September 30, 2011

30 Songs #10 - One Last Hallelujah: Blood of Ice, Brain of Mud, Liver of Steel

When the keg cups start getting freaky, then you're cut off, son.

Many songwriters find that their best stuff doesn't necessarily start out that way. If something's good to begin with, though, it usually gets even better when played live. Songs that grow up on stage and on tour tend to live longer and stay interesting. These might not necessarily be the big hit singles or the songs everyone knows at first, but by the 345th time, they are just as beloved. Or so we like to tell ourselves when we're not mega-rich famous rock stars (though this phenomenon happens to them too).

This week's "30 Songs" entry, "One Last Hallelujah," is one of those stalwart live work-horses. It began as a earth-shaking monster for the Mojo Wire, before slimming down to lethal-weapon (and then elder-statesman) status for Honey White, kicking and screaming all the way. Radblaster even tried it once in rehearsal. Four guitarists have had their way soloing over its supple, B-to-D-to-A-to-B verse chords—Adam, Bryn, Joe, and Brian—all with differing degrees of lasciviousness. On top of that, I've always felt that "Hallelujah" was one of my best lyrics; it condensed all my best Dylan/Costello impulses into a bitter limerick that was just sober enough to feel guilty for its own behavior. Here's the original Mojo album version from 2001:

Wham, as the poet said, bam. Speaking of—the lyrics ain't exactly poetry, but they ain't bad ten years on either:

"One Last Hallelujah"

Get busy bringing out the cheap tequila
It's awful but I just can't put it down
Here comes another drinking song, but I can't help myself
Lately the hangovers and hangups hang around

and suffer like a half-assed work of fiction
within the steady grip of epic funk
If talent jumps a generation, here it skipped them all
as if it's easier to deal with it drunk

and sing one last hallelujah before we say good night

The liquor's flowing all over creation
and even though by now it's way too late
I'll have a little rum and honey, you can nurse your gin
and we'll pretend we finally set the record straight

Cause your attention span's a starving artist
and it's high time you finally did some good
Who do you think you are now, baby? What do you take me for?
Get off the cross, it's cold, we need the firewood

and if you're going back to town alone, you better keep your halo outta sight
and sing one last hallelujah before you say good night

"Hallelujah" is, lyrically, Part II of my so-called "Isla Vista Trilogy." It does what "Water Into Wine" is supposed to do, but much better—and I think that's because of the looser/bluesy tune. Dylan is guilty of this most often; his rambling twelve-bars and other story-songs seem more like delivery vehicles for lyrics as opposed to actual songs, but he can do the latter if he feels like it. "Hallelujah" is supposed to be a rant with muscle to back it up, but of course it's not—it's a melodramatic spin-out of drunken empty threats and stupid posing. Costello did lots of that too—and so have lots of other people—but I pulled the most from his and Dylan's work for this song's vibe.

What I tried to do 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. Wild macho steel-livered drinking contests and cold-blooded hookups/breakups, both equally debilitating mentally and physically. The one problem with picking on behavior like that is that whomever does the needling (if it's a straight I vs. You) always sounds too high-mindedly preachy and righteously clueless. So, I threw myself in with the guilty and simply used the lyric as an exposé of ugly 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.

Also, "hallelujah" is one of my favorite words, and it doesn't necessarily always have to be associated with religion. It's ecstatic and revelatory and can go with everything from pious surrender to junkie bliss—but in this case I think it's more like the last pathetic whoops and hollers of party people before they pass out. Anyway, back to the live stuff; "Hallelujah" has had an extensive live history with both the Mojo Wire (7 shows) and Honey White (15 shows). The Mojo Wire played “Hallelujah” like a demented twin of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse: loud, pounding, and out of control:

mp3: "One Last Hallelujah" (Live 12/15/00)
mp3: "One Last Hallelujah" (Live 4/7/01)

I love how Joe's guitar sounds like a slab of concrete. So huge. "Hallelujah" usually burst out of the gate early in the set, because my voice didn't last too long at Mojo Wire shows. Honey White didn’t exactly tame this beast, but we did allow it a nice big space to roam around in. “Hallelujah” sprang to life when we released it live, bouncing along as all the other old Mojo songs, swinging furiously beneath my shouting vocals before Brian’s and then Bryn’s solos took it off on divergent trails of sonic safari. Here's perhaps the definitive Honey White live take, from our Del Playa show 11/16/02:

