Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Painted Pony

It was the icebox winter of 1972. The Pennsylvania hills were covered in blue glaze that locked the land in a glassy silence. Coming up the last hill the car's tires whirred on the frozen patches, fishtailing through the black woods until the lights of an old farmhouse broke through bare branches.

Inside the house a bearded man sat cross-legged on the floor with a Martin D-28 guitar cradled in his lap and a lit Camel dangling from the corner of his mouth. He stretched his hand towards me and introduced himself. "You write songs," he said, as if my arrival had been foretold in a vision. "So do I." He crushed out his Camel and launched into one, punching out the chords with the force of a ten-pound hammer ringing on suspension bridge cables.

"I met me a Bearcat Woman, high on a mountain side"
Then he segued into another, and others after that. There was a tale about a union soldier who retreated from a bloody Civil War battle.
"Sassafras on the wind
Fog in the morning where the river begins”
From that first encounter with Fritter our two worlds were in close orbit. Sometimes gravity tore things away from the one and added to the other. The dust between us never quite settled. It was a dust made of molecules of inspiration that hung in clouds of chaos until we shaped it into songs.

We spent the next few months in the old farmhouse writing tunes and getting our new band tight. It all came easily, like breath. Music was in my pores and in my blood. It fueled and fed me like invisible bread. Every new song stretched the horizon a little further and made me want to explore what lay beyond. The world seemed on the verge of becoming some penultimate thing, capable of the perfect fulfillment of possibilities, and I was alert for the moment's arrival. There was little to tie me down and even less to keep me grounded. When the creative euphoria hit it was like helium. I could no more weigh it with considerations than I could keep the clouds from floating by.

Fritter would lay out his lyric concepts in big dense chunks, like ore in slag. I grabbed the scribbled pages before the ink was dry and forged the melodies. By summer we'd worked up a decent set of originals. We felt good about the musical direction we were taking.

One afternoon the two of us took a 12-string guitar, a 12-gauge shotgun and one of his notebooks out to the barn. The wind blew fresh from the north and ragged clouds raced overhead. Everything seemed to be going somewhere. Inside the barn I emptied both barrels of the gun into a beam. Splinters flew back in our faces and some of the shot hit the far wall making tiny puffs of dust that coiled upwards in the light between the slats.

We climbed to the upper level, opened the bay doors, and sat on the floor still covered with hayseed from years before. I started strumming a chord progression on the 12-string while Fritter flipped through pages of his half finished verses. "Here, check this out," he said handing me the notebook.

"There's a frost on the wind as it scours the town
Shutters in place as the awnings come down
Sap is barely flowing and there's ashes on the sun
Yield to summer's sister, the gentle painted one
Ride the wind, read the breeze, and be gone
Painted pony with the dancing eyes be gone
Take a part of me along…”
By the end of the day we’d completed the song. The Painted Pony was a metaphor for our dream. We'd spent a lot of time those first few months talking about getting out of Pennsylvania and setting up our project in Colorado. From there we could hop to LA and be near the music industry for short periods, and we'd have the scenery of the mountains for inspiration the rest of the time. The record deal would come down eventually, we could feel it. But it wasn't quite time for us to go.

It took six more months for the band to finally pull up stakes and head west. When we did it was without Fritter. In the end I was the wandering gypsy and he was the one rooted in the soil of home. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was embarking on more than a move west. I was beginning a lifetime of riding the wind and being gone. Sometimes I wish I’d been content to stay where I was. Sometimes I don’t think I’ll ever get to where that pony is going.

Copyright 2009 Craig Bickhardt. "Painted Pony" copyright Craig Bickhardt and F.C. Collins. Incidental lyrics copyright F. C. Collins.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Bear

The big Boeing 737 whined into the blue carrying a stocky man in a twill coat. His beard was neatly trimmed. On his lap sat a hunk of greenish rock. No one had objected to him bringing it onboard the plane because this was back in the days before terrorism and the lethal fear of men with beards.

When I met Fritter at the Nashville airport, the first thing he did was hand me the rock. It was a crudely chiseled figure of a hulking bear moving on all fours, head slightly raised, sniffing the wind. It had tiny ears and anatomically accurate muscular hindquarters. It weighed about fifteen pounds but he’d carried it all the way through the long terminals at Philadelphia International and BNA.

“I saw the bear in it as soon as I picked it up out of the field,” he said.

“Seeing is one thing, but taking the time to chisel it out…,” I said.

“Nah. I knocked it out one morning last winter when I couldn’t get out of the driveway in the snow. It just felt like it should belong to you.”

“Thanks,” I said turning it in my hands. “I wouldn’t know where to begin chipping on a hunk of granite to make it look like a bear.”

“Neither did I.”

Fritter had always been a bit of a creative nomad. He wrote songs mainly, but he would pick up a hammer and chisel one day and surprise himself with something like the bear. A few days later you might find him sculpting clay figures or pouring cement into rubber molds to make his garden plaques.

When we got back to my house I put the bear in my studio, nosing it up against a thick dictionary at the end of the reference shelf. It sat there poised to head into Webster’s to hunt for some fresh adjectives.

Fritter and the bear with his nose in the wind had much in common. I pictured them both standing at the edge of the wilderness watching the rest of the human race apprehensively and being regarded nervously f
rom the opposite direction, too.

“I know what that bear reminds me of,” I said.

One of the first songs Fritter played me back before we started our band together was a song he called The Bear. In the lyric a rancher confronts a grizzly in the snow only to realize;

“My land sits on his land, that’s the way it is.”
(The Bear copyright 2009 by the estate of FC Collins)

On this particularly fine Nashville afternoon Fritter and I sat in the shade of my elms with our guitars and our notebooks. The Hedge Apples thudded to the ground in the woods while the bees got drunk on the overripe fruit. Occasionally a breeze blew the leaves around the yard like a clutch of ducklings scurrying after an invisible mother. The world was as small as the open ground between the two of us and the tree line.

We sang our newest tunes to each other and talked about writing. Later, when the sun went down we watched a meteor shower that sent little comets shooting out of the dark like welder’s sparks. I balanced my guitar on my knee and played a loping finger pick that became the soundtrack for the spectacle. Fritter dove from topic to topic, grasping at salmon in the stream of his thoughts while I picked and listened to his words resonate against the night sky and the bronze strings. That was how we wrote sometimes. I picked and listened to him talk until a certain phrase would tumble out serendipitously; the perfect metaphor for the mood of the music.

Suddenly the wind rose over the trees with a deep roar that carried off the sound of my guitar. Fritter halted in mid-sentence and put his head in the air. He froze suspiciously and waited for the tumult to pass over. When the hush returned he said, “We should call this tune Brother to the Wind.” I smiled because I knew that was exactly what we should call it.

Sometimes, all these years later, when I'm missing the inspiration I'll lift the bear from its shelf. Inside that rough, chiseled figure I can almost feel the stirring of a creative hunger. It reminds me of my place on the edge of the wilderness and I feel a sense of restless anticipation as the winter rolls in once again. Maybe he was right. The wind, the bear and the songwriter are brothers, and the bright salmon are still leaping somewhere.

