In the mid-sixties, when he was at the height of his immense powers, someone asked Bob Dylan how he had managed to reinvent himself and change the face of popular music in such a short time. His response? “Carelessness.” For many years I believed this to be an evasive answer from someone who didn’t want the world to know how painstakingly he crafted his lyrics. Now I’m not so sure.
For three weeks now I’ve been writing new melodies at the rate of one a week, and I’ve found it to be a most sobering experience. I say “melodies” rather than “songs”, because almost all our songs begin as lyrics by Barbara, which I then set to music. I live with these words, find my way into them, looking for the tunes in which they want to live, the voice in which they want to be sung.
Finding your own distinctive voice is the crucial challenge facing any singer, songwriter or lyricist. We all have a hunger to create something new and inspired, something that wouldn’t have been there without us. How else could you explain our willingness to lie awake at night looking for that rhyme or phrase or chord change which eludes us?
At the same time, when I sit down at the piano to fit words and music together, I can feel the presence of the many singers I love. I can feel their voices inside my voice, teaching and inspiring me, but also reminding me that it’s late in the day; that everything has already been said. I have to balance my love for the music that feeds me with my desire to make something fresh and surprising. Think long and hard enough about this dilemma, and writing songs becomes impossible.
And so you learn to turn off your mind, to chase your critics and influences off your shoulder, even the most beloved ones – particularly those - so you can breathe the free air you need. You trick yourself into believing that you are at the beginning, that nothing really important has happened yet, that the conversation has just begun and that everything is still possible.
We all have our rituals to trick the mind into believing these things, and in this light it becomes easier to understand the much-publicised chronicles of substance abuse at the heart of rock ‘n’ roll mythology: when it comes to shutting up the inner critic, anything is permissible. Speaking for myself, though, in spite of my respect for such mythmaking I have found substances less helpful in marshalling creative energy than dogged persistence and strict deadlines. Still, I think I now understand what Dylan meant: you have to be out of your mind to attempt something new.