If you’ve read a few of my other MusicMoment posts, you know that I love story songs. You know, where the lyrics meld with the music to tell a story. Most songs are about conveying a feeling, an emotion, or setting a mood, which is fine, but I guess it’s the storyteller in me that likes the lyrics to take me on a journey.
“Year of the Cat” is one of those songs. Originally released by Al Stewart in 1976, this song immediately captured my attention. The arrangement begins slow and dreamy, then gently leads into the lyrics.
I think one of the reasons, or perhaps the main reason, the lyrics strike a chord with me is because they remind me of one of my favorite movies, Casablanca. The setting for the song feels like it takes place in someplace like Morocco or Tunisia. I always picture white buildings with brightly painted doors and stalls lining the narrow streets. It also helps that the lyrics actually reference Bogart and Lorre, who both starred in the movie.
The basic story is a man, a tourist, who gets lost in this strange city and meets a beautiful local woman who whisks him away on an adventure. He falls in love with her knowing that he can’t stay forever, but despite that, he plans to make the most of the time they spend together.
Lyrically, Stewart has a poetic flair. His descriptions of the setting, the woman, the way the man feels as this person leads him through the mystical nightlife and back alleys of the city, all weave together to beautifully. Even without the music, the lyrics stand up quite nicely on their own.
Musically, the song is a great mix of soft acoustics and, later, a driving guitar solo. But even though the song slowly builds to a crescendo, it quickly returns to a soft flow on the notes of a saxophone.
I’ve included the lyrics here and a link to the song below. I hope you give it a listen and find it just a magical, and mysterious, as I do. For what it’s worth, this song gives me chills every time I listen to it.
On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime
She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolor in the rain
Don’t bother asking for explanations
She’ll just tell you that she came
In the year of the cat
She doesn’t give you time for questions
As she locks up your arm in hers
And you follow ’till your sense of which direction
By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls
There’s a hidden door she leads you to
These days, she says, I feel my life
Just like a river running through
The year of the cat
While she looks at you so cooly
And her eyes shine like the moon in the sea
She comes in incense and patchouli
So you take her, to find what’s waiting inside
The year of the cat
Well morning comes and you’re still with her
And the bus and the tourists are gone
And you’ve thrown away your choice you’ve lost your ticket
So you have to stay on
But the drum-beat strains of the night remain
In the rhythm of the newborn day
You know sometime you’re bound to leave her
But for now you’re going to stay
In the year of the cat
Note: YouTube is being finicky with the embedding permissions, so you may have to watch the video on YouTube.
“Commitment to the most worthy purpose is of little value if we lack confidence in our ability to realize it.”
– Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs
I’ve been reading the aforementioned book the past few days, and this line stuck out to me. I read it several times because it resonated and made me think about my commitment to writing fiction.
I think one thing that many writers struggle with is confidence. Not just with themselves and their ability to tell a good story, but also confidence in the stories themselves, the characters we create, the plots and dialogue. There’s always that little voice in the back of our heads whispering, “Are you sure?”.
I’ve been writing a long time, probably close to forty years. I’ve written a lot of stories, some good and some bad, but regardless of the outcomes I continue to do it. Out of, say, one-hundred stories, maybe twenty or thirty were what I would consider good. The rest, well, I’ve categorized them as practice pieces.
And yet, I still doubt myself and my abilities. Why? Hard to say for sure, but there are arguably several reasons. First and foremost, I didn’t get much support for my writing until I was in my late twenties. Mostly I was told it was a cute hobby and that I should focus on something real so I can set my sights on a ‘real’ job. Either that, or my creative output was ignored.
Despite that lack of support, I continued to write. Doubt was always there, looking over my shoulder, whispering in my ear, but I persevered. The stories and poems were in my head, and I transferred them to the page. Even when I felt no one cared and that I was writing in a vacuum, I kept at it.
Why? Because I was committed to it. I love to write, I love to tell stories, to paint pictures with words. The thing that helped the most was when I decided that I was going to write for myself. What I mean is, I decided to stop worrying about what others thought, or if they even cared, and wrote things that I wanted to read.
That the reason my stories cross genres. My reading preferences are all over the place – fiction, non-fiction, weird fiction, speculative, horror, fantasy, cyberpunk, literary, historical – and in turn that influences my writing.
Once I realized I didn’t have to receive acknowledgement from others I found a new sense of freedom in writing. I became more confident. Sure, there’s still that whisper in my ear, but now I ignore it, swat it away and focus on the page in front of me.
