Why do I bother?
While I was listening back to my latest album (in all good record shops soon!) I had one of those occasional moments of “why the fuck am I bothering with this?” I mean, it’s not like I get any popular acclaim. I certainly don’t make any money – my lifetime royalties have yet to even pay for so much as a mic lead. In fact, I’m probably one third of my own streaming numbers!
But it was never about any of those things. And it still isn’t.
Mostly, it’s just some kind of need. I can’t put it any simpler than that. Ever since I first picked up my mum’s 3/4 scale, nylon-stringed acoustic guitar and the Three Chord Songbook, I’ve been writing songs.
That’s 30 years now – and hundreds upon hundreds of pieces of music.
A lot – most – of them have never really been finished. In my phone, as we speak, are no fewer than 206 rough demos of things. Some of them are nothing more than me humming a bassline. Some of them are wholly complete (except for lyrics). And most of them are somewhere in between – fragmentary sketches: ideas that came and went.
I keep a record of songs I can actually remember that were ‘finished’ in one way or another. Either I’ve recorded them myself, or one of the bands I’ve been in played them (sometimes just for one gig). I know, for instance, I wrote a sort of blues waltz called Time On The Wall, that we played at Woodkirk Valley Country Club in 2001 and I vaguely remember part of the riff, but other it has vanished into the ether.
But still, I can name 155 songs that I thought/think were/are worthy of writing lyrics for and performing or recording. That’s the tip of a pretty big iceberg considering all the ones that never made it that far, or are still waiting for their day to come. Probably another hundred are in the “could be” pile.
So what is the impulse for all that work if not self expression?
I quite often get told “you should write a book” by people. Anyone who knows me knows I’m tediously wordy, and quite often hit on a turn of phrase. I guess I have some facility for language.
But! Try as I might, I’ve never been able to finish writing The Great British Novel. And Lord knows I’ve tried! Poetry, I’ve written – but my efforts embarrass me. And while I pump out posts on three different blogs, write hundreds of tweets a day across three Twitter accounts, and basically do a fair bit of writing for a living, I’ve never been able to get a book length piece together. The best I’ve managed is 23,000 words – barely quarter of a book (chapters of which you can read on one of my other blogs).
It’s mostly down to time management. Sustained effort is incredibly hard and requires discipline.
I am not disciplined.
Nor do I think I ever will be. I’m a gadfly. A wellspring of momentary thoughts. I flit from this to that – and blog posts like this I just dump out of my head straight onto the page in a few minutes (hence typos, spelling mistakes and basically piss poor sentences!)
But! It turns out the one thing I have patience for is a song. I think there’s something about the format that suits me as a vehicle for expression. They’re fairly short for one thing, so I don’t have to try to sustain an idea for too long – and, in fact, the constraints of the medium force me to be a bit more creative.
In fact, a wise man once summed it up:
Must I remain chained to this page
Just looking for the syllables
To say things that are true or could it be
That this melody is unfillable?
In a way, a song is a bit like a sculpture. You knock pieces off or stick extra bits on until you’re satisfied with it. Quite often the results are nothing like you imagined they would be, but at least you have a result. It’s longer than writing a tweet, but much less time than writing a novel. A happy medium.
I guess part of the creative impulse is a bit of an ego trip too. Even though nobody really listens to my music, I know it exists and I’ve done things that most people haven’t – and wouldn’t know where to begin. Occasionally someone – a friend, a family member – will give an approving nod or say something like “I wish I could do that” and it’s a balm for the soul. A little reminder that you’re there and not entirely useless.
And part of me secretly hopes it will live on beyond me. As I’ve been researching my family tree, I’ve come across the names of scores of people for whom nothing remains but a name in a database and an overgrown, unvisited hunk of sandstone in some churchyard or other. As Morrissey put it: “they were born and then they lived and then they died.”
I fondly imagine that, perhaps, when I’m dead, my music will still be there – if only for my kids to listen to from time to time to remember me by. My brother died when I was around 6-7 and for many years (and probably still) my mum and dad kept a cassette recording of him singing Happy Talk – which was in the charts at the time thanks to Captain Sensible. If I close my eyes I can still hear his voice. The last physical trace of his existence beyond a handful of photographs.
Maybe one day, all that will be left of me will be a scratchy recording of me, singing one of my songs. It won’t matter to me – as I’ll be working my way through eternity, grateful to finally have some fucking peace.
I guess, in the end, “why?” is a futile question. You might as well ask why the birds sing or the grass grows. It’s just what I do.
Mind you, I also compulsively masturbate. Speaking of which….