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt

Listen to "Brother to the Wind" written by Craig Bickhardt and FC Collins

Craig Bickhardt Brother to the Wind Track 03

Buy the full length, 12 song CD directly from the artist here

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Stone Barn; a Reminiscence

"Music from Big Pink" was an inauspicious LP, selling only moderately to some Dylan fans who hadn't deserted him after Newport. The group of musicians that made the LP didn't have a name. They were simply referred to in some vilifying reviews as "the band that accompanied Dylan". Pete Seeger had been appalled by them, but "Big Pink" was a landmark record for many of us. It was followed soon after by an even better record humbly titled "The Band". By that time they'd earned no less, nor more, of a name.

The Band influenced me and some friends to start our own group and rent a house like Big Pink where we could woodshed. It just seemed like the thing to do even though we had little money to keep up the lease. The old Heyburn farm became our home for 18 months. The property was located near Chads Ford, PA a couple of miles from where Andy Wyeth painted. It was a big place-- six bedrooms, plus an attic, two living rooms, a mudroom, kitchen and upper level porch. I used to sit on that porch sometimes when the moon was full and write or sing until dawn. The fields and woods behind the house sang back to me with ciccadas, owls and other wildlife.

We called our band Wire and Wood (the name has since been re-used by another east coast outfit unrelated to us). It was a phrase from a lyric written by our fearless leader, a songwriter named F. C. Collins who was nicknamed Fritter by his grandfather. The name was the perfect sobriquet for sizing you up. He'd look you in the eye with an unspoken threat that defied you to call him an apple turnover. No one ever did. He had the look of the wolf in those gray blue eyes and the stocky build of Grizzly Adams.

The melodies of Mercury splash along the walls
Sounds of wire and wood, fingers moving good

("Mercury" copyright by F. C. Collins)
The melodies did indeed splash along the walls mixed liberally with other substances. Day and night music was heard in the Heyburn house after we took it over. We collaborated on original tunes in combinations; me and Fritter, Rick and Fritter, all three of us. The songs were juicy, with titles like "Bearcat Woman", "Painted Pony", "Changing of the Guard" and "Long Distance Man".

Friends dropped by at all hours to listen to the arrangements we were tightening up in one of the living rooms. During a lazy afternoon two guitarists might be found in the kitchen working out Allman Brothers style harmony lead guitar parts. Some evenings there'd be a three-part harmony vocal rehearsal happening in one room over a jug of wine, while in another room the rhythm section worked out a tricky groove that made a song pulsate like a titan's heartbeat. Taped to the walls were set lists, gig posters, stage layouts, clippings of our Main Point reviews- anything that kept us focused on what we were doing. We meant business, but I remember it as the most fun I've ever had with music.

Fritter and I used to hang out and write in the barn sometimes. It was a typical farm structure for eastern Pennsylvania, probably built by Quakers who loved to use stone in everything. For the Quakers and the Egyptians, if it was worth building at all it was worth building for posterity. This particular barn was huge- four levels spanning almost full acre. It smelled of manure, barley and damp hardwood. The wooden top levels had rear bay doors for tossing out bails to the stables in back. Fritter and I would sit up there of a summer afternoon- bay doors swung wide, our legs dangling high above the pasture- and write. We put the tunes together mostly from fragments of lyrics and melody we'd composed seperately. We were learning as we went, discovering our creative wings while the barn held us majestically aloft and the hawks circled above us.

It came to an end too soon as all good things do, and I was brought back to earth older and somewhat wiser. But I've managed to keep a few inches of sky between me and the ground by holding onto the idealism we shared and the standards we set with our feet in the air that summer. Those values became essential when I ventured to Nashville some years later. I've never forgotten that music is all about woodshedding and dreams. The beginning is the most difficult part of anything, whether it be a life, a journey, a career or a song. Our beginnings define us. Anything well-begun is more often than not well-completed.

After decades in the south I returned north recently to reconnect with my past. I live only a couple of miles away from the Heyburn property now, which was re-zoned in my absence. Commercial potential never lies unexploited for long in America.

Developers attacked the barn last month. Notified of the event by a neighbor, I went over to watch as the shirtless young men, tanned and glistening, ripped the boards off the roof one by one and threw them towards the sinking sun. The Band's "Whispering Pines" floated through my head as the soundtrack for the scene.

By the end of the day the upper wooden structure was completely gone, bay doors and all. But in the cool shadows below, the massive stone walls remain. That old foundation is still holding up a few of my dreams this morning. After all, part of me has never stopped being a kid with his feet dangling in the blue.

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Cold Eye, Warm Heart

A procession of ants invaded our kitchen not long ago. We sprayed, we cleaned, and the ants retreated. They were back a few days later following a slightly different path. It has been a month now and we've conceded that maybe these ants are smarter than we are. Their intelligence is collective, of course, but does it matter?

The truth is I’ve had no real will to exterminate them. In fact I admire them. I feel sympathy for these hard working creatures that won’t be deterred. I imagine them going home to their ant children, their ant aunts and uncles, and saying, “Don’t worry. Tomorrow we’ll get back in there and bring home the bacon.” I was moved almost to tears by the thought as I watched them die in the chemical spray. How strange.

My brother Eric sent me a quote from R. H. Blyth, “We are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.” Precisely. Here I was being foolishly sentimental about my ants and yet God certainly had no tenderness for them because He invented the ant eater.

I’ve always admired writers who avoid being sentimental. This seems to be a talent the best southern writers naturally possess. Perhaps it’s the harsher climate and the way the light is keen in the dust.

The world was like a distant storm
I could feel it on the breeze
But it made so little difference here
Just a whisper in the trees
Mending fence for room and board
Was mostly all I’d done
For I was still a prisoner here
In nineteen-sixty-one
The sucker rod on the windmill creaks
Now and then you hear a car
There’s thunderheads across the southern sky
But they won’t get this far

(“Six-Year Drought” by James McMurtry)

Sentimentality is wrung out of this and left to evaporate on the parched earth. McMurty’s lines are as hard and pitiless as the Texas plains, and yet they still touch something pulsating with life inside. I bet he sees his struggling ants and sheds no tears for them.

While I hold McMurtry's standard in the highest esteem and wouldn't change a word of it, I suppose I’m just a sucker. I’ve flirted with sentimentality all of my writing life, and maybe I’ve even crossed the line sometimes. The truth is it’s damn hard not to cross it if you feel any pity at all for the world.

Softer art for harder times? Probably won't fly. Yet we must feel something in order to be human. There must be emotion when it is warranted, and there is indeed a perceptible difference between emotion and sentimentality even though it sometimes takes a microscope to see it. After all, it’s our compassion that keeps the human race going, and we don’t want to lose that.

In the writing we can err both ways. On either side of the good, observant narrative there are pitfalls; effusiveness or stolidity. The line between is walked with a cold eye and a warm heart.

