Years ago I had an argument with a musician friend about the greatness of Tom Waits. My friend had reservations: Waits, he said, didn’t sing from his own experience, wasn’t on the hard road on which his characters struggled any more, didn’t sing from his own experience in the sense that Dylan and Cohen still did.
Remembering that conversation now, I can understand what my friend meant, although I still disagree with him. His assumption was that singers can only create authentic songs out of the raw material of their own experience – the harder the better. In that model songs are confessional poems set to music, and the experiences that fired them are as important as the words and melodies that reveal them to us.
Me, I think that songs disguise where their writers and singers come from as often as reveal it. Their connection to their sources is mysterious and inconclusive. Sometimes you write a song in order to be in a conversation with another song. I believe that Dylan started out in that way, and his early Song to Woody quotes liberally from Woody Guthrie songs to establish a relationship between them. The test of that song’s greatness is not whether Dylan had actually done the “hard travellin’” he claims to have done, but the fire and intensity of his voice and of the performance.
At other times songs are more like stories than confessional poems (Springsteen’s Nebraska, Cave’s Murder Ballads). But the test of a song’s greatness lies in whether it can build a fire where people you’ve never met would want to sit. Where the wood for that fire comes from makes little difference: what matters is that it should be built well.
An example of what I’m talking about is a song by Lucinda Williams from her Car Wheels on a Gravel Road album. Jackson is the lament of someone who is imagining driving through Southern towns with beautiful names and trying to forget someone: “All the way to Jackson / I don’t think I’ll miss you much / All the way to Jackson / I don’t think I’ll miss you much …” Succeeding verses repeat a similar theme while the tension in the music slowly builds until it is almost unbearable. I had always assumed that this was one of the strongest songs of thwarted desire I had ever heard. I was certain that Williams had poured her own romantic longing into it. Years later I met someone who told me how he had loved her music so much that he had travelled to the US to meet her. Apparently she had mentioned, either on stage or to him personally, that the song had been written for her late grandmother. This might well be true, but for me those earlier associations – the fire that the song built in my mind - still determine the way I hear it every time it plays.
Building that fire is the most important thing you can do if you are a singer or songwriter. The original inspiration fades from memory, or it remains mysterious: otherwise why would you have written it in the first place? That mystery is essential if a song is to stand up to repeated listenings. Only then can something be created which has power to move listeners so that they can lose and find themselves by the light of it.