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

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