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

Boombox

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Here are two living room demos that show off state-of-the-art two-boombox technology.

Union Square actually does have lyrics, and there is a nice studio version sung by Amanda that I may post later. This one is instrumental.

You and Me In a Doorway

You and me in a doorway, a long way from home
Watching the raindrops on the cobblestone

Got my hands in your pockets, wonder and awe
It can’t be a crime as long as you’re the law

And if I never get home and I never get back
If I never find the things I lack
If I could stand in this doorway
Until the end of time

As the rain comes down from the clouds
And my mind starts to spin
Memories they gather around
Don’t know where to begin

If I knew what I might find
I’d let the weather wash away my mind
And I would stay in this doorway
Until the end of time

Later on by the river, under the stars
Counting our change and watching the passing cars

Somewhere out on the water, the sound of a bell
The lights on the window blink: motel, motel, motel

And if I never get home and I never get back
I could live without the things I lack
If I could stand by this river
Until the end of time

As the rain comes down from the clouds
And my head starts to spin
Memories they gather around
Don’t know where to begin

And I don’t care what I’ll find
If the river could wash away my mind
Then I would stay in this doorway
Until the end of time

And I would never walk down the road
I would never walk down the road

Sunday Night

When I first got my PowerBook I used to play guitar all weekend and then try to have something to record on Garageband Sunday evenings. I spent most of my life perfectly happy using two-boom-box technology, but this was too good to ignore, even for a luddite-wannabe. But most of the lyrics I had floating around depressed even me, so I have a lot of these sad little instrumental scraps.

Never Called Her Back