It’s About the Lack of Talent, Shane

‘I think Nick has more than a passing love for music. I get the feeling that music is something Nick would be doing if he wasn’t writing.’ So said the admirable, and charitable, Shane Nicholson in various weekend papers. Replace that final word ‘writing’ with ‘a talentless, tone-deaf singer with the rhythm of an accident, whose guitar playing could not be worse if he wore wicket-keeping gloves’ and you’d be a little closer to the truth.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the job I’m doing. It’s just that I wanted Shane’s job first. And it’s not as if I didn’t try. In grade twelve, I devoted forty bucks to a guitar and eight days to the Hal Leonard one-chord-a-day plan before it became very clear that Hal and I didn’t see eye to eye. Dreams don’t go away that easily though.

I wrote songs throughout the eighties and kept them in a folder. I gave them numerical ratings, out of a hundred, and some of them scored quite highly, out-ranking songs of the time on Countdown. Of course no one ever heard them. It would have been far too dangerous for them to leave my room. Not one even made it as far as the hall where, should I show myself with guitar ready for action, everyone else in my family was trained to beat me back with whatever came to hand (cushions, food, an ageing cat called Linus).

But that was no different to how the publishing world treated my fiction in those days, and clearly I’m not easily deterred.

I kept writing songs, and then advertising jingles. Two lines for a jingle for a disposable fountain pen paid me more than a day’s work as a junior hospital doctor, took ten minutes and came with free pizza. What’s not to love about that?

I linked up with a singer and we wrote songs together. She played them in piano bars all over town. We took them around the country, we took them to London where we pitched ourselves at music companies for months and got no closer to success than a meeting in a windowless room with a man in a denim suit and red shoes who had just signed Sigue Sigue Sputnik. ‘These are good songs,’ he said to us, ‘but not great songs. Give me your address and I’ll send you some great songs.’ He did, and it turned out that all the great songs were written by Todd Rundgren, which was not what I’d expected. (For the details, because of course you want them, please see my piece in ‘Your Mother Would Be Proud’ …)

My songwriting partner now lives in New York, mostly, where she manages to turn out albums quite successfully without my lyrics, tour in a band supporting Cindy Lauper, sing anthems at major sporting events and appear on TV. While at the same time becoming the voice of satellite navigation systems everywhere, and of all Telstra text messages sent to landlines. I heard her sing and play piano in her parents’s loungeroom last weekend on a visit home, and the gap between those who can and those who can’t was as apparent as ever. Karen is a ‘can’, in a big way. I’m a ‘can’t’.

But it turns out I’m as hard to put off as H1N1 influenza. Every couple of years, a new strain of my songwriting surfaces to have another go at the population, typically when we’re all least expecting it.

The True Story of Butterfish needed songs. That’s easy in a novel, since they don’t require actual writing, but Butterfish is a play as well, and there’s no hiding there. A play needs real songs.

Curtis works in his studio in his backyard after the implosion of his band career. Maybe he’s about to make a name for himself as a producer. His first mission is the debut album of the Splades, a Norwegian band ready to break out of Scandinavia. He’s also working on a song of his own that’s been nagging away at him for a while. So, I needed the Splades’ ‘Only Tomorrow’ and I needed Curtis’s ‘The Light That Guides You Home’.

My friend and musical advisor Adele Pickvance came on board. Adele had been the one to show me the inner workings of a home studio when I was planning the novel. She’s now the play’s musical director. And it was her idea – and a clever one too – that the two songs should be written by different people, as they are in the story.

So she recruited her old band-mate from Go-Betweens, Robert Forster – a hero of mine since my Hal Leonard days – to be the man behind the Splades. And Robert took a copy of the play and went to work.

I read an article last week in which he was quoted as saying, ‘I read the text of the play and reacted. The song I wrote has links to the fact the band comes from Scandinavia, and that put ideas of a sound in my head. Also, the dramatic situation between the characters gave me lyrical ideas. The play literally put words in my mouth. It also allowed me to write a song not from my point of view, but from that of a character, and I really enjoyed that.’

He called Adele one day in April and said he’d found the sound of the Splades. He’d written a song, and it was just right for them and for the play and for that moment in Curtis’s story. Only it wasn’t called ‘Only Tomorrow’. It was called ‘It’s Not What You Think’. So I called my editor in the minutes before the file went to the printers, and we searched and replaced, and the Splades’ song in the novel became ‘It’s Not What You Think’. And it is just right, and it is intriguing, and I don’t mind at all the idea that Robert Forster, years after I became his fan, stepped in and wrote a few words of my new novel.

Meanwhile, I turned my hand to lyrics again, and Adele brought music to them and took them somewhere great. ‘The Light That Guides You Home’ came to life under her name, and with her voice, and there’s no luckier novelist than me, the tone-deaf non-singer non-player who toyed clumsily and hopelessly with the usual teen rockstar dreams, fell gratefully for writing fiction instead and made his move on iTunes years after he might have thought it impossible.

I get to hover on the edges of music, as close to the edge as the fortunate unmusical can get, as close as a novel might take anyone under its own steam. I’m glad to be here, however briefly, even if it’ll never be my day job.

Even if I’ll never have it in me to make great music without apparent effort the way Robert does, the way Adele does, the way Shane Nicholson does. I’m happy to admire and appreciate, and to do what I do, make what I make, words that mostly sit on a page and come without music.

Shane Nicholson, sings, plays guitar, piano and probably more, and does all these very very well. He’s a masterful songwriter whose lyrics repay a lot of re-listening. And the man knows how to wear a hat, and that’s way out of range for me as well.

Thirteen books in though, I think I’m where I’m meant to be, and I’ll probably do this job – and gladly – as long as you’ll let me.

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