Three Chords and the Truth

I made my debut at WRITE CLUB (all caps is required, I’m told) last week for the Rock and Roll show. My bout was music vs. lyrics, and I was assigned lyrics as a topic. I’m forced to admit at this point that I’m a little more biased towards music over lyrics, but I rolled with it.

I’m a writer who likes to deal in narrative, while WRITE CLUB is an event that lists more toward the creative nonfiction side of the spectrum–most of the performers are delivering monologues. Knowing what I was getting in to, I tried to meld fiction and rant, and was never entirely pleased with the results. It felt like a compromise on both fronts, and was certainly a tonal change of pace during the show. I was thoroughly trounced by Erika Price, and deservedly so, but it was a great experience nonetheless. Even though I didn’t win, I don’t think I embarrassed myself on stage, and it was a hell of a lot of fun. I highly recommend checking out the show when it’s back in the fall. It’s one of the most high-energy literary events I’ve ever been a part of. Many thanks to WRITE CLUB overlord Ian Belknap for the invite.

Writing for the stage is far different than writing for the page, but I think once writers realize that, it’s a little easier not to crash and burn when you’re standing in front of a mic with a hundred people waiting to be entertained. If you’re interested, here’s the piece I wrote for the show.  Read it aloud to get the full experience (and you have to sing the Kelly Clarkson line halfway through, or it doesn’t work). It’s also worth noting that a satisfying narrative in 1500 words is a hell of a challenge for a writer like me:

Three Chords and the Truth

We hadn’t been together long the first time she asked when I was going to write a song about her. We were still in that crossover stage that would petrify a lesser man—no more sneaking out to sleep in our own beds on weeknights, that wretched little “L” word on the tips of our tongues—but it was way too soon to ask me to write her a song.

Her name was Veronica, and I had always aspired to date a woman with a name like that. For her part, she’d always wanted to date a rock star, even one like me who hadn’t made it out of the small midwestern clubs. But asking for a song was jumping the gun, so I scrambled for an excuse.

“Elvis Costello beat me to it, honey. He’s got dibs.”

“You don’t have to use my name,” she said. “I just want to know it’s about me, like a little inside joke we can share.”

“It’s not that I don’t love you. But you know how I am about lyrics, babe. They’ve gotta be perfect.”

“You love me?” she said. “For real?”

And I did, but there are different types of love. Your basic “I love you” is easy, abstract, open to interpretation. It makes everyone concerned feel good, like a shimmery pop chorus, and that’s how I loved Veronica. But writing a song just for her meant setting words to music, laboring over iambic tetrameter and ABCB rhyme schemes. That’s the kind of love you don’t toss off casually. The kind that strips you naked and puts a big red “X” over your vulnerable weak spots. So I told her I loved her because it was the easier truth.

“You’re so full of shit,” she said.

* *

Veronica came to every single show. Even those Thursday night, dead of winter, four-bands-on-the-bill gigs in the most putrid smelling dive bars with P.A.’s that sounded like they were salvaged from a mid-80’s Toyota Celica. She’d stand there with the twelve other people in the crowd, throw her hands in the air and mouth the words to every song. When I asked her why, she said, “Cause when I sing along with you, sometimes I feel like you and I are gonna live forever.”

I knew exactly what she was talking about. She might have been my biggest fan, but I swear to god, I was hers, too.

She lived for music, one of those rare people who had never picked up an instrument, but still had impeccable taste. She liked the lyrical bombast of classic rock when she was driving, and some of that West Coast gansta shit when she was running along the lakefront path. Sometimes she gravitated toward the breezy bounce of auto-tuned pop. Her go-to karaoke song was “Since U Been Gone,” and she didn’t care that Kelly Clarkson’s three-octave vocal range was way out of her league, because when she hit that withering chorus and belted out, “I’m so moving on, yeah yeah,” it kept her buzzing until long after we’d stumbled home, slurring teenage anthems together under the street lights.

But her gospels were John, Paul, George and Ringo, so it was “Blackbird” I was singing her the next time she asked when I was going to write her a song. “Keep it simple,” she said. “Just write about how I make you feel.”

“I’m trying. You know I love you.”

