• Digging in the dirt and finding some nuggets of songwriting wisdom.

One of the few really great things about having suffered a severe traumatic brain injury is that I have been able to reap the benefit of some serious downtime. Life happens so fast, and over the brief moment we are here we amass memories and paraphernalia that we save because we hope to revisit them someday. But we almost never do. Who has the time? But when you are forced to sit inside for days, weeks, even months on end, you run out of the little distractions that keep you from taking the time to go back and reexamine your life and you start rummaging through closets and attics or what have you. I know I did.

For me it was cassettes. I had bags of the things, plus some drawers full and a few cassette carrying cases (remember those?) stuffed end-to-end. Most were old mix tapes and most of these I chucked. But scattered amidst my mixtapes were cassettes (and a few DATs) filled with recordings of songs and song fragments I wrote from late high school all the way up through about 1996. Sadly, my old DAT deck no longer works, but most of the material on DAT was also on cassette, so I hooked up my dusty tape deck to Pro Tools and got to work, transferring all of this old material to a new hard drive and in the process labeling all of the songs, fixing a few rough fades, and editing out the true crap (there was plenty of it). Many of the tapes were cryptically labeled, so I had to re-listen to everything, a torturous process to be sure, as it made clear to me my mediocrity and desperate lack of focus as a songwriter. One cassette, however, was very clearly labeled: "Kenny Loggins at GIT". It was from the year 1986 or 1987, during which time I was studying guitar at G.I.T. (Guitar Institute of Technology, now called MI, short for Musicians Institute, click here to read an older post about my time at G.I.T.), and I knew exactly what was on it: a nearly complete recording of the songwriting seminar/screening that Kenny Loggins held at the school.

Just looking the label brought back so many memories. I thought back on how I was disappointed it was Kenny Loggins because I didn’t think he was cool and I figured he would have nothing to say. I thought back on the tune I submitted, I thought farther back to the process of recording the tune in my apartment in Hollywood, where I lived with my roommate, Mike Northcutt (who also submitted a song). I thought even farther back to when I graduated from college with a diploma and had absolutely no clue what to do with it and the relief of finding out about G.I.T. and being able to attend the school and put off real life for at least a year, possibly much longer if rock stardom worked out.

All students were invited, but tapes for critique would be pre-screened. The tune I submitted was called “The Upside of Down” and while I thought it had some positive attributes, deep down I felt it was fundamentally flawed, a quality I felt all my songs shared, and I just could not put my finger on why. I hoped my song would be selected so I could be told what the problem was.

When the day finally came and we gathered in G.I.T.s largest room, I was stunned to see so few attendees. There were maybe 20 to 30 people; I thought for sure there would be at least 100. I mean, Kenny Loggins was a big deal at the time and I was expecting throngs, along with catered food and some serious glitz. There was none of that. Kenny walked on stage with nothing but an acoustic guitar, sat in a standard G.T.T.-issue, metal folding chair, adjusted his mic and got down to it.

Not knowing whether my song had been selected or not, I had butterflies and the small crowd just made things worse. Should he play my song, there was nowhere to hide and he was going to be able to clearly see me and address me and humiliate me. I gritted my teeth. To add to the suspense, he didn’t start with critiques; instead, he worked through an edited list of questions that had been submitted by G.I.T. students. Listening back to his answers today, I can only kick myself for not having realized the magnitude of the gift he made to the school and our small group that day, although to be fair to myself, I was a bit distracted by my constant wondering if he would play my tune or not.  And, yes, my song got played. And critiqued, politely and honestly. And I was told in no uncertain words what the problem was.

Want to hear what his words of wisdom? You’re in luck! Back in the ‘80s, one of my most useful devices was a Walkman Pro and I had it with me and it was ON. But wait, surely I can’t post this stuff, right? It must be copyrighted. Maybe. Before posting these clips I wrote to G.I.T. to ask about copyright and they had no clear opinion, so I’m just gonna post and beg for forgiveness later. The surviving recording of Kenny’s talk is 90 minutes and rather than make you listen to the whole thing all in one go, I’m breaking it up into four sections: 1) Pre-submitted questions; 2) live Q&A; 3) his critique of my song ( I’ve left out his critiques of all tunes but mine, figuring that the other songs really aren’t mine to share) and 4) his brief, but utterly cool performance.

I’ll post the sections as I finish them, so please stay tuned. I really believe that if you write songs, you’ll find the insights offered to be of real value.


P.S. - Kenny Loggins, if you read this, THANK YOU. Your talk that day remains the greatest discussion about songwriting I have ever been a part of.