You Ain’t Living (If You Don’t Die Trying)

(The Three Stages Of Songwriting… ) 

This is a study of how the germ of an idea for a song can happen years before the actual writing of it. 

I wrote this song in 2007 but, the seeds for it were planted back in 1987. 

If you’d have told me in the summer of ’87 that the events that were unfolding would come out twenty years later in a “Talking Blues” style song, I’d have thought you were nuts. 

It’s funny how it took me two decades to collect all the information that was needed for a 2 and a half minute song… 

Stage 1 

In 1997, my Dad had driven to Alberta from New Brunswick for my high school graduation. 
My Mom already had a pretty good idea what I wanted to do after high school. 
She knew that I wanted to be musician. 
My Dad didn’t have a clue what I was thinking of doing with my life, and deep down I knew he wouldn’t care as long as I was happy. 

So a couple of days before my graduation my Dad and I went for a pint down at the pub and I told him my plans. 

“Well, I was gonna give you 500 dollars for your schooling but if you want use it for something else, who am I stop you?” 

“Five hundred dollars, you say…” I thought to myself. 


There was music store in town called Panich Music. 
Owned and operated by a guy named Lavern Panich. 
He was a good dude and great musician.
He recorded the very first song I ever wrote in February of ’87 called “Streets Of The Night”. 

Anyway, Lavern had brother who had recently passed away. 
He was also a musician. 
A guitar player. 
In the wake of his death, his wife found it too hard to look at his guitar everyday, so she brought it in to Panich Music in hopes of selling it. 

It was a black 1968 Les Paul.

You could tell it had been played extensively. 
The finish was all worn off the neck. 
Serious belt buckle rash on the back of the body 

It was perfect. 

And to top it off, it was only 500 bucks. 

Then next morning, my Dad and I went to Panich Music and five minutes later that guitar was mine. 

I played it at my graduation. 

Curt and I played a song we wrote called “The Beginning Of The Rest Of Our Lives”. 
We also played our hit “Streets Of The Night”. 

A week after my graduation, while waiting for my big break, I was bussing tables at a bar in Bonnyville called “Hooters”. 
The band playing at Hooters that week were from Saskatoon.
They were called “Picture This”.
And as luck would have it, they were looking for a new guitar player. 

I couldn’t believe my luck. 

I told them I played guitar. 
They asked me what kind of gear I had. 
I told them I had a ’68 Les Paul. 
That was all they needed to hear. 
Just the mere mentioning that I had a Gibson gave me instant cred. 
They told me to show up the next day at 2PM for an audition. 

I got there at 1 and walked around trying to look cool. 

Slowly the band all stumbled in from their hotel rooms. 
As they were pouring their coffees and lighting up their first smokes of the day.
I went to the washroom and thought about throwing up. 

I looked at myself in the mirror and said “Don’t fuck it up, Plume…” 

I went back into the bar. 
I sat at a table and took my Les Paul out of its case. 
I nervously played a chord or two. 
I laid my guitar on the table top and went to set up my amp.

As I walked toward the stage, from behind me I heard a thud.

A thud that was followed by a cracking sound. 

I didn’t even turn around. 
I knew what it was.

It was my guitar.

Sure enough, there lying on the floor was my ’68 Les Paul with a serious crack in the headstock. 
The neck was hanging on for dear life. 
It looked like the end of the road for that guitar. 
I tried to act like it wasn’t a big deal. 
I tried to laugh it off. 

Not an easy thing to do. 

Brokenhearted, I borrowed the guitar players axe. 
Stunned, I plugged in and tuned up. 
They asked me if I knew how to play “Talk Dirty To Me”. 
“Yeah, sure… ” 
“What key, do you play it in…?” 
“I play it right here…” 
I played a power chord at the third fret on the second string. 
I had no idea what chord I was playing. 

“So, in C?” 
“Yeah…” I said, not sounding at all confident. 

