My Bills and Demands I Keep Too

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Regarding the previous post: Of course, nowadays I would not be (quite) so inanely pleased with myself to be wearing such a pathetically crippling defect as a badge of honor. There’s nothing wrong with memories, but being an obsessive-compulsive emotional packrat is ultimately self-defeating. (Over time, you end up having a giant rear-view mirror where your windshield should be.) And one way of looking at recovery from Devastationalism is as an advanced course in baggage disposal. But still…everyone has a list.

The List

After the service, we were standing around
Down by the harbor, watching the boats
I saw the husband smoking all alone
And the English girls in their winter coats

I don’t pretend things will be the same again
But I believe in something worth holding on to

People were quiet, as we stood at the gate
Ice in the water, snow on the ground
I never realized what we had to lose
Some kids from the theater passed a bottle around

I don’t pretend things will be the same again
But I believe in something worth holding on to

I don’t pretend things will be the same again
And so we grieve for someone we will never see again

You wanna see a list?
The things that I have loved
The things that I believed in
The things worth holding on to

After the service, we were standing around
Down by the harbor, watching the boats…

Addendum

Kristian writes: “Things will never be the same again–from every moment forward. From this moment to the next. Nothing will ever be the same. Even without some benchmark loss. And yet somehow we’re genetically attuned to the notion, or cling to the feeling, or have a soul addiction to needing something to be the same. Some comfort zone, some notion of stability, a kitchen view or a hand you held or a loving glance or a favorite carpet or the flavor of some recipe that you’ve lost. I guess it’s about the darn journey after all. Fuck all those new age babblers that have been trying to get me to hear that darn message all these years, dagnabit!”

Sockets

My lovely and talented brother very kindly covered my song “Mary” on his first album. He also graciously invited me to sing harmony on it. I remember driving up to some house in Connecticut — it was recorded in a basement studio which was the homebase of the guy from that band where (I swear I’m not making this up) all the songs are about hockey…? Anyhow, they quite mercifully mixed my “singing” just below the threshold of human hearing, but I did manage to make myself useful by going on a pizza run.

I was able to reciprocate a few years later when, on the occasion of a milestone birthday of his, my brother’s wife and his friend Scruffy solicited all of his musician friends to each make a home recording of one of his songs, which they then compiled on a CD as a surprise birthday present. Choosing a song to do was a no-brainer for me, since “Sockets” had been always been my favorite of my brother’s songs. (Most Devastational?) I recorded it one afternoon on a weird little borderline-toy Japanese digital recorder called a ZOOM PS-04 that I bought specifically for the occasion using a now drunkenly destroyed Seagull guitar and one of the machine’s internal beats.

Sockets (Michael Shelley)

Lilja 4-Ever

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Because I’m heat-addled and writer’s-blocked, I’m simply gonna write what’s been on my mind today, which happens to be more about my songwriting process than anybody could ever possibly need to know. It was either that, or post this song without any annotation whatsoever. Feel free to scroll directly down to the Keef quote far below.

“Too Far” is a rare case where the music arrived almost complete, an entire landscape I could hear (and see) in my head, right down to the bongos (and as God is my witness, for all my borderline psychoses, I’ve never heard bongos in my head before). But alas, it arrived with only two lines of lyrics (the first line each of the verse and the chorus), so I was stuck in a position I rarely let myself get into, having a fully fleshed-out backing track/melody and trying to write the lyrics on paper separately, after the fact. Of course there’s usually some tinkering — a line here, a verse there — but it’s always better when music and lyrics evolve together. I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of “composing” lyrics as something removed from the greater whole — you almost always end up with something that sounds forced and over-thought and fussed-over.

So, I could refine this a little bit more, but the risk is to mess with it too much until you’re miles away from shore and no way back. I’ve lost better songs than this one that way. And performance matters here, the way the lyrics are sung. When you write out lyrics you tend to be very literal about singing the words rather than the sounds. It’s just a psychological thing. But the more/longer you sing a song, the more it becomes second-nature and you can’t help but smooth it out so it sounds right — you stop worrying about literal meaning so much, as long as you can keep the picture in your head.

Which is to say, I think these lyrics will be fine as they are (knock wood), they just need to age a while in the bottle. The only thing I might change before this song ever gets played live is something Jon pointed out the other day — that the phrase “nobody can say” doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the song. The other half of that line, which ends on the words “too far,” sounds right to me (not to mention, it contains the song’s nominal title) but there’s undoubtedly a better, truer way to get there, and to convey the idea that no journey is too far to travel, no distance too far to fall.