That one's probably the best because of the transition from Brian's laid-back-yet-menacing solo to Bryn's stratospheric shrieking reverb. It was a cold night, so Bill played his "Last Night" Strokes beat extra freaky fast. Post-2003, “Hallelujah” was revised to an ambient, moodier arrangement that better complimented the How Far is the Fall material, but that version has only seen a few performances:

I sing on all of them but the last one—that's Bryn of course, crooning mellow as it should be done—because the bass line isn't that complicated, giving me plenty of room to shout tunelessly in my typical Dylan/Costello whine. I loved every minute of it, and I'd play that song at the drop of a hat. It's one of my favorites purely because it's completely composed of raw, dumb, senselessly vicious revenge. Many rock fans will tell you that's the most potent stuff out there, far more than the most fervent love songs—and I used to be one of those. That's right, I no longer go for the unvarnished ugly (maybe it's the onset of thirty-something-ness), but I will always be a sucker for the subtle stuff—the ninja-stealthy lyrics that surprise you (often days later) in how cutting they can be. I don't think "Hallelujah" will ever become that—the quiet version that Bryn sings above is more wistful/resigned/exhausted than anything else—but that's still the stuff that makes me get up and take notice.

Yeah, bummer right? The lyrics that I love most, and myself write most often, are the ones that don't get mad, but get even. I still have this weird, unhealthy hang-up with power and authority—no doubt it's some silly Freudian thing—and that's what comes through most often in my best lyrics. For better or worse, that's why "One Last Halleujah" works so well and has endured through three bands. Yep, three—here's Radblaster's one messy take from our first rehearsal in 2010:

mp3: "One Last Hallelujah" (Radblaster rehearsal 3/27/10)

Messy, loose, and goofy. Sounds like full-circle to me. So, tune in next week for the third installment of this trilogy. If this one was "Empire Strikes Back," next week will be…uh…a bit better than "Return of the Jedi." Allegedly. Stay tuned...

Song stats:
Music by Keir DuBois and the Mojo Wire (2000)/Keir DuBois and Honey White (2002, 2003).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, April 2000.
Appears on the following albums:
You're On Your Own by the Mojo Wire
Low Fidelity Favorites by the Mojo Wire
Live and Unprofessional by Honey White
Deluge and Drought by Honey White
Some Reassembly Required by Honey White

September 26, 2011

30 Songs #9 - Water Into Wine: Jesus Complexes, Disney Films, and Other Gateway Drugs

Del Playa Shadow Puppetry, Part MCXXVIII.

Most of my song lyrics have arrived in groups. There was a time, about 10-12 years ago, when I'd be churning out several lyrics at a rate of about one every 2-3 months. That was relatively quick, considering that now it's about the same number every few years, but the pattern's stayed the same: within these groups there's usually one lyric that acts as the "gateway" composition—the one that points out a metaphorical or other creative direction that the next 3 or 4 will follow. Since I didn't write music as much the other guys in the band, their spare tunes were hanging around often, so finding music for all these lyrics was never a problem.

This week's "30 Songs" entry is a bit short, and late—since I was in Arizona all weekend—and it's dedicated to the first of three lyrics I call my "Isla Vista Trilogy," a late-period Mojo Wire surf-rocker called "Water Into Wine." This song is one of those gateway-lyrics that got grafted onto another guy's song—in this case a great one of Adam's; it's actually one of a few I wrote for his tunes that aren't quite up to par with the music's quality—and for my money it hasn't stood up as a lyric well, especially when compared to some of its contemporaries. Here's the song:

…and the lyric is:

"Water Into Wine"

Oh yeah we get along just fine
I turn your water into wine
it'll be so hard to leave you all behind

Listening too carefully is murder on my ears
especially when every prayer comes in loud and clear
All I ever wanted was a handle on the strain
all I ever get's another chance to go insane

I think I've been in town too long cause at my age the ether's stronger
Anyway I don't get liquored up for anyone too long
Hallucinations drive me mad, I kinda feel like I've been had,
I don't think superstition's ever got to me this bad

Oh yeah we get along just fine
I turn your water into wine
it'll be so hard to leave you all behind

Thunderheads are rumbling and heaven's out of reach
and tiny driftwood crucifixes wash up on the beach
I always knew that paradise would fall into the sea
but I never thought you all would get there safely without me