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt

Monday, August 24, 2009

Stirring the Imagination

I arrived in Nashville to write songs for the first time on the day that Marty Robbins died. It was December 8, 1982. The timing of my arrival seemed uncanny to me because Marty was one of my biggest boyhood heroes. How this came to be is a story in itself.

Before my father retired he worked at WIP Radio in Philadelphia for over 50 years. The station played a little bit of everything in the early 1960s- from Perry Como to Charlie Rich to Bobby Darin to Marty- before turning to Sports Talk in the late 1980s.

Mom kept the radio tuned to WIP all day long while she tended house because it made her feel close to pop. Sometimes a DJ on the air, either Bill Webber or Ken Garland, would share a joke with my old man as he sat behind the engineer’s glass. That would be the highlight of our morning as mom ironed and I played in the kitchen. The little joke beamed him home again for a few seconds through the radio waves.

I used to imagine how things looked down there inside the tower at Rittenhouse Square- the electronics glowing with ten foot tubes, or maybe it was fifty foot tubes, with wires running everywhere like tentacles and stuff bubbling in strange tanks. And there was pop behind the glass wearing his Buck Rogers headphones that could hear music on Mars. All in my weird inner world.

Every once in while the station manager would cull the LP library to discard duplicates and worn records and dad would bring home a magical stack for me. In one of them was Robbins’ “Gunfighter Ballads”. Now this was a record made for stirring up the imagination of a young boy. I spent hours listening to it on my little suitcase turntable while the bright sunbeams crept drowsily across the floor and I slid over a few inches along with them so I could stay warm. I dreamed of gunfighters at night.

Marty’s tall tales were wonderful, but he wasn’t the only raconteur on the radio back then. Muscular story-songs were popular in those days. Johnny Horton sang “Sink the Bismarck” and “North to Alaska”. Johnny Cash was scoring with “Wreck of the Old ‘97” and others. Jimmy Dean did "Big Bad John". It was a good time to be a storyteller and a great time to be a kid who loved flights of fancy.

I’ve noticed that words in books and words in songs can evoke something in my brain that pictures and movies can’t. It’s almost as if actually seeing something that I’ve previously only imagined is sort of a let down. I don’t know why… maybe I should’ve lived in a time when the tribe story-teller was a mystic who sang his tales before the campfire.

Sometimes it seems to me as if all of our imaginations might be getting weaker, or maybe they’re just full of sludge. Maybe we’re so visually assaulted with images of violence and horror that language seems to be an insufficient stimulant. Our films use special effects that try to supplant our imaginations, and yet the computer graphics can rarely outdo our nightmares. I think the inner sludge needs a good stirring up occasionally, but maybe mere words won't whisk well (bad alliteration).

I had a close friend and collaborator who passed away a few years ago. He once wrote a song about a guy who hunted alien beasts in outer space called “Star Trapper”. It’s an amazing song, full of larger than life imagery and sound track potential. He wrote another one about the Algonquin Indians’ mythological spirit-possessor, the Wendigo. We used to sing it together and I always felt like we might accidentally call the Wendigo into our presence if we did it with just the right amount of mojo. That’s the power and fun of a freshly stirred imagination.

Losing my friend was tough. Losing Marty and the other story tellers of my childhood was like losing collaborators in my land of enchantment. I don’t think I’ve ever really replaced them.

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt

Friday, August 7, 2009

Country Dignity

Where are the real people in country songs? Where have they gone? There's dignity in country people. Yes, they have trucks and muddy jeans out there, although most Music Row songwriters apparently never leave their condos long enough to see for themselves. If they did, they'd meet someone rather surprising.

Country folks have hearts and souls. They rescue the lives of colts and calves birthed in breach. They fix the roof and dig the well. They save and sacrifice to marry off daughters or pay their college tuition. They send sons to war or give them a parcel of the family land to farm. They stop and talk with strangers while they mend fences. They raise a neighbor's barn and lend tools to each other. They tell very funny stories. They grow strawberries and give hayrides at Halloween. They aren't always drunk at the bar down the road or drunk at the lake. Where are the real people in country songs?

I believe a songwriter should be a poet. He should speak the timeless truth and find the wisdom in simple actions. A song lyric doesn't need to lead the listener down the path like a dumb cow on a tether. It can be an invisible sword that wounds the heart without drawing blood.

By contrast, here is the kind of cheap limerick-verse we get from Nashville these days:
There were two karaoke girls drunk on a dare
Singing "I Got You Babe" by Sonny and Cher

Yeah, life was good everywhere

My reaction to these lines is that life is pretty pathetic in some places. This is, in fact, what urban people do when they have no life. What about the stuff that really makes life good everywhere? Why does the working stiff need to aspire to this obnoxious spectacle on a Friday night? Can't he, for once, go to a town meeting and debate healthcare reform? Or do you think he's too stupid to do that? Go on, urban cynic, poke fun. Let's see you dismantle a tractor engine and have it running by sun-up. Let's see you run a family business on fumes and a prayer.

The rule of thumb in Nashville is: make her crude, make him dirty, put them in a truck (with a six pack sometimes), and it's a country song. Keep listening to country radio and you'll hear plenty more where that came from:

She wants her nails painted black
She wants the toy in the crackerjack

She wants to ride the bull at the rodeo

She wants to wear my shirt to bed

She wants to make every stray a pet

N' Drive around in my truck with no place to go
Real or bogus? "Wanted desperately: one goth redneck woman. She must have no idea what fun is, and prefer being thrown from a 2000 pound bull at the end of the date. I will shower her with little plastic Crackerjack toys (hopefully one will be a ring!) and affection. In return for winning my heart, she can waste my hard earned pay on $3 per gallon gas driving around aimlessly in my truck (which I never need), and keep every animal she finds along the way. Waiting anxiously for the woman of my dreams!"

It's time to call this what it really is: bogus parody- and cynical parody at that. Let's bury it. Let's pronounce it dead. It's anti-poetry, anti-heart, anti-reality, and anti-country.

copyright 2009 craig bickhardt

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Blissful Surrender

Do you want to write songs, or do you need to write them?

If writing great songs were only as simple as wanting to do it, we'd all have dozens of them. It requires more commitment than that. If you're blown away by a song you hear or a book you read, rest assured someone needed to create it (even if it came quickly, the intense need to write was probably sustained for years). Great writers aren't really so gifted, they just have an impossible compulsion. They're "all in". The need keeps them awake when they want to sleep; it keeps them hungry when they want to be fed; it demands their attention when they want to daydream.

There are times when I catch myself looking for some point of entry like a junkie tapping on his veins. Yesterday's song is just yesterday's song-- a high that didn't last. If I had to go to dangerous alleys and midnight borders of the imagination for my fix, I probably would. There are those who see a work of art and feel a gentle glow inside. There are others who see a work of art and feel a fire in the blood to create one of their own. There's no escaping it, no letting it pass, no procrastination. It's an allurement as intoxicating as any substance known to man. When it isn't there, we ache for it. But where the need is deep, so can be the result and reward.

