What does the title Playing the Muse (Music Through My Ears) mean? The first part of the phrase, “playing the muse,” is something I came up with as the title of a song I wrote. It can be read as a shortened version of the phrase “playing the music,” but it has another meaning. You’ve heard songwriters and other creative people talk about waiting for inspiration, or waiting on the muse, a mythological being that inspires the creation of something special. I don’t believe in waiting for the muse. In other words, I don’t let the muse play me, I play the muse. The second part of the title, “music through my ears,” is just that. This blog is my way of examining the music that has inspired me and sharing it with others who love music. We all hear music differently. I’m sharing with you the music through my ears.
Whether you are a songwriter, play in a band, or just a fan who loves to listen to music, my goal with this blog is to share the magic of music with you. Sometimes I might veer off course and write about something that isn’t directly music related, but that’s only because I do have other interests outside of music. We all do. There’s nothing wrong with sharing those experiences too, but for me, at least, it always comes back to music.
As a songwriter, there’s always noise inside my head. I’m either listening to some of my favorite music, singing to myself, or writing my own songs. The world would be a quiet place for me without the music. Much too quiet. I like the noise in my head and I’ll keep it, thank you very much.
I started thinking about seriously about music when I was six. I vividly remember sitting in the back of a car, going down the road, and the song Judy in Disguise (with Glasses) by John Fred & His Playboys came on the radio. This was 1967. I loved the way that song made me feel and I listened intently, trying to figure out what the hell he was singing about. There were other songs around that time too. I would try to understand the lyrics and even compare the way the songs were structured. I didn’t actually think of it as structure at the time, but that’s what I was listening for. The lyrics, however, were always the most important thing to me. I wanted to know what they were singing about. What was I supposed to take away from the song?
Flash forward to about 1973. I wrote what I was sure was going to be my first smash hit, Catchin’ Angels. That’s really what I called it. I wrote it on a guitar I didn’t even know how to tune. The guitar belonged to my mom’s boyfriend. My musical influences at the time were singer/songwriters of the 70s. I didn’t think in terms of bands or specific artists yet. I just paid attention to songs that I liked. There were, of course, artists that had a plenty of great songs I listened frequently listened to. There were lots of Rod Stewart and Jim Croce songs that inspired me. I couldn’t get enough of them.
The 70’s were a musical goldmine for me. I listened and absorbed all of it. There were some fantastic songs in the 70’s. One of my favorites, from 1972, was Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl), written by Elliot Lurie and performed by Looking Glass. That song has everything a good song should have. It tells a cohesive story, has a killer rhyme scheme, and a melody that sticks with you. It’s still one of my favorite songs of all time. That wasn’t the only one, though. Take a look at the Billboard Top 100 charts from any year during the 70’s and you’ll see what inspired me. There’s James Taylor’s Fire and Rain from 1970. Don McLean’s American Pie and Elvis Presley singing Burning Love are two from 1971 that I couldn’t get enough of. I also loved We’re an American Band (Grand Funk Railroad) and You’re So Vain (Carly Simon) from 1973. That same year also produced Shambala (Three Dog Night), Midnight Train to Georgia (Gladys Knight and the Pips), Crocodile Rock (Elton John), and Dobie Gray singing Drift Away. Are you kidding me? How could you not be inspired? Songs from the 70’s are like no other. Radar Love (Golden Earring, 1974), Smokin’ in the Boys Room (Brownsville Station, 1974), Philadelphia Freedom and Island Girl (Elton John, 1975), Rhinestone Cowboy (Glen Campbell, 1975), and Sister Golden Hair (America, 1975) are a few more nuggets of musical magic from the decade that started it all for me.
It was around 1975 when I started paying attention to artists more, not just songs. I recognized a lot of the same artists were putting out stuff that inspired me. I got into buying records by the artists who made the songs I loved listening to, which got me started listening to the deep cuts, not just the hits. I became pretty all-inclusive about the artists I liked. I’m still that way. If I really like an artist, I can’t just have one or a few of their albums. I need everything they’ve ever recorded, even hits packages. These days I don’t buy hits packages unless there are “extras” like unreleased demos, alternate takes, etc. There are too many bands putting out the same greatest hits over and over.
One morning in 1976, a friend of mine rushed into my house before school with a 45 record, telling me he had something I had to hear. He put the record on the turntable and let it rip. It was Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak. That opening chord and driving riff had me hooked. A year later, I was hanging at out another friend’s house. He was an older guy named Terry, who I thought was cool because he worked at a record store called Peaches. The store actually stocked their albums in peach crates. Terry had his record collection in a bunch of the crates he’d “borrowed” from the store. I went through his collection, which was primarily stuff from the UK (mostly British). He had Rod Stewart albums, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, etc. He wasn’t into U.S. bands at all, which didn’t really make sense to me, but he still had some cool albums. As I was browsing his collection, I came across the album Jailbreak by Thin Lizzy. I recognized the title Jailbreak as the one I’d heard a year earlier, and I recognized The Boys Are back in Town from the radio. I stared at the front and back cover of the album as I listened to it from start to finish. I especially liked the pictures of the guys in the band on back, and Phil Lynott in particular. He looked so cool. Thin Lizzy became my favorite band right then, and they remain so to this day. I’ve purchased all their official albums in every format, as well as all of the unofficial releases as I could find. There’s never been a band that hit me quite the same way that Thin Lizzy has.
