Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Jackson Browne’s Piano coming through the Floor

By Steven Pressfield | Published: February 27, 2013

Did you see that docu on TV the other night about the history of the Eagles?

Frey

Glenn Frey of the Eagles. "So that's how you write a song!"

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.

Jackson Browne, sometime around Echo Park days

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.

Except one.

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.”

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

28 Responses to “Jackson Browne’s Piano coming through the Floor”

  1. Basilis
    February 27, 2013 at 4:07 am

    So how do you write a song?

    As a musician (with a degree in Classical guitar), I can’t answer this question, not even now! But I surely know that if I don’t start something, then I will just have nothing!

  2. February 27, 2013 at 4:41 am

    Another inspiring, perfect way to start my Wednesday.

    Thanks, Steven.

  3. February 27, 2013 at 5:49 am

    Thank you for this wonderfully written article. Reminds me Gautama Buddha’s quote, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

  4. skip
    February 27, 2013 at 5:53 am

    steve: as always xlnt stuff!…i was there, at the greek amp when the eagles were “introduced”, their first nite performing backing up rondstat!!! i got that hot ticket gratis from a friend who at the last minute couldnt go…the seat was center, about 7 rows up…i sat around celebrities like the capt and tenille and jeff bridges –ie one hot seat !…then the announcer said “Please give a warm L.A. welcome to our opening performers making their debut tonite–ladies and gentlemen, the Eagles!”…clap clap…then OMG ! you instantly knew they were going to be great…the year circa early 1970s…thnx for the memories!

  5. Kent Faver
    February 27, 2013 at 6:05 am

    THanks so much Steven. I thought Doc Severensen was the coolest cat ever at this same time. I remember my band teacher in 1972 saying Doc could be cool because he was the hardest-working trumpet player in the land. I was a mediocre trumpet player, but still remember that story.

  6. Sandra
    February 27, 2013 at 6:40 am

    When I read this I am reminded of Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit and how even now she still gets up at the butt crack of down to exercise her body. Even she does not perform any more, but keeps to it, to keep sharp and on point.

    Also my friend hung out with Madonna in her early NYC days. They would go out all night partying, while my friend(and others) slept the night off Madonna would already be up and writing her music calling early to berate them for their laziness.

    The successful people work consistently at their craft moving it along each day.

  7. February 27, 2013 at 7:29 am

    Doctor, my eyes have seen. . . another terrific inspirational post. Thank you.

  8. February 27, 2013 at 7:36 am

    Another awesome post. Thank you Steven for the amazing inspiration.

  9. February 27, 2013 at 8:15 am

    I don’t know that your friend Tony Keppelman or Jackson Browne feel the same “fear, dread, aversion, angst, laziness we all feel.” Part of me wants to believe that finding the daily discipline may be easier for some, as if they were blessed with a lifetime supply of congenital Adderal that fuels their management function.

    But I don’t know and perhaps I am just making false distinctions. They are principles nonetheless.

    If it takes me self-talk and two pots of strong coffee and running five miles to “write my song,” that’s what it takes and I am blessed to be in the service of my muse. Finally. Thank you for Writing Wednesdays.

  10. February 27, 2013 at 8:21 am

    Powerful post. Thanks, Steven!

  11. February 27, 2013 at 8:45 am

    Great post! Needed to hear this today (ashamed to admit, I just skipped class because it was ’snowing too much’ – talk about resistance, uugggh).

  12. February 27, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    Steven,
    Thank you.
    I especially love how this shows that sometimes we read the words and hear the lesson, or even are told that we need to just sit and work, but it’s not until we experience the reality (the repetition of Jackson Browns playing), or our own progress as we create the Pro habit, that the light bulb begins to shine.

    I am discovering that for me it’s more like a light on a dimmer switch that brightens slowly instead of a light switch being turned on suddenly.

    Thanks for your work and for sharing your ideas, words, and wisdom.
    ~Linda

  13. February 27, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    As always, Steven, you have hit the head of the golden nail. I like and admire your posts so much that I will be directing all guests at my writing seminar this Saturday to your blog and books! As we all know well: Word of mouth is wood on the fire that keeps the locomotive roaring down the tracks.

  14. February 27, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    Does everyone have a call?
    I don’t hear it.
    Sometimes refusal has nothing to do with it.
    However that damn greasy pole ride to hell still seems to apply. A bland hell.
    Maybe we need a book on hearing the call, but I suspect it can’t be taught.

  15. February 27, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    I think it all parallels the saying “Be a producer, not a consumer.”

