Tim McMullen's Missives and Tomes

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Bickardt's "Blissful Surrender" and McMullen's "I Don't Write Much Anymore."

In a most extraordinary blog, Craig Bickhardt explored the urge to create. He opened with this question: "Do you want to write songs, or do you need to write them?" He then discussed this distinction in both concrete and spiritual terms. Here is how he ended it.

"I believe we make things because we are the pressure valve of the ultimate making of things. Through us escapes the blow-off of creative forces no one can imagine. That is our role in the big picture. There's really no self-importance in a creative act when you understand the mysterious and uncontrollable nature of it. It's all for the sake of an elemental energy in the pipeline that chooses your particular point of exit. Creative needs are like geysers in Yellowstone; warm salty mud being blown out of the way so the earth can keep its crust intact for another day. The earth doesn't respect geysers, it simply uses them. I am used, you are used; we're The Need incarnate and we'll never fully understand the unseen forces below the surface. There's no remedy for it but a blissful surrender."

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt http://ninetymilewind.blogspot.com/

Here is my comment on Craig's blog:

Now, that's a mouthful. You have so many wonderful metaphors and similes employed in this description of the creative impulse, yet you are able to maintain that mystical sense of reverential wonder. Nice balance.

You have done songwriting as a job for most of your life; but, as you imply, the distinction between wanting to and having to does not fit many, including many professionals, who write songs. It would seem that many approach performing and writing as a glamorous road to the bigtime, like sports or acting. Most of what they turn out, in part because of the machine that homogenizes their sounds into a genre of interchangeable voices and faces and instruments, has an endless sameness to it.

Fortunately, for the inspired writer, like yourself (and hundreds of other great, dedicated, driven writers) enough of the good stuff does get through, does get heard, does get sold, to keep the dream alive.

I have chronicled in many places the decline in my own output—from 20 to 30 a year when playing regularly down to five or six a year down to one or two a year. When I went back to teaching full time (1978), I knew that I was giving up a part of the dream. You can't stop inspiration, but you can ignore it or give it short shrift. In 1980, I wrote this song,

"I Don't Write Much Anymore"

I don’t write much anymore;
Sorry, I don’t know what to say.
It’s too painful to ignore
’Cause I felt it slip away.

And you know it makes me cry—
Like a lover that’s been lost—
When the feeling’s passed you by,
And you know just what it’s cost—

It’s like you’re stumbling in the dark,
And you don’t know where to turn.
You’re looking for a spark
Just to feel it burn...
Let it burn...

Knowing that it’s gone
Is not enough to bring it back;
It’s like staring at a train
Moving miles down the track.
You can laugh or you can cry,
But that’s all that you can do,
And lying to yourself
Is never gonna’ make it less true—

It’s like you’re stumbling in the dark,
And you don’t know where to turn.
You’re looking for a spark
Just to feel it burn...
Aw, let it burn...

I don’t write much anymore.
Sorry, I don’t know what to say.
But I don’t write much anymore,
So I guess I’ll slip away.

©1980 Tim McMullen
All Rights Reserved

I was going to quote a few lines, but I decided to throw in the whole thing. I don't mean to be presumptuous—including one of my own pieces on your blog—and I hope you don't mind—but it addresses what happens when we diversify our talents. What I am suggesting is that if we have the creative impulse, it really can't die, but if we don't keep it focused (as a painter or a sculptor or a photographer or a writer), it will easily spread out to other creative impulses. For years I would get ideas that I thought would make good short stories, but I always stopped myself by saying, "I can't waste my energy on that. I'm a song writer." Who knows, maybe I'm really a short story writer in songwriter's clothing...Ha!

Two of my favorite female singer/songwriters, Joni Mitchell and Marti Jones, gave up performing and writing for years in favor of painting. Actors become writers and writers become directors, etc. Many great writer/performers like Nanci Griffith and Billy Joel get to a point where they say, "I just don't feel like doing it anymore." Fortunately for us, though, they often can't help themselves, and soon they are back at it.

