MUSIC AND FOOD
Many musicians are great cooks.
Writers make beautiful paintings.
Photographers play music.
Past all the particulars and the moving parts,
It’s really about seeking the connection between raw, disparate ideas,
And the audacity to try to make something
Knowing you might fail. But you do it anyway.
It’s like there’s a wheel moving beyond other wheels.
Get on one and you can reach many others.
That’s where the beauty is.
The fearless desire to dream
And the capacity to create
Knows no specific medium.
© 2015 Darden Smith
When I was seventeen years old, standing alone in the Texas Opry House in Houston, TX, drinking a beer off my brother’s ID (long story), listening to John Prine, I never dreamed that some 35 years later I would be standing in the St. Louis airport talking with him while we waited for our luggage.
I learned “Souvenirs” when I was fourteen, and still play it occasionally around the house on a Saturday morning.
As a teenager, I spent hours dissecting John’s songs, trying to figure out how you make a chorus like “Sam Stone” work, or a love song like “Angel From Montgomery” fall together. Where does that magic come from?
One time, in the late 80’s or early 90’s, on a night off in London, John found out where I was staying and for some reason called me up. We went to dinner or something (neither of us could remember exactly what we did, which is rather telling…). I’ve done shows with him over the years, joined in a scary song swap in his hotel room at some Canadian folk festival with James McMurtry, Sarah McLaughlin and a couple of other people (again, the details are sketchy…there’s a pattern here). Every now and again, I run into him in an airport. I always have to remind him of my name, which I find endearing and don’t take personal. If I was John Prine, I’d probably forget a few names as well. There must be so many. Always, without fail, he is gracious, a gentleman, and funny.
It’s a policy of mine to make sure, when possible, to tell the people who were my guides in songwriting what they did for me. Two days ago, standing there watching the bags go around the carousel, it was a pleasure to do just that.
Thanks again, John.
It’s a weekday morning, I’m 16, maybe 17 years old, listening to the radio, getting dressed for school. The radio is on, of course. Music is the constant of my world. KLOL, FM 101, the only station worth tuning into in Houston, TX in the late 70’s. Dylan’s ‘Simple Twist Of Fate’ comes on. I stop, mesmerized. Just the bass line is enough to pull me in. I sit there, dazed, on the edge of my bed, one shoe on, one shoe off, staring at the stereo. I listen, trying to figure the song out. I can’t. What’s he singing about? The song comes at me as if from another world, someplace hidden. And wherever it’s coming from, I want to go there.
I’d been writing songs since I was 10. Guy Clark, John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker records, those were my guides. Willie Nelson. Pretty straight ahead. Deep, good, the classic story telling line of thought. Folk songs. Country songs. I wasn’t into Townes yet. And here comes Dylan, knocking the legs out from under all that I knew, telling the story backwards, if at all. Starting at the end, then jumping to the beginning, the details filled in as if they’re an afterthought. I listened hard, thinking, how did he do that? How do I get what he has?
That moment was an invitation into the mystery. The song itself called out, “Follow me.” And from that day on I did, down into the swirl of words and melody, behind the dream curtain of song.
Charlie Haden died on July 11th. I’ll miss his presence on the planet.
Of all the jazz players out there, he was my favorite. There was something about his bass that drew me in. He taught me so much about music, about where a bass should sit in a song, the possibilities. Being unschooled in music, I’m fascinated by how the rhythms fit, what tones and notes go together, how they sit on your ear. When Charlie Haden played, the tones were right.
He was American, came from a rural upbringing in Missouri, grew up playing and singing country music with his family. Then polio took his singing voice and he directed all his music through the bass. Somehow (there’s probably a bio online that would explain the path) he wound up in Ornette Coleman’s band, playing the most out jazz there was at the time. He helped change the musical vocabulary of the era. He was there at the birth. In later years he came full circle, recording an album of folk and country songs with his family. In between is a vast catalog of music.
Charlie Haden has been with me for a long time, showed me so much. His Quartet West records taught me about LA in the 40’s and 50’s. Records with Pat Matheny, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and so many others shined a light on the possibilities for quiet sound. I own more of his albums than any other artist, after Duke Ellington and Miles. In my living will there’s a directive to play music from “Steal Away,” his collaboration with the pianist Hank Jones, at my funeral.
Over the years I heard him interviewed several times. He was plainspoken, and almost child-like in his directness, especially when talking about music. He was dedicated to his art, focused on his role in the world. He knew what he was supposed to do and he was getting on with it. But the one thing I hope to carry is his statement (and I summarize) that it’s the role of all of us to recognize beauty when we see it, to seek it out and celebrate it.
And so, this morning, as I sit in a hotel room in Washington, DC, I’m listening to Charlie Haden (“Nocturne”), letting the beauty wash over me.
With great gratitude, I celebrate the music and the life of Charlie Haden.
The songwriter Billy Kirsch and I were talking about our work a couple of months ago. What we came to was that in order to do our jobs well, to really be in the song we’re writing, recording or performing, we have to be present, alive, and paying attention.
For artists, job #1 is to wake up. In order to write a song, I first have to see the world. Only then do I have something to pull from, something to say. It’s not so different from other jobs. Whatever you do, being awake and bringing your whole self to the task is the route to your best work.
When I sit down to write a song, I pull inspiration from anywhere I can find it. Something seen while traveling, bits of conversation overheard in a coffee shop, the latest article or book I’ve read, a movie, anything, it’s all fair game. Basically, I throw a lasso around my life and use it in the song.
I bring myself to work.
I used to put up a wall between my work and my family. I kept the guitars in the studio, rarely played music in the house. I was afraid that I would overwhelm those around me, take all the oxygen out of the room. At some point, I did a U-turn, and started hanging guitars on the walls, kept one in every room in the house, put a piano in the kitchen. I let my kids see me working on songs, played guitar while they got ready for school in the morning. The result was that they began to know me, and I saw them differently as well. They would come sit in the living room while I played piano and do their homework. When I showed up, it opened doors for my family to do the same.
I brought myself home.
At work, at home, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, bring your whole self.
In a random meeting last night last night on 23rd street in New York City, (between 7th and 8th Avenue), I meet Eli Reed. He lives in Austin, but has traveled the world, seen more than most have twenty times over. Eli is a Magnum photographer. It’s a small, elite club. What are the odds that we know the same people? He’s an international photographer, been all around the world, and I’m a songwriter from Austin.
Random. No connection, right?
I was walking with my friend Nigel Grainge (from LA, via London; the man who introduced me to Boo Hewerdine), and saw these two guys walking, coming from the opposite direction. And yes, the thought did cross my mind, “You see some crazy looking people on the streets of New York.”
His friend John stopped us. We’d met in Austin previously. Introductions are made.
Within minutes, Eli and I found eight connections between us, stretching from Paris to Seattle, from the photo editor John Morris, who I met at an event in Paris, to photographers Michael O’Brien, Stacy Pearsall and Andy Dunaway. There were more.
The point isn’t that we happen to know some of the same people in the photography world. It’s that the lives of two people walking down 23rd street on a Friday night, who might on first look appear to be vastly different from one another, intersect many times over. And how easily it could have slipped by us, had Nigel and I had stayed a little longer in the restaurant, or walked south on 7th Avenue.
So many times we see someone and think, “I have nothing in common with that person.” We miss the connection, and it’s often because of snap judgments and secret prejudice. It’s the idea that we’re separate islands.
More and more, I’m seeing that it’s up to me to make sure that I’m not the one pulling down that curtain.
When I open up, I meet the best people. I mean, Eli Reed, on 23rd Street, NYC, on a Friday night. Really?