Recently at a show on the road, an old friend came up to tell me he was sorry about my brother. I didn’t know what he was talking about until he said: “You know, the drugs, ‘Son of My Father’,” which is a song of mine in which “my” brother ends up in the housing projects because of his addiction to drugs. Never happened; not to my brother. In that same song, “my” father goes to jail, something else that never happened.
I once sent my mom a clipping from Bar Harbor ME, thinking she’d be pleased to see us getting articles that far away. But the article ended by saying that the songs, especially “Son of My Father”, were clearly drawn from my own life. After that Mom wanted to follow me around the country, jumping up each time I played that song, shouting: “His father did not go to jail! His brother is not a junkie!”
Once we opened with “Son of My Father” here in Austin and afterwards one of my favorite songwriters said to me: “Is that first song about you? Because it would explain so much.” It might, if it was about me. It’s someone’s story, but not mine.
That doesn’t mean I’m not in it somewhere. Who, growing up, hasn’t sworn they’d never be like their parents? And the bridge, where the character asks what’s the difference between him and his addicted family, well I’m in there too, I guess, though talking to my friends, not my family.
But the point is that even in my most personal songs, everything is a story. I don’t think you can get much more personal than “Ballad of the Oxbow Inn” but even in that mostly true story, I take liberties with events, combine characters, and put in some things that just never happened because they make a better story. A song like “Another Pretty Deep Hole” combines several friends and events into one character.
I’m cautious about explaining too much here because it’s like a magician showing his tricks. In the best songs you do believe the singer and I don’t want to take that away from any of our audience. And it’s what the song means to you as a listener that matters.
Jeff Talmadge and I have a new song that illustrates one way we write and one way we push a song into new dimensions. It’s called “My Hometown’s Not My Hometown Anymore”, and it combines our different hometown experiences into one. Jeff’s small town is literally gone. He showed me pictures of closed and shuttered doors and windows, and tumbleweeds blowing down Main Street. My town, which I usually refer to as Swan Point in my songs, was a small town when I moved there that has been overrun by the suburbs, to where you can’t tell the difference between the suburban landscapes as you drive down Ritchie Highway.
But the experience the character has going back is neither of ours. In one line I sing: “No one knows my name” which is nowhere close to the truth for us. We’ve been playing to sold out crowds in Annapolis (Harbortowne in my songs) mostly to people who went to the same high school around the same time I did and it’s been wonderful. We love them all. When I sing “Everybody here has gotten out or gotten old” , it doesn’t apply to my life at all. But the song is more complicated than that. The place names are from “Swan Point”, but those places have been gone 40 years. The character feels to me like he’s in 1994 or so (the year we moved from Maryland), bemoaning the loss of a world he professed not to care about anyway, wondering if the kids he’s watching will figure it out earlier than he did. And that’s how you get to something new, or one way, anyway.
There are other dangers in taking what songwriters say too literally. I write from memory a lot; those experiences will never die inside me. When I was 22, my closest friend was killed in a car wreck and my first love broke up with me, all within a few months. I don’t need to have more tragedy to write about tragedy. I know what it feels like to be brokenhearted and lonely. In the paraphrased words of Chuck Berry, “I may be old, man, but I can remember!”
And as a songwriter I feel no compunction to be fair. I see each incident as a circle that I move around, writing songs from a different angle, moving on to the next one. Maybe I’ll get to ‘fair’ in the next song, but my latest is called “My Heart’s Turned To Stone” and I didn’t worry about being fair at all.