November 29, 2011

Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down

Okay, here's Track 11 of 12 in my goofy series from the big shebang and money-pit, U2's re-released Achtung Baby album. It's a great song, with a gut-slashing blister of a chorus (see the post title above). It's good advice:

I guess we can make this a real post with a quickie bullet-review of U2's "Achtung Baby" super-deluxe 20th anniversary edition:

• The reissued Achtung Baby album is not remastered, but that's ok. It's a bit louder, so that's an improvement. Same goes for a companion polish-job on the follow-up, 1993's Zooropa.

• The B-sides disc contains everything expected (i.e. all the previously released stuff) except for the version of "Until the End of the World" that appears on the soundtrack for Wim Wenders' film of the same name.

• On that same disc, there are old songs with new lyrics and vocals from Bono. It's a slightly odd trend that has happened on other U2 reissues recently—Joshua Tree, War, and Unforgettable Fire all have at least one "newly completed" song. The Achtung Baby reissue has three: "Blow Your House Down," "Heaven and Hell," and "Oh Berlin." I know the first two from the "Salomé" bootleg; they're edited down and aren't bad, but "Berlin" isn't that impressive.

• Also on that disc are contemporary outtakes: "Down All the Days" is a weird vocal take over the music that became "Numb." "Near the Island" is a deathly dull easy-listening Eno-ist instrumental. "Everybody Loves a Winner" sounds like a Rattle and Hum leftover. So, overall an interesting release (the b-side disc), and better than the one reportedly released on the double-disc-only reissue, which is larded with remixes.

• Speaking of remixes, there are not one, but two additional discs full of remixes. Some people might be interested in those, but I'm not one of them. They're pretty much useless to me, just like 2/3 of the "Best of 1990-2000" bonus disc (itself polluted with lame remixes). So much for that.

• Which brings me to the most interesting of the audio releases: the "kindergarten" early versions of the main Achtung Baby tracks. These are suitably shambolic, rough mixes of songs that U2 fans know in their better, finished form. They're fascinating from an archaeological standpoint—despite a purported 2011 overdub on "Tryin to Thrown Your Arms Around the World"—but I don't see myself listening to these over and over again, you know?

• DVDs: There are 4 video discs with this release: a rerelease of "Zoo TV Live from Sydney," a different-than-aired-on-TV version of the new "From the Sky Down" documentary, a disc containing (mostly) re-released music videos from the same period (all the singles from Achtung Baby and Zooropa, plus some extras), and a whole other disc of contemporary videos (TV specials from the US, UK, and the like). Given that the new documentary is getting its own release next month, this is pretty skimpy too.

• The remainder of the package is a big fat book with lots of laudatory essays, plus 12 art prints—which all look really cool, but the bottom line is that it's not really worth the money unless you're a hopeless geek like me. It's arguably an example of yet another U2 cash-in on (mostly) already-released stuff that big fans already own.

But lemme tellya, it was super-fun to get this on my birthday, two days after its release.

November 27, 2011

30 Songs #18 - Sunset Down: Egyptian Rivers and Other Psychoses

Yes, it's a stupid pun. No, I don't care.

Denial is a powerful emotion, and I'd guess that it fuels about 80-90% of pop song lyrics out there. So many lyrics seem to be about denying reality in favor of something better, or something (mis)remembered, or something idealized, or any number of unrealistic expectations or assumptions. People have this marvelous ability to totally disbelieve something that's often right in front of their face. Sometimes that's psychologically helpful, like the ability to shrug off 50,000 deaths-by-tsunami (if our brains actually were affected by each of those deaths, we'd shut down emotionally), but usually it's more to do with petty personal failings or other pathetic states of being. This week's "30 Songs" entry, the Mojo Wire ballad "Sunset Down," has some of the former but is mostly the latter. Listen:

"Sunset Down" was written as a mollifying little injection of denial that helped me through a bad breakup near the end of my junior year at UCSB (April '98), but it ultimately failed for attacking the symptoms (getting dumped by a girl) instead of going after the big reason for my melodramatic angst (inability to deal with rejection because of my parents' divorce). Sounds like fun, huh? Don't worry, that's about as psychoanalytical as this post will get—but I have to touch on the serious stuff and get it out of the way early, because the earnest hypersensitivity that pervades most of my earlier lyrics is a huge crutch. It's impossible to explain without looking like some trembling skid-mark of weakness, but at the time it's the only way to get through the afflictions of youth's incomplete neurophysiology, right? Yikes, and it's only taken me about two paragraphs to start sounding like Sting. Maybe we should get through this quickly and get to some more interesting stuff next week.

