A Good Song Is …

Song

A good song, insofar as one can describe one’s own creation in such a fashion, is a kind of controlled frenzy,  sort of a bucking bronco ride where a certain kind of practiced, angry madness meets several degrees of deliberate lunacy.

A good song is both much wilder and much more sedate than that. It’s homemade alcohol at 160 proof that burns your throat, and drum mountain white cloud tea that promises you something more than meditation and steam.

A good song is words on a page and notes on a staff.

A good song is right up there with the novel, the poem, the play, the sculpture, the painting, as a great thing.

A good song often comes in a rush so overwhelming you can’t write fast enough to put it down. I don’t mean to suggest that this is objectively a good song, or that it’s a good song to you, but I’ll call it a good song all the same, because I think it’s a good song, and to me, it is, and it’s called “The Fine and The Weak,” and I really can’t understand how it came out, or why it’s like it is, but when I listen to it or read it now, I’m sort of staggered by everything it contains inside it:

The spoils of life are both fine and weak
A circus mirror for the grotesqueries we won’t speak
We won’t speak that name, we won’t name that wound
All the songs that we sing have all come un-tuned
It’s all come un-tuned like a dancer’s slip
Like a drunken old captain down with the ship
Gone down with the ship, as dust to dust
To rejoin all the bones that preceded us
They preceded us to the farther shore
Where the wheel of fire won’t spin anymore
Won’t spin or even light or even offer up change
So farewell to the wild, unruly, and strange
Unruly and strange, like the dreams we duck
Like the black on the glass from the stack of a truck
From the stack of a truck comes a hovering guilt
Blacking in the white lines where somebody got killed
Somebody got killed where the spool melts down
Where the strip of our life comes fully unwound
So fully unwound in an amber slick
That when we try to walk through, our soles all stick
Our soles all stick to the way we were
And the less we know now, the more we once seemed sure
Oh, we once seemed sure that the future was close
As the father to the son to the holy ghost
But the holy ghost plays unholy games
He might blink with hope, but he bets with shame
Yes, he bets with shame on an un-rollable rock
Until there’s no more dust left on anyone’s clock
Now, anyone’s clock has a chance to be right
And still we can’t divine day without invoking night
When we invoke night what we mean is the moon
We feel the tides of our women in the ocean’s womb
In the ocean’s womb every secret splays
For the alphabet of history to spell its own days
To spell its own days, to write its own wrongs
To bend in the pitches of the un-tuned songs
All the un-tuned songs, all the hollowed-out pelts
All the unsung saints, and the way they all felt
That’s the way it all felt, when the patient and meek
Finally came to inherit both the fine and the weak

A good song is an answer that makes you ask the question, “Is the idiot in Idiot Wind actually the narrator?”

A good song has a narrator.

A good song is a built thing, like a model airplane. It starts with a picture and directions, and ends up with glue problems and a missing decal, and a splinter, and a moment of flight so exquisite that you remember it when you’re fifty, along with the smell of grass, and the taste of dandelions.

A good song is more than just a clever couplet, but sometimes, a single couplet is how I convince myself I might have a good song on my hands. Is this a good couplet?

Blister and a bottlecap, fetch my skippin’ stone
Get a bone, get a bone, fetch my skippin’ stone

It might not seem like it, but it healed me from nearly a decade of musical sadness.

A good song is not a melody.

A good song is more about phrasing than it is about words, except when it’s more about emotion than it is about logic.

A good song is a sort of memory ritual that can’t be tested for efficacy until you’re years and years away from the moment that birthed the song. But if you are years and years away, and then you listen to that song again, and it takes you right back to where you were, then you’re onto something, particularly when you can’t even recall what some of the images even mean, or how they came to you, or whether they’re real, or something you imagined:

Deep in the dark Californian night
Driving straight into the stars
Half of the moon sits on top of the hillcrest
To x-ray the clouds and their scars

Spanish accordions dog all the handprints
But changing for change sake was soothing
The bargain begins at the first sight of mountain
To obey the mystery of moving

Damp in the cold Californian morning
The eye behind the wave
Brown into green, into green, into blue
Into blue into some deeper grave

Apple-skin fledglings supine on wood
That’s been waxed to slide over violence
The bargain begins at the first sight of ocean
To obey the mystery of silence

Sometimes I wake with the lightning in my eyes
And the echo of some thunderclap
Jesus, man, what a motherfucker of a storm
I have never seen nothing like that

Deep in the dark Californian night
The iambic frame of the naked
Pushing the screen up against all the water
Listening for sounds that sound sacred

Belatedly praising the roots for their honor
Grateful the earth remains porous
The bargain begins at the first sight of breathing
To obey the mysteries before us

A good song belongs to no one.

A good song is there at the beginning of time—it just needs someone or something to put it together.

A good song is kind of like “Lincoln Logs”; a building toy to build log cabins with, and there were X amount of pieces, and X amount of variation between the pieces, and pretty much just one way you could put the pieces together—notches—and pretty much anyone who played with it built a log cabin or possibly a fort, and once we stopped following the directions and just started building, some of us built paddocks and fences and second small buildings and windows and not-windows and really we all just built log houses.

A good song begins differently when you begin it on piano than when you begin it on banjo.

Cemetery Stout, which is another song that I don’t mind saying is, I think, a good song, began on a piano in Ballyvaughan, County Clare, Ireland, and ended on a National Resophonic in Manhattan, New York. There is, in a shoebox of mine, a cassette tape of the very first demo of Cemetery Stout:

The rain was on the grass, and the wind left a letter.
The morning was a wish, and the dreams got better.
The handles went backwards, and the smoke curled a waltz,
and the lazy conversations turned from true to false.

The nicotine thumbs took the bulls by the reins.
The shovels hit the rust with the passion of saints.
Boys became girls, and the girls became tomorrow,
and the clouds paid me back for whatever they had borrowed.

and Matilda got the coat,
and Mikey got the hat.
Desmond’s gone to the hospital,
and he’s never coming back.

The high rises, elsewhere, expanded their boxes.
We skipped out on the funeral, to sleep with the foxes.
A rifle of wood, and a castle made of plastic.
The night was a wish, but the dreams got too drastic.

Everyone was preparing for yesterday’s battle.
A pint in the boot, and a spike in the saddle.
Let’s bury the laws, and dig up the mugs,
paint shadows on the windows, and footprints on the rugs.

and Matilda got the coat,
and Mikey got the hat.
Desmond’s gone to the hospital,
and he’s never coming back.

There’s a battery in the bath, and the animals are listening.
The radio is out, but the newspaper is whispering.
Put a trunk in the shelter, and title it well,
and no matter who begs you, don’t ever tell.
All the words got smaller,
because the troubles were brewing.
Put a target on the barn,
and quit whatever you’re doing.
Take a moment with the cows,
and get a taste of the dead.
One fed the words,
while the other one said…

…that Matilda got the coat,
and Mikey got the hat.
Desmond’s gone to the hospital,
and he’s never coming back.

A good song is always at least a little bit about death.

A good song is homeless.

A good song is a house that will break somebody’s feelings when it becomes an Estate Sale.

It’s a very common question for a songwriter: “Which comes first, the lyrics or the music?” It’s hard to answer that, other than to say, “Neither.”


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