songwriting done right

I used to write songs, quite a few decades ago. I don’t think much about the process anymore, but I still have an idea of how difficult it is to do really well.

As you may have heard, Taylor Swift released a surprise album back in July called “folklore.” Then there was a documentary, including live performances of all the songs, and then, another surprise album called “evermore“.

I’m enjoying both albums, and the soundtrack of the documentary (which is basically folklore with less production), but this is the standout for me (and for a lot of other people — I’ve already seen it hailed as either the best song Swift has ever written, or #2 behind “All Too Well”):

the last great american dynasty

I’ve listened to it many times, and at the end of the bridge, when it shifts from being a song about Rebekah Harkness to being a song about Taylor Swift, I confess I always laugh out loud.

They say she was seen on occasion
Pacing the rocks staring out at the midnight sea
And in a feud with her neighbor
She stole his dog and dyed it key lime green
Fifty years is a long time
Holiday House sat quietly on that beach
Free of women with madness
Their men and bad habits, and then it was bought by me

The confluence of old money, new money, New England, and mad, loud women. I think my mother, who knew a lot about all of those things, would have liked it.

(With story songs like this, it’s not uncommon to hold back the chorus until after the second verse, so you’ve already made the case for whatever the chorus is saying about the story as a whole before you deliver the chorus, but Swift doesn’t do that here. She asserts “the maddest woman this town has ever seen; She had a marvelous time ruining everything” before actually showing all the “madness” and “ruining” that was going on. That goes very nicely with the overall attitude of the song.)

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the heron island mystery (part twenty)

This story started here.

Rhonda looked around the living room, and then she glanced at the windows. The sky was starting to get light. She stood up as Elsa wheeled herself back into the kitchen.

“I need to make some calls,” the sheriff said. She gestured at the phone on the small table by the front door. “Is there an extension, more private than this?”

“There’s a wall phone upstairs,” Jo said. “Next to my room.”

Li leaned forward. “Don’t you want to–“

“No,” Rhonda said, moving toward the stairs. “We’re going to continue this at headquarters, with stenographers and signed statements. Everybody should get dressed and be ready to go as soon as the cars get here.” She looked at the deputy. “Nobody goes outside or onto the deck.” The deputy nodded.

Li tried again.

“Later,” the sheriff told her, climbing the stairs. “And nobody makes any phone calls, to anybody,” she called over her shoulder. As her feet vanished, she called, “O’Connor–“

“I’ll bring you some coffee,” I called back.

“Bless you.”

My employer caught my eye and nodded, and then she inclined her head toward the kitchen. I interpreted this as expressing admiration for Rhonda reasserting control over the investigation, and also suggesting that Elsa might appreciate some help with the coffee.

Elsa looked up as I came into the kitchen. She was filling up a large tray with fresh mugs of coffee, plus milk and sugar. Each mug seemed to be completely unlike the others in size and shape and color.

She smiled as I came in. “Thanks,” she said simply as I quickly rinsed out the mugs I was carrying and picked up the tray to carry it into the living room. She followed me with a fresh bottle of soda for herself.

The living room was deserted except for the deputy, who yawned. I held out the tray for her, and she studied the variety of mugs available and selected the largest one. I put the tray on the coffee table, which rested on gaily painted cinder blocks, and looked around for my employer.

She was in the dining room, sitting at the big table and smoking. I took her a mug and then went up the stairs to the hall, where Rhonda was leaning against the wall and talking on a phone with a very long cord. I handed her a mug and she nodded.

The only other person in the hall was Jo, sitting on a chair with a towel over her shoulder, obviously waiting for the bathroom to be available. I wondered if there was going to be enough hot water for everybody to manage a shower before it ran out.

I went back downstairs and I saw that Elsa was now in the dining room with my employer. I took a mug of coffee for myself and went to join them.

“Will you be at police headquarters, for the questioning?” Elsa was asking her.

My employer sipped her coffee and shook her head. “I’m not a suspect, and I have certainly not been invited to assist, so no. And I have some other avenues to pursue. I do have a question for you, though. This is, obviously, a house of college-age women. Presumably — to put it delicately — there may have been situations where eligible young men…”

“Do we ever have boys over?” Elsa said, grinning. “Is that the question?”

