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Paul Westerberg on Songwriting

The hack songwriter will write the absolute truth every single word, whether it makes a great song or not.

Quote by Paul Westerberg.  I find that quote interesting, because I’ve always believed that in some instances fiction can get closer to the truth than nonfiction.  Werner Herzog once called Cinema Verite, “a superficial truth, the truth of accountants.”  The world is a complicated and mysterious place.  Occasionally you need myths, tales, and lies to get to true nature of things.

Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride

Slow to the boards today. My band No Show Ponies played a great show at the Continental Club last night.  I got lost in revelry afterwards.  I’m not a big drinker anymore, but last night the gloves came off.  It feels like some kind of beast sat on my chest last night while I slept, and sucked my soul out with a straw.  We’re playing an acoustic show tonight at one2one in Austin at 7pm.  It’s a song swap with my friend John Neilson.  It should be good.  If you happen to make it out and I have a thousand yard stare, you’ll know why.

The sound girl at the Continental was exceptional.  Her name was Katrina I believe.  I send my apologies to her if I got that wrong. That stage can occasionally be too loud in the wrong hands and vocals can get lost.  It’s one of my favorite rooms in Austin.  It’s great that they have someone that can make it ring clear as a bell.

Those of you that aren’t musicians probably don’t understand how much a band has their fate bound up in the person that does sound.  You can show up three hours in advance, spend an hour sound checking, and if you have a bad soundman you will still be doomed.  Meanwhile, if you have someone great, you can throw and go and really sound like something.

I should also note to those of you that have never performed in a band, the sound on stage is completely different than the sound out front.  You could hear a great show and to the musicians in front of you it could be a sonic nightmare.  Conversely you could see a band jamming out, thinking everything is grand, while out front it sounds like they are performing in a trashcan.  Usually though a good sound person will get both right.  Sometimes it’s not their fault though.  Certain rooms just aren’t built to have great sounding music in them.

So much in this business, like life, is just out of your hands.  Work hard to control what you can, and pray that the gods smile upon you more times than not.  Like Hunter Thompson used to say, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”

You’re Never as Good as You Think You Are

One day the light will shine upon the truth
In front of the mirror in your birthday suit
“Dear God, I’m no longer in my youth!”
You’re never as good as you think you are

You can dress up and you can drop names
You can work hard at playing the game
But you’re gonna die anyway
You’re never as good as you think you are

You’re never as good as
You’re never as good as
You’re never as good as you think you are

You were born at the right time or place
You didn’t earn it, you don’t deserve it
You were born with the right mind or face
You didn’t earn it, you don’t deserve it

You’re never as good as
You’re never as good as
You’re never as good as you think you are

These are the lyrics to a song from the upcoming album by my band, No Show Ponies.  We are playing the Continental Club tonight at 10pm in Austin, Texas.  It will be our first show since completing the new record.  This song is about being humble and realizing that what ever success you have is not yours alone.  Whether it was through genetics, or timing, or the help of a friend or mentor, you had help somewhere along the way.  Don’t get too big for your britches, son!  After I wrote this song I discovered the philosophy of John Rawls through Michael J. Sandel’s book Justice.  It made a lot of sense to me.  Hope to see you tonight, out on the perimeter…

The Appeal of Irish Music

When it comes to musical tastes is it nature or nurture?  I have always been drawn to Irish music over any other form of traditional music.  I don’t remember my parents ever playing Irish music around the house even though I have a good amount of Irish blood in me.  I’d sooner put on a Luke Kelly record than a Hank Williams record or Howlin’ Wolf record.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate those masters.  In fact I like them quite a bit.  It’s just that Luke Kelly speaks to my soul in a way that the others don’t.

I’ve always loved melody.  I’ve grown to love discordant abstract music like Public Image Limited’s Second Edition or The Flowers of Romance.  I listen to them a lot.  But melody came first.  I’ve always felt the Irish excelled at melody.  Their songs are full of melodies of great joy and sadness.  American country and blues seems monochromatic to me by comparison.  Again, that doesn’t mean it’s not as good; it’s just different.  Even when I listen to more traditional forms of American music, I tend to lean towards Boozoo Chavis or Mississippi John Hurt, two artists that are more melodic than your typical American roots music.

The Irish also excel at the political song.  This is probably because of their history.  But they have a way of tackling political matters in songs that seem romantic and poetic.  Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan could do that here, of course.  We’ve had our singers and our moments.  But Irish music from the earlier folk songs all the way to modern singers, like Damien Dempsey, just seem to excel at that form.

