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


Tim McMullen said...

Emerson and Thoreau linked inspiration, instinct, conscience—all things transcendental. In a sense, that is part of your point. If we make our constructs too rational, too conscious, they tend to become mechanical. On the other hand, it is exceedingly difficult to maintain that spark of inspiration throughout the creation of a completed song.

When working with young writers, I often encounter two warring impulses. On the one hand, it is hard for many beginners to get started. On the first day of class, I write only one short imperative sentence on the board: Stifle the critic! We discuss the possible meanings and implications of that statement for about twenty minutes, then we begin to write.

On the other hand, once they do get going, it is sometimes difficult to get them to revise or hone their work because they have a reverence for their "inspiration." "That's the way it came out of me!" I do understand the impulse; however, not meaning to be crude but needing to be clear, I point out that many things "come out of us," but we don't immortalize them simply because "that's the way it came out."

Holding onto the inspiration or maintaining "the heart" while crafting the exterior shell that effectively conveys it is an unfathomable mystery. The occasional song that simply writes itself, yet is as good as our best work, is an inexplicable miracle. Unfortunately, many a piece that spills out of us is a second or third-rate effort; the spilling itself is no guarantee of authenticity or worth (I mean this in the aesthetic sense, not the monetary one).

Though deeply and inherently cynical and skeptical, I have always been easily moved, and as I grow older, I find that I am more and more susceptible. Watching a movie, listening to a human interest story on the radio, the dénouement of a TV show, and most often, through song, that lump in the throat or the tear in the eye is an alarmingly common and daily occurrence for me. Thirty years ago, I wrote this fragment, “Loosing (or losing) a tear at some other fool’s pain,” that attempts, lightheartedly, to convey that feeling, but I have never taken it upon myself to incorporate it into a song.

When I get a new Nanci Griffith album, for example, I can be fairly sure that by the second song she'll have me in tears, and that it will continue repeatedly throughout the album. The same is true for a handful of writers including Cheryl Wheeler and Jesse Winchester. It's not maudlin; it's not merely melancholy; it's simply that beautiful mix of emotion, melody, poetry, and voice that speaks to the head and the heart simultaneously. Ironically, several of my very favorite songwriters, Danny O'Keefe, Townes Van Zandt, Jackson Browne, Loudon Wainwright, Joni Mitchell, Guy Clark, only occasionally hit that button, but I still connect deeply with their work—not to diminish their melodic creations, but I think, perhaps, I enjoy them more for the sheer force of their amazing wordsmithing.

Tim McMullen said...

[Your post inspired such a long response that I had to break it in two. Sorry for being so verbose....]

Funny that you should mention Bruce Cockburn in this regard. I first saw him do a solo acoustic version of a song called, "He Came From the Mountains," on Ian Tyson's show, Nashville North, around 1970 while I was attending Chico State in California. I vowed on the spot that if I could write and perform a song like that I might consider becoming a believer. Some of Jesse Winchester's songs have that same pure, spiritual but non-"religious" quality. Though I wrote several of my very best songs at about the same time, I am afraid that the conversion did not take place.

Look as I might, and I am an avid collector, I could find nothing from Cockburn. Then, in late 1970 on the same day, I found Bruce Cockburn's first album as well as the only solo album by Maury Muehleisen, later to become Jim Croce's musical partner. Maury's songwriting on Gingerbreadd had a profound effect on Croce's own writing. I was blown away by both Cockburn and Muehleisen that day: That combination of musicality and poetry was at the heart of their work.

A few years later, after my own brief foray into full-time performing, I was using Cockburn's album, Sunwheel Dance, with my students: having them listen to his album while I projected the lyrics onto a screen. Since then, the wide-range of his musical forays, whether unmelodic chanting, angry political diatribes, religious affirmations, devout love songs, or whimsical ditties, have always maintained that poetic sensibility.

"If I had a rocket launcher,
Some son-of-a-bitch would die"

may be hard to reconcile with

"In His world we wait
In His hands our fate
Keep on climbing
We shall see His gate
In good time...."

but in the marvelous, creative universe of Bruce Cockburn, they share a very clear aesthetic based on deep and abiding inspiration.

