On my most recent trip to New York I confessed to my friend, Ryan Morgan, that he often pops into my mind when I am writing a song, and that when he does, he’s criticizing me. I don’t think he’d mind my saying so, but he’s the type of guy who has a sharp mind and a big mouth. It’s as if there were an intricate system of back roads–paved, clear, and completely familiar–weaving through all the fields of his knowledge, and that his mouth were connected to all that by a freeway with no speed limit. Discussion with him is often intense, sometimes intimidating, and always lively, as he is a very critical guy, and you can’t always tell whether he is baring his soul or playing devil’s advocate. He also takes joy in locating your buttons and pressing them, repeatedly.
It’s a design of mind and mouth that I very much envy, and I have told him so. I envy it because the layout of my mind and mouth is very different. Where he has backroads, I have overgrown footpaths. And where he has an expressway, I have a muddy dirt road. Of course, it isn’t just the design that I envy, as there are plenty of people with the same design who use it to say the dumbest, most boring things. (I am thinking of, say, the stereotype of a so-called “valley girl” blathering on and, like, on.) No, the dude is smart–well read, well studied, thoughtful–and he’ll check you if you’re not being smart and thoughtful, too. He’s a good fella to bounce big thoughts on.
I don’t know if his mind works in the same way for songwriting as it does socially, but mine certainly does. It’s me with a machete, slowly (and I suppose somewhat whiningly, cursing a lot) clearing overgrown paths. And when the work seems long and lonely, after I finish a line or two, I want someone to talk to, and so I conjure someone up, someone like Ryan, and ask him, What do you think of this line? Is it true? Am I being too clever? And sometimes the Ryan will say, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” And I erase it.
It’s not always like that. When I get into the work, when the chopping is good, Ryan isn’t there. Nobody is there. There is no question of what anyone but myself thinks about the lines. It’s that good feeling of, This is true for me, so it will be true for everyone, and I chop on by myself. Or is it that even in that sublime state when I am alone, I’m actually surrounded by everyone I’ve ever met, read, or heard about. But they’re all silent and in accord and let me chop on? It’s a strange thing.
And it’s a thing that, since I began writing songs when I was twelve, I have gone through phases of resenting. Someone would pop into my mind and I’d be all, “Hey, get the hell out of here, I don’t need your help.” The presence of these frowning people made me insecure, made me feel like I wasn’t a true artist, that I couldn’t write a song on my own. It’s always been a big thing with me, this desire to be my own man, to live how I live, to write what I write, and screw what anybody thinks of it. I want to be a true rebel, man. Which is a good, important, useful, and necessary thing to feel, I think. But even that feeling, when I have had it and not been careful with it, has sent me deeper into insecurity, as it has made me aware that my desire to be such a man and to be such a writer betrays the fact that I am not in fact such a man and such a writer, at least not naturally, at least not now; that for the time being I’m just a sheep in the fold who considers himself brave for having the thought of rebellion, but is too cowardly (sheepish) to realize it. But that is all hogwash. Sheepwash. Because sure, maybe there are some true renegades out there, people who’ve never consulted society, externally or mentally, who have never had an internal conversation with someone to determine the value of their thoughts. And if so, then good for them. I guess.
But now I’ve come to appreciate the group of critics in my mind, and to consider them useful and important. I like their company. Ryan seems to appear when I am trying to insinuate something political, historical, or literary into a lyric. And if I can’t convince him of the value of the line then the line isn’t good enough. When I was just starting to write songs, it was my dad who’d show up in my head. I would ask him questions (in physical life) about some of his songwriting rules, and when I found myself breaking them, in he’d walk (in mental life), shaking his head, and I would change the line. The deal is that the songs are much better for it. While writing songs I’ve spoken to Springsteen and Paul Simon, and Hemingway and James Joyce, to Niall Connolly, EW Harris and Mick Flannery, to characters I’m writing about, girls I’m writing about, girls I have had crushes on, girls I have despised, soldiers, political figures, and on and on. A lot of the time it isn’t just a person scoffing at my lyrics, it’s a person who’s challenging my version of things, complicating the picture, making sure I don’t get away with some things, that I include the shitty complicated things. And again, the song gets better for it.
This isn’t to say that songwriting is a people pleasing business for me. For one, the Ryan in my head is not the actual Ryan, of course, but a Ryan I have invented to keep me accountable. Similarly, I certainly don’t have much interest in spending time pleasing exes, nor do they have time for me, but the exes I invite into the writing of songs have all the time in the world to give just to me, and they politely argue over our grossest past with me until we come to some consensus. (I was distant, you didn’t deal with that in the best way.) Secondly, there are people who pop into my mind because I know that they would loathe my train of thought, and in these cases it is their disdain that proves to me that the line is good. For example, I’ve written a thing or two about religion on each of my records. Having grown up a religious man I know plenty of religious people, and those people have appeared in protest in my mind every time I write something that might disagree with them. And it’s a thrill. Now, I have never written a line with the sole intention of offending anyone. It’s just that, with my real life people pleasing tendencies, the thought of making someone uncomfortable inside the safety of my song makes me very happy.
Now, see, the Ryan Morgan in my head is telling me to end this post, and I’m arguing with him that it needs some grand closure. Something that begins with something like, “In the end…” And my wife is telling me that it’s a blog post, and it doesn’t need some grand closure. And I’m telling her that she usually has something like at least semi-grand closure in her blogs, so what right has she to say something like that? And now there is my new manager, Jeff, he’s in my head too, and I’m like, “You told me I should be writing more outside of songwriting. Is this alright? Or should I have talked about my chickens more?” Meanwhile, I am loving all of this, and on and on and on it goes, until…In the end, when all the conversation stops, I’m alone at the kitchen table again, and I’ve a little piece of writing that’s been torn apart and vetted by all the people I trust.