A few days ago, we had our first Weaklings meeting in more than a year. If you’re not familiar with the Nashville Weaklings, it’s a collective of songwriters not much less diverse than the group of contributors here in the Rabbit Room. Randall Goodgame and I decided a few years back to try and emulate the Oxford Inklings by meeting with other singer/songwriters for the purpose of…what?
Well, for one thing, for the purpose of getting off of our rear ends and really working. There were other considerations, like community, encouragement, critique and the like, but for me at least, having some kind of accountability on a regular basis was a big plus. Knowing that a Weaklings meeting loomed on the calendar meant that I’d better stay up that extra hour or two to make sure I had my newest song in the best shape possible before I sat in a circle with these formidable songwriters and laid it out for inspection.
One of the fun aspects of the meetings is the Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader writing assignment. We open a Bathroom Reader to a random page and read it aloud. Then we all have until the next meeting to write a song tied some way, however tenuous, to the article. I wrote a song called “Love is Blind” in response to a Bathroom Reader article about the infamous Maginot Line (if you’re wondering what it is, Google it. It’s a pretty interesting story). Eric Peters wrote a song inspired by the same article, and it ended up on his record Miracle of Forgetting. (You can buy the song here, at iTunes.)
Our next assignment was on the Legend of Pope Joan (again, Google it). I wrote a song called “Over My Head” (a live version is on Appendix M), Ben Shive wrote a fun Lyle Lovett-like song called “I’m Your Man”, and Randall Goodgame wrote, of course, “The Legend of Pope Joan”.
There were others, but you get the idea.
So a few days ago when our friend David Wilcox was in town, we arranged a Weaklings meeting so he could take part in our little community. The call went out. The call was answered by myself, Eric Peters, Andrew Osenga, Randall Goodgame, Ron Block, Andy Gullahorn, and David.
The article from the Bathroom Reader was about a telephone repair man who on a random house call discovered a valuable piece of furniture underneath piles of newspapers and dishes. He called the landlady and asked her to sell it to him, but she declined, saying that she needed the furniture for the tenants. Ten years later, the phone man (an antique hobbyist) finally convinced her to sell it, and the furniture fetched a million bucks.
Eric, Randall and I all made attempts at writing a song about it, and while none of them were really finished (or very good–yet), they all were the result of our talent and time being put to good use. I was up until 4 am working on mine, and had the distinct and horrible honor of playing first. It was kind of a nightmare, given the company I was in.
When I was writing the song I thought about Jesus’ offer of abundant life, and how we balk and make excuses, unable (or unwilling) to believe that he’s as good as his word. I remembered the C.S. Lewis quote about our desires and how they aren’t too strong but are too weak. “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Then I thought about the famous Walt Wangerin, Jr. story called Ragman. In it, Jesus walks through the streets trading his fine clothes for the rags of the homeless, trading his health for sickness, his joy for tears and so on until he’s so ragged and wounded and broken that he dies. I thought about the way I cling to worthless junk, refusing to believe that Jesus’ offer of his love in exchange for our broken lives actually yields new life.
Here are the words that came out:
Get out of my kitchen Get out of my life I don’t want to sell what you’re buying no more I don’t want to listen Don’t care if you’re right Just what kind of fool do you take me for?
(I don’t want to let go) Oh Ragman, how can you come here Telling me things too good to be true? Oh Ragman, how can you come here And make me an offer that I can’t refuse?
I know it ain’t pretty It’s charming at best But the spell that I’m under is appealing to me So spare me your pity I know it’s a mess But it’s mine from the floor to the ceiling, you see
(And I don’t want to let go) Ragman, how can you come here Telling me things too good to be true? Oh Ragman, how can you come here And make me an offer than I can’t refuse?
Your love is a loaded gun So hard to deny I’ll give you what you want But please, I don’t want to die
So take all the chaos All the clutter and crap Take all that’s left of the life I have Even if you have to pry it from my cold dead hands
(I don’t want to let go) Ragman, how can you come here Telling me things too good to be true? Oh Ragman, how can you come here And make me an offer than I can’t refuse?
When a song is only a few hours old it’s hard to know what to think about it. I played it (shaking like a leaf) and the reaction was…silence. Maybe it was because it was the first song and folks hadn’t loosened up enough to feel comfortable offering any critique. Or maybe it was because I played the song so badly they couldn’t really listen to it. It is what it is.
But my point is, whether or not the song will grow into anything I’d ever perform, I learned a lot in the process. I was forced to think about grace. I was forced to exercise my imagination. I wrote a song that I never would’ve written otherwise. And hopefully, I’m a better writer because of it. Later, Eric and Randall played their songs about the article, coming at it from two other angles. Wilcox didn’t write anything new for the topic but played a cool version of “A Touch of the Master’s Hand” because it fit so well.
Osenga and I talked about it on the phone tonight, laughing at how horrifying it is to play something new for someone, especially when that performance exposes the glaring problems with the song. But that’s the most valuable part of the experience. He played a new one and after our comments went home and rewrote the whole thing.
So if you’re a creative type, I’d highly recommend tracking down a bunch of artists who are better than you, meeting with them as often as you can, and welcoming their criticism. It has to be people you respect, otherwise you’ll ignore their advice.
Of course, sometimes you ignore their advice even then.