Clearly, Craig, you have been surprisingly successful at finding that mix of heart and head, even in your more "commercial" outings, but I think that your new CD, Brother to the Wind, may have come closest so far to that perfect mix on nearly every tune. Thanks, not only for the thoughtful treatises on the art and the craft of songwriting, but for being such a consistent example of "practicing what you preach."

Tim McMullen

angelo said...

Of late I've been blessed to hang out with some young writers/artists/musicians with a lot of fire and music I'm just downright enjoying playing as part of a band or in the studio. Some of the songs speak to me exactly as you say... I just don't know what it is that makes me want to sing along or jam my a$$ off, but it's there, and damn if anyone can take this away from me.

I'm so glad for all I've learned from you. And that you pour out these deep perspectives and insights on your blog. Light needs but a crack to shine inside a dark place, and your words enlighten me, thank you.

Tim Wheeler said...

oToday, I silently chuckled when I heard someone try to answer what the difference between a good song and a great song is. The GREAT song. What a fleeting quest, yet magically obtainable, even by a novice, when the paths of craft, intellect and spirit occasionally conjoin.

While songwriting is not quite as stacked as the spin of a slot machine, each time I sit down to write I feel a similar emotional expectation.

I don't want to turn this into a Cockburn fest, (although we should plan one.. it'd be fun) but I am also inspired by his talent and craft. His freedom in writing; His courage to challenge traditional norms in favor of real morality/values.

One of my favorite lyrical snippets may not be considered inspirational by many, but for me it became one of my biggest motivators to keep dropping quarters and pulling the handle...

Nothing is sure
Nothing is pure
And no matter who we think we are
Everyone gets a chance to be... nothing

Tim McMullen said...

I always enjoy Tim Wheeler's cogent and insightful remarks, and that is a great Cockburn quote. Since this is as close as we are likely to come to a Cockburn fest, I will share this one.

Sensibilities are always on hand in the Good vs. Great debate. My friend, Tim Clott; my wife, Carolyn, and I always refer to Bruce Cockburn as "The Dentist."

I have had the opportunity to see Cockburn perform live four times over the past thirty-five years. I have always been blown away by his songs, his guitar playing, his voice—the whole package. So, about twenty years ago, I got four tickets to see him at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, and we invited Tim Clott and his wife (long-since ex-wife) to the concert.

Cockburn had a full band with him, and he did play some extended, Jazz-fusion instrumentals in the middle and end of some of his songs—I prefer his solo acoustic stuff myself—nevertheless, it was a great band and a great show. I'm sure your readers are very familiar with the exhilaration and elation of witnessing a great performance. Tim and Carolyn and I were clearly all feeling that elation.

As we were getting up to leave, Tim's wife, who was not known for her sense of humor, said, in her very strong North Carolinian accent and the most sarcastic tone she could muster, "Next time why don't we just all get together and have root canals!" It was the funniest thing that any of us had ever heard her say, especially because we knew her disdain was genuine. From that moment on, the great Bruce Cockburn became simply, The Dentist.

There is, as has been proven so often, no accounting for taste.

chromehead said...

Great comments, guys. This post was picked up last week over at the 9513 Blog [
that-je-ne-sais-quoi/] where it received quite a few comments but I take pride in the fact that the comments left here are so much more enlightening. Love the Cockburn quotes and stories. I did sound for him at the Bijou Cafe in Philly many years ago when I was scraping around for gigs to pay the rent. He was a true gentleman and he did a great show that night, favoring his Stratocaster to his acoustic guitar...

Tim Wheeler said...

Continuing on the Bruce Cockburn vein, has anyone noticed the George Strait River of Love cut sounds way too much like Wondering Where The Lions Are?

Check it out.

Just sayin... Unmistakeable groove.

Tim McMullen said...

I hadn't heard the song, but I just checked out YouTube - George Strait - River of Love - 2008 CMA Awards, and you are definitely onto something, except in Cockburn's opening guitar riff, he seems (with the exception of the dobro lick) to accomplish single-handedly what the eight or ten musicians do on the Strait song. Good call!