October 09, 2011

30 Songs #11 - The Peak of My Career: Sloppy Ironic Titles Won't Save You


The tiny fishing village of Isla Vista, California. Eroding coastline not shown to scale.

It's tough to give up a song as a bad job, especially if you've spent a lot of time on it, but sometimes you have to do exactly that. If so, you better do it before the thing actually gets recorded and released—and even then it still might end up like this week's "30 Songs" entry, the sorry saga of a stillborn Mojo Wire-era song called "The Peak of My Career." It's a song that I worked really hard to finish—worked to death, almost—so much so that it went through about three musical incarnations before I shrugged and simply refined what I had as much as possible. I wasn't happy with the result; I initially left it off the final Mojo Wire album, but when every Mojo disc went through a rough remix/remaster process two years later, I tacked "Peak of My Career" onto the digital version of You're On Your Own. It sounded like this:



There are only two players on that song: Bryn and me. I don't think I was confident enough in it to persuade Joe and Adam to play on it, and I'd already highjacked most of the album anyway, so I can't imagine they'd be keen to let me do it any further. Bryn humored me by playing some basic rhythm guitar and tossing off a solo that I later turned on its ear via digital editing. Come to think of it, that's probably the actual legacy of this song—I learned that post-production trickery can't help you salvage a poor composition, but it can get close. Not close enough, but I won't split hairs at this point, because I still like the lyric and believe it's solid, despite the underlying failure of the song. Kind of like the time I worked my ass off in a City Planning class at UCSB, only to get a D and drop out of the Geography major for English, but that's another story.

The tune's lineage went like this: in June 1999, two months after belatedly releasing the Mojo Wire's third album, Bryn and I had a quick jam session at the Bedrock that produced some potential sonic building blocks for new songs. Among these were two variations on a G/C/D chord progression—ridiculously happy-sounding stuff like Buffett or Creedence—that I tentatively called "Jetski" and "Petty." The first one suffered from my own guitar playing, but it sounded surfy/sunny enough to be a retread of past Mojo tunes. The second sounded like something Tom Petty would have done when he was about five years old: simple, swingy, goofy country. It was actually a different, faster version of something I'd done with a drum machine around the same time. Here's mp3 of all three:

mp3: "The Peak of My Career" (Surf/Jetski Jam)
mp3: "The Peak of My Career" (Roots/Petty Jam)
mp3: "The Peak of My Career" (Drum Machine Demo)

That month Bryn, Adam and I also jammed out lots of tunes at the Bedrock as a trio (this was the same time that "Water Into Wine" began life too), including one piece in 2/3 time where I hauled out the echo-bass sound. I wanted to see if I could use that effect on songs not written in 4/4, rock/funk tempos (such as the Mojo Wire song "Under the Sun," from our second album). Turned out I could, if the tempo waltzed at double-time, twice the pace of a regular 6/8 blues song. I tentatively titled this echo-waltz-jam "Saturation," for no reason other than I liked the word. It was eventually (and quietly) released as part of my first Low Tide CD, along with some leftover echo-bass murk from the past year or so:



Yeah, check out the vintage late-'90s "glowing edges" Photoshop cover. Yikes. Anyway, I tried to file the song away in my head as "finished," probably because it got "released"—never mind how obscurely—but I couldn't really let it go. I hated the idea that I couldn't finish it properly, with lyrics and vocals and everything. Could instrumental echo-bass pieces be songs, or just jams? It was still an open question for me back then, because the lyrics I'd written for "Under the Sun" hadn't aged well at all, and I was worried that the epic reach of echo would foist too much importance on whatever words got attached to it. The "Under the Sun" fiasco actually prompted me to tinker with that song and many others, so "Saturation" managed to keep itself in the pool of tunes that I felt still needed lyrics.

I didn't get around to writing them until about September of 2000, though—there were four other songs that happened in between—so by the time I got a draft of "Peak of My Career" ready to record, I was left with the nebulous lyrical dregs of a tired "Isla Vista be so crazy" concept that had already been bled dry for "Water Into Wine," "You're On Your Own," and "One Last Hallelujah." They were pretty bad:

mp3: "The Peak of My Career" (First Draft Demo)

Rewrites happen way more often than it seems. In this case, it definitely helped. The final lyrics are:

"The Peak of My Career"

Crawling toward another beautiful blank sunrise
west of home and east of everything else we prize
with one hand on the bottle and one foot out the door
and one eye shut pretending that we've seen it all before

I wouldn't know I'm having fun, I wouldn't stop for anyone
and if I need to think at all, somebody else can take the fall
It's only the peak of my career, no wonder it's all downhill from here

We know we'll never have it all by any reckoning
but we can't resist the hotter property beckoning
Tonight the power couple is not two of a kind
and two up against the world isn't what they have in mind

I wouldn't know I'm having fun, I wouldn't stop for anyone
and if I need to think at all, somebody else can take the fall
It's only the peak of my career, no wonder it's all downhill from here

we're living in a terrible wreck of our own design
and everybody's reputation is on the line
but no one needs a blessing; we're not on holy ground
as long as we remain inside our happy heathen town


It follows "Wine" and "Hallelujah" as the third installment of my so-called "Isla Vista Trilogy," in the unfortunately weak position of "Return of the Jedi" and other half-assed threequels. The title is purposely pompous—it reflects that bogus idea that "this is it, kid—your life will never be as good as it is in your early wild-and-crazy-college-twenties." It now looks ham-fisted and sloppily ironic, but it still fits with the ham-fisted, sloppy characters it describes. The misconception I'm trying to bottle here is that one where most every student sees these experiences as their last great gasp of individuality and freedom and achievement before they're shackled to careers and marriage and picket fences (to which they nevertheless go willingly). It's a fear-based lie—especially if this is in fact their first spurt of true excess—but we tell ourselves lies our whole lives, and we have to start sometime, right?

The lyric opens on the morning after some raging hedonistic craziness, with our coed hero & heroine doing the walk of shame east to campus from I.V. There's a cheap Biblical allusion here too—to the first failed couple/relationship kicked out of Eden and walking east as well—so clearly I was still trying to wring some venom out of the same snake that bit me for "Wine" and "Hallelujah." One hand on the bottle and one foot out the door, with fake affected maturity—all the while pretending that we're used to this cause it happens all the time. I added the complicit "we" in here just like "Wine" and "Hallelujah" because it lets the narrators (or listeners!) get away with knowing we can't have everything material and carnal but wanting and striving vainly for it anyway. The third verse simplistically reiterates that reputations are always on the line in a fake setting like this, and that reality checks will always fail.

What a mess, right? I dunno—maybe I'm being to harsh on this thing, but it seems to me there's a reason that it was never played live by the Mojo Wire or attempted by Honey White (who covered many Mojo tunes): it's just not good enough. My same old shouty-singing is certainly part of that; it doesn't seem to work with major-key stuff the way it does on "Hallelujah" (which immediately preceded it in my canon) or "Fatal Flaws" (which immediately followed). I guess the lesson here is the same thing I mentioned above—that you can refine and refine and refine an idea, but if it's not a good idea to begin with, for whatever reason, then it won't be a good result. This hasn't happened to me very often, because I can usually realize when something's not working, but when it does happen it's a proportionally significant creative stumble.

It's also not a mistake I repeated for a long, long time. Certainly not for the next trio of songs, all by Honey White, on (nearly) the same subject. Come back next week to find out what the first of those will be.

Song stats:
Music by Keir DuBois and the Mojo Wire (1999/2000).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, September 2000.
Appears on the following albums:
Dive E.P. (as "Saturation") by Low Tide
You're On Your Own by the Mojo Wire

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