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Van Morrison said that you are our greatest living poet. Do you think of yourself in those terms?
[Pause] Sometimes. It’s within me. It’s within me to put myself up and be a poet. But it’s a dedication. [Softly] It’s a big dedication. [Pause] Poets don’t drive cars. [Laughs] Poets don’t go to the supermarket. Poets don’t empty the garbage. Poets aren’t on the PTA. Poets, you know, they don’t go picket the Better Housing Bureau, or whatever. Poets don’t … Poets don’t even speak on the telephone. Poets don’t even talk to anybody. Poets do a lot of listening and … and usually they know why they’re poets!
[Laughs] Yeah, there are … what can you say? The world don’t need any more poems, it’s got Shakespeare. There’s enough of everything. You name it, there’s enough of it. There was too much of it with electricity, maybe, some people said that. Some people said the lightbulb was going too far. Poets live on the land. They behave in a gentlemanly way. And live by their own gentlemanly code. [Pause] And die broke. Or drown in lakes. Poets usually have very unhappy endings. Look at Keats’ life. Look at Jim Morrison , if you want to call him a poet. Look at him. Although some people say that he is really in the Andes.
Do you think so?
Well, it never crossed my mind to think one way or the other about it, but you do hear that talk. Piggyback in the Andes. Riding a donkey.
People have a hard time believing that Shakespeare really wrote all of his work because there is so much of it. Do you have a hard time accepting that?
People have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.
Might they think that of you, years from now, that no one man could have produced so much incredible work?
They could. They could look back and think nobody produced it. [Softly] It’s not to anybody’s best interest to think about how they will be perceived tomorrow. It hurts you in the long run.
But aren’t there songs of your own that you know will always be around?
Who’s gonna sing them? My songs really aren’t meant to be covered. No, not really. Can you think of … Well, they do get covered, but it’s covered. They’re not intentionally written to be covered, but okay, they do.
Your songs are much more enjoyable to sing and play than most songs.
Do you play them on piano or guitar?
Do you play jazz? It never hurts to learn as many chords as you can. All kinds. Sometime it will change the inflection of a whole song, a straight chord, or, say, an augmented seventh chord.
Do you have favorite keys to work in?
On the piano, my favorite keys are the black keys. And they sound better on guitar, too. Sometimes when a song’s in a flat key, say B flat, bring it to the guitar, you might want to put it in A. But … that’s an interesting thing you just said. It changes the inflection. Mainly in mine the songs sound different. They sound … when you take a black key song and put it on the guitar, which means you’re playing in A flat, not too many people like to play in those keys. To me it doesn’t matter. [Laughs] It doesn’t matter because my fingering is the same anyway. So there are songs that, even without the piano, which is the dominant sound if you’re playing in the black keys – why else would you play in that key except to have that dominant piano sound? – the songs that go into those keys right from the piano, they sound different. They sound deeper. Yeah. They sound deeper. Everything sounds deeper in those black keys. They’re not guitar keys, though. Guitar bands don’t usually like to play in those keys, which kind of gives me an idea, actually, of a couple of songs that could actually sound better in black keys.
Do keys have different colors for you?
Sure. Sure. [Softly] Sure.
You’ve written some great A minor songs. I think of “One More Cup Of Coffee.”
Right. B minor might sound even better.
Well, it might sound better because you’re playing a lot of open chords if you’re playing in A minor. If you play in B minor, it will force you to play higher. And the chords … you’re bound, someplace along the line, because there are so many chords in that song, or seem to be anyway, you’re bound someplace along the line to come down to an open chord on the bottom. From B. You would hit E someplace along the line. Try it in B minor. [Laughs] Maybe it will be a hit for you. A hit is a number one song, isn’t it? Yeah.
When you sit down to write a song, do you pick a key first that will fit a song? Or do you change keys while you’re writing?
Yeah. Yeah. Maybe like in the middle of the thing. There are ways you can get out of whatever you’ve gotten into. You want to get out of it. It’s bad enough getting into it. But the thing to do as soon as you get into it is realize you must get out of it. And unless you get out of it quickly and effortlessly, there’s no use staying in it. It will just drag you down. You could be spending years writing the same song, telling the same story, doing the same thing.
So once you involve yourself in it, once you accidentally have slipped into it, the thing is to get out. So your primary impulse is going to take you so far. But then you might think, well, you know, is this one of these things where it’s all just going to come? And then all of the sudden you start thinking. And when my mind starts thinking, “What’s happening now? Oh, there’s a story here,” and my mind starts to get into it, that’s trouble right away. That’s usually big trouble. And as far as never seeing this thing again. There’s a bunch of ways you can get out of that. You can make yourself get out of it by changing key. That’s one way. Just take the whole thing and change key, keeping the same melody. And see if that brings you any place. More times than not, that will take you down the road. You don’t want to be on a collision course. But that will take you down the road. Somewhere.
And then if that fails, and that will run out, too, then you can always go back to where you were to start. It won’t work twice, it only works once. Then you go back to where you started. Yeah, because anything you do in A, it’s going to be a different song in G. While you’re writing it, anyway. There’s too many wide passing notes in G [on the guitar] not to influence your writing, unless you’re playing barre chords.
Do you ever switch instruments, like from guitar to piano, while writing?
Not so much that way. Although when it’s time to record something, for me, sometimes a song that has been written on piano with just lyrics here in my hand, it’ll be time to play it now on guitar. So it will come out differently. But it wouldn’t have influenced the writing of the song at all. Changing keys influences the writing of the song. Changing keys on the same instrument. For me, that works. I think for somebody else, the other thing works. Everything is different.