The Kills--"Passion Is Accurate" (mp3)
My daughter, the other night, lamenting the status of her current relationship, commented:
I guess it's better to have a real no one
Than a fake someone. (line breaks and italics mine)
We all paused and looked at each other. It blew us away. There are songwriters all over the world, sitting in corporate offices in Nashville or working with a legal pad and a cup of coffee or strumming their way through some chords who would love to have a clean and true couplet like that to build a song around.
My daughter simply uttered it in a moment of despair.
I think of my children and all of things that they have said as they have been growing up, classic statements, observations that made us laugh out loud, phrases that have become part of family legend. But most of them I can't even remember.
I think about songwriters and how they actually get those songs written. One of the great pleasures of the recent re-release of Springsteen's Darkness On The Edge Of Town, along with crisper versions of songs I love and a slate of new-to-me unreleased (which would make an incredible summer soundtrack, by the way), was getting together with some friends to watch the movie of the making of that incredible album.
You'd expect a homemade film like that to be superficial and self-serving, but it wasn't. It was an unvarnished look at a lengthy recording process with thousands of missteps and false starts. The record that came out after all of those months in the shed was nothing like what anyone, including Springsteen himself, would have expected when they went in.
But the foundation of all of it was the notebook. Springsteen kept/keeps an incredible notebook full of all of the words that come to him. And he goes back to that notebook again and again for those words, putting them in and out of all kinds of different songs. I remember when Nebraska came out and people were critical that he had used the same line, “I got debts that no honest man can pay,” in two different songs, “Atlantic City” and “Johnny 99.” They cited it as a kind of creative failure or shortcut. But, we realize now, because Nebraska is essentially demos and because this artist is constantly trying out the same and different phrases in different songs, that we were merely encountering those songs midway through the process.
Thinking of Springsteen and my daughters, I realize, as I have realized over and over, that I should be writing things down, every day and all the time. With a smart phone in my pocket, there’s really no excuse. Not that I’m saving up lyrics for my once and future CD necessarily, but so many of the words and phrases that we hear and say each day are gems. When we lose those gems, we lose crucial parts of the past and of ourselves, because much of what we remember is either bland or generalized.
As I drove down to Florida yesterday, I listened to that mix that I posted on Monday. I don’t know if you’ve heard it. It doesn’t matter. What does matter, for my purposes here, is that those songs may be the only songs that I ever hear by those particular artists, times and music-listening behaviors being what they are.
Some of these folks may be “one hit wonders” in the worst possible sense. They didn’t even have a hit. They just had some 54 year-old guy get into one of their songs and play it over and over, maybe even for some friends, for a couple of weeks or months, before he moves on to something new.
But as I was listening, I started thinking about the whole idea of the one hit wonder. The whole idea of them, whether you’re talking about the Archies and their hit “Sugar, Sugar” or Harper Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird, is treated in disparaging terms. There’s a kind of hey, where’s your other book if you really wrote that one or why can’t you create any more hits mentality that diminishes the accomplishment.
Driving down the road listening to good, original songs by people I know nothing about and may never hear from again, I realized that, in fact, they have done something amazing. They have gotten through to someone, perhaps a bunch of someones, with one song. Even if there is ever only one.
I mean, let’s face, whether you’re talking about a Nobel-Prize winning scientist or an economist or a novelist or a chef, most people only have one big idea in their lives anyway, something that, with any luck, they can adapt and spin off from and franchise and play out, perhaps, for an entire career.
The trick, I guess, is figuring out what that one idea is and staying with it long enough to develop it. That’s why you keep a notebook, right?