Week 379 // Into the Field

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The field is aglow
On the night before the rain
It’s a storm that always seems
To come this way
It blows this way
Always once a year

The tracks in the yard
All the way to the door
It’s a cold cold night
And I don’t live here no more
It’s a stranger’s home

So please follow me into the field
Look for me out in the storm
Watch as I crack like a limb from a tree
Darling, stand with me waiting for more

It’s the door around the back
With the fog in the glass
I’ll trace our initials there
And they’ll disappear too fast
They’ll disappear way too fast

My love, follow me into the field
Look for me out in the storm
Watch as I crack like a limb from a tree
Darling, stand with me waiting for more

Notes
I rarely ever listen back to my old songs anymore. If I did, I think I’d be struck by their open spaces, in deep contrast to the concrete and steel of my recent works. Even as I’ve drifted ever toward being far more of a folk musician than a rock musician, the work has become distinctly urban. That’s my life now, so it’s also my song.

Still, from time to time I visit old places in my words. New England often feels like a dream. As I round the bases in New York for the fifth time, I wonder about my sense of place. I feel a longing for, and alienation from my old home that I can’t shake, even as I understand my purpose in the place where I live, and count the many blessings my life here has granted me.

In this song, I float like a ghost outside my old home, looking for a an anchor to a place where I haven’t made my life for some time. I think I could have dug a bit deeper into these themes, and I suspect I will someday. Still the lilt and turn are authentic, and I like how this came out.

~M.E.

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Week 378 // A Midnight Song

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This is a midnight song
Every night I sing it to the cars passing by
Radio sings back to me while I shut my eyes
But sleep is not to visit for a long long time

This is an old refrain
Everyone has got a cross and this one’s mine
The rooftop signals stretch for miles and I lose time
And all the neighbors count their blessings

Won’t it please come back to me tonight
Can’t it please come back again

This is the floodlight moon
The two cut down last week for coming home too soon
The groceries scattered on the walk, what can I do
but lie awake at night next to you

This is a midnight song
Every night I sing it to the cars passing by
Radio sings back to me while I shut my eyes
And sleep is not to visit for a long long time

Won’t it please come back to me tonight
Can’t it please come back again

Notes
After last week’s umpteenth song about being kind of broke, I thought I’d follow up with another riff from my greatest hits by playing around for the umptieth time with the subject of my ever returning sleeplessness. However, “A Midnight Song” shortly took a turn I didn’t quite see coming. I began to ponder not merely my own sleeplessness, but the restlessness of my whole neighborhood following a brutal crime that took place not far away at all last week.

I live in a neighborhood filled with with families and seniors. The typical mild crime that takes place in the area seems to be drug related, which means that most of my neighbors don’t have much to fear from it. It doesn’t involve them. That line was crossed last week, when an attempted robbery turned deadly. There is a sense of sorrow and nervousness in the air that you can chew on.

I often lie awake late at night, peering out my window at the few lights that remain on in the apartments across the way. Those lights represent the others like me; the others who, for their own reasons, can’t settle their minds to find the rest they’ve earned. I’m not sure if it’s my imagination, but these past few nights, more windows seem to be lit up. We’re still trying to settle down again.

~M.E.

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Week 377 // Quite Large, Viewed from a Distance

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The ride is too long
But it gets me uptown
Pass the time to the rant of a seer
An evangelist getting around
And the end might be nigh
And our sins might consume us
And I’ll catch the rest soon enough

I got a pocket of change
Plenty more where that came from
Rub two dimes together
Check me out darling
No telling now what I’ll become
And the beggars can wait
And the tax man can wait
We’ll be staying out later than we should

On the way to the pawn shop
Not all that long ago
Making bets on the price of my banjo
And counting how far I think it might go
Just a mile or two
Or a decade or two
Or New York City with you

Notes
I have spent a lot of time broke. I’m not proud of it, but it’s a fact of my history that is evident to anyone who has paid attention to any sustained run of these songs. I sing about being down on my luck a lot, and it’s not some intellectual exercise in empathy. I really did pawn a banjo for rent money one time. And a keyboard. And a bass. And a bunch of other stuff. I’ve also had a ton of help over the years, so when I’m singing about being broke, it’s important to note that I’m not really singing about being poor. I’ve never faced the existential threat of poverty. After all, I had a banjo to pawn in the first place. And a bass. And a keyboard. And a whole bunch of other stuff.