Oh yeah we get along just fine
I turn your water into wine
it'll be so hard to leave you all behind

Oh yeah we get along just fine
I turn your water into wine
it'll be so hard to leave you all behind

It's a solid tune, and it was always a blast to play, but the lyric still seems a poor fit for several reasons. One, it's way too wordy with too many syllables per line; clearly I was deep into my "Elvis Costello verbal diarrhea" period. Two, it's a sloppy metaphor. Not that picking on the Jesus-complexes of self-absorbed young men isn't worthwhile—it's one of the most fertile creative pools out there—but I didn't refine this one enough. It's too obsessed with critiquing the religion, as opposed to the people practicing (or mis-practicing) a religion. Earnest institutional broadsides will always be lame, and only a 21-to-25-year-old overeducated hypersensitive man-child will tell you otherwise. Finally this one doesn't go after the root causes (sheltered kids with too much money and time on their hands) to the degree it should, and it even confused more than a few listeners. Bryn remembers some people asking us if we were a Christian band. Oops.

What kept the "Water Into Wine" lyric alive after its initial and insecure "gee, evangelical Christianity sure creeps me out" phase, however, was its setting: the fetid UCSB student ghetto of Isla Vista, CA. Now, freaking out about some immoral Babylon isn't that original, but I love the idea of I.V. as Pinocchio's Pleasure Island—a place where little boys and girls eat candy, play games, have way too much fun, and turn into jackasses. I wanted to condense that into some nice pithy lines about noise, alcohol, ether, hallucinations, and other weird neurochemistry, but that doesn't come across as well as it should, which is ultimately why I don't consider it among my best stuff. It works on paper, but not so much in practice. More about that later, since the follow-up lyrics definitely do it better.

The tune's history is fairly lengthy, like all of the 2000/2001-era material, because we had so much time to record and demo and rewrite and overdub and on and on and on. Adam's original demo is from a summer 1999 jam, with Bryn drumming and me on an out-of-place echo-bass. That track got some initial vocal overdubs in early 2000, but then we re-arranged it to the point where Bryn and I did a completely new demo later that same year (along with several other songs). Then in 2001, Bryn and I laid down a third demo with Joe on lead guitar and Adam and I sharing vocals, and that was the take that developed into the You're On Your Own album version above. Even that version has different permutations, though; the final Mojo Wire album was the first one to be recorded digitally, but for some reason all the same tracks weren't there when I remixed it for the Mojo Wire best-of in 2003. Thus there are actually two "album versions" of "Water Into Wine"—the original with Adam's rhythm guitar during Joe's solo, and the remix with more backing vocals instead. They sound like this:

mp3: "Water Into Wine" (Demo Sep. 1999)
mp3: "Water Into Wine" (Demo Dec. 1999)
mp3: "Water Into Wine" (Demo Oct. 2000)

"Water Into Wine" does have a performance history too, but only with the Mojo Wire during 2000/2001. After those shows, it didn't make any public appearances. Here's some examples:

mp3: "Water Into Wine" (Live 2/16/01)
mp3: "Water Into Wine" (Live 4/7/01)
mp3: "Water Into Wine" (Live 4/12/01)

That's not to say my other bands didn't attempt their own takes of "Water Into Wine," because both Honey White and Radblaster have rehearsed it once, but for whatever reason it hasn't caught fire:

mp3: "Water Into Wine" (Honey White rehearsal, 12/2/02)
mp3: "Water Into Wine" (Radblaster rehearsal, 3/27/10)

I think it's gonna need some edits or even a rewrite to give the singer some relief. Maybe it can be another gateway lyric to more interesting stuff. As it was, though, "Water Into Wine" pointed the way to four further Isla Vista-related Mojo Wire lyrics, including the two remaining songs in my so-called I.V. trilogy. We'll get to the second one next weekend. Stay tuned…

"Water Into Wine" Song stats:
Music by Adam Hill (1999)/Adam Hill and the Mojo Wire (2001).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, September 1999.
Appears on the following albums:
You're On Your Own by the Mojo Wire
Low Fidelity Favorites by the Mojo Wire

September 18, 2011

30 Songs #8 - Winner Take All: Desperate Driven Delusional Dreamer Ditty

I am the God your God. Pull my handle and watch me spin, baby!