Those of us who don't make a career of it, for whatever reason, can choose to be envious or inspired by the success of those we admire.

Let me just say that your fire inspires! (and yeah, this probably will become one for my blog).

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Don't try to justify the unjustifiable! An answer to "Who are the real racists?

On the Party builder blog of the Democratic Party, a blogger called "Democrat in San Francisco" wrote the following post:

In regards to the recent arrest of Professor Gates by Officer Crowley,
Officer Crowley said:

"He was cautioned in the house, meaning 'calm down, lower your voice.'" Once we got outside in front of the general public and the police officers that were assembled there, two warnings, the second warning with me holding a set of handcuffs in my hand. It was something I really didn't want to do, but the professor at any point in time could have resolved the issue by quieting down and/or going back in his house."

Who are the real racists here? Would anyone venture to say it is the African Americans? Crowley, a white police officer was racially profiled by Professor Gates. He assumed that Crowley was a racist merely by the color of his skin.

When the professor raised his voice and failed to cooperate, the officer had not other recourse than to do his duty, regardless of the man's color.

African Americans need to realize that racism is alive and well in their own community before pointing the finger and screaming "racist" at the drop of a hat.

The professor was wrong. Anyone who raises his or her voice and is uncooperative with police authorities is subject to the same discipline regardless of status, race, or color. Professor Gates was overreacting and brought this on himself. It is he that should apologize to Officer Crowley for turning this incident into a race issue.

The blogger then goes on to basically reiterate the same points (although throwing in the OJ Simpson case as an example that blacks can be racists???) see the full post here

What follows is my answer.

Dear Democrat in San Francisco—

Racism is real, and it can be found in all races, but the facts in no way bear out your assumptions. Professor Gates was not accused of disturbing the peace. Police officers had come into his home erroneously; they had verified that he was rightfully there, then they "cautioned" him (which, according to your explanation, the officer then "translates for himself" to mean "calm down, lower your voice"). Are you saying that officers can come into your home, ascertain that you have done absolutely nothing wrong, and then arrest you because you are not calm enough or quiet enough to suit them.

You say that the professor was overreacting? This is simply absurd in the extreme. Again, by his own testimony, the officer made it clear that his so-called warnings were overt threats of arrest. He made them while waving his hand-cuffs and "warning" the professor. The president's use of "stupidity" was probably an ill-chosen epithet, but it was not wrong. It was a grotesque abuse of authority. Disorderly conduct because he was wrongfully accused of being in his own house and then threatened because he was upset by this flagrant error? The instant that the officer found that they had committed the error, a simple, "I'm sorry, sir," and an immediate exit would have ended the situation. I don't care how loud he was yelling (but from what I've read of the professor, I'll bet it wasn't even that loud), his arrest was an absolute miscarriage of justice and an abuse of authority, and simply dropping the case is in no way an adequate recompense for the officer's crime. Yes, crime. False arrest and false imprisonment are crimes!

I have great sympathy for police officers, and I understand your wanting to be an apologist for the officer. It is an incredibly difficult job that we ask them to do, and the burden of good judgment is incredibly hard to maintain, but to suggest that the Professor was being a racist for being angry or that the officer was "just doing his job" is an egregious misreading of the facts in this particular case, even as you have outlined them.

To suggest that this was merely the case of an overreacting black man getting his just desserts is a good indication of just how far we still have to go before race does not color our perceptions. (By the way, lest you leap to any other racial assumptions, I am a somewhat pinkish, slightly tannish person, yet despite the obvious distinction between my flesh and the crayola color, I am nevertheless categorized by others as WHITE, a rather humorous misnomer, I might add, as are all our other "racial" colors).

Tim McMullen

I have included my song, "The Governed's Mental Getcha'" which was written when Ronald Reagan was elected, but it seems as relevant as ever.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Bobby Jameson, Science of Mind, Emerson, and Me

Much of my writing in the last year has been in comments on other blogs. In fact, most pieces on this blog so far, including the last post in response to Craig Bickhardt’s blog, come from such writing. Today’s piece is a personal anecdote that was added as a comment to Bobby Jameson’s latest blog post at about 3:00 this morning.

