Dec 022011

I had the opportunity to hear musician Suzanne Vega speak twice in November. Vega’s work is one of the strongest influences on my own songwriting and music, so it was a privilege to here her speak in person about her career and work.

First, she gave the keynote address at the northeast Regional Folk alliance in New York. She talked about the recent deaths of Bill morrissey and Jack hardy, who were her friends and supporters during her early years as a performer. These two helped her build her peer network, get out to play in more places, and held her to a high standard for her music.

Second, I attended a songwriters workshop by Vega in Washington DC. The workshop was set up to have three DC-area songwriters each present a song to the group, and then Vega would discuss the work with the writer. I expected her to be tough, critical, and encouraging. She was critical, and she was tough on one songwriter in particular who really didn’t appear to be ready for such a public grilling. But I was impressed with Vega’s warmth and genuine interest. She seemed to like the songs a lot more than I did, and she showed no sign of a “rock star” attitude.

Vega described how a good song is an idea that you can’t get rid of, something that sticks in your head and keeps bugging you until you have to finish it. that’s very different from my process, which is to capture lots of ideas so that I don’t lose them. she seemed to say that a writer could just lose a lot of ideas, because the really great ones would force themselves to stick in your brain. I can see both sides–take down all your ideas and inspirations, and review them later to find the few gems. But don’t tie yourself entirely to those notebooks and computer files, because a really good song will write itself over time.

One person at the DC workshop asked how he could become more comfortable and free as a performer. “Rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse,” was Vega’s answer. Another great reminder that practice is the number one ingredient for good music. How hard and how smart you work at your rehearsing determines how good you perform.

Vega pointed the audience at one of these events to Jack hardy’s songwriting manifesto. Here is a brief version of this set of ideals and instructions, well worth your pondering. Write a song every week. Get into the good stuff that other people are doing. Melody is half the song, so write melodies that stand without your guitar or piano. Spend some time reading and thinking about Hardy’s ideas, and you’ll learn how hard and how rewarding it is to be a songwriter.

Jul 222011

There’s a danger in getting personally involved when reading memoirs of artists, musicians, writers, and other creative people. These books can distort your perspective on your own times and leave you in unrealistic comparisons with others. Admire your heroes, though you can never follow exactly in their footsteps.

Take as an example the first generation of rock musicians, from the middle 1950s through the 1960s. Those were very tough and unique times in America and Britain. The end of the second world war, the introduction of television, multi-track recording, electric guitars. The civil rights movement, Kinsey reports and Masters and Johnson, the Vietnam war, the killing of America’s progressive leaders. Those were troubled decades, and looking back one sees more differences than similarities when comparing today with the lives of the first rockers.

As I’m reading Patti Smiths memoir, Just Kids, for the second time this summer, I’m experiencing a stronger connection to her words than I usually feel for a memoir. I’ve read memoirs by U2, Clarence Clemons, Keith Richards, and Pat Benatar recently. Digging into their creative process and business struggles fascinates me and inspires me. But I keep a safe distance, knowing that I have to make my own life in my own times. Patti Smith’s book is different, because I feel the emotional power in her honest and intimate words.

Smith’s memoir focuses particularly on her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe from the late 1960s through his death twenty years later. She tells their stories in clear, emotional insights, how they met, fell in love, and struggled day by day to create artistic lives in New York City. It’s rare to find such self-aware description of the inner thoughts, dreams, and feelings of young creative hearts. Smith describes her first attempts in poetry, art, theater, and eventually her poetic punk music that broke open new directions for rock. She also describes Mapplethorpe’s early installations and fashions and how he eventually found his voice through photography.

There’s a lot of mundane detail in this book–so many outfits, names, and references. Smith is brilliantly literate and tells her story in her own terms, and I honestly can’t keep up with many of the artists she mentions. But the mundane details go hand in hand with the very personal telling of the two young artists in New York City’s artistic cauldron. There are some great stories about celebrities of the time, such as Sam Shepard, Janis Joplin, Harry Smith, and Johnny Winter.

If you feel a connection to Patti Smith’s music or Robert Mapplethorpe’s art, you’ll find this book a stirring experience.