John Walsh: Tales of the City

Roll over, Chris Martin - there's a terrific and talented new songwriter in town
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The Independent Online

It's been about a year since the children started having music lessons every Sunday morning (son, 14, on drums; younger daughter, 10, on guitar) and about three months since I decided to join them. Driven by the same Sixties wannabe compulsion that explains the look on Tony Blair's face every time he poses with a Fender Strat, I decided that, after a lifetime of listlessly strumming major chords and warbling fey Donovan lyrics ("Jennifer Juniper vit sur la colline ...") to it was time to learn some licks and play them at astounding volume, as I wasn't allowed to do when I was a kid.

So I got my 45 minutes with Adam the tutor every Sabbath, taking my turn after the children like a sheepish mature student in a finger-painting class. Everything started off fine. I learned to play scales, I even tried a modest solo (nothing to fill Jimmy Page with fuming professional envy). Then, before Christmas, Adam said, "It's time you and the children wrote a song together. You just have to come up with a tune you all like, write some words, identify the chords, practise the guitar and drum parts, then I'll record it on tape, take it home and run it through a digital processor and give you a CD of the result."

What a charming idea, eh? Soon, we'd be the Von Walsh Family Singers, performing self-penned close-harmony numbers at Tyrolean music festivals and escaping from the Nazis. But writing the bloody song proved harder than I thought. I could pick out a tune on the piano, "Dah-dit-dit-dah-dee-Derrr-dah-dah-dum", and ask the children if they liked it and Max would say, "Dad - that's 'Is This the Way to Amarillo?'." I'd try again in a different key: "How about this, kids? 'Dah der-dumt-dum, Dahh-der-ding-bong,' this has a nice rhythm, don't you think?" and Max, in his Eeyore-ish way, would sing, "... You'd better not pout, I'm telling you why ..." and shake his head sadly at the realisation that his father was fearlessly composing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town".

It went on for weeks. I'd love to confess that a dozen lovely melodies - music by Schubert, words by Cole Porter - flowed from my fingers. Didn't happen. Adam got visibly less indulgent about such pathetic non-creativity. In our last lesson, he said, "Haven't you come up with anything?"

"Nothing," I confessed, "Eventually I tried writing a song about being unable to write a song, and called it 'I Can't Get Started.' But it turned out to be 'I Can't Stand Losing You' by The Police."

"Good title," he said, seizing a piece of paper. "What does it feel like, physically, when you can't write what you want to?"

"Well," I said, "You sort of sit there staring out the window..."

"Staring out the window," he wrote.

"And it's usually raining," I mentioned irrelevantly.

"Raindrops on the glass," he wrote. (What on earth were the rhymes going to be?) "If you were writing about a girl," said Adam, "What would be the problem? Why couldn't you Get Started with her?"

I thought about it. "Probably some chronic failure of empathy between us," I said, "because of a disfiguring blankness in my emotional makeup."

He looked at me. "Tried to get through to you baby," he wrote, "But I something something too fast." We tried to play it in A and D. It sounded okay. Actually it sounded just like "Sweet Jane" by Lou Reed, but I was past caring. Three minutes later, we'd got the hook and suddenly, out of nowhere and quite unforgettably, I found a chorus line and sang, in a strangled yell, "I Can't Get Started With You, Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh" and it felt wonderful, even if it was a pinch from "Out on the Street" by Bruce Springsteen. Adam and I played it together a few times, went back to the start, improved the hook, stuck in a moody "middle eight" (sorry to get technical with you, darlings) full of yearning and unrequited lurve, and sang a final duet that was just a wee bit triumphant.

I'm not saying it's the most brilliant song ever written. Some of the lyrics are banal and foolish (especially the "sleep without you"/ "not so sure about you" combo), the chorus is too upbeat for what's supposed to be a wail of frustration, and it's in a key that's too high to sing comfortably.

But none of that matters a flying toss because it is my first song, it's got a tune and words that didn't exist yesterday and now they do, and go round and round my head as if I'd heard them on the radio, which means the song is insanely catchy and will be on the XFM and Virgin playlists by March, and I can imagine Chris Martin and Damon Albarn and Paul Weller and the young northern shavers from Arctic Monkeys all saying, "Whoa - who's this guy with the astonishing songwriting talent?" Soon, the world will know of my genius. Just don't breathe a word of it to Mr Reed's and Mr Springsteen's lawyers, will you?

Pensioned out

I'm assuming it's a hoax, the news that, as part of a cost-cutting initiative, thousands of civil service jobs at the Dept of Work and Pensions may be "outsourced" to India or Eastern Europe, where the pay is a 10th of British levels.

The mind boggles about how the department will operate in the future. Not only will your querulous phone calls about your pension be routed via Bangalore or far-flung bits of Azerbaijan, your enquiry will be dealt with there too by local bureaucrats, presumably once they've been trained to deal with the various levels of sarcasm and hysteria in British voices when the subject of superannuation comes up.

I'm sure the locals would rise to the occasion, but what a shockingly cynical idea to axe 15,000 British jobs because you can get cheaper versions overseas? When did the Civil Service start behaving like unscrupulous Northern garment manufacturers, getting their sewing outsourced to the sweatshops of Seoul and Manila?

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