|Posted by powerpopclassics on February 1, 2016 at 4:00 PM|
I started law school at Ole Miss in the fall of 1985 after having graduated from The University of Missouri the previous spring. I felt confident about my survival as a law student, and knew that a legal education would help me in a variety of ways in the future. In the back of my mind, though, I was conflicted, and feared that I might be prematurely giving up on my true dream, life as a power pop musician. Some well-meaning, but nay-saying friends advised me against this law school thing, pointing out that I was setting into motion a "fall-back" plan that would inevitably lead to something other than songwriting and record production. In an attempt to prove them wrong, I vowed that every single day my first responsibility was to capture any decent melody that flowed my way, regardless of how difficult doing so might be. Nobody else I knew was attacking law school this way.
One random day in the spring of 1987, I met some Ole Miss classmates at The Gin. We had a late lunch, followed by a drink or two. As we dispersed, I wandered across the parking lot and found myself in The Hoka, a legendary gathering spot for students, authors, authors-to-be, and general hangers-on. The Hoka was like no other place on earth. They showed movies of all kinds in the back, served cheesecake, salads and sandwiches in the front, and provided the perfect setting for most of the great conversations that took place in Mississippi during the ‘80’s. Best of all, The Hoka had an old console piano near the screen door entrance.
The first time the urge struck me to play the piano at The Hoka was around Halloween of 1985. I am not exactly sure why, but I sat down and played all of side one and part of side two of Elton’s GOODBYE YELLOW BRICK ROAD album to a roomful of late night cheesecake patrons. After I finished my set, the guy in charge, a guy that most people called “Ronzo,” came over to me and said, "I was going to make you stop, but you didn't sound too terrible. As long as you don't suck, you can play." Over the next year and a half, I probably gave 10 or so impromptu “concerts” on The Hoka’s piano. My song selection usually consisted of Beatle covers, a bit of old Elton, a little Billy Joel, and, on one rare occasion, Steely Dan. Ronzo eventually recognized me well enough to once greet me with "Hey, Piano Man. The bench is empty.”
By that random spring afternoon in 1987, I was comfortable sitting down at The Hoka to test out some of my own instrumental piano songs that were soft and melancholy, in the vein of Liz Story and George Winston. I was lost within the slow melodies, when suddenly my concentration was broken by a sweaty, older gentleman who steadied himself by grabbing my shoulder. He appeared to be falling, but he landed beside me on the piano bench, facing away from the piano. Obviously drunk, he interrupted me, demanding to know if any of my songs had lyrics. Being knocked out of my zone so suddenly, I scowled, "Lyrics aren’t hooks. Only the SOUND of each word matters when it comes to lyrics. The words just need to match the motion of the melody."
My retort sobered up my overweight benchmate and stabbed him right in the heart. He gathered himself, sat up straight, and loudly announced, "My good man, there is nothing on this earth that matches a well-told story or a vivid poem. A set of song lyrics should, just as vividly, impart such a story." I nodded politely, hoping to get rid of my new fan. Finally, while still playing chords, I asked him if he was some kind of author. He said that indeed he was, and that his next book was coming out later in the year. Further, he said that every person at his table was a published author. All of his friends had stories to tell, and they each wrote about their experiences and the people and things they encountered. Unimpressed, I kept playing and promised him that I would next do a song with words. He got up, patted me on the shoulder, loosened his tie, and staggered back to his table.
As I meandered through my new age piano solo, my mind ran down the entire catalog of songs recorded several years earlier by my band, The Trend. I immediately realized that my power pop lyrics were going to be too bubblegum, too trite and teenie to impress a table of authors. So, instead of playing anything from The Trend’s album, I hacked my way through a song I had co-written with a girl at Mizzou. I knew my tune well, and at least I wasn’t ashamed of HER lyrics. My performance had to have been generally bad, but the table of bookworms applauded. As I got up to leave The Hoka, the intoxicated and soon-to-again-be-published author croaked, "Not a bad story, my good man. Remember, write what you live." Ronzo nodded, and I made my way through the screen door, toward my apartment to rethink my approach to song lyrics forever.
