I know that there are people who just write songs. Write them by the dozens, record them, and try to sell them for placements in movies and TV shows or to independent film makers. I admire these song writers. I’m jealous. I’d love to do what they do. But I can’t.
I’m at the opposite extreme. Probably not the only one, but it seems like it sometimes. On the fringes of music industry. I’m in a band that plays live about once a month and tries with all its might to record original music that matters — in between the day jobs. We’ll be lucky to ever break even. It’s a labor of love.
Luckily for me, my band is immensely talented. I’m the weak link. I don’t have to carry the ball, and I do seem to have a knack for having good songs fall into my lap. As a result, I don’t have to actually write that many. Which gives me a lot of freedom and keeps me sane.
I keep going back to songs I wrote (or somehow heard) decades ago. I’m trying to discover what made them good. At least good enough that I’ve never forgotten them, the way I’ve forgotten so many others. As I’ve become an active musician again over the past five years, I’ve felt compelled to figure it out.
The light, from all places, came from Glen Frey in The Eagles documentary. He was talking about living above Jackson Browne and listening as Browne would work those great early songs over and over on the piano. Somehow his story helped me see that it’s not divine inspiration that comes and goes. It’s mining – deep, down into your soul. There’s realness down there. But you have to dig. Nothing is stopping you, except that the digging is hard. But when you get it, it’s . . . well . . . amazing, even if you can’t hold a candle to someone like Jackson Browne.
Believe me, I’ve tried to do it another way. I’ve told myself that every song doesn’t have to reveal something deep. You can just write a song for fun. Right? Aren’t some of the best ones just that? Honing the craft a little and whamo, you have a song. But it’s never worked for me. Whenever I try, I get utter garbage. I’ve accepted it. And when I find something from my past – distant or recent – and figure out how to bring it across the song finish line, it is that much sweeter and gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to do it again the next time.
I contributed just one song to our first EP, Attractive Nuisance. It was called Workingman’s Daughter. But I knew it as Moonlight on the River, which it had been since my sophomore year of college when I wrote it sitting on my bed in my dorm in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I remember it vividly. I started playing this two-chord riff of major 7 chords – I didn’t know what they were at the time – thinking I was writing a song for a girl who lived down the hall. I’d never spoken to her. Verse after verse came out. There would never be a chorus. The girl’s name was in the original lyrics. But it never made sense to sing her name. It wasn’t really about her, after all.
I played it a few times at coffee house gigs in the 80s, and even gave a recording of it to my wife when we were first dating in the 90s. I put it in the middle of a mixtape somewhere. That was good for a few laughs. “What’s this?!?,” I remember her brother saying, and not in a good way. But I was serious. I couldn’t let it go. I kept going back to it. Finally, in 2017, without changing any of the words, I added a bridge and a guitar, sax, and vocal coda. I finally had my song. Took a while, to say the least. But it was worth it.
It’s lagged behind the other punchier songs on the EP as far as streams go. But a few of the bloggers who heard it seemed to know. “There’s something about that moment when the organ comes in,” one said. “I mean, not enough to make me actually write about it, but still.” It wasn’t much. But we take our doses of reinforcement where we can get them, right? And I think the sax solo is right there with, well, anything in the roots rock and soul world. I’m biased, of course. But it fits the song perfectly.
For our new single, I started off with something a little more recent, like 20 years ago. A longtime friend went through some stuff. With his band, he wrote an album’s worth of songs inspired by it. But the band broke up, and none of it ever saw the light of day. For a time, the recordings were legend in certain North Jersey music circles. “The lost Desire tapes.” When my band started recording, I asked if I could hear those songs. He owed me in certain ways. So, he couldn’t really say no. I hope he didn’t want to.
The thing was, the tapes really were lost. My friend had no idea where they were. I also knew the bass player in the band. But he didn’t have them either. Finally, after what seemed to take an excruciatingly long period of time, we tracked down the drummer who located the tapes and burned a CD. My band recorded, Gotta Get Outta Here, from that tape as the first song on our first EP.
But there was another song that kept going at me, No Place to Go. It had a beginning
“we rented a house in December, moved in before the snow, now it’s six months later, and I got no place to go”
and an end
“the moral of this story is, man, you never know.”
And a lyric in the chorus — “feelings you don’t want to know” — that evoked such rawness. Yet, it seemed unfinished, jumping too quickly from joy to dread to realizing that while we can’t explain or understand . . . we can accept.
I never had the experience. But I lived it with my friend. So, I asked him if I could finish the song. What could he say? I hope he didn’t want to say no.
I felt that the song needed to show the character’s struggle to reach that end point. And the details jumped to my mind. Walking down the street on a hot summer night waiting – what seemed like endlessly – for the sun to go down. Pouring a drink and thinking about how finishing it would make no difference, leaving it half empty. Playing a record over and over again, unable to figure out why you’re doing it. I thought about Jackson Browne and mining. Not that this song was in a league with Browne’s, of course. And it wasn’t my story. But somehow my perspective let me take it where – for whatever reason – my buddy couldn’t.
I added verses to take the character progressively through the realization process. But I knew that the song needed a bridge. That couldn’t be just another step on the time line. It needed to be something deeper, wider. Something that captured the feelings you don’t want to know. But it had to be communicated through detail, not platitude. I flailed around for a while and then remembered a song I had started called There is No Before. It never came together. I couldn’t remember the lyrics I’d written for it. But I remembered that its feeling was what I needed for the bridge. I found my notebook and there it was:
“In the early morning sun, I felt the sweep of your hair. The little things I remember, the things that aren’t there.”
It was just what I needed.
So, I took the song to our band and asked our female singer to try it. We have a male singer too, and the song was written by a guy from a dude’s perspective. But I always remember Jimmy Iovine saying how great it is when a girl can pull off a guy song. We do that in the band a lot. And she nailed it. At the end, she started repeating the title line “I Got No Place to Go” rather than the full chorus. And that gave me the arrangement idea that finished the song.
Her repeating the title reminded me of Springsteen’s song Backstreets, the one that closed side one of Born to Run. He famously repeated the title line about a zillion times at the end of that song. I always loved the arrangement and decided to copy as much as I could for No Place to Go.
I came up with an introduction that was distinct from the main parts of the song; started the verse softly, building up to the chorus and down again. I set off one verse with a key change and came out of that into a guitar solo back in the original key that was, shall we say, reminiscent of the Backstreetsguitar solo. Then, into a soft final verse like the first one and finally the repetition of the title line.
It wasn’t exact. Backstreetsdoesn’t have a bridge. And we couldn’t re-create the soaring ending. Probably no one would notice the connection. But, for me, it finished the song. And freed me to start thinking about how I could mine another one. Wasn’t there a piano thing that I wrote in the lounge in my grad school dorm . . .