It doesn’t matter where you are with your creativity. Doesn’t matter if you’re a writer, a painter, a songwriter. We’re all going to doubt ourselves, some more than others, but we can’t let it stop us. We have to stay committed, focused, and continue to do what we love. That’s all that matters. Doing something you love.
When you think about giving up, tossing your laptop in the trash, going back to binge-watching something on television, remember this: you don’t have to listen to that negative voice in your head. You have one lifetime, a handful of decades, to enjoy yourself, so why not do the things you love? Be creative, be silly, experiment, try new things.
Don’t let doubt stop you from expressing yourself. Be committed to your creativity.
One of my favorite singer/songwriters is Neil Young. He first came to prominence in the late 1960s as a member of Buffalo Springfield. Later, in between releasing solo albums, he also was an on again/off again member of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.
While his efforts with other musicians has always been fantastic, he really shines in his solo work. Particularly, his 1970 album After the Gold Rush. It’s not a rock album, but more of a country and folk record. Mellow, low-key, and perfect for lazy Sunday mornings.
My favorite cut on the album is the title track. It’s soft, dreamy, and wistful, yet at the same time it’s heartbreaking. Neil sings at the higher-end of his vocal range, which adds an almost childlike quality to the song.
The funny thing is, while the lyrics are incredibly moving, they really don’t make a lot of sense. In fact, when the song way covered by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt for their album, Trio, Dolly called Neil to ask what the song was about.
Neil’s response? According to Emmylou, he said: ‘Hell, I don’t know. I just wrote it. It just depends on what I was taking at the time. I guess every verse has something different I’d taken.’
Regardless, I think the lyrics paint a melancholy and beautiful picture.
Well I dreamed I saw the knights in armor coming Sayin’ something about a queen There were peasants singing and drummers drumming And the archer split the tree
There was a fanfare blowing to the sun There was floating on the breeze
Look at Mother Nature on the run In the twentieth century Look at Mother Nature on the run In the twentieth century
I was lying in a burned out basement With the full moon in my eyes I was hoping for replacement When the sun burst through the sky
There was a band playing in my head And I felt like getting high
I was thinking about what a friend had said I was hoping it was a lie Thinking about what a friend had said I was hoping it was a lie
I dreamed I saw the silver spaceships flying In the yellow haze of the sun There were children crying and colors flying All around the chosen ones
All in a dream, all in a dream The loading had begun
Flying Mother Nature’s silver seed To a new home in the sun Flying Mother Nature’s silver seed To a new home
Lyrics by Neil Young
And to give you a taste of just how lovely the song is, here are two versions. The first is by Neil, the second is the cover version by Dolly, Emmylou, and Linda. Honestly, I can’t say which is better. Both are haunting, beautiful, and stick with me long after the last note fades away.
I know that Bob Dylan isn’t for everyone, but he’s one of my favorite songwriters. With a career spanning sixty years, he’s made an indelible mark on the music industry. His creativity and originality have also been an inspiration for me. I can’t remember the first time I heard one of his songs, but for what it’s worth, it feels like he’s been part of the soundtrack to my life since the beginning.
And without a doubt, my favorite song of his is “Tangled Up in Blue”. It’s what a consider a ‘story song’, meaning, the words read like a lyrical short story. If you aren’t familiar with it, it tells the story of two lovers who end up finding each other even after years apart. They seem to know they aren’t right for one another, yet fate continues to cross their paths. For what it’s worth, I always assumed the woman’s name is “Blue” and the narrator is so tangled up in her that he can’t ever escape. Here are the lyrics as originally recorded:
Tangled Up In Blue
Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’
I was layin’ in bed
Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red
Her folks they said our lives together
Sure was gonna be rough
They never did like Mama’s homemade dress
Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough
And I was standin’ on the side of the road
Rain fallin’ on my shoes
Heading out for the East Coast
Lord knows I’ve paid some dues gettin’ through
Tangled up in blueShe was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess
But I used a little too much force
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin’ away
I heard her say over my shoulder
“We’ll meet again someday on the avenue”
Tangled up in blue
I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell
So I drifted down to New Orleans
Where I happened to be employed
Workin’ for a while on a fishin’ boat
Right outside of Delacroix
But all the while I was alone
The past was close behind
I seen a lot of women
But she never escaped my mind, and I just grew
Tangled up in blue
She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer
I just kept lookin’ at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear
And later on as the crowd thinned out
I’s just about to do the same
She was standing there in back of my chair
Said to me, “Don’t I know your name?”