“Well, I was sort of assuming the answer to that question was yes. My real question is about the protocol. Do young gentlemen stay over whenever invited, or are some of them considered more acceptable than others to the residents of the house? Is there some sort of voting process to determine whether particular swains are allowed particular privileges here?”

Elsa laughed. “There are no formal rules. In general, we… it works out better if we stay over with the boys — for those who enjoy the company of boys — rather than have them stay over here, just because the island is cut off from the mainland for half of every day. But sometimes… we adapt. Frankly, the main problem is the limited number of bathrooms, for those girls who aren’t me or Kim. Why do you ask?”

“Because I’d like to find out what would be involved in having Marshall” — she gestured in my direction, as if Elsa might not be sure who she was talking about — “stay over here tonight.” Elsa looked me up and down with a critical eye, as if seeing me for the first time.

“He’s quite tidy,” my employer assured her. “He’s unobtrusive and well-mannered, and he makes a good omelet if requested. I’ll make sure he shaves before he arrives.” She held up a hand. “He will sleep on the sofa, of course.”

Elsa was controlling herself, barely. “Oh, that’s good,” she said, not meeting my eyes. “My bed is quite narrow.”

My employer lit a cigarette and looked at me. She leaned over to whisper to Elsa, not exactly sotto voce, “It’s been at least a year since I’ve seen him turn that particular color.”

To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part nineteen)

This story started here.

Kim was frozen in place. She’d been managing to appear casual and helpful, but now she was stuck. She didn’t speak or move, apparently trying to figure out a way out of this. And I’m sure that she was aware that even if she thought of the magic words which would get her off the spot, it was already too late for those words to work.

It seemed unlikely that she’d bolt, in the middle of the night, barefoot, probably with no money, wearing just a T-shirt and boxers, on an island that was currently cut off from the mainland, but I checked her position relative to the various exits, and I watched her body language.

“There was somebody else on the deck with the body,” Li continued, still looking at Kim, speaking slowly and deliberately. “that’s why Kim screamed. He turned and looked at her and then he went to the stairs and down to the beach. After he was gone, it took a minute for her to get up her nerve to go outside. Then she checked the body and yelled for Becky.”

Then, looking triumphant, Li turned her gaze to the sheriff. “It was Manfred. And you’re never going to solve this if you don’t know that — if you don’t know what kind of case this really is.”

There was a pause and then several people started to speak, but Rhonda said, “Quiet! I’m asking the questions, and everybody should shut up until I ask the next one.”

Well, this answered the question I’d been asking myself a few minutes earlier. I was pretty sure knew now why the residents had relaxed, en masse, when Becky had started answering questions instead of Li.

I did wonder about what Elsa had told us before — that Kim had been the main believer in ghosts, back when Manfred had been merely a ghost hunter, not (perhaps) a ghost himself.

Jo raised her hand, as if she was in school. Rhonda gestured at her, and she said, “I saw him also, or at least I saw somebody. I was writing, as I said, and I saw the deck lights go on. I got out of bed as Kim screamed, and I went to the window. I saw somebody — it looked like a man, in dark clothes, including a jacket with silvery bits, like that one Manfred always used to wear — going to the staircase and down to the beach.”

“You didn’t see his face?”

“No. His back was to me. After he was gone, I saw Kim go out onto the deck and then turn and yell for Becky. I pulled on some clothes and ran into Becks and Li in the hall.”

Elsa had started the coffee, based on the smell, but now she was in the doorway to the kitchen, listening and watching.

I looked around the room. Jo was leaning forward, frowning. She’d taken off her glasses and she was polishing the lenses with the bottom edge of her pajama top. Becky looked bored. She ran her fingers through her frizzy hair, and I got the idea that if it had just been the residents there she would have rolled her eyes and laughed out loud at the nonsense of a dead man prowling the deck of their house. 

My employer was at her most impassive. I wondered if she had expected this, but I’d learned not to waste my time asking that particular question. Elsa was hard to read, too. 

Rhonda had insisted on her right to be the one asking the questions, but I got the idea that she’d never — in her still comparatively brief career as the sheriff — encountered a situation quite like this one. 

