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 clich├ęs 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


  1. The whole "TL;DR" meme has always bothered me. This is a blog. The whole purpose of being here is to read. So, by definition, how could something be too long to read?

    Anyway, nice writeup. I figured it would be once you got around to this one.

  2. Well yeah, that's why I made a swipe at it. I may skip around a bit, but I'm not gonna insult someone just because I'm too lazy to read their stuff. Actually, that's what the thing's always meant to me: "Too Lazy; Didn't Read."


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