June 10, 2005

The Place

He’s only been there once, when he was twenty–five. It’s not a geographical place, it’s the place where songs come from. When he got there, he happened to be standing at a hotel room window in New Orleans, looking out at a lightning storm, a loud gale pelting the shiny black street and whipping the flags above the hotel awning. The scattered lights on in the windows across the alley, and the person trotting hunched under a poncho against the wall, and the car splashing up a chest–high wake of flood water.

That was the moment when his great song came to him -- the one about rain and wind and the city -- you know it. He had been singing it in a dream, and if the thunder hadn’t wakened him he wouldn’t have remembered it.

He pulled his guitar from under the bed and worked out the chords in two minutes and scribbled the words of the chorus and the first verse on hotel note paper. The rest he filled out after sunrise, when The Place was already receding like something seen from the back of a train.

That song paid for him to stay on the road for a generation and more. It paid for his house and his kids’ schooling.

He’s written a lot of songs since. He’s had to, to fill out albums and set lists. But none of them came from The Place. They were just pieces of craft, carefully constructed and reworked, the products of skill and experience. Even his two smaller hits, the one about loving forever and the one about the big blue sky, didn’t really come from there, though he tried to force them to. From the foothills of The Place, maybe -- from canyon cul de sacs. He doesn’t like playing them anymore, though he has to play them every night. But he never gets tired of playing his one true song.

Countless times he’s tried to figure out how to get back to The Place. He’s returned to the same hotel room. He’s stayed up through lightning and thunder. He’s had people wake him in the middle of the night during rapid eye movement -- he’s even paid for an overnight sleep study in a clinic, instructing the techs to wake him up when he was dreaming.

He knows now that he won’t reach it again by trying. He’s got to just keep living and playing the way he always does -- and keep playing all those other songs -- and hope.

Sometimes he imagines songwriter heaven. They’ll all be there, the ones who could get to The Place just by sitting down at the piano, the ones who got to it five times, ten times, twenty times or more, the ones who lived there all the time and never had to touch down in this world at all. Anyone who’s ever been to The Place is admitted there. Even he, who was only there for a few minutes. They’ll stretch their arms wide and smile when he comes, and say Welcome.