“Did anybody else see anything that would corroborate this?” she asked after a pause.

Nobody responded. From the stories the others had told, it was pretty plain that they wouldn’t have had a chance to see the mystery figure on the deck — if that figure had existed in the first place.

To be continued…

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three things

1) There are two movies I’m enjoying very much these days, and they are, in some ways, quite similar.

Both are about two children, twelve years old, a boy and a girl. The boy is very lonely, bullied and ostracized by his peers, with parents mostly or entirely absent. He meets the girl, who is also quite alone, though in a different way, and they quickly become a couple, although with only a hazy idea of what being a couple, in grownup terms, might really mean.

At a certain point in each story, the boy and the girl run away together.

Both movies have a scene where the girl suddenly becomes very violent in defense of the boy. We see the bloody aftermath, but not the violence itself.

In spite of the similarities, the movies are quite different, though both are wonderful. Check out the trailers:

2) I read a couple of interesting things in this Washington Post obituary for Herbert Kretzmer, the lyricist of the stage version of Les Misérables. I thought about writing a blog post about it, but since I recently did blog posts about Christo and Diana Rigg, I thought a blog post called “Herbert Kretzmer (1925-2020)” would make it seem that this is now basically a blog about dead people.

(Particularly since there are also a lot of mystery stories here, which, for some reason, also seem to feature a lot of dead people.)

But I did notice this part specifically, referring to Kretzmer’s work as both a journalist and a lyricist:

“In rhyming and journalism, you work under constant stricture,” he once told the London Daily Telegraph. “You are held loosely behind bars. There is something about being constrained that appeals to me: the freedom inside the cage.”

This is very true, as I talked about here.

32) “Five Movies About Royals to Compete with ‘The Crown’

I’ve never seen The Crown, but I have to like any list which tells people to see both Orlando and Chimes at Midnight.

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the heron island mystery (part eighteen)

This story started here.

Rhonda turned back to Becky. “So, the three of you rushed downstairs?”

Becky nodded. “I wouldn’t say ‘rushed’ — we were all a little…”

“Scared,” Jo said. “Understandably. I remember I was thinking about last night…”

Becky shrugged. “Anyway, we got downstairs, and Kim and Elsa were on the deck, and Mary was there. I examined her, and she… I did CPR, because you’re supposed to, but she was dead. Murdered, obviously, stabbed… like Manfred.”

“Becky said somebody should call the police, but I was already doing it,” Elsa said quietly. She sipped her soda.

“Becky,” my employer put in, “what was your estimate of the time of death? What time did you examine the body, and how long did you think she’d been dead at that time?”

Becky sighed. “I wasn’t wearing my watch, but while Elsa was on the phone I went into the kitchen to note the time. Three twenty-seven in the morning. I… I’m not really…”

“When I examined the body, at four-seventeen, I thought she’d been dead for at least an hour and a half. Did you see anything which would contradict that?”

She shook her head. “No.”

Rhonda moved her shoulders around as if she was stiff.

“Would anybody like more coffee?” Elsa asked.

The assent was muted but general, including from those of us who hadn’t been offered any before, and she turned to go into the kitchen.

“Elsa,” Rhonda said, “I would very much like some coffee, thank you, but first please give us your experiences.”

She turned her wheelchair back around. “I heard the scream, but I waited. I thought maybe somebody had had a nightmare, or–” She paused.

“Perhaps one of your housemates had enjoyed a particularly pleasurable late-night personal experience,” my employer put in, and Elsa laughed, followed immediately by Becky, and a minute later by Jo. Rhonda smiled, and I saw the deputy snort and then quickly compose herself. Li turned beet red but otherwise she did not react. Kim frowned, as if this levity had been a breach of proper protocol.

“I waited, and then I heard someone open the door and go out on the deck. I wondered what was going on, so I pulled on some clothes and then I heard Kim yell for Becky. I went out onto the deck, a moment before the others arrived from upstairs. Kim said she thought Mary was dead, and then Becky confirmed it…”

She waited a moment and then she turned to go. “I’ll make more coffee,” she said as she wheeled herself out of the room.

Rhonda turned to Kim. “Kim, everybody heard a scream, but your story didn’t include a scream. You saw the body, you went outside, you saw who it was and that she was hurt or dead, and you called for Becky, the only person in the house with medical training. What about the scream?”

