12 April 2007

Without A Song In My Heart

When I lived in the mountains, I was lucky enough to have a beautiful old piano with rich, ringing tones. It had pride of place in the living room, just across from the stove, and because the house was made entirely of wood, and because the piano was nestled up against one of the main support walls, the whole house seemed to act as a sounding board, bouncing the notes back and forth beneath the cathedral ceiling and resonating right through me until it felt as though the house itself was the instrument.

It was so quiet up there on that mountain that the music seemed to hang in the air for minutes, even hours after I'd stopped playing; sometimes I'd have to step outside into the woods to get away from it, especially if I'd been playing a sad song, and when I'd come back indoors it would still be there waiting for me, to the point where I'd have to start a new song just to dissipate the mood and memories of the one that had lingered on.

I had learned a bit of piano as a kid, a bit more as a teenager, and a bit more yet in my 20s; for some reason, I kept ending up in places where there were pianos. But I learned by far the most about the instrument - still not all that much, granted - in the mid-80s, when I was more or less stranded on the mountain by poverty and depression. With the nearest town almost 20 miles away, half of which had to be driven in second gear, even a simple journey to the store meant a substantial outlay on gas, so I had to limit my trips out into the world, and because I was so depressed (mainly over the end of a relationship, but being broke wasn't helping either), there didn't seem to be much point in going out and mingling with people anyway.

So I sat up there for days and weeks at a time, slowly, painstakingly teaching myself to read music well enough to figure out various pop songs and show tunes dating back to the 1890s. I knew many of the basic notes and chords, but when it came to the more complicated stuff, I would have to spend hours transposing things from the guitar (which I also only knew marginally) or manually counting lines and spaces on my sheet music and then trying to translate it onto the piano keys. Often I'd have to do this by candlelight because my solar power system needed new batteries, batteries which I just couldn't afford.

This went on from the latter part of 1984, through most of 1985 and 1986. Somewhere in the spring of 1985 I started practicing with the Lookouts, which was a rather different kind of music, but that was usually only a few hours a week. I also began to spend more time with my guitar, trying to write songs for the new band, but the piano still got by far the greatest amount of attention. The stuff I was learning was about as far as you could get from punk. As my abilities increased, I began learning things like Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" and "I Get A Kick Out Of You" and Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away From Me," but more than anything, I liked to wallow in the saddest, most tragic songs like "The Party's Over" or "I Get Along Without You Very Well," and these were not the kind of tunes you wanted to whip out on the piano when the guys came over to play some punk rock.

So for a long time no one heard the stuff I was learning, unless you count my dogs and cats and the various wildlife - skunks, snakes and raccoons in particular - that kept taking up residence under my house. Then somehow I wound up playing piano in a roadside restaurant down on Highway 101, an elegant little place, really, at least by North County hippie standards. It was called the Mad Creek Inn, dated back to the 1920s, and its biggest claim to fame was that Clark Gable and Carole Lombard had holed up there when dodging the Jazz Age version of the paparazzi.

I still wasn't all that good, but by combining some Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Young and Beatles songs with the old standards I'd been learning, I developed enough of a repertoire to last me through the evening, and the dim, mostly candlelit atmosphere of the restaurant seemed to soak up most of my mistakes, to the point where I was able to collect a fair few tips from the patrons. It ended badly, of course, when Lookout magazine got involved in a rancorous dispute with the good old boys down in town, and word got around that the piano player up at Mad Creek was the much-loathed publisher of said magazine. Mad Mary, as the restaurant's proprietress was generally known, gave me the push - understandably, I guess, since in such a small town, you can't afford to alienate half your potential clientele - and that was more or less the end of my piano-playing career. By the following year, I was mainly annoying people with my electric guitar, and when, a couple years later, I moved down to the Bay Area, there was no room for the piano to come along with me.

Eventually I got an electric digital piano, but it wasn't quite the same, and even that, for one reason or another, didn't make the trip with me to London, so for many years now, I've had only a handful of opportunities to get my hands on a keyboard. Until last week, that is, when my digital piano, which had been in storage all this time in California, finally arrived here in Brooklyn. It's still no concert grand, but has the advantage of being able to be played with headphones, invaluable when living in a small apartment with neighbors that might want to do silly things like sleeping now and then.

So here I am, right back where I was in 1984 or 85 - though thankfully neither as broke nor depressed - trying to re-learn all those songs I so painfully mastered during those long Mendocino County nights, and finding it's almost harder the second time around. Maybe my fingers are less dexterous now that I'm older, or maybe my desire to play music lacks the same passionate intensity that I had back then. It might help if I were as broken-hearted and depressed as I was in the mid-80s, when music was my principal lifeline to sanity, but I'm not sure I'd be resilient enough to handle that level of desperation today.

Which brings me to what I've been musing about lately: since I'm just getting started on relearning the old songs I used to play, about the only tunes I can play competently are those that I originally wrote on guitar for the Lookouts or the Potatomen. Some of the Potatomen songs, especially the slower ones, actually sound quite stately on the piano - well, to me, anyway - but there's only so long you can sit around playing the same 10 or 20 songs that you wrote a decade or more ago.

So why not write some new ones? That's what's driving me crazy. It used to be so easy. There were times I wrote an entire song, words and music (and if you know the Potatomen stuff, many of those songs had a lot of words) entirely in my head while driving from one place to another. I wrote "The Loneliest Boy In The World" en route from Berkeley to Santa Rosa, jumping out of the truck immediately on arriving to grab my guitar and see if those chords I'd imagined in my head actually worked. They did, and something similar happened with "The Train Song," which came about entirely as a result of getting stuck behind a slow-moving semi on the twisting mountain route from Grant's Pass to Crescent City. I made up "That Girl" while walking down to Gilman via the bike path, and "The Green Hills of England" (Lookouts song, that one) when I was forced off the highway by a blinding rainstorm somewhere out in Wiltshire or Devon.

But now? I don't hear tunes in my head, I don't find rhyming couplets spilling from my lips, I don't even think in musical terms most of the time, and I wonder why that is. Is it because songwriting, like poetry (really not much difference, ultimately) is a young man's game? I mean, I was no spring chicken when I wrote most of my favorite songs so far. Maybe it's not so much a matter of chronology, though, as it is of contentment: most of my songs - much of my writing as well - came about in times when I was being buffeted by mad moods of anger, depression, agitation, fear, loneliness and passion. Nowadays I seem to live life on a much more even keel. Nothing too dramatically exciting happens, but nothing particularly bad, either. Life is mostly pleasant if slightly uneventful; I'm not in love, I'm not brokenhearted, I don't particularly want to kill or save anyone or anything.

Does that mean I'm unlikely to come up with anything new in the way of songs or stories? I do wonder, and also wonder whether I'd even want to if it meant having to return to the tumultuous emotional state in which I spent much of my earlier life. I'd like to think there's still a song or two in me waiting to come out, but I'm not sure what extremes I'm willing to go to in order to make that happen.

In the meantime, I'll be brushing up on my Cole Porter, my Gershwin, my Rodgers and Hart, and now that I think about it, those couple years of assiduously learning how to play those classic 20th century pop songs directly preceded the burst of inspiration that produced a couple dozen of my own songs. Maybe that's the key: just start playing music, any music, on a regular basis, and sooner or later some of it will become my own.

1 comment:

Amy said...

Just keep playing. I'm sure you'll start to get ideas. Songwriting comes in waves. The longer it takes for songs to come to you, the more you'll get once they start. That's how I figure it...