In the immortal words of Tom Cochrane, “Life is a highway, I want to ride it all night long.” Hey, that's a metaphor for something, right?
It's about being in the driver's seat, pointing five thousand pounds of steel in a particular direction and pushing the gas pedal down. In a bad relationship? Get into the driver's seat, point that car where you want it to go and hit the gas. Do you break up or stay together? Does it even matter? It's all about the drive.
Journeys are usually more interesting than destinations, because they're about the process of change. Very seldom do we read a gripping novel or watch an edge-of-the-seat movie about somebody who is content to stay in the same job they've had with the same spouse and the same kids in the same house. No, something happens that creates change, and frequently it involves a journey—physical, spiritual, emotional, personal, or automotive.
We fear change, because we can't possibly know how things are going to resolve, and that's what makes songs about journeys, and driving, so compelling. Our lives aren't being orchestrated by a novelist who knows generally what's going to happen, so it's all a long road trip into the hinterlands without a GPS. And cars play a starring role in many of the very best things I've written.
I've written about getting lost on the back roads in Wisconsin; about driving (or being in love) when the sun (or the lover) is so bright in your face you can't see where you're going; about roads that can break your heart one direction and bring you home another; about getting stranded in a snow drift on the way to, uh, do whatever-it-is-the-kids-are-calling-it-these-days. I've written about broken down cars (romances), driving away from somethin', driving to somethin', and watchin' the sun rise from the driver's seat—thinkin' about “you,” baby.
But writing about driving isn't the only inspiration Detroit has to offer.
How did I get here?
You're driving along, you're probably alone, and it's raining. The tank is full and there's a cup of hot coffee in the beverage holder. You let your mind wander a bit, and the landscape becomes otherworldly and strange. You slip through the twilight, relaxed and in perfect harmony with the hum of the engine, the whine of the wheels, the rhythm of the splices in the pavement, the swoosh-clack swoosh-clack of the windshield wipers. Your fingers begin to tap on the wheel, and words come out of your mouth that may or may not mean anything. Road signs go by, interchanges coil around like snakes and slither away in the rear view mirror, and next thing you know, you're driving into Vegas, baby, with a pretty well-developed song ready to flow into one of those lyric-craving grooves you've been saving up for just such a rainy night.
You pull over, reach for your portable digital recorder that you always have with you for these brilliant moments of pure inspiration, and sing your song into the recorder, including “blah blah blah-blah,” and “something, something,” and “something that rhymes with dashboard.” Nobody else is ever gonna hear this stuff (unless they want to blackmail you) so don't be shy. Get the heart of it down before the Song Fairies roll their eyes and take your lines to some other songwriter.*
So, what's really going on?
I recently saw a show on PBS hosted by Alan Alda, called The Human Spark, which explored some fascinating topics, including one near and dear to my heart: When you're in the shower or brushing your teeth—or driving—and think your brain is idle... Well, it's not. You may think you're just spacing off, but what's really happening is your brain is working on whatever puzzle you have presented to it, and it has put “you” on autopilot, so all your human foibles and insecurities and fears and objections stay out of the way of the real work getting done. Why do you think Archimedes had his “Eureka!” moment in the bath? Because his brain put him in the shotgun seat while he scrubbed behind his ears and between his toes. While he was relaxed and unfocused on the problem at hand, his brain was able to use its full processing power, engage the turbo charger so to speak, and solve the equation, voila.
That's so much of what we songwriters do. Don't let anybody kid you. Yes, it is a lot of hard work, and sure, it takes talent, and of course, years of training and experience. But the ability to slip out of the driver's seat long enough to let things happen without you, and trust that it's gonna be okay, is what separates the good from the great.
Not all acoustic guitarists write songs, but one of the primary tools in the songwriting arsenal is the acoustic guitar. There's nothing like sitting down on your couch, or on the porch, weather permitting, and letting your fingers do the driving. Relax, slip your mind into neutral, and just coast along on the chords.
Hey, what was that? Did I just play the coolest chord progression ever played in history? I do believe I did. Wow, that's awesome. Okay, let me play it over and over and over, and commit it to memory, because that's the coolest thing I've ever heard. It would make an awesome song.
Uh oh. Lyrics...
Get in the car, honey, it's gonna be alright.
*There are many theories about why songs can be so hard to hang on to if you don't get them committed to tape or paper quickly. Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert gave a Ted Talk in which she discussed the nature of inspiration. She explained that in ancient Greece, a genius was not thought to be within a person; it was considered to be an entity outside the body, rather like a ghost or a muse, who would assist the artist in their creative endeavors. This was great for the artist; if the work wasn't appreciated, well, their genius was having an off day. If the work was hugely acclaimed, no worries about hugely inflated egos, they had to share credit with their genius.
Gilbert also told a story about poet Ruth Stone, who lived and worked in rural Virginia. Stone claimed she could often feel and hear a poem coming on, like “a thunderous train of air,” when she was working in the fields. When she felt it coming, she had to, as she stated, “run like hell to the house,” being chased all the way by the poem; she had to get to a piece of paper and pencil fast enough to get the poem down before it got through her, because if she didn't catch it, she could see the poem continuing on through the fields, looking for another poet. She also said that if she was almost too late, she could grab a pencil with one hand and catch the poem by it's tail with the other, and pull it backwards into her body. In these instances, the poem would come out of her pencil perfectly formed and complete, but backwards on the paper.
Tom Waits related a story to Gilbert in an interview for GQ magazine, about driving in heavy LA traffic and hearing a gorgeous little bit of melody, which he had no way to capture. His usual reaction would have been to panic, to obsess, to give in to the fear that if he didn't capture this ephemeral piece of magic that it would be lost forever and he'd be haunted by it for the rest of his life; instead, he looked up at the sky and said, “Can't you see I'm busy?” He entreated his genius to either wait until he was in a position to do something about it, or go bother somebody else with it. And indeed, when he released himself from the immediacy and the fear of the moment, he was able to recapture that little melody later from a safer work space.
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