    It takes us countless reasons to motivate ourselves to create, but only one flimsy one to put us on the sidelines indefinitely. Once you see the process as just a game you start needing less reasons to get to work. Browne and your friend Tony saw it as just a game.

  16. February 27, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    You do realize that you’ll be writing a book for the principles and profiles very soon, even though you claim you won’t right? Thanks for another brilliant topic/post.

  17. Harlan Gleeson
    February 27, 2013 at 2:45 pm

    thanks!

  18. February 27, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    How did Tony pay the rent or property taxes, food, etc.?

  19. February 27, 2013 at 6:28 pm

    I wage battle every day. Every day I “go to the mattresses”. I cajole, plead, bargain, lie – to the Muse. If she lets me slide today, tomorrow I will be twice as brilliant. She never bites because she knows I’m lying. So, Steve, thanks for being on the Warrior’s side. Those of us who battle every day. We need Drill Sargents like you to keep us marching in the mud and the blood and the muck, because the light is right over that hill. You’ve seen it and you know. Soldier on!

  20. February 27, 2013 at 7:48 pm

    Love your post, as always, Stephen. One of my author clients told me that she doesn’t subscribe to many blog, but got turned on to your blog from me, and is now a fan. She knows the power of “butt-in-chair” and so do I. I do find that I need to clear the calendar and say “No” to stuff and be prepared to work. If I don’t plan to get to my writing, it doesn’t happen. I have to say, I also need to be well rested.

  21. Henry Labalme
    February 28, 2013 at 3:43 am

    Nice stories. There are many similar parables out there, from Aesop to the Three Little Pigs. The thing is, we need to hear these accounts on a regular basis as reminders. One more song…

  22. Jammie
    February 28, 2013 at 5:42 am

    Excellent post. Found you through Asymmetrical and look forward to following your work. Thanks Steven!

  23. Susan Kelly
    March 1, 2013 at 12:26 pm

    Another thought-provoking post, Steven. Love WW. I am working on taking fear out of the equation, accepting that I am at present afraid (of judgement, of failure)and that judgement is not the true nature of the world, only the false face of it. I think you touched on this in War of Art when you said to create is to make a gift for the world. Without fear, whatever you do produce, you do out of love.

  24. March 2, 2013 at 8:23 am

    In doing research this morning I reread a portion of Daniael Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” that may address an element of “resistance,” if I understand this as Steven Pressfield presents it.

    Cognitive effort and self control both draw from the same mental storehouse and can lead to what has been called “ego depletion.”

    “It is now a well estalished proposition that both self control and cognitive effort are forms of mental work. Several psychological studies have shown that people who are simulataneoulsy challened by a demanding cogntive task and by a temptation are more likely to yield to the temptation.” (Kahneman, pg. 41)

    When we writers exert extreme cognitive effort it actually accentuates the temptation to do something else. The harder we work, the harder it is (hopefully I am not being trite).

    Unless was are blessed with “flow,” the description of which Kahneman attributes to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “a state of effortless concentrration so deep that they lose their sense of time, of themselves, of their problems…” and have an “optimal experience.” (Kahneman, pg. 40)

    I just put this out there for the community.

  25. March 2, 2013 at 10:36 pm

    Yup, the pain of birth has its source in the death of possibility; it helps that there’s a salvation in that! if you believe

  26. March 2, 2013 at 10:55 pm

    The phenomenon of ‘the call refused’ is very drab indeed; Campbell devotes just one chapter to the ‘refusal of the call’, and it is quite awful to read

  27. March 6, 2013 at 9:09 am

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  28. Rik
    March 6, 2013 at 11:23 am

    Could not agree more…
    genius is 1% inspiration 99% perspiration (Edison)

    In my opinion the era of 64 through 74 more specifically 67-72 was responsible for the explosion of an incredible variety of music and of such quality and musicianship that will never be equaled.

    Eagles, Credence, Beatles, Stones, BB Pet Sounds, Derek & the Dominoes, Cream, Blind Faith, Yardbirds, Jethro Tull. Yes, Dylan, the incomparable musicianship of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Moody Blues, Balladeers Jackson Browne James Taylor, Carly Simon, Simon And Garf, The Doors, Elton, Carole King,Led Zep, Allman Bros, the Who, Steely Dan, Fleetwood MAc SOUL BABY!! Otis ! Aretha! 4 Tops, Temptations! Traffic, Deep Purple, Genesis, Linda R,
    the Band, Steppenwolf, Well there are a multitude I did not mention but you get the picture… These are the epitome of what Hard work and musicianship can produce…. compared to the (over)sampled, overproduced crap we are exposed to today.