My guitar is lying on the floor out of its case, not too close to the dog bed to be intimidating but close enough for it to be a studied factor in the negotiation of this room. My dog does not trust it. I am hoping that its unceremonious presence will get her used to what is quite an important object in my life. We’ve been through this ritual with a lot of things – the washing basket, large parcels, tools, wide-brimmed hats… but the guitar evidently embodies a particular malevolence that she can’t quite reason out yet. Lorna is a nervous dog, rescued from the streets of Kazakhstan and bundled from one home to another over the course of her twenty months in this terrible world of humans. After all her troubles the last thing I want to do is force my music on her, she’s been through enough.
Still, I’m not overly happy about leaving my lovely Martin Dreadnought lying about. Like Lorna it has suffered its own woes. It has been all over the world with me, had its neck broken and repaired twice, been bashed about by tours and studio sessions and been a trusted vehicle (or unwilling accessory) in the writing and presentation of much of the material you will know me for. But my dog does not know any of this; does not know that, like her, it is also a fragile thing that I care for very much. When I pick it up she cowers, when I strum a chord she bolts. In that respect she’s not dissimilar to many of the audiences I’ve encountered over the years.
So it’s lying there, demonstrably not a threat or an interloper or a weapon. But Lorna knows it’s only boring until it’s dangerous (after all Woody Guthrie’s guitar was a machine that killed fascists – what else might such things kill? Dogs?), she can’t fathom why I’d choose to run my hands across its strings rather than scratch her belly. So work – at least all work that is not directly dog-related – has ceased. New musical? What new musical? Are there rabbits that she can chase in it? No? Then what can it possibly matter? A cork has been firmly plunged into my creative bottleneck.
But any seasoned music practitioner will know that this blog is not really about dogs. It is about procrastination. When something needs to get done, it gets done. Or it doesn’t. You find time or you don’t. You find space or you don’t. You find a balance or you don’t. You can’t blame it on the dog, or the job, or the weather. When Levon Helm sings The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down he bellows it at the top of his lungs, but at the composition stage Robbie Robertson whispered the fledgling verses over a muted piano at midnight, his baby asleep upstairs. Elizabeth Gaskell wrote all her novels at the dining room table between meals whilst husband, family and servants fussed noisily around her. There’s never a perfect moment to write or paint or design. There’s always another cup of tea to brew or the washing up to do, always a new email to read or a garden to weed. The truth is I welcome this enemy to productivity, this beautiful distraction. It makes me feel like I’m not failing. Lorna and I go for at least three walks a day and she’s hardly ever far from my side. She makes me forget that I feel utterly daunted by the task I’ve set myself (a musical about the asylum years of Antonin Artaud – talk about niche). I feel like I’ve barely started despite having done months of research and composed pages and pages of notes, melodies, rough lyrics and narrative outlines – all of which seem irredeemably awful. I seem to be stuck in the “why this is impossible” stage with no way of jumping to the “what needs to be done” phase that then leads to the actually DOING IT bit. But that in itself is not really a big worry, I remember that process from when I wrote Jocasta, I spent well over a year barely beginning, at best not being able to finish anything I started, not being able to get a handle on what I was trying to do. Then I got over it and things started falling into place and the problem shifted to not being able to stop rather than not being able to start. And through the two years it took to write the music, lyrics and book the whole “why this is impossible” stage kept coming back again and again, right up until I finished the damn thing.
But the worry this time is that I’m no longer a jobbing musician and that this project is currently the only thing that really links me to that world I inhabited for most of my adult life, the world that (like it or not) gave me so much of what it is that I deem to be me. When I was writing the songs for Jocasta I was also writing for the Bedlam Six, plus a commission for the Lowry, plus a few bits and pieces for Snowapple. And I was gigging so regularly that my credentials as someone who belonged in the creative industries were never in question. Now, aside for that one Tunc number, I’ve not written a single song since the end of 2016.
But the way to smash through the belief that you can’t write is simply to write. Write a blog about your lovely dog that turns out to actually be a confessional piece about not being able to write the new musical and whilst doing that find out that it is possible to type with the right hand whilst the left hand strokes the dog.
a completed musical…
(By the way, if you want to procrastinate yourself, feel free to watch this video of Lorna in action)