I don’t have a copy of everything I’ve ever written. That would be ridiculous for someone who’s spent more than twenty-five years employed as a writer of some sort and more than forty years scribbling words on paper (or typing them on a screen) on his own account.
I tried to come close. For about ten years after I left the Monticello Times, I hauled around nearly six year’s worth of weekly editions in twine-tied bundles, so each time I moved, I hefted every word that had been published in the paper during my years there. I also had file folders with copies of the most significant pieces and editions of the paper, so there finally came a day when I began to go through the twined bundles edition by edition, saving tearsheets of the pieces I wanted and letting go of the rest of it.
After all, a reporter at a small town paper writes everything from obituaries to crime stories to the annual announcement of the sale of Girl Scout cookies. (One year, a headline for a column I wrote about my political concerns got lost during weekly paste-up, and the annual cookie story ended up with a headline that read: “Fears and Worries, Scouts Sell Cookies.”) Obits and the small stories about meetings and reunions and spaghetti dinners – the stuff we used to call “pots and pans” at the Monticello paper – went by the wayside, and I kept the stuff that had personal connections – various columns – or that stretched my skills or brought me some recognition.
The same is true of my professional efforts from every other stop along the way, whether in newspapering or in public relations: I have over the years kept only those pieces that were significant in one way or another. As to my personal writing – lyrics, fiction, a few longer bits of non-fiction – I have almost all of it. There is, as far as I know, only one piece missing.
I was reminded of it last evening as the Texas Gal and I watched an episode of American Idol. A seventeen-year-old fellow, facing the judges as the crowd of contestants was being winnowed from seventy-five to about fifty, sang one of his own songs. It was pretty good, and there was one line in it – I should have jotted it down, but it’s flown away – that made me say, “Wow! I wish I’d written a line like that when I was seventeen.”
And I added, “When I was his age, I was writing silly songs with Rick.”
“Rick wrote songs?” the Texas Gal asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “For a while, he and I would trade lyrics back and forth.”
That came as we were finishing high school and I was starting college (he was a couple of years behind me), and I was just beginning to write my own stuff. Despite my comment to the Texas Gal, we rarely co-wrote. When we did, the result was sometimes silly, sometimes not.
He rarely handed me his stuff. He mailed it. Just for fun, he’d undone a simple envelope and made a template; when he found a page-size visual in a magazine that caught his interest, he’d pull it out, trace around his template, cut and carefully fold and paste, and he’d have a custom envelope. A small label on the front completed the process, and he’d put his new lyric – or sometimes just a quick note – inside, and a day or two later, I’d come home from school to a brightly colored envelope in the mail.
I imagine I have some of those envelopes and their contents in a box somewhere. I might even have the one that I thought about last night while watching American Idol. One evening, probably during the spring of 1972 as I was finishing my first year of college, we were whiling away time at Tomlyano’s, a long-gone pizza joint. (Tomlyano’s has shown up here once before: That was where, in 1975, my date and I fled John Denver’s “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” so abruptly that we left half a pizza on the table.) And we were talking about writing.
“You know what we should do?” Rick said. “We should find a title and both write lyrics for that title.”
“Sure,” I said. “What title?”
He looked over my shoulder. “How about ‘Five Nails In The Door’?” I turned and followed his gaze toward the swinging half-door between the kitchen and the dining area, which in fact did have five large metal circles – nail heads or decorative pieces, I’m not sure – visible. I nodded.
And a few days later, I copied out my version of “Five Nails In The Door” and either dropped it off across the street or put it in a plain white envelope and mailed it. At about the same time, I got a brightly colored envelope in the mail with Rick’s take on the title.
He’d written something that owed at least a little bit to “Wooden Ships,” the post-apocalyptic song by David Crosby, Paul Kantner, and Stephen Stills that we knew from the 1969 album Crosby, Stills & Nash. (It showed up as well on Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers that same year; Rick might have known that version, but I did not.) But it also held tinges of an empire falling in traditional fashion to outsiders, as Rome did to the Visigoths.
Rick’s lyric noted that the dying society’s hopes of survival depended on the preservation of a treasure. But that treasure was lost because “there were only five nails in the door.”
What did my version say? I don’t entirely know. As I noted above, I have copies of almost everything I’ve ever written on my own (as opposed to work product). The one lyric – among a couple hundred, maybe – that I do not have is “Five Nails In The Door.” I do vaguely remember its ending. As was my wont at the time – the spring of 1972, I’m guessing – I created a love song, and it ended something like this:
If they stand for love, and I think they do,
Then first there was one, and later came two.
So as you go, I’m adding more,
And now there are five nails in the door.
Five nails in the door for you . . .
Confusing? A little bit. Evocative? I thought so. Overwrought? Yep.
Here’s a tune that does better with the topic of nails. Here’s “Rock Salt & Nails” by Earl Scruggs, with help from Tracy Nelson and Linda Ronstadt. It’s from Scruggs’ album I Saw The Light With Some Help From My Friends, which coincidentally came out in 1972, the same year I was trying to figure out how to write a decent lyric.