Whenever I'm "engaged to a song" I know there will be many drafts of the lyric. There will be moments when I want to rip out my hair because part of the melody isn't holding up. Bring it on. I fall sleep on the sofa in the den and wake up at the first light of dawn excited to begin again. Bring it on. When the song is finished there's a feeling of temporary wholeness I can't find in any other pursuit. Yes, only to begin again...but joyously in spite of it all.

You'll recognize your need if you have one. Let your creative hours be sacrosanct and uncompromised. Put life on hold. Throw caution to the wind (insert any more cliches you can think of here).

As I lay awake last night lamenting another day in which I worked for ten hours and produced not a single creative thing, I thought of all the contented folk who didn't create anything either, and who slept soundly with a pleasant dream. I wanted to feel contentment, rest, peace. I told myself that most words are written on sand. Most melodies die with the singer. Most paintings darken with the patina of the world's grit and grime. Why make anything at all?

I believe we make things because we are the pressure valve of the ultimate making of things. Through us escapes the blow-off of creative forces no one can imagine. That is our role in the big picture. There's really no self-importance in a creative act when you understand the mysterious and uncontrollable nature of it. It's all for the sake of an elemental energy in the pipeline that chooses your particular point of exit. Creative needs are like geysers in Yellowstone; warm salty mud being blown out of the way so the earth can keep its crust intact for another day. The earth doesn't respect geysers, it simply uses them. I am used, you are used; we're The Need incarnate and we'll never fully understand the unseen forces below the surface. There's no remedy for it but a blissful surrender.

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Music Circle

Falling in love with anything is a growth process; something that requires a little pondering and engagement; something we invest ourselves in. Remember when LPs (if you are under 30, mea culpa) didn’t come at us like bullets from an automatic weapon? We really didn’t have hundreds of new releases to choose from because there were no successful DIY-ers in those days. If David Geffin or Ahmet Ertegun or John Hammond didn’t sign the artist, we knew it was because they weren’t any good. We had a little faith in the taste makers back then. No one complained about a Rolling Stone issue, or a radio playlist because there was something for everyone.

Back in that misty era it was a big event when the Allman Brothers or Gordon Lightfoot or Stevie Wonder or Joni or Jackson released a new record. When Dylan's new records came out, time almost stopped. We savored those sweet moments of listening knowing it would be a long time before we felt like that again. We took some time to fall in love with the music, and sometimes it was a permanent affair. Sitting in the dark, focusing on the music, there was a chance-- just a chance-- the artist had something important to say. Listening could be intimate and fascinating. Most of the lyrics these days aren’t really meant for our full attention. We have no prophets and few real communicators.

Lately I find myself listening to more, less. I might enjoy a new CD once and never come back to it. Who has time to fall in love with music anymore? I know I’ve liked a few CDs enough to put them in my favorite stack. But then I’m swept downstream so rapidly I can barely recall the artist's name. I want that to change. Yeah, my internal clocks are winding down and everything outside moves so fast I can’t keep up... but really, there’s just too much distraction and very little of it is worthwhile. We lack time for appreciation.

I took a high school elective once called Music Appreciation. We just sat in class and listened, usually to a classical piece by a dead Austrian composer, or an Aaron Copeland treatment of a beautiful folk song. It was a relaxing class. I wonder if they still offer it?

Music is the eternal soundtrack for life, but it’s no longer a focal point of it. The music plays ever so agreeably in the background as we jog, or cook, or plan our days. We catch ourselves every once in a while thinking, “nice tune” and maybe we hum a few bars later on as we stand in line at Starbucks. But we aren’t engaged, really absorbed in listening like we were when there was little else to do. Ah, those dull, ancient times.

I've seen my daughter listen to music through one ear of her headphones, IM her friends, talk on the cell phone at her other ear, and read Harry Potter simultaneously. I can handle a stick of gum and the laundry at the same time. But I asked her once if she ever got together with her friends just to listen to music like we did in the old days. "Well, only if we're going to a concert, but then we like to dance and take stupid pictures with our phones and party..." Not what I was thinking at all.

But now my daughter loves the music circles that my old-head buddies and I still have at the house on occasion. We pick and sing till the wee hours, and it's warm and wonderful. She brings her close friends with her to these gatherings, telling them, "You're gonna LOVE this! This is SO cool!"

I guess I’m hopelessly attached to the way it was. I miss the communal experiences that brought us together. I miss the artists that understood music’s power to hold us in a trance, to break down barriers and inhibitions, to teach us more about us. It's all wallpaper now. There’s 100,000 new tracks waiting for us out there. We can redecorate our profiles in a heartbeat. There's no need for the music circle.

Photo: Clara Bien

this posting copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Real Game

I was nine years old sitting in the first base bleachers at ramshackle old Connie Mack Stadium when the Cardinals visited in the summer of 63. Stan the Man was a few months short of retirement, but the aura of competition was still on him. His team was in a pennant race that year which they ultimately lost to the Dodgers. Many people have written about Musial, but the telling fact is that here was a guy who hit .330 and nearly won the League batting title at the age of 42, and it was just another season for him (his lifetime batting average was an astounding .331). He always played as if his life depended on today’s game, and he did it without performance enhancers.

Like many, I grew up on the lessons learned from sports competition. Between watching the games at Connie Mack, my father managed the Hilltop Lions and the Bluejays, the little league teams on which I played for most of my childhood and adolescent summers. Dad knew when to make us fight and when to ease off and let us be kids. That’s how dads used to raise boys. Competition wasn’t a grueling drill designed to land a seven figure sports contract. The Lions and Bluejays lost a lot of games, but we never felt like losers. Dad wouldn’t allow it. That was the Real Game, where I learned that putting heart into something has its own rewards.

If the heart has gone out of much of our culture, it’s because we believe our rewards must be in the form of tangible things, unrealistic bonuses, easy stock dividends, big contracts or little mail-in rebates. We need to see the carrot on the stick. We're bombarded with promises of payoffs, all of them requiring minimal effort, and none of them ennobling to the spirit of competition.

Our real competition lies within. The contest is against our own apathy, mediocrity and sloth. There is a pill for every normal and abnormal craving, but no pill to make you put your heart into the game. That you must do alone. What we get for putting heart into the game is sometimes just heartache, but oh those sweet returns when it all clicks—there’s nothing like it.

How much heart can we muster? How many knock downs can we rise from? How good can we become at what we do—will we lay it on the line?

Competition is a funny thing. If you give someone a fair chance to compete with heart, there’s nothing so enriching. Corrupt the spirit of competition and suddenly it gets ugly and debases everything it touches. When greed and steroids infected baseball, it declined. When greed and artificial enhancers like pitch tuners and pre-recorded concert tracks infected music, it, too, declined. Technology and its profiteers in both cases. The heart went out of it. The rest of our culture follows suit.

Competition and greed are almost synonymous in America these days, nearly indistinguishable. But what has been won if money can buy the victory? What have you proven if payola got you to the top; if technology fools your audience into thinking you have more talent than you do; if steroids made you hit 70 home runs; if your wealth came at the expense and ruin of the lives of others? Your victory is hollow and we all know it.

