I’m usually a pretty literal songwriter, but “Chariot” is a rare exception. I was at my parents’ flat in London during the fall of 2007. I started playing the white semi-grand piano in the living room. My mother, already in her eighties by then, is a singing teacher. She mostly uses the piano to pick out notes for her students to sing to. I started plonking out a melody.
It had been one of those years. There had been a wacky tour with my band to the Caribbean, an adventurous theatrical CD release extravaganza at Joe’s Pub in New York City and an inspiring trip to the Steel Bridge Songwriters Festival in Wisconsin.
Still, I had spent much of the year facing the usual stresses of how to justify my penurious life as an artist and how to build a future with my girlfriend.
In hindsight, the best thing about 2007 was that I started writing songs on a stand-up piano that my friend, Don Dilego, had given to me. All I had needed to do was collect it, get it up five flights of stairs (!) and tune it. Within a few months I had written several songs that I felt were more emotionally honest than hundreds of tunes I had written on guitar.
On piano I could play the chords with my left hand and play a tune with my right! My fingers found melodies that I would never have written on guitar or even considered singing. So I arrived in London during my early piano honeymoon period! And my parents’ piano was so much warmer and gentler than my stand-up. It inspired a new kind of reverence.
The verse melody for “Chariot” is kind of a poor man’s Erik Satie. It seemed too beautiful to sing to, but I soon found myself mouthing these opening lines.
Nothing to say
Only a melody
The only honest thing to do after that was to hum the next two lines. Then my songwriting reflexes kicked in for the second verse.
Nothing to hold
Only a memory
Summer has come
Summer has gone
Yes, that sang nicely and felt right. But then when I sang the chorus the words made no real sense.
Now run to your chariot…
My recollection is that I stopped there. For several days I returned to the piano, haunted by the tune and hoping to finish it. But each time I got to the first chorus I heard myself singing this strange line about a chariot. After a few days I gave up trying to change it. Run to your chariot was the chorus of this song! But what did that mean? I had no idea.
At that point my main job as a lyricist was not to spoil what I had already, not to break the mood. A chariot is an instrument of war and also an instrument of the gods. In 2007 we were still living under a Bush presidency. Wars had commenced. Yet they still felt prologue. It seemed that even worse wars were on the horizon.
Counting the days
Until the war begins
Unlike the first verse I thought verse 3 should have lyrics for the second part as well, but I couldn’t think of any. My songs are usually too wordy if anything. But in this case, the fewer words the better! So I hummed the second part of the melody again, this time more aggressively like a war cry. I’m pretty sure I already heard in my head the clarion call of the two horn players in my band, Candace DeBartolo and Kevin Cordt. Then I sang the chorus again.
There was still one more place for the song to go. I haven’t said anything about the song’s chords or its major to minor nature. I won’t bore you forever. All I’ll say is that I was playing chords on the piano that I wouldn’t on guitar. And so for the bridge my hands simply returned to the chords from the end of the chorus, starting on an F# minor.
May calmer minds prevail
Over fear and greed and hate
Then I played the verse melody one more time and the song was over. The bridge wasn’t a “bridge” in fact. It was the final statement. I suppose it was my Utopian vision, my little “Imagine” soon before the 2008 Democratic primaries and the subsequent Presidential election.
I first recorded the song two years later on my solo record, Piano 45. Then I recorded it again with the same producer, Kenny Siegal, and my band for our most recent CD, Wild Goosechase Expedition. In the fuller version the chorus returns after the bridge. The band sounded too good, so the music won out. Rock and roll!
I still don’t know what the song’s really about. I like it that way.
When I returned to New York that fall I played it for my girlfriend. She loved it. Much more than I expected. Amongst other things the song is an elegy to lost love. I think she heard that. We broke up a few months later.