So, the music: basically, Adam came up with a mellow, acoustic guitar piece that we all agreed would be the perfect sound to wrap up the third Mojo Wire album—a semi-acoustic collection of ragged surf-noir demos called Seaside Hamlet Skids. The album in general was about escapism, both individually and collectively—which is really easy to perceive now, but not so much while we were making it. It's perfectly sequenced, with the overall feeling of harmless denial fermenting into something more and more poisonous by the final song. "Sunset Down" pulls off a cute little coup by cloaking that ugliness in easy-listening clichés: major-key acoustic guitar, ethereal keyboards, semi-whispered vocals, and no percussion. The only clue that something's not quite right is the lyric's irregular structure—or even lack of structure. Here it is:

"Sunet Down"

The heat is high but I know my way
and nothing so wrong will happen today
I have been kicked out of nations
I have died on reservations

losing every lead learning how to bleed
spinning like a toy isolate destroy

You have no idea what you did to me
and lately you’re so sure it’s good to be without security
although all things end baby all things end
I just don't know when I begin again
so honey take a bow, I hope you're happy now
that almost everyone can see that day is done

Cause I’ve been kicked out of nations
I have died on reservations
spinning like a toy isolate destroy
your security is no good to me
you have no idea what you did to me

I’ve got to turn around and face the sunset down
I’ve got to turn around and face the sunset down
cause the heat is high but I know my way
and nothing so wrong will happen today

That structural irregularity works in the song's favor, and more than just as a novelty. Even so, most of the lines hang on clumsy rhymes like "nations/reservations," and the themes were lame and cheesy (things strung together like sunsets and endings). The only line I still really like is "the heat is high but I know my way and nothing so wrong will happen today," because it's completely delusional; you only ever say something that confident when you've been through a hell of a wringer and you feel like crap. Another good couplet is "losing every lead/learning how to bleed" (inserted in a Costello-ripoff rewrite a year later). Both are things that you lie to yourself about for the sheer sake of functioning after a tragedy. I had no such tragedy worse than being dumped, so I was just being a big baby, but at least I knew the line was bogus and knew it had to be delivered with a healthy smirk.

Actually, that irregularity is something I'm struggling to repeat—or at least reinvent—in lyrics I'm trying to finish right now, since I'm finding myself falling back into the same old twelve-bar, 14-to-16-syllable-per-line formula that "Sunset Down" so creatively side-steps. It has repeated lines in there, which sort of balances out the lack of a chorus, and the same "heat is high but I know my way" couplet book-ends the song. That's a nice touch that I'm slightly surprised I'd thought of at the time. You know how people often dismiss things they've done as a younger person, in that "was I really that smart back then" way? I feel like that when looking over these lyrics today. For something that I don't consider—figuratively at least—among my best work, it's a structural/process lesson worth revisiting, for sure.

This song doesn't have much of a legacy; it was never played live, so it's sort of frozen in time—which, while interesting on some level, doesn't speak well for its longevity. As mentioned above, though, I did tweak the lyric slightly—near the tail end of the "let's remake the Mojo classics" period of 2000-2001—and recorded that in early 2002 with only my echo-bass as accompaniment, which sounds like this:

mp3: "Sunset Down" (remake, 8/02)

That take was good, but a dead end. Interesting, but not enough of a reinvention to make the recording work on its own, outside of a supporting album's sequence—let alone in concert. Come to think of it, though, if "Sunset Down" has no live show history, that means that if we do revive it, we can totally rebuild it from the ground up—like Honey White did for "Lightning Rod" or "One Last Hallelujah." Maybe "Sunset Down" would work as a stuttering surf rocker with an irregular time signature, like 5/4 or 9/8 or something. Hmmm…

Okay, well, now that I've self-flagellated for three weeks over hobbling some of Adam's best tunes with subpar, vaguely impressionistic lyrics, let's move on, shall we? I thought about neutralizing this trend with the best one I wrote for a song of his, "Stranded"—but that will fit better grouped with other lyrics. I also thought—since early winter 2011 marks not only the fifteenth anniversary of the first Mojo Wire gigs, but also the tenth anniversary of that band's breakup—about going even further back into Mojo Wire history for our earliest lyrics. However, it's probably not a good idea to jump from one series of relatively lightweight stuff to another, differently juvenile set of lyrics—goofy blues-parodying things that were mostly vehicles for Adam's gritty vocals.