Heart and competition on the level playing field will survive in places where the greed and corruption cannot go. The true athlete won’t blow his shot at the Olympics by using banned substances, he’ll just compete the old fashioned way. The true musical talent won’t need artificial things to enhance her performances on American Idol, she’ll just show us her heart underneath that dowdy dress. The true champion will be like my friend Vince who has beaten cancer four times and still has his sense of humor and loves to sing. These are the only true winners. The victory must be real, not concocted.

When I walk away from this game I want it to feel just like it did back on that sunlit diamond. I was only a winner if I gave it my best no matter what the score board said. To you who say winning is everything and losing is just losing, I say if we play the Real Game with heart there’s no shame in losing at all. The only shame comes from winning without honor.

Listen to "The Real Game" (written by Don Schlitz and Craig Bickhardt)

This posting copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt

Thursday, July 9, 2009

All The Spells

The instinct is a mystery. We can't justify it, can't explain it, or defend it. We just feel it. A song pulls us into itself before we have time to over-analyze what we’re doing. It’s the mysticism of songs that compels us to search for new ones. We discover something that reflects the beauty of the world as it appears through our idealism and we call it a song. The whole universe would sing it, every star in the night, if only it were perfect.

We second guess the instinct. We tinker with the spontaneous “unseen logic” (as Emerson refers to it); those will-o-the-wisps of connection too serendipitous to be planned and too recent to be mapped. In the process of seeking critical approval, seeking the elusive cut, we lose something. The logic has become visible and the mystery goes out. It's so subtle it would be invisible under a microscope.

Why do you love your favorite songs? Search in vain for the definitive reason; you can't name it, can't point to it, can’t analyze it, you just feel it.

If pushed for a critique some would say the Beatles song "Yesterday" needed more attitude and imagery in the lyric. I can imagine being a young McCartney trying to sell that tune in Nashville today. Good luck, Pauly. The song defies this kind of criticism because we feel the tug of the soul when we hear it. Do you trust that mysterious instinct, that soul-tug, or do you trust the ever-logical criticism?

Like the illusion that the earth stands still as the heavens move around it, “right” is sometimes just a way of seeing something that could easily be proved wrong eventually. If a song sends a shiver down your spine, you don’t need to ask for someone else’s opinion of the shiver or the shape of your spine. Better to ask why there’s no shiver produced by the other songs. And that’s probably a simple question to answer: because there’s no mystery in them. They are laid out like assembly directions. Welcome to contemporary hit radio...

I turned a friend of mine onto one of my favorite songwriters this week, Bruce Cockburn (last name rhymes with "slow turn"). I discovered Bruce back in high school when a copy of his first LP fell into my hands out of a discarded radio library. Such luck rarely repeats. He has a lot of wonderful songs, but there's one in particular I love called “Pacing the Cage”. It has a verse in it that could be the creed of every serious songwriter:

I never knew what you all wanted
So I gave you everything
All that I could pillage
All the spells that I could sing

We are in the advantageous position of offering something, everything that we are in song. We can weave spells. The spell is part of the mystery; the incantations of the spirit. I’m skeptical of things that appear "right" when they ought to appear mysterious. I’d rather a song lift me off the earth than grasp at my ankles.

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt

Monday, June 29, 2009

Merciful Measures

As I muster some strength for the first time in almost a week (my nemesis, severe bronchitis again) and try to repair the damage done, I find myself thinking about my friends and family, and where I’d be without them. The illness took its usual toll—two canceled shows, a week’s worth of income permanently lost. More than that, it reminded me again of the fragile nature of the creative life, a life entirely dependent on the Mercy of the artist’s fellow man.

Music is a frivolity, a leisure activity for most, a foolish passion for a few. Those of us who pursue it full time used to require patrons and benefactors (factors of benefit to the arts) on whose Mercy we relied entirely. Things haven’t changed that much for most of us dreamers and n’er-do-wells. In spite of the jabs from critics and ill-read commentators, we aren’t all comfortable and fat, rolling in our royalties and scoffing at working class society. We are struggling to pay the bills just like everyone else, and in tough times we are often forgotten while the layoffs and plant closures affect larger segments of society. We feel for those who tumble into a life of insecurity in ways others probably don’t unless they’ve been there themselves. It’s unimaginable to many—a life stripped of steady income, no healthcare insurance, no sick pay, no disability protection, no pension… I feel for you, good, decent working folks, I feel deeply. I am with you.

Mercy doesn’t seem like Pity to me, although the words are often used interchangeably. Pity implies something wrenched from the gut and bestowed with some hidden disgust. No one wants it. Mercy, on the other hand, is a gentler thing. It’s the response to a supplication for energy, faith, empowerment, a request for spiritual or physical support, the kindness of kin. Mercy we all need.

Perhaps my biggest regret is my youthful attempt to circumvent Mercy; my thinking I could do this alone. It wasn’t resentment exactly, I just don’t like debts. But one thing a man learns as he gets older: life is full of debts that go unpaid. Mercy is the thing that allows him to go scot free sometimes.

My good friend and brilliant songwriter Nathan Bell goes back to a steady day job soon. Having come from an artistic family and lived for long periods of his life as a creative soul, he knows the job is a blessing he can’t refuse. His wife and children depend on it. My wife and children depend on me, too, so I must depend on the Mercy. I must hope there are those who will, out of kindness or out of a sense of duty to principals, choose to pay for downloading my songs even when they can get them for free on Pirate Bay; who will pay to hear my concert even when they can hear music that’s just as good by staying home and flipping on Austin City Limits; who will reschedule a show when I’m sick and not complain about all the ticket refunds; who will forgive me for all of the insecurity I lay upon their shoulders when they could have so much more in life; who will send me an email just to tell me what a song means to them; who have made, and will continue to make my journey a little easier and a little brighter just by being part of it.

For the merciful measures of each and every one of you, my deepest thanks.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Song For Father's Day

Sorry for the lack of postings recently, I've been very busy promoting the new CD and on the road a lot this spring. Here's a little tune I wrote with Jack Sundrud and Helen Darling that's appropriate for this weekend. I hope it's a small consolation for my absence from the blog!

Monday, May 4, 2009

It's All (Almost) In A Name

I'm a sucker for a compelling song title; "Moon River", "Peel Me A Grape", "Jesus, The Missing Years", "Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine", "Into The Mystic"-- these titles and countless more just begged me to drop the needle or push play when I was studying how to be a writer. It always seemed to me that an indelible song title was like the smell of one of my grandmother's Sunday afternoon dinners cooking in the kitchen. It was a portent of good things to come. I remember being disappointed when one of my favorite artists released a new record and I went excitedly to the store to scan that glossy, sealed LP and there were no interesting song titles on the back. It struck me as a missed opportunity. Sure, I sometimes bought the record anyway, but something always made me wary when the songs were called "In The Night", "With You", "Now And Then"... I was pretty sure those songs just weren't gonna kill me, and they rarely did.

