September 02, 2002

Retaliatory Self-Martyrdom


An unashamedly self-centered analysis of Mojo Wire-era song lyrics.

Immediate disclaimer: Of course, this doesn't include the lyrics I wrote for the first two Mojo Wire albums, but since the 12-bar parodies on Battery Acid Blues were much more collaborative things with Bryn and Adam, and most of my half-assedly rushed Rocket Fuel lyrics got re-written for Honey White anyway...

How Far Away (May 1998): The first lyric that I put any real effort into was still essentially a whiny breakup bitchfest, the perfect weapon for a 21-year-old man-child. It was loosely directed at an ex-girlfriend for (as I saw it at the time) scurrilously defaming me as some kind of superficial gigolo. Calling her Cassandra was a cheap and toothless insult that seemed fitting, so I ran with it. It wasn't cathartic, though- it was more like a festering cut, and I found it dangerously easy to progress from false prophecies to something nastier. Slashing with the Sylvia Plath knife was callous and ignorant, but like I said in the lyric, I was the last one to find out about any of this. I've always hated being the victim of inside jokes, so since everyone else knew I was getting dumped except me, I thought it was more than fair to fight fire with napalm. It's a total hyperbolic stretch from what actually happened, but it's okay to be a little cartoonish in a pop lyric, right? Naturally, it had no effect on her whatsoever, but the band dug it. The music was happy and loud, so that was the only thing audiences heard anyway.

Sunset Down (July 1998): Like "How Far Away," this one is another ill-defined breakup rant, only slightly mollified by placing it atop one of Adam's softer acoustic tunes. The lyric itself had no real structure; it was a rambling thing lacking verses or choruses or anything like that, but it worked. Even so, most of the lines hang on clumsy rhymes like "nations/reservations," and the themes were lame and cliched (things strung together like sunsets and endings). The only line I still really like is "the heat is high but I know my way and nothing so wrong will happen today," because it's completely delusional; you only ever say something that confident when you've been through a hell of a wringer and you feel like crap. Another good couplet is "losing every lead/learning how to bleed" (inserted in a rewrite a year later). Both are the sorts of things that you lie to yourself about for the sheer sake of functioning after a tragedy. I had no such tragedy worse than being dumped, so I was just being a big baby, but at least I knew the line was bogus and knew it had to be delivered with a healthy smirk.

The Shivering Sand (August 1998) I will always count "Shivering Sand" as one of my favorite musical accomplishments- even though it's a silly lust limerick with shaky metaphors of quicksand and whirlpools- because it only took me a miraculously short six hours to write and record the entire thing. It began with that great slippery bassline, and then all I did was channel the lonliness I felt during a summer in Isla Vista without my girlfriend. I swiped the title phrase from Wilkie Collins' novel The Moonstone, which I was slogging through at the time for a Victorian Literature class. I didn't enjoy it- Collins' "shivering sand" metaphor was supposed to represent repressed Victorian female sexuality, in all its desperate glory- but then of course I turned around and wrote a song about that very thing, except I was the angsty female. For balance, I tried to inject the mood of detached cool from songs like Dire Straits' "Down To The Waterline," and so "Shivering Sand" helped define the "surf-noir" sound on the Seaside album. The lyrics changed a bit when it was re-recorded in 2001, and it was that revised version that Honey White included in their live sets.

Pisces Lullabye (February 1999) This lyric has always been a pretty nebulous, open-ended thing, but the original version was extremely incoherent. I was trying to peek out of my girlfriend's head and see things the way I thought she might, four months after her father's death. How presumptuosly preposterous is that? As with so many things, I was younger and dumber and trying to be empathetic. It's generally okay, though, as long as you don't try to figure it out. The title also plays on the idea that a Pisces (her) and a Scorpio (me) are astrologically speaking a perfect match. We only found out about that six months later, but it fit, and a line from a Pavement song hit it on the head so I filched them both. It also sounds like the Cure, which was one of her big favorite bands. I totally rewrote it from the ground up in 2002 for Honey White. We'd been rehearsing a louder, slightly faster, non-lullaby take of the song anyway, so the revised lyric structure helped a lot and made "Pisces" a more complete composition.

Water Into Wine (September 1999) Following up the Seaside Hamlet Skids lyrics proved tough, mostly because of self-imposed pressure. "Water Into Wine" was first set in motion by evangelical religion rubbing me the wrong way, but what kept the thing alive was a tangent- my original idea of Isla Vista as Pinocchio's Pleasure Island (where little boys and girls eat candy, play games, have fun, and turn into jackasses), and I ran with that. I thought it might be fun to pick on the Jesus/invincibility/martyr complexes of 18-24 year old Isla Vistans like myself (I was then 22) and just put all that into the context of the lyric. It's ambiguous and I think that works well for either narrator (divine or earthly). The second verse arrives with the sinking feeling of knowing you've worn out your welcome- on this mortal coil, or in this stinking student ghetto- when you just can't relate to everyone else around you anymore. By the third verse our hero wants out and the imagery is more apocalyptic, with thunder and tidal waves. We never actually get to find out if he made it out of town, though.