During the next month or so, there were dry runs on the guitar, as chord changes were interrupted by an inner voice whispering, “Every single word matters.” Why couldn’t I just dash out a quick melody with quick words, and then replace the words with something better? Still nothing. Humming, which had always been my favorite way to develop a riff or a verse, seemed futile now that any new song’s message had to be as important as the melody. This self-imposed change in writing technique really knocked me out for a time. Melodies simply stopped coming.
And then suddenly my day job took over my world. It was, once again, time for finals. Finals! That word makes me nervous even now. To me, the word “finals” meant the three week period leading up to that barrage of single exams in each law school class that determined our grades, our status as students, our futures. Based on the constant attention music had gotten from me that spring, I needed to cram. And I did. Everything else stopped. In other words, even I knew to leave my guitar alone during finals.
I can’t remember how I did on those exams, but I do remember the mental freedom that hit me once finals were over. That rush hit me as I walked from the law school building to my parking spot at the old train depot. As I started my car, I felt euphoric. I felt creative. I felt like the guy that used to write power pop songs for The Trend. Heck, I even felt like just listening to some music that I truly loved! I really needed to hear some Fools Face, an incredible band with whom we had played a few Kansas City and Jefferson City dates four years before, in 1983.
As I jammed PUBLIC PLACES by Fools Face into my car’s Alpine cassette player, a much younger version of my right hand twisted that volume knob as far as it would go. Driving around Oxford, it hit me that I was singing along with an album that I knew incredibly well, but that nobody else in Mississippi had ever heard. Then, “To Be Someone” came on. This was certainly a Fools Face classic, one that I had heard a million times. This time, though, BECAUSE EVERY WORD MATTERED, I heard something in it I had never caught before. I heard the tone of the story being told. I heard desperation, tempered with humor. I heard defiance, coupled with a dash of longing. This time, instead of picturing my friends victoriously playing this song to a packed house at The Blue Note in Columbia, Missouri, I pictured Jim Wirt, alone with his guitar, singing a skeletal version of the song into a tape recorder.
After numerous repeated listens, I landed back at my apartment, ready to tackle my guitar. I played the “G” chord that starts “To Be Someone” over and over. Just kept doing it, all the while thinking that Jim Wirt had written what he had lived when he wrote that one. Out of the blue, instead of modulating to the “D” chord the way Wirt did with “To Be Someone,” I changed chords in a completely different rhythm, and got back to the “G” early. I played that chord change for many minutes, probably thirty. Then, I opened my mouth and it just spilled out. “Well I learned a whole lot about life in law school.” I repeated that for a while. Soon, I hummed out the rest of the verse. Within minutes, I was scribbling at a frantic pace, following the advice of the author at The Hoka, and the example of Jim Wirt of Fools Face. I simply wrote what I was living, my experiences, and the people I was encountering. It just flowed. There was no work involved in it at all.
With a rough of my song now on tape, I folded up the only copy of its lyrics, and headed straight to The Hoka. While a part of me was hoping to catch up with my classmates and celebrate the end of the semester, a bigger part of me was hoping to track down that table of authors, especially the chubby one that almost fell on me. I really wanted to play my new creation for them. Unfortunately, that night, nobody I knew was at The Hoka. My classmates had started at The Gin, and had moved on to a celebration at Syd & Harry’s. So, I caught up with them, and, I think, ended up driving several of them home.
Fourteen years later, in a Memphis studio, I played the song for my friends, Don Smith, Jack Holder, Robert Hall, Dawn Hopkins and Mike Lawler. I asked them to attempt a run through, just to see how it sounded. They agreed. As I wrote out the chords, Dawn snickered at the lyric sheet. And then we played. It clicked. After a couple of false starts, we caught it on 24 tracks of analog reel. Half a year, and 32 radio stations later, the American Bar Assocation wrote about me in its magazine. My lyrics to “Law School” were actually quoted in a Law Review article about “The Philosophy of Lawyering!” In law libraries forever. Weird.
The author that challenged me to tell a good story? I never saw him again. But if I do, or even see a picture that can help me identify him, I will make the effort to personally thank him. I will buy him the beverage of his choosing. Unfortunately, I will not be able to do so at The Gin. Like The Hoka, it is gone, found now only in the mists of a collective memory. And me? These days, I am a lawyer practically all of the time, and a real musician only a few days per year. But if I could just play that piano at The Hoka one more time...
John T. McMullan
January 31, 2016