“I know,” she said. “So put it to song.”

But it wasn’t the music that was giving me problems. Music was the easy part. If you can make your fingers do this and look good doing it, congratulations, you’re a guitarist. If you can wrap your brain around simple fractions and count to four at a relatively even tempo, you can play drums in a rock n’ roll band. And if you or someone you know has a dependable source of weed and cocaine, you’ve got what it takes to play bass.

I was born to be a frontman. I studied all the lyrical tricks, like how the long vowels—the O’s, the A’s and the I-Yi-Yi’s—could reach the nosebleeds in a 75,000 seat stadium. And I recognized that it was the simple sentiments that get shouted back from the cheap seats with religious fervor. “I was born in the U.S.A.” “Wish you were here.” “In the name of love.” The best lyrics don’t aim for your brain, they target the squishy parts below.

“Three chords and the truth” was my credo, and the chords were easy. The truth was hard. I didn’t go in for that emo stuff about feelings and tears. I didn’t keep a journal. Show me a confessional singer-songwriter, and I’ll show you a sniveling weenie. No, my songs thrived on big themes: freedom and justice and life and death. Of course I’d written songs about love before. But generic love, simple love. The kind of love designed to make every girl listening think I was singing to her. The greeks might have had a word for it, but it probably didn’t rhyme with anything I could use, so I just stuck with good old tried-and-true love, American-style. But Veronica wanted specifics. The why’s and how’s. So the pressure was on for lyrics that were real, perfect, eternal. The music was secondary. Nobody’s senior quote under their yearbook photo was “G-C-D F-C-Dsus4.” It was “I’m as free as a bird, now, and this bird you cannot change.”

I told her I was working on a song just for her, but I wanted it to be worthy before she could hear it.

“Well at least play me a song that makes you think of me,” she said.

So I thought up an arrangement I knew, one of the classics. I cleared my throat and hammered on to a dolorous A-minor and let it ring out. “I… like… big… butts and I cannot lie…”

I slept alone that night.

* *

When I moved in to her place, we told each other “I love you,” morning, noon and night, and I meant it, even if it rang with all the resonance of saying “god bless you” when she sneezed.

She didn’t push it, but every now and then, she’d ask how the song was coming or drop a hint about something she’d told me that might make a good line. I figured I could pull off what she was looking for as long as it made her feel special, so I stole a Coldplay riff and cribbed together a few verses, starting with, “Ooh, baby. The love you have to give is all I need to live.”

She made a little barfing noise and cut me off before I even got to the chorus. “It’s taken you two years to come up with that hyperbolic cliché bullshit?” she said. “You need air to live. Water, food, heat from the sun, shelter from the elements, gravity, medicine. Jesus, sometimes I feel like my love ranks about a notch below wireless internet access as far as things you need. I don’t want a song about some anywoman. I just want one little song about me. Love doesn’t feel real to me if you can’t put it to words.”

“‘I love you’ doesn’t count?” I said.

“Those words aren’t yours.”

* *

A year after she asked me to move out, we ran into each other outside the Vic. We were both heading in the same direction, so we walked together.

“I still listen to your band,” she said. “The new songs you posted on the website are good.”

“Heartbreak songs come easy,” I said, shoving my hands in my pockets and focusing on the sidewalk in front of us.

“I kind of wish I could come see you play one of these days, but it’d be weird.”

“You should come.” I said, “I miss you.”

“Oh yeah? What do you miss?”

“Oh, you know, the little things,” I said.

I tried to let it slide, but she stopped at the corner and crossed her arms over her chest, cocking an eyebrow at me like she was taking aim. “Always the same with you,” she said.

“OK, fine. One thing: every now and then you’d slip into that little Axl Rose shimmy when you were up front watching us. That just melted me. Oh, and the way you used to sit on the couch and pretend to read when I was practicing new songs. Or how you’d always kiss me on the cheek whenever I held a door open for you. Who’ll ever do that for me again?” I was surprised how easy it was to tell her these things now, when it didn’t matter.

She smiled sadly at me, and nodded toward the turn onto her street where she and I would part ways. “That’s sweet to hear you say.” She hugged me goodbye and said, “Sounds like it would have made a great song.”

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