Gotta come up with some passable in-between examples, then. I think I can do that, for the next three entries, at least. Let's say that next week, I'll throw together something that melded sneering breakup lyrics, video game ripoff music, and blistering surf guitar into one of the most long-lived Mojo Wire songs ever. Oh, the suspense.

Finally, this post was brought to you by the Radiohead song "House of Cards," with its one-word chorus of (you guessed it) "Denial." You're welcome:

Song stats:
Music by Adam Hill and the Mojo Wire, May 1998.
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, June 1998.
Appears on the following albums:
Seaside Hamlet Skids by the Mojo Wire

November 20, 2011

30 Songs #17 - Wound Down: How to Cripple a Perfectly Good Tune, Part 2

Adam vs. Keir, May '98: When Cheap Hair Dye Attacks!

This week's "30 Songs" column is a bit late—and a bit shorter than usual—because on Friday, I was truly fried, and in no fit state to write about it. Same with yesterday, actually—but now's as good a time as any for Round Two of "These Lyrics Need a Rewrite, Dude." Today's victim is "Wound Down," which like "Kid Icarus," is an otherwise great tune with lyrics that don't really live up to the song's potential. The music is a trippy little waltz written by Adam, not too far removed from Brian's future space-jams in Honey White. I love the guitar solo tone—it's the classic "old Faithful" sound of Adam's Hamer—its reverb takes up enough space for Bryn to switches from guitar to keyboard. Have a listen:

I'm only half-joking when I say "these lyrics need a rewrite"; in the last two "30 Songs" posts I've mentioned my odd inability to remember what I was thinking when writing song lyrics in late 1997 and early 1998. That's not saying "what was I thinking?" in a bad way—I'm sure that work probably passes as "impressionistic" in some circles—and it's not to say I don't like these songs, but I've done much better since then.

I blame it on the setting sometimes, but hanging subpar creativity on late-'90s Isla Vista is also too easy; I learned quickly enough how to channel that kind of wild-party-for-rich-kids craziness into some great work. It's not to make excuses for sloppy juvenilia either, though—this was from a time when, for lots of reasons, I was probably certifiable and behaving in weird, out-of-character ways. Maybe these nebulously vague lyrics were a way for the wimpier, earnestly sensitive Keir of 1996 to try and survive the allegedly substance-abusing, womanizing Keir of 1997…but I doubt that. Neither of those guys would have let this one slip out:

"Wound Down"

The sun is bright behind your head
Looks like a crown of neon light
The sun is bright behind your head
You know I swear it don't look quite right

I notice you there and I look into your eyes
Looks like a seasick mind running nowhere to hide
I notice you there and I look into your eyes
I see a rewound soul when they open wide

I can take a shock; I'm a lightning rod
The most electrifying is a bold of fraud
I can take a shock; I'm a lightning rod
but when you look away it's a bullet from God

I wonder what it's like without you coming around
You say you don't have time to think about that now
I wonder what it's like without you coming around
Suppose that it resembles world round wound down

Okay, well…there's one good line in there—the one that I took and blew up into a whole new song for another band four years later—but that's no excuse for drowning Adam's tune (and his vocals!) in mushy meaninglessness. It had great potential and I think that's what did me in—the intimidation of writing a concrete, powerful thing to ride herd over a powerfully evocative tune. It could also be that I didn't have the cerebral vocabulary to be a "lyricist" yet. Oh sure, I'd re-absorbed the omnipotent mid-'60s Bob Dylan in all his glory about a year before, but that mostly helped me spit out the goofy, semi-parody blues lyrics for the first Mojo Wire album. I hadn't delved into Elvis Costello's stuff yet either—so I didn't have a good model of what "good lyrics" were supposed to look like. Not that those two guys are the be-all, end-all approach—but I wasn't in a position to learn from, or apply, any lessons from their work.