This is Keith Richards talking about his songwriting process:

“Usually it will come with the hook, the basic idea. As for the verses and bridge, the idea of writing a song in front of the music is virtually pointless, a very rare thing with me. Now and again I might get a verse down beforehand in prose, but the way I’ve always written songs is get a nice chord sequence and get it played well. Then I’ll listen to it for a long time and decide where a voice should come. I go through a lot of what we call ‘vowel movement’, when you get in front of a microphone and forget what the hell the song is supposed to be about, and just start to sing ‘eee, oooo, aaah’. There’s nothing worse than an ‘eee’ sound coming when you should have an ‘aaaaah’. You let the vowels fit in with the track and add the consonants later, and they become the words. This way, you know what you’re aiming at sound-wise. The lyrics are very important, but to me they can come almost at the last minute. The song will form itself around the vowel movement. A regular vowel movement,” he cackles. “We like that in a band…”

And this is from Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles”, a Devastationalist poem, if ever there was one:

That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

Too Far

Meet me in the meadow past the railroad station
Oh, my dimpled little paisley swain
Show me all the flowers and the constellations
Drown me in the thunder and the rain

Would you believe a diamond ring?
Would you believe the stars?
Tip me over, make it sting
And nobody could say I’ve come too far

Meet me in the meadow past the railroad station
Meet me under cover of the stars
Roll me in the flowers and the constellations
Everything I’ll ever have is yours

Would you prefer a diamond ring
To a wilted little daisy chain?
Lift me up, make me sing
And nobody can say I fell too far

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Come, Armageddon! Come!

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On a recent balmy evening, over oysters and Caesar salad at a sidewalk cafe, we were discussing the dreadful phenomenon of feeling “not right.” This is different from sinking into depression or coming down with the flu, and though illness or depression may sometimes be contributing factors, this “not right” feeling is much, much worse. It’s an acute sensation of total disjointedness, of not being at home in the universe, of not processing reality correctly. It”s hard to describe (and inaptly named), but it can come on quickly, and unlike the (sometimes) reassuring background thrum of depression or the reliable physicality of the flu, this kind of unease is impossible to pinpoint — it ravages you with fear.

The best illustration I can think of is an episode of the Twilight Zone where three astronauts come back to earth from a difficult but successful mission and are soon overwhelmed by this mysterious “not right” feeling. One of the astronauts says something to his friend along the lines of, “I feel like it takes every ounce of concentration I have to keep myself from blinking out of existence — like if I relax for even a second, I’ll be gone!” Sure enough, one by one the astronauts disappear, as does all memory and record that they ever existed.

Poking around the internet to find out the title of this episode (“And When the Sky Was Opened”) led me to its IMDb page and a single user comment by someone named Doug that sums up certain points better than I ever could. (And as all the kids are saying these days, “italics mine!“):

“One of series’ spookiest entries. It’s fascinating to watch the byplay between the fun-loving astronauts spiral away from flyboy hijinks into the nervous hysteria of brave men caught up in the inexplicable. Some fine group performances, especially Rod Taylor’s whose mounting panic reminds me of Kevin Mc Carthy’s unhinged doctor in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The brief shot of this cool professional coming unglued while posed against a cosmic starscape could serve as an icon for the entire series. Note also the clever touch of posing Charles Aidman against a faintly blinking neon, implying that his stay on earth is shaky at best. Speaking of the bar scene, watch the busty babe’s amusing what’s-his-line-gonna-be reaction to Taylor’s aggressive approach. It’s this contrast between the seemingly normal and the emerging paranormal that heightens the show’s effect. One teasing question presented is how much our sense of reality depends not only on what our five senses tell us, but on how much we can agree on. That is, a reality composed not only on what we’ve seen, but on what we can agree on having seen. Put the two in conflict and worlds, like Taylor’s, come apart.