Kim shrugged. “I must have screamed when I turned on the floodlights and looked outside. When I saw the body.”

“But the way the body was lying, on its side, facing the house, you wouldn’t have seen the knife in her back, or the blood. It would have looked like she was passed out, or asleep. That would have justified going out to check on her, of course, but a scream? To be blunt, this is a house full of college students — has it never happened that anybody passed out or dozed off anywhere other than in her own bed?”

“Also,” my employer put in, stubbing out her cigarette, “even if you saw the body, screamed for whatever reason, and then went outside to check, there would have been only a few seconds between the scream and the shout for Becky. That doesn’t jibe with everything else we’ve heard. You screamed, Li ejected Becky out of her bed, Becky landed on the floor, Li asked how Becky was, then they said a couple of other things. Significant time passed between the scream and the shout.”

“You need to tell her,” Li said to Kim, leaning forward. “Tell her the truth — what you told me. Or I will.”

To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part seventeen)

This story started here.

Sometimes you don’t realize how tense things are with a group of people until something suddenly breaks that tension, at least for a moment.

Everybody seemed to relax when Becky took over from Li, so much so that I had to wonder why. So far we’d learned that Kim had a lover who should have been off limits for her (and vice versa, of course), and that Li sometimes slept with Becky. This was pretty penny ante stuff, especially in the context of an investigation of two murders. Was there a big secret still to come — other than the solution to the murders (I would have had a rough time believing that all of the residents of Heron House already knew who had killed Manfred and Mary)?

Becky sipped her coffee and then, as she began to speak, my employer finally opened her case and took out a cigarette. As she reached for her lighter, Kim leaned forward and my employer held out the case so she could take a cigarette also.

“The first thing I remember,” Becky said, “I was lying on the floor, and my head hurt.”

Li winced. “I… sort of freaked out when I heard the scream, and I…”

“Booted me out of my own bed and onto the cold, hard floor,” Becky went on. “I didn’t hear the scream, but I did hear Kim calling for me a few minutes later.”

Li continued, looking rather sheepish. “I heard the thud as Becks hit the floor. I looked to see that she was okay, and I told her I was sorry, and then she… Anyway, I told her that I had heard a scream, and then we heard somebody yelling her name.”

Becky took over again. “It sounded like it was from outside, so we went to the window, but my room is in the front of the house, so we couldn’t see anything. We put on our robes and hurried out into the hall.”

“And they ran right into me,” Jo put in.

“Had you been awakened by the scream also?” Rhonda asked.

“No. I was awake — writing.”

It was not clear that Rhonda wanted to know what Jo had been writing, but she began to provide this information anyway, just in case.

“I’m a novelist,” she said, adjusting her glasses. “I’m writing a novel, and I find the best time to write is late at night, when everybody else is asleep and things are quiet. So, around midnight, I made myself a big mug of coffee–“

Rhonda held up a hand. “So, you were awake between midnight and the scream?”


“And your bedroom is in the back of the house, overlooking the deck?”

She nodded. “Next to Kim’s.”

“And did you hear anything before the scream?”

Jo shook her head, then she shrugged. “I was concentrating on what I was writing, but I wasn’t aware of hearing anything.”

“But you certainly would have heard any sort of fight on the deck, right below your window.”

“Oh, yes. It was very quiet.”

“Was the light on in your room?” Rhonda asked, and then she laughed. “Okay, that’s a dumb question.”

“My light was on.”

“So, obviously, anybody who was on the deck would have seen the light from your window and they would have known they had to be quiet.”

“I guess so.”

“What about cars? Would you have heard a car?”

“We always hear cars coming up the hill. When we hear one, sometimes we try to guess if it’s coming here or just going past us to Mrs. Billingsley.”

My employer, in these sorts of situations, was never reluctant to draw attention to herself, if she thought it would be to her benefit. Sometimes she was quite theatrical about it, which she enjoyed (though she didn’t like to admit that).

But she was being very quiet now. She was smoking calmly, looking at whoever was speaking, reacting very little. I wondered if she had seen something and was waiting for the right moment to reveal it.

To be continued…

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