Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His 13 novels for young adults include The Revealers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools; its sequel, True Shoes (Long Stride Books, 2012), and Doug's newest book, The Prince of Denial (Long Stride, 2013).
The songwriters: Jackson Browne's basement
Like a lot of people are still fans of the creative, tuneful country rock that emerged from the LA scene in the early 70s, I’ve seen the recent documentary “The History of the Eagles,” in which Glenn Frey, a principal in that wildly successful band, describes how he learned to write songs living above Jackson’s flat:
Around nine in the morning, I’d hear Jackson Browne’s teapot going off with this whistle in the distance, and then I’d hear him playing piano. I didn’t really know how to write songs. I knew I wanted to write songs, but I didn’t know exactly, did you just wait around for inspiration, you know, what was the deal? I learned through Jackson’s ceiling and my floor exactly how to write songs, ‘cause Jackson would get up, and he’d play the first verse and first course, and he’d play it 20 times, until he had it just the way he wanted it. And then there’d be silence, and then I’d hear the teapot going off again, and it would be quiet for 20 minutes, and then I’d hear him start to play again … and I’m up there going, so that’s how you do it? Elbow grease. Time. Thought. Persistence.
I’ve never written a song — yet this story sticks with me. About a week before I was to graduate from Kenyon College in ‘74, someone’s friend who was more musically hip than any of us put on the title song in Jackson’s new album “For Everyman,” then left it playing as he walked about the door — and I heard that song speak to that moment in my life. Over the next few months, as I painted houses and prepared to leave on a trip from England to India, basically terrified to do this, Jackson’s music became my soundtrack, as it did for so many others back then. And I, wanting so much to write but scared to really try, thought it must just come to him. The insight. The poetry. The so-few words that conveyed so much. It just came to him, right?
But, come to find out, no. For me what jumps out most from Frey’s quote is not just the songwriting principles he absorbed — “Time. Thought. Persistence” — but also Browne’s working reliance on process. Jackson didn’t, evidently, expect the song he was working on, or the small piece of it he was laboring over, to just come out. He expected to keep working it. Trying stuff. Listening, then trying again. Reshaping, then trying again.
When we see or hear the work of great artists, we have a tendency — because we are seeing, hearing, or reading finished work — to assume they brought this forward in some immediate way. That they just have something which, probably, we never will. And that may be true; but it’s not the way even the best artists, when asked, tend to describe how they do work. In this and the next couple of blog posts, I want to look at some recently surfaced evidence, like Frey’s reflection, of how some of the songwriters who’ve meant the most to me have done some of their most lasting work.
In an interview on Sam Jones’s show “Off Camera,” Jackson is asked about Glenn Frey’s recollection. He doesn’t address the story directly; instead he talks, interestingly but a little vaguely, about process.
Although I don’t remember things exactly, sometimes you remember things a little better, each time — and that becomes the act of writing. Sometimes you hear your first demo or first recordings of something, and realize “Oh! I wasn’t doing this, I was doing that — and that’s better." You know?
I’m not positive I do know — but I think he’s saying that he learned to depend on the process. That sticking with it, and not judging himself too much as he did, would gradually bring him the right or best way to do something.
This is a lesson worth learning. Over, and over ... and over again.