Editor's note: Charlie's pants are much fancier than ours, and he wrote with numbered endnotes, which this blog does not support. This blog does not even let you superscript numbers, which we did not know until we tried to format things manually. A small blue-green numeral follows Charlie's annotated thoughts, like so: 1. Tragically, you cannot mouse over the number to see the annotation, but the notes appear at the bottom of this post. If you are a Weebly/Square customer, please let them know that the people demand annotation.
There are two popular schools of thought about songwriting:
- Fully-finished songs are sitting out there in the ether, waiting for a musician to tune into the right wavelength by which they can become the conduit through which the song flows, or…
- Songwriters are crafters who hone their skill with carefully considered musical and lyrical ‘tricks’ to laboriously create the illusion of a piece of music that has always existed.
But I’m sure that the reality falls somewhere between those two extremes. Everyone who writes a song has to strike their own balance between capturing the raw, mysterious inspiration and honing in on something that’s “finished.” The scare quotes are there because, for me, the most surprising part of working on a song is deciding that it’s done. This was certainly the case for “Please Don’t Waste My Time,” a song that appears on the Unswept’s fourth LP Fast Casual.
This song’s vocal melody arrived with little fanfare – I don’t think I was even playing an instrument, the tune just appeared in my head. Once I found time to sit down with a guitar, I strummed a simple chord pattern (a variation on the reliable old Pachelbel Canon in D chord sequence) and the basic structure of the song was in place shortly thereafter. But there were no lyrics – just boo-doo-boo vocalization,1 culminating in the line “please don’t waste my time.”
I’m not sure where that line initially came from (it’s possible I subconsciously cribbed it from the bridge of “Sleeping With The Television On,” one of the only Billy Joel songs I really love), and I couldn’t figure out what the implications were for the rest of the lyrics. It’s sort of a harsh and argumentative phrase, but I had a vague feeling that the song was pulling in a more romantic direction. Also, the melody leading up to the line implied a rhyme scheme that demanded a lot of rhymes for “time.” So I opened up a Google Doc2 and started free-associating phrases and words hoping that a topic or focus would reveal itself…
Friend of mine
Give me a sign
Mountains left to climb
In a bind
I feel somewhat disinclined
Is that such a crime
Miss all the warning signs
You’ve known lots of guys before me
I’m aware, and I don’t mind
Cuz I fell for you and you fell for me
And we had some good times4
But I don’t like feeling cut down
By someone who’s a friend of mine
I get sad and then I shut down
Please don’t waste my time
The lyrics in the b-section of the song5 came from following the logic of “wasting one’s time” to its logical conclusion: time is all we have, and you can’t get it back once it’s gone. I briefly toyed with the idea of doubling up on the b-section at the end and adding these lyrics:
Don't you lead me on
I'd never do you wrong
And don't you close that door
Treat me like you did the night before
The final verse was inspired by binging through the entirety of Call The Midwife – the phrases “for all’s sake” and “I must implore you” popped up around Season 5, and both sets of words seemed to share the “emotionally exasperated yet politely restrained” tone of the rest of the song:
You should know I still adore you
But I cannot read your mind
For all’s sake, I must implore you
Please stop wasting time – either yours or mine
I suppose songwriting is a little like writing a good joke, in that comedians tend to start with a solid punchline, and then work backwards to set it up so that the punchline has maximum impact. But the magic doesn’t really happen until you say the joke in front of people and they laugh at it. With songs, you can have a great melody or great lyrics written on a page (or saved on a word processing document), but it’s not really a great song until you play it for somebody else and they react to it. So much the better if you have musical collaborators who are willing to add their own ideas and play it alongside you.
2. Dated October 20, 2020, as it happens. There’s something to say for writing longhand, and I probably was more prolific when I carried a Moleskine around for song ideas, but it is sort of nice to be able to go back and see revisions automatically.
3. It would have been nice to include this as a nod to Gilbert O’Sullivan, but it was not to be.
4. Changed in the final draft to “it’s been a real good time.” a line whose grammar would not impress Dorothy Zbornak, but included as a nod to “Real Cool Time” by Ramones and “Real Real Good Time” by Parasites.
5. I’m not sure whether to call this bit a bridge or a chorus. Actually, I think what I have been referring to as “verses” here could be a variation on what Andy Partridge calls a “vhorus” – a hybrid of a verse and a chorus which prominently features the title line.