walking the wires

We take a look at three summertime instructional releases that are sure to inspire you to pick up that guitar and do a little pickin’.

Winter can be a time for woodshedding, but summer heat and humidity can make a person want to hibernate, too, and if you’re gonna hide from the heat, you’re gonna need DVDs. Here are a couple new summer releases that are sure to teach, inspire, and make you want to pick up that guitar and do a little pickin’.

A Lesson with Steve Earle: Guitars, Songs and Picking Techniques
There’s no songwriter cooler than Steve Earle—gritty, honest, angry, snarky, and smart; he’s also prolific, gifted, and troubled, but mostly he’s a hell of a writer, and a darn fine picker, too. In a conversation format, Happy Traum does a great job asking questions and prompting Earle to teach picking techniques and talk about songwriting in this two-hour DVD lesson.

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A few ideas for my songwriting readers that might inspire, refresh or ignite that spark.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
-Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Formal study of poetry can yield dramatic and beautiful results for a songwriter. In that spirit, I am going to offer a few ideas for my songwriting readers that might inspire, refresh, or ignite that spark.

Formality
I have a hard and fast rule when it comes to songwriting: If you wouldn't say it, don't sing it. Write like you're having a conversation with someone that you really, really love talking to, or better yet, talking with. Informal language, small words, and lines that flow easily over the lips and into the ears are vital parts of the kind of songwriting that can draw a listener in and make them feel it. You can be as profound as you want, but keep the $5 words to a minimum (unless the price of verbiage has gone up along with everything else, in which case I mean $10 words).

Also keep your structure informal—say what you want to say. Don't worry about rhyming stuff (unless your song really needs it) or having an exact number of syllables per line. It's hard enough to write a good song without piling all those conditions on.

One last rule: Use the fewest number of words possible to say what you mean to say. Be succinct. Don't ramble. Keep your songs tight and focused, and they'll pack a wallop.

I'm gonna contradict myself
I just wrote a song using all haiku. A haiku is a short poem and only three lines, in which the first line contains five syllables, the second seven, and the last line five syllables again. A great haiku can contain a universe in seventeen syllables—all the beauty, magic and wonder of human comprehension distilled into three short lines. Or sheer silliness, intense passion, bawdy rambunctiousness, or the simple mystery of an every-day miracle.

Why the sudden devotion to structure? I started texting a friend in haiku a while back, at first sort of as a joke, and then because I can. Anything you say with a haiku sounds instantly more important and profound. Seriously, try it. At any rate, I now find myself thinking in haiku a lot, and the first stanza of this song just fell from my fingers whole in an instant. I was working on a rather dark and swirly guitar riff, and they seemed to go together. So I decided, just for my own entertainment, to write the whole thing as haiku stanzas—even the chorus. Interestingly, it changed my voice enough that it gave me a song that sounded fresh and unique as well as thoughtful and elegant.

Break all the rules immediately and often. If stepping into a structure takes you outside your box, then learn some rules so you can break 'em later.

Internal rhyming
I love internal rhyme. There are several ways to do this, the most famous by far being:
“The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”
Lather, rinse, repeat.

Another useful kind of internal rhyme is when you rhyme words in the middle of lines instead of at the end. For example:
Don't try to fight this baby
We'll light the night up with this love

Oblique or indirect rhyming
This is a clever thing, because it allows you to rhyme in the ballpark, but you don't have to be a slave to the exact rhyme, like moon and Joon. I once rhymed breakfast and reckless in a verse, and my friend and fellow songwriter Rachel Sutcliffe recently rhymed horror with water in a chorus—and it was awesome. I've also rhymed wrong with morning, which is a bigger stretch, but it worked for the song it was in.

Alliteration
Tongue twisters are easier when you put them to music. It's risky, because if you lose it, you lose it and you can say some wacky stuff instead of what you were trying to sing. But when it works, it can be magic. Writers like Lewis Carroll and Edgar Allan Poe were masters of alliteration and internal rhyme. William Blake, too. It took me about a week to teach myself to sing “where the prairie grasses glisten in the dew,” but it was worth it. You try saying it three times fast. (Prairie glasses gristen, plairie grasses plisten, glairie glasses glisten...)

The whole enchilada
Good old Marc Bolan, bless 'im. Now that's a poet. Here's what I mean:
Well, you're dirty and sweet
Clad in black, don't look back, and I love you
You're dirty and sweet, oh yeah
Well, you're slim and you're weak
You got the teeth of the hydra upon you
You're dirty, sweet and you're my girl
- Marc Bolan, “Get it On (Bang a Gong)”
It's perfectly conversational—in fact I'm reasonably certain we've all had similar conversations (that we don't tell the kids about). It uses internal rhyme, it's got some alliteration going on with all those bs and ls in the second line. He uses oblique rhyme with “sweet” and “weak,” and more internal oblique rhyme with “I love you” and “upon you.” And, bonus, it freakin' rocks. I defy you to get this song out of your head.

