Jackson Browne’s Piano coming through the Floor
Did you see that docu on TV the other night about the history of the Eagles?
I was watching it (enjoying it tremendously) when one moment leapt out at me. I’m paraphrasing from memory now, so forgive me if I get some of this wrong:
Glenn Frey was telling the story. He was talking about the early 70s in L.A., before the Eagles were even a band, or maybe just after they had gotten started. He and Don Henley were playing gigs (they had backed up Linda Ronstadt for a while) but they were not writing their own material. They were covering other musicians’ songs. They knew they had to start writing their own—and they wanted to desperately—but they couldn’t figure out how.
How do you write a song? Really.
What’s the process? Where do you start?
It turned out that they were living in a little cheap apartment in Echo Park directly above an even littler, cheaper apartment that was being rented by Jackson Browne. Jackson Browne was at the very start of his career too. He was starving just like Glenn and Don.
Glenn Frey, telling the story, says something like this:
“Every morning we’d wake up and we’d hear Jackson’s piano coming through the floor from the apartment below. He would play one verse, then play it again, and again and again. Twenty times in a row, till he had it exactly the way he wanted.
“Then he’d move to the next verse. Again, twenty times. It went on for hours. I don’t know how many days we listened to this same process before it suddenly hit us: This is how you write a song. This is how it’s done.
“That changed everything for us.”
I love that story. I love the demystification of the process. Yeah, the Muse is present. Yes, inspiration is key. But the ethic is workaday. It’s sit down, shut up, do what you have to.
Around that same time, in a town not too far away from Los Angeles, I was struggling with my own demons. It was the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and I was as into it as the next guy—and so were all my friends.
I had a friend named Tony Keppelman (who is still a dear, dear friend). He lived alone in a little house that he had designed and built himself. He used to get up at five each morning and sit down at the piano. For an hour and a half he did scales and exercises. Then he made himself some tea and a couple of eggs, meditated, and sat down for another two hours working on the guitar. In the afternoons he wrote.
I had never met anyone who possessed such self-discipline. And Tony wasn’t some all-work-no-play, zero-fun guy. His girlfriend was the hottest babe in town, he had great buds everywhere, he took incredible expedition trips hiking and climbing and photographing. I was in awe of him.
In many ways, the life I live today is nothing more than my version of the way Tony organized and lived his days. (By the way, he still does.)
But I want to circle back to last week’s post, “The Principal and the Profile.”
The common denominator in these stories and that post is Resistance—and the will to overcome it. I will bet my life that Tony and Jackson Browne and every other artist working like they did woke up each morning feeling the fear, dread, aversion, angst, laziness we all feel, and that their brains, just like ours, started immediately conjuring excuses and self-justifications for why they should screw off for this day and not do their work.
But they didn’t listen.
They got up, hit themselves with whatever self-talk they needed, and sat down at the piano.
At the same time others in their immediate vicinity—myself among them—found reasons and logic and arguments to rationalize not working and not trying. Maybe we didn’t know better. There’s truth to that. Maybe we were still “in the process.” That’s true too. Maybe we had to wait a few more years, and suffer a few more agonies along the way, before we were ready.
Jackson Browne might not have been famous then. Maybe nobody knew him at all. Certainly no one knew my friend Tony. But they were both Principals. They were Principals already.
They were not sliding down the greasy slope to whatever hell is reserved for those who “refuse the call,” as Joseph Campbell used to put it.
I can relate completely to what Glenn Frey said in that documentary. I can hear the notes from that piano coming up through the floorboards. “Jeez Louise, what is that guy doing down there? Stop, man! Take a break!”
Then, slowly maybe, or maybe in a flash, the light dawns. “This is how you do it. This is how you write a song.”