July 29, 2011

30 Songs #1 - Fatal Flaws: In The Beginning Was The Riff

Portrait of the artist as a hypersensitive, insecure 19-year-old

For better or worse, I'm not really a first-though-best-thought type. Most of my best stuff—writing, music, lyrics, design, whatever—is usually the result of an annoyingly protracted cerebral root canal, ideas over-thought within an inch of creative death. There is, however, a lone exception that naturally proves the rule, and it just happens to be the first song I chose to write about in this new little series: "Fatal Flaws." It's not a bad lyric, and it's definitely one of my favorites to play and sing. Take a listen:

That's a live take (perhaps definitive) of the song as Honey White played it back in 2002 on Del Playa in Isla Vista, but the original guitar/bass riff is much older than that. It may be the first riff I actually wrote, way back in those ugly days of summer 1996 when the only good thing I had going (or so I thought) was playing bass guitar in a goofy garage band called the Clap (later the Mojo Wire) started by my brother Bryn and his best friend Adam. Oh, the wretched melodrama of being 19.

Anyway, it wasn't my first lyric—the riff existed long before it became a bonafide song—and that song hung around for a while longer before it got lyrics. I distinctly remember playing it through a tiny 15-watt amp in my sophomore-year dorm room at UCSB (fall '96), and feeling so damn clever for creating a hybrid of two killer riffs: U2's "The Fly" and Beck's "Devil's Haircut." Sounds silly right? Seriously though, check it out:

Again, it's a miracle I survived the preposterousness of youth (I thought I was such a genius for writing this thing). However, for months and months, the riff languished without arrangement, until finally I'd absorbed enough faux-blooze-rock from our first band to set the riff to a twelve-bar structure. I'm pretty sure that Bryn learned it on guitar around that time too (early '97), but it didn't get the full band treatment until he and Adam moved up to UCSB and we recruited Brandon Klopp to play drums for the Mojo Wire.

I don't think the riff had a name even then—we just called it "the funky A riff" or something—and its role ended up being a simple soundcheck jam, something we could get loose to before a rehearsal or gig (in fact, it survived in that incarnation well into 1999, when Joe played it with us). However, in the frenzy of 4-track recordings we made in late '97, we laid this one down as a six-minute monster-jam, and that's when I first thought of making it a real song. Sadly, things didn't quite work out that way. Not yet, anyway.

It happened like this: near the end of overdubs for the first Mojo Wire demo-album, Battery Acid Blues, we were a little giddy and delirious (in Isla Vista? No! Surely not!) and decided that the best thing to do for this lyric-less song was to improvise and be weird and just record it all. Bryn, Adam and I all wrote a few verses, then cobbled them together into a half-assed lyric we dubbed "Sammy's Spitcan" (a title with its own sordid story involving Ryan Hart's ex-girlfriend getting sick at a New Year's '98 party at Adam's brother Andy's house in Pacific Beach…), and the song essentially became a six-minute excuse to act like total morons on the mic. It was funny for a little while, but for me, not enough to balance the dumb—and I subsequently left "Spitcan" off all but the first several pressings of that first CD. Still, the song as an instrumental was handy as a soundcheck or show-starter, and like I said, we kept it like that for so long I thought it might just stay that way.

mp3: "Spitcan" (instrumental version, 4/98), a Bryn/Keir/Brandon jam.

Then I quit not one, but two jobs within 3 weeks of each other in fall 2000—and suddenly, the "Fatal Flaws" lyric just slipped out, three simple 12-bar verses. Here's how I described it to Honey White's drummer Bill Fedderson in 2002:

Also known as the "Unemployment Paranoia Freak-Out Blues," this was 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 simple, convenient metaphor. 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 get.
Indeed, and we actually did start a studio remake of the song, as part of the ill-fated "re-record the Mojo Wire classics" project Bryn and I started in early 2001. Only a bass/drums version survives from that, though some other remade Mojo tunes ended up on that band's final, messy hodgepodge collection of remakes, originals, demos, and live takes, You're On Your Own. "Fatal Flaws" did appear on that album, but as a sub-par live version from 12/15/00. We played it at every Mojo show that year, though—even the final show on 6/3/01—but it would take another band to realize the song's full potential.

