Rockin’ in the Natural World

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine May 2017

Creative people put up with a lot of stuff trying to create.  From interruptions, to computer problems to writer’s block, it’s a wonder we get anything done at all.  But come springtime, when the natural world arouses from beneath whatever rock it was under, it’s nearly impossible to focus.  Birds and bees and ants and all the weeds you forgot about last fall are constant distractions.  But it’s actually much worse than that.

For me, it all starts when the pond at my home in Stonington, Connecticut defrosts and a couple of marlins show up.  One with a pretty green head and one with brown.  Having seen this sort of thing before, I know what they’re up to.  Before you know it, they’ve got three or four little versions of themselves.  They all paddle back and forth… back and forth… all hours of the day and night, like they’ve got nothing better to do.  It snowballs from there.

Then the Canadian geese arrive, like the pond is some sort of hotel or something.  Their incessant squawking and prancing around doing their business everywhere detracts from my more important art I tell ya.  Go back to Canada!  And heaven forbid I dare look out the window to see what they’re up to.  Oh look it’s a blue heron bothering them, blah blah blah.  Then I’m further distracted by Maggie the Magnolia tree with her huge pink and white flowers making a mess of the place and playing house with all the “oh look how cute I am” fowl including but not limited to:  tanagers, sparrows, purple martins, goldfinches, wood thrushes, yellowthroats, meadowlarks, Carolina wrens, bluebirds, red-winged blackbirds, yellow warblers, quail and the stupid family of doves that comes back every year thinking they own the place.  Aren’t there plenty of other trees to choose from?  Don’t you have things you are supposed to be doing, like in Florida or something?  I did not authorize the filming of some cutesy Alfred Hitchcock movie!  Then the hawks gather by the dozens hawkin’ up a storm and it’s a REAL Hitchcock movie. Please lower your voices, some people are trying to think around here.

Oh but it gets much worse around that bordello of a pond (which is actually a man-made hole filled with water, but whatever.)  You see in May, the bullfrogs come to town, or rise from the mucky depths as it were, for their big dance.  These bellowing and bawling creatures of green slimy crud are so freakin’ loud even with the windows shut and air conditioners blaring it’s just impossible to think. AND THEY DON’T CARE WHAT TIME IT IS.  I’m trying to work here!

And don’t even get me started on the dogs.  Because they don’t have to slip and slide their way down the icy back steps they think it’s just fine to want to go out and come in, go out and come in, get a treat, wonder off, making me constantly have to check on them because of the coyotes, wolves, foxes, mountain lions and bears.  Dogs!

So one year I had this grand idea to get away from all the commotion of this den of inequity and went on vacation “to create” up at Squam Lake in New Hampshire.  I brought an assortment of notebooks, pens, pencils, and my guitar.  I imagined myself immersed in creativity and would be like Thompson or Hemingway penning the days away, and into the night, and then I would return home with a slew of songs I couldn’t possibly whittle down to an album.

Wrong.

First of all, Squam Lake is where that Katherine Hepburn/Henry Fonda movie “On Golden Pond” was filmed.  Yes, it’s golden, yes it’s peaceful, yes it’s romantic, and yes you can get in some pretty good fishing.  Much had been made of my first introduction to the beloved, sacred, highly regarded, Kings and Queens of the Lake – the loons.  My vacationing friends were all abuzz about it.  It would be a religious experience they told me.  Well let me tell you – THEY DO NOT SHUT UP!  I’m talking about the birds, not the other wackos on the lake. Their constant whining and crying and hootin’ and hollerin’ all hours of the day and night – Geez!  “Give it a rest!” I would scream.  How was I supposed to create under these horrendous conditions!

loon

So, as to be expected, I drank alcohol in an attempt to block out the darn things and to fit in with the other vacationers.  Somebody said, could have been Hemingway I don’t know, “Write drunk. Edit sober.”  So that’s what I did.   There must be some sort of art to drinking and writing because my resulting prose was indecipherable!  It was the worst combination of cursive and block lettering you have ever seen.  And using a computer didn’t help.  The gobbly goop typed in those documents actually shut down my spell checker.  A message came across the screen: “Are you sure you’re writing in English?  Would you like to change languages?”  The next morning, following the rules to edit sober, I dutifully opened the notebooks or computer and began to edit.

Didn’t have a clue what I had written, why I had written it, or have any semblance of the melody lines or intended key.  What a freakin’ loony disaster.  I came back home with a bit fat nothin’.

So here I sit once again, staring out the window onto that house of ill repute, at the turtles multiplying by the day, sunning themselves on the mossy banks, observing the snapping turtles leisurely making their way to the high grass to drop a goodie, and I ponder things.  I guess there are worse things to look at rather than my scribblings or computer screen.

Oh and Ode to Joy – here come the lawn mowers.