Sometimes a song lyric is going to be just average—not terrible, but not great—and there's nothing you can really do about it. No transcendent wisdom, no killer metaphor, no clever insights—so you just put your head down and grind through the thing hoping that the tune and performance will save it. Sometimes you get lucky and the band injects that song with a jolt you'd never imagined, and sometimes the thing implodes under the weight of its own mediocrity, never to rise again. "Winner Take All," a Honey White-era demo completed by Radblaster, started out as the latter and ended up the former: an energetic tune hobbled by an average lyric and saved by great performances. It also helps that its creative life is still mostly yet-to-be defined. Listen here:

That's a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time version as demoed by Radblaster in April of this year, during the same rehearsal sessions that produced our other original demos on the Hecho en Naranjastan E.P. It's a little diamond-in-the-rough, but definitely better than the sum of its creative component parts. The lyric's problem, for me, is its pseudo-political-commentary nature. It's not bad, or embarrassing, or off-the-mark—but on paper it has no bite. The great results that we've got for it in Radblaster are all down to Bryn's vocal delivery and the frenzied pace set by the band. I know I've been on a politics kick lately, but this is the last example of that. Last week's "30 Songs" entry was a bit heavy, and while this one's not exactly a lightweight, it doesn't pretend to be A Big Statement About Important Things. "Winner Take All" is simply a competently-executed lyrical composition that depends on musical energy (as opposed to lyrical quality) to get liftoff. The lyrics are:

"Winner Take All"

Still up against the way it always will be
and shackled to the way it's always been
Still opposite the center of attention
or banished to the outside looking in
Forgiven every consequence of any reckless stunts
as long as I do anything to win

Don't matter if I can't move like I used to
or even if I think as slow as sin
or even if I don't know any better
or if a soul is underneath this skin
cause all the broken pieces always snap back into place
as long as I do anything to win

Cause I can take a dive, yeah I can take a fall
but as soon as I can take control I'm gonna take it all

So when the worst of here and now is over
and dangerous charades are wearing thin
and aftershocks are right around the corner
and ever after's itchin' to begin
I'll look out on the promised land, the king of all I see
as long as I do anything to win

oh yeah I would do anything, oh yeah I would do anything
it's been too long, it's been to long, I'm bound to hit the wall

But I can take a dive, yeah I can take a fall
and as soon as I can take control I'm gonna take it all

"Winner Take All" has some of the same little flaws that "Hold Still" does—namely, the soft arrogance of presumption that every writer assumes when they're trying to work from someone else's voice. In this case, it's me building a fake persona of a character I think I know a lot about, but probably know very little: the desperate American Dreamer. This is a character who's been told he (and it is usually a he) will get everything he wants if he just plays by the rules and works hard. When he does this and nothing happens—or worse, he gets stepped on and tossed aside by other, more ruthless examples of his own species—he bubbles over with angry, pseudo-entitled resentment.

Now, you tell me—how fucking arrogant is that of me to write from that perspective? What the hell do I truly know about any of that? I grew up in a leafy green Orange County suburb. I haven't had to really work hard for anything—much less scrape and claw for my own survival. My life is still pretty good. It's like I'm writing about something I saw in a zoo. "Look at this rough beast, my dear. Isn't it curious? Watching 'American Idol' and 'Jersey Shore!' How cute!" All sneering aside, I think this lyric came from the weird, almost ignorant distaste and un-interest I have in competition for its own sake. Does that make sense? The way this ended up being "political" was through the lens of this idea that the relatively powerless in America always seem to vote against their own interests. Not necessarily that they vote Republican—but that they vote for people from either party who consistently enact policies that keep their voters relatively poor and powerless.

The reason I think it almost works in the lyric, though, is that the best and worst thing about the United States has always been how this nation validates—and often rewards—unapologetically risky behavior. Think about it, though; The American propensity for desperate and crazy impulses has been with us from the beginning. Conquering an unknown land via enslavement and genocide isn't exactly novel, but we've done it with particular enthusiasm. The U.S.A. excels at thinking up new and innovative ways to gamble and score and win and destroy our competition. We reward the people who make shit-tons of money because hey—they must have done something right. Never mind the hundreds or thousands of people they stepped on or over to get to where they are. Those people are losers, and the worst thing to be in America is a loser.

