“I can’t do it anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I say. I can’t write songs anymore. I just can’t do it.”
“Bloody hell! You bastard! After all I’ve done for you!”
Peter, my agent, charged around the luxurious music room in the cellar of my large detached house in London, swearing and cursing to himself.
“Who was it got you started in this business?” he yelled at me. “Me! Who pulled you out of the gutter when you were a spotty dirty Herbert busking in the road, with a heroine habit and in the middle of a mental breakdown? Me! And this is the way you repay me!”
“It isn’t my fault.”
“Is it any wonder that your record label is dropping you, James?” he said to me, pushing the knife in deeper. “You haven’t written a single song for two years now. Why can’t you get off your arse and work?”
“Because I can’t. I want to. I’ve tried and tried. I just can’t.”
I’ve been a singer songwriter for most of my life. When I was thirteen and already proficient on the guitar and piano, I found that I had the strange knack of being able to pick out melodies that people seemed to like, and I had a feeling for coming up with heart-wrenching lyrics, too. For me, it was all about advertising my convoluted emotions. By the time I was sixteen I was going round folk clubs and pubs which had live music and singing to appreciative audiences for next to no payment, just because I enjoyed it.
Those were my hard times until a talent scout for a record company heard me at the age of nineteen, and took me on, after which I never looked back. Then I found Peter and what followed was every musician’s dream: sell-out tours, award-wining albums, it seemed like it could never end.
I remember when it did end, down to the second.
My new wife, Angela, and I had moved into this fine new house in a fashionable part of London, having just got back from a long Caribbean holiday. Angela went away to see her mother, while I went into the cellar of the house – a fantastic room in the basement converted into a sound studio, where I had a couple of pianos, several guitars, violins and a banjo. Plus a huge sound system, on which I could reproduce any instrument in the world, and mix and combine tracks ad infinitum.
But I had never needed all that pizazz to write a song. As always, I usually started with a melody that I pick out on my plain, ancient acoustic guitar, that I call Wallace. Wallace has a rough timber surface that lacks varnish and every one of its many splits is a friend, the metal frets worn and discoloured: I guess it’s the equivalent if Willy Nelson’s famous acoustic, with the large unsightly hole, the instrument that I imagine that the great Willy loves above all others, because it’s been with him through thick and thin.
But that melody I was looking for?
It just wouldn’t come.
I knew it never would.
And that’s when I realised that my talent had gone.
I’d heard a lot about singer songwriters, was familiar with all the theories, such as that of the great Sean McGowan, who maintains that songs are somehow ‘in the air’ and you just pluck them from the sky. And I’ve read the biographies of great singer songwriters such as James Taylor, who allegedly wrote his first masterpieces when he was deeply distressed, recovering from severe mental illness and addiction, and searching for something that was missing in his life. That tallied with the greatest advice I had ever heard, from a country music writer based in Nashville who once told a failed songwriter: “Of course your songs are rubbish, because you live a happy life. Get a messy divorce, become depressed, take up alcohol, vomit in the gutter and sleep there! You’ll never write from the heart until you’ve suffered and been miserable and come out the other side!”
And it was true to some extent. I had written what later became my first big hit when I had been floored by depression so bad that I had been in bed for a fortnight, hardly able to eat. My second winner was as a result of an alcoholic binge so bad I can hardy remember the details, a binge I’d gone on because for weeks I had been so short of money that I went days eating only bread and water, and was living on the street and honestly thought I was going to die there.
Misery breeds music. It’s a cold hard fact.
But not for me.
Because, ironically, since I had become rich and successful with nothing more to aim for, I had stopped being creative because I was contented. Somewhere along the line I had lost it, whatever ‘it’ was.
Yet other people could do it, I reasoned. Ed Sheeran is rich and famous and goes on to produce superlative music. And in the past so did the Beatles, the Stones, Clapton, Neil Sedaka, Joan Armatrading, all the greats. Yet many of them had also had their crosses to bear: alcoholism, drug addiction, mental trouble, relationship crises, you name it. . . Neil Sedaka had at one time, unaccountably lost his popularity, yet the talented songwriter managed to win it back by sheer determination and grit.
So maybe it was just me.
Maybe my creative talent, inspiration, my muse, whatever you want to call it, had dried up and it would never come back?
After that argument with Peter, my life fell apart quite dramatically. A tax bill for the past five years mopped up most of my available cash,. And that huge mortgage on the house couldn’t be paid, so the bank foreclosed and we had to leave. Angela turned to Peter, my agent, for solace, and decided to leave me for him, and the divorce settlement was likely to mop up what was left of my fortunes..
And so I was utterly alone, vegetating in a tiny flat on a short-term rent, that had used up the last of my savings.
As I had been walking along the road outside the railway station I saw Alfie Robbins, a really old pal from my busking days.
I had always kept in touch with Alfie and my other unsuccessful musician friends, much to Angela and Peter’s disgust. Whenever I was in England, on my days off my greatest pleasure was when I would seek them out, and give them handfuls of twenty-pound notes, ignoring their protests, telling them, honestly, that they were as talented as I was, and that I had just been lucky enough to get noticed, and I wanted to share my luck.
I sat down with Alfie, and told him all that had happened. He sympathised for a while, then told me, in typical Alfie fashion, to ‘pipe down moaning, there are plenty of people worse off than you’, and of course he was right. And then we decided to do an impromptu concert in the road, just like in the old days.
And in that moment, all the stress left me, and the years fell away.
And much later, when I was on my own in the rotten seedy flat with the leak in the ceiling, I picked up Wallace and the seeds of a riff came into my head. And I got that faint incredible thrill, that thread of excitement that I hadn’t felt for years now. The riff became a melody, the melody gave birth to some words, a bridge section rolled around and hey presto I gave myself up to the joy of writing my next song.
As Sean McGowan might have said, I’d just plucked another song out of the air! Or else I’d created a melody and words from scratch out of my own head.
Who knows? Who really cares?
Maybe I’d never make a commercial comeback. Maybe I’d be a fixture on the busking scene until I became an old man and I’d die in the gutter with Wallace in my hands.
Do you know what? I didn’t care.
Because finally I was back doing what I did best. . .
(image courtesy Jesus Pereira, from Pixabay)