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)

1 comment:

Tim McMullen said...

Ah, you gotta love Townes. He is one of my true musical heroes. I fell under the spell of his magic in 1969 when I found his first album for ten cents (literally—it still has the sticker on it) in a cut-out bin in a supermarket in Chico, California, where I was going to college and trying to write and perform songs. He was such an interesting contradiction. As a singer he did Ramblin' Jack and Dylan one better, with an incredibly impressive, uncultivated voice (talk/croaking as much as singing) and a unique writing style, at once colloquial and ungrammatical, while richly poetic and occasionally mystical—often all at the same time.

The great thing about "To Live is to Fly" (and a number of his songs) is that it has a Garrison Keillor style narrative structure. Keillor starts telling a story by talking about a concept or event, then his narrative seems to soar off wildly in some other direction until you have pretty well forgotten the starting point. Suddenly, just at the right time, he brings back that original point and you see it, brought home beautifully and hilariously in a punchline that ties the whole piece together.

Townes' song is a song of seduction, the musician's pitch for a one night stand..., his "Carpe Diem" (or it could be a song for a wife or girl that must be left behind)

"Won't say I love you, babe
Won't say I need you, babe
But I'm gonna' get you, babe
And I will not do you wrong

Living's mostly wasting time
And I waste my share of mine
But it never feels too good
So let's don't take too long

Well, you're soft as glass and I'm a gentle man
We got the sky to talk about
And the world to lie upon"

"Days up and down they come
Like rain on a conga drum
Forget most, remember some
Oh, but don't turn none away"

As you say, it is the life of the itinerant musician, the loneliness and fleeting companionship, the dicey sound system and chancy audience, the constant leaving and arriving and leaving again. In the end, he brings it back around by pointing out to the woman that "we've all got holes to fill" (I don't think the sexual pun was intended, but Townes was not above that sort of thing) and the admonition that "the choice is yours to shake the dust off of your wings and the tears out of your eye."

The strange similes and jarring, but apt, imagery: "Soft as glass?" or "Like rain on a conga drum?" The rhyme scheme is extremely unusual, as well. It almost appears as if there is none, but consonance, rhyme and internal rhyme occur in the stanzas in an apparently nonchalant, but, in fact, meticulously repeating pattern.

Clearly, your point is not to imitate Townes. He is inimitable. However, following his lead by visualizing the details that allow the listener to share and be moved by an experience is essential to powerful song writing.

Long live the song writer...Long live Townes Van Zandt.