All the high-functioning sociopaths in our society who've made it to crazy-high levels of success in business or politics or sports or entertainment have one thing in common: the manic drive to get the fuck out of wherever they used to be. Chris Rock said this best when describing Madonna: "While you're sleeping, Madonna's working." That's great for Madonna, but personally I need six hours a night, you know? So, we see all these successful people on TV or wherever, and we act and behave and vote aspirationally after being fed the delusion that one day we'll be as successful and famous as they are, because…why, again? Not to get too Tyler Durden about this (because hey, he was a psychopath too), but how does this help anyone but the people who are already rich, famous, and powerful?

The character in "Winner Take All" either doesn't understand any of this, or understands it too well. He could either end up in the ditch with all the other losers—or he could become Donald Trump or Michael Vick or Rick Warren or Thomas Kinkade or Gordon Gekko or Kanye West or Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton or George Bush or Barack Obama. He either becomes a hero or a goat, but until then he's just another grifter in a nation of grifters, hucksters, hustlers, boomers, carpetbaggers, snake-oil salesmen, get-rich-quick-no-money-down schemers, game show hosts, and North Vegas slot machine addicts. The mentality that gives a person singular focus and drive also seems to take away empathy and compassion. Now, in a nation of narcissistic sociopaths with varying degrees of functionality, that's not necessarily a sin. It's just a game.

Okay, enough of that noxious anti-American crap, right? Less talk, more rock! What are you, some dirty fucking hippie? Ho ho. Fine, I'll get to the tune's (short) lineage before signing off. It was originally a demo of Bryn's, jammed out by Honey White in March 2005 but left undeveloped in favor of other new-ish songs like "Nightfall" and "Green Hills." Here's an mp3 I unearthed (note cool breakdown and wild solo from Brian):

mp3: "Winner Take All" (Honey White jam, 3/27/05)

It took a little more work to get from that point to the Radblaster 2011 take at the top of this post, but going through that step-by-step would involve digging up bad demos of me singing like Johnny Cash on acid. You'll have to take my word that they didn't work very well. Anyway, by about November 2007—well after Honey White had called a hiatus—I wrapped this lyric up, recorded a demo, and promptly shelved it in favor of my Weapon of Young Gods Low Tide side project.

I revived "Winner Take All" for Radblaster because I figured the song would work in our stripped-down, retro-rock combo. Radblaster has also proven to be just as friendly to rootsier/country-ish stuff as Honey White ("Sean Goes to Africa") and the Mojo Wire ("Margarita"), and since Adam, Bryn, Kevin and I are all better players than when we first formed the Clap in 1996, "Winner Take All" has turned out pretty good after all. Once we get a better take of it, I'll probably add it on to the Naranjastan collection (and that goes double for several other songs, too).

That's all for the politics lyrics, folks. I'll leave you with the silliest and best example of the kind of mentality I tried to describe above. Here's Bono as the Mirror-Ball Man singing "Desire" with Zoo TV-era U2 in 1992:

Yikes. Maybe we need some demented harmonica on our song. I think next time we'll delve into some slightly different yet more fun examples of uncontrolled personal debasement. I don't know if that will be next weekend or later—extenuating circumstances are starting to put the squeeze on me—but "30 Songs" will be back in force very soon. Stay tuned and as always thanks for enduring.

Song stats:
Music by Bryn DuBois and Honey White (2005)/Bryn DuBois and Radblaster (2010).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, November 2007.
Appears on the following albums: None (yet…)

September 10, 2011

30 Songs #7 - Hold Still: Too Much "Sabine Women," Not Enough "Guernica"

Ancient Roman men doing their "Isla Vista Meat-Head" impressions.

Combatting brutality with art is an extremely fine line for a creative person to walk. Too often, it seems like anything one does will fail to strike the right balance—and the situation inevitably becomes even worse. Writer Bill Flanagan once observed this; he theorized that from "The Rape of the Sabine Women" on, any work of art that attempts to call out atrocity in an earnest way will instead inadvertently glorify that atrocity. Flanagan goes on to say that a more effective way to expose evil is to go surreal—a la Picasso with "Guernica."

