Songs for Sinners

Songwriting in Mid-life: Crisis or Catharsis?  

Greg Morton, a Facebook friend and wonderful guitar player here in Tucson, recently posted a quote from Timothy B. Schmit, bassist and vocalist of Eagles and Poco fame: “I didn’t peak in my 20’s or 30’s, like a lot of songwriters do.  I’m starting to get it now, which keeps me hopeful.”  I didn’t respond to the post at the time, but I’ve been mulling it over in my mind for the past couple of weeks.  The quote brings up several questions about songwriting and creativity in general that I find interesting: how does the nature vs nurture question relate to talent, why is it difficult for many of us to develop new skills as we age, and is there actually a “peak,” or do songwriters “burn out” for other reasons? 

When I was in my early twenties, a musician with a competitive streak who resented the attention I was receiving for my songwriting commented dismissively about my “way with words,” as if it were a gift dropped in my lap by the powers that be; conversely, his musicianship was something he had earned through hard work and dedication.  While this was clearly a dig born out of jealousy, the notion of a “way with words” as a gift is a common one, and it overlooks the work and effort required to become a good lyricist and songwriter.  While he was listening to records and copying riffs, I was reading anthologies of poetry, imitating rhyme patterns, and writing angsty odes to adolescent suffering.  If you think of “having a way with words” as a gift of nature, you’re less likely to do the work and practice to become a good lyricist.  When you play in a band with the likes of Don Henley, and your lyrics don’t measure up, it may be tempting to give up and tell yourself that you just don’t have “the gift.” 

Former US poet laureate, Billy Collins said, “we’re all born with 200 bad poems in us.” Perhaps this can be said of songs as well.  The goal is to get those bad songs out of the way and destroy the evidence.  I probably wrote more than fifty songs between the ages of sixteen and twenty-six.  I perform none of those songs publicly now, but the writing of them, the practice, allowed me to develop the skills and techniques I use today. 

Several of the commenters on my friend Greg Morton’s post wrote about how they had come to songwriting in middle age and felt good about their work.  This is admirable.  From my perspective, it’s difficult to do something new as you get older, particularly something that requires honing new skills.  One of the commenters said that songwriting scares him because he’s afraid of being trite.  And there’s the rub.  At forty, or fifty, or sixty, you become your worst critic.  You beat yourself up.  You edit yourself off the page.  You know damn well when something is trite.  At sixteen you can write a vague lyric and think it’s profound; you can coerce a couplet into rhyming by using the most awkward syntax imaginable, and rather than admitting that no one talks like that, you applaud your brilliance.  I remember learning to play the guitar as a teenager, struggling to master the barred F chord while fantasizing that I was the next Bob Dylan.  It’s harder to do that now.  I have a mandolin that sits in its case because I can’t tolerate the sound of my own playing. 

Perhaps it comes down to passion.  While I would like to play the mandolin, I don’t have enough passion to sustain the effort.  I work at it for a little while but never long enough to make much progress.  This brings me around to the notion of songwriters “peaking” at a certain age. Perhaps we know we have peaked if we’ve lost our passion.  Perhaps we have nothing left to say or nothing left that we feel we need to say.  In 2000, after “Fire and Rain” made the list of NPR’s 100 greatest songs of the 20th Century, I heard James Taylor discussing why he didn’t write many songs anymore.  “I’m not as emotionally intense,” he said. “I’ve found other solutions - emotional solutions in my life.”  Perhaps when we’re older, we’re simply not as intense, not as driven.  I’m no longer driven to write songs for the sake of writing songs.  I don’t suffer anxiety when I haven’t written a song for a while in the way I did when I was younger.  But certain events in my personal life, the death of my mother from Alzheimer’s, watching loved ones struggle with addiction, have compelled me to write.  The political events of the last four years, the COVID pandemic, and the desire to tell the stories of refugees seeking a better life inspired my latest record, Go to Ground.  Instead of one big peak, I’ve had a series of little peaks.                                                                                                                                                                                                        

I commend Timothy B. Schmit and my musician friends who have taken to songwriting later in life.  There’s no reason to think that songwriting is a young person’s game, and there’s no reason to think that you’ve burned out just because it’s been a while since your last song. If there’s a story to tell, tell it.  If the rhymes don’t sound natural, rework them until they do. If you can’t find a rhyme for a word, choose a different word or change the order of the words.  Some songs come out quickly and some require forceps.  When you’re passionate about your song, it’s time well spent.  

Now, perhaps I should go and dust off that mandolin.                                            Remember manual typewriters? I found this among my 200 bad poems, circa 1977

Tending Your Garden and Going to Ground 

Two days before our annual St. Patrick’s Day gig and five days before Governor Ducey shut down the bars, I called and cancelled the show.  Bodies were piling up in Italian churches with 53,000 Corona Virus cases and more than 4800 deaths.  President Trump was telling us that the virus was not as bad as the seasonal flu while Anthony Fauci said it was ten times worse.  A week after St. Patrick’s Day, I was lost in a cycle of toggling between The New York Times and the CDC website and arguing about the severity of the virus with nonbelievers on Facebook, while my husband, Danny, watched CNN dressed in the green sweatpants that would become his COVID uniform.  I could feel a bout of depression coming on and recognized the futility of attaching factual links to posts by virus deniers, but I couldn’t seem to stop my senseless scrolling. 

On April 1st I hit bottom.  Adam Schlesinger, the great songwriter from Fountains of Wayne, died of COVID at the age of fifty-two.  Danny and I spent the next few days listening to Fountains of Wayne and watching their live concert footage on YouTube.  We learned a couple of their songs and recorded a tribute video. Schlesinger’s death brought the reality of COVID home for me in a way that facts and statistics could not.  He was at a high point in his career, working on songs for movies, TV and Broadway shows. It was a terrible loss and a sobering reminder of my own mortality. 

The following week I began working on a new song, Go to Ground, as stories of lost wages and underpaid essential workers filled the news.  I had the first line, “You never thought that at your age / you’d be working two jobs for minimum wage,” and I continued working from there.  As the song evolved, I seemed to channel some of the self-effacing humor of Fountains of Wayne, who were brilliant at blending catchy melodies with sad but funny lyrics.  One morning as I was working on the melody and guitar chords, Danny looked up from scrambling eggs and sang, “You used to think that at your age / you’d be playing guitar like Jimmy Page.”  Danny makes a habit of bastardizing song lyrics for fun and usually elicits eye rolls from me and our daughter, but this was the perfect line to kick off the last verse.  

Writing “Go to Ground” brought me out of my malaise.  I already had a couple of songs I’d written in 2019, and I only needed a few more to complete an album length project.  I received a timely email from local studio owner and engineer, Duncan Stitt, telling me about his newly remodeled studio with isolated rooms and a separate venting system to avoid recycling potentially contaminated air.  I continued writing and recording in Duncan’s studio throughout the summer, and two weeks ago I sent off my master for CD duplication.   

Throughout my life I have turned to songwriting and music to cope with both personal and collective sorrows.  It’s hard not to fall into despair at the deaths of over a million people worldwide and the political and racial divides that tear us apart.  I have found, as Voltaire wrote at the end of Candide, in this worst of all possible [years], work “is the only way to render life supportable.” And so, I have opted to tend my own garden – aside from the occasional relapse on Facebook. 

Publish in Zocalo Magazine, November 5, 2020