the column | Walking the line between cheesy and profoundby dan pine
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I don’t know what kids today do for fun, but in my day, the most fun I could have involved jasmine incense, a dimly lit room, a guitar and singing with my friends.
I know everyone born after 1970 is sick of us baby boomers bragging about our music, which has been scientifically proven to be the greatest music of all time.
Call me a get-off-my-lawn curmudgeon, but I just can’t picture a semicircle of teens singing a Kanye West song and feeling the same spiritual high we felt harmonizing to “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”
Comparisons aside, songwriters from my era — Lennon/McCartney, Dylan and Joni Mitchell — imprinted on my aesthetic as if I were a baby duck.
No surprise, then, that with my $50 nylon-string guitar (which I still have) I tried my hand at it, too. For a few years in my teens and 20s, I cranked out some of the most mediocre songs you’ll never hear.
I wrote a protest ballad about Native Americans called “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” (the chorus included the line: “I’m so ashamed I can’t face myself”).
I wrote another I thought good enough to shop to a music publisher, who reluctantly agreed to meet me. One line in the song ran: “Blow ye winds and crack your cheeks.”
Yeah, what pop song wouldn’t benefit from quoting “King Lear”? After I played the song for the exec, she rolled her eyes and said, “It sounds like it’s from the Civil War.”
I kept at it, though. In fact, I never really stopped, even though I have abandoned all hope of ever writing the next “Happy.”
My songwriting habit makes me wonder about the artistic impulse. If you have the itch, it must be scratched, even if the results suck. Quality and an artistic temperament do not necessarily go together.
Naturally, I wondered if there was a Jewish angle to all this.
I called Rabbi Mark Bloom of Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham. He happens to be an ace singer-songwriter. I figured if anyone knows a Jewish secret to songwriting, it’s him.
“I wrote a lot as a teenager when there was a lot of angst,” he told me. His angst faded, but he continued to write, especially songs with Jewish content for worship settings.
One appeared on his “Rock & Roll Shabbat” CD from a few years ago, “Veyetze Ya’acov,” for a song about Jacob’s Ladder, with lyrics borrowed from the Torah. Another called “Al Cafei,” or “On Wings,” pieced together bits of Jewish lore on the subject.
It turns out his songwriting process isn’t all that different from mine, or probably anyone else’s.
“A tune will get stuck in my head,” Bloom told me. “The process of lyric writing is most important to me, [but] where I can get the most frustrated. The line between profound and cheesy is very thin.”
He’s right. Cheese from my songwriting past includes this hunk of 2-week-old Camembert: “Our troubles sometimes seem to be a darkness we can’t fight/But our love is like a flame of hope that burns on through the night.”
I was young; I needed the work.
I asked Bloom about kavanah in songwriting. That’s Hebrew for “intentionality,” and usually refers to intensity and devotion in prayer. He knew what I meant. When a song comes together, you cannot help but experience kavanah.
About 17 years ago, when Robyn and I were first dating, I was driving from L.A. to Albany to see her. I was flush from the rush of love, but found myself stuck in the worst traffic jam I’d ever seen on I-5. Instead of blowing a gasket, I started composing a song to my girlfriend, without a guitar, without pen or paper.
I just kept repeating lines over and over until they were cemented in my memory.
It was a country tune I called “The Last Star in the Sky,” and yeah, the storyline included a half-ton Chevy Silverado and a thermos of coffee.
But it also had these lines: “Love makes a man do a lot things/He’s never done before/So when your baby reaches out from across the miles/You drive that car/No matter how far.”
Grammy-worthy or not, I was feeling the kavanah that night. Later I sang it for Robyn. She still talks about it.