Whappo!! How's that for clearing your sinuses on this hideous anniversary weekend of 9/11? Yeah, it's not exactly appropriate, is it? I didn't plan it like that, but in last week's "30 Songs" entry, I said I'd be sticking around the mire of "political" song lyrics for a few rounds—and I might not have said how ugly this one will be today. It's for "Hold Still," a Honey White-era song that's so far escaped a definitive recording, let alone inclusion on any collection by HW or any of my other bands—mostly because of bad timing, but also because it's a foul-tip attempt at the kind of call-out described above. Three cheers for noble failures, I guess. The song goes like this:

That's a September 2005 demo of "Hold Still," assembled from a Honey White studio jam in 2004. It's a nasty, creepy song—like I said, my clumsy stab at calling out evil. In this case, that meant the post-9/11 sociopathic warmongering of last decade, but in a different context than "Blacking Out" from last week. That one tried to describe America's Iraq War stumblefuckery as a kind of collective violent bender, but "Hold Still" is more like an individual/personal version of that. It's small-scale, power-tripping, malicious violence—assault, coercion, forcing someone to do something they don't want to do—which seems, arguably, just as psychologically destructive. It's an extremely delicate and dangerous thing to write about, because if you write about it, you're claiming to know something about it, and I'm not convinced that I did it well—or if I should have done it at all. Here are the lyrics:

"Hold Still"

I wanna make it easy
I wanna make it quick
I wanna make it painless, sugar
and this should do the trick

a little limber racket
a little lick of fun
a little liberation never
upset anyone

Hold still—this won't hurt a bit
you will, you will learn to live with it

I need you to accept it
I need this understood
I need you to appreciate it
is all for your own good

Hold still—this won't hurt a bit
you will, you will learn to live with it

I'm unafraid, I'm unabashed, I'm unashamed
to work up passion—I'll take what's mine
and everything is all right darlin'
and everything is fine

Hold still—this won't hurt a bit
you will, you will learn to live with it

So it's not exactly Picasso, but it's really ugly, isn't it? I feel like "Hold Still" is a bit of a lyrical failure, because of how unflinchingly, one-dimensionally serious it is—but then doesn't something evil like abuse of power, sexual assault, or illegal war demand that kind of unambiguous condemnation? There's an old song by (of all bands) Toad the Wet Sprocket called "Hold Her Down," written from the point of view of a rapist, and it's so painfully earnest as to be almost unlistenable. Coming from an otherwise-meek group of guys like that band, it's disturbingly creepy. White straight male Americans can't do stuff like that, right? Not just because of how perilously close it is to endorsement (in that sense of all writers allegedly being tied to the experience of what they write about), but because for most of the past thousand years, we've been the people doing all this horrible shit, literally and figuratively, to everyone else.

Detail of Picasso's "Guernica."

For me, that's way too much weight to impose on a pop song—it's like condensing every Western military adventure of rape and pillage since the Greeks destroyed Troy—so I couldn't come up with a good way to deliver that lyric. Most of my songs aren't that difficult to slip into, but this one was. I ultimately had to get into character to sing it—a nonchalant, drawling calm not unlike, say, the way Ralph Fiennes played Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies. Alternately tender and capriciously brutal. Needless to say, I can't really pull that off. These days, the lyric's tension also seems a little too close to the inverted, perverted old white Tea Party fear of, and anger at, Barack Obama. How's that for scary over-analysis? Obama doesn't deserve that. Anyway, I guess the main idea of the lyric was supposed to be that in order to call out evil, you have to take a cold hard look at your own potential for evil, and exorcise that. Cheap role playing may or may not be a great solution, but in "Hold Still," that's what I did, for better or worse.

The weirdest thing is that the tune didn't start out that way at all. Bryn wrote the music on or around the 4th of July 2004, when he moved back to Orange County from Santa Barbara. He told me one time that he'd tried to write a cool, mellow Morphine song—and the main laconic slide riff is definitely Mark Sandman-like. That studio take above is from the same year, when Honey White took advantage of some extra time and jammed out several formless songs on the last day of the initial How Far is the Fall session in San Francisco. I didn't finish the lyric in time to include it on the album, but a year later I mashed together the above demo take and overdubbed some echo-bass guitar and a vocal.

