Everybody in the crowd last night was beautiful and young and covered with a kind of gold dust.
My guitar was a bit out of tune, but I’m glad that wasn’t fixed. A twist of the knob and, you know, the dissonance would have gone away. But I left it alone. I left things on the human side.
I suppose I had learned each note so well it was time to forget some of them, so I did. I even forgot some of the words (typical of me).
But no one seemed to mind or notice a slightly sad B string.
The off-notes and missed lines, if you let them, humanize you and bring you and the listener closer together. The concert stands out as memorable not because it was a great performance, but because, however briefly, you touched someone. Covered them in gold dust. And that, I have found, is more than enough for one night.
A few hours after the gig, people have no recollection at all about whether your guitar was tuned or you got every lyric right, or what you wore. On the other hand, they will long be touched by your honesty, your humility, your human spirit and the gift you gave them. That gold dust.
Last night they wanted me to sing the way someone in love would, how someone wanting love would, how someone feeling alone might.
They wanted to hear me tell about hope after hurt, forgiveness, healing after disaster, summery longing, and life after betrayal and breakup (which sadly, I know a lot about).
Singing for people has taught me a precious thing: to breathe out kindness, the purest thing inside.
Everybody knows the moment kindheartedness walks on stage. It’s not anything you can conjure or pretend, rather a natural grace that comes around on its own when you yourself have lost people and irreplaceable moments.
When you accept that everyone is fighting a harder battle than you are, and that all have been touched by painful human experiences — loss, desolation, death, grief — then you know: kindness is language and melody. It translates into love, and consolation, and life and joy.
A simple song can bring strangers calm, and then it becomes a souvenir of kindness, something that follows a person around like a friend when there’s no one else around, a musical amulet that goes with them everywhere.
On stage, if I can tell in a quiet voice, I read you, my lips have memorized your life and my voice calls you alone … if for two or three minutes I can shelter an orphan heart, that’s a good night’s work.
People always ask, “What comes first, the lyrics or the melody?” Hoboy. What a tangle at the bend in the river.
I don’t know why they’re so fascinated with the answer to this question. There is no definitive answer. Songwriters write in different ways.
Some write a full lyric first, and then put it to music. Others write a full track of music with melody but no lyrics.
You can make up words to a song based on a song title. Or based on a story concept. Or a beat, or drum loop.
Sometimes the instrument helps you find the song. I seldom find just melodies on the guitar that come out fully fleshed, and add the words later. If I start on the piano, it often happens that the melody will come first. So the instrument has something to do with the order of inspiration. Sometimes.
And sometimes the smell of gasoline, or the color of a dress … or the fragment of a conversation has everything to do with where the song begins. The melody lies there, clothes half-on. I envy her in her room, call to her in a lit whisper …
… and it ends with the mysterious, beautiful lines, somehow captured in the brittle shell of the tune.
I have written words and music just this way.
Tuesday night I unpacked all my heart before a roomful of strangers, closed it up after an hour or so, then carried it offstage.
And it was over, like a beautiful dream. No rewind, no repeats.
There is a remarkable thing about performing live, and it isn’t about getting everything right, which is so, so rare.
It’s about making a connection with people and sharing something that changes the way they feel.
Isn’t that what we live for?
It’s twilight, and the notes I sang to people some hours ago seem to float in the air like motel room coat hangers.
Lying on the bed with my guitar and my remarkably low-fi, home recording studio away from home, it’s clear that the motel exists to help me think of loneliness and make up another song.
Things that are supposed to be so honest, so true, have to be done alone. And this mom-and-pop, roadside motor lodge is a calm and quiet place to do it.
No Wi-Fi. No 4K internet speed. No flat-screen TV. It’s the perfect writer’s refuge. A place to escape the continuum of 24/7 connection.
Thousands of neon dots just like it once dominated America’s highways and byways. Now, they’re nearly extinct. They’ve largely slipped from popular imagination.
It’s a departure from the script of routine life, a place where someone who’s just passin’ through can make up a different past, a new destination, a new song.
You’re in a motel on the edge of town, and the big sky here leaves you lonely. You’re isolated and apart from everything, and it’s there that you can remember what you believe in, or what is—what is the nature of being, as you see it.
The motel is a place where I can remember what I wanted out of this songwriting thing in the first place: to be myself, rather than what others would want me to be.
I’m hoping tonight that the two of us, my Martin guitar and I, and this shabby motel room make for a dangerous combination.
We try to arrange our lives, our careers, and our relationships into straight paths for easy journeys … but there are no straight paths.
I’m reminded of this on days I ride down the road toward the sea, and suddenly turn right along the inlet shore.
My traveling companions, words and music, move alongside me shattering and rearranging themselves. Together we wander a different beach, reach no conclusions.
That’s a form of poetry. Discovering avenues and identifying ways to comment on beauty, or loss, or something. Seeking creativity and making consolation when there is no obvious right answer, no straight path.
There’s always going to be someone who wants you to stick to the straight and narrow: write a pop song, follow a formula, stay inside the lines. But the non-linear act of wandering, and wondering, and invention is a far more adventurous and rewarding journey.
I draw no straight lines. I go along an open path, the only one perhaps, Art, toward an unknown part of myself, perceiving nothing completely, and accept what’s becoming.
Approaching that which is greater than me.
It’s like a prayer, in a way, to make a song. You are comforted by it, and corrected by it, and if it becomes a ritual never again are you the same.
I don’t remember how any of them get written. Only that by the end of the process, you’re like a child wanting their catechism to be over so you can go outside and play in the summer grass with your friends.
But it’s on to the next one. How? Where do I begin? The beginning kills.
Will the next be as good as the last? Will it be like it? Must it?
How to start making up a new song is like the problem of architects in an ancient city:
How to build where irreplicable libraries, shops and temples once stood, so in the midday sun the new structure will blend with the paper-white street of those days, but also be a part of now and tomorrow.
Can I retrace my steps to this street, I wonder …. I fear I can’t. Some days I’d rather find an alley doorway, close it behind me, go away and never write another.
But when I look more closely, the longing, really, is to make something pure:
To wander a different city. To write something that didn’t exist before. Not just a copy of the old city, however skillful, but something that will stand on its own, be relevant and lasting.