Waiting For Nancy – Song Crafting Session # 1

Mar01

Welcome to a new Guitar Noise feature. Since there is a lot of interest in songwriting on this site, I’d like to take advantage of the talent we have to provide songwriters of all levels with (what I hope will be) a continuing series that examines this art.

One bit of advice that songwriters give (and get) over and over again is to listen to the music that’s around them. I think we can go further. What I would like to do is offer you a “behind the scenes” look at the creative process involved in songwriting. This can cover a lot of territory, such as coming up with melodies, chord progressions, lyrics, and arrangements, not to mention all the revisions done in each of these areas. It can also encompass the subsequent performance and even the recording of a song.

The obvious trouble with creating a series of lessons like this is the songs themselves. As much as I like to think of Guitar Noise as the jewel of the internet, it’s pretty hard to get some famous songwriter to take the time to write the sort of piece we’d want. But then it occurred to me that we have plenty of quality songwriters among our ranks, both staff and readers. And thanks to the generosity of Adam McMaster, one of our readers, we are able to give you an MP3 file of an entire song so that you will be able to follow the lessons.

I’ve been working on the logistics of this for some time now and it’s no secret among the Guitar Noise staff that I’m truly excited about this whole project. While I can’t exactly say where our “Song Crafting Sessions” will ultimately end up, I think I can guarantee that it will be a fun and educational trip getting there. So let’s get started, shall we?

These files are the author’s own work and represent his own original work. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

Our initial lesson is a song I wrote in 1981, called Waiting For Nancy. If you’d like to hear it (or keep it handy in order to follow along), you can find it here.

Recording credits:

David Hodge – vocal, piano, organ
Anne O’Neil – drums
Mike Sexton – guitar
Roy Wogelius – bass

Jerry Soto – engineer

Recorded at Soto Sound Studios, Evanston, Illinois, in the summer of 1982.

Music

Those of you who either have read my songwriting articles or frequent the Songwriting Forum pages know that I’m pretty much a “music first” person. That is, more often than not I will write the music of a song, usually the melody and chord progression, before the lyrics. Maybe it’s because I hear the potential of a song in many things.

In 1981, I was playing keyboards for a band called “Fat Lewy” (don’t ask!). One of the songs in our repertoire was a cover of The Real Me, the opening song on the Who album, “Quadrophenia,” because it was a great showpiece for our bassist. Needless to say we had the song down cold. But one day at practice, we all happened to be in a giddy mood and decided to mess around with our arrangement. We’d do this with songs on occasion simply to see if we might come up with a new twist on things. You get bored playing the same thing the same way over and over and over again.

So we tried playing this Who song in a way that we imagined a torch singer might interpret it. It became slow and sultry instead of a rush toward madness. While we agreed it was a fun thing to do, none of us seriously thought of ever performing it that way. But I held onto the jazzy sounds in my head because I thought I might be able to do something with it.

Waiting for Nancy is what eventually came out of that strange practice session. It was originally written in C minor (the same key as The Real Me) and that’s what it is on this recording. I wrote it on guitar, playing in A minor with a capo on the third fret. For the sake of simplicity (or not), let’s discuss the music itself in the key of C minor.

Quick quiz: what is the relative major of C minor? If you answered Eb, give yourself a gold star! However, both of these songs feature a chord progression of Cm to F major. F major, as you all know, consists of the notes F, A and C. The key of Eb major, though, has the note Ab instead of A. Because of this, at least in terms of Nancy’s modality (in the verses anyway), we should be thinking in terms of the key of Bb, or rather, C Dorian.

The verses and choruses are simply our C minor chord played over a short descending bass line. Each chord change lasts a measure (four beats):

Cm – - – / Cm/Bb – - – / F9/A – - – / F9 – - – /

This is a great example of how you can create a distinct modality merely by holding on to one chord and adding more notes to it. Cm consists of C, Eb and G. If you add Bb, you get C, Eb, G and Bb, which is Cm7. Adding A to the original triad gives you, essentially, an A diminished chord with the flatted seventh stuck on it (which is called a “half-diminished” chord in jazz circles). But since we’re just going to stick an F onto it anyway, let’s think of it as an F9 without a root.