Later, Honey White tried to learn the song, but we didn't get very far. Here's a Honey White "Hold Still" jam from October 2005, when I was too sick to sing it, so we decided to play with the tempo and see if we could make it something more than a one-chord thing:

mp3: "Hold Still" (Honey White rehearsal, 10/23/05)

Nothing seemed to work for this song, and we never ended up playing it live, but in May 2007 we took another swipe at it during what would become our last rehearsal for three years. We'd forgotten the arrangement; you can hear me directing Bryn, Brian and Bill on what to play when:

mp3: "Hold Still" (Honey White rehearsal, 5/27/07)

During the Honey White hiatus, I revived my Low Tide echo-bass side project in order to release some weird, ambient instrumentals I'd composed as a sort of soundtrack to a novel I was writing. As a nominally unfinished, unreleased tune, "Hold Still" seemed like fair game, so I took the original demo and ground it into sonic hamburger for a backing percussion track. A few more echo-bass overdubs later, and I had an instrumental called "This Won't Hurt a Bit" (the title being a lyrical nod to the song's earlier incarnation as "Hold Still"), which I attached to an appropriately violent episode in the book, when one of the main protagonists gets curb-stomped within an inch of his life in an Irvine parking lot:

After that, I thought "Hold Still" had basically run its course, but in April of this year Bryn suggested that Radblaster give it a try as well. It's a little rough (and I'm singing/directing again), but as a bluesier-type song, it could definitely work for the new band as well:

mp3: "Hold Still" (Radblaster rehearsal, 4/10/11)

Okay, that's enough of that. Jesus, I feel dirty and creepy all over again for even writing that lyric, let alone singing it. What the hell is wrong with me? That's not even the last "political" lyric I'm throwing out there, either—we've got one more (albeit not as pure evil) to slog through next week, too. I'm sure that sounds like oodles and oodles of fun, right? Ugh. See you then.

Song stats:
Music by Bryn DuBois (2004)/Bryn DuBois and Honey White (2004).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, September 2005.
Appears on the following albums:
Dead Man (Single) by Honey White
The Weapon of Young Gods (as "This Won't Hurt a Bit") by Low Tide

September 04, 2011

30 Songs #6 - Blacking Out: Bad Trips, Freaky Times, and No Catchy Chorus

Isla Vista on Halloween. Or maybe just on a Thursday.

No self-respecting arbiter of cool ever wants to admit when they write a "political" song lyric, but thankfully I have little self-respect or cool anymore, and I only arbitrarily admit the painfully obvious at the very last moment, when all other options are exhausted. That's basically the plan for this week's "30 Songs" entry, "Blacking Out"—itself the dubious result of simultaneously mixing metaphors and mixing drinks, but nevertheless ended up one of the best recordings I ever got to play on. It took many years, two bands, several rewrites, and a great studio session before I considered this lyric "finished" enough to compliment its tune. Have a listen:

That's the song as it was in 2005 on Honey White's full-length studio album. It doesn't even matter that the thing has no chorus, because Brian and Bryn get freaky with the effects pedals, Bill backs us up with his usual aplomb, and Jon's treatment of my bass guitar makes it sound its thick-and-creamy best. The lyric had come a long way from the original tune at its beginnings circa 1997, when the Mojo Wire recorded a drum-machine demo version called "After Some Time," but the music itself—the chords and arrangement—wasn't that different. Oh sure, the aural cosmetics were better applied over time, and the G minor-to-E flat bass riff that powers the song gradually became more muscular, but the foundation has been pretty solid. Well, solid enough to weather frequent tinkering without a single crack.

The lyrics for the first two incarnations of this song, "After Some Time" and "Blackout Baby," were definitely not my best. In fact they're pretty laughable—but then so was most of the quasi-psychedelic, meaningless baloney I came up with for that album. When the Mojo Wire slapped together a passable take of "Blackout Baby" for our hopelessly muddled second disc of self-recorded demos, it was actually built on a drum part recorded for Adam's song "Stay With Me" on the previous album. Adam, Bryn and I overdubbed all the parts (including a wet wah-wah solo by yours truly) for "Blackout Baby" over these recycled drums, added it to the running order, and that was that:

Lyrically, it was supposed to be part of the album's nebulous concept that tracked the arc of a hangover—hey, we were Isla Vista college kids—but I could do better, and eventually did. It wasn't soon enough to help "Blackout Baby," though, which died a quick death-by-neglect and a complete lack of live performances. The Mojo Wire never played this song at any show, but even if we did I don't imagine it would have worked well—and so the "Blackout Baby" tune went into songwriting purgatory for several years while Bryn and I debated what the hell to do with it. We tried to revive it for the series of Mojo Wire remakes in 2001 for You're On Your Own, but only got an incomplete, drums/bass recording out of it (which was nevertheless a good part from Bryn, who was playing his best percussion at the time). It was definitely off the radar when we formed Honey White with Brian and Bill in 2002.