Yeah, because "Fatal Flaws" was one of several Mojo workhorses tackled by Honey White during the 2002/2003 gigs, condensed from that freeform jam down to an armed-and-dangerous four-minute, twelve-bar based blast of wah-wah riffage. The idea was to pad our set (which lacked lots of HW originals) with whatever we could, and this song (first at the kickoff, then moving to the finale) kept the energy level high at every show until 2004. My shouting, self-absorbed lyrical dementia was ably countered by Bryn’s and Brian’s dueling axes and Bill’s sharp snare. As many songs do, it got faster and shorter at every show, but that progress was slowed by me throwing in snippets of other bands’ lyrics into the break, like BRMC’s "Spread Your Love," U2’s "The Fly," and (on several occasions) Wilco’s "Outta Mind, Outta Sight."

Honey White played that song so much that we played it into the ground, really—its last appearance at a gig was 2/26/04 at Giovanni's, and I don't think it was rehearsed much after April '04. Still, when Bryn and I got back together with Adam and Kevin to form Radblaster in 2010, we trotted out "Fatal Flaws" for a token run-through in a shambolic, garagey-disco version. We haven't tried it since then—sometimes it's easy to tell when a piece of music has given you all it can, and I think this song has run its course. Doesn't mean it's not one of my favorites, though. It transcends every band I've played in. I mean, good riffs never die, you know?

"Fatal Flaws" lyrics:

For many years now I've forgotten my dreams,
if I ever remember at all
Reality wants my attention more often,
so I always come when she calls
Cause I'm gettin' used to the pull of routine
and the comfort of my fatal flaws

Now, I never really found Boredom attractive,
but she won't stop flirting with me
She don't understand that I can't reprimand her
for such innocent flattery
and I used to think I could hold out forever
but she's circling patiently

For many years now I've forgotten the fear,
but now I remember it all
The nerves and the pressure of one good impression
are making my confidence crawl
Cause I've got a date with Ambition tonight,
but she's not returning my calls

Song Stats:
Music by Keir DuBois and the Mojo Wire (12/97)/Keir DuBois and Honey White (5/02).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, December 2000.
Appears on the following albums:
Battery Acid Blues (as "Sammy's Spitcan," later deleted) by the Mojo Wire
You're On Your Own by the Mojo Wire
Live and Unprofessional by Honey White
Some Reassembly Required by Honey White

Live video: with Honey White, 1/30/03 at the UCSB University Center

UPDATE: Bryn asked for the local TV version, so here it is in low-quality glory:

Okay, so that's that. Come back next week, and see what song pops up when we spin the Big Wheel again.

July 25, 2011

And Now For Something Completely Different: The "30 Songs" Series

UPDATE: Catch up with the whole sorry saga, now halfway through, using these links:

01 - Fatal Flaws: In The Beginning Was The Riff 7.29.11
02 - Mercy Rule: Chugging Candy-Coated Castor Oil 8.7.11
03 - Dilemma by Design: Disjointed Down-Tuned Decision-Making 8.14.11
04 - The Shivering Sand: Neo-Victorian Surf-Noir Love Letters 8.21.11
05 - Pisces Lullabye: How to Use and Misuse Your Empathetic Impulses 8.28.11
06 - Blacking Out: Bad Trips, Freaky Times, and No Catchy Chorus 9.4.11
07 - Hold Still: Too Much "Sabine Women," Not Enough "Guernica" 9.10.11
08 - Winner Take All: Desperate Driven Delusional Dreamer Ditty 9.18.11
09 - Water Into Wine: Jesus Complexes, Disney Films, and Other Gateway Drugs 9.26.11
10 - One Last Hallelujah: Blood of Ice, Brain of Mud, Liver of Steel 9.30.11
11 - The Peak of My Career: Sloppy Ironic Titles Won't Save You 10.9.11
12 - Sweet Oblivion: Enhanced by Extended Epic Endings 10.14.11
13 - Famous Last Words: Gimme Two Chords, and Get Two Melodies 10.23.11
14 - Island Fever: Epic Minimalism and Other Contradictions 10.30.11
15 - The Lightning Rod: From Alpha to Omega with a Boss DD3 11.5.11
16 - Kid Icarus: How to Cripple a Perfectly Good Tune, Part 1 11.11.11
17 - Wound Down: How to Cripple a Perfectly Good Tune, Part 2 11.20.11
18 - Sunset Down: Egyptian Rivers and Other Psychoses 11.27.11
19 - How Far Away: Cassandra Plath and the Bubble Man of Revenge 12.2.11
20 - You're On Your Own: Starring the Militant Dictator of Zullitown, USA 12.9.11
21 - Heart on a Platter: Life Ain't Worth Living Unless it's Got That Pop 12.18.11
22 - FM Blues: People Can Be Weird About Their First Band 12.25.11
23 - Can't Keep Warm: What Foulness Lurks Beneath Storke Tower? 1.1.12
24 - Wishing Well Blues: Same Thing We Do Every Night, Pinky 1.8.12
25 - Unprofessional: All the Gatekeepers Can Go Straight to Hell 1.13.12
26 - Blunt Instruments: Thow Back a Twelve Pack and Write It All Down, Jack 1.20.12
27 - Tempting Fate: Just Enough Awesome to Power Two Bands 1.27.12
28 - Historical Friction: Writing is the Most Hateful Kind of Work 2.3.12
29 - Stranded (Keep it Surreal): Broken Things from a Broken Past 2.11.12
30 - The Bronze Age: Back to the Beginning at the End of the Line 1.20.13

