How a Song Happens: “Transformed”
“In the creative act, the artist goes from intention to realization through a chain of totally subjective reactions. His struggle toward the realization is a series of efforts, pains, satisfaction, refusals, decisions, which also cannot and must not be fully self-conscious, at least on the esthetic plane.” -Marcel Duchamp
Emerging from a years-long spell of domesticity a little over 3 years ago, I hied myself to Memphis for what I like to call The Cameron Antenna Reunion. Feeling like an inversion of Rip Van Winkle, I carved a path across the state of Tennessee through the leaves that had fallen in my absence, covering the way from Sewanee back to Memphis, my musical home.
Newly awakened as I was, the stirrings of my soul sometimes overwhelmed, and I sought solace with my field-notes journal in this or that restroom off of I-40 exits in towns including Bucksnort. I’d undertaken an uncertain and nebulous journey back into the unknown, but I discovered that if I paid attention, there were signs showing the way. Every time I stopped to breathe, I looked behind me and found confirmation in the straight knowing path I’d carved through the leaves.
It had been over 10 years since I’d last played music in Memphis, and I was shaking like a leaf on stage that August 14th of 2009 with John McClure and Kurt Ruleman, but the audience response confirmed my own feeling of re-ignition. I remember Doug Easley saying, “Linda Heck’s on FIRE!”
I was still floating the next morning as I drove down Cooper to the coffee shop, allowing myself the fantasy that I’d get Jim Dickinson to produce my embryonic album, even though I hadn’t realized I was considering making an album until that thought quickened within me; and even though I knew that Jim Dickinson was gravely ill. As soon as I entered Otherlands, I heard the news that he’d died that morning.
I’d only known the man well enough to nod hello in passing, but I was torn up along with everyone else. It soothed my soul that I was among like-minded others, assembled for the joyful purpose of making and hearing music, and maybe dancing a little. I felt more strongly than ever that I’d been standing on the shoulders of those who’d stood on the shoulders of those who’d paved the way for all of us in my dysfunctional Memphis music family. There was revelation in hearing Neon Wheels throwing down songs I knew through the souls of my feet, had played bass on in the band Kings of the Western Bop, and these haptic memories stirred my soul and shook me more than a little. Kinesthetic sense took over, thinking and speaking became unnecessary, and at some point in the afternoon, I was surprised to discover myself hugging a verklempt Harris Scheuner in broad daylight on Madison Avenue, comforting him…
But maybe it was I who needed comfort.
I decamped from the Antenna scene to the Hi-tone for Paul Taylor’s Share album release party later that evening. I cherish the diagram Paul drew in my field-notes during our wordless conversation on the sidewalk out front, reminding me to look beneath reality’s blanket into the 3rd dimension. There’s no documentation of my conversation with Jim Spake inside at the bar, but the interaction stayed with me and later started gurgling to the surface as I became possessed by the urge to write the song that would become “Transformed”.
The Song coming over you, coming upon you, feels closer to possession than anything else. You’re aware that you’re not in your right mind, and that The Song has taken over, crowding out coherent thought. The Song is tugging at your hem demanding attention, begging to be known. You are sometimes aware that you are channeling an indefinable force, that your soul has been pressed into service without your permission, providing temporary residence for something that burns through you like a forest fire, consuming all available fuel and leaving you drained.
You can’t tell The Song to go away, to take the cup from your lips and go bother someone else. The Song will not be denied, and you- the host- are at its mercy.
You learn to let The Song simmer on the back burner while you go about your petty existence. You learn to put a lid on The Song’s becoming fully fledged, knowing that pure solitude will coax The Song into becoming. You learn that you are a director, a guide, a midwife, and that you can parse The Song into chunks recognizable as verses and choruses and bridges. You learn where to put the lines on the page, how much space to leave for the lines that you’ve learned will follow, how to fill in the blanks with categories of words: action verb, concrete noun, textured adjective. You learn that sometimes, the page will have more blank spaces than words; and you learn to leave the spaces until you’ve lived more life, to stay in motion until some unfelt remnant becomes animate and allows itself to escape into notes and melodies and chords and words and singing. You learn that sometimes, spaces are best left unfilled.
You’re a bystander at the mercy of The Song, watching yourself sobbing, thinking of your friends in mourning, wishing you could comfort them, powerless to do so. It’s easy to let yourself sing “I was thinking of my friends”, and obvious to adjoin “and how they’re missing you today”; now you’ve dropped into the pocket, and The Song reveals that its title is “Transformed”. Your fingers find places to rest on the fret-board, and you trust that your mind will catch up with learning to play the song. The sets stack up, your conscious mind starts to guide and steer, making tiny corrections, nudging feelings into noun/verb agreement, and “Transformed” unfurls.
You sing about your friends, and you sing about the space between the yes and no, and then you want to expand and connect this to something greater- some unknown Out There, some Beyond- and you start looking with random intention outside of yourself- your notes from 8/18/09 state you read Sigmund Freud, Ernest Becker, and Spinoza; and you really can’t say now whether any of this shows in “Transformed”, whether anyone else can taste these elements, these slight hints of nutmeg and cinnamon in your casserole. Although you can’t explain it, you know that somehow, your furrowed soul received and grew these elements outside of your awareness.
You keep chasing the elusive recipe, distilling the emotions and urges into even more ephemeral lyrics, and the word “alchemy” occurs to you. Although you more or less know what alchemy is, you are drawn to look it up in the OED, where you discover a quote from Shakespeare’s sonnet #33 that you decide to steal, and suddenly everything coalesces and makes sense, and you feel like a minor deity with the power of collaborating with Shakespeare, twisting his words, now a forceps helping to midwife “Transformed”.
You sing and play “Transformed” alone in your room, over and over, until it is carved into the tablet of your soul, and then you play it some more- you can’t stop playing it. “Transformed” is alive, containing all that you encountered in Memphis and in yourself- all that, and beyond.
In hindsight, the song “Transformed” was a harbinger, announcing in advance the outcome of the process I would experience in producing my own album, auguring that I, myself, would be ever transformed. Knowing it is too much to ask, I dare hope that “Transformed”- both the song and the album- has the power to similarly touch and transform others. I am just the messenger.
(Recording notes and lyrics for “Transformed”, scroll down to #14, second-to-last song )