Thanking the Gods of Songwriting

In my mid-twenties I discovered writing as a tool for the betterment of my soul. Journal writing became my personal therapist; my safe space  to work out issues – Self-examination via the written word, I realized, was much more powerful than thinking inside my own head. It actually had the opposite effect. Wallowing in my own thoughts was counter-productive and did nothing to help me work out underlying issues that I needed to deal with. Writing on the other hand, allowed me to make sense of things, and led to various steps of working out root-causes.

And I was addicted. Journal writing was, in some ways, my closest friend, because there were certain issues that I could only talk about with my journal. Writing in those journals got me through some of the hardest times of my life.

I didn’t think about it at the time, but journal writing was where my creative mind was expressing itself.  Stories, though personal and rooted in reality, were filled with color, metaphor, dialect and dialogue, rhyme and imagery.  Poems took shape out of rants or streams of consciousness.

Today, over 20 journals of varyious sizes, cover-types and page lengths, sit in a box on the top shelf of my closet, filled with words, rants,poems, stories and memories – a record, so to speak, of ten or so years of one human life.   A record of a one on one conversation of a person who needed to talk – and journals who were willing to listen.

Eventually, that daily need to get home to my journal and write, wore off. The journal as shrink had done its job. I’d go back to it on occasion, to tell a story, or dabble with a poem. But at that point, Grad School was consuming my writing. My voice was changing to the whims of academia. Down time in the firehouse was spent studying, or writing papers, and mostly, sleeping off long hard nights at the bars. And when I put those journals down, that creative writer went to sleep for a few years.

Then a left-handed guitar came into my life and I had no idea what to do with it.  Growing up in my house, there was zero introduction to playing music.  I wanted to learn how to play it, but as a thirty something year old man who didn’t even know the definition of a chord, I was petrified of the guitar.  But it was also the skill that I wanted to learn more than any other, even if it just meant learning a few chords, to strum a few cover songs.  Then I moved to Montclair, and lucky me, the dudes I lived next door to on Forest Street were in a rock band called Davy and the Fat Boys.  And Jeff Ecklund taught me how to play that lefty guitar. The greatness in his teaching was that he wouldn’t let me get hung up on learning cover songs.  “You’re a writer.  Write songs.” So after I learned 8 chords, he told me don’t come back for anymore lessons until I wrote a song.  And so I did. And I’ve never stopped.

Seven years later, the guitar is to me now what journals were to me then, even moreso. The guitar is the listener that the journal was then, but unlike the journal, the guitar is more complex in that it forces the writer to think about melody and flow, verses and hooks. The guitar is my vessel to the most satisfying form of writing and communication that I have ever discovered – the writing of songs.  And besides filling that creative drive, songwriting, unlike journal writing, begs for an audience.  It asks for a structure.  Some songs are longer than others, but generally speaking, the songs that I write are somewhere between three and five minutes long. They have two or three versus and a chorus.  And because I have musical cohorts, after I get through the initial arrangement (words, verses, instrumental, chorus and ending) I begin to think of how a song will sound with the band.  And then it really gets fun, because the rest of the band hears parts in their heads for their individual instruments, and a whole new sound takes shape.

And a song can come at anytime; Someone can say something that just sounds catchy and it gets stuck in my head. Sometimes a melody will come immediately, or, often, I need to get to my guitar to see how I can combine the two. For example – About a year ago I had a house concert, so a bunch of people ended up sleeping in every room and on the floors.  A friend shared my room.  She woke in the middle of the night in the midst of a dream, sat up, and shouted clearly, “I am a rocket ship right now!”  I was half asleep but I was excitedly curious about what the hell she was dreaming about.  I tried to pull it out of her but to no avail.  The dream and the friend went back to sleep.  But the words became an obsession.  At the same time, I was reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” a book about an a woman whose deadly cancer cell (HELA) was the backdrop to a story about family, power, racism, science and American history.  I remembered that NASA was so fascinated with the HELA cell, that they shot it into outer space in a rocket ship, opened the doors and exposed it to solar radiation. And it survived!  Amazingly and coincidentally, another group of friends and I had at the same time developed an obsession with learning about Water Bears.  What the hell is a Water Bear you ask?  They are the most resilient life form on the planet earth! Tiny microscopic beings, officially named Tartagrades and nicknamed Water Bears by scientists because under a microscope they look like eight legged bears! Water bears have been found in both boiling springs and polar ice caps, and, most importantly for this story of song writing, NASA was so fascinated by them, they shot a bunch of them into outer space in a rocket ship, opened the doors and exposed them to solar radiation. And just like the HELA Cell they survived!
So you see, the musician in me was in songwriter bliss.  I had a three-pronged connection; a hook that I couldn’t get out of my head and the fact that a rocket ship took both of my obsessions into outer space.   They shared the same experience.  What are the odds??  The more I thought about it, I realized I wanted to give the song a bridge with a human element.  What can this song mean to people?  The rocket ship took these creatures to outer space, a place they never would’ve gone without a transporter.  And when those doors opened those little beings probably didn’t like it (to the extent that they can like, or not like anything), but for the sake of a song, I wanted to think of the rocket ship as the metaphor for that person that changes your life; makes you see the world and the universe differently; changes your outlook for the better; that person that made you grow up for the first time.
So this Thanksgiving Season I am thankful for the power of song that came to me because of a few crazy rock stars that eventually became my bandmates.  By far, the greatest evolution of this little life of mine.
Here are the lyrics to “Apolitical Science.”  If you want to hear the song, you have to wait for The Porchistas next full length record, titled “Shoot it at the Sun” coming in 2014:
           I am a rocket ship right now
           I show the future through a different set of eyes
           I see the pyramids below
           Low orbit planetary probe
          I am a water bear right now
           I see the future with a different set of eyes.
           I am alive in moss and ice
           I survived in outer space
(bridge)
          You took me to another place, held my hand made me feel safe
          Opened up my eyes and mind, first time I knew I did not know
          This room is dark I have to go, the world is bigger than my own,
          I’m not the only pea in the pod
(Instrumental, back into verse)
         I’m the immortal HELA Cell
         Henrietta’s fighting, farming, feeding playful soul
         I survived in outer space
         I help heal the human race!

 

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