A few weeks before I came to the desert I tagged along with my friend Liz Linder when she attended Ladies Rock Camp. Liz is a photographer who developed a crush on bass guitar, screwed up her courage, and made her move. She enrolled in a weekend intensive run by Hilken Mancini (who was in the band Fuzzy and co-founded Punk Rock Aerobics and owns a vintage shop), singer/songwriter Mary Lou Lord, and Nora Allen-Wiles, who works at Whole Foods when she’s not organizing and mentoring. LRC is conceptually rad: a bunch of grown women learn an instrument, form a band, write a song, and perform live at TT the Bear’s — in three days. I mean, come on. The first thing they did was sit in a giant circle and go around saying why they were there. For example: I want to hang out with girls. I want to see what happens. I turned 40 and my wife thought it was a good idea. I want to get away from my husband and kid. If little girls can do it, what have I been afraid of for the last 30 years? I want to learn how to play well with others. I’m having a midlife crisis. I have to go on tour before I die. It was crazy inspiring.
One of the guest speakers was Juliana Hatfield. She offered a bunch of insights and advice during her songwriting workshop, but it was a couple of throwaway remarks that stuck with me.
1. Juliana’s favorite chord is E.
2. Try a capo.
Regarding the E chord: what does that even mean? Is she drawn to E’s personality? The sound of E’s voice? The mood E puts her in? I plan to inquire and will report back. As for the capo, I’d always assumed they were proverbial one-trick ponies, shrewd little shortcuts to singability, helpmate to the masses who don’t know enough music theory to transpose a song into a different key. But Juliana seemed to be saying (in a few halting words) that a capo changes the timbre of the strings and sometimes sparks an idea or a feeling or a direction. I tucked that tidbit away like a morsel of food in my cheek.
So. I wake up in Joshua Tree, face-to-face with the first day of my songwriting retreat. I have no idea what other people’s moments of truth look like, but mine is bright and cool and so incredibly still it’s as if someone with major juice has shushed the world. The previous afternoon I’d partaken in the ritual guitar restringing and the ritual labeling of notebooks and any other damn ritual I could think of.
Nothing to do but start. But finding the right spot seems suddenly crucial. Which brings me (once again) to Carlos Castaneda. When Castaneda was a graduate student in the anthropology department at UCLA, he was perplexed and full of questions and restricted by reason. (Sound familiar?) He sought out the Yaqui sorcerer don Juan, who agreed to teach Castaneda only if he could pass a test, which was to find his spot on don Juan’s porch. The wannabe apprentice crawled around for hours until don Juan took pity and offered a hint. He told Castaneda that he needed to feel for the spot, not look for it. Later I read that Jungians interpret don Juan’s advice as basic instructions for perceiving the unconscious by circumventing the rationality that obscures it. Hardly a songwriting how-to, but I’m angling for a way in and a Castaneda book was here to greet me and nobody will die if feel around for a spot. So I do.
There is my blue chair. There is the wood table on which I lay my notebook. I clear my mind. I open my senses. And like an animal that awakens with an appetite, I retrieve the scraps I’ve squirreled away. The capo goes on. I strum an E. Here comes something.