Aside from writing prose, I write songs, maybe five or six a year. Usually I have no idea where they come from. One day I'm strumming my guitar, thinking of this and that, and suddenly a chord or a fragment of melody catches my ear, or a few words pop into my mind. I repeat them and wonder, is this the seed of a song? Only if it grows; most don't. A few songs blossom then and there; more often days, weeks, and even months go into the ripening process.
Recently, however, I wrote a song, "Me Too," whose seed first sprouted in my mind—over forty years ago. Tracing its growth may show how creative notions can grow in our hearts and minds.
One day in 1971, listening to a Ray Charles album, Volcanic Action of My Soul, I heard Ray sing a line on one song, "I like that!" then a voice responding, "Me too!" Hey, I thought, that's cool, a background singer jumping up from the "ooh ooh" chorus and to agree enthusiastically with the lead singer. Not such a big deal, but still a lively addition to the song, and it stuck in my mind.
A year or two later I had a chance to interview Ray, and I asked him who had sung "Me too!" on the song "Every Saturday Night." Ray thought a moment then replied, "Oh, you mean on 'Take Me Home, Country Roads."' I blushed, realizing I had misremembered the track's title. Ray chuckled, letting me off the hook, then answered, "That was me talking to myself on another track." Now that, I thought, was extra cool, Ray agreeing with himself. When I wrote the profile of Ray that became the last chapter in my book, Boogie Lightning, I stole the idea to give the book a button ending:
Ray sat down once again and drove the band into "Let's Go Get Stoned." His valet Bob Taylor arrived to lead him off. He went off waving and shouting, "Let's go get stoned, all right, that's what I'm gonna do."
"Me too" then slipped into my mental background, coming out only at those times when we all use the expression to voice our empathy with another's emotions.
Some years later my wife and I moved to New York, and we came to love living in a mighty metropolis crowded with humans of every type and style, race and religion, size and shape. Soon we found that we could add to the fun by grabbing opportunities to strike up conversations with our fellow New Yorkers. Nothing profound, just little comments like, "Whew, sure is hot today" or "Is the subway always this crowded?" Almost always we got back a smile and a friendly response, sometimes a few minutes of pleasant chat.
More years went by, bringing with them, among other things, two mismatched threads in American race relations: on one hand, steady progress in overall social equality, and on the other, a tragic parade of young black men being killed or beaten by white police and security men: Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin, and most recently, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
Like Americans everywhere my wife and I puzzled over the shameful headlines and wondered what we could do to help our beautiful country get past this ugly impasse. I found myself turning ideas over in my mind and, sadly, not coming up with much until one day I thought, "At least I can increase the number of 'me too' moments I can share with the lady beside me on the F train, the guy ahead of me in the grocery store line, with anybody I might bump up against going about the city." Not much, maybe, but still, I figured, every "me too" moment could create a tiny bond of commonality between another person and myself and thereby lessen any fear or suspicion or anger that might exist between us. Maybe we'd both come away from the moment feeling, "Well, that was nice, maybe we're different, but we're all just people."
I started stepping up my little smile and hello campaign, and one day this past summer I thought, "Hmm, I could write a 'me too' song!" I first thought of a love song, but weeks went by and nothing about a boy saying "Me to" to a girl came to mind. Well, I wondered, how could I get "me too" into a socially-conscious song? More weeks went by, but despite pushing my brain numerous times in that direction, I drew nothing but blanks. Then one fall afternoon walking on a quiet street in Queens, this phrase popped into my head:
I think sometimes I live my life always on my own
—and I thought, "Hey, this could be the start of my 'me too' song." Why I thought that, I'm not sure, because there's nothing explicit in the line about "me too," but when the next line came an hour or two later:
I walk down crowded city streets always on my own
—I knew I was on to something. For the next week-plus I pushed ahead on the lyric, some nights as I was falling asleep, some days as I played guitar looking for the melody, harmony, and rhythm that could carry the lengthening story of the words. That work included improving the lyric I had started with; those first two lines, for instance, became:
Sometimes it seems I spend my days
Surrounded but alone,
I walk down crowded city streets
Always on my own...
Now I had my "person in a place," the singer, feeling sorry for himself, lonely in the big city. A cheerful stranger's eye meets his and, though neither speaks, the singer senses that the stranger has felt the same way himself:
"What's wrong, my friend?' his silence asks,
"Come now, don't be blue,
"Tell me what you're feeling,
I'm sure I'll say me too."
That "me too" set me up for my chorus, the lyric accompanied by a bouncier rhythm and a melody in a higher key:
Me too, me too,
Two teeny tiny words
Me too, me too,
The wisest ever heard,
'Cause those two silly syllables
Always will be true
As long as you're a bit like me
And I'm a bit like you.
In a moment the stranger disappears around a corner, but the brief encounter has brightened the singer's mood. Suddenly he can see each passer-by as a person like himself:
A woman, a cop, two giggling kids,
An old man with a cane,
A boy and girl holding hands...
—and even a sudden shower can't dampen his mood:
The old man puts his umbrella up,
I put mine up too,
We shrug and smile like old friends,
Our eyes say, "Ah, me too!"
A quick repeat of the chorus and, two weeks after I started, or I could say, forty-three years after I heard Ray Charles sing the line, I had my "Me Too" song at last. Hip, hip hurray!
I suggest that all us writers try going after little "me too" moments whenever we can; if we all do, I'm convinced, we'll contribute greatly to our nation's domestic tranquility. We can consciously look for long term themes and ideas in our lives—something Grandma used to say, an embarrassing moment we still blush about, an unshakeable belief pulsing deep in our souls—and use them as building blocks in our work. Your building blocks may be far different from mine, but there are mysterious but big, good, and strong reasons why we don't forget moments like hearing Ray's "Me too." Find those core ideas in your life, write them down, and I think that when you send them out into the world, you'll find an audience who will read your work and gladly respond, "Me too!"
Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program.Click here to read other articles by Michael Lydon