My road trip with Paul Collins in the fall of 1990 led us from town to town, surviving on the kindness of strangers and whatever else we were willing to spend along the way. He was moving out from San Francisco, I was traveling light and tagging along. We worked up a set of our songs, and we’d trot out our act for anyone willing to listen. Paul is a bit of hustler, a mover and shaker, and he’d get us in front of people. We opened a show for Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore in Austin, we sang at Thanksgiving in Houston, and nearly wore out our welcome in New Orleans. We drove around like this for a month.
Miracle Legion was playing the Georgia Theater in Athens for their Christmas show, we hung around outside during soundcheck. Paul overheard someone saying the opening band cancelled, and he had us on the bill within minutes. School was out of session, it was a pretty quiet and cold night. The theater is a legendary venue, we marveled at it and took our place on the stage for a short set.
I met a young lady at the show, we chatted and flirted away the evening. However, at the end of the night, like it usually is with traveling musicians, it’s time to “get back in the van” and disappear forever. We had one of those hugs that lasted long enough to shift your weight around in order to keep balance, so that it turns into a little dance. I retreated to Paul’s VW Jetta and we were off. I suppose anything that might have followed wouldn’t have been as good as the hug.
The snow was starting to fall as it was getting into December, so Paul was itching to get up to New York, his ultimate destination. Our crawl across the states turned into a Cannonball Run in reverse. We arrived at night, crashed at his mom’s classic West Village “bricks on the wall” apartment and thus began our very own Odd Couple episode that lasted through May.
I visited family over the holidays in Syracuse and watched a lot of late night TV. There was a show about a tall ship festival and the voiceover said, “...as these old ships gather up twilight for one last waltz.” I stole that line and wrote the rest.
Anytime I write a song, there is a building of momentum, a time to make my case as I look at the page. I gather up what I know, and start threading together the surrounding ideas from what I believe. Same goes for this blog. I don’t want to bore you, but it might get long. Today, not so much!
I used to write everything down in those cheap spiral notebooks. I prefer wide-ruled, because if I get excited, there’s room for big words. I have a filing cabinet full of Mead “1 subject” notebooks. Of course there was never one subject covered in a notebook, although each one would be given a name, like “Black 1997,” or “Green 2000.” If I was feeling particularly wild, I made up fanciful names like “Nougat 1998,” “Champ 1999,” and “Hog 2001.”
These days I use recycled printer paper cut in half sheets for writing stuff down. The smaller page size suits my non-committal creative moments and late-night household inspirations. I might otherwise fill a legal pad with a wish list I could never check off.
I carried “Red 1995” with me to Mick’s Lounge in SF alone one night to watch a band called The Green Things. I have found myself at times writing songs while other music is happening in the background, with a guitar or not. It doesn’t pull me in or distract me; it’s a bias noise that actually helps me concentrate. I had my face in the notebook for most of their set. I remember watching a little bit, and I recall writing the line, “have some fun with absurdity, man!”
This song sat around awhile, until I chose songs to record in New York for Wood + Wire. I naively suggested a “Dylan” feel for the band, and Dennis the drummer played the beat to “Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine” — imagine it — before settling on what we have. Good thing I didn’t play a harmonica. What I hear now that reminds me of a Bob Dylan record is the band getting tripped up by my unpredictable chord changes. The vocal and the acoustic guitar were recorded at the same time, which doesn’t happen as often as you’d assume. I like the piano.
“The End” gets requested often enough to keep it an active song. Have I made my case? This is the end.
Chris von Sneidern is a musical artist living in San Francisco.