Story Behind the Song: “It Might Be Memphis”

The large majority — I’d guess 75% or more — of my songs are written starting from the lyrics, whether I write those myself or get a lyric from a collaborator. “It Might Be Memphis”, which I’ve come to call my “wishful thinking” song (a more positive spin on it might be to call it my “goal”, or even “dream life”, song) did not.

It was the mid-1990s, and I’d recently replaced an older keyboard with an Alesis QuadraSynth Plus Piano. I was sitting in my studio, playing with the built-in sounds. One of those, called “Retro Rick”, was reminiscent of the electric 12-string Rickenbacker guitars used on classic tracks from the Byrds, among others. I think I was initially doodling around playing the chords from Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”, one of the Byrds’ best-known hits. After a while, though, I started playing some different chords and came up with a progression I was liking.

An interesting chord progression and a cool sound does not a song make, so, if this session was going to go anywhere, I’d have to come up with some lyrical ideas. I honestly have no recollection of exactly how I came up with the initial idea — it may well have started from singing random words, such as the eventual title, then stringing some other place names along with that — but somewhere along the line I came up with something that would be very close to the eventual chorus:

It might be Memphis
It might be New York
London, Nice, or Rome
Or anywhere a motel room is calling me back home
Wherever there’s an audience
This troubadour will be
Be it Singapore or Memphis, Tennessee

The key difference in the initial draft was that I’d had the motel room “beckoning me” home instead of “calling me back” home. The change to the final version came after receiving some feedback from music publishers that “beckoning” wasn’t a very conversational word, at least in this context.

In case you’re wondering about what might seem a curious assortment of place names, I’m pretty sure I started out with Memphis due to its association with so many classic music artists, not the least of which was Elvis Presley, whose Graceland mansion I’d visited on two separate cross-country trips in the 1980s. I’m originally from upstate New York, and New York City is one of the most famous cities in the world, with its Madison Square Garden being one of the most well-known venues for rock concerts. London is also known as a music capital, and I think I probably just added Nice and Rome as a pair of additional European cities that happened to work well for rhythm and rhyming purposes. Singapore was the birthplace of my then-wife, and it also had the side benefit of adding a particularly exotic location in another part of the world to the collection — world tour time?

By this point, I knew the song was going to somehow relate to playing music on the road — i.e. touring — but what was the song’s story? I’d had enough business travel behind me by that point to have a firsthand feel for the difficulty extended time apart could bring (especially in the case where children are involved, and I had two by that point, though I did not make any reference to that in the lyric). Thus, starting at the point of saying goodbye to head out on the road just seemed to make sense, with the inevitable mixed feelings of going out to do something you love, but having to leave loved ones behind to do it. The first verse set that up:

You follow me like a puppy each time it’s goodbye
Then you ask me where I’m goin’
And sometimes you cry
The bus is here again
It’s right outside our door
And you know that I can’t stay here any more

The second verse starts just a bit later, with the goodbye kiss. It also goes a little deeper, both in the scene between the singer and singee and in relating that getting out there to play music for audiences is an intrinsic part of the singer’s character:

So give me just one more kiss to last for a while
It shouldn’t be sad like this
Oh, let me see you smile
This is the part of me that makes me who I am
And if you love me, you will understand

That leaves the bridge. While it starts with a promise to return, its main emphasis goes back to the notion that traveling, specifically to play music for audiences (i.e. when connected to the final chorus), is more than just a job — it’s a part of who the singer is:

You know I always will come back to you
But I must have gypsy blood inside of me
For no matter where I roam
I never leave my home
‘Cause home is where my spirit can be free

My original demo of the song was recorded back in 1996, using the Alesis patch that inspired the song, along with various other hardware synth modules. Over the years, I recorded a few more iterations of the song, including one where a guitarist from Ohio had replaced the guitar tracks. However, when it came time to pick songs for my 2009 album, Love Holds On, I used all new sounds for the instrumental parts to get a better quality recording than I’d achieved in the past. Have a listen:

This was an unusual song with respect to the theme on my Love Holds On album. All of the other songs on that album are about holding onto love in relationships between people. There is a relationship between people in this song, and I suppose you could say the promise to return after the tour is a form of holding onto love between people. However, the main focus of holding onto love here is the passion for playing music for live audiences on the road, wherever that road may happen to lead, “be it Singapore or Memphis, Tennessee.”

So why do I call this my “wishful thinking” song? Playing music for live audiences is one of my biggest passions. Despite having a full-time day job these days, I did that on 137 separate occasions during 2015. Travel is another of my biggest passions. Though I haven’t done anywhere as much of that in recent years as I’d have preferred, I have also had the good fortune to travel fairly extensively, mostly within the USA, but also overseas. I would love to be able to regularly combine these two passions at some point, but I’ve only done a small amount of that to date. Short of any concrete, practical plans to make that a reality, it has to fall into the category of wishful thinking. Does registering my wish with “the Universe” count for anything? Maybe I’ll see you in Singapore (or Memphis)?