I’m away with work. It doesn’t happen very often, so it’s always an adjustment leaving behind the things that matter. More and more, my first thought is about how to avoid letting music slip out of my temporary life. And this time, I have a secret weapon: Gaby is with me.
Someone suggested that we bring a guitar. Now, we love an audience - we’re pretty shameless, partly because it feels like we have nothing to lose, but also because we love to play. But there were a couple of things that held us back.
We have a crew of about 20 people working together on a challenging project for three weeks. We all seem to be getting on: they’re an amazing group of people, some I’ve known for years, some for days and - importantly - some I’ve known for days that feel like they’ve been around for a lifetime. But what if we’re wrong: what if the consensus is not so rosey and we do untold further damage by presuming to entertain people?
Maybe that’s just paranoia. But there’s another issue.
Here’s how it goes. We play something we’ve written. Everyone applauds, mostly because they’ve just witnessed a dog standing on its hind legs. Then we play something else we’ve written. The novelty palls. Someone asks if we know Homeward Bound. Nope, sorry, but here’s an obscure cover: Jackson as reimagined by Hem. Some people like it, but others aren’t so sure. What about anything by The Beatles? Er, no.
We really have to learn some standards. Suggestions on a postcard ...
All roads lead to Springsteen, so I first knew of Nils Lofgren as a member of the E Street Band, parachuting in to replace Miami Steve on the Born in the USA tour.
When I discovered his own music, I fell hard - trawling second hand stores and record fairs for albums with his band Grin, bootlegs, solo studio work and live records. And I went to the still-missed flagship HMV store on Oxford Street on the day of any new release.
But the big thrill was the live show. On Bruce's rare visits he was a dot on a distant stage. Nils toured tirelessly in between visits to E Street and I saw him and his band this close at the Town and Country Club and Shepherds Bush Empire. I even bumped into him in Blackheath Village before a show in the Concert Hall - a stage phantom gliding through the streets of my childhood.
Then he started touring a smaller show with multi-instrumentalist Greg Varlotta. These were wonderful showcases, but I missed the power of the full band, began to skip tours and listened to his music less.
Which brings me to the other night and the front row of the Barbican, ready to re-engage. The show was a joy. Nils hasn’t somersaulted across the stage in many years, but his musicianship is spectacular and powerful, his voice is sweet, heart open and he clearly loves performing to an audience that has been by his side (on and off) for decades. And then there are the songs …
Now that I’ve been writing for a few years, I listened in a different way - and it was a revelation. Beautifully told stories, powerful themes, intriguing concepts and arresting lyrics. So now, like Inigo Montoya, I'm going back to the beginning, listening more carefully and learning from someone who - while not an icon in their own right like Springsteen - has quietly created decades of beautiful and exhilarating work. I’m as excited now as I was 30 years ago.
What makes a song? I’ve been listening to the R U Talkin’ REM Re: Me? podcast as they assess REM’s entire back catalogue. They judged Out of Time and found it wanting: one of the Scotts went so far as to say that a couple of the songs weren’t really songs at all.
But why? They use musical instruments, vocals, melody, harmony. My songs - and I’m talking about the ones I’m predominantly responsible for, rather than Gaby’s - have those things. They also have a verse, chorus and bridge in various appropriate, hopefully pleasing and balanced combinations, tonic and tonic relief, and solid (some might say unadventurous) rhythm. Surely you can pick 'n mix from anything on that list and claim to have a song.
So why do my songs often feel like a musical Pinocchio: they want to be real songs but somehow … they aren’t?
It might be the execution. I was lucky enough to have one of my songs covered by a friend. It was transformed from a simple and jaunty guitar tune to a sweeping, piano-powered delight. It didn’t hurt that she’s a wonderful artist.
Another friend and collaborator said that’s just how it is: there’s little perspective on your own work, get used to it.
For now, I think I’ll keep an eye out for Jiminy Cricket.
This is one of the many reasons why we love the community of musicians that we're so lucky to be a part of. In early 2018 we helped out our friends The Bearing on a couple of music videos, and they very graciously invited us into their studio to do a little recording. It's been a while for Gaby and Ben but Lyle is rarely out of a studio, so between us we managed to get our act together and make some sounds. The results were demos of two new songs, a one-take quickie on another and an absolute joy of a day.