They all looked at each other. 
They knew instantly, that I was in over my head. 

The drummer counted the song in and away we went. 
The band at one tempo. 
Me at another. 

But I thought I fuckin’ nailed it. 
It was so loud. 
So cool. 
The pre-audition jitters were long gone. 
I felt like Eddie Van Fuckin’ Halen. 

After the song, the singer asked me if I’d ever played that song before… 
“Yep, I have…” 
“Oh, well, okay… Probably just nerves, I guess, huh?” 

Then the drummer said, “Hey man, it kinda sounded like you were playing along with us but not playing with us, you know what I mean?” 

I had no idea what he was talking about. 

But, it was my first lesson in being a musician. 
You gotta pay attention to what’s happening on stage otherwise why bother… 
Heads up hockey. 
Keep your stick on the ice. 

Remarkably, I got the gig. 

So in the first week of July 1987, I emptied out my hockey bag and threw in a bunch of clothes. 
I packed my jet black Aria Pro II guitar and hit road with “Picture This”. 
Though I couldn’t really play it, I also brought my Les Paul. 
I was hoping maybe I could fix it or trade it in on something… 

Before we rolled out of Bonnyville at 3 in the morning, we pulled into the 7-11 and loaded up on EggHamlets, Hoagies and Coca Cola and God knows what else… 

Fifteen hours later we rolled into the town of Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan. 

I was officially living the dream. 

During the day I’d work on the songs in the hotel room. 
Every night, I’d go to the gig and help out with the show. 
I’d run the spotlight, 
Tune guitars,  
Get beer for the band… 
Whatever was needed, I’d do it. 
I was the new guy and couldn’t have been happier. 
For the next month or so, that was what I did. 
I’d work on the songs all day long and every night, I’d go the gig. 
What else does a guy need? 

In mid August we were playing at the Saxony on Stony Plain Road in Edmonton. 
It was the guitar player’s last week in the band. 

I knew I was gonna need a better guitar than my Aria Pro and according to my calculations my Les Paul wasn’t going to cut it. 
So one afternoon I went to Mainly Music on the south side of Edmonton. 
The first thing I did was buy a hot pink Kramer with a Floyd Rose. 
Then I needed an amp. 
So I bought a Gallien Krueger amplifier. 
It was about the size of a toaster. 
My monthly payments were 250 a month for a year. 
I figured I’d be making good money on the road playing guitar. 
$150.00 a week. 
$600.00 a month. 
No problem swinging that payment. 

As they were filling out all the paperwork, I decided to show them my Les Paul. 
I put the case on the counter. 
The guy behind the counter cracked open the case. 
“Wow… nice axe, man… Too bad about the neck…” 

I can only imagine what was going through his head when he saw that guitar. 
I had no idea that the guitar could be fixed, 
And the guys at Mainly Music also knew I had no idea. 

A fool and his Les Paul are easily parted. 

They gave me a 200 dollar Mexican Stratocaster straight across for my 1968 Les Paul. 

The next week, I did my very first 6 nighter on lead guitar at the Atha B in Jasper 
I was a rock star. 
The next week we were in Wetaskiwin for another 6 night stand. 
Friday afternoon, the band manager knocked on my hotel room door. 
“Lets go for a walk, Mikey…” 

An hour later I was standing in the lobby of the hotel placing a collect call to my Mom asking to pick me up on Saturday night. 

I’d been fired. 

I played the gig Saturday. 
We had a great show. 
Easily the best show of my very brief stint with “Picture This”. 
Maybe I was starting to get the hang of it… 
It didn’t matter. 
I was done and wanted to go home. 
I threw my amp, my guitars and my hockey bag full of clothes in the back of my Mom’s car.
I shook hands with everyone, jumped in the passenger’s seat and waved as we drove away. 

I was asleep before we got to the highway. 