For those unfamiliar with Bobby Jameson, he offers perhaps the most interesting and eclectic blog that I have discovered. His is a truly remarkable story. He is a songwriter, recording artist, poet, video artist, autobiographer, and blogger extraordinaire. From huge success as a teenager to relative anonymity to internet resurrection, his is an alarming and cautionary tale about being a casualty of the music business, a casualty of personal excess and addiction, and it is a story of personal redemption. His telling begins in the 1950’s, and over the course of 155 posts, his personal reminiscences have brought us to about 1976.

His autobiographical blog is a painfully honest reflection upon the great possibilities and the potential dangers of a creative life. Bobby has the ability to tell a truly compelling personal story articulately and analytically, with vivid recollections and contemporary reflection. In his journey, he crossed paths with the following (and played or recorded with many of them): Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Andrew Loog Oldham, John Lennon, The Monkees, Frank Zappa, Jesse Ed Davis, Randy Newman, Red Rhodes, The Rockets/Crazy Horse, and Curt Boetcher, just to name a few. He was there at the beginning of Tony Alamo (of Tony and Susan Alamo’s Christian Crusade); he was nearly there at the end of Diane Linkletter’s (daughter of Art Linkletter) tragic suicide; he was in the middle of the Sunset Strip “riots” in the 60’s….

I could go on, but I have a much better idea. Click on the link in "My Blog List" to the right, and see for yourself.

Make no mistake: His story is neither pretty nor pleasant, but it is quite intriguing and compelling; it is often tragic; it is often frustrating; and it is just as often uplifting and encouraging.

And be forewarned; addiction is one of Bobby's themes, and once you start exploring his blog, you just might get hooked. The night that I discovered it, I spent six or seven hours straight reading his fascinating story.

Check it out!

What follows is a brief quote from Bobby’s blog and my response.

Bobby said:

"In 1976 my life was a disaster. My actions had led me to Alcoholics Anonymous and to the growing understanding that change was inevitable or else. I was living in a halfway house and attended AA meetings daily. I studied the book continuously and constantly reminded myself to turn problems over to the care of God, as I didn't understand him at the time.

"While working in the office, answering the telephone at Clare Foundation, one weekend, I came across a book called Science Of Mind, written by Ernest Holmes. Basically, it was about the Spiritual or Universal Law of Cause and Effect and how that law works. In my own oversimplification of the subject, it stated that, what one tends to focus on or think about begins to take shape over time in real terms. Thinking, the cause. Tangible evidence, the effect.

"The book said that this took place whether people were aware of it or not, so it would make sense to focus on what you wanted in your life as opposed to thinking about things you didn't want: A negative view or positive view of your own ongoing circumstances. Still, oversimplifying, I for some reason found this belief to be easily acceptable and the basis of a new adventure, which I was eager to go on."

I said:

Okay, I did not see that coming. Despite some superficial similarities, our lives have taken very different paths, but this one is a real coincidence. My grandmother and great aunt were spiritual seekers all their lives. They were vegetarians for a while in the thirties and forties. They knew Dr. Ernest Holmes personally and attended his church in Los Angeles. My parents also attended the church occasionally before I was born.

When I was in kindergarten, my parents felt that I should have a basic Christian background, so I went to the First Baptist Church in Whittier for about a year and a half. Although I learned to recite the 23rd Psalm and a few other scriptures, even at five years old I found that I could just not accept the supernatural trappings or the dogma of the church, but it did fascinate me enough that eventually Philosophy and Religious Studies became one of my minors in college.

