I know a guitarist who refuses to learn Boston’s ‘More Than a Feeling’ because it would destroy it for him to know how it works. I can respect that. I’ve overanalyzed many favorite books and movies. There’s way too much good poetry that is forever tainted with the odor of grad school seminars for me. I miss it.
Yesterday I was rushing over to the studio to record some jingles and voice overs for Mr. Gary. The I Ching that is my iPod decided to play ‘More Than a Feeling’. Two days with an audio engineer and sound designer had me tuned into recorded sound, and I started pulling apart the recording in a way I never had before. I heard the overdubs. I heard the backing tracks. I could even figure out some of the lyrics!
And before I knew it, this song was separating out into its component elements. I saw how the bass line works with the guitars. I heard how all this was built around the singer’s voice quality and octave range. Half way through the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” suddenly came roaring into my head, and I knew that Kurt Cobain must have heard this song when he was still a nice boy, and that it had percolated for years before re-emerging triumphantly fifteen years later.
The song came out in 1976. I was nine. It boomed all around me the first time I went skiing. I was in love with the sport. Everything about it. We stayed with some family friends at a little wooden sky house. All very standard, but all new to me. The whole house seemed somehow oriented to dumping people out onto the slopes. More Than a Feeling boomed from the older kid’s stereo. It played on the loud speaker at the bottom of the slope. It was in the wood smell of the walls, and the smoky smell of the fireplace, and the steamy humidity of just inside the back door, where you pulled yourself out of your ski boots.
Everything was about joy. The adults all acted different. And I’d learned how to fly. I didn’t know you could fall, or that falling might hurt. So I didn’t fall. I shot out of the house and down the slopes as much as I could. I slipped away and went to the harder slopes. I remember the top of the big hill. I remember seeing nothing but joy. I took off down the slope, faster and faster. I felt this joy rising in me as I went faster and my legs felt like they couldn’t touch the ground, but I couldn’t fall. I got to the bottom of the hill feeling like I’d never felt before. And I saw my friend’s mom giving me a look of disapproval mixed with a little smirking good-for-you. I pulled off my goggles and warm tears rolled out and down face. I was ashamed. I picked up a handful of snow and wiped it all over my face to hide the tears from her. She asked what I was doing. I didn’t know. I didn’t know you could cry tears of joy. But I did know what ‘More Than a Feeling’ was. I’ve been chasing after that moment for the last three decades.
This is a screenwriting blog, so I’ll bring this around to what this means to writing. The reason that song stands out so clearly in my mind has a lot to do with how it was constructed. It’s the perfect example of the conceit (i.e. concept) of 70’s American rock. You can analyze it in almost any way you want, and there’s that spark of genius in the composition. But it’s a simple thing. Many, many groups tried to capture it. Boston tried to re-use it. But it was no longer original. It was no longer simple, honest, straightforward. It took Kurt Cobain to find it years later. Fifteen years after that, it made me remember the smell of my glove as I wiped tears from my face with snow thirty years ago. This is the power of a good conceit.
Screenwriting is a huge paradox: visual writing. Writing about visual writing is necessary, but it’s a slippery thing. Just for today, remember that our world is full of conceits and tools and good and bad dialogue and second-act complications. You know it when you see it. Don’t worry about how to label it. Worry about why it matters, and how you can bring it to the screen.