Category Archives: Books

[Books] How to Write One Song – Jeff Tweedy

To me, showing up with a reliably open heart and a will to share whatever spirit you can muster is what resonates and transcends technical perfection — Jeff Tweedy

Perhaps best known as the frontman and songwriter for alt-country rockers Wilco, Jeff Tweedy has a formidable portfolio as a songwriter. Alongside having written 17 albums for Wilco, he is a former member of—and main songwriter for—Uncle Tupelo and Golden Smog among others; he has released four solo albums to date; and is a long-time collaborator with Mavis Staples, no less, producing and contributing songs to three albums for the gospel legend.

Book cover of 'How to Write One Song' by Jeff Tweedy

Make no mistake: the dude knows how to write a song, and with such a prolific track record, Jeff should be more than qualified to author a book titled How to Write One Song.

From the outset, it’s clear that this is not just another a songwriting manual. It’s all good, practical advice, for sure, but at just 158 pages, How to Write One Song is eminently readable. Jeff is an engaging and personable host, and he knows what he’s talking about. Rather than tell the reader what they should and should not do, this is more an insight into the author’s own experience, and a synthesis of various tips and tricks which work well for him.

The book is comprised of four main parts:

  1. Finding the habit or mindset conducive to everyday creativity, and to losing oneself in it. Being able to “get gone long enough for one song to appear”
  2. Practical exercises to get those songwriting juices flowing, such as “Word Ladder”, “Playing With Rhymes”, and “Don’t Be Yourself”—a surprisingly liberating exercise in writing from the perspective of others
  3. Recommendations for developing as a songwriter, for example learning other people’s songs, and freeing oneself of the constrictive pressure of expectation that everything you write should be good
  4. Bringing it all together by using the outcomes of the exercises, combined with stockpiled words and music, to create and demo a finished song

And there you have it. In Jeff’s words: “To me, that’s ONE song. The one you’ve been working on, the one that’s the goal of writing and reading this book.”

The approach of attempting to write one song, rather than many, is refreshing. Certainly, it makes for a far less daunting proposition to the newcomer than the ambition of becoming an accomplished, prolific songwriter, but moreover:

No one writes songs—plural. They write one song, then another. [What you really want] is to disappear—to watch your concept of time evaporate, to live at least once inside a moment when you aren’t “trying” to do anything or be anything any more…That’s something that doesn’t happen through songs—plural. It happens only when you’ve lost yourself in the process of making one song

Where traditional songwriting manuals tend to focus on the craft of writing, How to Write One Song tacitly acknowledges a duality and perhaps tension in songwriting—-or any creative pursuit—of art versus craft, inspiration vs perspiration. It’s easy to get hung up, assuming that one cannot write a song until inspiration strikes.

That can be kind of a bummer, since inspiration doesn’t always come easy, and rarely can it be forced. Instead the approach here is primarily to remove the obstacles to inspiration. If that means practical steps, such as making sure to pick up a pen or a guitar or a tape recorder every day, or psychological processes such loosening one’s own expectations, to “have a party and not invite any part of your psyche that feels a need to judge what you make as a reflection of yourself”, so be it:

I believe that you have to invite inspiration in. I’ve found that most people who have a fulfilling life in art are, like me, the people who work at it every day…who not only invite inspiration in but also do it on a regular basis. Instead of waiting to be “struck” by inspiration, they put themselves directly in its path.

This is a valuable work and a rarity among “How to” songwriting books, in that the author genuinely gets it, and is more than willing to share it with the reader.

All of which leads inevitably to the question: did I get a song out of it?

Well, no, not yet. It will take time to work through the exercises, for example, not to mention the stockpiling of words and fragments of music, all of which the book recommends. Moreover, it may take a while to come to terms with exploring outside one’s creative comfort zone. Perhaps there’s a follow-up post to be written here at some point [1].

My own procrastination notwithstanding, this is a hugely inspiring and compelling book, and one which does help the reader to feel that they can write a song. Or, if they’ve already written at least one, that they can do it again, and better. Or at least more deliberately.

