Alive

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  • Jim Peterik is a songwriter and musician who was a member of The Ides Of March and Survivor. He wrote a lot of .38 Special's songs and got to know their lead singer, Donnie Van Zant. Peterik tells the story of this song:

    It seems the songs that ring loudest in people's souls are the ones that spring from a real experience. I was on my way to Nashville in early 2000 to write with two of my favorite people: Donnie and Johnny Van Zant for their upcoming second album. I had written with them for their first album, penning "Can't Say It Loud Enough," "Right Side Up" and "Show Me" with the help of Robert White Johnson. I knew it would be a fun, productive few days.

    About one-half hour into the flight to Nashville (on Southwest Airlines), I went to the john to take care of some business. As I stood there I noticed smoke hovering in the air near the light. Next thing I heard was a flight attendant pounding on my door yelling "Are you smoking in there, sir? Come out immediately!" With my zipper still halfway open, I got out of the stall and assured her that I don't even smoke! At that point we turned around to see smoke filling the cabin of the 727 jet. Next, the attendant ran down the aisle to the cockpit. I returned to my seat to hear the announcement that there would be an emergency landing in Pittsburgh to investigate the malfunction. I have never been in a plane full of mildly panicked people before - the vibe was intense as everyone began to realize that the stranger sitting next to them might be the last person they see on earth! The problem with the emergency landing in Pittsburgh, was that we were in the middle of an ice storm and landing had to be delayed. Meanwhile, the smoke seemed to form words and shapes in the still air as the people shifted, prayed, whimpered quietly and laughed nervously. I was in the prayer sector.

    When I packed for the trip, for some reason, I stuffed a small pocket Bible in my shoulder bag that a good friend had given to me. It was more like a "Bible's Greatest Hits" or "God For Dummies" - it was some of the most memorable, inspiring and hooky phrases from the Bible. I sat there in seat 32C reading those words like I was eating Pringles one after another and savoring every bite. My life was flashing before my eyes - the things I should have done, words I should have said, loved ones I should have hugged harder and more often and all the songs in my head that might never get written.

    As we circled Pittsburgh not knowing if it was an engine on fire or an electrical malfunction, I thumbed through my notebook hoping it would be found in the wreckage and that someone could finish the songs I'd started. This is how nuts it gets up there. Finally, at one point I felt an intense sense of calm. I've felt this feeling before - often just before going into surgery or before a major college exam. It is the moment of putting yourself in God's hands. Relinquishing control and rolling with the punches. Just then the pilot announced a landing in Pittsburgh. When we touched down, we were greeted by a barrage of fire trucks and emergency vehicles. After about a half-hour of airstrip operations it was declared that the smoke was caused by a short in the lighting system - all was well and we would be headed for Nashville momentarily. The passengers all let out a cheer and I think the flight attendant brought out an extra bag of peanuts for everyone - life was good!

    I was greeted at the airport by the dynamic duo. Donnie noticed I was visibly shaken. As I told him my survivor's tale on the way to the Comfort Inn, Johnny apologized for the cramped writing quarters at the hotel. I said, "Dude, right now it's just good to be alive!" We started talking about the close calls, near misses and tragedy we have seen in our lives, and about appreciating every second of this passion play called life. As my hands hit the Wurlitzer electric piano in the suite and Johnny started singing an impromptu melody, we knew we were writing the song we were meant to write that day. Donnie always kind of waits in the weeds, in the corner of the room -- but every time he opens his mouth, you hear the words of someone who's lived a rich life and remembers every face he's met along the way and every hand he's ever shaken. His lyrical wisdom on this song helped make it what it is. At the day's end, we had a song we were all proud of and we decided to call it "Alive." (Thanks to Jim for sharing this story, which appears on his website. Jim is author of the book Songwriting For Dummies.)
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