Something Like Breathing

You're looking at the blog page for I've dropped in and out of blogging for fifteen-odd years. Just lately I've found it more attractive than Facebook's closed loop or Twitter's transmit-only. Here, there's more room to breathe. And it's a great place to drop occasional pieces about music and songwriting. Not that I'm an expert...

  • Mark Gamon

Updated: Apr 14, 2020

I know exactly where I was when I first heard Tom Waits. It was 1976. I was staying with a band in Boston (the Massachusetts one) and they insisted I listened to Nighthawks at the Diner. Then the very next day they insisted I listen to Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings from Asbury Park. 

Double whammy. I’ve been listening to both ever since. And I probably have more Tom Waits albums that I have Bob Dylan. Or Guy Clark. 

They’re endlessly rewarding. Even the musically antisocial ones. There are plenty of them, but there are an equal number of heartbreakingly tender ballads. And there are at least four incarnations of Tom Waits so you can dip in and out of his albums at will and it’s always something different. 

I read somewhere that at least one critic has pointed out that Waits is more of a performance artist than an honest songwriter. That’s partly true - so many characters, so many voices - but I don’t mind and in any case I don’t buy it. Because for every theatrically contrived Tabletop Joe or in your face Eyeball Kid there’s a song like Kentucky Avenue. 

‘Write what you know’. That’s the standard advice to any writer. And that’s what Kentucky Avenue is: Waits writing what he knows, direct from the deepest wellspring of human experience.


It’s powerful juju, your earliest past. And there’s no doubt Kentucky Avenue is autobiographical - at least in the sense that it takes us right back to the street where Waits grew up, and the people he knew. But like all the great songs, there’s mystery here. Childhood experience is loving and dark all at the same time, and it seems to me that in Kentucky Avenue all is not what it ought to be. It plays out like a Doctorow novel written on shattered glass: the adults are all strange and threatening violence, and friendship means jumping off the roof, and kids have got switchblades and scabs on their knees and boysenberries smeared on their faces.

The details, you see? It’s detail that makes great songwriting. So by the time Waits promises to take a rusty nail and scratch his friend’s initials in his arm (just as the strings start flowing up from the mix) we’ve got a cinematic kaleidoscope in our mind’s eye. And we’re ready for it to be shattered in an expression of loyalty and impossible dreams that only kids will ever understand.

Yet they stay with us, those dreams. Long after normality has grabbed us by the scruff of the neck and made life grey. Dickens knew this; Tom Waits knows it too.

By the way, if you ever catch anyone telling you he doesn’t have a great voice, unfriend them. They’re way wrong.

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  • Mark Gamon

Updated: Apr 14, 2020

I can’t remember when I first heard Anais Mitchell. A few years ago, to be sure, when I stumbled across that wonderful little album of Child Ballads she made with Jefferson Hamer. Americans singing the traditional English canon, better and clearer than any English person I’d ever heard. I loved it, but I stopped there.

I’d googled her, of course. And I knew she’d done this thing called Hadestown, which appeared to be some sort of folk opera based on the classics. Neither of which was promising, to me. So I threw it onto the Amazon wish list and forgot about it. 

At least until I once again stumbled across Anais, in a video clip with Chris Thile, performing a song called Why We Built the Wall. Which sounded like it was specifically aimed at Trump but turned out to be several years old, part of the Hadestown thing. It blew me away, but when I looked again at Hadestown I saw that it wasn’t Anais singing it on the album, so I left it on the wish list and forgot about it again.

Then, a few months later I stumbled across it again, when I saw an announcement that the National Theatre was about to put on the show. So I had an idle curious moment and finally bought the album. 

I dunno what I was expecting. Some kind of half-baked soundtrack record, I suppose. They’re usually not very satisfying without the visuals: the music’s supposed to help you navigate the plot, not stand on its own. Hadestown has a plot (Orpheus and Euridyce, no less) but you don’t need the story to enjoy it. It’s a completely original thing that swerves joyously through the musical references: there are echoes of Dixieland jazz and Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen and Ruben Gonzales, held together by a series of terrific vocal performances. Ani DiFranco is all sinister good time gal as Persephone, Greg Brown is as impossibly deep and dark as you might imagine Hades to be, and Anais Mitchell herself is tender and touching as Eurydice. And there’s much more besides.