I muttered somethin’ underneath my breath
She studied the lines on my face
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe
Tangled up in blue
She lit a burner on the stove
And offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said
“You look like the silent type”
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
Tangled up in blue
I lived with them on Montague Street
In a basement down the stairs
There was music in the cafés at night
And revolution in the air
Then he started into dealing with slaves
And something inside of him died
She had to sell everything she owned
And froze up inside
And when finally the bottom fell out
I became withdrawn
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew
Tangled up in blue
So now I’m goin’ back again
I got to get to her somehow
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives
But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue
The original version of the song appeared on the 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks, and it’s been a mainstay of Dylan’s live shows ever since.
What I find interesting, however, is that Dylan never sings it the same way. Every time he plays it live, he changes the lyrics, sometimes adding additional verses, maybe cutting a few, and sometimes almost completely reworking them. An artist’s prerogative, I suppose, but I also think it does that to keep the song fresh and new. Unfortunately, I’ve never had a chance to see him play live, but at least there are live recordings.
Dylan’s lyrics are always sensational, sometimes cryptic, but they always paint a picture in my mind. If you’re interested, listen to the clip below. If you aren’t familiar with the song, I hope you enjoy it. It’s one that continues to inspire me even after countless listening sessions.
I’m sure you’ve heard of art therapy and music therapy. In fact, art has been used in therapy for over a century. Initially, it was used as a form of “moral therapy” for psychiatric patients, it’s evolved over time to something that can be utilized in a wide variety of situations, from helping Alzheimers patients with their memory issues to physical therapies where patients are relearning how to use their arms and hands.
But on a more personal level, I’ve found that art therapy, or creativity in general, can be therapeutic for everyday life.
Obviously, I’m not a mental health professional or physician, so take my words as simply personal experience and nothing more. I’m not suggesting you explore this in lieu of seeking professional help. Nowadays, it’s best to clarify before someone gets the wrong idea.
For me, creativity has always been mainstay in my life. From writing and drawing comic books as a kid to writing and self-publishing fiction as an adult, it’s been there for me as a way to express myself. However, it’s also been a sort of companion for me. Those long summers on my uncle’s dairy farm where I was the only kid for miles, my creativity and imagination kept me company. I created all sorts of adventures for myself as I wandered the hay fields and thick Wisconsin forests. That old gnarled tree stump became a troll. The wind whispering through the leaves were sirens trying to trick me into sailing my ship into the rocks. And that old abandon car helped me escape after I robbed the Bist Bank and Trust of all their pinecones.
Trust me, it all made sense when I was a child.
As I grew matured (which is questionable), so did my use of my creativity. The aliens and pirates moved onto the page and became stories, and along with that, so did my hopes and fears. As a teenager I found that writing was a way for me to work through my hormonal angst. I filled spiral notebooks full of poems about unrequited love, dreams of the future, and images from my dreams. I actually still have a few of those notebooks and occasionally take them out to thumb through. It’s interesting to look back and remember how I used to be and how I used to see the world.
Later, in late teens, I began to journal. That’s when I found the outlet I needed, the sympathetic ear, the judgement-free listener. Journaling kept me going through bad relationships, family drama, love and loss. Even now, I still write in my journal almost daily. Sometimes it’s just a page, sometimes it’s several. But regardless, I always walk away from the page feeling a little bit better.
Why is that? Because it’s a way to clear the clutter from the attic. Speaking for myself, it’s easy to get caught up in my own little world, to become self-absorbed and see things from only one perspective. Writing in my journal allows me to work things out, to explore my thoughts, my experiences, and to see them from another perspective. There have been many occasions where I was thinking along one track, only to realize after writing in my journal that I was wrong. And admitting I’m wrong on the page makes it a lot easier to admit it to myself.
Journaling isn’t the only creative therapy I participate in. I also cook. Every day. Most of it is survival cooking, meaning, I cook because it’s time for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner. We need sustenance. But I do like to explore the creative aspect of cooking. I like to try new recipes, or read about different ways to cook something, like a chicken, then come up with my own method.
I find that when I’m in the kitchen, watching something in the sautée pan while deciding what spices to use, the rest of the world falls away. I forget my problems and worries. I lose myself in the motion of manipulating the pan, the smells of garlic and onion, the endless possibilities. Because cooking requires thought, imagination, and attention, it’s a wonderful way for me to unwind in the evenings. Weekends, however, are my prime cooking time. A bottle of wine helps, too.
In my opinion, one of the biggest issues in the world today is mental health care. There’s just not enough of it and there’s often a stigma attached to people to seek it out. That’s why I think encouraging people to use their creativity as a form of therapy could be a partial solution. Just having a way to express ourselves can make a huge difference in how we manage our mental state.