I use the term “deliberately” because, for my part, How to Write One Song has triggered an interest in addressing the process or, dare I say it, craft of songwriting. Perhaps in previous writing endeavours—about 30 years now—I’ve allowed myself to get hung up on the art. A song had to be totally honest and from the heart: to cure not only my pain, but all the pain in the world. The One True Song, as it were.

A laudable ambition for sure, but where has that got me? Songs that I’ve actually finished in the last decade probably still number in the single figures. I’m reasonably proud of them, but is that what Jeff describes as “a fulfilling life in art”? You decide.

Either way, How to Write One Song will be a valuable companion along the way. It’s one to read again, and probably one to keep on hand at all times, as there are countless valuable ideas in there. A hearty Three Hundred Songs thumbs up from here.


[1] Or, a much better idea, take a look at How to write one song (according to Jeff Tweedy) over on the very useful The Songwriter’s Workshop channel.

Title: How to Write One Song
Author: Jeff Tweedy
Published: Faber & Faber, London, 2020
This Edition: Faber & Faber, London, 2022; paperback

[Books] Mainlines, Blood Feasts & Bad Taste – Lester Bangs

Once described as “America’s greatest rock critic”, Lester Bangs was one of the USA’s most noted music writers of the 1970s and beyond, exciting and infuriating readers in equal measure until his untimely death in 1982.

The cover of Mainlines, Blood Feasts & Bad Taste

Writing regularly in Rolling Stone magazine, alongside underground publications such as Creem and The San Diego Door, Bangs could be as controversial as he was influential: he could just as easily be found trashing everyone from Billy Joel to the MC5, and declaring the Beatles to be “nothing”, as eulogising Lou Reed’s wilfully unlistenable Metal Machine Music.

Compiled by music journalist John Morthland and published in 2003, Mainlines, Blood Feasts & Bad Taste is a posthumous collection of Bangs’ work. Comprising several dozen largely unconnected writings, including a number of previously unpublished pieces, the book is presented as a companion volume to the earlier, Greil Marcus-edited Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung.

Morthland was a colleague of Bangs, the two writers sharing an office at Rolling Stone, and claims him as a “great friend”. Moreover, it soon becomes clear that Morthland is also a fan, describing Bangs’ work as by turns “electric” and “explosive”, whilst acknowledging its inherent controversy and contradiction.

Indeed, it isn’t necessary to read far into Mainlines… before it becomes uncomfortably clear that a sizeable tranche of Bangs’ writings would not, or perhaps could not, be published these days. On learning of Anne Murray’s “large lesbian following”, Bangs writes:

Don’t let that worry you…this little katy’s as straight as a yardarm except for her perfect pearly tits and roundy mound o’ bush and arco droolo calves.

Creem, September 1973

And of Helen Reddy, in what purports to be an album review:

What everybody doesn’t know is the hot pulsating goodies Helen Reddy’s got to offer up. Cum here woman, do your duty; drop them drawers and gimme some pooty! But no, this is one Boopsy won’t do the do—she’s a holdout, she’s not even a tease. [At least] Anne Murray was demure but carnal.

Creem, August 1974

I guess the woke leftie mob have won if we can’t write about our female artists like that nowadays, am I right lads?

This is before the reader is expected to struggle through the unnecessary, anatomically-detailed exposition of what Bangs would like to do to Runaways vocalist Cherie Currie’s genitals, and have her do to his, should the chance arise. There are about a dozen unwelcome pages of that without mention of the fact that she’s a musician. You can hardly blame her for picking up that chainsaw.

The fact is, if you want Lester Bangs to be likeable from the get-go just like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous made him seem, you’re going to be sadly, sadly disappointed. It’s all a bit troublesome at times, and it isn’t difficult see how the #MeToo movement gained such traction in subsequent decades.

Thankfully, Bangs does appear to mature as time wears on, or at least tailor his style to context and start to talk about the music a little. To be fair, Bangs did actually know his music, and could at times be motivated to write about it with passion and no little sensitivity.

