on writing

The Ballad of Easy Procrastinator

I sat down the other night for one hour of perfect writing time, the kind of time recommended by experts who write books on writing. I’ve never been the “perfect time” kind of writer. I like a little noise and action around me while I’m scribbling, so rather than sequester myself in a quiet room with a keyboard and a Yankee Candle I prefer to write in diners. (Well, I write in notebooks while seated in diners. Precise language matters.) The unlimited iced tea refills are a good deal, but I know I’m renting office space for the price of a meal. The longer I stay the less money both the restaurant and my server are making off of my table so I always order food, and I think I tip pretty well, too. This is not the most fiscally responsible writing routine, nor is it the most healthy. There’s a reason that diner food doesn’t figure prominently into professional athletes’ training regimens. You’re not likely to hear: “Hi, I’m Michael Phelps, and I packed away lots of gravy-drenched chicken fried steak on my way to 28 Olympic medals. That’s why I eat at Lumberjacks.”

And while I claim to like the din of the diner, I wear noise canceling earbuds to drown out half of it. Writing in naugahyde booths works for me but it’s pretty impractical, so on this particular evening I sat down for exactly one hour of perfect writing time as prescribed by the experts. I cleaned off the table in my library, which meant I transferred the stacks of books on its surface to piles on nearby bookshelves. I’ve owned that table for 30 years, by the way. Each time I look at it I’m reminded of the Hollywood junkie pad it first graced, and my early feeble (and often drunken) attempts to write. Look closely and you can make out the impressions of letters pressed into the soft pine, ghosts of pens and pencils pressed too hard against thin sheets of paper. My son must have been fascinated by those impressions: As a grade schooler he repeatedly stabbed his pencil tip into the table top, leaving an area pockmarked with memories.

I turned on the table lamp. Its focused light would be less distracting than the overhead’s diffuse glow, broadcasting light across the hundreds of books lining the wall to wall shelving. All of those books waiting to be read, reread, dusted, shelved, reorganized. No wonder diners seem less distracting to me.

The diner notebook and index cards relevant to the story I wanted to work on found space on the pockmarked table, as did my fully charged laptop, my noise canceling earbuds, and one Brother Thelonious, North Coast Brewing’s nod to genius monks of both the Belgian and pianist varieties. My last lines of defense against distraction: sweater on to fend off chill, phone off to silence the world. Of course, my computer screen glowed in front of me, but that was a necessary evil. I’d just have to limit my browser window to a search engine, no social media or other time wasters.

The story upon which I would focus for the next hour opens on November 1, 1969, so I launched my word processing program of choice and typed “November 1, 1969.” That looked pretty good. I stared at it for a few seconds, and then I decided that in order to really get into the spirit of the thing I should play some music. Not just any music would do: If I was going to write about a specific date, then shouldn’t I be listening to that date? I toggled over to my browser window and looked up Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for that date. Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds” was number one on that date, so I fired up my music player and played that tune. While I listened, I added a piece of business after “November 1, 1969” describing what my ’60s housewife heard on the little AM radio in her avocado-colored kitchen.

We were cooking now, but I couldn’t listen to “Suspicious Minds” for one hour. It’s a cool song, but come on. The thing to do was to create a playlist that contained as much of the Hot 100 for that date as I could. I have about 56,000 songs in my digital library, so surely I must own more than just “Suspicious Minds,” I figured. Now, I know that owning a digital music library is so 2008. I’m sure that I could stream my little 11/01/69 heart out, but that’s not my style. I may rent time in diner booths, but I prefer to own my music, thank you. And if you think my hard drive is an anachronism in this streaming world, you should see my physical stacks: thousands of albums, 45s, 78s, CDs (whose contents are my digital library, no downloads for this boy), 8-tracks, cassettes, reel to reels, and even a four-track or two. I have records cut from backs of cereal boxes and records made for players that no longer exist. My music room is Marie Kondo’s worst nightmare, though it brings me joy so maybe she’d be okay with it after all.