Monica Says

Monica says she’s feeling down
Look at the rain all over town
It’s never gonna go away

I try to whisper in her ear
All of the things she loves to hear
But I can’t remember how

Maybe someday when I’m not proud
I’ll get to say these things out loud
And then we’ll be happy again

Monica tries with all her might
Lies awake reading through the night
And thinks of things that went away

I’d like to whisper in her ear
All of the things she wants to hear
That I can’t remember now

Look at the rain, it’s pouring down
Crashing like waves all over town
We’ll never be happy again

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Morning After Addendum:

I found a direct quote from the Rod Serling teleplay of the Twilight Zone episode. Not the one I was paraphrasing above, but exceedingly apropos nonetheless:

COL. FORBES: Oh, I know he’s not an illusion. I know. He’s been yanked out of here. He’s been taken away. He told me, remember. He told me. Maybe somebody or something made a mistake. Let us get through when we shouldn’t have gotten through. Gotta come back to get us. Somebody up there. Oh, Bill. This is weird. This is plain weird. Like I just don’t belong. Just like I don’t belong. Oh, no. Oh, no!!! I don’t want this to happen! Bill, I don’t want it to happen! I don’t want it to happen! I don’t want it to happen!!!

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If She’s Listening

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This weekend I saw the movie “Music and Lyrics” with Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore as a songwriting duo whose artistic collaboration eventually blossoms into — spoiler alert! — love. (I know — what could I possibly relate to in that premise?)

We saw the movie in the “whatever’s playing at 7 o’clock” spirit, but I have to admit, it did the trick: I laughed and I cried. What can I tell you? I’m a sucker for this kind of thing. And it was a fitting capper to a week in which songwriting one’s way out of a corner was a major topic of both thought and conversation.

“If She’s Listening” was recorded in my living room, using a Mac, a Martin and a Blue Snowball microphone, two packs of Skittles and a liter of Diet Coke.

We were out walking
Down the boulevard
Laughing and talking
She squeezed my hand so hard

Nothing but daydreams
In the Saratoga skies
I saw reflected
In the palace of her eyes

Mama don’t tell my business
Mama don’t stab my back
Mama don’t show my letters
Mama don’t make the skies turn black

Back at the hotel
I was on the bed
Couldn’t imagine
The thoughts inside her head

There at the window
Where clouds had filled the skies
I saw reflected
In the caverns of her eyes

Mama don’t tell my business
Mama don’t stab my back
Mama don’t show my letters
Mama don’t make the skies turn black

There’s a girl out there
With long red hair
And eyes like pools of liquid mud

She’s honest, brave and kind
And she knows her own mind
And her heart beats warm, red blood

And if she’s listening to this song
She knows exactly what went wrong

Kerguelen of a Cartoonist

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The Kerguelen Islands are a forbidding, rocky archipelago lying in the southern Indian Ocean, somewhere between the horn of Africa and Antarctica. A territory of France, they were discovered by (and named after) the French explorer and navigator Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen-Trémarec in 1772. Kerguelen had been commissioned by Louis XV to find a southern continent (like Australia) and claim it for France. It was believed that such a continent must exist to balance out the land-masses of the northern hemisphere. Kerguelen returned to France from his sea voyages and told the King a bunch of crazy and elaborate lies about discovering a paradise of untold beauty and riches. When an expensively mounted second expedition to the islands failed to turn up any beauty or riches (a native Kerguelen cabbage turning out to be the island’s most exploitable resource), Kerguelen was imprisoned for his fabulations. But he was released as a “victim of monarchy” after the French Revolution and appointed port manager at Brest.

Apparently this tale somehow inspired Matthew and Nick to make a movie they called “The Kerguelen of a Cartoonist,” though the film itself had nothing to do with either Kerguelen the man or the islands that I could tell. I cannot recall whether the protagonist (played by Nick) was a cartoonist or what cartooning had to do with anything. I do remember there were all sorts of surreal flourishes (including a giant pointing-finger-of-death prop) and deep philosophical conversations in the movie, and I’m also pretty sure I remember getting shot and dying in my one scene, filmed at Nick’s kitchen table.

When it came time to do the music for the film, Nick brought over lyrics that I think he and Bob DuCharme had written. (Or maybe just Bob wrote them?) I immediately paired the lyrics with a melodic figure that had been floating around my guitar that week (which Kris said sounded like the old Yellowbirds TV commercial jingle, if anyone is left alive who knows what that is). I hastily (and sloppily) recorded the finished song live to a boombox (so hastily and sloppily that the opening notes were left off the tape, and as the song unfolds, the guitar part isn’t played correctly through even once), converted the cassette to MP3, and sent the MP3 to Bob and Matthew, thinking I might make a “realer” version later, but of course, that sloppy boombox version is what ended up in the movie.

