“But it’s all right now
I learned my lesson well
You see, you can’t please everyone
So you got to please yourself”
Garden Party by Rick Nelson
“Garden Party” is a 1972 country rock song written by Rick Nelson and recorded by him and the Stone Canyon Band on the album Garden Party. The song tells the story of Nelson being booed at an October 1971 concert at Madison Square Garden. It was Nelson’s last Top 40 hit, reaching number 6 on the U.S. Billboard charts The concert was an oldies show (oldies for that day) and Nelson performed his past hits such as “Hello Mary Lou” and things were great until his band launched into a cover of the Rolling Stones “Honky Tonk Women” when the audience booed him. Nelson’s response was to leave the stage early after he finished the Stones cover.
When “Garden Party” was released, along with the story about its writing it caused a light to come one for me. I realized, I could either spend my artistic life chasing trends and trying to read the mind of the market or simply let the muse lead me and write for myself. I ultimately chose the later, resulting in a 40 year career outside of music. But that career allowed me to not have to compromise my art. That statement is not intended to be a criticism of those who pursue a music career full time. Many artists spend a lifetime following their muse without compromise. It simply wasn’t the choice for me based on my situation.
It may seem egotistical to some, when I say I write first for myself and not the listener. But it is true and I believe it to be the best use of my muse. I have always found that when I write for myself, for my truth, without compromise it seems to hit the hardest with my audience. Now my audience really isn’t very large but it is MY audience. I feel I have a responsibility to them as well as myself to be true to my most deeply held principles.
In my humble opinion all the greatest and most enduring songs share that concept of truth. I am not referring to some absolute immutable truth, but instead the simple (yet unbelievably complex) truth of the experience of being human. Because the one thing we all truly share is the experience of being human. Love, longing, loss, loneliness, hope, doubt, happiness, sadness, anger and grief are emotions we all experience and the best and most enduring art comes from that common emotional well.
How do we find that well? We simply live and document our emotions as we experience them. Sounds easy doesn’t it? Well, it is not easy at all. It requires us to let down our emotional and cultural guard to tell the truth as we feel it. The real truth, no matter how dark or uncomfortable it may feel. I have a friend and great songwriter Cary Cooper who posted lyrics from a song written about having an abortion many years ago. It is a heart rending lyric, filled with stark truth of how she came to be in that situation and why she made the choice she did. That post is ultimate reason I decided to write this particular column. It is topical in the context of today’s headlines and yet utterly personal. Here is a link to her FB page and her post, https://www.facebook.com/carycooper, I suggest you follow her, find and read the entire lyric because no matter where you stand on this current hot button issue, it demonstrates the courage and determination it takes to create art that pleases you even though it scares hell out of you to put it out there.
With her permission here is a portion of her lyric:
“Her mother made the phone call to the clinic
Drove to the appointment, stood there at her daughter’s side
Said we don’t have to talk when it’s all over
So no one talked and no one even cried
This is for the good girls
Who play by all the rules
No one hears the heartache
When they fall down like a fool
The one time they could really use a break
To pay for their mistake”
For The Good Girls, Cary Cooper, 2022
Emotions are often fleeting and ephemeral but expressing our truth about them and their effect on us is not. That is rather universal and permanent. Following are a few examples of great songs that have stood the test of time and their respective emotions as I experience them: Lennon and McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” (loneliness), John Prine’s “Paradise” (longing and loss), Kimberley Rew’s (Katrina and the Waves) “Walking on Sunshine” (happiness and joy), Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” (anger). Not one of these songs pulls any punches. They each tell it like it is strictly from the writer’s perspective. Almost every song that endures has emotional truth at its core.
From my perspective at least, if a song or any art doesn’t make me feel something then I really don’t have much use for it. Does that mean it isn’t any good? I can easily answer that as a big giant NO. Just because a piece of art doesn’t make me feel something doesn’t mean it isn’t good. It only means I am not moved by it. While great art moves the majority of folks making them feel what the artist was trying to express, any art that moves you, regardless of the reaction of others is still effective art.
Some art expresses emotions based on themes that are short lived. Very specific political or cultural situations might illicit strong emotions during the time of some social upheaval but then quickly become less relevant as situations change. But great, timeless songs, based on political/cultural themes, such as Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin’,” still ring true after almost 60 years.
How can we know that art will last and remain important? The fact is that we can’t. We simply tell our truth from our emotional perspective and see where and how it lands. That is where the title of this column, please yourself, comes in. Create art that means something to you and that pleases you. At the very worst you will have that going for you. But I will bet you that if you truly dig deep, tell your story and keep it true to you that it will move someone. And in the end, isn’t that why we do it? So we cab feel less alone in our thoughts and feelings. I know that is what motivates me and I’m guessing it will you as well.
So in short, don’t chase the success of others. Don’t follow trends. Write what pleases you, expresses what it feels like to be you and don’t apologize for it. Because dear readers that in the end is all there is to it. Yet I will confess that I have spent a lifetime chasing that idea and only very occasionally do I feel as if I succeed. It is the hope I can tell my story honestly without flinching that keeps me going. Maybe I will be successful but I assure you I won’t stop trying to please myself.
I would love to see your comments, complaints, corrections and suggestions. As they say, hit me with your best shot. I welcome every single one; positive or negative. Who knows, I may even write a column about it.
Randy Lewis Brown may be a over-the-hill, baby boomer, curmudgeon who is also an award-winning Northeast Texas-based singer-songwriter and self-proclaimed “performing philosopher”. Despite his years, and an early bedtime, he remains stedfast in attempting to decipher the intersection of spirit, faith, science and the human condition. Always trying to maintain a sense of wonder and whimsy in his occasionally clever folk-Americana songs and stories. He continues to create new music for himself with the hope that it will connect with at least a few folks.