A lot of the bands I discovered in my teen years came from my mom. She had great taste in music and a lot of 8-track tapes. She also drove a Trans-Am, which she was crazy enough to let me drive from time to time. There were a couple of minor mishaps involving her beloved car, a girl, and rain, but I’ll leave that alone for now. When I was lucky enough to drive her car, I listened to her tapes, discovering bands she loved first and that went on to become lifelong favorites of mine. Among them are Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, the Eagles, and the Atlanta Rhythm Section. Other bands I discovered that blew me away include Boston and REO Speedwagon. To this day, the first Boston album and REO’s You Can Tune a Piano but You Can’t Tuna Fish never fail to make me remember cruising with the top down on a summer day.
I got into KISS in about ’76. They were one of my earliest influences. The way they looked, the theatrics, and the songs. I loved it all. I bought every KISS album and all of the memorabilia I could get my hands on. That’s where I learned how to go big or go home, and that attitude was only intensified by my love for another 70’s icon, the Motor City Madman himself, Ted Nugent. The first Nugent album I heard was Free-for-All and it was a non-stop love affair with Ted Nugent from that point on.
In 1979 I discovered one of my favorite songwriters ever. His name is John Mellencamp, He was still John Cougar then. His album, simply called John Cougar, played a fundamental role in my learning how to play bass. It was one of the five albums I practiced bass to constantly. John Cougar was a great album with songs I could really understand and could feel in my soul. It didn’t take me long to wear out the record, then I bought the cassette, and finally the CD. Mellencamp has become a lifelong favorite.
In 1977 I heard a song on the radio that blew me away and further inspired my desire to write better songs. The song was Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad. It was delivered by one of the most powerful voices I’d ever heard. The album was Bat out of Hell, the performer was Meat Loaf, and the songwriter was Jim Steinman. There’s not a better combination than Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman. The sheer intensity of Meat’s voice coupled with the epic lyrics, melodies, and harmonies of Jim’s songwriting just go together. It never fails to move me. Bat out of Hell is as relevant now as it ever was. From the explosive build-up of the opening song Bat out of Hell to the fading heartfelt notes of For Crying out Loud, Meat Loaf and Steinman’s Bat out of Hell is a masterpiece. I’d never heard anything like it at the time and I’ve never heard anything like it since.
Throughout the 70’s I continued to work on my songwriting, concentrating primarily on writing better lyrics. I still had no real grounding in music theory, but none of that mattered. I knew what I wanted when I wrote a song and I could play guitar, bass, and keyboards well enough to get it out. With each song I wrote, I heard my songs getting better. I was writing songs I was proud to be writing. That’s all I needed. It wasn’t until the early 80’s that I started to seriously study music theory, all while digging the birth of hair metal bands and all the other great music the 80’s offered.
I can’t do anything half way. When I’m in, I’m all the way in. I immerse myself. That’s what I did with music. I got a job at a sheet music store (St. Ann Music), owned by a jazz player and band leader named Bob Waggoner. I was fortunate enough to learn from Bob and his family, all of whom are accomplished musicians. They were then, and still are, wonderful, musical people who make up a big part of my early musical foundation. Working at the music store, especially with people who had such a rich musical background, allowed me to broaden my knowledge of music and experience different types of music than I was used to hearing, including jazz, big band, marching band, choir, and classical music. It was all ingredients for the musical stew I was cooking.
Working at a music store gave me access to lots of musical material. I set out to learn everything I could about writing and playing music. I had sheet music, instruction books, theory books, and a family of talented musicians who helped guide me. Our customers included music teachers, conductors, choir directors, and people who played in bands of all types. It was the perfect environment for me and I soaked it all in. I learned how to read and write musical notation, I learned about scales and modes, I learned chord construction, I learned melody and harmony, and I kept working on playing bass, guitar, and keyboards. I’ve never become a virtuoso on any of those instruments, but I play well enough to write songs, and hell, I can even hold it together onstage when it’s time to rock.
It was around this same time I started a band called Storm Warning. I was the singer and occasional rhythm guitar player. There was also a lead guitar player, a bass player, and a drummer. As much as I loved rocking with those guys, I got my biggest thrill writing music. We were doing covers, and while it was fun, I wanted to do original songs. When I wasn’t playing with the band, I was working on writing new songs. We had a lot of fun as a band, but I think I got more out of writing, so we eventually all went our separate ways. Great times with those guys, though, and a valuable experience.
Music makes me happy. I love writing songs. There’s really no better way to entertain or communicate with people. Think about it. Not everybody reads books, and while a lot of people watch movies, not everybody does. Music, on the other hand, is everywhere. Almost everybody has, does, or will listen to music. I write songs I want to hear, and in the process, I hope I write songs other people can enjoy. As a songwriter, I want to be heard. I obviously want people to listen to what I write, but more than that, I want to be able to make them feel better, entertain them, or maybe even give them food for thought. Songwriting is all about that and so much more. I appreciate those artists who’ve entertained and inspired me musically throughout my life. Part of paying them back is to carry on that rich musical history.
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