As he prepares to release his new album, So Runs the World Away, one of our favorite songwriters opens up about his artistic inspiration
For hours I’d been lying awake in the dark, listening to the garbage trucks trawl the neighborhood. Occasionally a ship would blow its horn over in Red Hook, and I’d wonder again what it must be like out there on the ocean in one of those cold, steel boats. For the last year I’d been playing music in all weathers, all over the world.
Now it was early spring and I was home in Brooklyn, sung out from performing, wrung out from jet lag and bone-tired in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time. Most importantly, I didn’t have a single new song. The year had been the busiest of my life, and I hadn’t built in much time for versifying. And versifying takes real time if you want to do it right. Not having put pen to page for quite a while, and with recording sessions planned and coming up quickly, I wondered if the songs would come easily. I suspected they wouldn’t, but hoped that I’d been feeding the monster well enough that it would let me have a few to get started on a new album.
The monster is the invisible force that decides what you write about. Some people call it “The Muse,” but I’ve never found that to be a particularly apt description for a creature so voracious. This is no gossamer-clad maiden. I don’t know much about it, but I know that it lives deep in the synaptic jungle, its tail twitching lazily, its slow-breathing bulk heaving sulfurous sighs as it waits. You have to feed the monster everything you come across, be it books, music or movies, your friends and enemies and any other shiny baubles you find strewn in your path. You shovel everything you’ve got—a long-handled snow shovel works best—into its big toothy mouth, and it chews everything up and sighs once again. It never says “thank you,” and you don’t expect any gratitude, but once in a while the monster will taste something it really enjoys. When it does, you’ll notice a slight lift of its scaly brow and a narrowing of its keyhole pupils. It doesn’t give away much, but if you know your monster, that’s all you need to see.
Now your job really begins. This part is fun—you go and find everything you can find that relates to the monster’s favorite new food. You bring it full wheelbarrows of Barton Fink, Steve Martin, nachos, Myrna Loy, the game of Life, Dire Straits, jungle gyms, whatever. You never question the monster’s taste. If it wants Louis L’Amour, for God’s sake give it Louis L’Amour. If you don’t give the monster what it wants, the damned S.O.B. will never give you anything in return. But if you do a good job feeding your monster, it’ll occasionally let you have a little inspiration. In my case, that means the idea for a song.
The radiator began to crank and clack. Steam whistled into the room like smoke from a dozing dragon. Since I’d gotten home a week earlier, my monster seemed to be on a steady diet of four things: Muriel Spark, Barbara Tuchman, Alfred Deller and Jeri Southern. Spark and Tuchman were authors and Deller and Southern were vocalists. I had no idea what the four had in common, but I knew enough not to ask.
Muriel Spark was born in Edinburgh in 1918, during the waning days of the Great War. Her father was Jewish and her mother English, and Muriel matured into a permanent outsider with powers of observation and description that could decode the crook of an elbow and the shift of a glance. She was funny in a genuinely wicked way. I pity the characters that were born into her intricate, often surreal little plots. Dougal Douglas, the central character in The Ballad of Peckham Rye, believes he’s turning into a devil. Jean Brodie, the teacher and ingenue of a clutch of school girls, is a fascist carrying on a love affair with an artist, who, in turn, carries on an affair with one of her prized students. With childlike glee, Spark smashes her characters into each other, as though constructing a beautiful dollhouse and then setting it on fire. Her attitude towards her characters is both malevolent and just; they all get exactly the fate they deserve. After finishing Spark’s amazing Loitering With Intent, I thought about how I would have liked to know her but was somewhat relieved I’d never gotten the chance.
Loitering with Intent was back on the bookshelf now, replaced on the nightstand by Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, about the quarter-century before the outbreak of World War I. For awhile, I had been picking it up and reading a page here and there, but of late the book, with its ornate sense of foreboding, had become very important to my monster. In a collection of essays, Tuchman described the years when the world was wracked by the death throes of the 19th century and the birth pangs of the 20th; a self-taught historian, she (like Spark) had a keen eye for those innocents who were headed for a cliff. Among other topics, The Proud Tower tells the stories of the decaying and flaccid European aristocracy, the contentious, often viperous socialist and anarchist movements, and the beautiful and doomed cultural flowerings of pre-war Germany. The whole world was painted here, in the instant before it plunged from its own ramparts. Barbara Tuchman’s book was tense and heartbreaking, and that’s what my monster wanted.