Q: What were your ambitions when you were younger? Have they changed?
A: Ambition is hard to explain. I was taught that it’s not good if it’s for yourself. Ambition is for the music, for the songs, to make this beautiful thing that you can give to people or that you can leave. I remember I saw Lightning Hopkins in Boston in ’70, I had run away from home and was travelling around the country hitchhiking and I spent my last $3.50 seeing Lightning in Cambridge. It was so magical. It was such a powerful example of a person expressing himself. I felt the same way about Ginsberg, Art Blakey, sometimes people you’ve never even heard of but you just walk into a club. That’s what I feel like I’m trying to do, is to bring music into the world like that, where it lives in people and they remember it gives them some sort of comfort. Not comfort, but a beauty that makes life worth living. That’s the way I look at it. That’s the ambition. To create things that are beautiful or good and also are of value as you go along, to other people and to yourself.
Q: Value can be hard to quantify. And it seems like the pressure of measuring up would at some point start to feel like a real burden.
A: I don’t know if everything needs to be of value. For me it’s a creativity killer if I’ve got to prove the value all the time. I made this record, Full Service No Waiting, when my kids were starting school. My wife wasn’t really around at the time. She wasn’t really ready and she couldn’t handle it so there were a lot of problems and I had to be home to deal with that stuff. The kids would go to school and I rented this tiny room and I put a desk and a guitar in there and every day after the kids went to school I went straight to this room. I had a Smith Corona and I sketched out the whole album, what it was gonna be, starting with the first word of the first song, and I just typed the whole record and heard the music in my head. I sat there every day from, like, 10 to 3, and I thought it was some of the best music I’ve ever done. It ended up being 40 pages of legal typewriter paper, a big sheath of the stuff in tiny type. I would write the rhymes off the top of my head and create these rhythms, and a lot of lines didn’t make it but I kept going forward. I didn’t throw anything out. It’s an interesting work of art of its own. I’d go home to take care of the kids and I’d pick up the guitar and sometimes the song I heard in my head that day, I’d just sing through the whole thing. That would be it. That would be the music. I really enjoyed making that record.
Q: Where did you go from there? You said you make every record a different way.
A: The next record I wanted to do the same thing and it totally sucked. It didn’t work. You’ve got to trick yourself. You’ve got to get away from the rational mind. You’ve got to be thrown into some kind of new situation.
Q: Do you tell that to students in your songwriting classes? Does that advice apply to beginners?
A: I do, but they don’t necessarily get it. We’re at a more basic level. They’re not dealing on that level.
Q: Can songwriting really be taught?
A: No. You can help people that are songwriters. You can help them over their problems. But everybody in the culture seems to write songs. Everybody is a musician. The two things that are prevalent in modern life are advertising and music. Music is the central activity people are involved in besides being receptacles for advertising.
Q: You had major heart surgery last year. How does illness and mortality figure into your music?
A: Hard to say. I really don’t know yet. I do know that I’ve never had my head in the sand about dying or anything but it definitely brought that to the forefront. Especially for a few hours in there at one point. And then I had a lot of time to think. I took some time off.
Q: Do you think Wig‘s immediacy and raw energy came out of that experience?
A: I think so. It’s funny. When I first came out of the hospital I was on drugs, you know. Somebody pointed out to me that I’m on morphine, and I’m listening to jazz. We’ve gone full circle here, you know? I’m sitting down at the piano and I’m stoned and playing these really weird chords, these weird jazz chords. I was listening to Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles, all these ex -junkies. I was just hanging out. Finally I’m like an old man, in one place on the couch. And I started to hear music. Literally I heard this music that I wanted to play and wanted to hear. Sometimes it gets real visceral, you know?
Q: You went through a transformation from pop guy to rootsy singer-songwriter.
A: When I joined the Nerves I turned my back on a lot of the things I’d been working on, the country blues that I’d learned how to play. I started playing electric bass and playing in these rock and roll bands. You know, I loved rock and roll, I really did, and it was a very creative period for me, but I also had turned my back on a whole side of my personality. I rediscovered it when I went solo after the Plimsouls.
Q: Have your powers as a songwriter increased over time? Have you lost things along the way?
A: Dave Alvin said to me that it gets a lot harder, because you’ve already written a lot of songs, and your new songs have to be better than the old songs, or somehow occupy a space that the old songs don’t occupy. I wrote “Two Angels” and I’m not going to write another “Two Angels.” I only felt the one, you know?
Q: People do it all the time. Not everyone places the value on pressing forward.
A: Well, I want to. I keep on feeling that this next one could really be something, you know?
Q: What do you mean by something?
A: I really want to makes something that has a life of its own and is surprising, and is beautiful, and that I discover things in. When I was a little kid listening to music my mom would come in and say, does that send you? I’m trying to create that. I don’t know. You’re living in a world with Bob Dylan, such a heavy artist. He’s like Keats or Milton for our time. More so even that Ginsburg. Much more so. Most people don’t come close to that in their songwriting. And we all have to live with that.