It's a mojo thang
Anything that imbues you with the power of the muses is fair game. Okay, let me qualify that a bit— anything legal, ethical, and victimless. What I mean to say is, if stepping outside a certain formula or structure that you find yourself boxed into allows you to write something free and wonderful, do it. Break all the rules immediately and often. If stepping into a structure takes you outside your box, then learn some rules so you can break 'em later. It's like putting on a costume and pretending to be somebody else for a while—it's a refreshing little break that can be hedonistic and inspiring in a multitude of ways.

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"Still Bill," Touch the Sound," and "Standing int he Shadows of Motown"

I am a PBS junkie—have been all my life. Yes, it started out harmlessly enough with Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and The Electric Company, but those shows led me to the harder stuff, like NOVA, Carl Sagan's Cosmos, Frontline, and anything Michael Wood does. Give me a good documentary and I'm yours for the duration. In fact, just give me Michael Wood (nose glasses, cigar, and rim shot, please!).

I've been ordering a lot of documentaries through Netflix, and have recently seen three music documentaries that simply knocked my socks off. While my colleague Pat Smith says, “listen, listen, listen,” I'm expanding that to include watching. That's because really great music documentaries always leave something of themselves behind to inspire, enlighten or enrich your experience of music.

"Still Bill"
In this “rockumentary,” we're introduced to Bill Withers, the family man behind some of my favorite songs. “Ain't No Sunshine,” “Grandma's Hands,” “Use Me,” “Lean On Me,” and “Just the Two of Us” were huge parts of the soundtrack of my life, and a lot of other lives, in the ’70s and ’80s—he then retreated from the music business to raise a family with his wife Michelle. The movie isn't so much a chronicle of his career, although it does include some of that, but a statement about fame and life. Here's a guy who had a huge career but set it aside when his kids were born, because being a good father was more important to him than anything else. A sensitive and tender person, we see him moved to tears at the suffering of others more than once.

Toward the end, there's a segment where he and Raul Midon—a blind guitarist, singer and songwriter—are co-writing a song in Withers' studio. They discuss the nature of being “disabled” versus developing one's gifts to a far higher level, making disability irrelevant. Withers had a terrible stutter until he was 28 years old, and didn't even get into the music business until he was 32. It's a beautiful moment between the two men, and one that spurs Withers to muse further about the choices we all make in regards to what we do with our lives and talents.

At one point, an interviewer asks him what he wants his legacy to be. Withers has no words and simply stops to ponders it for a long time in silence—another powerful statement about living from your heart and not worrying about how the world sees you— or if the world sees you at all.

"Touch the Sound"
This documentary is about the phenomenal deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie, and it deeply affected the way I think about the nature of music, creativity and sound. Glennie’s hearing loss started at 8 years old, and she is now profoundly deaf. She was so musically inclined, however, that she developed the ability to feel sound with extraordinary accuracy in her body—allowing her to not only pursue a career as a percussionist, but to push the idea of percussion deeper into musicality.

The center of the film is a project she and legendary guitarist Fred Frith recorded in an abandoned warehouse in Germany, where they used the space, structure and surrounding components almost as much as they used their instruments. From throwing rolls of crackling paper off a high balcony to capture how the sound moved through the building, to playing a huge gong—which was such an enormous and powerful sound that I could feel it through my crappy TV speakers. The sound and cinematography are so top notch, you really feel like you're right there with them.

Glennie speaks perfectly with a gorgeous Scottish accent, and takes us to visit the farm where she grew up and her brother now runs. She plays music on the barn, on scrap metal in the yard, and on parts of the furniture in the house. We also go along to a restaurant where she puts together a wonderful little spontaneous composition on the dishes with chopsticks. One of the highlights for me was to watch her playing the vibraphone, and hearing the remarkable harmonizations with the complex and captivating rhythms just bubbling under the surface of her skin—seemingly at all times.

"Standing in the Shadows of Motown"
An oldie, but a goodie. It would almost be easier to list the hit songs that did not come out of Motown, played by the consortium of top-notch jazz musicians who dubbed themselves the Funk Brothers. This DVD pays a long-overdue tribute to the phenomenal hit machine, mourning those who are gone, and offering those still around a shot to tell their stories.

Interspersed through the film are concert appearances by the likes of Joan Osborne, Ben Harper, Bootsy Collins and Meshell Ndegeocello—performing many of the songs under discussion and backed by the Brothers in question. Toward the end, we learn that this is a massive tribute concert held in Detroit to honor the Funk Brothers. Some of the performances are stellar, but with that bunch backing you up, you'd be hard-pressed to phone it in. A highlight for me was when Joan Osborne went to the Snake Pit, the studio where all these legendary songs were recorded. With some of the band, they did a spontaneous, percussion-only version of “Heard it Through the Grapevine”—with one guy playing countertop with his hands, and another playing air tambourine, it sounded more full and complete than I could have imagined.

All through the film, we are reminded over and over that these guys made this music, they were Motown, and none of these songs would have been a hit had they not been sitting in those chairs. You're struck by how they were never given credit for the work they did, and how some of these guys died never receiving the appreciation they deserved. I broke down and cried as they brought out photos of their long lost colleagues and placed them around the stage to honor their memories. Killer music meets one hell of a story. If you haven't seen this one, you must. If you have, watch it again.

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