A case in point is the vignette in which Bangs pays a visit to the Mojave Desert trailer home of one Don Van Vliet—the inimitable Captain Beefheart. In uncharacteristically deferential mood, Bangs displays an insight into Van Vliet’s often intractable art that very few commentators have mustered. For example, noting the recurrent theme of animatism in Beefheart songs such as Run Paint Run Run and Electricity:

I think that partially Don anthropomorphizes animals and objects as a defense against humans, who empirical observation has told him are by and large incomprehensible to themselves as well as him, that’s when they’re not out to getcha. He’s like an Androcles that would chat a spell with Leo but see fangs and claws on a delivery boy.

The Village Voice, 1980

And of long-time sparring partner Lou Reed:

For all his monotonal mutterings, there’s so much pain suffused just under the monotone, so much despair and desire and human regret, that even at his most cynical you can feel him struggling with himself, fighting his demons.

“Blondie”, Lester Bangs, 1980

It steadily becomes clear that behind the loutish, macho bluster, Bangs did actually care about the music, and to no small extent, the musicians themselves.

Beyond the book’s division into themed parts—titles such as Drug Punk, Pantheon and Travelogues speak for themselves—there may be no obvious overarching narrative to Mainlines…, but if there is a consistent theme to the oeuvre of Lester Bangs as a whole, it is that of Lester Bangs himself. Make no mistake: Lester Bangs writes in the first person.

Reviewing Miles Davis’ latest release in 1976:

As for all this new Miles music, I sit here at the end of Agharta with a rubbery weight at the bottom of my heart. I’m no masochist…but I’m not sorry. I have finally learned to [continues]

Phonograph Record, 1976

And published posthumously, from the intended liner notes for a Comedian Harmonists album that remained unreleased in Bangs’ lifetime:

I have no idea what kind of writer I am, except that I do know that I’m good and lots of people read whatever it is that I do, and I like it that way.

The New York Times, 1999

Note the liberal use of the word “I” throughout.

It is unclear whether this subjective, self-referential approach is due to a deep-seated narcissism, a deliberate attempt to foster a cult of personality, or simply the affectation of a literary style. It’s certainly hard to miss the influence of Hunter S. Thompson and his school of gonzo journalism, and as a writer for Rolling Stone in the 1970s, it would have been all but impossible for Bangs to miss it either.

Yet where Thompson regularly assumed the role of protagonist, actively precipitating a story where none was previously forthcoming, Bangs often seems content in the more observational role of journalist-as-participant, whilst never straying from the personal.

For example, a week in Jamaica at the expense of Island Records sees Bangs interviewing future man-god Bob Marley, being privy to watching John Martyn overdub guitar parts for Burning Spear’s forthcoming Man in the Hills LP, and later spending an evening at Rastafarian spiritual service in honour of Grounation. These are rare insights, and the reader can at times feel privileged to have been invited along for the ride.

It’s a shame that the book kind of peters out towards the end, with the final part, Raving, Raging, and Rebops, sufficing as a kind of dumping ground for miscellaneous leftovers—unpublished liner notes, non sequiturs concerning REO Speedwagon and, yes, the aforementioned piece about Cherie Currie.

Or perhaps, just perhaps, it’s appropriate, since Lester Bangs’ own life fizzled out fairly unspectacularly, ending in 1982 as a result of an accidental overdose of cold medications. He was 33.

I’ll probably never produce a masterpiece, but so what? I feel I have a Sound aborning, which is my own, and that Sound if erratic is still my greatest pride, because I would rather write like a dancer shaking my ass to boogaloo inside my head, and perhaps reach only readers who like to use books to shake their asses, than to be or write for the man cloistered in a closet somewhere reading Aeschylus while this stupefying world careens crazily past his waxy windows towards its last raving sooty feedback pirouette.

— Previously unpublished, 1968

Decades later, the jury may well still be out on the matter of whether it’s better to burn out than to fade away—or indeed whether such an anticlimactic end counts as either—but here we are, still talking about the man and his work. It’s what he would have wanted.

Title: Mainlines, Blood Feasts & Bad Taste
Author: Lester Bangs; compiled and edited by John Morthland
Published: Anchor Books, New York, 2003
This Edition: Serpent’s Tail, London, 2003; paperback