Tuesday, June 18, 2019

A Long Song Story


I like stories about the inspiration and writing of songs. Here’s a rambling ambling down memory lane about one of my songs.
In 2005 I finished a poem with a traditional (grade school) structure I thought might someday be a song. That will raise an eyebrow if you are familiar with the fact that a lot of contemporary lyrics for a long time now are not exactly grade school structure. Well I’m unconventional enough to think overly conventional is avant-garde. Yeah, I know…   anyway.
The story of the poem is that I was reflecting on the irony of how white pop/rock music giants like Eric Clapton (and an army of white blues guitarists), the Beatles and the Stones often mentioned the inspiration they found in the old scratchy recordings by black bluesmen from decades before. From musing on that came the phrase “a white boy standing in a black man’s blues” which stands a stereotype on its head and indirectly mangles a hit song title from Elvis who in spite of his early regard for white southern gospel was a champion of black pop and R&B artists. That phrase was the spark and possible hook. The verses sprang from the idea of a figurative conversation between New World and Old World dudes addressing each other across the ocean. To this I added the irony of ancient races that reveal the way of salvation amidst a modern world’s troubles. It is a stretch that I like.
As mentioned the poetic structure of the song tended to frustrate developing an interesting melody and more than a few attempts were dispatched into the infernal abyss of acapella moaning in Sheol. Then one day a talented musician/songwriter Mr. Michael Roe announced a Kickstarter for his new album “Guadalupe” (awesome, go get it). One of the awards was to have him record or help you record your song. I bit and began the search for which of my old dusty tunes, most written 30 years before I would submit. Settling on my opus “Benedictus” (that’s right, Luke 1:68-79 set to music) , I practiced like crazy just so I could record a rough demo. Sent Mike the tape and he said, “nah… that song would take more work to arrange and record than intended”. So I sulked for a good long while, went into rehab, got my hair cut, changed my wardrobe, sold my gun collection, donated my fourteen beer-can mobiles to Good Will because the Salvation Army wouldn’t take them, and stopped my subscription to Mad magazine… changed my guitar strings and went to work on another song. I thought, “dadgum it how can he not want to record my opus?!  I know what I’ll do, I’ll make up something so simple he’ll be embarrassed to record it and embarrassed not to.” I have a kind of dark side like that.
So I grabbed this poem from 2005 and came up with a song lickety-split. Sent it to Mike and he said “That’s a good tune and I believe we could do it justice. Be thinking about how you would like to hear it fleshed out.  We could easily do this one in a light country rock vein a la The Eagles/Poco/Daniel Amos, but for some reason I am hearing electric 12 strings and harmonies like the early Byrds records in my head when I hear you sing this, which would give it a more 60s electric folk rock feel.  Gosh that would be beautiful for this, as your voice is already reminiscent of Gene Clark in his later years.”
Well I was excited to hear that and dreadfully flush with flattery. Sadly I didn’t like the tune one bit because it wasn’t cool (you probably noticed Mike did not mention Clapton or the Beatles or the Stones). Yet another musical idea flushed down the sewer of discordant harmonies and malodorous melodies. As the sullen mood persisted, I started playing with the chords and tune from a song I tried to write in junior high school which I still remembered because I never stopped believing it was cool. I even taught it to the garage band I was in at the time. Unfortunately it was unfinished and no one then had the panache to co-write anything. We were too busy figuring out what being cool really meant. So I threw out the old lyrics and tried the music with this poem and started liking it enough I came up with a change for the chorus and bam, there was my “second version” in all its coolness!
Mike’s comments, “Are you still planning on us cutting the second version of SIBMB?  Only asking ‘cuz I really like the first version a lot, but didn’t wanna be learning the wrong version in case you weren’t sure.  Either one is fine, I just dig Version One ‘cuz it reminds me of The Byrds …. old hippies die hard, I guess …  The second version will most definitely be simpler ‘cuz I won’t have to layer a bunch of electric 12 strings …. LOL” and that was that.
At 10 am on a hot and sultry Saturday, June 14, 2014 I reported to Mark Harmon’s home recording studio, the HarmFarm, and he and Mike began laying down the tracks. The challenges from my end were “I’m hoping you will take care of the guitar chores. I’m a bit fumble-fingered no matter how much I practice, and really look forward to your ideas.” And “I’m just starting to sing a little again, my lungs are more clear and one ear is hearing almost normal.” Yes that is right, “just starting to sing again” after having a combination of four or more colds and flus through late winter and spring that left me half-deaf and my pipes clogged with ongoing congestion. Hence the rather subdued quality to my vocal.
Mike laid down the first acoustic track on a Martin which is on one side of the final edition and ran through it again on a bright Taylor with low E dropped to D (you can hear his octave changes on the musical hook). Mark who was at the controls put that on the other side. This second track makes the rhythm pop and really propels the song. Then I sang three straight through takes to be pieced into a vocal without the disgusting parts. Mike and I went out for lunch and by the time we got back Mark (also a phenomenal musician) had recorded the bass which I was not expecting (and is excellent) and added a back beat on a floor tom. It was so incredible to hear that for the first time. Then Mike recorded three tracks on his electric blue Strat (with Clapton electronics = cool) and he and Mark worked through the editing of the all the instrument tracks. After that Mike took over the controls and he and I crafted the vocal, selecting the best of the three takes by phrase.
Mark made the master and we listened to it on Mike’s car stereo, the ultimate sound test, and after ten hours we had the finished version you hear in the attached link. It was extremely satisfying. Because we had listened to it piece by piece all day long I told myself I would wait awhile to listen to it on the two-hour drive home. That lasted about three minutes and I played it the whole way. It took me about three years to stop listening to it at least once a week.
I wrote Mike not long after, “Played the song for my wife and she really liked it (surprise!), brought tears to my eyes. Then we went to my daughter’s for Fathers Day [the whole family was there]. I put the CD on their player and they were all blown away, especially our sons-in-law. They let it play on repeat for about half an hour and they want copies. I was playing the song for our older two grand kids last week and our three yr old grandson was dancing up a storm, kinda like Elaine on Seinfeld… he gets it, man.”
It was cool and still is.