Consider this: You have a terrible coworker or manager. They make your workdays difficult. They make you angry, anxious, frustrated, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Situations like this can take a toll on your mental and emotional state. Some people are lucky enough to have access to decent healthcare and can go see a professional to learn coping mechanisms and ways to deal with these people. Others aren’t so lucky. In fact, I’d wager that most people don’t have that kind of healthcare.
But if you have ‘one of those days’ and arrive home with your head spinning, you can decompress by doing something creative. You can write about it. A journal can be your best friend. Or maybe use fiction instead. Write a story about your nemesis getting their comeuppance. I’ve done that. Or you can immerse yourself in trying out a new recipe in the kitchen, something new and exotic. Or you can pull out some paint brushes and a canvas and lose yourself in a landscape or something abstract. If you’re feeling restless, then put on some music and dance your heart out. No one is watching, so let yourself go.
We all have issues we deal with, and some of us handle things better than others. There’s no shame in needing a release, a pressure valve for your head or your heart. Professional therapy is great, but it can also be expensive and far too many people don’t have easy access to it. Creative, however, really doesn’t cost much. A pen and a spiral notebook. A paintbrush, some paint, and something to paint on, like a piece of scrap wood or cardboard. Music and dancing are free.
No, it’s not going to be for everyone, but there’s no harm in trying something new, is there? The next time you’re having a bad day, you’re stressed out, angry, hurt, confused, try doing something creative. It’s not a perfect solution, but it might just be enough.
I’ll admit it – when I was a teenager I was a snob when it came to music. Not that I had any reason to be. I was into a mix of classic rock, psychedelic, progressive, and heavy metal. I listened to The Doors, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, Hendrix, Judas Priest, Scorpions, and Iron Maiden, to name just a few. Not necessarily a bad or strange mix, but it was purposely limited. I think it was some strange sort of teenage rebellion. And if it annoyed my father, all the better.
I didn’t understand jazz, and although I didn’t listen to the blues, I assumed all the songs were depressing. Classical was for old people, as was big band music and the crooners from the 1940s and 50s. Country was too…well, country, and I don’t think I even knew that bluegrass, Americana, and folk even existed.
But over time I began to branch out. A lot of this was due to meeting new people and discovering the local college radio station when I moved to Tallahassee. The station, V89, played (and still plays) an incredible variety of music and soundscapes. Additionally, they have weekly shows that focus on specific genres and eras of music. Saturday mornings are set aside for classic rock and in the afternoon you can catch the reggae show. Sunday mornings are blues, the afternoon is singer/songwriter, and in the evening, jazz.
They also have a world music show that caught my attention, and that’s really when things started to change for me. I mean, I’m familiar with music from other cultures, but only peripherally and usually as background or incidental music in movies and television programs. It’s music you hear, but don’t really pay attention to.
Recently, my eyes have been opened even wider by listening to a playlist on Apple Music titled “World Groove”. It’s an amazing mix of music from all over the globe – Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and South America – and it pulls from different time periods, as well. I’ll hear a 1960s pop song from Japan, followed by a modern dance song from Jamaica, which is then followed by a funky song from Turkey in the 1980s. It’s amazing.
This playlist has turned me on to so many amazing musicians, like Congolese artist Lumingu Puati.
And the Swedish/Turkish band Cafe Turk.
And Brazilian singer Ceu.
I hope you take a few minutes to check out these artists. I’ve found that broadening my musical horizons has been inspiring. These are musicians that I probably never would have heard if it weren’t for these radio programs and streaming playlists. Artists who have worked in relative obscurity – maybe known in their home countries, but unknown to the rest of the world – and it makes me smile to think they probably have no idea that some middle-aged guy in North Florida is dancing in his living room while listening to their music.
Do yourself a favor and push the boundaries on your usual musical choices. Like fiction, I don’t think it’s fair to limit ourselves to specific genres. Read everything, listen to everything, explore the world. You never know what you may find out there, what may inspire you, what may change your life. And be sure to dance.
Music has always been a big part of my life. In fact, I’d much rather listen to music than watch television or a movie. It’s background noise when I’m doing chores around the house or writing, it motivates me when I get up in the morning, and it lulls me to sleep at night. I don’t know what I’d do without it.
Recently, I decided to pick up the guitar again after far too many years away from it. Partly because I’ve missed it, but also because I’ve felt this urge to play and to create music. Back when I used to play fairly regularly, I was always learning songs that other people wrote. It was fun to learn something familiar that I could play to keep myself entertained, or to play for a couple of friends while we had drinks and conversation.