Political songs are a tricky thing.  In the hands of someone like Dylan or Luke Kelly they can be powerful pieces of art that call people to action.  In someone less talented, they often are cringe inducing.  They can be all message and no poetry.  The key to a good political song is to make people feel something and not just think something.  If you just think something someone can use reason to sway you away from those thoughts.  If you feel something deep down in your soul it becomes a conviction that you just can’t shake.

The Irish excel at songs like this.  They are good at telling stories that made you feel for the characters involved.  They make the political personal.  Listen to the song School Days Over.  A verse in this song goes as such:

Come on then Dai, it’s almost light,
Time you were off to the anthracite
The morning mist is on the valley,
It’s time you were on your way
Time you were learning the miner’s job
And earning the miner’s pay

What this song does so well is it makes you sympathize with the plight of the miner in a way that a more frontal assault might not.  You picture some poor bastard graduating from school and immediately going on to a life of toil and hardship.  You feel for them, and therefore there is a little piece of your heart that can never fully side with the bosses.

One of my all time favorite political songs is the song The Town I Loved So Well.  It’s so masterfully done.  When the song starts it’s not a political song at all.  It’s just someone telling you about the town that they grew up in:

In my memory I will always see
the town that I have loved so well
Where our school played ball by the gasyard wall
and we laughed through the smoke and the smell
Going home in the rain, running up the dark lane
past the jail and down behind the fountain
Those were happy days in so many, many ways
in the town I loved so well

 

But by the end of the song the narrator is talking about the plight of his town.  It’s become a sad shadow of what it once was:

But when I returned how my eyes have burned
to see how a town could be brought to its knees
By the armored cars and the bombed out bars
and the gas that hangs on to every tree
Now the army’s installed by that old gasyard wall
and the damned barbed wire gets higher and higher
With their tanks and their guns, oh my God, what have they done
to the town I loved so well

 

The song is about the town Derry in Northern Ireland.  Given that context it is obviously dealing with the Troubles.  But it also makes you sad for a loss of peace that could happen anywhere, and can be appreciated by those that have never set foot in Ireland.  We all know places in America that aren’t what they once were.  By telling a story and slowly unveiling things, the narrator makes you feel something that a simple didactic political song would never get across.

As a side note the song also works as a song about a loss of innocence.  I once took a religious class and the teacher told us how The Garden of Eden story is a metaphor for us all.  Most of us at least grow up in the child’s world of paradise.  Eventually we see the world for what it is and we are cast out of that innocent garden.  This song takes the listener on a journey from innocence to reality.  But it makes you wish that that cold reality could be better.  It makes you want for a better world.  And that is the genius of its political nature.

I know fans of music like to argue over what is better.  It’s a totally valid argument to say that American traditional music has a depth and richness to it that Irish music doesn’t have.  I’m just trying to get to why it speaks to me and what is so great about that particular form.

And the truth of the matter is that I don’t know why exactly this form of music means so much to me.  I’d say maybe it was a tribal thing.  I don’t really identify with any groups, so maybe it’s because of the fact that I’m a good deal Irish, that it appeals to me on a subconscious level that is searching for an identity.  But I don’t think that’s the case at least.  Music has mystical properties to it.  It appeals to our souls in ways that no amount of science will ever explain.  Irish music speaks to me and it always will.  I’ll leave it at that.

Late Night Prayers

I haven’t been falling asleep so easily these days.  My schedule is a little out of wack.  When I am awake late at night I like to stare at the moon and pray for things.  Tonight I am praying for there to be an unbeatable gay NASCAR driver.  If he were black too, it would be even better.  Best yet would be if he had the hammer and sickle on his car.  It would be a lot of fun.  It sure would make things interesting don’t you think?  I sure do…

Singing Their Death Song

Did you ever run into someone that is slightly older, that used to have it together, and they are spewing pure gibberish?  I’m not talking about Alzheimer’s disease or some other sickness.  I’m talking about someone that life has just completely defeated.  I have a good friend, who is also slightly older, that says they are, “singing their death song.”  I’m not saying I don’t have empathy for these people.  Life will eventually defeat us all.  But that phrase makes me laugh.  “Singing their death song.”  People should use that more often.

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Going Home

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He just doesn’t have the freedom
To refuse

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain

Going home
Without the costume
That I wore

He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat

A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn’t what I need him
to complete

I want to make him certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision
That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
Which is to SAY what I have told him
To repeat

Going home…

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

Going Home by Leonard Cohen.  A song of beauty and humor.  The artist as mere vessel.

