Yes, this is a music blog. And it is MY music blog, thank you very much, and I will write whatever I want. It may or may not surprise you that while I do the commentary/journalism/criticism thing, I am a writer of other genres and styles as well. And a fair number of the people who do read the blog are in fact your run-of-the-mill zany, tortured, passionate writer types, so I thought opening up about my own inspirations might be of some interest.
I have been known to write poems about making marionberry jam, or essays about walking down a moonlit dirt road in Africa, or lyrics about love lost and living anyway. I love the poems of Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Seamus Heaney as much as I love the nuts-and-bolts journalism of Rolling Stone or NPR. Here are seven non-music related things that give me great inspiration. Any type of art, whether music or otherwise, that touches on any of these will get my interest and likely my adoration.
There’s just so much to say. It’s wild and dangerous, but also soothing and peaceful. It is the very antithesis of our modern, safe, planned cities. There aren’t people squished in everywhere. Nothing is efficient. Everything is calm, if suspensefully so. I would say that nothing in the natural world so successful captures the unlimited potential and immense risk inherent in human life than the desert. It possesses the most open space, the most intriguing natural architecture, the wonder of the sages and also the most extremes in temperature, the most dangerous poisonous animals, the most unforgiving land, and, inescapably the greatest lack of life-nourishing water combined with the most punishing sun. In this we find the extremes of life, the rich, fullness of vitality and the vapid, brittle decay of death – a tension we must always hold, while we struggle for meaning amid complex institutions and fresh technology and the couches and carpet and cloud backups that keep us so inoculated from real experience. To spend much very much time in the desert is, of course, life-threatening – but how quickly we forget our fragile dependence on the Earth and how we take for granted that its plates might not suddenly buckle under immense pressure, opening up the ground and swallowing us alive, or that it will not boil us to a crisp with a torrent of exploding lava, or summarily drown us with a tsunami. We go to the desert to remember that everything could be over in a moment and to tread softly and love deeply. This is the reason for so much spiritual connection and reference to deserts throughout the centuries, from the old Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt and Syria in the 6th century, right up to modern day Ashrams in the American Southwest.
Steamboats and Riverboats
They were once the main form of transit for all major river systems in America – Mississippi, Columbia, Ohio, Illinois, Susquehanna. The unique appeal of this spans so many generations. It seems that when these vessels were in their heyday, people like Mark Twain couldn’t help but write about them, but then came John Hartford who worked on the barges of Illinois River and wrote his legendary folk songs, and now we have Josh Ritter whose entire aesthetic is a shoutout to riverboats and 19th century charm. (If you don’t hear it in his music you’ll definitely see it in his live shows, or at least in the artwork of So Runs the World Away). One of my happiest memories from childhood is going to the Paducah Riverfront (Ohio River) and seeing not just the Mississippi Queen, not just the Memphis Queen, but both of them AND the huge, majestic American Queen all together in the heat of a Kentucky summer. There’s just something about the oldness, the originality of its design, and the mystique of what used to go on inside its walls that captivates my imagination. It’s also why I would love to be a character in the movie Maverick.
When it came time for my second child to be born, I was ready. My first child’s birth came only 36 hours after I had landed from Africa, and, while it was beautiful and perfect, I wasn’t really firing on all cylinders. When it came time for my boy to come, I started reading Fathers at Birth almost as soon as my wife announced she was pregnant, and from its first pages I was hooked. It suggested two mantras “Be the Mountain” and “Be the Warrior.” Be the solid, stable support system your wife needs, and be the warrior guarding the room to keep out intruders so that she can stay in her all-important process without having to answer questions or welcome visitors (even the well-meaning ones). The book made the point that a mountain provides infinite support with out expending any energy. I thought this was pretty profound. I have also always been fascinated by the spiritual symbolism of a mountain – never changing, yet profoundly beautiful, still, and inviting. Living within view of three peaks (Hood, St Helens, Adams) provides endless inspiration, and on a clear day I often drive home via Highway 14 East just to get a full view of Mt Hood. On a clear day coming home on Highway 500 East, I can see Mt Hood to right, Mt Adams straight ahead and Mt St Helens to the left. It rocks. I have also stood on top of three “fourteener” peaks in Colorado (Antero, Hope, and Elbert) – the journeys for each of which have provided enormous potential for material.
No, not because of Pink Floyd or even Keith Moon, but the actual moon in the sky. Ever the counterpoint to the sun’s masculine intensity, the moon’s cool, seductive feminine energy soothes, heals, and opens the possibility for creation to take place. Think about it – intimate moments happen mainly at night. And creative souls know that some of the best writing/imagining is done in the wee hours of the night, and if you don’t record it right then, by morning you’ll wake up and it’ll be gone. You find that the sun’s brash “logos” (reason) has betrayed the moon’s subtle, beguiling “eros.” The moon’s presence is mystical, no doubt. (I think Pink Floyd might have known this).
Particularly compelling scenes in films
The scene from Garden State when they stand on top of the heap of metal in the rain with trash bags on. That scene from In the Bedroom when Tom Wilkinson’s character surprises the audience and does the deed. The “Needle in the Hay” moment with Luke Wilson’s character in The Royal Tenenbaums. These have such a staying power and eventually get turned into something on paper.
Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry Picking” and “Mid Term Break,” W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” Robert Frost’s “Out, Out” and W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” – all these poems cannot fail to produce a response in me that winds up coming out in writing one way or another. Or if it doesn’t come out in writing, it comes out in how I view the world, how I am comfortable with others’ suffering and tragedy, and how I can appreciate the dark and the beautiful.
I still talk about wanting to write a one act play or novella about all the people we met, worked closely with and generally experienced during our time in Rwanda. We talk about the “TV President” American Ambassador who was so certifiably ridiculous that he must have been a character on “Scandal,” the 12-year old student who made me a cake topped with canned creamed corn, the thoroughly Dude-esque Dutch Ambassador, the quintessentially Greek boy wearing white pants and boat shoes most days, the crazed missionary from hell, the crazed school director from hell…. the list goes on. Usually Americans don’t fare that well 🙂 The ordinary folks would include the Kenyan shop owner who would always ask me about Seattle, or baseball, or something he thought I could relate to, the innumerable “taxi men” playing Don Williams and Kenny Rogers in their white sedans, or the kid TSA agent in DC after our first year abroad who said “Welcome home, guys” quite innocently, but it meant the world to us.
What inspires you to write?