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

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