Now while this is a slinky and sultry progression, it decidedly needed some kind of bridge in order to shake it up a bit. The Who’s fast rocking version could get away with using essentially the same chords throughout and using a change of dynamics (the wonderful voice-and-bass-only verse), but at a jazzy tempo, I felt I could use a distinct jolt.

I don’t mind saying that the music of the bridge of Nancy is a bit of a gem. Here is the chord progression, and again each change lasts a single measure:

Abmaj7 – - – / Bb – - – / Cm – - – / Bb – - – /

Abmaj7 – - – / Bb – - – / Eb – - – / G – - – /

Abmaj7 – - – / Bb – - – / Cm – - – / D7 – - – /

Cm – - – / D7 – - – / Eb – - – / G – - – /

From the F9/A, which is held for the last two measures of the last line in the second chorus, we go down another half step to Ab. As I mentioned earlier, Ab is part of the key of Eb (relative major to C minor). This note, added to the Cm chord, creates an Abmaj7 and pretty much obliterates our C Dorian modality. However, our ears quickly reestablish Cm as the tonal center by our climbing up to Cm through Bb. In essence, we’ve changed our modality from C Dorian to C Aeolian (natural minor). It may seem like a little thing, but musically, your ears hear a big difference.

We descend back to Abmaj7 and once again climb up again but we go from Bb to Eb (V to I in the relative major), briefly setting a new tonal center that lasts, oh, about a measure before nailing a G chord that we’re certain will bring us back to Cm.

But wait! Our trip isn’t over by a long shot! We go from G back to Abmaj7 (a deceptive cadence!) and start our climb once more only to shoot past the Cm and move on up to D7 (V of V in Cm). Repeating the Cm and D7 in order to tease a little bit and create a little more suspense in the music, we then hit the G, albeit via yet another deceptive cadence (D7 to Eb). By this time we’re more than ready to settle back comfortably with our original modality.

The bridge not only changes the song’s modality, its personality is also dramatically altered. Instead of being jazzy and swinging, as in the verses, the bridge is punched up, almost like a power-rock ballad. The final lyrics, as you’ll see, also reflect this change in tone.

The musical hook of the song resides in the bass line. At the start of the song and then echoed in the choruses and instrumental section, the bass actually does an Eb arpeggio that drops down to the sixth (C) the first time and then the fifth (Bb). This creates an interesting mix of major and minor that infuses the song. The bass line was created by Roy Wogelius, who plays on the MP3 file, and remains my favorite part of the song. While I take credit for writing the song, it is Roy’s bass lines, walking and wandering throughout the whole song, that give Nancy its soul.

Lyrics

As much as I am proud of this song as a piece of music, my main reason for using it as a lesson is to show you the value of being open-minded. For me it was a lesson on how to use my own feelings in order to write beyond my experience.

My first lyrics for this song were miles removed from what you hear on the MP3. Typical of my style at the time, they were literate, yet vague – a love song of empty alliterations:

Aimless living lifeless love
I’m losing hold and losing ground
Passing fancy fancy meeting here
Cotton candy children laughing
Licorice ludes and lemon drops
Whispered wishes wistful yet sincere
And here’s to hoping time will not treat her unkindly
Down the mindless miles maybe she’ll turn around and will she find me here
Waiting for Nancy
Waiting for Nancy to wait for me
Waiting for Nancy
Waiting for Nancy to wait for me

Picture perfect pretty picture
Party dress and postcard smile
Wonder where she will she shall we soon
Winsome sometimes times are trying
Trying to be someone real
Reasons sung so softly out of tune
Here’s to hoping she has quite a lovely time
Seven silent years will pass and will her eyes at last meet mine
Waiting for Nancy
Waiting for Nancy to wait for me
Waiting for Nancy
Waiting for Nancy to wait for me

Never knowing
Altogether certain it’s a dream a dream
And will I wake
I wonder
Look how lifelike it all seems
To be some mischievous phantasm
But it seems to me
That she seems to be so real

Waiting for Nancy
Waiting for Nancy to wait for me
Waiting for Nancy
Waiting for Nancy to wait for me

When I presented this to the band for consideration, the initial response was positive. Everyone thought it was definitely a song we could work into our original song list. One of the other band members, Sups (pronounced “Soups”), though, took it upon himself to use this as an exercise to make a lyric writer out of me.

