"I stumbled onto your Web site, and I've been listening to your music. How did you learn to write songs? Why do you write songs?" -- C.W., Santa Monica, Calif.
How did I learn to write songs? I never learned how to write a song. I don't know how to write a song. I would never buy a book entitled "How to Write a Song."
Why do I write songs? Some people keep a diary. Some people write in a journal. Some people keep meticulous photo albums, chronicling important moments, times, places and people.
I write songs.
If it moves me deeply, it will show up in a song. If it opens my heart, it will show up in a song. If it compels me in paradox, if it makes me tremble with humility and gratitude, if it mobilizes outrage or contempt, it will become a song. If I fall in love with you, if I despise you, if you bless me, if you hurt me badly enough, don't be surprised if you end up in a song.
If it makes me hope, makes me ache, makes me cry, then I hand it to heaven, where it ricochets off eternity and pours itself into my Guild six-string acoustic guitar named Shadow. Then it pours back out into the world.
Shadow has more than once saved my sanity. Maybe even my life.
I write songs to know myself better.
Here's a paradox that blows my mind: Real art is, for the true artist, an act of the purest selfishness, which, because it is pure selfishness, moves out into the world as extravagant generosity.
Selfishness? Yes. A true artist is never first a performer. He/she doesn't do it for us. The artist is lost in self. For self. Obedient to a voice that cannot be ignored or denied. Art is near hedonism. A naked reveling. It includes suffering, yes, but even the agony is more a masochistic pleasure.
Generosity? Yes. The artist's brazen and shameless desire to dig so deeply into self produces art that forces us to dig more deeply. To see ourselves more transparently. Art is a cosmic mirror.
Deciding to listen to my music is deciding to see me naked. Though you won't know that while you're listening. If my art moves you, then you will see yourself naked. And that's always a good thing. People come to an artist's art as a voyeur. But what they spy on, in the end, is themselves.
Does that make me an exhibitionist? I can live with that. It's a fair cop.
I've written 109 songs. The first one (1979) was about telling a woman goodbye. The last one was about telling a woman I could no longer deny she would never entirely be willing to say hello. But it's song No. 92 that probably would tell you the most about why I write songs.
My heroes have always been naked/ Warm in the clothes of their transparent identity/ Maybe we all should be naked/ With nothing to hide there's no need to pretend not to see
But shame is the name of the master who must be obeyed/ And after a while we learn to like being a slave
The naked man/ He takes a stand/ He lets the people see/ We point and laugh/ We're taken back/ But freedom lives in authenticity.
Like a lot of songs, it works on several levels at once. On the most personal level, it's about my passion to live authentically. I don't always get there, but I respect myself when I try.
On another level, it's about my admiration of people who do live "nakedly." Was John Lennon a card-carrying narcissist? Well of course. But I get why he posed naked with Yoko on the album cover of "Two Virgins." He was trying to crawl out from under the deadly weight of Beatlemania, a fame he sought, created and then rightly abhorred.
And later, I was surprised to discover it's a song about my spirituality. It's a song about Jesus.
My heroes are those who live naked/ The man that you meet still the man who is there when you leave/ But brave are the ones who live naked/ Most people are hiding and naked is their enemy
Naked is a mirror in which there is no choice but to see/ So we break the mirror and then blame it for making us bleed
The naked man/ He takes a stand/ He lets the people see/ His naked fate/ Humiliate/ What people hate is authenticity.
Originally published in View News, Dec. 2, 2008.