You're On Your Own (December 1999) This lyric was hard to write and I'm still not convinced that it's viable, but it works well enough for Joe's ominous music. I think what it ended up being was a bitter and delusional stalker muttering about how their ex can't escape their experience together and how it defined them more than they might think. More vague I's and You's can be filled in with anyone from any relationship. The title came out of further brainstorming about Isla Vista and how it's the first taste of social freedom for so many people, and they squander it with excessive behavior merely to test their own limits. Like, "here you go son, have fun at school, you're on your own now." This wasn't entirely my experience personally so it made it a little tougher to write about. So it's either that or an even more vague idea that (continuing the religion thing here), well, what if our saviors gave up on us out of sheer frustration? Humans are stupid and I think the idea that they can be saved is equally naive, but the lyric doesn't really get close enough to explaining that well in a very "poetic" way.

Heart On A Platter (March 2000) For "Heart On A Platter" I'd sidestepped Isla Vista's excess somewhat, and gave in to another loose abandonment rant. This one has relatively weak links to the ongoing anti-religion theme in that it contains sporadic details from the falseness of born-again style baptism, but I think it gets a little closer to the main source of all this mess, which is my busted relationship with my father. The "happy couple" is nominally romantic but it could refer to any interpersonal exchange and was supposed to try and get a handle on the fact that I don't get along with people who dump me because my dad left, or some weepy self-pitying crap like that. It really felt, though, like he erased twenty years when he fought to sell the house I grew up in for selfish and dumb reasons. The case going to trial was literally the almost-court battle to get revenue from my parents' house, and "walking away in style" was definitely not on the agenda for certain parties. The rest of the 2nd verse refers to my perception of his weird attempts at making a stable new family based on cliched nostalgia, and how silly it looks to the rest of us. I must have been in a terrific mood.

One Last Hallelujah (April 2000) Part II (after "Water Into Wine") of the semi-divine Isla Vista Trilogy. Hallelujah is one of my favorite words, and it doesn't necessarily always have to be associated with religion. What I tried to do with this lyric is once again needle the idiocy of I.V. (as a small-scale prism of larger examples of excess in the world and its history), but the problem with that is that whomever does that (if it's a straight I vs. You) of sounding too high mindedly preachy and righteously clueless. So, I included myself among the guilty and merely used the lyric as a photo shoot to expose the behavior without actually endorsing or condemning it (though I think the narrator does see the inherent meaninglessness). Also, specifically naming your medication of choice is always better than being general about it and sounding like Nancy Reagan- hence, tequila, rum, and gin all have starring roles in this swinging drinking song.

This is probably the best example of my writing as phrase collection- "half-assed fiction" and "epic funk" just sounded cool and I was glad I could insert them somewhere. Taking apart other cliches is fun too- "talent jumping a generation" is ok, but excessive behavior allows it to hopelessly bypass everyone entirely, leaving us hacks and posers that drink too much. The kicker here is that the dumb party people don't know if their hallelujahs will be their last words on this earth before their bodies give out from overstimulation. The line about setting the record straight is intentionally crap- no one ever does in these situations and especially not if they've slept together and dumped each other and met up at a random party, but that's what it feels like at the time. The crucifixion analogy was tossed in to take apart the self-righteous fretting that many people including myself have subjected their relationships to. Basically I didn't want to be a sensitive prick anymore, so I chose to be an asshole prick, at least superficially, cause it doesn't matter.

The Peak Of My Career (Sepember 2000) Part III of the Isla Vista trilogy. It's definitely the weakest of the three, but it is a complete and whole composition by itself. The song opens the morning after with coeds doing the walk of shame (east to campus), and with the first failed relationship kicked out of Eden and walking away east as well. One hand on the bottle and one foot out the door, with fake maturity- all the while pretending that we're used to this cause it happens all the time. I added the complicit "we" in here for our hero, and it lets him or us get away with knowing we can't have everything material and carnal but wanting and striving vainly for it anyway. The 3rd verse rather simplistically reiterates that reputations are always on the line in a fake setting like this, and that attempts at conversion and supposed blessed reality checks will always fail. The title and chorus come from the preconception here that most every student sees these experiences as their last great gasp of individuality and freedom and achievement before they're shackled to careers and marriage and picket fences (to which they nevertheless go willingly). It's a lie, especially if this is in fact their first spurt of true excess.

Fatal Flaws (December 2000) Or, the "Unemployment Paranoia Freak-Out Blues." It's one of the most fun things I've written and is a riot to sing because it's way too close to the truth. The personification of Reality, Boredom, and Ambition as three women the narrator is/has been involved with was a neat touch. The fact that it came quickly after my ignominious exit from a terrible, dull job after about a week, leading into three months of unemployment, was probably not coincidental, shall we say, but it took a little while for the lyric to come together. "The fear" is something different from Hunter Thompson's fear. It's about having an ideal goal and knowing that there's a mountain of work ahead coupled with that awful feeling of not knowing where or how to start- like something good is just around the corner but still out of reach. Bummer, huh? Maybe, but the song is a 12-bar that really rocks, so we'll just take what we can.

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