I am the product of a liberal upper-middle class family of six from just outside New York City; the product of a writer-father whose life’s work was about exposing social injustices and pissing off defenders of the status-quo; the product of a divorced single mom who fled to the hippie town of Boulder, Colorado to escape the stifling suburbs of Updike novels; the product of nearly twenty years of living right smack in the buckle of the Bible belt among the good old boys and the bad old music business.
First I heard Django Rheinhardt and Ella Fitzgerald mixed with the sound of ice rattling in cocktail glasses. Later I heard Bob Dylan and the Beatles mixed with the smell of marijuana wafting down from the third floor of our house. When I woke up from my childhood I found a guitar and tried to make some of these sounds. I have been in love with words all my life. They were my familiars, the things with which I felt most comfortable and competent. According to members of my family, I used them frequently and handily from an early age.
Music was different. Music had to be seduced; words were easy. Music was a tall dark stranger; words were an old familiar face. I think great songs are born. They are born with all the urgency of childbirth, born out of pain, anger, joy, wit, and delivered by instinct, skill and love. I think writers are born, too. It’s not a popular opinion, but I don’t think you can really teach writing. You can teach an approximation of writing, but it’s never real. I don’t think writing is an act of self-expression as much as an act of self-discovery. I don’t write to express how I feel; I write to find out. I’m usually as surprised as anybody.
I never understood how the music business took people and broke them up into little pieces – the songwriter, the producer, the recording artist, the entertainer. I suppose I grew up with the idea that you made music from start to finish, and I never felt satisfied being one of the pieces. The continuum is the thing. Write a song, arrange it, record it, sing it. The most direct and honest exchange in the whole business really only happens at the end of that continuum – when one person plays and other people listen. That’s what music is for, it’s not content for media providers, or background for worker bees, or sonic wallpaper for elevators. It’s for the people who are singing, and the ones who are listening.
I often hate the music business, and sometimes I think I hate music. I’m always wrong about that. It usually takes listening to Leonard Cohen, or Samuel Barber, or Joni Mitchell, or Gram Parsons, or Jackson Browne, or Ludwig von Beethoven, or Miles Davis, or Dolly Parton to bring me back to my senses. Then I find myself with goosebumps, or unexpected tears, or joy bursting out of my chest like it’s too big to be kept in there – then I remember what music is, what it does, and why I do it.