking giant steps, giant steps
A leap and a bound barely touching the ground
Time to stretch those wings, try new things
Learning to reach for your best
Taking giant steps

Now I’m too old for games or so I used to think
But part of me is a child and I’ve found that missing link
As our days rush by us we’ll grow as one
The two of us, like father like son
Taking giant steps, giant steps
A leap and a bound barely touching the ground
Time to stretch those wings, try new things
Learning to reach for your best
Taking giant steps

Soon the day will come when you’ll run ahead of me
Certain of yourself and what you’re gonna be
But when ever you stumble and lose your stride
Never lose the boy down inside
Taking giant steps, giant steps
A leap and a bound barely touching the ground
Time to stretch those wings, try new things
Learning to reach for your best
Taking giant steps

(copyright 1994, 2008 Almo Music Corp, Craig Bickhardt ASCAP, all rights administered by Universal Music)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Museum Quality: Further Musings On Great Songs

There have been many times when I’ve felt a strong urge to write something that stuck around longer than a few years: a legacy song, or at least a song I’d be proud to sing until I die. Mostly I’ve failed at this, but a few gems survive. Rodney Crowell once referred to this type of song when speaking about Guy Clark’s work-- he used the phrase “museum quality”.

I find it takes a pretty intense desire to create something great. The forge has to get pretty hot. Aspiration leads to some desperation, which leads to a spark of inspiration, and then the song sometimes comes in a rush of elation, fulfillment. Or maybe there will be a sudden vision that crystallizes in the mind’s eye and ear. This is the mystical part of the art, and it totally eludes those who have little faith in the process, or those who are in too much of a hurry. Great songs require dedication, time, effort, desire, fire, and yes, faith that the task can be accomplished.

Nurturing a great idea involves finding one to begin with-- waiting until something great comes to you, or, metaphorically speaking, stoking that fire. There will be false starts, ideas that don’t hold water, concepts that lack some fundamental truth in them. Even when the right idea strikes you, there will be misdirected verses, or perhaps you’ll be using the wrong groove, or a minor mode when it should be major, and you have to scrap it.

Then suddenly the magic happens, and very often the song is born rather quickly. I’d guess that many great songs are written in less than a few hours, and this is not a contradiction with what I said about taking the time to write something great. A great song can be written in a few hours after you spend weeks finding out how it should be written.

I’m not knocking the efforts of the journeyman songwriter who goes to work every day and cranks out another collaboration hoping it’ll be worthy of Tim McGraw. God knows I did it for years, until I sensed that my marginal ability to restrain my more exploratory creative impulses was meeting head-on with changes in the industry. Sometimes a great one came along anyway, but most days there just wasn’t enough heat in the process.

For those of you too young to remember, there was a time when Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark were hit songwriters on the Row. Steve Earle wrote there, too,and so did Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett sometimes. We all had a lot of latitude in the 1980s and 90s. A writer was given at least 3 years to prove himself/herself, which meant I could experiment—give myself the luxury of patience while trying to write a great song, and still satisfy my contractual obligations. I tried to meet my song quota early in the year to buy myself a few months of true creativity.

But today that can’t be done. The pressure for the mega-hit begins on day one and continues unabated. Publishers don’t allow much experimentation, and they allow no patience. Failure in 18 months means you’re out on the street again. The money is now completely wagging the writer.

Where has this left the so-called “great song”? It’s an outcast, an orphan of better days. In the current model, most hard working artists come off the road and feel they must co-write their next record under similar pressure. Statistically, it’s impossible to write 12 great songs in six months, cut them all, and make a great CD. No one has done it yet, although I’ve heard rumors that John Prine came close with his first record. Yet we see some variation of this plan attempted endlessly in Nashville. And this is why the radio, especially country radio, pretty much sucks.

The artists, who are unfortunately conditioned to receive instant gratification, all want the songwriting income from their hit singles, so they insist on writing, even when they have no time, and possibly even no abundant skills at it. Many people will say they deserve to write the record, who can blame them? If a hot young starlet really doesn't need a great song in order to get decent airplay, why let someone else write anything on the record?

The problem is that the modern artist (and Idol winner) has been duped into believing that success implies greatness, when success really only implies popularity, like white bread and string cheese. A record can go to #1 without being great by any stretch of the definition. And just because it goes to #1 doesn’t mean it will sell, nor that the artist will have a career in 18 months.

Only the great song guarantees that an artist will be making money at the end of the long, hard road. Does it matter to the Drifters that they didn’t write “Up On The Roof” (Carol King and Gerry Goffin), or do you think Dion cares whether he wrote “Abraham, Martin and John” (Dick Holler)?

And let’s not argue that it’s only semantics, that an insipid contemporary radio ditty is “great for what it is”. Really? I say anyone who thinks there’s room for debate about this is a musical illiterate. The term “great” used to be reserved for songs by The Beatles, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Cole Porter, Simon & Garfunkel, a few Motown classics and Brill Building evergreens. These days, according to an indiscriminate industry press, everyone writes great songs, which of course by deflation of meaning is the same as saying that no one does.

I’d like to believe this will change, but I’m not optimistic. The money comes too easily, even though the dollar is worth less these days. But the diamonds are still forged over time, and ‘museum quality’ is a standard for which we all should strive, at least once in a while.

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Angels Aren't Crying

As the changes in the music industry continue to come at us like Nolan Ryan fastballs it's easy to lose sight of what matters. What matters has always been, always will be, great songs. No amount of home recording technology or do-it-yourself social networking can replace the good old, chill-bump-raising, heart-tugging, gut-wrenching, gotta-hear-it-again song.

