I’m on the basement floor of my home. Lights are dim, sitting on the edge of a fat leather chair with my six-string acoustic on my knee. The laptop is set to an online metronome so I can keep time, a suggestion from my friend who suspects we can do something with this song—record it, dub in layers of instruments and voices, make it something whole. But it’s been years since I played with precision, with a drummer, to an exact beat, so it’s unlikely that my internal meter is true. Still, I think I can do this. I can make this work, if I can only remember the third chord in the chorus.
I taught myself guitar when I was a teenager, and soon I was in a rock band. Wasn’t everyone in a band in the early 1970s? I had taken piano lessons and played trombone in the high school band, but I was no musician. Not really. I knew enough to get by. The guys in my band weren’t really musicians, either. The lead guitarist was pretty good. He had taken some real lessons. The bass player? Well, he was a good singer, was in the high school chorus, but he had no clue how to play the bass. We pitched in and bought him a cheap bass guitar from K-Mart and I wrote out the simple bass parts by marking the beats with numbers, and drawing on a notebook what finger should push down on what string on what fret. He got better. Our drummer was probably the best musician. He was trained, played in several school bands, had a very cool and shiny set, and kept us all honest to the beat.
At this moment in my basement nearly fifty years later, I could really use his innate sense of rhythm.
Since those days, I have written dozens of songs. Purely exercises in creativity. In the early going, I probably wrote them to impress girls, later I wrote to soothe my heart. Over the last ten years or so, I’ve written because I just have something I want to say. Very few are listening, however. I don’t share them much. Although, a few years ago, I wrote a song that made its way into a national song writing competition. It was fluke, an unexpected recognition. The song made it to the final round and I headed for a recording studio/venue in Virginia to perform it. It was great fun. It reset my love of playing and writing. A few years after, I wrote a book about the experience. October Song is about how we all have dreams, big and bold, but how most of us never reach them. Yet, the dream, not the achievement, may be the more beautiful thing.
It’s a simple D chord with the low E string tuned to a D. That’s the chord I was searching for. I hit refresh on the online metronome and start again. My fingers hurt and my voice cracks. Practice, I say to myself. Practice will smooth it all out.
The plan, says my friend—the one who suggested the metronome, the one who is a far better musician than me, the one with the sound equipment and the knowledge and skill to record and layer tracks—is to get the basic song down and then we can work with it, bring it to life. After that, we’ll do the same process again, and again. Produce six songs or so and put them on Spotify. My friend says he likes my songs. Hope so, he’s going to hear them a lot, over and over and over again. He’s also very generous with his skills and his time. There’s nothing in this for him. And honestly, there’s little in this for me, either. I’m not going on tour. Not playing them at the local bar. There’s no recording contract. I’m not going to be on the Billboard charts. Why am I doing this? An ego stroke?
The song involves some finger picking. I never formerly learned how to fingerpick, so nothing is skilled or traditional, nothing legit. Three fingers and occasional fourth is the best I can muster. But it’s working; I’m finding a groove. However, the voice is still wonky. I can carry a tune, give a lyric some emotion, but I have no range. Maybe I should change the key?
Those years with that marginally in tune little band were transforming. We played a few lounges, community day festivals, and tragically uninspiring weddings. We were friends. We were brothers. We suffered through each others’ girlfriend troubles, mild addictions, and survived the infighting over what songs to play and who would sing them. We endured a few brief band breakups and timid reunions. But what mattered most of all, no matter what, were our Sunday night practices in my parents’ cramped low-ceiling basement. With all the cheap amps, electronics, and jerry-rigged wiring, the cables and cords snaking along the old vinyl flooring—it’s a wonder one of us didn’t die in a bizarre electrocution accident. Caution was not part of the equation—caution with electricity, creativity, or exuberance. None of this entered our heads. All we cared about was being faithful to those Sunday nights, playing as loud as possible, singing our hearts out. We weren’t going anywhere, and we knew it. And eventually our gigs at the bars and dances dwindled from lack of effort. But it didn’t matter. We had Sunday nights and they were glorious. Even when two of us went away to college more than a hundred miles away, we would regularly sacrifice our Sunday nights, driving back home as often as we could to get our rock-n-roll fix.
I think about those days, here in my own basement, fumbling through forgotten chords. And I consider why this has been so important to me—the music, the songwriting, even with no one listening. We’ve all heard how finding a hobby, a creative outlet in your life can reaffirm that life. It makes us more whole. I have colleagues and friends who paint, draw, dance. They stretch their creative souls when no one is paying attention, carried away by the art. It warms them in the cold of troubled times, even though they are keenly aware that whatever they are creating they are creating for very few others, if anyone else at all, possibly no one but themselves—an audience of one. And I wonder now if that isn’t the most important audience of all.
The tips of my fingers are stinging now. The old calluses need to be rediscovered, reformed. Still, I play on. The metronome clicks. I sing a lyric I have rewritten five or six times, and struggle to find just the right phrasing, the perfect match between words and notes, reaching hard to deliver to the surface a tiny moment of musical synergy from somewhere deep in this old heart.
October Song: A Memoir of Music and the Journey of Time is an award-winning story of the passage of time, love, the power of music, and the power of dreams.