By the time that I was in the second grade, my family all began attending the Church of Religious Science. They didn't actually have a regular church: for a year or two we met in the gallery of the Whittier Art Association. Then the venue was moved to the pastor's own home. He lived in a great old Victorian style house on about 5 acres along a stream. The adults would have their service, and the kids would have "Sunday School" classes, but they were lead by volunteers, and every couple of weeks we had a new leader. We would have a discussion about some premise, then we would be let loose to swing on the vines and play on the banks of the creek until our parents came out from the service.

Eventually, that minister, Reverend Wally Strait, passed away, and my aunt and grandmother had to find a new church. They were actually instrumental in helping to create and support several Science of Mind churches over the next twenty years.

Here's the thing. You found a profundity and a philosophical outlook that truly spoke to your condition—I told you in an earlier comment that you needed to read the text and make sense of it for yourself rather than be told by others—looks like that was true again. For me, though, it happened at a much earlier age, and it came directly from something that somebody said to me. When I was about 9 or 10, we were sitting in a "Sunday School" class—probably about six kids and one adult. It was a fairly serious discussion for ten year olds about beliefs.

After a few minutes in direct conversation with me and addressing some of my skepticism about dogma and spiritual claims, this "leader" said something to the effect that "Nobody can tell you what to believe. Not your parents, not your teachers, not your minister nor your Sunday school teacher, not your friends. Not anybody! Only you can decide what is right and true for you!" This, of course, mirrored my own philosophy; yes, by ten-years old, I had developed a personal philosophy. Years later, when I came to study the American transcendentalists, I found that this admonition to “Trust Thyself” echoed the teachings of Emerson in his remarkable essay, “Self Reliance.” This essay had a significant effect on Ernest Holmes as well. As for me, this revelation, at 10 years old, sent me on a lifetime quest to understand the myriad perceptions of truth and to try to reconcile them with my own sense of the world.

I have attended many different denominations, with friends and in my course of study, but I never found a religious doctrine that was more personally empowering than Ernest Holmes and the Science of Mind.

For fifty years my great aunt had a thin strip of card on her refrigerator emblazoned with the fading letters: LIDGTTFTATIM. As a joke we kids would refer to it and pronounce phonetically as “Le-jit-fa-tat-um,” but we all knew what it meant. When she went into the hospital, I made a large copy of the phrase to put on her hospital wall. The meaning: "Lord, I Do Give Thee Thanks For The Abundance That Is Mine." She made miraculous recoveries (truly astounding the doctors and thereapists) from broken hips at the age of 91 and 95. She died two years ago at the age of 102, and her positive attitude right to the last was a wonder to behold.

I generally don't use profanity, but I just can't help it on this closing (it seems to fit my basic, non-believer status so well)....Really, Bobby, Science of Mind? Well, I'll be damned!


JULY 12, 2009 3:06 AM

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Inspiration, Cockburn, and Muehleisen—A Blog Comment to Craig Bickhardt's Ninety-Mile Wind

Craig Bickhardt is a great writer. He spent many years in Nashville as a highly successful songwriter, having placed songs with scores of top performers including Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, B. B. King, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, David Wilcox, Poco, Baillie and the Boys, The Judds, Nicolette Larson, ad infinitum. A few years ago he gave up the Nashville gig, went back to Pennsylvania, and began performing full time. He writes a great blog for songwriters (and anyone else interested in the art of creation or the creation of art). It is called Ninety-Mile Wind (http://ninetymilewind.blogspot.com/) You can use the link on "My Blog List" on the lower right hand corner of this site.

I often feel compelled to comment on his insightful and inspiring pieces. This is a response that I wrote to his blog post entitled, "All the Spells." If you want to see the full context for the following remarks, check out Craig's blog first. Otherwise, check it out later, but by all means, check it out!

Emerson and Thoreau linked inspiration, instinct, conscience—all things transcendental. In a sense, that is part of your point. If we make our constructs too rational, too conscious, they tend to become mechanical. On the other hand, it is exceedingly difficult to maintain that spark of inspiration throughout the creation of a completed song.

