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