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


Big Bang Theory

Here’s a burning question: how do you start a song?

Some people stare out the window and wait for an idea to arrive. This can take months, according to numerous reputable songwriters, so here’s hoping the view, at least, rocks.

Other people get stoned, switch on the tv, and strum guitar. Eventually, or occasionally, or one time ten years ago, they stumble on a killer riff.

I know a songwriter who comes up with song ideas while walking the trails near her home, another who fills notebooks with words that are like signposts directing him to the music, and another who always begins with a mood. She conjures moods with a chord pattern, a hurried or languid tempo, bright or dusky sounds, and the mood invariably suggests a story or a character or a memory or an emotion that grows clearer and more concrete until she knows what the song is about.

Then there are artists for whom the whole question is moot. Kristin Hersh doesn’t make up songs; she channels them. I think that must be a blessing and a curse. The idea of songs materializing fully formed is awfully attractive from a hard labor standpoint. It’s damn romantic, too, the notion of annointment. But the chosen few are literally out of control, whipped into service by a freakishly domineering muse. Sort of redefines too much of a good thing.

I decided that I needed to go away by myself to see if I could start a song. A long weekend visiting my father in Los Angeles was already on the calendar, so I booked a week in an old rock cottage in Joshua Tree, the most magical place I’ve been. I figured if I could find inspiration anywhere, it was here.

Jen had some advice in advance of my trip.

You know about the two sides of your brain, right? One of them thinks about things like websites and math and the other side does what people call the creative. I think of it as the file cabinet-y side and the swirly side. There are some people who are always on the swirly side. They trust in the cosmos. It’s hard for them to pay the phone bill. When the rain is coming down on them, they’re looking up and thinking nothing, just letting it rain. But you, you see the rain coming and you observe it. You analyze it and figure out how it forms rivers. What I want you to practice before going away is looking up at the rain and not thinking about it, getting your gaze away from the analytical.

When you’re being creative, forward motion is more important than getting something right. I used to write with the tape recorder on, or nearby, and I suggest you do this. I could feel when something good was happening and I’d try to play it as many times as I could. It’s not that I thought it was good, I felt it. It’s like running after a ball that’s going down the street, but as soon as you think about the ball, it vanishes.



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desert sidebar

Joshua Tree, Ho

The drive from L.A. to Joshua Tree is surreal. It requires a shift of psychic gears that is no less radical for its genial tempo. You start at Enterprise Rent-a-Car on Santa Monica near Westwood Blvd. It’s late morning. You’ve been to Trader Joe’s and Peet’s and Walgreens. Your father refuses to drop you off even though you’re a grown woman and you have a history of extreme competence. He may need to cut the clerk at the counter down to size. He will insist on lugging the grocery bags from his car to yours. Mostly he doesn’t want to say goodbye until the last possible moment. When the clerk upgrades you from Economy to Compact, which means you are getting 175 inches of cheap metal and crap plastic instead of 170, you are elated. It’s obviously a sign. You fill the back seat with clothes, food, coffee, wine, and the guitar. The guitar was your high school graduation present. It lives in a blue case from 1977 that the man at Bob Baxter’s Guitar Workshop said could be run over by a truck and survive.

Interstate 10 gets you from the westside of L.A. nearly to Palm Springs. It is one of the main arteries of your youth, along with the 405 and the 101. Slipping into the flow of freeway traffic is beyond second nature. It feels like you are genetically predisposed to merge. The Pacific is behind you and downtown rises in a haze up ahead. You are 51. You are 17. You are hitting the road and something is going to happen.

What happens first is El Monte, West Covina, Montclair, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana, Loma Linda, Redlands, swathes of Southern California small townage. You have never spent time in any of these places. They are the places you pass on your way to the place you want to be. In fact the names of the towns are shorthand for where you don’t want to be. Now you wonder if that’s been a bad idea, if you’ve missed something, if you’ve been a snob from the westside all your life. You keep driving. Strip malls and housing developments give way to open space. You approach the San Gorgonio Pass. And there are the wind farms. You’ve been driving to the desert for decades and the massive turbines still take your breath away.

Now the look and feel of the landscape grows more desolate. More open. Open is a big part of what you’re chasing. You exit the 10 and head north on Highway 62. Desert Hot Springs is off to the right. You fondly recall the time you stayed at a tiny motel there for a couple of days after Coachella and the only other guest was Eric Erlandson from Hole. You drive through Morongo Valley and wonder anew at its stark loveliness. You drive through Yucca Valley and wonder why it exists.  Later in the week you will feel more charitable toward basic services, however unattractive they may be, and understand that it’s a good thing, a very good thing, that most people prefer modern conveniences to otherworldly boulder formations. But today it is a late-breaking eyesore. You keep your eyes on the road and ten minutes later (it might as well be ten light-years) you arrive in Joshua Tree. Downtown is a few blocks long. There is an arts collective, a climbing outfitter, a natural foods store, a few cafes, a thrift store, a yoga studio, and the motel where Gram Parsons died. Joshua Tree National Park is just over the hill. It is your idea of enchantment.

There is blue sky and sun. There are hippie children and there is the taste of freedom. The taste is so big and strong you feel like you are choking on it, not in a help-me-I’m-choking way but in an all-choked-up way. Maybe that’s why musicians come here. Maybe if you fill your mouth and your throat and your chest with what’s cooking, it comes back out as a song.


