Step One: Touch Somebody
Think back to the first time you wrote a song for someone and then played it for that person. Did it have an effect on him or her? And wasn’t that a thrill? At that moment, you may have realized that the whole thing is about communication. And if it was real enough to make someone smile, or cry, or say “thank you,” then who knows? It might be real enough to move millions of other people.
I live in a duplex. My only contact with the upstairs neighbors had been when I discovered my music room was directly under one of their bedrooms. Being quite elderly, they go to bed at about 9:30, so I moved my music studio to another room, directly under their spare room. They were very grateful and sweet about it. Last week, I called them to ask them something about the television antenna. They invited me up for fruit. I spent an hour and a half hearing them speak of their life, their many pets through the years, their children and grandchildren. I was so moved by the experience, I couldn’t stop thinking and feeling about it. So I started writing. . . .
“The television looks like it’s from the fifties,
Except that there’s a cable in the back.
He sits in his special chair,
Half awake and half aware
That she is in the room somewhere,
That is his pivotal fact.”
I realized that, in the middle of a million things I was supposed to be doing, I was writing a song about my upstairs neighbors. Not knowing them very well, I didn’t know how they would feel about having their love story immortalized by the night owl below them, but I knew I was hooked and couldn’t stop.
I called them up and told the wife I had written a song of tribute to her relationship with her husband. She then said one of those things that will forever stay in my memory, not only as a comment, but as a life’s lesson. She said, “Well, it certainly can’t harm the relationship. Everything only makes it better.” I knew, at that point, here was a lady who had made some sane decisions. I really wanted her to like the song.
They came down this morning and I played it for them. They smiled and thanked me. Then she asked me to read the lyric to her. I did. We had a nice visit and they left. They had asked me for a copy of the lyric, which I gave them. But I made them promise when their children and grandchildren heard it, they’d let me play it with the melody, not just read the lyric. They agreed. Ten minutes after they left, the wife called me and told me that after she read the lyric, she realized what it said, how moved she was, and that her husband had tears in his eyes as well. They just couldn’t hear quite well enough to make out the words without reading them. Then she said she didn’t know how she could ever thank me enough for what I had done. And I thought to myself, I should be thanking them for the inspiration. What a rare couple it is who can instill that kind of feeling in someone.
My point here is that, yes, it’s exciting when I hear a song of mine on the radio or in a film for the first time. But that’s sort of a wild excitement that’s directed outward. I’ve actually been known to go up to bikers in restaurants and tell them my song was playing, only to be thrilled that they were actually familiar with it and equally pleased that they weren’t offended I had spoken to them. But the kind of reward I’m talking about is of a deeper, more inward nature. It comes from playing a personal communication to someone.
It’s such a wonderful gift to be able to put something into music and words in the first place. And to offer it to someone as a validation of something he or she did—that’s really quite a gift also. And if you’ve never done it, you’re really missing something. On my second album, I had a song called “Mama,” which was covered by Helen Reddy, after she’d had a hit with “Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady.” When Helen was touring, she went through Dallas, and my mother went to see her. Afterward, my mother proudly announced that she was the “Mama” the song was written about. Looking back now, I’m so happy I had the foresight to write that song when I did.
So, as I tell every class I teach and every seminar I give, there are many reasons to write songs. Getting on the charts is just one of them, and usually not a very inspiring goal. Money is cold and generally doesn’t get the kind of juices flowing that inspire art. But there are many lives to be touched by the gifts we have as songwriters. You might find that giving one of these gifts is as rewarding to you as to the recipient, if not more so.