Read the whole series in reverse-chrono order here, and read on for the original threatening post that started it all:

So…I've threatened to re-purpose this blog for at least 6 months, away from the gonzo-political stuff and random fanboy-isms (neither of which had been very good either) to something more creative and/or personal. It's long past high time for something new here, and blathering on and on about my song lyrics seemed a good way to do that. Of course, Elvis Costello once said that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture," so this will be sort of like that, except I'm an awful dancer and I don't know how to use AutoCAD.

Anyway, t's not an original idea—I'm stealing it from one of my songwriting heroes, David Lowery of Cracker and Camper van Beethoven, who had this to say when beginning his own 300 Songs blog last year:

Over the course of my career as a singer-songwriter-musician-producer I estimate i’ve written, recorded and produced 300+ songs. I often get asked questions about different songs. I sometimes enjoy answering them but most of the time I don’t do a very good job of it. i’m really pretty anti-social. I can’t really help it. I think I was just born this way. So I came up with this idea to randomly select a hundred or so songs and write a few comments about each of the songs, like: with whom I recorded, what the song is about, or simply something funny or interesting that happened in the session. Nothing too in depth. Sometimes i’ll also provide the lyrics and basic guitar chords for the fans who like that sort of thing.
I want to do something like that here—i.e. someone else's idea executed less well and a fraction of quantity and quality; for my 15+ years of Amateur Rock Obscurity in the Mojo Wire, Honey White, Low Tide, and Radblaster, the number is much closer to a mere 30 songs than 300—which is nice, because that makes it manageable and finite. Also, since I wrote mostly lyrics and not as much music, I'll talk about the song as a whole more than as a musical composition. Or maybe I'll just go off on random tangents that you'll have to grin and bear, because you like reading this crap, right? Surely.

Further, I liked the non-chronological approach Lowery took with his stuff, so I'm doing that too, but instead of some intricate mathematical formula, I'll just write about whatever song I feel like writing about. The randomly-shuffleized series will begin next weekend. Mp3 links and lyrics will be handily provided, but I'm not bothering with tablature or chords because, well, I'm a bass player, and we're dumb like that. So there. Stay tuned...

July 16, 2011

There's a Lot of Things if I Could I'd Rearrange

So this month's gratuitous U2 post is supposed to be about "The Fly," Track 7 from "Achtung Baby," but…I just can't bring myself to get worked up about it right now—despite the fact that it's my favorite song of theirs (and one of my favorite songs, period).

Studio version

Now, I have my reasons for today's particularly bitter and nasty onset of sloth, but they're all totally lame—so I'll just put it down to the fact that the 360 show that I'd considered going to (and ultimately didn't go) last month was the one where the band debuted "The Fly" on this particular tour, in all its Kraut-rocking glory:

It was building up to this appearance later in June at the UK's Glastonbury festival:

They've played it a bazillion times before, of course—it was a regular feature of 3 of the previous 4 tours since its release in 1991:

Zoo TV - Sydney 1993

Elevation - Boston 2001 (a weird, transposed-to-A minor-ambient version)

Vertigo - Chicago 2005 (and no, I don't know what's up with Bono's dumb hat)

My usual cure for bad moods is Loud Rock Music. U2 doesn't do too much of that—they're sort of like the world's loudest folk band, for better or worse—but when they do lighten up they can get big, dumb, and crazy with the best of 'em.

When I was 15 I didn't really know or care about U2 until I heard "The Fly" on 95.5 KLOS, on Uncle Joe Bensen's show. He was premiering the band's new single way, way ahead of the album's November release. The lyrics aren't Bono's best, but that doesn't matter much considering the guitar solo is one of Edge's best. I wrote more about this song here, back in my second wave of U2 geekdom a decade ago.

Jesus, I'd better start writing about my own stuff again, or else this blog will end up all-U2-all-the-time, and nobody wants to see that. Sorry gang. Look at it this way: the U2 album stuff is now over halfway done.

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