One aspect of songwriting that I enjoy the most is the element of surprise. There is a thrill that comes from not quite knowing where an idea might go as it develops from a song seed into a finished result. It’s a bit like a write-your-own-adventure story without the ability to skip to the ending!
One of my approaches to writing lyrics is to simply to play guitar and let words come out of my mouth. I record multiple takes and listen. It’s a bit like stream of consciousness writing because during these sessions I’ll just sing stuff. Much of it is nonsense but every now and then an interesting expression comes out and becomes the basis for a lyric.
Yet, and more often than not, I’ll sing or mumble something that makes me think of something totally unrelated. I now realize that this is less like stream of consciousness and more like one of those inkblot tests where the blob lifts an idea or image from out of the realms of the subconscious.
Songwriting, as many have noted, is only 20% inspiration. The 80% perspiration part comes from thinking and listening, trying and testing ideas over and over until something clicks. “Two Nights in Toledo” is one of those songs. It began as a passing thought while I was packing for a business trip to that city a couple months ago. It seemed like an interesting sounding word combination so I wrote it down.
Then one evening I started singing the phrase while playing a guitar riff similar to “Sweet Home Alabama.” Some mumbled lyrics during this take that I recorded yielded interesting results later on:
“Two nights in Toledo/could change a lucky man” later became “Two nights in Toledo/could make you a different man”.
The other phrases I sang didn’t actually say very much but they prompted some ideas based on the way they sounded and turned into “A good day in Las Vegas” and “Three Days in the Dakotas” and “Two weeks in Missoula”.
But what about two nights in Toledo? How could that make you a different man?
I had one idea–that travelling to small towns can lead to big changes. Not bad, but it needed more to it.
So here’s the perspiration part, I guess. I did research on Toledo (Ohio, not Spain) looking on Wikipedia for something interesting I could tie it to. Here’s what I found aside from it being Maxwell Klinger’s home town in the series MASH and the namesake of the exclamation “Holy Toledo!”:
- John Denver denigrated the city with the song “Saturday Night in Toledo” performed in 1967 on the Tonight Show, leading to a large public outcry at the time; Oops.
- the prog rock band Yes mentions the city in “Our Song” from the 1983 album 90125;
- the city has hosted a baseball team dating back to 1896 called the Toledo Mudhens;
- the Maumee River runs through the city, connecting it to Lake Erie;
- and the inspiration for the 1970s song “Lucille” (sang of course by Kenny Rogers) is associated with the city;
And that’s where it got interesting. Out of curiousity, I looked up the source to that last bit of trivia and discovered it mentioned in a March 22, 2010 story from the Toledo Blade newspaper about the recent closure of Caesar’s Show Bar, a historic location with a notable reputation as “the stiletto-heeled stomping grounds of local drag queen legends.”
The story says that although “it wasn’t the first drag bar in Toledo nor the only place with female impersonators, it was the best known and had the longest run, strutting through three decades of diva acts.”
Moreover, the story goes on to report that prior to its run as a drag bar, the location had previously been called the Country Palace bar and was where songwriter Hal Byman stopped in for a drink in the summer of 1975:
Mr. Bynum wandered across the street from the current Greyhound station at Michigan Street and Jefferson Avenue. Thirsty for beer, he stepped into the Country Palace bar that was then in the building.
As he sat at a corner table, Mr. Bynum said, he heard a conversation between a man and his estranged wife. There was an angry exchange, and the man got up and told the woman, “All I can say is, you picked a fine time to leave me.”
A song idea hit him, and Mr. Bynum grabbed a napkin and started scribbling words. With later help from Roger Bowling, the idea evolved into the 1977 chart-topping Kenny Rogers country song “Lucille.”
“In a bar in Toledo/ across from the depot/ on a bar stool, she took off her ring,” the lyrics begin.
Although I personally have no substantial connection to drag queens or divas, or Kenny Rogers for that matter, the Blade story did suggest to me how two nights in Toledo could make you a different man. From there I’ll leave the rest up to the listener.
The point is this: that bit of informal research took the song into a direction that I could never have anticipated. The original inspiration from a passing thought combined with some mumbled words sung during a writing session, came to fruition with patience and persistence, and a bit of perspiration. The reward was a journey into a theme and set of lyrics that I had no idea was coming. And yet it did. This is for all you Toledoans.
The image “Eye on the prize” is by darwin Bell courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.