|Scribblin' My Life Away, by Memphis Mike
I enjoy writing. I always have. In high school, whenever there was a writing assignment, I'd usually have it finished before the bell rang. Unlike most folks, I can usually write something coherent and entertaining on demand. I've written stories, poetry, copy for brochures, catalogues, and web sites, music reviews, feature articles, you name it, I've probably written it.
The only thing I enjoy even more is writing music. I find that term to be a misnomer though... I never actually write anything down. I have my reasons for this... but more about them in a minute.
I love creating music that, mere minutes before, didn't exist anywhere but in my head. It's been said that all music is already written and floating around the cosmos... and only a lucky few have the internal receiver to pick up these frequencies. If this is the case, I'm one of the ones with a few crossed wires.
I can't write music on demand. Lord knows I've tried. I can usually come up with a riff or a phrase... but that's about it. As a writer, I've attempted to take poetry, of my own creation, and affix it to music, also of my own... but it always, at least to me, sounded forced. It didn't flow. It took me a few years to learn my #1 rule: Never write anything down. If it gets stuck in my own head, there's a good chance it will get stuck in some else's.
This rule, I think, has served me pretty well. I used to put everything I came up with on cassette tapes... and you know what I ended up with? Boxes of cassette tapes of pretty awful music. It would be safe to say that I've started writing thousands of songs. Blissfully, only a few hundred have survived. Out of those, maybe 100 have been performed anywhere outside of my house and even fewer have ever been professionally, or even semi-professionally recorded.
My friend and mentor in all things rockin', Al Leatherwood, could never overstate the importance of good lyrics. I'd be in the studio with him, and we'd be fleshing out a musical idea of his, and I could never understand why he didn't just throw some lyrics at it until something stuck, and then release the song. It just simply isn't how he works.
All writers have different ways of putting their ideas together. In my case, it's either there or it isn't. Like I said, I have loads of unfinished masterpieces logged away in my brain. Writing solo can be lonely. I've always thought it would be fun to have someone to write with, but anytime I've asked people to write with me, for whatever reasons, they never come through. (Gee... maybe my writing isn't as brilliant as I tend to think it is! LOL)
Writing should be personal. Lyrics don't have to be obvious though... no one needs to hear about a songwriter's personal life in detail. A decent writer can mask things... dress them up in funny costumes that only he or she fully understand. If you're ever taking a creative writing class, and the instructor tries to tell you what a certain writer meant by certain phrases, etc... chances are, that instructor is an idiot who hasn't a clue. There's a scene from an old Rodney Dangerfield movie, where he's hired Kurt Vonnegut to write a paper about one of Vonnegut's own books. The professor told him that he obviously didn't understand Vonnegut!
I've often been asked about songs of mine... what they mean, what they're about, etc. I rarely have the time to go into any detail... but as I have nothing more pressing to do at the moment, here's some back story on a few of my songs. These are in no particular order.
"Diamonds & Cadillacs"
I might as well start with this one, as I've often been told that this is the song I'll be remembered for after I die. I can tell you this much, it was one of those songs that pretty much hit me all at once. I was sitting in my garage, waiting for our bass player to pick me in the truck, as we were heading to Cleveland for a gig and to do some recording. It was a summer evening and I recall it was muggy out. I'd been rehashing an old, never-finished song of mine called "I Don't Know Why" and was trying to sing it like Charlie Feathers. I tried changing the rhythm a bit... but still nothing. I sat there smoking a cigarette and thinking about Charlie's life and career and what the end would be like for him... and WHAM! The song hit. It originally had a lot more verses but the finished version was all I could ever remember... and it seems to work out just right. Over the years, Leatherwood, Hayden Thompson, Mack Self, Sleep LaBeef and Billy Poore have all expressed
interest in covering the song. To date, I believe Hayden Thompson and myself are the only ones to have recorded it. Hayden has done a few different versions of this... some with backing tracks by my band. The released version featured a band from Finland called The Hal Peters Trio. I'll leave it up to you to decide which version is better. I actually had to fight for this song in court once! It pays to file those copyrights!
