After a brief vacation due to the bankruptcy of Riff Music Magazine,
Strapping began writing for a Denver music website called Higher Listening. That failed experiment resulted in this and the next five articles.
Keys to Success:
A Conversation With a Songwriter in City Park
Continuing in our series, ALTERNATE PROFESSIONS FOR ALTERNATIVE MUSICIANS, we turn our attention to the career of freelance songwriter .
According to the 2000 census, there are 17,231 freelance songwriters in Denver County . Strangely, according to the income tax returns from the same period, only 207 people actually reported a measurable profit in the profession. That's a dismal 1.2% rate of success.
As a lover of music and author of high esteem, I decided to use my resources to help the remaining 98.8% get a leg up on the business.
What better teacher than experience? For that we go to Sheridan Pottingham, one of Denver 's few, proud, and profitable freelance songwriters…
Sunday afternoon in City Park . Lovers, young and old flirt on the lawn. Horseshoes clank. Joggers bounce. The air, though crisp, smells of rotting French fries.
I immediately spot Sheridan under the blossoming canopy of a chestnut tree. He is the only person in the park wearing a sandwich board that says, “I am Sheridan Pottingham.”
We sit (he with some difficulty) and he immediately answers a question I haven't asked…
Sheridan Pottingham: Actually, no. I'm not a freelance songwriter. I prefer the term Commissioned Sound Artist. Like a visual artist of the renaissance I make my living by creating pieces as requested by my patrons.
Strapping Danforth: Who are your patrons?
SP: Mostly children's public access cable programs.
SP: Exclusively children's public access cable programs.
SD: Such as?
SP: Well, there's a piece I wrote for a show called “Sanitary Pals” [Monday mornings three am on channel 26]. It's a puppet show. The song is called “Dumpy's Theme”. It's in a minor key. It plays when Dumpy the Dumptruck is on the screen. He's always sad because people keep putting recyclable items in him. He has a great catchphrase, “SMASHING, LADDY!” He rarely uses it because he's so sad.
(At this point Sheridan stands, falls and stands again. “Follow me,” he says, waddling to the giant gazebo west of the lake. Greek columns, a stage. My sister-in-law was married here. At the bottom of the stairs, are a television and VCR on a cart that has apparently been checked out of the East High School A/V department. Power cords run to an outlet in the face of one of the steps.
Sheridan presses play. It's difficult to see through the glare of the sun, but clearly the show is not good. The puppets are cardboard cut-outs decorated with felt and sparkles. Instead of moving their mouths, poorly hidden hands shake the puppets. However. When Dumpy takes the stage, watch out! “Dumpy's Theme” is a plodding dirge, performed on a cheap keyboard on the pipe organ setting. Far from being too good for the production, it is perfect. The song lifts “Sanitary Pals”, carries it into a realm of commiseration. Sincerity cuts through the scene and nearly brings me to tears.)
SP: You like it.
SD: Not bad.
SP: I also do the intro music for KidZ NewZ [Thursdays four pm on channel 74].
(He cues up another scene. Two elementary school kids, who look like they have halitosis, sit uncomfortably at a desk. Shitty graphics announce, with a lightning bolt, that this is KidZ NewZ. Then the theme music hits. It's a propulsive figure built around the Latin Excitement beat on the keyboard. Something big is just around the corner. News will be broken on this program, I feel it. Artificial horns punctuate an ostinato artificial bass line and my heart races.)
SD: That's really good.
SP: I know.
SD: Do you perform exclusively on the keyboard?
SP: Yeah. I love the electronic keyed sound processor, aka the Casio Keyboard. It's impossible to go wrong. A lot of people pan the Casio but that's because no one uses it properly. Look at Wesley Willis. I know he's dead but he did more to set back the Casio than anyone. He couldn't play at all. Consequently, people associate the Casio with a schizophrenic dead guy who hated Batman and liked to head butt people.
(A massive cloud mass has begun to block the sun. To the west, grey smudges droop towards the downtown skyscrapers.)
SD: Why don't you get a band together or start teaching classical music? You could do anything. You're handsome—
SD: —so why don't you do something else with your life? Something cool.
SP: I am cool.
SD: You'd be cooler if you played the piano.
(A raindrop lands on the tip of Sheridan 's nose.)
SP: But I love Casio. Don't worry about me. I'll make it big.
(Thunder rumbles in the distance.)
SP: Yes. I will be rich, famous. Gold, platinum, Grammys. Everything.
SD: I wonder if you're being realistic.
SP: Right. Every day thousands of children around Denver hear my music. By the time they're old enough to think, my songs will be stuck in their heads. They'll be humming “Dumpy's Theme” until the day they die. How long is anyone going to be singing [the Wesley Willis song] “I Whupped Batman's Ass”? How long will anyone sing anything by anyone? I'm a maverick, a visionary. I'm very talented. I do what I love and I'm influencing youth. Plus, if you must know, I smoke marijuana and occasionally take sedative pills. Don't even ask me about the sex life. You don't have time. The point? I am very, very cool. Plus I get paid. Not well but not badly. I work 20 hours a week at a laundry mat. The rest of my day is for music, booty and the green. Top that.
(It is now sprinkling. Families begin wrapping up their picnics, head toward the car.)
SD: How old are you?
SP: Twenty-seven. By the time I'm forty I'll be famous.
(Soft, warm rain moistens us. The lettering on Sheridan 's sandwich board begins to sag.)
SD: Listen kid, I grew up with The Howdy Doody Show. You probably heard of it.
(The television, dripping now, hisses, sparks.)
SD: I haven't seen the show in thirty years and I still hum Mr. Doody's theme song in the shower. But me humming “It's Howdy Doody Time” doesn't generate royalties for anyone. It just annoys me. The guy who wrote that song died poor. He's invisible. Your legacy may survive but your name certainly won't. Is that enough?
(The hair on my neck is standing upright.)
SP: (Long pause. His eyes glow blue.) A legacy? No. I don't suppose it is. But I'll be famous and rich.
SD: I kind of doubt it.
SP: What makes you so sure?
SD: It's a feeling.
SP: (Rain streaking down his face.) I'd like you to leave now.
(Dashing to shelter as quickly as my hips allow, I look back. Sheridan Pottingham stands with feet wide next to the TV cart; his sandwich board washed clean, a puddle of red paint at his feet. I look away. A crackle, a boom. The earth shakes and I run.)
--Strapping Danforth, April, 2004