Clef Notes: What Comes First?

by David Egan

When asked the which-comes-first question all songwriters are asked, I say that it happens all kinds of ways.

When asked the which-comes-first question all songwriters are asked, I say that it happens all kinds of ways. Through the endless musical gibberish in my head that never goes away, I'm constantly watching and listening for anything that seems poetic or lyrical. Someone might drop a phrase in conversation that strikes me, and it instantly becomes musical as well:

"Man, they won't get anything outta that mess but a load of slingshots and boomerangs."

"People will be people."

"Look at that proud dog, would ya?"

It might be something I read:

"Sabine River Turnaround"

In the past, taking song ideas from racing forms was a dark secret. I've since loosened up and realized that one man's hit is another man's hayburner and would welcome anyone to scour the day's entries. Then, do the work. "Please No More" and "After This Time" were two that worked well for me. So did "Rolling and Timeless," thanks to a 6-year-old gelding. Between "Two Skies" was a horse listed in an Evangeline Downs racing program that came blowing up the road as I was taking a walk out in Ossun. I was as inspired by the words as I was smitten with the idea of a song title literally tumbling right up to my feet like a stray pup in need of a home. This was a song begging to be written. I stretched beyond my own limits, cut myself loose and drifted out into deep space in order to create a song worthy of that title. I still believe in that song. Someday I'll make it happen.

If music instantly attaches itself to a lyrical idea, and that music comes from the abysmal musical gibberish mentioned above, then you could say that the music comes first. Music is eternal. That's why we like it. To quote Truman Capote as I often do, "To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it's about, but the inner music that words make." If words fall into a good rhythm, it's already musical - rhythm being the most basic element of music. Some people hear it more easily, like a visual artist can discern subtle hues that most of us can't.

Instrumental music is a great joy, but my passion is to write songs - words and music that go together, meld together and marry one another. Without that lyrical idea, the eternally free-floating music has nothing to which it can attach. Therefore, for the pursuit of songwriting, you could say the words come first. Take your pick.
Sometimes, someone comes up with a killer groove and we write words to it, in which case, the music comes first. Many artists produce full instrumental tracks before they begin to write words. People set music to words, words to music, and sometimes with a little give and take. Legend has it that Sir Elton never altered Bernie Taupin's words to fit his music, not in the least. He wrote his music to the written words without adding or removing one repeat. Hal David wrote his beautiful words to Burt Bacharach's amazing music. Don't ask Bacharach to change one grace note.

So what about this start-from-the-middle business? It often happens. I might have a musical or lyrical idea that feels transitional, that needs to lead up to something or be lead up to. "Slingshots and Boomerangs" sounds musical and lyrical to me, but I can't just start out saying that. I have to set it up. The phrase was dropped while a van load of musicians cracked and riffed on a rickety old truckload of crooked, twisted tree branches limping its way across the Basin Bridge. We were desperate for something to crack about. What the hell were they going to do with that? Slingshots and Boomerangs. Clever as always, Pete. That's a title. What comes before that? Crooked wood. Crooked people. Ah, twisted lover. Before attempting a first verse, I devised this chorus, line by line, backwards:

Slingshots and Boomerangs
You won't be happy 'til you see me hang
You're way down wicked - you just don't look it
You look so good but you're so damn crooked
Crooked like wood that wouldn't make nothin' but ...
Slingshots and Boomerangs

At this point, I certainly know what I'm writing about, from the point of view of a done-wrong loser. The verses were challenging, but the ball was rolling. The man is miserable, desperate, violated, fleeced, cuckolded and otherwise made a damn fool. I have some experience in these matters.

Musically, "Slingshots" resembled Pink Floyd's "Money" for a half day. It quickly became tedious. I started flopping hands on the piano keyboard and found a racy little groove, reminiscent of "Psychotic Reaction" by the Count Five, but fresh enough to fly on its own.

There are a million stories for every million songs. Two million stories, if there were co-writers involved. But all will agree that songwriting is a mysterious process. It's often impossible to remember how a song fell into place. It can be a 15-minute brainstorm or a four-hour brainstorm that seemed like 15 minutes. It can come in a blinding flash - that's how we like it - or it can take years.

Leonard Bernstein pointed out, in one of his educational films, a comparison of the manuscripts of Beethoven and Mozart. For Beethoven, the notes were scrawled onto the staff with a frantic urgency that could clearly be seen in his calligraphy. Circles and arrows, entire passages furiously scratched out, scribbled over, like a mad scientist at work. Mozart, on the other hand, was perfectly measured as the brilliance streamed through his pen and onto the staff, first draft, in beautiful hand.

The end results were equally magnificent and as sublime as art can be. It was, as Bernstein put it, as if the music was telegraphed in from God.

Maybe Bernstein was exactly right. Whether one's music will be celebrated through the ages or will have its grandest moment in a café in front of 30 beatniks smoking hookahs, it might well have been telegraphed in from God. The process is so mysterious that for me it's as good an explanation as any.

To be sure, certain questions will far outlive many a well-intended song. "What comes first, the words or the music?" "What kind of music y'all play?" "How much y'all charge?" And topping the charts, "How do your fingers know where to go?"