When working with young writers, I often encounter two warring impulses. On the one hand, it is hard for many beginners to get started. On the first day of class, I write only one short imperative sentence on the board: Stifle the critic! We discuss the possible meanings and implications of that statement for about twenty minutes, then we begin to write.

On the other hand, once they do get going, it is sometimes difficult to get them to revise or hone their work because they have a reverence for their "inspiration." "That's the way it came out of me!" I do understand the impulse; however, not meaning to be crude but needing to be clear, I point out that many things "come out of us," but we don't immortalize them simply because "that's the way it came out."

Holding onto the inspiration or maintaining "the heart" while crafting the exterior shell that effectively conveys it is an unfathomable mystery. The occasional song that simply writes itself, yet is as good as our best work, is an inexplicable miracle. Unfortunately, many a piece that spills out of us is a second or third-rate effort; the spilling itself is no guarantee of authenticity or worth (I mean this in the aesthetic sense, not the monetary one).

Though deeply and inherently cynical and skeptical, I have always been easily moved, and as I grow older, I find that I am more and more susceptible. Watching a movie, listening to a human interest story on the radio, the dénouement of a TV show, and most often, through song, that lump in the throat or the tear in the eye is an alarmingly common and daily occurrence for me. Thirty years ago, I wrote this fragment, “Loosing (or losing) a tear at some other fool’s pain,” that attempts, lightheartedly, to convey that feeling, but I have never taken it upon myself to incorporate it into a song.

When I get a new Nanci Griffith album, for example, I can be fairly sure that by the second song she'll have me in tears, and that it will continue repeatedly throughout the album. The same is true for a handful of writers including Cheryl Wheeler and Jesse Winchester. It's not maudlin; it's not merely melancholy; it's simply that beautiful mix of emotion, melody, poetry, and voice that speaks to the head and the heart simultaneously. Ironically, several of my very favorite songwriters, Danny O'Keefe, Townes Van Zandt, Jackson Browne, Loudon Wainwright, Joni Mitchell, Guy Clark, only occasionally hit that button, but I still connect deeply with their work—not to diminish their melodic creations, but I think, perhaps, I enjoy them more for the sheer force of their amazing wordsmithing.

Funny that you should mention Bruce Cockburn in this regard. I first saw him do a solo acoustic version of a song called, "He Came From the Mountains," on Ian Tyson's show, Nashville North, around 1970 while I was attending Chico State in California. I vowed on the spot that if I could write and perform a song like that I might consider becoming a believer. Some of Jesse Winchester's songs have that same pure, spiritual but non-"religious" quality. Though I wrote several of my very best songs at about the same time, I am afraid that the conversion did not take place.

Look as I might, and I am an avid collector, I could find nothing from Cockburn. Then, in late 1970 on the same day, I found Bruce Cockburn's first album as well as the only solo album by Maury Muehleisen, later to become Jim Croce's musical partner. Maury's songwriting on Gingerbreadd had a profound effect on Croce's own writing. I was blown away by both Cockburn and Muehleisen that day: That combination of musicality and poetry was at the heart of their work.

A few years later, after my own brief foray into full-time performing, I was using Cockburn's album, Sunwheel Dance, with my students: having them listen to his album while I projected the lyrics onto a screen. Since then, the wide-range of his musical forays, whether unmelodic chanting, angry political diatribes, religious affirmations, devout love songs, or whimsical ditties, have always maintained that poetic sensibility.

"If I had a rocket launcher,
Some son-of-a-bitch would die"

may be hard to reconcile with

"In His world we wait
In His hands our fate
Keep on climbing
We shall see His gate
In good time...."

but in the marvelous, creative universe of Bruce Cockburn, they share a very clear aesthetic based on deep and abiding inspiration.

Clearly, Craig, you have been surprisingly successful at finding that mix of heart and head, even in your more "commercial" outings, but I think that your new CD, Brother to the Wind, may have come closest so far to that perfect mix on nearly every tune. Thanks, not only for the thoughtful treatises on the art and the craft of songwriting, but for being such a consistent example of "practicing what you preach."
Tim McMullen