I think a song title should catch my eye and stir up some curiosity. That's what the artwork on the LP/CD was all about, too. Except for some of the Indy stuff, lately CD artwork consists mostly of airbrushed photos of the stars. Who cares? Song titles and artwork play similar roles-- they add a physical dimension to the music, like handles on a dream. You can argue all you want about how many great songs there are with banal titles like "Yesterday", "I Need You" and "I Will Always Love You", and for pure emotional connection maybe it's hard to top those songs (I like 'em too). But in this era when no one has time to listen to everything, and when song titles sit on the computer screen like so many innocuous text messages, wouldn't it be wise to consider the intrinsic value of a song title?

A song title makes an impression, as does any name. Actors used to choose theirs very carefully, and with good reason. It was part of the image and mystique. A song is an entity with a life and a mystique all it's own. These days especially, the title can and does affect the song's life whether we think it's fair or not. I admit, a little guiltily, when I scan a track list at itunes or Amazon I click first on the most unlikely song title I can find. Why? I figure if the artist can pull that one off I might like what they do with an ordinary title, too.

If I write a 500 page book called "Headache", will you want to read it? That's how I feel when I see a song called "Love" (see the latest Sugarland CD). On the same CD we find "Keep You" and another called "Very Last Country Song". Glancing at the latest Rascal Flatts CD I see the first two cuts are “Take Me There” and “Here”. My first thought is why weren’t they able to find a song called “Everywhere” to round out a trilogy? And on the same disk there's a song that exemplifies what passes for a clever/cool song idea today “Bob That Head”. I would have at least put that one on the CD as “Bob, That Head”. Whether you think those songs are good or not really isn't my point. My point is, there's a song called "Tornado Time In Texas"** and you have to go cut the yard before it rains. Which song do you want to hear?

And what about the sheer fun of some song titles-- remember singing along with "Jumping Jack Flash it's a gas, gas, gas" at the top of your lungs? Somehow I just can't get the same thrill singing along with "Get My Drink On".

Let's agree on one thing: the charts (not just country) for the most part look pretty boring these days whether they sound boring or not. "White Horse" stands out as a striking image in a song title, and not surprisingly, it's a pretty good song, too.

I'm not being cynical here-- I'd still only write an idea I believed in and connected with from the heart, but some words and phrases are just more alluring than others, aren't they? When it comes to evoking the mysterious, the romantic, the playful, the profound, it's all (almost) in a name.

**"Tornado Time In Texas" by Guy Clark

copyright 2009 craig bickhardt

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Song, Come Free Me

Music is life. Music is sustenance, oxygen, bread, water, faith and nurture. We all know how it feels to starve on the fat of some success or to thirst in the fountain of a few good times. Success and good times do not satisfy the soul’s craving for music. I’ve prayed for a little music, but never for success or good times. When the music is gone, as it often is for a season of fruitlessness, I turn to stone inside. Suddenly I don’t even know what’s wrong with me, but something is, terribly. Then the sweet confluence of events allows me to find, no, discover it again, and I’m resurrected.

This week was like that. After preparing my income taxes and getting caught up on (and in) some other distasteful duties, I was practicing for a weekend of shows in Massachusetts. In the process I’d lost all track of time while I was singing, singing for the pure selfish pleasure of it. You can reach a point when music, and life, finds the zone. You realize you want the rest of your days to be joyous like that. The world can wait. Song, come free me.

A photographer was at my house later that same day shooting some stuff for a newspaper story. I stopped singing while he was there. At one point, noticing my suspiciously barren walls, he asked where my songwriting awards were. “In boxes in the basement,” I said. “Go get them,” he said. “They’re packed away. All wrapped up,” I said. Without a pause he insisted, “Good, I want to shoot you unwrapping them.” I had a knot in my stomach as I reluctantly brought up a box that was in plain view. I unwrapped one award and it looked sordid in its tacky aluminum frame-- a piece of paper that acknowledged something I’d accomplished in 1995. I felt estranged and oddly ambivalent about the thing. In fact it immediately made me want to forget about 1995 and get back into the singing zone. That frozen moment from my past was simply the symbol of a point of discovery no different than the one I’d made earlier that morning: music is life, and I need it now.

This morning here on Cape Cod it’s overcast and chilly but there’s an unsettling beauty in the scenery that feels like a series of minor chords in a slow, exquisite melody. Even now the music is alive and moving around us. Strewn ice age boulders are the whole notes. Long beaches are the glissandos. Ragged clouds are the tension, and rain on the windows is percussion. A gull riding a thermal is a violin…

Sometimes we share the life within the music. Last night I sang at O’Shea’s. It’s been a long winter for many of these native Cape folks, and spring fever was burning in their blood. The whole room was energized with single-organism purpose like bees in a spring hive. We sang and told stories for two hours, ending with some sing-alongs as my old friend Randal Patterson joined me on mandolin and harmonies. For a few short hours of music we breathed in the joy of song. We forgot that we’re almost constantly engaged in our common struggle to overcome all that crushes life, while we felt the spontaneous bursting of moments into bloom.

At one point I sang a tune that I co-wrote with my friend the Irish mystic and songwriter extraordinaire Jimmy MacCarthy. The chorus says, “The more I know, the more I wonder, from the setting of the sun to the dawning of the day”. What little I know is that music is life, life is the moment, and the moment is, or should be, wonder. We were made to sing, all of us, and more harmony is never a bad thing.

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Little Miracles

A great song is essentially an inspired idea. There’s a loaded word: “inspiration”. Who would dare use it inside the profane halls of Music Row these days? The music industry has found the commodity of mediocrity quite sufficient for its purposes, and if you go around talking about cosmic things like inspiration you better be prepared to be laughed at.

I don’t mean to imply that nobody’s working very hard. On the contrary, everyone is very industrious. The problem is that great songwriting, and great art for that matter, transcends a “job”. Inspiration isn’t the product of work. Yes, we must work in order to sustain ourselves so we can ultimately arrive at some moment of inspiration. But you cannot tweak mediocrity into greatness by perfecting its vapid shell. There has to be something inside the shell first. You cannot pick the first serviceable idea that happens to come along and build an artifice around it and expect the world to call it a shrine.

There seems to be a lot of confusion between sound and substance these days. Perhaps substance is an acquired taste. Maybe butter and white bread are delicacies to a certain kind of palate, I dunno. Me, I need flavor. I don’t give a damn how high that Idol kid can sing or how well his hair products hold up under the TV lights, or how in tune and full of attitude he or she is. I’m not impressed by the fact that the hook and the verse of a hit song tie together cleverly as long the whole idea is as dumb as Cheese Whiz and half as nutritious.

The greatness of anything is contained in the inspired idea itself. That’s true of the telephone and of the great song. If it’s truly great, it was born of a glimpse and an impulse. The impulse was an unstoppable desire to bring a vision to life (inspire literally means to “breath into life” a creative endeavor). If we acknowledge that life is a miracle, then the process of inspiration and creative results is also miraculous in its own way.

Who would argue in retrospect that the best Beatles records weren’t creative miracles? Does anyone really believe that you can get four really talented musicians into a studio and turn them into the Beatles? If not, then logic, hard work and formula cannot replace the mystical and all-important element of inspiration. The chemistry of creativity is as important to its success as the chemistry of life is to the thriving of an organism.