Strange Success and Epic Failure

The last blog that I wrote, Where Does the Time Go?, wasn’t very good.  It wasn’t Joel Stein or Rob Sheffield bad, but it was headed in that direction.  It was a little too cute.  I meant well, but I failed.

In the past two weeks I’ve put up 90 something posts.  There are bound to be some duds along the way.  It’s just sheer numbers working against me.  As a working musician I know all about mistakes, embarrassment, and epic failures.  The only thing that separates the professional from the amateur is that we keep going.  A mistake is a mere speed bump.  To the amateur a mistake is a train wreck.  I remember one Christmas show where Shinyribs played The 12 Days of Christmas.  Kev, Winfield, and myself were all playing different chords at the same time!   Enthusiasm thankfully won out the day.

Luckily there weren’t many people in the venue last night when I got there for sound check.  I tried to jump on stage, and my foot caught the edge, and I just about did a face plant.  These things happen folks.  I remember one time on my birthday I put my foot on a monitor, there may or may not have been many drinks involved, and I fell straight out into the crowd.  I kept playing though.  I wasn’t a working musician yet, but it showed that I had the ability to one day become one.

I gave my first big speech in years this year.  I am going to school for Environmental Science and Policy.  I gave a speech in Costa Rica at an Environmental conference.  I was easily the least qualified person there concerning credentials.  Other than one five minute speech in college last year I haven’t had to give a speech in 10 years.  The speech was a success.  However, it’s something I wouldn’t have even done if I had not had people to encourage me.   If I had anything going for me personally it was just that I have read a good amount, I practiced a lot, and I have spent a lot of time on stage learning how other people watch you.  But had my girlfriend not been there to help me with the stuff that I didn’t know, and if my dad hadn’t encouraged me, I might not have done it.

Most people don’t notice the mistakes that you make in any kind of performance.  If they do, a mistake is a passing thing.  It’s transient.  It’s there one minute and then gone the next.  If you are performing in front of other people that are also performing or giving speeches, they are so worried about their own speech or performance that they are probably only half paying attention to you anyway.

I really feel like the most important thing is just not being afraid to walk through a door.  If you just try, you might find yourself in some strange new place doing something you have never done before.  You will fail on occasion, but that will just be a passing thing.

Every time I talk to someone that is successful at something or other, they have some elaborate story about all of the right moves they made.  I think most of the time this is historical revisionism of their life story.  Kurt Vonnegut always uses the line from a Streetcar Named Desire: “I have always depended on the kindness of others.”  I think most people are being disingenuous if they claim that they did it all on their own.   The only thing they did was walk through the door.

Here is the thing.  There is no such thing as magic and there are very few geniuses.  You will sooner find a lottery winner than you will a true genius.  Most people that are successful are like the Wizard of Oz.  They are putting on an elaborate show to trick you into thinking that they are something other than what they are; another human just like you.

Where Does the Time Go?

Last night, at my show at Scholz Garten in Austin, I heard several people talking about Miley Cyrus.  I have seen several headlines concerning her at Huffington Post over the last few days.  I can connect the dots that she did something outrageous at the Video Music Awards.  However, exactly what she did has completely escaped me.  One of the benefits of not having cable is not having an overabundance of stupidity enforced upon you.  Things that might normally make my eyes bleed are now just minor occurrences off to the side of the stage.  I sort of know they are going on, but they are far away, as they should be, like an airplane across a cloudy sky.

I once read that Obama has a whole closet of almost identical outfits.  He does this to cut down on the amount of decisions that he has to make in any given day.  The more decisions that you make the less able you are to make decisions well later on in the day.  If you are the President you don’t want to be using too much of your brain power to pick out a tie.  You have far more important things on hand.

There is a lot of great television out there.  Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Killing, Real Time With Bill Maher, The Colbert Report, Game of Thrones, and The Daily Show are just a few of the programs I have consumed over the course of the last year.  I watch them online, on Netflix, on DVD, or at a friend’s house.  I’m able to consume all of these great TV shows without ads and without getting sucked into mindless claptrap like Celebrity Ghost Stories.  Yeah, that’s a real show, and I’ve seen it when I was at a house with TV.  Sometimes it’s hard not to torture yourself.

I’m not saying I’m better than anyone else.  I have watched some of the stupidest shit known to man and enjoyed it.  But there are a whole host of other things I like to do, like read books and play musical instruments.  If suddenly I had the option to watch Survivor Midget Edition, I might not spend as much time doing these things.  If you enjoy cable then keep it.  Someday I too may want it again.  But if you find yourself descending down the rabbit hole too many times, and asking where your time has gone, cut the cord.  You will find some other way to fill the time, trust me.  I think I need to go save Princess Zelda again…