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Songwriting: On the use of early fragments


I’ve writ elsewhere (all over the world wide web) that I picked up the guitar at an age too early to learn anything proper like an extant piece of music. I was simply interested in making twanging and snapping sounds. I had no loftier ambition than to disturb the peace in our home. It’s true that I had some competition from my mother screaming at my father and slamming doors while they raced from room to room hell-bent on redefining the meaning of dysfuntionality. Nevertheless, I could punctuate brief times of truce with my brother’s guitar. I was a contended little lad.

When this random noise migrated into something more harmonious, I can’t really recall; but I do remember having the guitar placed across my lap and discovering the root position E minor chord and it’s adjacent neighbour on the fingerboard (which I suppose is an A minor ninth chord). So I would alternate these two chords in a strict 4/4 for hours, until my mother couldn’t stand it any more banged me across the head with her hand.

I think the neighbourhood in general was pleased when my brother showed me a few more chords. I wonder if he thought that the fact that these new ones needed more than two fingers to execute would act as some sort of deterrence because, if so, he was bitterly disappointed. Anyway, I plowed on regardless.

The development of any sort of musical profiency was a random affair and was punctuated by my need to use the guitar as a means of defence from time to time when my brother would, for reasons I still cannot fathom, chase me around the house promising murder and mayhem. The “boing” as the guitar bounced off his nut at the conclusion of the chase had a very satisfactory sonic stamp to it which these days I would ascribe to a guitar with mahogony back and sides, an ebony bridge, and scalloped bracing. But, back then luthiery was not my main concern. Escape was.

No sounds I made in these times evolved into any approaching a cogent piece of music, but the seeds were scattered in my soul. I did begin to learn some American folk songs from a chord book my brother had lying around and I had a couple of friends at school with whom I practiced some Beatles’ songs. But it was Bob Dylan who pointed out the obvious solution for a boy with an acoustic guitar. All I needed was a few square feet in the corner of a room, to be left alone, and be fed once in a while.

I never suffered from acne or any of the other hormonal complaints of adolescence. I put this down to the musical venting and pouting I was able to indulge in, thereby providing an alternative outlet for these irritants. Indeed, some early habits still linger. I used the guitar to complain about my luck with early girlfriends and songs of unrequited lust have been the soundtrack to my life ever since. Indeed, I became so adept at these songs that I would deliberately screw up in the romantic department so I could go home and bleat about it in a song on the grounds that girls come and go but songs are eternal. Or some such rubbish. Anyway, all of these songs should have been consigned to the flames. That I had the temerity to think that any of my output during these years had legs is evidence both of the supreme confidence of the true artist and the self-delusion of dilettante.

So today, when the muse is silent, I entertain myself by revisiting some old fragments that remain from these youthful outpourings. Very occasionally I happen across something that I think has the spark of invention or hints at musical possibilities and I noodle around with it to see if it has any legs. Perhaps more often than I think is decent I slip some forty-five year old chord sequence and melodic phrase into a new song. I could claim that that this helps give my musical life a sort of unity. But I won’t. It’s just my little joke with myself.

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