How Songs Get Written

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a teenager, I put away childish things and tried to figure out ways to pick up chicks.

I concede that geekiness does make chick pickups difficult, but not impossible. True, you’re not going to impress them on the football field, and success in the classroom doesn’t translate into good lovin’. So what do you do?

You sing, stupid.

I don’t mean join a choir, which I did, or break out in Christmas carols at inappropriate times, which I still do. I mean sing soulful, passionate songs that make you look deep, man. And if you can do it while playing them on the piano like a real artiste, the chicks will dig you.

At least, that’s the theory.

I was a pretty credible singer/pianist-type back in the day, but the chicks never really got into it. That’s partially because I have a hard time taking soulful, dippy ballads seriously. This became especially problematic when I started writing songs of my own. I can think of very few love songs that don’t make me want to vomit.

Love songs are stupid. If you doubt this, try reciting them out loud. Dial up to a girl of your choice and try reciting the words from any song by Chicago.

Imagine such a scene:

“Hey, Louise? Hi. It’s me, Herb. I just wanted to let you know that you’re the meaning in my life. Yeah. Uh-huh. You’re the inspiration. In fact, you bring feeling to my life. As I said before, you’re the inspiration. That’s all. Except it’s like when you love somebody until the end of time, and you’re always on my mind. Or something. Anyway, I gotta go, my biscuits are burning…”

You get the idea.

Whenever I started writing a ballad, I’d try to stick with the Moon/June kind of crap, but I never buy it, so it all falls apart.

Take this song, for instance, which I wrote about ten years ago.

It’s one of my favorites, and it plays well live. It begins with an insipid phrase I wrote well over a decade before I actually finished this song.

As I look around and see the world in which I live

People always take – they never give


I let that ferment in a rancid corner of my brain forever, never thinking I’d have occasion to use it.

Fade out, fade in. The year is 1995, and I’m trying to imagine what the “new” Beatles song, “Free as a Bird,” is going to sound like. I noodle around on the keyboard with a tune I quite like, with the lyrics –

I’m as free
Free as a Bird
Doo be doo be doo doo doo be doo doo doo
Free as a Bird

I think my version ends up being better than what the Beatles came up with, but that’s not saying a lot.

Anyway, that went nowhere, until one day I’m keyboard-noodling again and I dredge up the fermented couplet about taking and giving, if only to induce wretching, and, on a whim, I add some new lines.

So here’s the new version:

As I look around and see the world in which I live
People always take – they never give 
Don’t have much to offer, but, baby, if I did, 
I’d offer you…

I’d offer you? What? What would I offer her?

My mind raced back to a video we used to show people on my mission. It was called Together Forever, and it featured a segment with a “troubled” youth who did some generically bad things but then gets turned around when the Mormons show up on his doorstep.

In describing his less-than-specific misdeeds, he says:

“People lose their standards. They lower their morals, and you know what they end up with? Nothing.”

The thing about that was that the actor took this big, dramatic pause between “you know what they end up with?” and “Nothing.” That left room for one of my missionary companions to insert other possibilities into the audio.

Some of his alternatives:

“You know what they end up with? Eggs.”

“You know what they end up with? Freshly-starched socks.”

“You know what they end up with? Mustard.”

Mustard! That’s what I would offer her! A whole lot of mustard!

Then the faux-Beatles melody came back, only with new words:

In a bright
Bright yellow can
I would give you all the mustard that I can
Bright yellow can

The rest clicked into place pretty quickly. I even put in a non-sequiter Beatles parody line into the song – from “If I Fell,” a dippy Beatles love song. Listen and see if you catch it.

So that, my friends, is how art is created. Sometimes, you don’t know what song you are writing… until you’ve finished. And sometimes, even then you still don’t know what you wrote. That is true crap.

It still won’t help you pick up chicks, though.

Happy Post-Disney Halloween!
Long Road Out of Eagles

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