Time after time I find myself listening to songs or records and thinking, “Why did anyone bother to make this?” There is certainly nothing even remotely inspired about it.

When an inspired song raises the hair on the back of your neck, you know you’ve encountered something wonderful, even miraculous. But the vast majority of songs and records today are simply labored into existence at great expense of time and energy. They are pure works of work, not works of art; neither inspired nor required.

This isn’t to say to you, o lowly songwriter, that you shouldn’t make the effort to write on a regular basis. On the contrary, practice is essential, and so is keeping the “machinery” well oiled. Write enough songs so that you can discover the moment of inspiration, because without knowing what inspiration is, you will never be great at what you’re attempting to do.

You will not discover inspiration immediately. None of this magic “just happens” one day after you’ve written a couple of exercises. To the seasoned songwriter, the inspired idea feels like inspiration because he or she can sense that it’s above and beyond previous limitations (the level of mediocrity we can all hit on any given day), and we can feel the irresistible urge to tackle it, as well as the confidence that it can be tackled.

Giving something life isn’t as simple as baking a cake or painting a wall. You don’t give a dead idea life, you put a living idea into a song. How do you know it’s a living idea? It pulsates with possibilities; it demands to be born; it’s a part of you, sustaining itself in your mind like a gestating being. The gestation of a great song to the writer is almost as miraculous as the gestation of a child to its mother.

So laugh all you want about inspiration, Music Row. The last laugh will be mine because I know when I’ve witnessed a little miracle.

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt

Monday, March 2, 2009

Polarity Of Mind

I’ve just returned from a ten day road trip that included a few days in Nashville. I might blog about the trip next time, but for now I’m following up on my last post, Deep Creativity. I came upon a wonderful series of articles by Merlin Mann on the same subject called “Making Time To Make” (note this link is only Part One of the series, see the other two parts at the 43Folders Blog). In it he quotes novelist Neal Stephenson on the subject of Internet (and general) distraction:

“Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless."
The four-hour time block is one that I grew accustomed to in my days of routine songwriting. Even if you have a day job, this is something you can squeeze into a weekend or maybe a quiet evening if you happen to have an easy day at work. You must begin by feeling relaxed about the length of time you’ve set aside to work. Even if you end up discarding an hour’s worth of failed effort, you still have ample time to go deep into the zone for a solid verse or chorus.

Don’t be in a hurry to commit to an idea. Turn off the ringer on the phone, don’t check your email, and if possible, try to get the place to yourself (send your spouse to a movie or pass up a party you won’t hate to miss). Don’t jot down thoughts in a hurry, re-think your concepts, clarify and distill the language. Work your way inward until you pick up the faint trail of a solid idea. This metaphor is appropriate: you are in the wilderness of the imagination. Don’t expect to find the well-worn path. If you do find it, be suspicious.

I emphasize this because it’s often the case that a real breakthrough is only possible in deep concentration. Short bursts of time-effort can sometimes yield a good spontaneous line or on rare occasions a couplet, but a tight lyric cannot be written one phrase at a time while multi-tasking. Your brain must be firing on all cylinders. You must have the complete resource of language, metaphor, rhyme, and imagery focused like a laser on the task, and the focus must last for as long as it takes to finish the job (the verse or chorus you’re working on).

Another way I think of this is as a kind of unified “polarity of mind”. It’s as if all the neurons are pointing in random directions when I begin a writing task, and I must first harness the “magnetic” current to get the thought process flowing in one direction : toward the goal. As long as part of my mind is occupied on a different problem, I’m not unified, not fully focused. I can tell when the focus is there because there’s a physical sensation of tremendous mental power aimed at an invisible target—I know the target is there, yet it eludes direct perception at first. Gradually I begin to see an outline, then as concentration increases I can see the bull’s-eye. There is also a sense of expectation, an “aura” that precedes the discovery of the right line or word—you can feel it emerging just before you pounce on it.

Writing is not free-association, scribbling down the thoughts as fast as they come to you, although this can be useful at the start of a writing session. That’s like drawing the treasure map. But you must still follow the map, and what you discover as you follow is the stuff that makes the song. Great lyric writing isn’t just singable language. Go deep and find out what you can make of an idea, don’t just skim the surface between emails.

copyright 2009 craig bickhardt

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Deep Creativity

We multi-task our days away in a whirlwind of keyboard activity, and we’re even programmed to enjoy our interruptions-- that’s what the researchers have discovered. Interruptions increase adrenaline and the kick is addicting says author Maggie Jackson in her new book “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age”. We’d rather get an email or a Tweet than focus deeply on anything because the short-term rewards are greater.

This got me thinking about my own distracted life, and about the music I often hear. Most of the time I get the impression that the writer of a song I’m listening to has not experienced deep creativity at all, but has rather effortlessly jotted down his/her first thoughts about a subject in rhyme/stanza form. Sometimes it isn’t bad, but rarely does it move me. Yet, there is a level of creative concentration at which truth and emotion get tapped. This depth can be reached as a result of a sudden plunge (an event or an emotionally over-wrought time in a writer’s life), or it may require some digging and focus to arrive at the artery that leads to the heart.

My own experiences with deep creativity were numerous in the days when I was not part of Internet culture. They have diminished proportionally with my immersion in e-promotion, e-commerce, email, e-distraction. There were long beautiful days in the 1990s when time was all but meaningless. I would dive into a song idea early in the morning and come up for air in the early afternoon just long enough for 30 minutes of laps in the pool at the local recreation center. Then I couldn’t wait to get back to it. It was heaven for me and I wonder why I have so thoughtlessly subscribed to this invasive never-out-of-touch culture at the expense of my deeper creative life. Could it be I’m afraid I’ll miss something? The problem is, I am missing something—my deep creative experience.

This doesn’t just apply to lyrics. Sometimes I’m working on the music and it’s as if I’m trying to crack a walnut with my teeth. There’s something inside the song that I just can’t get to. I can assemble chords and sing melodies that sound pretty good to my ear, but there’s a level of feeling missing.

I remember distinctly the experience of trying to write the music for Carrying A Dream (see my new CD). I was in mourning for a dear friend, and his words were burning in my brain. But the music… ah, the music… I tried it every which way I could, but all in vain. I was searching for the melody that set loose a flood of emotion, I wanted to feel my loss and make those lyrics bleed like I was bleeding in my soul.

It took three days to find the magic key that unlocked the door to that pure cistern room inside. When I found it, the melody to Carrying A Dream poured out in about ten minutes. But those ten minutes were the result of a fixation and a struggle to feel something in the music for days. In the process I probably wrote several versions of the song that would have passed muster if I’d never had the experience of being moved by my own creative Muse. But once you know what a great creative moment feels like, you can never go back to being satisfied with less.

This is why distraction and e-living have damaged the music. There’s so little music out there that moves us because we’re all moving too fast to create it. It turns out that being moved requires a thrill greater than the adrenaline rush of a Tweet or an email. In a sense, we are being moved in the opposite direction by the song. The Internet and multi-tasking pulls us outwards (or at least sideways), but the song pushes us inwards, ever deeper inwards.

