Worthwhile insights into the creative process: Paul Westerberg
My last contribution to The Times was on a dead man. I now try to write about a living art.
Painfully aware of the who-what-when-where hocus-pocus that constitutes the journalistic game, I beg the editors’ pardon because illiteracy is part of my stock-in-trade. I write songs where “orange” rhymes with “gorgeous” and “chin” with “gasoline.”
O.K., and now to explain how it’s done. Well, it’s a little like trying to hit a bottle cap with a wire coat hanger. Every day a songwriter rows out into the deep waters in search of his own personal Loch Ness monster. (Just a matter of time, we insist.) Being a weary subscriber to the old inspiration-perspiration theory, I must say that minus the former, you’ll hit a sweaty dead end every time, yet without this purging of what I call “brain vomit,” you’ll never drain the 99 pieces of hooey before one of pure inspiration writes itself for you.
Many a songwriter, when asked how it’s done, will underestimate the talent he was born with and blow his skill for brandishing it out of proportion. My talent (if that’s what we call it) is never, ever doubting goose bumps.
Neil Young insists that if the dog gets up and leaves, whatever you are writing stinks. There is truth here. Phony blues wailing or an ill-suited style attempt will send my own dog running. Yet when it’s so right it’s scary my four-legged audience is guaranteed (though I must say he’s yet to come up with a decent bridge). No, the goose bumps do not lie.
The pros in Nashville have an altogether different approach, similar to modern blues writers: it’s all in the title. “Blues Is My Business” (business is good), for instance, or “18 Wheels and a Sore Behind.” They may make good songs, but rarely do they make your skin crawl. Nobody gets married to a clever song, let alone falls in love to one.
Quick rules of thumb:
-Not from the hippocampus, not gonna fly on campus.
-Aim for the audience’s pockets and you’ll miss their hearts by a mile.
-Even Beethoven plagiarized Handel.
My own creed is “It’s simple or impossible.” To date I’ve written more than 1,000 impossibles. Note that I didn’t say “impossibilities” — incorrect grammar is highly useful. I would never have written a song called “Dis-satisfied.”
Allen Ginsberg said, “first thought, best thought.” This has helped innumerable times when my mind is spinning out of control with ideas.
So, fittingly, after I first sat down and unflinchingly dashed off several pages on the art of the song, on reading it back, panic set in. I had just stolen the entire whack from a book written by Jimmy Webb! Rushing to the bookcase to confirm my fears, I smiled as I realized the book had been digested, cursed and thrown out.
Egotistical thieves all of us. Or make that “thiefs.”
Paul Westerberg, the former lead singer, guitarist and songwriter for The Replacements, has released nearly a dozen solo albums.