The Power of Great Songs

I usually rail on this issue but am just as guilty as the rest of the self promoting musicians out there. Promoting your music to the world is part of the game and the entire responsibility generally falls onto the act itself which usually means one person, who is solely responsible for pushing the word out about the music.

Something struck me the other day and after I let it rumble through my rumbling thought process it made me realize something. The first something was this: There are many accounts of Chuck Berry and the way in which he did business through (I am guessing on the exact time frame) the early 60’s on through to maybe even now (don’t hold me to that last bit.) Mr. Berry would show up to an event with his guitar, expect payment upfront, plug-in, and be ready to rock with whatever band the promoter put together to back him up.

I thought, being a person who has tried to do many incarnations of bands in the past, giving up years ago of any real hope of holding something like that together, how great a concept that is for the artist. No headaches of keeping everyone happy or at least motivated and well paid. With this arrangement that was the domain of the promoter. Chuck just needed to show up and be Chuck. But then I realized I was lacking something that Chuck had, and much of, GREAT SONGS!

I do not consider myself any slouch as a songwriter but only a limited amount of people have ever heard one of my songs, Chuck Berry on the other hand has piles of them and people back in the day knew them all or at least were very familiar with them. These were his laurels and he could literally rest on and let them do the work for him. Even if his back up band sucked, which I am sure some of them were not up to par at all times, it didn’t matter because he was Chuck Berry and you came to hear him do those songs you loved so much.

Let me keep this simple. This one example, if it does nothing else, should point out to you how important great, timeless material is. In this instance, to use a baseball analogy, you are not hoping to get a flare or a ground ball with eyes, you are swinging for the fence every time you come up to bat. Sure you are going to whiff, most of the time, but mediocrity and weak song craft will never hit one “outta the park” , which is what you have to do if you want to get people’s attention in this world. Want to promote your music? Write some great songs, record them to the best of your ability and then let as many people as you can hear them. They might just do the job for you.