However, an objective observer finally came to the rescue in 2003, when Brian agreed to merge a tune of his own—a C minor-to-A flat piece that seemed like a transposition of the original "Blackout Baby" arrangement—to the version we'd previously abandoned. Honey White jammed this into the ground during rehearsal, where Bryn's "Death by Audio" effects pedal turned "Blackout Baby" into an atonal, formless freakout. Our friend Earl heard a version of it and said it sounded "like a distorted orchestra," and so that's what we called it: "Distorchestra." We confused (and probably bored) plenty of otherwise-happy Honey White fans by dropping this monster into our 2003 sets, including a webcast, a local TV appearance, and our downtown Santa Barbara debut. When we went into the studio in San Francisco to make How Far is the Fall, we had some spare time—so we figured why not get a pro-recorded "Distorchestra" jam while we were at it:

Jon the engineer was very patient and humored us, but then suggested we mold it into a real song, so Bryn and Brian came up with some "real" guitar parts (including e-bow!), almost at the drop of a hat, and I went home and tried to vomit up some worthy lyrics—which resulted in the song at the top of this post—and "Blacking Out" was born:

"Blacking Out" lyrics

Somehow we began the night invincible as ever
and always so impulsive or inspired
Somehow we're all ending up immobilized together
and always so oblivious and tired

Suddenly it's all about denial on a bender
and everyone's so easily impressed
Suddenly it's all about the easiest surrender
and definitely blacking out the rest

Forgetting everything I know and then
dissolving into history again

The waves are rolling in again, almighty and illegal
and I'm already in over my head
The volume is intensive and the impacts are for real
and no one is immune who isn't dead

Like I said, it's a tenuous metaphorical connection—it bridges the original party/hangover angle of "Blackout Baby" with something much uglier: the collective psychotic episode that Americans stumbled through in the post-9/11, Iraq-invading Bush years. The "waves" could be "the first rising vibes of an acid frenzy" or the shock-and-awe bombs over Baghdad. My opinion colored it, of course—but it sure as hell seemed like a mindless orgy of destruction back then. Our whole reality was lurching through this quasi-religious, deathly ecstatic, uber-maenadic spasm of fear and loathing on a massive scale in 2002/3, and I found it totally repulsive. So yeah—the allusion is pretty heavy-handed, and the veneer of bad-tripping college kids is a bit thin. Maybe it's not a coincidence that I write this so close to 9/11's decade-anniversary, or a week after Dick Cheney's sociopathic memoirs were released—but none of that mattered when "Blacking Out" finally made its live debut in 2005:

Honey White had rehearsed it exactly twice before that, and the only brief snafu was from Bryn's incorrigible e-bow. I'd say that's more than auspicious, because we played it at every show during 2005/6. One particularly weird performance was at the old Brown Derby club, where "Blacking Out" was to be the last song in a brief, half-hour set—but the promoter had discovered we'd pulled in more people that night than any of the other five bands on the bill, so he told everyone in the crowd to scream for us when we finished. "Wow," I thought, "they went nuts for the abstract arty tune with no chorus?" We got to play two songs after that, and went with some high-energy old standards ("Mercy Rule" and "Unprofessional").

Okay, so that's it for this one. I tried to keep the politicizing to a minimum, since (fair warning) more red-meat political hoo-ha is on tap for next week's entry too. I bet you can't wait, right? Ho ho.

Song stats:
Music by Keir DuBois and the Mojo Wire (1998)/Keir DuBois, Brian Wolff and Honey White (2004).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, September 2004.
Appears on the following albums:
Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor (as "Blackout Baby") by the Mojo Wire
Epic Noise Now! (as "Distorchestra") by Honey White
How Far is the Fall by Honey White
Deluge and Drought by Honey White

September 01, 2011

Champagne Taste, or How Lazy Can the Bass Player Be?

Today was a good day, so have a biscuit, Potter: "Tryin; to Throw Your Arms Around the World," the fluffy Obla-di Obla-da track from "Achtung Baby," here from a 1992 Zoo TV special (complete with Bill Clinton Radio and video confessionals):

Notice the same bass line throughout, not even changing keys. Lucky bastard, that Clayton. That has to be a great gig—chilling out playing the same 5 or 6 notes over and over again while that silly fat wanker pours alcohol all over impressionable young women. Oh dear.

Related Posts with Thumbnails