Ancient History: How I Got Started On This Path

When I coach a songwriter one-on-one, I ask them to fill out a questionnaire that asks about their vision for the future, and their history as a writer, musician and singer. Recently someone asked about my story, so here it is...

After several years of singing in the Chorus in elementary school (where I basically faded into the woodwork) I was force-fed piano lessons at about age 8 by my well-meaning parents and an utterly joyless teacher.

I despised reading music and never practiced. In fact my Mom would set a timer for 20 minutes, and one day I surreptitiously dialed it back to like 5. Then I was amazed when she noticed (that's how young I was!).

Why did these particular music lessons bite the big one? Here are my thoughts:

  • The songs this teacher forced upon me sucked — all insipid pap on the order of "Merrily We Roll Along,"

  • I had a good ear and could hunt-and-peck much better songs that I actually ENJOYED, and

  • This lady had zero idea how to inspire and excite, which for me is the essence of good teaching.

Anywho, 8 years rolled past, by which point I could plunk out a few more songs on the piano, and had fallen madly in love with the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and other amazing music-makers. I was 16 and attending a rather dismal sports-crazed boarding school, crying my eyes out because I was separated from all of my high school friends.

The closest equivalent is the school in Dead Poets Society — lots of long, dark spooky hallways lined with framed photos of long-since-deceased alumni and their hockey trophies. It had only been co-ed for 3 years, after 90-something years of being an all-boys' school. You still had to get dressed up every night for dinner...

Enter Caroline Hitchcock, aka "Hitch," whose dorm room was downstairs from mine. She had a lovely English accent (how exotic!) and played a mean GUITAR. She was kind enough to take pity on me and teach me how to read chord diagrams, strum a few chords, and even pick out the notes of "Blackbird." It took months, it seemed, to master even the simplest songs, but I was hooked.

Fast-forward 3 years. I was now in my sophomore year at Stanford and walked by a bulletin board in the student union where there was a sign posted that said "Songwriting Class." I tore off a little slip with the phone number and registered. It was scheduled to start right after Christmas vacation.

Never mind that my parents were paying thousands for me to attend the university, I was now enrolled this local workshop, led by a guy named Tony. God only knows what his credentials were... it didn't really matter because suddenly I got really excited about the possibilities.

Figuring I needed to bring SOMETHING to the class, I wrote my very first lyric over the vacation: a love-struck piece of piffle called "At Night." Then I started strumming and singing a melody to it.

This proves one of my favorite adages:

"Ain't nothin' like a deadline to light a fire under one's ass."

And... BOOM.

For me, writing that song was the exact moment when lightning struck. It was like the glorious day when peanut butter met chocolate and the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup was born. Like when Richard Burton met Elizabeth Taylor. Like when Steve Jobs met Woz.

Songwriting brought together — in one 3-minute joy-bomb — my love of language, and music, and emotions, and psychology... and MAGIC. I've literally never been the same.

Right then I knew I wanted to keep doing it, basically forever. It's been more than 30 years, and the process absolutely never loses its ability to thrill. Even when it's bad, it's good!

p.s. That lyric won me $25 in a songwriting contest, which convinced me I was absolutely destined to "go pro" — although it took 7 years to make another dollar. Indeed, my first royalty check was for $1.17. I was SO PROUD!

Feel free to send in YOUR stories!