The Gallery of Horrors – Bad Song! Part III

In Part I of this thread, I introduced a “Bad Song!” exercise you can use as an ice-breaker or warm-up. In Part II, I gave some examples of great bad songs from the media, and pointed out that a talent for bad song writing is not such a bad professional skill to have in your toolkit. Here I return to the theme of using badness as a way of opening up your creative work. I guess you could call this “I’m bad and I’m proud…” or “I wrote it bad, and hey!—that’s good…”

Taking ourselves too damn seriously can definitely get us stuck.

Supposedly, late in his career, the composer Leonard Bernstein became creatively paralyzed. When he sat down at the piano he felt whatever he came up with needed to be “worthy of Leonard Bernstein.”

Now, I’m no Leonard Bernstein. But at times I “Simos freak myself out” in a similar way. I become the victim of my steadily rising standards, if not abilities. So there’s a specific tool I use to counteract the “Bernstein effect. When I come up with a real howler—a spectacularly terrible line—instead of throwing it away and trying to forget I ever wrote it, I collect it in an ongoing list I call my Gallery of Horrors.

Why would you ever save stuff like this? Well, if nothing else, as a reminder of what to avoid. Maintaining your own Gallery of Horrors helps keep you loose and not too full of yourself. In co-writing especially, when you’ve generated a real clunker you can make a joke of it and ceremoniously add it to your Gallery. In this way you demonstrate your spontaneity and willingness to edit, your ability to laugh at yourself and leave your ego at the door.

Careful though—you never know who might try to blackmail you by posting your list to the Internet. And—you never know when your worst idea may turn out to be your best.

The Dolphin. I’d used informal versions of this in passing; but I remember the day I made it a formal technique. I was writing with Jon Weisberger, a good friend and frequent co-writer, and Jimmy van Cleve, a great bluegrass fiddler, songwriter and producer who I’d never written with before.

I always enjoy writing with Jon: he’s a walking encyclopedia of bluegrass, with unerring sense for what works within the idiom and what breaks the convention. Yet he’s also sort of a “Northern boy” like me, with a background in journalism and creative writing, thus a safe person for me to take chances with. I can throw any silly line at him, knowing we’ll laugh, and it won’t make it into the song if it stinks, but I won’t lose cred in his eyes. (Jimmy I was not so sure about!)

We were working on a piece of music we really liked, struggling to find a lyric that fit, when I heard myself volunteer this gem:

I was a dolphin, riding the waves

In a sea the color of love

Even as I spoke the line I knew I’d reached a watershed mark in my career—a truly, spectacularly bad line! We looked at each other silently for about five seconds, then exploded in laughter. I flipped my journal to “My Back Pages” and put the line proudly and prominently at the top of a new page. And thus was my official “Gallery of Horrors” born.

As it happens, we never did get a lyric we liked for that song. It became a co-written instrumental, which Jimmy Van Cleve recorded as “Grey Afternoon.” (Therein lies another tale, for another day and another blog.)

The Rules of the Gallery. Recently, talking with Jon, he told me with satisfaction he’d just added a line to his own Gallery of Horrors. “And it’s an honest line,” he said. “It truly came out of a co-writing session as a serious line for consideration.” This is an essential rule of the game for your Gallery of Horrors.

In co-writing, it can be helpful to loosen up with your collaborator by intentionally throwing really bad lines out on the table. It’s a bit of a dare with your partner, to keep an open mind. (This is like a one-liner version of “Bad Song!”)

But you can’t just make up silly or stupid lines for their own sake in order to fill up your Gallery. (As I say to my ever-resourceful students: “That’s not wrong—it’s just a different exercise…”) To make it into your Gallery, each earwax-flavored All-Flavor Bean (apologies to Dumbledore!) must be bagged “in the wild.” That is: at the very moment you think of the line, you must at least briefly entertain the notion it might work in the song. (More often than you might think, you might turn out to be right.) Only after disbelieving groans from your co-writer, or your own good taste kicks in, do you get to add it to your Gallery.

It can be a great ice-breaker at the start of an awkward session, though, to share a few lines from your already-collected Gallery. If your partner doesn’t suddenly remember a previous appointment, you know you’re ready to do some writing.

Exercise: Start your own personal Gallery of Horrors. Think back on the worst three lines you ever wrote (and presumably did not use in a song).

Query: If you’re willing—care to share a stinker or two with the Tribe? Send it in as a comment!

Aftermath. At the end of my days, on my deathbed—hopefully with the assistance of a pert blonde nurse—I intend to put all my “Gallery of Horror” lines into one final song to be entitled: “The Worst Song I Ever Wrote (After Which I Died).” I won’t try this any sooner—the song might be enough to finally make me kick the bucket.

Just think—each of us can write a song like this, and it will take us our whole life to do it!



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