Still, it’s a relief to ride around beneath New York with the best paycheck I’ve had in a little while. I don’t mean to be a braggart. I haven’t got enough to brag. It’s just that this isn’t a fun place to be broke. Walking out the door exacts a fee, and it isn’t small. It causes one to view the city from a distance, even from within. Look, but don’t touch New York. Hold your breath until you get home. You made it home, just don’t check your balance. You’re not tired? Go to bed early anyway. It’s for your own good.

This growly waltz is a song I’ve written a bunch of times, or close to it. I like this version. It’s pretty honest.

~M.E.

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Week 376 // A Tether

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Trailing behind me
A gossamer string
If ever I must find my way back
It’s waiting for me

Wherever I must go
What monsters wait for me
What horror lurks below
I’m counting on that string
to lead me through the danger
To guide me past the strangers back to you
To safety

The night is a strange thing
The mind walks alone
The trap in an innocent dream
The edges aglow

Wherever I must go
What monsters wait for me
What horror lurks below
I’m counting on that string
to lead me through the danger
To guide me past the strangers back to you
To safety

Notes
My friend David had a marvelous jam session for his birthday party. I’m not accustomed to playing much music in groups any more, so it was great fun to break out of the typical solitude of Mount Everest for an afternoon. For the occasion, I took my antique mandolin out of its case for the first time in a couple of years. It is a splendid old axe that was given to me by my Dad many years ago. It can’t be said to be in perfect condition, with cracked enamel, and a pick guard that broke five or six years back. Still, its intonation is rock solid. Its neck is straight, and it plays much like new. If you are a long-time listener, you might have heard it before, but you would have to ponder back to the early days. When I came home, I didn’t put the mandolin away. I decided to make up a new song first.

My wife will confirm that I am often an anxious man. I am wracked with worry late at night, and I am often disturbed from sleep by fitful dreams. This little mandolin tune is about the tether that I can follow back to a feeling of security and calm. It is for Rebecca.

~M.E.

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Week 375 // Shadow

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I chase my shadow
Into the new year
Where does it go?

Lost in the gaps
Between streetlights
On my way home

If I’m like a shadow
And I can loom larger
Why should I be small?

I’m like a guest
In the vapor
Do I belong?

I’m company kept
By a phantom
Follow along

And I will be long
Every afternoon
Limb like a spear

And I’ll seem to disappear
On cloudy days
But I will be here

If I’m like a shadow
And I can loom larger
Why should I be small?

So I’ll cast on the sidewalk
I’ll stretch across acres
I’ll cover it all

If I’m like a shadow
If I’m like a shadow

Notes
Yesterday, I sat down to write this song, and it spilled out of me in no time at all. When I had finished, I didn’t much care for what I had made. I felt that I had aimlessly reached for a metaphor, and failed to grasp it. What was I saying by comparing myself to a shadow? I alluded to their amorphous and phantom-like qualities. I drew out a conclusion about casting myself larger than I am, but what did I mean by that? Nonetheless, the song was complete, so I decided that I would attempt to rectify the seemingly shallow metaphor by improving it in a future effort.

Today I sat down with the recording, and I heard a song that I like. I may not have reached the depths of my lyrical potential, but I like the way the words play against the melody. I like the clarity of the vocal performance. I like the driving rhythm guitar. I like the hanging chords and choppy hits. It’s a fun song to listen to. These songs aren’t required to get to the bottom of something. They don’t all need to feel urgent or important. This project is about collecting valuable lessons about songwriting and creative practice, and this song contributed to that aim. I’m satisfied.

~M.E.

