Some stories from the past, and my ongoing series, "Aunt Clara's Wheelchair"
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
My Friend Tom
Yesterday, when I was in my mid twenties or so, I drifted into Guitar Town. After a few days I ran out of money and got a job slinging beers in a bar. Most places have a thing called "open mic", but in Nashville it's called "writer's nite" because you are expected to play original material. Well, I had written a couple dozen songs by then and so I joined in the fun like everybody else. Among the folks who were playing their songs around town was a fellow by the name of Tom. He was, and still is, a terrific songwriter and I was proud to meet him and even prouder to actually get to know him. I thought I was a pretty good writer at the time, but after meeting Tom and hearing his songs I knew I had a long ways to go. Tom was kind...but honest. "Duffy", he said, "it's not your guitar that's out of tune."
Well, one night I was off duty and on the wrong side of the bar and me and Tom were having one...or two...and solving the world's problems, as we often did. Another fellow walked into the bar and took a stool next to me. I was now positioned on the stool between Tom and a guy by the name of Harlen Howard, who happened to be one of the most, if not THE most, prolific songwriters to ever hit that town. From the nineteen fifties thru the 90's there was almost always a Harlen Howard tune on the charts. Look him up if you don't believe me.
Okay, it hurts, but I might as well get to point. Here I was sitting right between what I considered, and still do, to be the two best songwriters I had ever met. I thought I'd be cool and asked Harlen, "Mr. Howard, how in the blue blazes do you write so many hits!?" Well, he took a sip of his drink, tipped his head to one side, grinned, and said, "well, sir, I don't write hits! I just write a song and throw it in a box and when they want a hit they just reach in the box and pull one out!" We all laughed at that and ordered up another round. I let the laughter settle down, then bowed my head just slightly, closed my eyes and said, not too loudly, "Lord, I sure wish I could write a hit before the world blows up....ya know...?" Harlen looked at me and said, "son, I just don't know what to tell you." Then he looked at Tom and sort of shrugged his shoulders and said, "boys I guess I'd better be gettin' on home. I'll see you later." Me and Tom both shook hands with him and he walked out of the bar and we ordered one more before the walk back to our appartment on Sixteenth Avenue. We talked some more about Harlen Howard and some of the other great writers we had met and heard. I was rather enamoured of some of those successful folks, but Tom was not. He respected Harlen and the others we'd talked about, but he never put them any higher up there than anybody else. To Tom they were just people, but I couldn't help it, they were heroes to me and it took me quite a few years to realize that heroes are people first.
Anyway, Tom and I left the bar (it was closing time) and headed up the street to home. On the way, after too much silence between us, Tom cleared his throat and said, "uh...Duffy...in case you didn't know it....uh...your job as a writer is not to write a hit. Your job as a writer....is to write. And just one more thing. I don't think you want to write a hit before THE world blows up. I think you want to write a hit before YOUR world blows up!"