A fun little song this is! Ridiculous title, right? The title came from me scat singing the guitar riff. Until then, it was just called "Untitled Boogie Thing In A". This song has actually had a pretty interesting history. Locals may remember our old band, The Rowdy Bovines, doing this song... but the Bovines weren't the first. Nope, that distinction belonged to The Udder Cats, the offshoot side project of the Bovines! Hence, my having to scat sing the opening guitar riff! I was playing bass and the guitarist, Mark Anderson, was having difficulties learning the riff. Turned out, whenever we played the song live, he & I would just switch instruments on this song. I found the original rehearsal tape of this song not too long ago. Damned near sounded like Motorhead being fronted by Phil Alvin! After a while, The Rowdy Bovines did start doing this song and when I first took The Legendary Tremblers into the studio, we recorded this and it became the 1st song on
our 1st release. I've played this around the world. It seemed to scare the British Teddy Boys. Job well done!
Always a personal fave! I wrote this for The Rowdy Bovines and it was a crowd fave. The intro was inspired by my late friend, Danny Gatton. Danny could play anything... any song, in almost any style. He always did a killer version of the Perry Mason theme, as well as a bad ass version of Harlem Nocturne. I recall sitting in my basement, late at night and well into a 2nd or 3rd bottle of wine, forcing myself to get angry enough to write (that was another of my tricks... I felt, for years, that I wrote best drunk and angry). I came up with the intro... I thought it was so cool... but couldn't find a way to continue the melody. So, I started playing something a bit more punk. When I realized the two were in the same key, I put them together. VOILA! New song! I've recorded this a couple of times but I swear it's haunted. Something always goes wrong when I record it, so I've left it alone for the past 10 years or so. I'm sure the song will let me know when it's ready to come out of
Like I wrote earlier, Leatherwood couldn't emphasize enough about the importance of lyrics. It's just in the past few years that I think I've come into my own, lyrically. Again, this was one of those songs that just HIT! I was working nights at a residential treatement facility for chronic schizophrenics. I usually had a guitar or uke with me, as the clients (who rarely slept at night) enjoyed music, and we'd try a bit of music therapy. It also gave me an excuse to play guitar all night long. I was sitting there, talking with a client, and playing guitar, and the riff came to me. Numerous lines of lyrics started coming to me... most based on time I'd spent in Tennessee. I spent the next half hour (I called it "lunch time") whittling the song down to something manageable. I took some of the lyrics and rewrote them, and sometimes I just made things up. Since it sounded so bluesy, I decided to end with an allusion to the Tommy/Robert Johnson legend about the Devil and
the crossroads... but decided to give it a twist. I then played it for a client, a very old, very wrinkly gal who had seen it all in this world... mostly from inside her own mind. I asked her opinion. She told me it was too fast. I slowed it down a bit, and then a bit more, and she finally said "Now you got it!". I recorded this right after I got laid off from that job. As she's since passed on, I think I can safely say THANK YOU VIRGINIA! for her help on this song. It's also the only song I've ever done a real promo video for (thanks to Tom Weber for that!)
This is the last one I'm going to write about (today anyway). I'm truly proud of this weird little song. We've recorded it... but haven't finished the recording. I plan to have a special guest on it. As for the song itself... just fun fun fun! The past couple of years, I've been experimenting with cutting songs back to make them as basic as possible. Rather than chord changes, I try to change the inflection of different parts of the song. It's an old blues trick that actually dates back to tribal African music. But the lyrics... in all honesty, they came first... at least one line did. Inspiration comes in many forms... and this is no exception! I was lying in bed one night, watching Top Gear UK and Richard Hammond was talking about an Australian ute (utility vehicle... aka a truck) called The Maloo, which, he informed the viewers, means "thunder" in Aborigine. All night, this one little line played through my head. By morning, the rhythm had formulated in my head and I
had to do something with this embryonic song! I decided to look up some Aborigine phrases, town names, and those along with some Aussie slang I already know, I formulated what I think just may be the most interesting lyrics I've ever written. The song just fell in place and I couldn't wait to record it! Just before we went to the studio, a friend who I rate extremely high as a musician, agreed to play on the track... only problem, he lives in California and we need to find a way to get him here. So I just left space on the track for him. It'll work out. Until then, I've performed this song publicly, once. It seemed to go over well. I can't wait for the world to hear the finished product!
Well, that's about all the back story I can think up for these. I have so many songs and so many stories. Don't worry... I'm sure you'll hear them all before I'm done. Check back soon.
Blogged by Memphis Mike, 2013
Used with permission