I must have listened to it half a dozen times, just riding the music, before I paid attention to the story. But it works, despite my instinctive aversion to anything involving Greek mythology - and unlike any show or soundtrack album I’ve ever owned, I find myself paying attention all the way through. Even the two musical interludes, though I might skip past them after a while. Give me the vocals, every time. 

And now… give me the show. Different cast, of course, but I’m watching the National’s website to catch tickets as soon as they go on sale. It’ll be the first stage production I’ve ever seen where I know the music inside out before I sit down. 

Next time I'll pay attention a bit earlier. Anais Mitchell is one helluva songwriter.

  • Mark Gamon

Updated: Apr 14, 2020

 I like songwriting. I like songs. These days, it’s the thing that interests me most. It’s beaten out photography, and writing novels, and scriptwriting, and video production, and bicycle maintenance and houseplants and genealogy, and a whole lot of other things that have taken up my time thus far.

Songs. Just that. And the guitar playing that goes with it, of course, which my ex-wife once told me was the only thing in the world about which I was totally obsessive. Good observation.

I can’t remember when I first wrote one that seemed complete. I can remember writing a lot that weren’t, from way back, but it’s only in the last fifteen years or so that I’ve managed to occasionally put something together that I’m proud to go out and play. 

So I came to it late. And I’m not an expert. And I’m going to keep learning about this mysterious process till I fall off the perch. But I have picked up a couple of tips along the way. 

Guidelines, not rules. I’ve listed them below, for anyone who’s interested enough to stumble into this corner of the internet. I’m listening out for more, but right now this is about all I know, about anything, really…

1/ Paint a picture. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but the listener should see the song.

2/ Detail. That overflowing ashtray on the table is how you lead the listener into the kitchen you’re writing about.

3/ Tell a story. It can be surreal, but it should take the listener somewhere they’ve not explored before.

4/ Rhymes don’t have to be at the end of the line.

5/ Your last romantic break-up might be the most important experience you’ve ever had. Your audience probably doesn’t feel the same way. They’ve heard it already.

6/ You can make your song as miserable as you like. But if you don’t include something positive you’re going to bring your audience down. They won’t thank you.

7/ There’s nothing wrong with philosophy. In a philosophy book.

8/ Edit. Murder your darlings.

9/ Learn Nashville notation. Understand that Em (the three chord) to C (the one chord) is the same as Bm to G, but in a different key. You’ll learn how and why chords fit together, and transpose faster.

10/ Learn scales. Not so you play faster, but so you see how the chords stitch together.

11/ There are a million songs that use the I-V-vi-IV or I-vi-IV-V progressions. It’s OK for you to use them too. Just train your ear to recognise when you've mimicked the melody of Stand By Me. It can’t be improved on.

12/ Melodies that follow the root of the chord are usually dull. Not always. But pretty often.

13/ A blues doesn’t have to have twelve bars. Hell, it doesn’t even have to have chord changes.

14/ Write a bridge. That’s the bit of the song that’s different to everything else. Bridges take you somewhere. You may decide later that you don’t need to go there, but give it a try.

15/ If you manage to write a bridge that leads you to a key change, award yourself a big pat on the back. Then check if you can actually sing it.

16/ Steal. Not whole songs, but changes, lines, and passing chords. Make them your own.

17/ The Lennon and McCartney rule: if you can’t remember it the next day, throw it away.

18/ Some songs are written in half an hour. Some hang around in your notebook (you do have a notebook, don’t you?) for years. Either way is good.

19/ A hook is a good thing. You want your song to be an ear worm. No matter how much you hate the Benny Hill Theme.

20/ If you can’t sing it accompanied by a single acoustic guitar or piano, it’s not a song.

21/ When you’re busy with something else and a chorus or a hook comes to you unbidden, that’s what Bukka White called a Sky Song. Cherish it.

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