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


  1. Nice write up, Keir. You incorporated Rome, Troy, Iraq and Obama without it seeming like a stretch! I'm impressed.

  2. Glad you like it. Felt more like the sort of mile-wide, inch-deep sort of thing when I was doing it.


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