But lately I’ve had this urge to try my hand at writing my own song. I was sitting in the living room the last week with my guitar in my lap, mindlessly picking notes while something forgettable was on the television, when I realized I was playing something nice, fingerpicking a soft, melodic handful of notes. I grabbed my phone and recorded it so I wouldn’t forget it. I’ve had that issue with writing where I’m laying in bed at night and have a great idea but don’t write it down, then by morning it’s forgotten.
So now I have this bit of music and I want to do something with it. A couple of months back I recorded a podcast episode about making music and I had decided then that I wanted to explore this part of my creativity, but of course, other projects and responsibilities got in the way. But now, right now, seems like a good time to wander down that path. I plan for it to be instrumental – no lyrics – but I’ll see how it goes. I’m not sure if I want to add too many ingredients to the mix. I’m likening it to writing a story. It’s going to need a beginning, a middle, and an end.
I’m going into this as a complete amateur and I’m sure I’m going to bumble and stumble about trying to understand the nuances of the craft, but I’m excited to try it. I’m not expecting to write a hit, or anything very memorable, but that’s not the point. All I want to do is see if I can do it. It’s all about the creativity, right? And for what it’s worth, I’m not as concerned about the music I play as much as I am the editing portion. It looks like I’ll be getting a crash-course in splicing and editing and mixing over the next few weeks. And yes, I’ll share the final product regardless of how it turns out.
If anyone has any suggestions or advice, I’m open to all input.
As creators, we all dream of being considered professionals. But where is the line that separates the two? Is it definite or arbitrary? Or are these just labels that don’t mean anything? Join me as I look into what it takes to be a professional artist.
Why are horror and fear popular subjects in the art world? For centuries, we’ve continued to seek out ways to scare ourselves and we keep coming back for more. Join me as I explore the reasons behind our obsession with fear and how we explore it in our artistic output.
Maybe it’s just me, but there are certain songs that, when I hear the start to play, make me stop whatever I’m doing so I can listen. It’s like they have power over me, pulling me away from the present moment and whisking me away to another place for a few minutes.
There aren’t many that can do that to me. And one of the interesting things is that they aren’t necessary similar. Sure, there’s may be a little bit of crossover – genre, style, instrumentation – but for the most part they are unique.
So with that said, I thought it might be interesting to share a few of them with you and, maybe, broaden your horizons a bit. You may have heard of some of these artists and these songs, and if so, fantastic! And for what it’s worth, I was inspired by another blog I follow, View from the Back, where Sheree posts Song Lyric Sundays.
Today I’m sharing a song that never fails to give me chills, especially this version of it. The artist is Bruce Springsteen, a New Jersey native who came to prominence in the 1970s, hit an amazing peak in the late 70s/early 80s, and continues to release well-crafted and thought-provoking music.
Springsteen is now in his 70s and shows no signs of stopping, which is fine by me. His music, especially his lyrics, have been an inspiration to me since I was a kid listening with headphones as his vinyl albums spun on the turntable. He’s an amazing lyricist, capturing a unique perspective on the lives of blue-collar and downtrodden people. Not all his songs are bleak, though. He can slip between melancholy and upbeat with a snap of his fingers. Or a strum of his guitar.
The song in question is titled Thunder Road, and while it sounds like a rocker, it’s actually a thoughtful look at a young woman about to transition from child to adult from the perspective of a man who’s trying to convince her to join him as he tries to escape his current life. The album version is wonderful, but my favorite version is from a concert he did at the Odeon in London in 1975. It’s a slower, sparser arrangement that’s just about perfect.
Here’s the video, lyrics are posted below. Hope you enjoy this as much as I do.
The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again
I just can’t face myself alone again
Don’t run back inside, darling you know just what I’m here for
So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night
You ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright
Oh and that’s alright with me
You can hide ‘neath your covers and study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers, throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets
Well now I’m no hero, that’s understood
All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now
Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair
Well the night’s busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back, heaven’s waiting down on the tracks
Oh oh come take my hand
Riding out tonight to case the promised land
Oh oh oh oh Thunder Road, oh Thunder Road, oh Thunder Road
Lying out there like a killer in the sun
Hey I know it’s late, we can make it if we run
Oh oh oh oh Thunder Road, sit tight, take hold, Thunder Road
Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk
And my car’s out back if you’re ready to take that long walk
From your front porch to my front seat
The door’s open but the ride it ain’t free
And I know you’re lonely for words that I ain’t spoken
Tonight we’ll be free, all the promises will be broken
There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets
They scream your name at night in the street
Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet
And in the lonely cool before dawn
You hear their engines roaring on
But when you get to the porch they’re gone on the wind, so Mary climb in
It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win…