I didn't know how to write lines for a song that wasn't a twelve-bar blues, and I guess I didn't know how to apply figurative meaning to a lyric; didn't know how to work with language creatively (or at least not like I was beginning to be trained to do analytically, in UCSB's English department). Once I realized that combining the two skills was the way to go, at least for me, lyric-writing got both easier and tougher—but I also got better at it. Sadly, that realization didn't arrive in time to save "Kid Icarus," "Wound Down," or "Sunset Down" (more on that last one next week), and I'm not sure why I felt pressure to finish something, anything in order to finish the album. Why finish the album, and why so soon after the first one? I tried to answer that a while ago in this essay about the album as a whole:

The more scattered things seemed to become, the more I [wanted] to get a handle on everything and organize it into some sort of presentable form. Adam and Bryn were agreeable—hey, why not release another album?—but that very impulse to complete things quickly and effectively doomed the whole collection.
Despite all that baggage—again, that Keir-imposed baggage that failed the tune itself—"Wound Down" does have a brief post-Rocket Fuel legacy; like "Kid Icarus," I also tried to rewrite it a year later, making a quiet demo of that unsuccessful attempt:

mp3: "Wound Down" (rewrite demo, 7/99)

Also like "Kid Icarus," "Wound Down" had a brief live history for a few Mojo Wire gigs in 1999; it closed the sets at our two Sigma Phi Epsilon shows that year, but didn't mesh well with the harder-rocking Adam/Joe/Keir/Bryn lineup. I added "Wound Down" to the Mojo Wire best-of compilation in 2003 as well—it was, after all, a great example of both the good and not-as-good-as-it-should-be aspects of the Rocket Fuel album. Unlike "Kid Icarus," the take of "Wound Down" is basically identical to its original version:

That's about all there is to it, for me, as far as "Wound Down" is concerned. It's certainly not a bad song, but it's a subpar lyric that needs a rewrite—not unlike several others I've done—so I'm finding it hard to be objective about it (or any of the others, actually). If I haven't rewritten it by now, though, I'm not sure I will—and that goes for the other subpar lyrics as well. Jonathan Mayer said something to me once about tinkering with, and polishing past work, while we were in the studio with Honey White. He said, basically, "why try to mess with stuff you've already done? It'll be different, and you know it will be different—so why not just focus on writing some new, better songs instead?"

Words to create by, for sure. I'll do one more round of this next week, but then I feel like it should be time for some really good ones again. Stay tuned.

Song stats:
Music by Adam Hill and the Mojo Wire, February 1998.
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, March 1998.
Appears on the following albums:
Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor by the Mojo Wire

November 11, 2011

30 Songs #16 - Kid Icarus: How to Cripple a Perfectly Good Tune, Part 1

No, not that Kid Icarus…but his attitude is fitting.

Fair warning: the "30 Songs" series might be a dodgy, uneven proposition for the next several weeks. I've written about many of my very best lyrics recently, but now we're gonna go way back—to 1997 and some of my decidedly more mediocre stuff. It's a sad story, artistically and collaboratively, because what happened was that I unconsciously sabotaged some great Mojo Wire music with mostly meaningless, quasi-impressionistic lyrics. That's a harsh thing to say, but in the cold light of almost fifteen years' time, it's absolutely true. I explained a little of that in last week's entry for "The Lightning Rod," and it goes double for the next few songs in this series. The first one is called "Kid Icarus," and it goes like this:

That's a composite mix of the original take (which had muffly vocals) and a rewrite with overdubs (which ended up on the Mojo Wire best-of five years later). Fantastic tune. Great piece of music from Adam, but for years and years now, I've felt like I hobbled it with vague fluff for lyrics. Adam nevertheless sang like it meant something, and though I've always appreciated that, I've never been able to fix this one properly like I did for "Lightning Rod" or "Blacking Out" or even "Pisces Lullabye." I'm still not sure why it happened this way, but I think it has a lot to do with the fact that it was my first real attempt at a non-blues, non-funny/parody lyric. The music seemed pretty profound, so I had to write something serious—and Isla Vista in November 1997 was definitely not the time or place for me to be serious. I think I said it best in an essay I wrote about this song's parent album, our second demo disc Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor:

[By that] time the Mojo Wire had wholly absorbed itself in the nth-degree ethos of Isla Vista. The old twelve-bar tunes were now being accompanied by all sorts of bizarre effects pedals, multiple (and often backwards) tape loops, and extensive multitracking. In short, we'd discovered our navels, musically speaking, and we set about contemplating them as often as possible.