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Week 374 // All We Long to Know

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Hours pass
Where do they go?
Everyone I know is packing up their things
And heading nowhere

Foolish grin
Look to the sky
Everyone is pushing childish things aside
With good intentions
Stocking up the shelves
It’s true the wind can change at any second

So hold my hand a little longer
Help me onto my feet
Call the fear a distraction
‘Cause it is

Oh love of mine
What can you see?
By the light of morning
We will soon discern the shape before us
Everyone’s a goner, darling, even us
We won’t escape it

So hold my hand a little tighter
Help me back to my feet
Call my fear just a distraction
‘Cause it is

All we long to know
All we long to know

Notes
I have been working up to finishing this song for over a month. The guitar part first occurred to me in early December, during a trip with my wife to visit family in California. Sometimes when I discover a guitar lick or a melody that I like, I don’t have the guts to write the song right away. A byproduct of this project is that many songs don’t get the attention I might like to give them. Time constraints or other circumstances intervene. I’m constantly afraid that a potential gem will come into the world as a rushed, middling effort. So I put it off until a day when I can’t summon another idea to run with instead, and I hope against hope that I don’t mess up a good idea. I think I did alright by this one.

This song is another snapshot of my age. It is watching the the days pass like scenery out a car window. It is fear of change and mortality. It is the itch of ignorance of the future. It is waking up with equal parts trepidation and curiosity. It is asking for help making sense of it all, and getting the help you need.

~M.E.

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Week 373 // Trial and Error

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It’s a picture
Of a child
Did you know him?

Kid, you you can’t stand
At the edges
Of a landslide
It’ll get you there

In the morning
Letting go of it
In the evening
I will be there
And I can’t predict
Who survives

It’s a shadow
In the streetlight
That you recognize

Hey you can’t react
To the slightest
Provocation
“Cause you’re better than that

In the morning
Letting go of it
In the evening
I will be here
And I can’t predict
Who survives

Oh to be old and kind
Oh to be old and still kind

Notes
Old photographs never stop getting older. Every time I see myself as a child, the image seems a little bit more like somebody foreign to me. Over the years, I have appreciated that a lot of personal growth comes from the strength of our will to change. We experience a pitfall or face a challenge, and we adjust something small about our way of approaching the world. Over time, those adjustments become habits. After a while, a habit might become part of our character. It is hard to judge the success or failure of these calibrations with eyes on the present. That’s why old photographs can be jarring. The aggregated changes we’ve undergone can stand in contrast to an earlier state of being. By seeing who we were, we get a glimpse of who we’ve become, and can reflect on who we’d like to be. Then we adjust again, however subtly. It is a process of trial and error. Taking stock of this process, I wrote this song.

~M.E.

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Week 372 // End Cycle (3)

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Allow the wind to turn this page
I’ve been nothing if not misunderstood
The sting on my tongue of the words I say
I’d have turned it myself if I could
I’ve been stumbling over and turning around
I’ve been nothing if not misunderstood

Out the window and over the lake
I’ve been nothing if not carried away
The past is a string of words we make
Cast ourselves in the stories we say
We’ve been heroes and villains and all manner of ghosts
I’ve been nothing if not carried away

And the key to it is
The illusion of the passage of time
As we’re mending and breaking
And meddling and then
If we pause even once
The illusion will unwind
So we’re stumbling and turning
And stumbling and turning again

Alone in a moment to myself
I am nothing if not grateful to you
I’ll place me there upon your shelf
I’m a music box playing your tune
And you’ll come home to find me wound up and you’ll know
I am nothing if not grateful to you

And the key to it is
The illusion of the passage of time
As we’re mending and breaking
And meddling and then
If we pause even once
The illusion will unwind
So we’re stumbling and turning
And stumbling and turning again

Notes
Happy New Year! 2017 is done, and all that remains to do is to post my final pondering on the year that was. Most people agree that the older you get, the faster time seems to slip and slide away. It’s a phenomenon of perception that I have observed since I was very young, but this was the year that time finally threw itself into high gear. This song is about trying to keep up with a blink-and-miss-it calendar year, and beginning to understand that life is merely a collection of moments and decisions that tend to fly from our fingers like loose papers in the wind.

Like many of my songs, the resolution to the central anxiety presented here is our beautiful mutual reliance upon the meaningful connections we make with other people. The people in your life are quite certainly all there is. I hope you marked the arrival of 2018 in good cheer, in the company of beloved family or friends. I hope you return to them in the months and years to come. I hope you tell them that they are everything.

