It's Alive

The first song I remember concocting was for my high school rock band, Blitz (later Tyrant, then Kroam, bass player names all). I still remember the song, an abomination called "Next Door Neighbour" which sounded suspiciously (alright, exactly) like "Room Service" by Kiss. I don't really know why I thought I needed to manufacture a song for Blitz. We couldn't even scrounge together a night's worth of three-chord covers. The song certainly wasn't saying anything important. I just thought that, for better or worse, we should be playing our own tunes. I don't think the other guys in the band thought much of ma chanson. Not only was it not very good but it was just too much trouble for everyone to learn. Why bother with a song nobody knows when "House of the Rising Sun" is right on the tips of your fingers? I suspect that many songs don't get written or performed for just that reason: it's just a pain.

 

 

 

I made a few more attempt at song-craft in those early years but without any real results. It felt like flogging a dead horse without the horse or the . . . flog. Songwriting is more like flailing around in the dark than anything creative. At least sculptors and painters have materials that already sort of look like something. The songwriter starts with absolutely nothing unless you consider a G chord something. So how do you make something out of nothing? Hit Parader and Song Hits magazines had lots of messed up lyrics and bad articles about pop bands but nobody was talking about where the hell songs like "Surrender" and "Hot Blooded" actually came from. This was long before songwriting workshops, Garage Band and the Internet. Heck, we didn't even have the Portastudio yet! If you wanted to play your own song, by God, you had to bang it out on a guitar in your bedroom then teach it to everybody in the band and play it a hundred times until it lurched to life.

 

 

 

You hear a great song and it seems like it's just always been there. It's hard to imagine someone thinking of it, coming up with the melody, finding just the right words, then giving it life. Like any act of creation it seems divine, a product of alchemy. The greatest songs achieve a level of subtle grace that rivals nature herself. Are "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" or "Summertime Blues" any less sublime than a weeping willow or a great white shark? To want to write a song is to aspire to the loftiest heights, the realm of the immortals.  I think Colin Clive, the actor who portrayed Dr. Frankenstein in the 1931 film, perfectly expresses the kind of giddy horror you feel when you finish a song and play it through for the first time. "Now I know what it feels like to be God." Indeed.

 

 

The doctor's creature was his first attempt and not a very good one. Fortunately a poorly constructed song won't cause the kind of mayhem his monster did. A bad song will ultimately only live as long as its creator is around to plug it. Henry F. learned the hard way that man should not play God at least not so near a village of angry townsfolk with a large supply of torches and farm implements. Songwriters however never seem to learn this lesson. They are notorious suckers for punishment, positively itchy for some pitchfork action. We no sooner unleash some new terror on the world and we're back in the lab cranking up the electrodes and sending our assistants out for fresh corpses. For the songwriter the obsession becomes the process not the results.

 

I've had the "it's alive!" moment about 100 times. Some of my creations positively leaped from the slab as beautiful and seductive as Michael Sarrazin. Others had to be prodded and jolted every inch of the way, as awkward and ungainly as Peter Boyle. But after every song I was able to look at my creation and say, "I made this. First there was nothing, now there is this. Let there be light." But do artists bring light to an otherwise gloomy world or do they create darkness so that they can feel the thrill of the sudden flash of inspiration? Perhaps the light we make is so small and insignificant that only in complete darkness can its spark be seen. Maybe what we really create is the gloom not the radiance. Maybe Mary Shelley's warning is not just for those who would tinker with the machinery of life. Anyone who delves into the darkness, manufactured or otherwise, should remember, the flickering torches and angry mobs are only a G chord away.

 

 

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