UNDER THE MUD
Every house I have lived in since I left home has been within a few miles of the Susquehanna River. Different towns a couple hours apart, but always close to the river. I never planned this, it’s just the way it happened. If you live in Northeastern or Central Pennsylvania, the Susquehanna is kind of hard to avoid.
Towns and villages were built around it, dating back to who knows when. We are just the latest tenants. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, so to speak.
One of the houses I lived in was near a town called Wapwallopen (an Indian name, obviously). I drove parallel to the Susquehanna every day on my way to our studio in Danville.
I used to write songs on the morning drive. For some reason, it was a good time to write. I wrote most of The Cellarbirds’ “Perfect Smile” record that way. One day I ass dialed my wife on the ride. She sat there at home listening to me singing.
On that drive, it was common to see a bunch of old guys wandering through the plowed cornfields staring at the ground. At first I didn’t know what they were doing. Were they lost? Furthermore, it seemed like they were out in even greater numbers after a good storm.
After a while, I came to realize what they were up to. They were looking for arrowheads.
I also realized that, in a way, we were both doing the same thing.
Songwriting is just like hunting for arrowheads.
The author Tom Robbins once said, “My muse doesn’t visit me every day, but she knows where to find me.” That is one of my favorite sayings about the creative process. In other words, he gets up every day and writes...... probably around the same time. Some days he comes up with something great. Some days not. But he’s there, always.
It’s just like that famous Lottery battle cry: “You can’t win if you don’t play.”
There are a few ways to find arrowheads. One, you go digging and scratching along the ground with a watchful eye. Two, you wait until there is a big storm (or the farmer plows his field) to move some of the dirt around. Then you go look. Some of the work has been done for you.
Or Three, you wait til you trip over one by accident.
Most songwriters use door #3. They wait til the song just hits them. That does happen, no doubt. And, I do believe that these songs are some of the best. But you never know when that will be…… and it doesn’t happen that often.
Other guys use door #2. They wait til there is some catastrophic event that turns their lives upside down. This works pretty well. A good crisis can strip away the dirt of your mind and get you down to the “real stuff” quickly. Some songwriters have even gone so far as to screw up their lives just so they had something to write about.
Others use door #1. They show up and write every day amassing a large catalog. They dig on a daily basis.
In my mind, you need a mixture of all three. You set a routine and go digging. Every once in a while it’s gonna rain like hell. And every once in a while you are going to trip over something. The end result is the same. An arrowhead is an arrowhead.
Either way, the stuff you want is just under the surface. You can either dig it out or wait for a flood to wash the sediment away. But that’s where the artifacts are.
The A list is under the B list.
I like to write in the morning. As soon as I get up. Before I’m even totally awake. The mud of my day builds up as the hours pass and I’m worthless. Too much other stuff going on up there.
But everyone is different. Some people clear out late at night. Whatever works.
As a side note, a big hazard of arrowhead hunting is that after a while everything starts looking like an arrowhead. Diligent songwriters have the same problem. You start writing piles of songs about nothing. Everything becomes a song.
I can’t tell you how many songs I have written that have fallen flat when performed. I thought they were badass at the time. But they didn’t connect. They meant something to me, but that was about it.
A friend of mine told me a cool story. He worked as an assistant to a publisher in Nashville. One day he was sitting in a meeting where a songwriter was pitching a tune. The publisher listened to the song politely, then said “John, you love your children. I don’t.”
I thought this was a brilliant response. I guess the songwriter had written a deeply personal song about his kids. But it connected only to him. The rest of the world wouldn’t care. And the publisher told him as much.
Years ago, I was at a neighborhood party. Most of us there were parents with young children. But there was this one woman sitting on the couch monopolizing the conversation. She was telling story after story about HER child’s escapades. She’s busting a gut laughing at her stories and as soon as one was done she launched into another…. for about a half an hour. Everyone smiled politely, but inside we were all thinking “Lady, will you please just shut the f**k up?”
She loved her kid. We didn’t.
So, as a writer, you are going to have to wade through this. There is no manual or scale to help you sort out the universal from the mundanely personal. Trial and error is the only way. I am always surprised what people connect to.
But the lion’s share of success is all about showing up.
Believe it or not, I once was at a barbecue with Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickenson. At Sound City, no less!! He said something that day that has stuck with me. He said, “90% of everything, including your own stuff, is shit.”
So, knowing that 9 times out of 10 you are going to fail…… you best get busy failing if you want to do great stuff.
Those arrowheads aren’t gonna show themselves to you every day. But they will know where to find you.
And the harder you work, the luckier you get.