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Going Solo

Being alone feels revolutionary. I’m not talking about working in my office alone, or taking a walk alone, or even waking up weird and angry and spending the day at the beach alone, which is what I did on my birthday last year.

Full-metal solitude is the goal, the sort of solitude that obliges a brain to power down and allows everything else, parts that are silenced by a brain’s yammering about details and duties and deadlines, to power up. I want to turn myself on. It’s actually more complicated than that. I want to find out if I have an on switch, because I don’t remember the last time I looked and lately I’ve been wondering if mine is missing. Maybe I traded it for a comfortable life and three healthy kids. More likely I just haven’t been paying attention.

Everyone has a different idea about where they’ll have a good shot at finding themselves or being themselves or locating misplaced parts of themselves. For me that place is the desert, and I’m not sure why. I have pleasant-enough memories of Palm Springs swimming pools and concerts in Indio and an 11th-grade camping trip to the school headmaster’s plot of land in the Mojave, where we built a geodesic dome and my friend Chris wore my sister Nancy’s dress for a solid week. But I recall no defining or transformational experiences. I think I’m attracted to the desert for the same reasons I’m attracted to certain people. It’s open and striking and really dry. There’s nothing lush or indulgent about the desert. I’m pretty sure a lot of people would rather retreat to a mountain cabin or a beach house, but I find the blunt terrain of rock and thorn exquisitely moving. It’s unornamented and saturated with a sense of portent and possibility.

Wanderers who traverse developing countries on a diet of goat jerky and rainwater can smirk, but a week on my own in Joshua Tree rates as a tour de force adventure – not by virtue of any physical exertion or cultural opportunities, but because I’m here to work and the nature of my work is a mystery. So. What do we do when we don’t know what we’re doing? We surround ourselves with useful things, or rather the things we imagine will be useful, ranging from the utterly utilitarian to the wildly hopeful. New guitar strings. The style of notebook Oscar Wilde, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Henri Matisse used. Healthy food. A lot of wine. The GigBaby! iPhone app with metronome, four-track recorder, and drum machine. A few such items are already in the house when I arrive. One is a beautiful old wood stove in the kitchen that heats the main living area. It will prove to be both fierce adversary and invaluable ally.

On my tentative first walk through the place (many of the floors are made of rock so most walks through the house will be wobbly) I see a copy of Carlos Castaneda’s Journey To Ixtlan, the third book in a series that meant a lot to me when I was a teenager.

The book’s title is taken from an allegory about returning to a metaphorical home town, and the story delves deeply into lessons about disrupting routine and igniting will and stopping the world, an idea I could go on about but won’t. Not right now. Finding the book laid out on a night table is like finding a trail of crumbs in the forest.


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Joshua Tree E chord

Pick a Chord, Not Just Any Chord

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’sin 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.


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Joshua Tree Lucky Penny

Lucky Penny

What happens when you stop speculating and plotting and talking is this: your mind wanders. Literally. It rambles over hill and down dale, directionless. It drifts into a bar and leans against the wall with a drink and a smoke. It peels out in reverse. Recent emails and long-lost boyfriends and the kitchen stove and bad habits do-si-do along its porous borders. It thumbs through file cabinets plucking out random bits that you will later guess are not so random. It groks the backyard.

Your mind wanders as you sit in the blue chair strumming an E chord with the capo on the first fret. The capo makes the strings feel tighter and sound brighter and you might be dreaming but it also makes them more forgiving when your fingers aren’t in precisely the right position, which they’re often not. In your nascent awareness you note that you’re playing in the key of F. In your infinite wisdom you know that you need another chord, so you scroll through all the ones you know. E to A. E to G. E to D. E to B minor. And so on. Deciding which chord comes next seems like an extraordinary manifestation of personal freedom. There are no good words to describe this feeling of volition. It’s confusing and intoxicating. You’re in a vehicle you’ve never operated on a road that isn’t paved moving toward a destination which doesn’t exist. You are the automotive assembler and the road worker and the town builder.

D7 sounds good. (Can this possibly be how it’s done?) There’s something wry about E to D7. A little off. Slightly warped. Like some of your favorite people. Maybe the song should be about a person. You’ve been keeping a running list of possible song titles and one of them is Lucky Penny. The song will be about her, whoever she is. You start singing the words, lucky penny, over the E chord. You don’t so much choose the notes as let loose a few. The seems uncraftsmanlike and will have to change but for now you let yourself off every hook because number one you are STARTING and number two you have it on good authority that it’s best to spew now and edit later. You’ve got two chords and as many words and you need more of both so you let your mind wander again and it lights on a message you received the previous evening from your sister Nancy.

hi jo – glad that you have safely landed in the desert.
last night I had some weird vertigo attack and freaked out.
kim drove me home in my car and then took a cab to patti lupone.
blah blah.  wish I had a husband or dog at these times.

You have a husband and a dog, but at times like these it’s good to be alone. Also, at other times. Less auspicious times. Sometimes you actually disappear while surrounded by your family or your friends. All your life you’ve felt weird about it. Now you’re thinking it’s just how you roll.

Lucky Penny

It’s good to be alone

Slip into the cone of silence

No one ever knows the difference

Go on

I am she as you are she as you are me and we are all together. And we have a verse, to boot.


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