For a minute afterwards I regretted giving up that bit of music for adoption rather than keeping it to use later for one of my own songs, but I got over that. Musical bits work where they work; you can always make more. Besides which, these lyrics are great, truly odd and very moving, and applicable to nearly any occasion. I sing them now as if they were my very own. Bob loosely adapted the melody and guitar line to create his wonderfully appropriate 60s-esque avant-garde soundtrack, which I have stolen from his website and posted here, further below.

Kerguelen of a Cartoonist — Closing Theme Song

Why did you say
It had all these
Natural resources
Why did you have to go back?

He was in prison
That’s when they had
The French Revolution
So they made him a minister

Why did you have
To take all the pictures
Why did you have
To show everybody the cartoons?

Why did you have to do it?
We could have been friends
This is no
This is no cartoon

This is real life
Not Benday dots
Before he heard
The shots, he knew

Why did you say
It had all these
Natural resources
Why did you have to go back?

Why do I have to do it?
We could have been friends
Why do I have to do it?
We could have been friends

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Opening Theme

The Party

Kurt Threatens Oomulus

Kurt Wanders the Streets

Opening Theme (Bonus Version by The Master Cylinder)

Ho Ho Ho

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Perhaps the height of Devastationalist romantic integrity is the idea of dying (either figuratively or literally) for the loss of love: “I said you were my life, my heart, my soul, and now you’re gone; so I will stand true by my words, my feelings, and I will make myself begone, too!” A perfect musical example of this is that Dido song, “White Flag,” which seemed to be playing in every deli and cab and restaurant for a rather longish stretch there a few years back. In that song, the singer is a teary, bleary wreck, yet nonetheless looking the world in the eye and seething with steely defiance as she sings:

I will go down with this ship
And I won’t put my hands up and surrender
There will be no white flag above my door
I’m in love, and always will be

“White Flag” is actually a beautiful song, I think, kind of like bubble-gum Nico. But the point is that I really believed this was a brave and heroic stance, and one with real-life credibility. Now I’m not so sure. Living (or trying to live) a non-Devastationalist life doesn’t inoculate you from pain, loss or sadness, of course. But what it can change, profoundly, is how you respond to pain, loss or sadness when they inevitably come a-knockin’ on your door. It allows you to see that refusing to go down with the ship might just be the path of greater integrity. Maybe the true measure of love isn’t necessarily the agony of loss after all.

Fucking brilliant deduction, right? But these are exactly the kinds of things about which I have never had any perspective whatsoever, where I’ve had to fight for every blessed millimeter of higher ground. I honestly have no idea if there is a sane and sensible way that other people think about this stuff. There are ankle-grasping wailers, I know, and cool stoics, and all the flavors in between. But everyone has a line they won’t cross, right?

“Ho Ho Ho” was written one lonely winter in an unheated, unfurnished tenement on La Salle Street, and first recorded at Josh Korda’s loft on 15th Street. I still like that original recording best, with its sleigh bells and toy piano, but I’ve long since lost any halfway-decent-sounding copy of that tape. There are also several full-band versions from over the years — it keeps coming up for its obvious perennial qualities — but for some reason it always loses its essence and gets weird or funky in band settings. So, that leaves this bare acoustic version, which comes reasonably close to capturing the spirit of the song, a few egregiously muffed chords notwithstanding.

Lost love, sure, and a Christmas miracle, maybe. Depends on the price.

Ho Ho Ho

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Look over there, right by the skyline
If you don’t see it then you must be blind
And I really like the way you look tonight
From the front and from behind

I feel so strange and I don’t know why

Is it just a special time of year?
I don’t know
And if it’s something I don’t want to hear?
Well then, let it go
‘Cause I don’t want a little bag of gold
For the fights I throw
Have a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year
And say Ho Ho Ho

We’re singing Ho Ho Ho

The Freixenet is there on the nightstand
And your glass is over there on the floor
If I could hear those bells and see those lights
I wouldn’t ask for anything more

The snow came down from a cloudy sky

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So Used To Having None Am I

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It’s wa-a-a-a-ay too easy to get used to losing, to giving up, to living without. Late-stage Devastationalists often try desperately to convince others and themselves that they’re actually happier doing without, and may even try to make a case that it is a better, cleaner way to live.