The unfettered experimentation was definitely a result of our bacchanalian surroundings, but the music we were listening to made much more of an impact, especially Radiohead's recently released OK Computer. That landmark album wasn't so much of a direct, immediate influence, but the explosion of sonic possibilities achieved on it definitely inspired us to find out exactly how much we could do with what we had at our disposal. Adam's cello swaying its way through "Kid Icarus" and Keir's echo-bass guitar powering "Under The Sun" led the way, and almost every song (except the instrumental title track) has some sort of treatment on the vocals, guitars, bass, or keyboard.

The problems came with the unrealized, clunky metaphors of the second side's songs, which seemed to want to pass themselves off as Major Statements of Profound Importance. Strong bits of music that could have (and, years later, eventually did) end up somewhere meaningful instead seemed to grasp at Significance without actually saying anything, and great tunes like "Kid Icarus", "Under The Sun", "Blackout Baby", and "Wound Down" became hobbled by their sub-par, self-absorbed, and sloppily incomplete lyrics.
For "Icarus," exploratory sounds and trippy effects seemed to demand impressionistic lyrics, in short. For better or worse, they are:

"Kid Icarus"

I was flying, I was so high
I saw her from up here, and it made me cry
I wonder what I'm missing, oh my my my

I gave away too much, all in spite of me
I gave away too much, I'm unraveling
Always unaware of how it's absurd
Lyrical and loving it and not hearing a word

I was flying, I was so high
I saw home from up here, and it made me cry
I wonder what they're missing, oh my my my

Going through the motions in one night is a curse
If only I had listened before I made it worse
Always move too fast and I never could say when
Breaking in and broken down I just might get fooled again

I was flying, I was so high
I fell from up here and nearly died

Down down down down down down
Falling out of favor, falling down from grace
Made the shape in pavement the features of my face

I am falling down from so high
and as I fall I know I won't survive
I wonder what I'm missing, oh my my my

The song had several titles, in thankfully decreasing levels of pretentiousness: "The Fall of Kid Icarus," "Icarus Falling," and finally a simple "Kid Icarus." Like I said with "Under the Sun," listening to this song now leaves me with no clue as to what its lyrics mean, so I'll just try and figure them out right now. I've always hated the Icarus myth, for the same reason I hate the Garden of Eden myth: the idea that wanting too much knowledge or too much truth is punishable and wrong. I've always detested secrets or inside jokes (even when I'm in on them), and I think that stems from the worst example of a destructive secret in my life: the shock of my parents' divorce when I was eleven. Once I got over that, my M.O. became "I work better with more information." The classical vice of hubris doesn't even figure into it—it's all about being prepared for potentially life-derailing surprises—but even years later I wasn't able to deal with rejections or breakups that were a fraction as painful. On top of that, I'm the eldest of my siblings, so that meant I had to do everything first, and I'm still not too keen about getting pushed into things when I'm not ready.

Now, that's way too much nebulous emotion to try and distill into three verses and a chorus, so enough about my bullshit adolescent hangups. The only good thing about this song is the music, so let's talk about that—even though "Kid Icarus" would not be the only time I didn't do justice to a great tune from Adam. His original drum-machine-powered demo went like this:

mp3: "Kid Icarus" (drum machine demo, 10/97)

It's a bit shaky, but with great potential to be really elegaic and soulful. Adam has an admirable knack for composing these elegant, profound-sounding ballads—"Wound Down" and "Sunset Down" are two others from that period—and I've only recently been able to write great lyrics for tunes like this ("Stranded" by Radblaster for example). I believe his classical training has much to do with this—I did back then, too, which was one of the reasons why we overdubbed his cello onto the backing track. It's a lovely touch.

Five months later—around the time the album was finished—Bryn, Brandon and I recorded an instrumental take in rehearsal:

mp3: "Kid Icarus" (instrumental rehearsal demo, 4/98)

Like "Under the Sun," I'd already started rewriting the lyrics for "Kid Icarus" before the song had time to really become itself. We played it several times live from 1998-2001, but it didn't survive well among the increasingly pile-driving rock mentality of the late-Mojo Adam/Joe/Keir/Bryn lineup. When I was digging around the Mojo archives, I found this incomplete rewrite attempt—with just me playing guitar and singing in a pathetic, faux-Elliott Smith whisper:

mp3: "Kid Icarus" (rewrite demo, 7/99)

At the time, I thought that a descending progression was kind of a cool thing to invert Adam's original music, but that didn't prove true until Bryn helped me bend the music into a whole other song—the instrumental "Steel Wool" for my first Low Tide side project disc:

That drum track is actually from an attempted remake of "Icarus" from our ill-fated "overhaul the Mojo Classics" period in 2000-2001. The echo-bass helped, but it was too late for the original song. "Kid Icarus" didn't have much of a life after the Mojo Wire, but we did try to revive it (with hilariously bad results) during 2003, in a one-off Honey White practice with Adam (Bryn/Brian/Keir minus Billy):

mp3: "Kid Icarus" (rehearsal demo, 8/15/03)

When you do a take like that, and even Adam (the resolute John Denver and Richard Marx fan) makes fun of how wimpy the lyric is, while he's singing it, well…it's toast. Within a year, Bryn would prove that he does lyrical impressionism very well, with Honey White tunes like "Let Go" and "Keep Moving," but I've never been able to pull it off.

And you know what? This woe-is-me shit is all a bit silly for a fall Friday. Maybe I should just knuckle down and rewrite the bastard for good. It's gotta get in line, behind "Water Into Wine," and another rewrite might not work for "Icarus," since the song's identity is fairly established by now, but it deserves a better fate than "the nearest thing I wrote to a Coldplay lyric," right? Well, it's not that bad. Just a little mushy…but even a little mush is too much sometimes, so I'll leave it at that. If you want more—if you dare—tune in next week for a second descent into mushy madness. I bet you can't wait.

Song stats:
Music by Adam Hill and the Mojo Wire, October 1997.
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, November 1997.
Appears on the following albums:
Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor by the Mojo Wire
Dive E.P. (as "Steel Wool") by Low Tide

November 05, 2011

30 Songs #15 - The Lightning Rod: From Alpha to Omega with a Boss DD3

Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "like a boss," doesn't it?

One of the most important artistic lessons I've learned is that, for creative people, there's a big difference between a "favorite" work and a "best" work. Favorites are sentimental, subjective, and transitory. Bests are obvious, objective, and permanent. Any creative person will tell you that there's a big difference between the two—that is, if they take the long view of creativity and/or their own art, and don't worry about being misinterpreted as an egomaniacal, self-obsessed wanker. I just turned 35 this week, so I think I'm a bit too old to worry about misperceptions, and since we're at the halfway point of this little "30 songs" series, I thought I'd do something big. I wasn't sure where this song would fit in the series, so I'm just sticking it here, for a bunch of reasons: I had a birthday on the Day of the Dead (a day dedicated to the past), I'm a Scorpio who gets intensively obsessed with everything, and I've spent too much time with a terminally-uncool, nostalgia-riddled U2 box set.

So, today's "30 Songs" entry is about "The Lightning Rod," my uber-epic signature song—an echo-bass-guitar magnum opus whose lyric ate up four years of my life whether I liked it or not. It's the pivot, the fulcrum of all my songs and lyrics—there's a "Before 'Lightning Rod'" period and an "After 'Lightning Rod'" period. There are songs and lyrics I've written that may or may not be direct creative reactions to this song and all its baggage. There are so many sonic incarnations of this slippery bastard that it almost has no true musical identity anymore—until I plug in the Boss DD3 (or 4, 5, or 6) and let 'er rip. In the grand creative scheme of "favorite" vs "best," "The Lightning Rod" is probably not my favorite, but I'd be crazy to say it wasn't my best. It was work, hard work. It was all those hoary clichés about "catharsis" and "finding yourself" and "healing art." It was also petty, vengeful, spiteful, childish, and denialist.

Yeah, how's that for an intro, huh? Hilariously overblown it may be, but only because the thing is almost too huge to really get a handle on. Have a listen:

That's "Lightning Rod" as it appeared in classic form, on Honey White's debut My Band Rocks E.P., in late 2002. The lyric was already a year old by then, and the music (which had already been through two incarnations) was about five years old. I'd developed a way to use effects pedals on a bass, but sparingly—until I swiped Bryn's echo pedal and created a massive, massive sound. I thought I was a real genius until I heard Pink Floyd's "One of These Days," but since I'm less of an asshole than Roger Waters, I think I have the edge:

Anyway, the coolest thing about that 2002 recording of "Lightning Rod" isn't even the echo-bass—it's Bill's drumming. To this day, I'm not sure what brought that performance out of him—the challenge of creating a great part mixed with annoyance at the robotic, unforgiving digital echo, I'd guess—but it's masterful, and entirely appropriate. The overblown melodramatic interplay of he and I as rhythm section is a perfect representation of the overblown melodrama in my lyrics, which Bryn sings well as always. The guitarists took a back seat here, using straight, clean tones—the bass and drums left little room for much else.