If we want to have the experience of deep creativity we must make the time for it. We all must make time for it. The quality of the time spent searching your heart and soul for a song is not as exciting as a new iphone app or the thrill of a gossipy email, but then again how shallow is a thrill anyway?

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Radio's Echo

If you try to please audiences, uncritically accepting their tastes, it can only mean that you have no respect for them: that you simply want to collect their money.
- Andrei Tarkovsky

No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader's intelligence or whose attitude is patronizing.

- E. B. White

I'm writing a book. I've got the page numbers done.

- Stephen Wright

There are at least two ways of approaching a creative endeavor. The first is to look around you to see what everyone else is doing and try to take a little bit from here or there in order to conform to the general tone of things. The second is to shut all of that off and go within to find your own voice and muse, and only emerge from the cave when the job is finished.

If you've been confused by too much critical advice, it's probably because you've approached your work using the first method. Almost everyone in the industry can spot this type of song. It has all of the flair and style of the Emperor's New Clothes. It sounds like the radio alright, but it sounds more like the radio's echo.

As hard as it is to understand, you will not be successful until you digest all of the elements of commercial music until they are in your very fibre and blood, in your cells, and then ignore every bit of conventional wisdom you hear and write from who you are. Your contribution will be unlike everyone else's and yet it will find a symbiotic place in the ecosystem of commercial music. It will fill a niche no one knew existed until you came along. This is exactly how it is.

Whenever I encounter a writer trying too hard to "be commercial" I tell him/her that the worst kind of song is the song that's clearly written for the money. A song can earn tons of it and still be a very original piece of work. But if you write for the money you are playing it too safe to succeed. What do "Wooly Bully" and "City Of New Orleans" have in common? Both are hit songs, both are nothing you could have ever imagined writing yourself, and neither one was written for the money.

Focus on your craft and learn everything you can about songs and songwriting. Become a better musician, and a better singer if possible. Study the writers who have forged their own path, but don't imitate them. Learn from them how to be you. Songwriting is like a personal instinct-- mannerisms, quirky expressions and gestures. No two people express themselves in quite the same way. If you are having a dialog, do you imitate the other person's accent? Do you say the same words, make the same gestures, lean the same way? Do you answer predictably? Do you repeat everything you heard yesterday or do you think for yourself? Songwriting is no different. We learn the language, we learn the musical scale, we learn what chords work best, we learn what's legal and what isn't. But nearly everything else is a reflection of the individual.

If you've got the page numbers done, don't think the rest is just a matter of filling up the blank spaces on the paper with readable sentences. Give us some reason to turn the page. You'll find that reason in your head, heart and soul, not in someone else's.

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Rhyming Your Way Through It

I’ve learned something from almost every collaborator I’ve worked with. Sometimes I learned what not to do. But more often I learned something like this: the essence of a great lyric lies in the concept behind the line as much as in the words themselves.

Teaching yourself to think in concepts isn’t easy. We begin our little journey as songwriters toying with rhymes. We learn how to unbox ourselves by rhyming clever words, by staying away from moon, June, spoon or love, dove. But some of us never learn to chase a concept rather than a suitable line that ends with our pet rhyme word.

It takes a little practice. When you get hung up (fixated upon) a rhyme pair that seems to go nowhere, you’re thinking in terms of rhyme rather than a concept. I’ve watched writers spend weeks trying to rhyme two words with some meaning attached. I’ll get several versions of a couplet that keeps ending with the same two words, and keeps failing to say something significant. This is always clear evidence that the writer isn’t looking for a fresh concept. He’s rhyming his way through.

Thom Schuyler is the best concept lyricist I’ve ever written with. Here’s a brilliant verse from “Who Needs A Hummer”, an acerbically funny protest song from his brand new CD:

You can always go to Kosevo,
Damascus or Iraq
Just take that beast, point it east
And please don’t bring it back
It’s well equipped to make that trip
Hell, it’s fitted out for war
But it always will be overkill
For runnin’ to the liquor store

Clearly Schuyler had a complete concept when he started this verse. In spite of his challenging rhyme scheme: AABCCB, he has a solid destination in mind. He isn’t writing blindly, searching for rhyme words and lines that connect them. Without presuming too much, it’s easy to see that he had the punch line very early in the process of tackling this verse, and he thought backwards to the beginning. I suspect he spent some time juggling the imagery, but the concept dictated a clear direction: the ideal place for a Hummer, the military purpose of a Hummer, and the absurd use. And there’s the wonderful word “overkill”, which is a wink and a nod to his inner punster. The entire verse hangs on a clear statement, the purpose of which is to make us laugh at the absurdity of a war vehicle “runnin’ to the liquor store”.

Schuyler’s brand of humor is very much in the tradition of Will Rogers, Mark Twain and Woody Guthrie. But his source material is straight out of personal observation. He mentally records the images he sees in his daily life and files them away in his mind for future use.

The lesson is: observe, record, process, write. I think the average writer does it this way: stumble onto an idea, write, re-write, get a collaborator. Searching for concepts after you’ve plunged into the writing is dangerous. I’ve often had to tell a writer that his idea is a one-verse song. Spend more time observing, recording (mentally) and processing. Then the writing will come easier. You’ve heard the expression “the song practically wrote itself”. Here’s wishing you a slew of those.

copyright 2009 craig bickhardt


After 25 years in and around Nashville (I lived there for 23 of those years) I can share some of my experience with you. One thing is true: the music industry is a network that is made up of smaller networks, and people only want to do business with their friends. This was some of the earliest advice given to me in Nashville by my friend Don Schlitz. Almost everyone knows everyone else in some capacity.

Another piece of good advice I got early on was to keep my head in my papers and ignore the crap swirling around me. The work is what matters.

We need each other badly now. No matter how much or how little you have accomplished in terms of your goals, you are important to the grand scheme because our only strength is in numbers. There are powerful forces trying to tear down everything we've created. They want our copyrights to be unprotected and unregulated, they want our royalties sliced down to microscopic size. Networking is also about protecting our futures.

Talent and determination is not all you need for success. This is naive, let me assure you. You need talent, determination and tremendous help from a large group of friends and allies. No one gets anywhere by being a talented army of one. Here's the simple reason why: everyone in the industry wants to be part of something. You succeed by building up a group of friends who want to SEE you succeed. They have "stock" in you, they invest time and energy, sometimes money. They have a commitment to your rise to the top. It's part of the game, and they all enjoy playing it. They don't want to sit there and watch you do it alone, they want to participate.

Meetings, pitches, writer's nights, that's the easy stuff, so easy a child could do it. Every door in Nashville will open with a few determined knocks. Don't kid yourself into thinking you're getting somewhere just because they listened to your song. You must forge an alliance. Building a network of committed friends is what it's all about.

So, be inspired and inspire others. Network with long term goals. God knows this is a damn hard life and the good stuff doesn't come easy.

copyright 2009 craig bickhardt