“What are you doing?” This really is not a rhetorical question. This is a question that I ask myself, from time to time, as an artist. Songwriter. Whatever.
So what was I doing? I wasn’t high and I hadn’t been drinking. I quit both a long time ago. I was sitting in front of the microphone with my acoustic guitar. I’d been busting my ass trying to get a particular passage down that I was hearing, but hadn’t quite been able to play to my liking.
As I’ve stated on many occasions..I’m not a musician, I’m a songwriter and a composer. There’s a difference. I have friends who are musicians..they know what they’re doing and I don’t. I am largely musically illiterate. Oh, I know what quarter rests and eighth notes are. I know the difference between largo and andanté, but I know just enough to get into trouble. So I stay away from the musicians and play to my strengths.
I hear stuff over this little radio station in my head. People don’t believe me sometimes, I can tell by the way they look at me. But I’ll wake up in the morning and there’ll be this little tune playing over and over in my head, and all I do is try to record what I hear.
Sometimes I’ll hear the music in the water running from the faucet..or in the creek when I’m trout fishing. Sometimes I will simply begin to whistle what I hear..and suddenly there it is. There was nothing and then there was something. And that is what Frank Zappa said about making music; he said that it was about taking nothing and turning it into something and selling it.
I don’t know how Zappa approached it. I don’t know if he had the little radio station. Maybe he sat down and really pounded all of that stuff out.
That’s how I used to try and do it. It didn’t work out too well for me back then. I’d try to produce a song a month. Oh, every now and then I’d come up with a pretty good song, but I became disenchanted with myself. Everything began to sound the same. I’d run out of things to write about. I considered giving it up. I kept hearing the little radio station, but I was too stupid to put it all together. I’d keep trying to write songs, all the while ignoring all of the cool tunes I’d hear on the radio in my head.
One morning, when my son was still young, I awoke to such a song. I picked up my guitar and began to try and play it. The words, it seemed, were already there so I wrote them down. I was finished in about thirty minutes. That was simple enough. “I didn’t even have to try,” I said to myself. Everyone loved the song. People would cry when I would play it.
Later, as I began practicing my instrument with more dedication, the tunes would present themselves with more regularity. At times, there would be a twist or two I would have to figure out. I also began to notice that one or two of the songs were not in the ‘style’ or ‘genre’ that I fancied myself a writer of. On one such occasion, I disregarded the notion that I was the writer whom I had convinced myself that I was, and I wrote the song that I heard. All sorts of compliments followed, “Wow, that certainly is different for you!” or, “Great song! How did you come up with the idea?”
About ten years ago, I came to the conclusion that I’d been looking at it all wrong. I wasn’t the writer. Well, for the sake of simplicity, I’d say, “I’m a songwriter,” but in reality, I’m the listener. The songwriter lives inside of me. The songwriter and the radio station are one and the same.
I refer to my Muse as ‘Johnny’, not myself. I am the nobody whom the Muse has befriended and visits on special occasions and only because I take the time to listen to it.
So, there I was, sitting behind the microphone, the consummate starving artist, asking myself, “What am I doing?” The answer came to me quickly after my head cleared. But it wasn’t what I was doing as much as what I wasn’t doing: I wasn’t trying to write the perfect love song, I wasn’t trying to be anyone else, and I certainly wasn’t compromising. I was trying, to the best of my ability, to replicate what I was hearing; and what, to me, already existed. I was to become the instrument, not the musician. I was to be the played, not the player.
I slipped the headphones back over my ears, hit ‘record’ and listened harder.
Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter/composer..and my personal Harvey.