And holy mother of Batman, those lyrics are a kick in the ass. It took about four years to get them right, including three major rewrites and lots of late nights. The last year by itself was really demanding—I didn't write anything else from December 2000 to December 2001 (when this was finally finished). The reason it took so long is that for better or worse, the lyrics had to be right for the music—and when you have a huge, epic, unforgiving echo-bass sound to work with, there are no half-measures. The music demands a Big Important Statement, or so I thought at the time, and this is what I finally ended up with:

"The Lightning Rod"

The day you threw me back out in the open
I fell apart a thousand times and then I hit the ground
so hard I knew that everything was broken
beyond all hope of healing clean and sober, safe and sound

but tonight the town's electric, and I'm a lightning rod
and I can shake it off without another second thought

I used to wanna be the main attraction
so bad that nothing less would ever do me any good
and up until you took evasive action
I never gave my heart away, not even if I could

but tonight the town's electric, and I'm a lightning rod
and I will give it up for anybody on the spot

and just let go.

Tomorrow ain't a threat to my behavior
and all that i can do is stick around to wait and see
if I can ever be somebody's savior
now that all the world knows you got the best of me

but tonight the town's electric, and I'm a lightning rod
and I can take a shock as well as any son of God

The "Lightning Rod" lyric is obsessed with trauma, and the transformative process from irrational freakout to calculated revenge. That's the fancy, English-major way of describing what basically amounts to my man-child daddy issues—but since I'm a fancy English major and it's my song…well, tough shit. But hey, it was difficult to find the right combination of lyrical point of view and attitude to go with such a huge, sweeping piece of music. How do you write a clear, emotionally direct lyric to such an epic monster? It's a tough contradiction, and thematically it's probably still the most pretentious thing I've done: meshing several narratives into a complete whole—and I know that sounds like something Sting would say, but oh well—which amounts to the ultimate whiny abandonment song. The narrative is I vs. You, like all the others, and it's mostly a conflation of 1) getting kicked out of my dad's house at Christmas when I was 19, 2) every breakup I've ever had to go through with girls that dumped me, and 3) (warning—this is where things get pretentious) a flimsy allusion to Satan's expulsion from heaven. Seriously.

It was gonna be my last lame biblical allusion; in spring 1998 I was taking a Milton class and we'd just started Paradise Lost, so that makes it a little more significant, right? The first verse just runs from there. "Tonight the town's electric" is something I actually said to Emily at the time. There were some evenings around 6pm in Isla Vista with that weird spark in the air, where you just knew it was going to destroy itself utterly that night and then become semi-reborn the next morning, like some retarded phoenix. I could feel all that potential energy and tension and anticipation building up to a ridiculous degree. "I used to want to be the main attraction" refers to me and that devil again, but for very different reasons. The devil wanted to be the bright star of heaven, the main attraction. I just wanted to be Elvis Costello (the frontman of the Attractions). The line in the second chorus about giving up my heart to anyone on the spot stems from a weird resigned desperation of someone in "fuck it" mode. I actually never made it there that night and I think this is why after all this and the third verse, the resolution, was so difficult to finish. It happened, though ("tomorrow ain't a threat to my behavior"), and it's the end of something, and not much more. Well, maybe not much more, but it's still some heavy shit—or at least it was at the time(s) I was stuck in it.

Musically, "The Lightning Rod" began life as a murky twelve-bar demo (mp3 #1 below) that I recorded to four-track cassette at my mom's house during Thanksgiving weekend of 1997. Adam, Bryn and I were just beginning to steer the Mojo Wire into the wild and weird sonic backwater of sound that would become Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor, our second demo album. I think that mp3 the earliest recording of me playing bass guitar with the DD3 echo-pedal over a drum machine track from Bryn's keyboard. I added a chorus part later, making it a bit more U2-ish, and we eventually did a real take for the album, with Brandon Klopp playing drums, and released it in April 1998 as "Under the Sun," which went like this:

That was recorded at the Bedrock, first in Brandon's apartment with the live band (and without vocals), and then with vocals, guitars, and echo-bass overdubs later. Brandon's drums sound drum-machine-ish because that's what they are (for his real kit, see mp3 #2 below of an instrumental Bryn-Keir-Brandon jam). We didn't have enough microphones to record a drum kit properly, and the small Tascam 4-track only had so many inputs, so Brandon played his practice kit live and through one skimpy cable attached to the recorder. This might be your first indication that myself, Bryn, and Adam didn't know what we were doing for many years when it came to recording. The lyrics for "Under The Sun" aren't very special to me either—they grasp and claw at Meaningful Significance and fail extravagantly. Listening to them now, I really don't understand what I was trying to do—but Adam gamely sang them like they meant something, so that's good. I hadn't really written many lyrics before and the blues ones from Battery Acid Blues were mostly parodies, and that's the real reason why the second side of Rocket Fuel, including this song, crashes and burns in my opinion. Still, the tune itself was nice and big and I thought it had plenty of potential to become an epic. I decided to rework the lyrics almost immediately after the album was released, but ended up playing with the music instead, which yielded this thing:

"Whatever Gets You Going" was the centerpiece of an E.P. by my ambient side project, Low Tide. It wasn't really a "release" at all, since there were only about three copies ever made, but Bryn and I decided to do something constructive while the Mojo Wire was on semi-hiatus in summer 1999. I'd already decided to rebuild "Under The Sun" (at least 2 sets of lyrics had come and gone already) and Bryn helped me with a backing drum track recorded at the Bedrock. I overdubbed a ton of echo/wah bass guitar over it, with a droning keyboard on top. Not really a song—it's more like an ambient jam—but Bryn and Brian insisted that it was worth something, and so it eventually became that—as part of another song, which turned out to be "The Lightning Rod." The opening echo-riff in D is a direct lift from "Whatever Gets You Going," and after a few false starts in rehearsal (mp3 #3 below), the song attained its classic epic echo-bass incarnation in fall 2002.

mp3 1: "Under The Sun" (Drum machine demo, 11/97)
mp3 2: "Under The Sun" (Instrumental Rehearsal, 4/98)
mp3 3: "The Lightning Rod" (Rehearsal, 5/02)

I don't think the Mojo Wire played "Under the Sun" live—maybe once, but I can't remember—but Bryn and I did toss in a version of "Whatever Gets You Going" during a Mojo show on 2/16/01. However, "The Lightning Rod" has an extensive live history with Honey White—we played it at almost every one of our approximately 25 shows—mostly as a fan-favorite, set-ending showstopper, like this version from 10/31/02…

…or this version from a few months later (note bassist dexterity and presence of mind to grab dropped drumstick at 4:35):

Eventually, however, the echo-bass version became prohibitively frustrating to play—for both Bill and myself—and we dropped it from early How Far is the Fall-era sets until Bryn played it once as a solo piece. That seemed to work really well, so we rebuilt the song from the ground up as a sort of ambient-rococo ballad, with Brian taking a turn on his suite of effects pedals. It fit well with the contemporary stuff we were making for How Far is the Fall, and that began a short procession of similar rebuildings of other songs, and only a few of them worked as well as our retrofit of "Lightning Rod." We've played it that way ever since, and it sounds like this:

One of my favorite takes, though, is an instrumental quiet-surf version with just Bill, Brian, and me:

mp3 4: "The Lightning Rod" (Quiet surf jam, 7/3/05)

So, there you have it—the big one. "The Lightning Rod" proved to be worth every drop of angst it squeezed from me, even though it's essentially a preposterous, multilayered rejection/revenge narrative. The closing lines exemplify the whole thing, really—amplifying the posturing denial of latter-day Mojo Wire songs into an almost delusional self-assurance in the face of doom. It's easily the centerpiece of the My Band Rocks E.P., and thankfully Honey White helped mold it into something worth 1) shouting about, 2) playing into the ground, and 3) rebuilding into something much different but arguably just as good.

And yeah, if you made it this far through a textbook example of TLDR, you deserve a medal. I won't do one like this next week; I think we'll go from this song, an example of my most disciplined lyric, to some of my least disciplined, more impressionistic stuff. You've been warned.

Song stats:
Music by Keir DuBois and the Mojo Wire (1998)/Keir DuBois and Honey White (2002, 2005)
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, December 2001.
Appears on the following albums:
Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor (as "Under the Sun") by the Mojo Wire
Dive E.P. (as "Whatever Gets You Going") by Low Tide
My Band Rocks E.P. by Honey White
Live and Unprofessional by Honey White
Saturated Songs by Honey White
Deluge and Drought by Honey White
Some Reassembly Required by Honey White

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