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

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