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You Just Don’t Have It Yet

“You just don’t have it yet.” That sentence came from the mouth of legendary drummer and producer Steve Jordan – who was in the Saturday Night Live and David Letterman bands, and played with John Mayer, among many others. I heard Steve interviewed by Rick Beato recently, and this one line just hit me. It describes the creative journey perfectly. 

I was 21 when I wrote my first song. I had been playing guitar for years in cover bands, but I found myself in a situation which required something truly special. I needed to get my girlfriend to come back to me! I was so excited that I was able to channel my emotions into a real song, with lyrics and all! But, it wasn’t very good, and I didn’t get the girl. Although I got something better – the bug for songwriting.

Since then, I’ve probably written hundreds of songs, most of them garbage, but that’s ok – I was learning the craft, and enjoying myself along the way. After 20 years of playing in different bar and wedding bands while working day jobs, thinking some opportunity would just fall out of the sky, I decided it was finally time to confront the truth about my abilities as a writer. So I, with my wife and our three kids picked up and moved to Nashville. (Heather, my wife, is a songwriter too, so it wasn’t hard to convince her)

Heather and I had already put out an album which some people REALLY liked. Not everybody, but enough to plant a few seeds of hope. We had visited Nashville, and it seemed like the perfect size city – not like New York or L.A. – and had a super welcoming community of musicians. But, ultimately it was a little bar called Douglas Corner Cafe that sold us.  

It’s closed down now, another casualty of the pandemic, but every Tuesday night they had an open mic that down here they call a “writer’s round” (some venues, like The Bluebird, arrange the musicians in an actual circle, which is where round comes from.) To play at Douglas Corner, all you had to do was call into their old fashioned answering machine at 1pm and leave your name. Each week at 12:55 we hit the phones, calling nonstop – dial, busy signal, hang up. dial, busy signal, hang up – like we were trying to win Springsteen tickets from a radio station. The trick was to get on early while more people were in the audience.

Local legend, Donnie Winters, ran the open mic for years. After he did his sound check and went over the ground rules, he started calling people up. I was almost always nervous. Playing and singing my own songs without a band to a packed room was not something I was used to! The stage was set up with four stools and microphone stands, with beautiful blue hazy lighting. The front half had rows of tables and chairs for the serious listeners, and the rear was where the bar and networking took place. In Nashville, it’s all about co-writing, and this was the kind of place to meet other musicians you might have a connection with.

I remember this one particular Tuesday night when I was feeling especially good. Rather than my regular, “man I don’t want to do this, but I have to push through it,” I was cool, calm, and present. I was in the moment. Maybe because I knew I had a good song prepared, and because I had been taking voice lessons (Breck Alan’s and The Art of Body Singing is LIFE CHANGING for singer songwriters in particular, because he’s all about playing your voice like an instrument instead of just hitting notes). Donnie called four names and I went up on stage, plugged in my guitar, adjusted my mic, and waited patiently for my turn. I sang my song, “Oklahoma.” It’s a heavy song, recounting the great lengths I went to in my early attempts at sobriety. I felt like I had a good performance, and the audience applauded. I didn’t get any hooting and hollering, but it felt like a genuine reaction. You can feel the room when people are paying attention. And I knew I had them. But, it wasn’t until I got off stage that I realized how well it went over.

A few people stopped me to shake my hand on my way to the back of the room. My adrenaline was turning into a headache and I wanted to get away from everybody for a minute. Just before I walked into the Men’s Room, this guy pulled me aside and said, “Man, that song really hit me. I have a brother who is on drugs, who I haven’t seen in years. That song just made me feel something I hadn’t felt in a long, long time.” I’m not great at taking compliments, but I gave him a sincere and hearty “thank you” and kept moving. Later on I realized how amazing that compliment was, and my insides began to blissfully jump up and down.

It’s interesting how music works. Oklahoma wasn’t a happy song. It didn’t make that guy happy, but it did stir something in his heart. Emotion – to be “in motion”. I think sometimes we just need to get our cold hearts moving again in whatever way possible. Maybe he just needed to feel a connection with someone who understands.

Back to the interview with Steve Jordan. The story he was telling was about a Rod Stewart track he was working on. They were trying to get the sound right, and it just wasn’t happening. Someone walked in and gave him some encouragement, “You just don’t have it yet. It’s alright, it’s alright, you just don’t have it YET.” So they kept tweaking things, and eventually, by moving one of the drum microphones just a few inches … BAM! It all came together. You see, I spent decades thinking I had to get good enough to go on stage in the first place, but I realized the stage is a critical part in the development process. If I wanted to get really good, to become a professional, I needed to get real world feedback, and not fool myself about how good I think I am.

Open mic nights are the perfect place to try out material, to see what works and what doesn’t. I’ve watched enough Jerry Seinfeld documentaries to know that most comics “practice” their new acts at small clubs. I’m trying to get a reaction – not just a courtesy applause, but for someone to come up to me afterward and say, “I really loved that song.” If no one does that in a room full of people, how would I expect to get the attention of random people out on the internet? And if no one responds, that doesn’t mean I should quit, it just means I just don’t have it YET.

Music is about evoking a human reaction. You never know who is going to respond to what song. So, the secret, if there is one, is to keep writing and keep testing. Find out what works, and treat the people who love your stuff as if they are your soulmates.

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4 Comments

  1. Great piece, Mr. Defern! A note: Steve Jordan also played with Keith Richards and Ivan Neville in a group called “X-Pensive Winos” back in the late ’80s – early ’90s. They were wild. I believe Keith, bored in quarantine, is re-releasing the live album they did in 1991. Give it a listen.

    • Thanks Jesse! I didn’t realize that. I remember seeing Keith play in his own band on SNL years ago, I wonder if that was it. I’m actually wearing a Keith Richards shirt right now =)

  2. ANITA DANNUNZIO ANITA DANNUNZIO

    You affirm that our imperfect work, our imperfect talents, and our imperfect selves are not premature “exposures”, but are unrefined gifts. And even though unrefined, or untamed, the “not YET” gifts perhaps offer the most space for the recipient to interpret and feel how the gift fits for them. Is not that the most unselfish gift one can give? In that way, and perhaps as I get older, I appreciate music and art that is less directive and allows me greater interpretation because it allows me a place in the dialogue, to know my own self as I connect with the other. So, keep on with the soulful happenstance and gifts of “not YET”.

    • Thanks Anita! Man, I love that last line “soulful happenstance”. Gonna use that in a song lyric someplace (if you don’t mind). And you reminded me of something I was told after feeling especially self conscious after a performance, how by being vulnerable and doing something that was scary for me gave power to that person – making them say to himself, “if that guy can do it, then I can do it to.”

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