“Riverboat Captain” is a very special song for me. I credit it with making me a songwriter again.
In December 2003, in Ashland, Oregon, I’d all but given up on music. It had been five years since the Refreshments had broken up, and I was content to write novels, publish them when I could, and ride off into the sunset. There are worse ways to get from A to B in this life.
But a funny thing happened. I found out that promoting a novel wasn’t as easy as scheduling readings at bookstores and selling out of my print editions. In general, people needed a more compelling reason than a reading to leave their homes and TVs and internets. People wanted more, and I had to figure out how to give it to them.
I got into my closet, broke out my acoustic guitar and bass, blew the dust off their cases, and started practicing again. I needed a gig, so I booked a happy hour show at Long Wong’s in Tempe and cajoled a group of friends — Gerke, Naffah, Anthonise, et al.— to kill an hour or two onstage with me at Wong’s, play some old songs, ham it up, and promote Stuck Outside of Phoenix. This became our “Friends of Betty” show in January of 2004, a couple of months before Wong’s went kaput.
So, it’s December, and I’m rehearsing for the show. I’m playing “Carefree.” I’m playing “Birds Sing.” I’m playing a bunch of other songs I’d almost forgotten I’d written.
Then, I rented Charade.
It’s a movie from the sixties starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, and it turned out to be one of my favorite movies of all time. It has all kinds of silly scenes in it, like Grant and Hepburn in formal evening dress playing that game where you try to pass an orange from your neck to your partner’s without using your hands. I loved the dialog, and I got excited about finding such a great movie I’d never seen.
Then this passed through my head:
We’ll pass oranges with our necks just like Charade
And with our drinks we’ll all make lemonade
Words and melody both. Waiting for the movie to finish would’ve been torture, so I paused the tape (DVD? Don’t recall), ran upstairs, and grabbed my guitar. In 30 seconds I had:
And if you think it wasn’t, well, it was
And if you need a reason it’s because
I’m the riverboat captain
In another few hours I had the whole song, beginning to end. I was a songwriter again. Take a listen to the final product here.
The riverboat captain strikes me as a kind of take-charge character, which is what I was doing back then. Still, to me, the song will always be about that scene in Charade, Audrey and Cary balancing an orange between them, trying not to use their hands.