All of that physical media was a distraction during my perfect writing hour, though. Stay focused, James! Back to the Billboard Hot 100 for the first week of November ’69. I owned digital copies of the top 12 songs, so I dragged and dropped them into the playlist that I was creating. Number 13, Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is,” eluded me. I made a note to look for it next time I visited the record store, and then I added songs #14-17 to my playlist. Dionne Warwick’s cover of “You Lost The Lovin’ Feeling” came in at number 18. I was pretty sure I had a copy on vinyl that I could dig out and rip, but no–this was one hour of dedicated writing time, after all.

On and on through the Hot 100 for November 1, 1969, the missing tracks that I knew were trapped in vinyl just one room over driving me progressively battier. I absolutely own Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air” (#37), for example. The remarkable thing there is that I don’t own a CD copy. The Guess Who’s “Undun” (#51)? Come on! I can picture the album cover. Grand Funk’s “Time Machine” (#49), Funkadelic’s “I’ll Bet You” (#63), Joe Cocker’s “Delta Lady” #73, “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” from the Cowsills (#75)–so many tracks that I could rip from vinyl and have at the ready if I wasn’t so damned focused on making this a productive writing hour.

The diversity of the Hot 100 for that date fascinated me. The usual suspects were well represented–Elvis, the Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Santana, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye),” the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar”–but square old Art Linkletter and Ferrante & Teicher both charted that week, too. Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” nested between Jackie DeShannon’s “Love Will Find A Way” (#90) and the Byrds’ “Ballad of Easy Rider” (#92). Andy Kim charted twice that week, once with the Archies’ hit and again as a performer with “So Good Together” (#41). Harry Nilsson double charted, too, with “Everybody’s Talkin'” (#25) and “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” (#83). When my fictitious housewife turned on her AM radio that day she might get heavy with Crow, funky with Kool and the Gang, and folky with Peter, Paul & Mary all in one ten minute stretch between commercial breaks.

When I was done, I had 35 fifty year-old hits in my newly minted November 1, 1969 playlist, and a hunch that I could fill in at least another 15 from vinyl if I chose to. I realize that I’m not your average music consumer, but the idea that 50 percent of something as disposable as the contents of a weekly pop music chart should be kicking around my house a half century later struck me as pretty amazing.  The speaks not only to the power of music but to the potential value of intellectual property. Those same songs have been sold over and over for 50 years–a day in the studio, a half century in the shopping cart.

I can almost guarantee that the overwhelming majority of artists involved in those 50 songs haven’t seen a dime from them in years, my protestations that I pay for my music be damned. Many of those artists were session musicians paid both for their day’s work and their anonymity. Others were cheated out of their royalties by unscrupulous managers, agents, attorneys, and labels. Some, like Tommy James (“Ball of Fire,” #26), got shafted by organized crime.

Many of the artists who hit the charts on that November day are no longer with us: The King, John and George, Merle, Glen Campbell, Nilsson, Clarence Carter, Rick Nelson, James Brown, Joe Cocker, Lou Rawls, all but one of the original Temptations. Those who have both survived and managed to avoid the pitfalls of unscrupulous money men are now getting screwed by streaming services. By some estimates, 80 year-old Maxine Brown’s “We’ll Cry Together” (#76) would need over 366,000 Spotify streams to earn the singer minimum wage. Mover over to YouTube and that number increases to 1.1 million streams. Assuming Maxine Brown sees any money from YouTube for use of her 1969 hit, the great lady has received maybe 10-15 dollars. Who knows how much YouTube has made off of both advertising and selling the data of visitors who clicked on “We’ll Cry Together.”

Intellectual property itself is persistent–50% of the Hot 100 from one arbitrary date is still kicking around my house, and 100% is available online–but the old problem of the creators getting cheated by the money men also persists. I guess if that hasn’t been addressed by now it probably never will. Maybe the moral of the story is: “Make art for the sake of making art, and watch your ass.”

By the time I was done noodling on all of this, my one hour of perfect writing time had morphed into 65 minutes of creating a playlist. During that time, my story length increased by 3 1/2 sentences. That’s right: I didn’t even bother to finish that fourth sentence. Nobody procrastinates like a writer.

I turned off the table lamp, packed up my notebook and index cards, drove to the diner, and wrote this. By the time I was finished three unplanned, imperfect, noisy hours had passed, meal included. I better leave a good tip.

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