I am trying to write some songs : Wherein the protagonist tries her hand.


It’s Who You Know

Now that I no longer work for the Boston Globe I can do whatever I want.

Not really. But I don’t have to worry about being busted for making a political contribution, or feel weird about making friends with people I write about. On the contrary. I can shamelessly exploit the connections I’ve made as a music journalist for my personal advancement. So. When I decided to move ahead with the plan to write songs, the first thing I needed to do was dust off my guitar and brush up my skills, which never exceeded paltry. I can produce sounds on my guitar that an average person would tolerate around a campfire. I had a few choices. I could bust out the Alfred Handy Chord Encyclopedia and hole up in my room. I could sign up for lessons at a local music school. Or I could call Jen Trynin, a badass songwriter and guitarist who flirted with rock stardom in the ’90s and lives across the river in Watertown.

I called Jen (that’s her in the photo). She’s sharp and funny — she wrote a memoir called “Everything I’m Cracked Up To Be” — and my intuition, the only game I’ve got, told me she would make an awesome starter guru. Jen told me that she’s not “technically” a guitar teacher. I asked if she would be up for sitting down with me every once in a while for nebulous mentoring involving guitars. I would pay her in cocktails. She said yes. Here is a sample of our early email correspondence:


Subject: Fun

Jen: Looking forward to our shared adventure. I hope you don’t suck.

Subject: Songwriting

Me: I definitely want to talk with you about writing songs.

Jen: My real advice is just use the bottom two (the lowest, fattest) strings as “bass notes” and write yer dang songs wit dat – cuz dat’s all u need, babee! And don’t be shy.

Subject: Update on bar chords

Me: Give me the cheating way or give me death.

Jen: Cheating, definitely.

So far, so good.


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I Play Like a Girl

Jen asked me to come prepared to play a song at our first meeting so that she could assess my level of need, as it were. What she really needed to know is if I have two particular qualities: a good ear, and good feel. I don’t think either can be learned. And unless I throw my lot in with the anarchists, both are essential.

I taught myself a Sam Phillips song, “Don’t Do Anything,” something I didn’t mention when I interviewed Sam for this project several weeks later. It seemed a little creepy and stalkerish, but who knows. Maybe she would have been touched. The song met my strict criteria for a cover tune: chords I know. The online tabs also included a few fractiony-looking things (D/C#) that I ignored. It’s a really pretty song, but Sam plays it on a filthy-sounding electric guitar that makes a mild-mannered G sound like it just stumbled out of a bar in ripped pantyhose and smeared lipstick. I like the juxtaposition. And trashy aesthetics are so forgiving. It’s supposed to sound like crap. But Jen wouldn’t let me plug in. She later explained, “I needed to hear how you really play, what kind of feel you have for music, for the guitar. Unless one is quite adept at the electric, it’s very hard to tell those things.”

Instead she handed me a cheap acoustic that she used to play at Temple retreats in the 1970s. It’s her best guitar, she said. Jen doesn’t care what happens to it and nothing ever does, which seems like a metaphor for something. The scene was surreal: the musician sizing up the music critic. It felt like the first serious test drive of my resolve to be unselfconscious, which works wonders, when it works. I played the song. Jen was relieved to find that I can keep time and sing in tune. We talked about downstrokes and upstrokes, tuning off of the A string, whole steps and half steps, and I confessed to her that I wasn’t so much intent on becoming a serious guitar player as having a tool to write songs. She said she thinks I have what I need to write a song. I choose to believe her.

Then she said, “You play like a girl, and if you want to play like a girl nothing wrong with that.”

I said, “I don’t want to play like a girl,”  even though that sounds horribly anti-girl, but I knew what she meant: stereotypically girl. Timid. Gentle. She said, “I want you to play like you.” I said, “I don’t know how I play.” She said, “I’m gonna broaden your vocabulary. I’m gonna bring you to this other place.” I choose to believe her.


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Go Ahead. I Dare You.

There’s words and music, good ideas and bad, fear and loathing and inspiration and hard work. Then there’s what Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen master, said.

So the secret is just to say “Yes!” and jump off from here. Then there is no problem. It means to be yourself, always yourself, without sticking to an old self.

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outside looking in

On the Outside Looking In

For someone who has been around music and musicians most of her life, it’s amazing how much I don’t know. Here’s a (partial) list:

Anything about charts, intervals, structure, amplifiers, cables, pedal tuners, string gauges, theory, and harmony.

Which begs the question (emphasis on begging): with no training, experience, vision, or time, can I think of myself as an outsider? I’m not bipolar like the great Daniel Johnston. I don’t ignore formal rules and convention like the mysterious Jandek. I’m not isolated or particularly unusual. And yet. The mainstream is hardly where I’m headed. I don’t fantasize about a career in music. My tool kit is negligible. And still I want to write songs. Paradoxically, my foundation — 25 years of serious contemplation — is also my Achilles heel. I’m a music critic. I know what’s good and what’s not, or at least what’s good and not good in my book. If I apply my critical faculties to my nascent songwriting efforts I will lose my nerve, if not my mind. So this is the challenge: to allow myself the space to create without judgement. And that is one hell of an exotic destination. When we’re young, we’re allowed  – no, expected — to be boldly and baldly green. Not so in midlife. We’re meant to know what we’re doing, where we’re going, and how to get there. The prospect of sitting down with my guitar and letting early, tentative ideas exist in the world for EVEN A MOMENT without instantly banishing them in the name of good taste makes me feel exactly like what I am.

An outsider.


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stained glass guitar

Of God and Bar Chords

It turns out Jen is a full-service mentor. At our second meeting we talked about frets and scales and how playing the same chord in different configurations changes the sound and the feel of the music. It’s true. I learned the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame,” a winsome tune, all classic-pop changes and a heart-tugging melody. Except when Jen showed me how to play it using bar chords, scratching at the low strings, it changed from sweet and yearning to coiled and desperate. I find this to be nothing short of magical. Then we talked about boobs. Then we talked about eyeglasses. I’m not a middle-aged whiner; I don’t spend a lot of time complaining about how getting old sucks, and I don’t think Jen does either. But we have a context now, an organizing principle to our conversations, and everything connects. We decided which has been the more humbling decline (eyesight, partly because when it comes to mammaries we at least gave for a good cause). Then, obviously, we talked about children. Which led to organized religion, which led to God, which led to music. Here’s where we ended up.

God isn’t a thing, Jen said. It’s a process. And music is that way, too.

She tried to elaborate and I think I understand what she was getting at. When Jen plays in the so-called pocket, she’s not creating the rhythm but rather slipping into it. The sense of motion is in her, but it also exists independent of her. We acknowledge as much in our music vocabulary. People don’t make the groove. They get into the groove.

In the beginning you figure stuff out and your brain wants to know how it works. But once you figure it out you try to feel it. If you screw up a chord, keep going. If you keep screwing up in the same place, stop, and do the change again. Stop, do it again. Do it a hundred times. I’m not kidding. Then put it in time.

Webster’s Unabridged has 29 definitions for time. Here are a pertinent few.

The characteristic rhythm of a composition.

A period neccessary, sufficient, or available for something.

The period during which something happens.

Every moment there has ever been or ever will be.

I’m not actively working on the last one but it’s just so awesome to think about.


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