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How To Write Songs

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine June 2016

Constructing a song that people want to actually listen to and enjoy is a science. Writing songs is akin to keeping a journal and then taking those most inner thoughts and encapsulating them into succinct lines of poetry, set to music. You study the greats and try to extract how they did it. You listen to your muses, observe the world and people around you, and articulate the things that emotionally resonate with you. If a song connects with you and makes you wish you could write a song like that, google the chords and lyrics to the song and see how it’s structured, but be careful not to copy note for note, because you could get into Stairway to Heaven trouble. If your subject matter is melancholy, use a minor key. If it’s meant to be uplifting, go with a major key. If you want people to get funky and dance to it, use lots of seventh chords. Take a Songwriting 101 class. Take music theory classes to understand the “circle of fifths.” Learn how to play an instrument. Take English courses around creative writing, poetry, and narrative storytelling. Don’t leave the house without an Ernest Hemingway-style notepad in your pocket to catch fleeting thoughts.

NotebookErnestHemingway

Or, you can do it like I do it.

Here’s how it goes down.

I’m taking a nice long hot shower all lathered up washing my hair and everything when I am flooded with song ideas because of course, the only place on earth I can’t write anything down, is in the damn shower. I quickly rinse, run a towel over me, throw on my white terry cloth robe from Target and slip and slide myself to the nearest pen and yellow sticky. I write my ideas down with utter abandon, sticky after sticky, using up the whole pad. I try and slap the stickies into their correct order, but they all stick to each other in the incorrect order. So I leave the pile on the counter to be dealt with later. I throw on some yoga pants and a WCNI Radio t-shirt.

Later comes when a fifty-mile an hour gust of wind blows the kitchen screen window out of its sill and onto the floor and blows the stickies all over the place. I scoop up the yellow devils and stick them onto an actual 8 x 10 pad over by my computer in the dining room to be dealt with later.

Later comes when I need a piece of 8 x 10 paper and I try to rip a piece off from behind the yellow beasts and I rip the piece of paper holding them. So I get a piece of scotch tape from the drawer in the living room that has the scotch tape and tape up the piece of paper that loosely holds the yellow monsters. Then I take the piece of paper and move it to my bedroom nightstand.

On my bedroom nightstand I notice I’ve got about ten other pieces of paper with yellow Satans on them so I place my generic brand body lotion on top of them to hold everything in place. I have breakfast, usually an Everything bagel with too much real Land-O-Lakes sweet cream salted butter, and think about grabbing my acoustic guitar from the basement to put these stickies to music. Then I check emails, Facebook and Twitter.

Then it’s time for lunch. I throw some pre-bagged lettuce into a pretty big bowl, cut up some cucumber, shred some carrots and toss in a good amount of Craisins and ten to fifteen garlic and onion croutons. Then I pour in a half a bottle of Lite Raspberry Vinaigrette and swish it all around. I sit down in the leather chair in the living room with my huge salad and flip through the HBO and Cinemax channels. I find something like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and watch it until the end. I seriously start thinking about grabbing my acoustic guitar from the basement.

Then I check emails, Facebook and Twitter. Then I remember I haven’t read today’s local newspaper online yet, so I do that. Then the dogs need to go out so I let them hang out on the grass without leashes and check on them occasionally. I look out the window and they’ve decided to head to the swamp even though I have repeatedly told them in clear English: “Don’t go near the swamp.” So I herd them back into the house, fill their water bowls and tell them to take a nap.

Then it’s time for me to take a nap.

I wake up and realize I should start thinking about what to make for dinner. I really want to just get my acoustic guitar out of the basement so I throw a chicken pasta casserole together and stick it in the oven. Then somebody texts me a really long text. I read, respond, wait for a reply, check on the casserole, read the reply, reply, read, reply, read, reply and the casserole is done. I take it out of the oven and the husband comes home but he doesn’t like chicken pasta casseroles so I throw a strip steak into a pan with fake butter and whip up some mash potatoes out of a box. The daughter comes home, grabs a plate of the chicken pasta casserole and informs me this is surely the best chicken pasta casserole yet.

We eat dinner and talk about what movies might be on HBO and Cinemax tonight. The husband wants to watch “The Purge: Anarchy” but I want to watch “The Five-Year Engagement.” We clean up and he heads to the bedroom TV. The dogs give me that look they always give me at this exact time every day of every week so I get the leashes.

We walk. For about an hour.

We get back into the house and I check emails, Facebook and Twitter. “The Five-Year Engagement” is coming on so I grab some kettle corn from the kitchen cabinet and sit in the leather chair. I finish the bag of kettle corn and the movie.

I decide I’ve had enough of this day and head to the bedroom. The TV is off and the room is dark. So I grab a flashlight, get undressed, let the dogs into the room and get them settled onto the bed. Then I grab my generic body lotion, and there they are: The yellow evil spirits on 8 x 10 pieces of paper in random order, which will haunt me all night.

Six hours later, it’s time for my shower.

Songwriters are a messy bunch. Every song ever heard in the history of all the land has been written by someone, but in a world where anybody can just simply go to YouTube for free when they want to hear a song, we wonder if it’s even worth it. This seemingly fruitless endeavor of musical construct rages on for us hopelessly creative souls. It’s all-consuming. It’s like a nagging bathroom-shower leak that drips and drips, and gets louder and louder in the night. Then it stains the porcelain, and you’re just stuck with it. Happy Songwriting!