~M.E.

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Week 371 // End Cycle (2)

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Say your lines
As they’re written
Take your time
By the book
Leave the house
Strung together
Stay out for a while

Every time
Back to zero
Start again
Every time
Always

Break your plans
Lose the morning
Take your time
If you like
Call your friends
Start the countdown
Go out for a while

Every time
Strung together
By the book
Every time
Always

Lose my page
Starting over
Lost my count

Close your eyes
Count to ten
Forget where you’ve been
Count down from ten

Notes
Merry Christmas! Every year I wonder if I’ll finally get around to writing a holiday song. People ask me all the time if I’ve got one in the works. Since I post on Mondays, and Christmas falls on that day this year, I thought that perhaps it was finally time. It turns out that it isn’t. Contributing to such a well worn genre seems daunting. How would I say something new? Should I say something new? Maybe I don’t have it in me. Maybe next year.

Instead, I’m continuing the year-end reflection that I began a week ago. This song shifts focus from the year at large to the year in my head. It was a year of circular thought and action, of beginning and beginning again. I’m ending out the year with true momentum, with a great new job offer, and an optimistic trajectory. The song doesn’t really reflect that, because I wrote it last week, just before it happened. It seems I will be making a clean break with 2017.

For my final thoughts on the year that was, come back on New Year’s Day. In the mean time, enjoy the holiday season with friends and loved ones, and keep each other warm on these cold winter nights.

~M.E.

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Week 370 // End Cycle (1)

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Shake the camera’s aim
From the perfect lie
Gone the sting of first losing
Gone the ache of past omens
If only in the rain

All the seasons change
All intentions falter
Best resolve is yours
Fight for it
Oldest trick in the book
Don’t fall for it
The very last of your kind
Stand for us
If only in the rain

Don’t them out of your sight
Don’t them out of your sight
Can’t let ’em out of your sight

Even in the rain
Even in the rain

Notes
As 2016 drew to a close, I allowed myself a ponderous three-part song series call “Long Year” to parse the strangeness of inhabiting such a tumultuous and emotionally taxing period. I had succumbed to an election-year fury that had rendered me pale in the face from near-objectless rage. Trump was too big a concept to rail against. I felt that the culture had died in 2016.

That year was exhausting, but the fatigue it rendered now seems almost quaint in comparison to the collective trauma with which our society attempts to grapple. I know few people who would accuse me of hyperbole on this matter. Whether we are feeling death throes or birth pangs, it is clear that we are a people (or a set of peoples) in transition. We feel a creeping sense of alienation and otherness when we look upon our neighbors. This is by design. We live under a regime that benefits from division and seeks to draw contentious distinctions between as many groups as possible. Sometimes the sting of it is acute, and other times the ache makes us numb. Sometimes my anger empowers me, and other times it makes me feel dirty, because that power is reactionary.

This is a song about cleansing oneself. My dad recently drew my attention to a post-election essay that I wrote detailing my disappointment in my own anger, and a hope that I might seek justice (in the broadest sense) through love instead. He called the essay a sermon, which I found flattering, but which also makes it all the more difficult that I have struggled to take my own advice. I wrote:

Anger is good for seeking vengeance. Love is good for seeking justice. That’s why vengeance beat justice in this round. We tried to fight for justice with anger and indignation, and love would have worked better. So marshal your love and put it to work in your community. Put it to work by organizing. Put it to work by demonstrating. Put it to work by running for office. Put it to work by writing letters. Put it to work by opening your doors to your neighbors. Put it to work by listening. Put it to work.

I’m not yet ready to climb to such a lofty moral perch. I haven’t yet done most of those things, because I’m still angry. I need a cleansing rain to wash away the lingering shame that anger causes me to feel, so I can work through the anger and find a better source of strength. I might not be big enough for that strength to come from love. That remains to be seen.

Parsing this year will also require more than one song. This is part one of three of 2017’s End Cycle. It will continue on Christmas Day and on the first of the New Year. After that, we’ll all be someplace else.

~M.E.

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