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Writer's Cramp

By Jake Vigliotti

As every stalker with a Twitter account knows, Dave says he only needs to write some lyrics and this thrice-delayed album will be ready to go! Easy enough, right?

The beat of the songs probably sucked you in first to DMB. That unique, funky, folksy sound is like no other. But it was Dave’s lyrics that kept you around. The lyrics are complex, rich, deep, and (often) evolving. Sometimes, writing lyrics is the problem. Finding the inspiration is the difficult part.

Ben Folds talked about his early struggles with lyrics. He told a story once on how he wrote some music, and then asked friends to write lyrics for the music. Even in his earliest of songwriting days, Dave never had that issue. It seemed as though he could get inspiration from just about anything – his theater work, his sister, his mother. But of late, some might suggest Dave is as stuck as Ben Folds once was.

We really don’t know much about Dave’s writing style – outside a few videos from the Before These Crowded Streets sessions: He has a big ole yellow pad, a sharpie, and he writes them in a style best described as “Poetic”. The inspirations behind those words are a different horse.

We really know more about the recent songs than we do the older stuff, inspiration-wise. The Dave Matthews writing is best classified in groups of pre-Lillywhite-sessions, and Post-Lillywhite-sessions. That’s sort of a broad stroke to a very specific writer. Let’s try and take each to figure out what Dave uses as inspiration, and what fans want more.

The lyrics of Dave most criticized are (ironically enough) from the last two full-band albums. Those are also the ones where we really know the most about the influences. Everyday, Dave admitted, was made up mainly of words and phrases he had laying around for years. Stand Up had a heavy influence on politics – namely how Dave didn’t really did the guy who gave out all those tax cuts.

But mixed in the midst of those two albums, was a solo album that was well received by fans - Some Devil. That album, unlike the other two, did not have a theme (Everyday; just get something out, make it catchy, or Stand Up; lyrics begone! The beat is the EnergEEzzzOMG!). So are we looking for a non-conformed album, or maybe one as conformed as Before These Crowded Streets? Or maybe album structure is a red herring?

What about the influences that Dave uses for songs? Clearly, the “I hate Bush” didn’t work, and regardless of who you voted for, just be happy that Dave’s guy won, so maybe we’ll avoid the politics-driven disc. Depression, while the fans loved it – it being The Lillywhite sessions - that icky feeling is bad for Dave and his liver. What fans probably want is a return to his original influences; his family and his reading.

The most known about Dave’s early work is how his family and personal experience greatly influenced his writing. Best Of What’s Around took its chorus from advice that Dave’s mother Valerie offered. An old girlfriend, Julia Grey, served as the inspiration to many early songs - I’ll Back You Up and Halloween most famously and evident. His personal experience led to a live staple – the story of his acid trip on a beach in South Africa, that the aforementioned Grey said sounded like, “Hillbillies on Acid”, and inadvertently gave the song it’s chorus and name - Tripping Billies.

What’s lesser known is the influence of written works had on Dave. The most popular of the previously published works to influence Dave is the Robert Dederick poem A Prayer In The Pentagon. The poem gets a mention as an influence in the liner notes on Under The Table And Dreaming as inspiration for Typical Situation. That’s not the only song influenced by the poem. One Sweet World contains the phrase “watery one” – a line shared by the poem. And the theme of the oceans (7 of em, unlike the five there really are) is shared by the forgotten song People People. Again, the influence of the poem stretches out to more than one song.

Ever hear of Robert Pirzig? He traveled around the US with his son, and published the book The Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In short, it’s a philosophy book – sort of an East-meets-West thinking book.

And I quote…
“It was all those people in the cars coming the other way. The first one looked so sad. And then the next one looked exactly the same way, and then the next one and the next one, they were all the same.”

“What you see is the NO TRESPASSING, KEEP OUT signs and not anything serving people but little people like ants, serving these strange incomprehensible shapes. And you think, even if I were part of this, even if I were not a stranger, I would be just another ant serving the shapes.” (p.17-18)

Sound familiar?


Maybe Dave’s just an alert reader, and he knows how to draw influence from sources? After all, he did admit that the title of The Dreaming Tree came from a children’s book of the same name; although the similarity ends there. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

So what does all this mean? If Dave’s stuck lyrically, he needs to talk to some friends, and read a book or two.

Simple, right?

Not so much.

What we on the outside sometimes seem to forget is that David J Matthews is a real live human being. He has real emotions – and above all, Dave’s own state of mind weighs heavily on his songwriting.

Remember that very dark music that Dave wrote that everyone loved but almost destroyed the band? I think it was called “The Lillywhite Sessions”. Dave’s step-father passed away shortly before the sessions, and the dark feeling painted a veil over all the lyrics – from the real-life passing inspired Grace Is Gone to the dark love song Captain, the entire album was dark.

"The only thing that would cut my legs off would be if
something happened to one of us. As long as it's us five, I don't let
anything overwhelm me. Everything else will take care of itself."
The Washington Post 11.4.94

There is no more five.

It’s easy to look to the past and say, “Come on David! Pick up a book! Call your friends! Find some inspiration! It’s down deep inside of you!” (hey, that’s pretty catchy) But the reality is that there’s no magic formula to put words to music; and ultimately, when Dave’s ready to find the voice of the songs, it’ll happen. David Matthews is not the same person who sat in Ross Hoffman’s house and scratched out tunes. He’s not the same guy who went to a few friends (Mark Roebuck among them) in 1991 and showed off a new tune called What Would You Say. Dave will come up with lyrics for this album, but it’s the scope of his life up to 2008 that’ll make the words that go with the beats.

The views and comments expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of antsmarching.org.


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