Bob Lefsetz's interesting recent post, "Singles Only", discusses the need for new artists to earn the listener's attention by promoting great single tracks as opposed to whole CDs. It's another way of saying, "Don't bombard me with 46 minutes of self indulgence, send me one great song." He's right. Nobody has time to listen to all the cheap music that's available on the Internet these days.

Why are there so few great songs out there in the sea of mediocrity? That's an easy one. We're all too busy pimping profiles, networking, auditioning for American Idol, Facebooking, emailing, and mixing the tracks we wrote and cut in the garage last Sunday. Who has the patience to nurture a great idea, or to write and re-write a really great song? Besides, we're the judge, jury and executioner for our own careers these days, so why not pretend none of this matters?

And yet, more than ever, it does. A voice is just a voice. I'm sorry Mariah or Justin (or whoever you are), but without a great song your vocal exercises amount to nothing, you're toast.

Voices are all different but how do we fall in love with one that has little or nothing to sing? If you could make the angels cry just by opening your mouth, you'd be discovered by the whole world overnight. But you can't. So you have to sing to mere mortals. But we'll listen if you just understand this simple fact : we want to hear a great song.

Maybe you're only trying to sustain a career, you're late for the tattoo parlor, and you think I should just butt out of your business. But you forget : I AM your business. I love songs. I listen to music. I even buy it. And guess what? All you have to do is trust what you feel when you hear the great song, then record it.

But you didn't write it you say.

Did it ever occur to you that Katherine Hepburn didn't write "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" and Ben Kingsley didn't write "Ghandi" and Denzel Washington didn't write "Malcolm X"? In fact you've spent your adult life watching great performances on film and never once criticized the actors on screen for not writing the words they speak. No actor would dare insist that he or she co-write every film he or she acts in, and yet if you're a young country artist or another pop diva...

You see, we have all the musical wallpaper we need. We don't require more mundane thoughts hung upon the ordinary scale, sung by your standard-issue lungs and mandatory vocal chords, even if you're cute, shapely and young. Even if you sing perfectly. If you love the sound of your own voice, for God's sake get over it. I have never, not once, bought a record simply because I loved someone's voice, nor because the drum samples were hot for that matter.

What we lack, what we'll always lack, are great songs that move us, that make us feel more human, that show us something about life we may have missed, that kill us with great lines and make the hair on our neck stand up. We lack meaningful communication in non-disposable form, and we'd sure like to be able to sing along with it and not sound like adolescent dweebs, bitchy models, hoes, thugs, Satan worshipers or meth heads.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

90 Seconds To Impact

When I address groups of songwriters or independent artists, different issues concern them. I often find myself teaching or clarifying things that may seem contradictory, when in fact they are simply the flip side of the same coin.

There’s a big difference between being a singer-songwriter and being just a songwriter. I’ve done both at different times in my career. A singer-songwriter has the latitude to set the bar for his/her own career. He/she can write intelligent, obscure lyrics and promote the music on the Internet. With hard work, an audience (no matter how small and loyal) will be found.

If you only write, and never perform or record, you are dependent entirely on other artists to monetize your work. You really don’t have the option to write an obscure, artistic masterpiece, because it will sit on your shelf forever. You can’t write too personally. You can’t write too metaphorically either. These options aren’t available to you.

Why? Well, brace yourself for the hypocrisy : it isn’t a level playing field.

In most pitch meetings a song gets a verse and chorus to "kill" the producer and artist. If you haven't killed them by the end of the first chorus, your shot is over. They don’t discuss possible interpretations of your lyric, and they don’t keep listening hoping the song will clarify itself. No one has time. They are at the meeting for one reason : they haven’t written or found or cut the smash that the label thinks they need for the new CD.

This is a common mistake that many pure songwriters make-- they write as if they’re singer-songwriters. They write as if there's no one in between them and the audience. In fact, there is a big wall between the pure songwriter and the audience. It's called the Music Industry. You must first scale this wall or the audience will never even hear your song.

The Music Industry consists of thousands of song-jaded, busy people who no longer trust emotional reactions to music because the last time they did that, the record died, and they got chewed out by the promotion department. They aren’t necessarily fans of the music they promote. They need hits for the roster; Martina, Brad, Alan, Gretchen. They go home and listen to Prine, Ely, Emmy Lou, old Merle or Doc Watson. But at the office they listen like robots trained to identify a certain breed of contemporary song : the Clear Channel radio smash. And you get 90 seconds to show them your stuff.

Do I like this fact? No, I hate it. But I was forced to accept it during the restrictive years when I was not a performing/recording singer-songwriter.

Here are some tips for you, the pure songwriter. If you’re a singer-songwriter, these tips won’t hurt you either. Write lyrics that have immediate impact. Don't evade the issue, deliver the emotional blow as soon as possible. Choose hooks/titles that convey an intensity of meaning and impact, such as "You're Gonna Miss This" (current Trace Adkins hit). Study radio lyrics, not Jewel or Joni Mitchell or Dave Mathews album cuts (or whoever you listen to for pleasure). Separate your hobby from your professional craft. Keep your personal lyrics to yourself, write universally appealing, clear lyrics for the industry.

Melodies must contain big identifiable hooks and should be simple enough or repetitious enough to be nearly memorized after two listens. Get to your hooks as quickly and directly as possible. Make the melody dramatic and rangy enough to satisfy singers with years of training and experience. You are pitching to many people whose art is the voice, not the song.

The bottom line is that success is to some degree a calculated thing. You must aim for it. If you shoot in the dark all the time, you’ll probably never hit the target.

And now a word to all of you singer-songwriters. You might need a pure songwriter’s help one day, so don’t judge their motives too harshly. It’s a tough job, and somebody’s gotta do it.