The Loser Bartender and the Nazi Doorman: a Short Story

The Loser Bartender and the Nazi Doorman

We were playing a two-man gig at this place called the Pirate’s Bay. Now this was way before all that Pirates of the Caribbean stuff had popped off so don’t think this is involving any of that kind of that action. It was one of those dive places we inevitably ended up and it was a grueler of a three-hour show. I had my harmonica player, Keith Carter, with me and we were on our way to Clarksdale, MS after that particular show to do some more shows and recording. I should have known things were going to be screwy when we pulled up to the place and on the deck/patio area, in broad daylight, a guy pointed a gun at me. I instantly jerked the wheel and the rascal laughed as I wheeled into the back and parked the Ford F-150 I was driving.
I immediately thought this place was nuts. Memphis is nuts but I had never had anyone point a gun at me, well at least not in broad daylight, in Memphis before. We loaded in our stuff and I made my way to the front where the guy sat who had pointed the gun at me. Probably not a great idea but turns out it were a fake and the two guys were kind of funny. The both of them were supposed to be some sort of security for a medical testing facility nearby. I asked who was watching the place while they were drinking draft beer and pointing fake guns at people. One of them casually said “Ah the place can watch itself.”
We sat around and chatted it up with the crowd on the deck and I kept watching as these scantily clad women kept walking by the place. They all seemed to be heading in the same direction. Many of them walked very oddly like on their tippy toes. Finally I asked one of the would be security guys what the deal was with the chicks.
“Ahhh those ain’t chicks dude, those are dudes.”
“What?” I asked.
“Yeah they all are heading to this huge tranny bar down the street.”
“What do they all walk so funny for?”
And the other would be security guy says “You’d walk funny too if you had what they had duct taped up the inside of your rear end.” (That is not verbatim but as close as I will share in this forum.)
They went on to tell me it was not uncommon to see them beating some guy senseless with their high heels, presumably when their prospective date realized they were with a guy and not a girl. Funny thing about that is they realize they are angered about almost being intimate with a dude but then realize that they are also trying to get violent with a dude and get their head bashed in to boot in the process of the whole thing.
“Yeah them trannies can fight like hell” the other one said and they both agreed.
I parted company with the two security guys as the draft beer was taking effect, they were continuing to be rowdy with the fake gun and I wanted no part of that.
We played our first set and it went pretty well. Dennis Brooks, one of my dear friends who is no longer with us, was there and John Lowe and his wife Bev were there also. John, the master of the cigar box Lowebow, actually opened the show and it is always great anytime I can spend with them. We talked, shared some stories and laughs. As I was talking with them a guy came up wanting to buy two CD’s which is a rarity and wanted me to sign one of them for his friend.
As I was making it out he says “Make it out to Steven and write ‘Steven wish you were here.’” I asked who Steven was and he says “Steve Seagal.”
I asked “Like Steven Seagal the movie guy Steven Seagal?”
And he says “yeah Steven Seagal. We are friends.”
I did not know whether to believe him or not but I signed it nonetheless. This guy was a conversationalist and good at his art. I could see why people would like him. He said that a group of Japanese Akido experts came to Memphis once and gave some sort of seminar with Mr. Seagal. He said he asked them “say tell me how bad is he really?” and he said one of the Japanese Akido masters told him “in Japan no one wants to fight Steven Seagal.” I was impressed.
We went back to playing our second set and things went well. After it was over I made conversation with the doorman who I always like to befriend and make good with since they are the one handling the money at the door. Turns out this guy was a Nazi fanatic. I am not talking about like a skinhead, we did not get into any of that, but an actual purveyor of Nazi memorabilia. He gave me a verbal laundry list of the things he had from books to a chess set to a full fledged, authentic storm trooper uniform. He said his grandfather had been in the SS and he got it from him. I suddenly bit back the urge to tell him ‘oh yeah well my grandfather kicked your grandfather’s ass’ because I knew that it would come to no good. He told me he only lived a couple of blocks away if I wanted to see some of it. I started to feel like the opposite of that kid in the Stephen King novella “Apt Pupil”, where the kid hunts down the Nazi war criminal, in that I had inadvertently stumbled upon a Nazi, completely by accident, what luck I have.
It’s not luck really though, I somehow have this awesome super heroic power, I can melt clouds too, of finding the nut in the room in less than 2 hours everywhere I play live. I can never figure out how I could turn this super human power into an actual power but I definitely have it. Last show for example this guy kept pestering me and before he left he extended his hand and exposed a spent .45 round saying “Colt Long Boy!” The crazies abound when I hit the stage. Happens all the time or at least enough I would make note of it.
I excused myself from Her Doorman and went back to the third and last set. I told Keith, my harmonica player, and he said “I kind of figured him to be a dodgy character.” Keith was British and so it seemed here we were again, a Brit and an American with our backs to the wall against the Nazis, quite fitting I think.
We played our set and began packing up. It was then I started to inquire with the bartender about our money for the night and, not to be surprised, he started his shit
“Well dude we really did not do so well at the door and like I don’t have any money for you.”
I was livid but experienced in these matters. Giving pause I collected my thoughts and remained calm.
“Man we have been playing for 3 hours and need our money.”
He was paused and walked to the back. I stood there at the bar acting composed but a tempest was brewing inside. I knew not show out too much because 201 Poplar, the infamous downtown lock up, loomed along the horizon but I was not leaving that place without some money. I suspected this was merely ritual, as it is many times, kind of like a cold sale over the phone, if it works at first there is no more negotiation and the loser bartender and the Nazi doorman split up the door and we drive down 61 mad as hell towards Clarksdale.
He came back and this time with this “look dude I can scrape up $50 dollars but that is about all I can do.”
I could feel my jaws clench and then my head jerk back and forth.
“Man take your ass out in that parking lot and look at what I am driving. I am on tour and have three other dates to make. I need gas money and I have to eat. How you gonna do that? I ain’t leaving until you cough up the money I talked about with John.”
John of course was the other loser bartender who I booked the show over the phone with and was conveniently not present.
“John ain’t here man for me to like ask him” was the response which I fully expected. I stood there and crossed my arms. I am not that menacing but I summoned what bit I had.
He went in the back again, this time I was not going to be surprised if he came back out with a ball bat or something heavy, and then came back.
“Look man I will give you $90 bucks but that is all.”
I took the money from his hand and said “be the last time I play this place again.” And it was, I have never brightened the door of that dank place again and do not plan to.
He kind of smirked and I suspect he still probably made at least $50 bucks over on me so he probably got a little extra cash, but at least we had enough to fill the truck and put some food in our belly. Oh well.

As we were pulling away the two security guys were stumbling drunk and talking with the police who seemed interested in their play gun. The trannies were still going up and down the street with their tippy toe walk and and the Nazi probably got to order a Hitler youth pocket knife from off his share they stole off us from the door. You live and you learn.
All this happened to me one night in Memphis Tennessee.