Stage 2 – Sixteen Years Later – The Melody

We were still living in Toronto when the melody for the chorus came to me in the late winter of 2006. 
I used to walk our dog Lucy around the neighbourhood and as usual, I would always sing anything that popped into my head. 
More often than not, it never amounted to anything. 
But this time I liked the melody. 
I had no lyric. 
Just the melody. 
So I sang syllables. 
I’d worry about the lyrics later. 
Or, more likely, they’d come to me when they were ready to be written. 

When we lived in Tennessee in the early part of the decade, I used to golf a lot. 
Two or three times a week I’d make my way out to the golf course. 
At least once a week, it seemed, I’d join up with these good ol’ boys who were easily 50 years my senior. 
There wasn’t one guy under 80 years old and man, could they make me laugh. 

The first time we golfed together, I was making small talk with one of the guys. 
He asked me what I did for a living. 
I told him I was a songwriter. 
“You any good?” 
“Not really.” 
They all howled with laughter. 
“How about you, sir? What’s yer story?” 
“Me? I moved to town in ’46. I’ve been a member here the whole time. I’ve had three hole in ones, crashed two planes and have been married once?” 
“He’s lying, Mike, don’t listen him, he’s never had three hole in ones…” 
I roared like I’d never laughed before. 
These guys loved life. 
And they loved to golf. 
They loved to talk too. 
Non stop. 

They not only talked through your golf swing they talked through their own as well. 
If you hit a nice drive or rolled in a long putt or had an exceptionally lucky shot, one of them would always say, “Boy, that right there is clean living…” 

I’d laugh every time. 
These guys were the best. 
I wouldn’t have traded a round of golf with these guys for a round at Augusta. 

Another guy, every time he’d hit an approach shot or roll a putt towards the cup, he would always say, “Get it on up in there! Come on ball, get it on up in there…” 

“Get it on up in there” became my lyric to help me remember the melody for this “new song” I was working on… 

I carried that around for a year. 
Every time I’d take our dog Lucy for a walk I’d sing “Get it on up in there, You gotta get it on up in there, You gotta get it on up, get it on up, get it on, get it on up in there…” 

Stage 3 (The Lyric) 

One day the phrase “You ain’t living if you don’t die trying” bubbled to the surface. 
I tried it against the melody I had for “Get it on up in there..”. 
It worked like a charm. 
So now I had the chorus, I just had to figure out what the rest of the song was going to be about. 
I’d always liked “talking blues” songs so I figured I’d try to write the verses in that style. 
Then I started to think about my life and decisions I’ve made and how each decision lead me to the next. 

The thing with “talking blues” songs is each line is a zinger. 
There are internal rhymes everywhere. 
You don’t even need a guitar to sing those songs. 
There is so much natural rhythm in the melody and rhyme scheme that it sustains itself wonderfully. 
It makes for good company when you’re walking your dogs… 

I stole the opening line from a Tom Waits interview I read. “Well I was born at a very young age…” 
That first verse, wrote itself in seconds. 
It didn’t take too long to figure out that I was singing about me and my life in music. 

I started to think about the conversation I had with my parents about me being a musician.

Then I started thinking about that Les Paul that I had way back when…

Then I remembered how, five years after I’d traded in my Les Paul, I was in a bar on Whyte Avenue in Edmonton called “People’s Pub”.

I was watching the band play.

I noticed the guitar player was playing an old black Les Paul.

It looked just like my guitar.

After the set, I went up to him and asked about the guitar.

He said he’d bought it about five years ago.

At Mainly Music.

“It’s a ’68 ” he said, with extreme pride as he handed it to me for an up close look.

It was all there. 
The belt buckle rash. 
The finish worn off the neck.
And, too seal the deal… 
The repair to where the headstock had been snapped off. 

I strummed a chord.

I handed back the guitar.

I bit my lip and said, “Nice guitar, man…”

I walked to the bar and ordered a beer

Mike Plume
September  2016

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. We welcome any feedback, questions or comments