When I ask musicians where they find ideas for songs, occasionally they’ll say something along the lines of “just look around.” In other words, the world is interesting. People are interesting. They’re awful and dazzling and familiar and surprising.
One morning in Joshua Tree, just before sitting down to work, I’m poking around in the front yard when a souped-up hearse drives by. Remember the funereal yet sporty hatchet job Harold did on the Jaguar E-Type in “Harold and Maude”? That’s the vibe, but lower-rent. A blond with a ponytail and big sunglasses is behind the wheel. She whizzes by at a ridiculous speed for a dirt road, let alone a vehicle made for processions to the cemetery. The car is coated in dust. The woman has a story. Unless we have a neighborly meet-up that sparks an intimate conversation, and what are the odds of that happening, I’ll never know it. But I could make one up.
So begins my second song. I wonder for a moment if it’s poor form to move on when I’ve only just begun the first song. I wonder if I’m supposed to finish what I’ve started. Whatever. This time around I make a few decisions in advance. First, it’s going to be a folk song, mostly because a folk song is simple and accessible and something a person without much skill or knowledge should be able to rustle up. “Lucky Penny” doesn’t seem to belong a genre, which worries me, perhaps for no reason, and it’s too early and totally asinine to be thinking about things like that, but still. Second, it’s going to be a waltz. I like waltz time. So does Elliott Smith. Finally, it’s going to be a narrative about the woman I just saw. I know what she drives and how she wears her hair and that there is a ranch house on her road the color of bubblegum and that she lives near the Lighthouse Christian Center.
It turns out making up a story isn’t like writing about yourself. There isn’t the same need to get the emotional and psychological shades just right, to convey precisely who and how I am, even as I work to make the tale ring true. There’s a difference between ringing true and being true. Maybe later blurring the line between autobiography and storytelling will come naturally. Maybe it’s happening and I don’t even know it. The chords I choose are purposefully plain: D, G, and A, with some E minor 7 and B minor thrown in for color. I still can’t quite fathom how random the songwriting process is. The first two verses, and another one that seems to want to be the last verse, come fast. It will be weeks before it dawns on me that Angelina, a name that comes out of my mouth for no good reason on the patio in Joshua Tree, is in an Elliott Smith waltz. How do our brains do that?
Around the corner from the Lighthouse Church
There’s a pink plaster palace
Where a blond in a dirty black hearse
Sits in mourning, for what she can’t say
The love or the money
Days are endless, night comes too soon
There’s a box in the attic
It plays a ridiculous tune
Desperado, she knows every word
Come to your senses
After the winter she wasn’t the same
Food tasted bitter
She couldn’t remember her name