Negative Energy is magnetic

A friend of mine, I say friend but he was so much more to me, more like mentor, told me once, after I explained a bothersome situation I was having with another musician, something that I will never forget and try to share with others. He said this “go towards the positive energy.”
Now the person we were discussing was not in any way a negative individual, like I am about to talk about, but these kernels of wisdom were not pearls to swine. I live by them to this day and have heard similar sentiments used in talking with people I consider successful.
You have to X negative people out of your life if you are going to get anywhere making anything work. Negative energy is not infectious it is a black hole that sucks effort and anything allowed near it right into non-existence. The best move is to get as far away from it as possible.
What do I mean?
Let me give you an example and how far I incorporate this practice in my life.
I got a new twitter follower, “whoopie big deal” you might say. I then, out of curiosity, read some of their older twits. They teetered along these lines “my life sucks. You suck. This whole existence is just a waste of time. But I am a BadA##.” That kind of bravado which seethes with “I have no confidence but I act this way to shield the world from the fact that I am scared.”
I blocked them immediately.
Hemingway once called a skill all writers must have as a “built in s&^% detector” and Pappa was right on that one. Except he was referring to his own work and words which crept into his work that was not authentic and rang dull or not fitting. This can be analogous to your interaction with people. Keep your village strong and those around you positive.
Some sure signs are people who are constantly complaining, or constantly telling you why something will not work, or why too much work is required to do anything.
Stay far away. Be polite but run from them like they were a leper.
As a musician or anyone trying to accomplish anything you have your work cut out for you. It is so much easier to sit in a recliner and tell the world how bad a quarterback is doing than it is to actually, suit up, get your butt on a field and do the real work of running an offense.
These types of people will pull you down with them because misery loves to not be alone.
Do not let them into your life. If they are not with you they are unknowingly, or possibly knowingly, against you. They might not know any better but with the work and struggle you are about to engage in or already are engaging in they have no place but far away in the grandstands or at home on the recliner bitching because life was not delivered to them like a pizza.
Your path is different and Dominoes is not going to get you there.
Keep your circle strong!
Elam McKnight

Songwriter be ware

The title of this entry includes be ware not because I want to warn you of anything only in so much as for you to take ware of some of the things I am going to disseminate, starting, now!

Songwriting is a beautiful endeavor which you cannot practice and refine enough. The entire industry and art form of making music is driven by this skill and always will be. With that I begin with the newbie artist or the “amateur songwriter” or the “aspiring songwriter.”

I have listened to a great deal of bad songs in my time and I have written a great deal of bad songs in my time, I mean stinkers, and will probably write some more which are stinkers, but sometimes I am capable of escaping that and writing a thing worth listening to.

I have come into contact with some really terrible attempts at songwriting, either lyrically, musically, or all of it just combined into a jumbled up mess the prospective artist is trying to pass off as something it is most assuredly is not. Also someone, many times, might have made the mistake of telling them that the song had merit, or they were talented, or whatever, so they feel vindicated with the Intel that some attendee at the local open mic night told them they were good. In these scenarios the prospective artist, songwriter, singer songwriter or whatever, is not too willing to listen to critique or advice, because, after all, Joe Schmo nobody has validated their level of talent. I liken it to a major league hopeful being content to play in a local softball league. If your goal is bat some balls around, run the bases, and have fun, by all means that is what it is there for, but if your ultimate goal is to attempt this “thing” at some other level, then you have to ply your craft and that involves work, a great deal of it. I am not trying to be a soul crusher here but the name of the game is time applied to your craft, without it, generally one is doomed to failure or, at best, a life of mediocre songs.
I will list some things which I would consider important, some can be applied to songwriting and others could easily be branched out and applied to other skill sets necessary to become successful but by all means this list is not all inclusive.
1) Listen to yourself. Whether it is on a tape deck, digital recorder, or your laptop, listen, listen, listen.

The importance is that you have to become comfortable with your voice, your overall sound, and the things you are performing. It is a frame of reference which is an undeniable tool to getting stronger performances and material.

2) Listen to others. I have heard a couple of people actually slag on the Beatles in the last couple of months. I am not sure what they were smoking or if it was legal, or they needed mental health services, I just don’t know, but they sounded stupid doing it.
Beatles are a touchstone of songwriting which is equaled often but never bettered.
The craft they use in their lyrics, their chord structure, harmonies, just all of it, is a thing of beauty and a skill level which should always be aspired towards. There is a list of many others, here, who should always be studied, and again this list is not inclusive, just some folks who I know to be artists of the most royal caliber.

3) Flattery is the best copying.
Copying someone’s writing style, verbatim, is always a good place to start. I do not mean covering their material. You should always start their as a beginner, but when you decide to begin writing your own songs, it never hurts to take a song which you admire or love and say to yourself “I am going to write a song in this style, with my own words, maybe transpose the key, and have a go at it.” This can make for a remarkable result and sometimes something magical can happen.
Regardless of the outcome when you are using great songs or songs you love as a jumping off point you are first, basing yourself in surefire greatness, and second, you are coming from a place of true love, which is always a good thing.

4) Cut and Paste. I call this cut and paste and it stems also from number 3. Many artists hear songs from other artists and take sections or start writing something to emulate the song or are just doing it to be funny as a spoof during rehearsal and it ends up morphing into something. Sometimes something great.
I have heard others say “the chorus on this one is like so and so” which means they were influenced by it. This is by no means stealing but showing your influence in your art. Most of American music is based in this tradition and that is its beauty of taking things, many disparate, and making them something new. Just consider blues and then think of how many bands can claim that as a starting point or a reference point.

5) Have fun with it, Dang it!
If this is never fun to you, the experience of making music, then I always think a person has like three choices which should be considered: 1) Keep plugging and don’t quit. 2) Move to something else until the desire comes back 3) Quit.