• Is writing songs a decent substitute for keeping a journal?

I’m a bit of pack rat and I hate throwing anything away. But in saving so much I sometimes feel as though I have saved nothing at all, as there is no organization to it. I tell myself that someday I will come back to these keepsakes real and false and reflect on them and for the effort make my life richer but I almost never do. And so the piles grow, but shrink in meaning.

A journal, though, now that would be quite a thing, a document of my life, organized, thought out, meaningful. Except I can’t be bothered to keep a journal. I’ve tried, but I never stick with it. And so there is only stuff, lots of stuff, photos, writings, letters, trinkets, matchbooks, plane tickets, some strewn about, some tucked away, some maybe even ever so slightly showing signs of having been organized in some small way. But there is no time to do anything with it. And I won’t make the time, there is always something more important to do. But a few years ago time got made for me.

I was maybe six to seven months out of my brain injury and I had grown tired of reading magazines and books and noodling aimlessly on my guitar. Plus, I was feeling a little better, a little more up for things that involved movement and thought. And I started noticing my hoard of life detritus more often. There it would be, bursting out of a drawer, clogging the corner of a closet, spilling from a tipped over bag. I began to pick through it all here and there and every little thing held something bigger and brought back a mix of memories, some hazy, some sharp. I was tempted to finally start to cull and organize, but just could not get motivated to make a real effort. Then I got to my old cassettes, not the mixtapes, but the cassettes of all the songs and works in progress I recorded from high school through the late ‘90s. There were cassettes from the days I owned a Fostex 4-track and a Drumulator, cassettes of music I recorded on my Tascam 38, even stuff from my ADAT days. All were saturated with memories.

The Fostex-era tapes brought back visions of high school. My moped rode back into my brain, I could vividly picture Rich Erickson’s Marshall half-stack in Chris Churchill’s garage, I thought back painfully on how I could never master the timing of Warriors, by Thin Lizzy. I also remembered all the treacly songs I wrote and made Toby sing. He did his best, he really did, but to this day I’m amazed he did not write me off as a total loser.

When I heard the tapes from college, I could picture my old cedar closet/recording studio in which I kept my Tascam 38, console and bits of outboard gear. I could vividly remember my friends, my classes, my romantic successes and failures. I could remember the ski trips to all the cheap resorts, which had the best snow, the steepest runs and the worst lodges. In the lyrics I could hear my attempts to sound Important and in the music my interest in the Police, REM and Paul Simon, maybe even a touch of The Violent Femmes and certainly The Beatles.

Then there were the tapes from GIT/MI (Musicians Institute). I’ve been posting about the Kenny Loggins seminar (part 0, part 1, part 2 and part 3) but so much more happened. I remembered the night my roommate got arrested because we were playing our guitars too loud (the cops nabbed him while I was out moving my car). I remembered how a former college roommate had moved in with us for a few months and then moved out to go live on the beach and play Jim Morrison. I remembered Jake the Cat from the alley out back, just a kitten when he clawed on our front door and later full grown, older tom cat living the high life at my parents’ house in Portola Valley, CA, where I grew up. The drive from LA back to Northern California and the tule fog that lay over I-5 so thick I followed the white line on the left as I raced along at 50 mph or so (idiot).

The most recent cassettes held music I recorded on my ADAT around 1997-8. By that time I had returned to the States from my four years in Europe and was into my career as an advertising copywriter and my musical productivity had dropped quite a bit. Instead of anguishing over songs about my departure from Europe and the girl left behind and the loneliness mixed with hope I felt every minute of every day, I was torturing myself to come up with clever headlines and concepts. In fact, I remember this one bench near my apartment in Palo Alto, where I went once with a cigar and a small flask of some sort of dark alcohol, and I lay back on the bench, puffed out cigar smoke up through the trees and sort of imagined myself as David Ogilvy. It was all a distraction, but how could I have known that at the time?

But it’s not just the songs on those old cassettes that recreate the past in my mind. All my songs do, every song I’ve ever written. When I listen to them, old images, words and sounds well up from the bottom of my brain and form an amazingly complete and accurate (I think!) memory. Perhaps not quite like a SQUID can produce, but pretty good. And so, in a way, I do keep a journal, just a slightly unorthodox one.