This song, of course, is not lacking in irony, but it’s a shell-shocked kind of irony. Making fun of your own life in a song — that can’t be a good sign. At the very least it’s schizophrenic. Is the singer secure in his all-too-cleverly conceived rationalizations for Devastationalism? Numbly resigned and fatalistic? Or angry and terrified of the person he’s singing about? Knee-jerk defiance, yes — but about what and towards whom?

This is live. Marni, Bianca, Gerstel.

So Used To Having None Am I

You’ve been on about
Learning how to live without
You say, A clearer path through austerity

But while you run your mouth
All your birds headed south
And it’s a long, long way from sea to shining sea

And lately I’ve been losing track
Of the life I used to know
I don’t expect to get it back
But I do enjoy the show

So take the thoughts from my head
And the love from my heart
You can spill the milk and I won’t cry
So used to having none am I

I believe life is all about
Learning how to do without
I don’t care, it doesn’t bother me

I never run my mouth
While my birds are headed south
‘Cause it’s a long, long way from sea to shining sea

Eventually they’ll clean me out
The devastation I can’t feign
I’ll eat my meals without dessert
And celebrate without champagne

So just un-pop the cork
Take the cake right off the fork
You can spill the milk and I won’t cry
So used to having none am I

And lately I’ve been losing track
Of the life I used to know
I don’t expect to get it back
But I’m dazzled by the show

So take the thoughts from my head
And the love from my heart
You can spill the milk and I won’t cry
So used to having none am I

Her Mother’s With a Soldier

A big topic over the past weekend was the often absurd discrepancies that arise between what people say they want with all their heart and the actions they take in pursuit of their stated desires. To choose a random, hypothetical example, one might say something like, “I want to fall in love and live happily ever after” while acting in a manner all-but guaranteed to result in desolation, isolation, and a complete lack of genuine (non-sentimentalized) romantic intimacy.

A while back I did figure out, finally, that actions were way more important in the real world than what went on inside your head. Most people don’t give a fuck about what you’re thinking, they can only judge you by what you do, how you act. It was hard for me to figure that out because it went against how I was raised, which was to always take another person’s mental state into consideration. And I still think we should try to do that whenever possible, especially for people we love. But it’s a luxury, no doubt about it. The real world just doesn’t have the time to be interested in everybody’s “thoughts” or “feelings.”

And more importantly, your thoughts aren’t doing you any good if they’re locked up in your mind anyhow. It’s your responsibility to figure out a way to get them out of there, and into the real world where they might actually do some good. With the exception of the truly evil, almost everyone “means well.” And, as my voice teacher once said to me, “anyone can be a genius inside his own head.” If you mean so fucking well, figure out how do so fucking well.

My beloved ex-wife, Jacquelene, used to complain half-jokingly that there were never any songs about her. But I didn’t know how to write about real love and a real relationship with a real person. It scared me too much, made me too sad. The only love I knew anything about was the kind in 3-minute pop songs, the more heart-breaking the last verse, the better.

This untitled song was written for Jack, though she might understandably wish I hadn’t bothered. I’d like to think I’ve learned a little something since it was written, though definitely not as quickly as I’d like. This version is live, and has a few guitar mistakes (not drunkeness, for once — I’m pretty sure from the vocal that I’m sober — it’s just a tricky line for me to play and sing at the same time without really concentrating), but you’ll get the idea. Since it was never properly recorded or otherwise set to stone, the lyrics to this song varied sometimes. And though it never got a proper title, the Girls gave it the set-list name of “Rain,” or sometimes “The Rain Song.”

Rain

I wish we could find a path
One that isn’t strewn with trash
You lie there looking sad
And up at me with tired eyes
And I know it won’t come true

I know we can’t outrace the past
That nothing here was built to last
So you can just sit back
And contemplate on my demise
And I know, it might come soon

I know I let a little rain fall on you
I know I let a little rain fall on you

Take the stars out of the sky
‘Cause you’re my only reason why
You lie there looking sad
And up at me with crying eyes
And I know, it won’t come true

Is it a blessing or a curse
The secrets of the Universe
Reside there in your eyes
It’s up to me, that’s no surprise
And who knows, it might come true

Although I let a little rain fall on you
Although I let a little rain fall on you

Odessa Tarzan

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Sometimes I do the music for the soundtracks of friends’ movies, most often for the indescribable productions of Matthew Licht & Nick Danger. This was the “theme song” of their most recent cinematic venture.

Vocals

Instrumental