Sups played rhythm guitar and had written (or co-written) much of our group’s original material. I respected his opinions and when he suggested that I rewrite some of the lyrics, I asked him where I should start. He took my lyric sheet and crossed out everything except the choruses and these two lines:

Licorice ludes and lemon drops

And

But it seems to me
That she seems to be so real

I have to say that I was a bit stunned.

Apart from the band, Sups also encouraged me to read all sorts of things in order to broaden my horizons. While this is always a good thing to do, there was another excellent reason that I only understood as I started to retool Nancy. Usually I would shy away from writing about anything outside of my immediate experience. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the adage “Write what you know.” Well, the more you read, the more you know.

At the time, I was reading William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch at Sups’ recommendation. It intrigued me so much that I read Junkie immediately after I finished the first book. And while I did not understand the horrors of heroin addiction, never having even smoked a joint, I did understand need and waiting. So I decided to see if I could write totally outside of my sphere of experience. In essence, I created a narrator and then thought, “Suppose we say that “Nancy” is now the street name for a drug, like “Mary Jane” for marijuana…” Suddenly I had a whole new world to explore and write about. And even though it was a world that was, as an experience, totally alien to me, I tried to use the emotions involved as a point where I could “write what I knew.” As the song shaped up, it turned out that “Nancy” became many things – the drug, the dealer, life, death, love, release, peace – any object of obsession could fit the bill.

It was my first time writing as a person very much removed from David Hodge.

And so I wrote away:

Local gangsters in the alley
Shying from the neon signs
Funked out punked out drunk out on a tear
Candy stands the corner her pockets stuffed
With licorice ludes and lemon drops
Smiles and sweets for all God’s children everywhere
And somewhere in there time must pass
But minutes hours or days I never know
It doesn’t make much difference to me anyway
Waiting for Nancy
Waiting for Nancy to come for me
Waiting for Nancy
Waiting for Nancy to comfort me

Sal the Snake and Lonesome Leah
Back home from the sidewalk sales
With a brown-bagged bottle it’s a profitable day
Quarters nickels dimes
No contribution too small to turn down
And bless you ma’am sir God certainly may
And the ashen burnout woken back from life
Coughs the dust out of his head
There ain’t much difference here between the dying and the dead
Waiting for Nancy
Waiting for Nancy to come for me
Waiting for Nancy
Waiting for Nancy to comfort me

Dearest lady
Let me feel your cool cold whiteness
In my arms my brain
Come take me far
Where no laugh no tear no joy no pain
Dare follow when I hold you close
It seems to me
Life ceases to be unreal

Waiting for Nancy
Waiting for Nancy to come for me
Waiting for Nancy
Waiting for Nancy to comfort for me
Waiting for Nancy
Waiting for Nancy to wait for me
Waiting for Nancy
Waiting for Nancy to wait for me

And here she comes

“Local gangsters” came from yet another conversation with Sups. When we once were discussing, of all things, the signs of spring, he mentioned the appearance of “street kids, practicing their summer raps” on whoever was within earshot. He made it seem that the raps were birdcalls and I’d never thought about them in that way. This gave me a place to start.

“Funked out punked out drunk out on a tear” – no I really can’t leave any alliteration alone! I wasn’t (and still am not) comfortable with “creating” words (turning “funk” and “punk” into verbs-as-adjectives in this case) but I do have to say that it can be highly effective

About David Hodge

Since joining Guitar Noise in November 1999, David has written over a thousand articles, lessons, interviews and reviews. He also serves as the site's Managing Editor, supervising all content in addition to the continued writing of his own lessons and articles. In April 2013, David joined the writing staff of Answers.com, heading up their Guitar Pages. And if that wasn't enough to keep him busy, David contributes to regularly Acoustic Guitar Magazine. He is also the author of six instructional books, the most recent being Idiot’s Guide: Playing Guitar.

Comments [2]

  1. The link for song works, but there is no song named “Waiting for Nancy”.
    Can you correct link?

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