Letters and numbers
Somewhere along the way this past year, I decided to quit fucking around. Time to become a serious songwriter.
Okay, I’ve written songs for years. And most of the time I was pretty ardent and consequential about my songwriting efforts. But there always was that caveat, voiced by an editor or two, that my job was to write about music, not make music. And even though my mindset has always been, “well, why I can’t do both?,” there usually was that mumbly little gremlin in the back of my mind that told me I shouldn’t put the whole effort of my creative drive into my music.
Well, fuck that. I’m in my mid-fifties now, and I’ve heard know-it-alls opining about how if you don’t nail down a music career by the time you’re 19 or 20, you’re tilting at windmills — as in, give it up, alterkocker. So I’ve been halfheartedly acting like Sancho Panza’s pal for years, albeit without making a complete fool out of myself.
But fortunately, this isn’t a career; making music is what lights me up and gets me moving in the morning. Some people have to paint; others are driven to write novels or poetry. Me? I’m most sanguine with a guitar in my lap and my fingers gingerly curled around the neck, caressing the fretboard. That’s my palette of choice.
And so, I’ve been writing some tunes. It’s not like I sit down with the stated objective of writing that classic song, the way an old friend of mine, now a newspaper columnist, used to theatrically insert a sheet of paper into the carriage of his Royal and pronounce, whether earnestly or sarcastically, I could never tell, that he was working on The Great American Novel. But I do find a quiet — or not so quiet, sometimes — deliberation in the way I go about writing songs.
And what happens is that these songs come into being the way a figure emerges from a stone for a sculptor or something. I’m still mystified by the creative process, really; the analogy that I’m twiddling my fingers on a cosmic radio dial, making micro-adjustments until the signal comes in most strongly, probably comes closest to accurate. Art comes from g*d, or The Divine Whatever, or a creative and loving universe; it’s all out there floating around. And so the artist’s work, really, is applying the force of will to bringing a new work into finished manifestation.
Believe it or not, writing lyrics is the hardest part. Often I play with a few chords strung together into a makeshift progression, and a melody emerges with a little effort. And that can be shaped into a song structure with a little more effort. But lyrics, oy vey: Maybe it’s because I’m such a goddamn perfectionist after years of writing articles and stories, or maybe it’s because I can’t seem to untether myself from an old-school, Tin Pan Alley sense of rhyming the lyrics. The upshot is that I’ve got a backlog of unfinished songs that I haven’t fitted lyrics to quite yet.
But I have been finishing some. What follows are the lyrics from one recent effort, a sprightly little pop number with the title “Letters and Numbers,” which refers to its setting, the Downtown-Midtown grid of Sacramento, California, where I currently reside. It’s kind of a made-up little narrative about a state worker and a waitress; I’m a fan of the Kinks’ principal songwriter Ray Davies, who is a master at taking an utterly mundane subject and rendering it profound. I can’t say that I’ve done the same here, but if I can at all be proud about anything, I’d have to say that I rather like this one, even if it does reference the subject matter of the previous blog post (laundromats, for those of you who are like me and probably too lazy to look it up). And, oh yeah, I do enjoy playing this one live.
So, well, um, uh, here goes:
He took a job at a large faceless state agency
Found an apartment on G Street near 17th
He lived downstairs while two waitresses lived above
One had a boyfriend but the other
It was love at first sight
At the laundromat one night
He could taste that wedding cake
She saw someone new to take her
Out to where the lights are low
Where colorful people glow
Every night to make the show
… which leads, naturally, to the song’s chorus:
Up every night with the party girls
Dancing while the city slumbers
Our little corner of this world
Is marked off by letters and numbers
Letters and numbers
And then what follows is a second verse:
She never had big plans for him he was a guy
Who’d keep her warm and satisfied while she got high
Once at a bar on 21st Street around P
Cocktails mixed with jealousy
When she cooed to a bartender
He caught subtext in their words
The vibe suddenly turned strange
Heated words exchanged
His pain mixed with his gin and tonic pride
Some girl asked him for a ride
And so he woke up next to someone new
… which is followed by a chorus, and then an instrumental break, and then, again, the chorus, because this is a hummy little pop ditty and not gosh-darn Mahler lieder. And, after the chorus comes verse number three, which finishes the song’s narrative arc:
He often worked late at the big state agency
Because he’d overslept from last night’s revelries
He liked to shake some action after quitting time
From C through W and 3rd through 29th
The good times rolled
So many sweet things to hold
He forgot his waitress friend
She forgot him too and then
One night they fell together and
They shared one more one-night stand
Funny where two strangers can land
It closes with the chorus a couple of times. I haven’t recorded it yet, basically because this Christmas week I’ve caught the kind of cold that makes it great if you’re trying to sound like Tom Waits or late-period Bob Dylan, but is murder on everything else. So, Kevin, as soon as my vocal cords stop swerving all over the road like an adolescent Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer blamheaded on cooking sherry on Sunset Boulevard in Hal Roach’s Deusenberg, I’ll nail it down and e-mail you the MP3.
And I’ll probably get ’round to posting other songs or works in progress. This blog ain’t titled The Random Griffith for random reasons; I set it up because I’d hit a brick wall, creatively, and I needed to back up, stop, pull the fenders out and get this futhermucker back on the road.
And who knows? Maybe my secret ambition — well, now, that kitty’s outta the bag, isn’t it? — to write a Broadway musical, can begin to take shape here. Or at least a bunch of great songs, or not-so-great songs, or, um, golly, well, uh, shoot, well, perhaps I can use this particular medium as a sounding board for new creative projects.
Weirder things have happened, right? —Jackson Griffith