December 02, 2011

30 Songs #19 - How Far Away: Cassandra Plath and the Bubble Man of Revenge

The Trojan War did not end well for Cassandra the prophet.

I've been waiting for weeks to write an LSD-fried cuckoopants title like that—and the best part is, in this case, that it's all true. Well, it's true for the length of this week's "30 Songs" entry: "How Far Away," a staple of Mojo Wire and Honey White recordings and live sets, and one of the most fun songs to play in my entire canon. It's a wild mix of surf, rock, literary pretension, and classic video games, as only an arrogant and jilted twenty-something man-child can do it. "How Far Away" has been released in multiple incarnations, but my favorite is this Honey White live performance from September 2002:

And yes, that's me shout-singing it; I took over vocals from Adam around 2001 and had my way with them ever since, but that mean I had to simplify the bass line a bit, to root notes only. The song had come a long way in four short years (1998-2002), which was significant because it was the first lyric I put some real effort into writing. Prior to this song (May '98), I hadn't accomplished much lyrically: three semi-parody white blooze rants in 1996-7 for the first Mojo Wire demo album, and four nebulous, impressionistic emo-fests for the second Mojo Wire disc.

What happened between "Wound Down" in Feburary '98 and "How Far Away" three months later? Nothing much—just a surprise nuclear breakup-bomb detonating over my head—so I did what any self-absorbed, over-educated sensitive dude would do: I devoured some vicious literature from all over the Western canon (Milton to Kafka to Rushdie), rocked out to the omnipotent sounds of mid-'60s and mid-'70s Bob Dylan, and poured all my whiny I-got-dumped angst into three verses and a chorus that almost worked. I say "almost" because I also immediately fell in love with another girl (and wrote some tunes for her later) and forgot about composing any music to a post-breakup lyric that reminded me of something I'd rather forget:

"How Far Away"

Cassandra I may never I may never live it down
but if you twist the knife again I'm gonna scream so loud
You weren't too surprised when everything got outta hand
surveying the consequences of your master plan

How far away are you today? How far away are you today?

Cassandra you don't owe me anything except your youth
The curtain's coming down so I think you better tell the truth
Cassandra you're not evil but I was the last to know
cause when you say infinity it's real time writ slow

How far away are you today? How far away are you today?

Cassandra I'm not Ted Hughes girl, you fried your head alone
so don't expect your prophecy to hit so close to home
Cassandra you've been out to sea from moonshine til sun-up
if you don't like it that you lost me, why'd you give me up?

How far away are you today? How far away are you today?

Not exactly the perfect weapon, but it worked in a pinch. That's actually a slightly tweaked version for the 2001 re-recording, but the sentiment was the same: unadulterated, immature, and inarticulate revenge. Calling my ex-girlfriend "Cassandra" was a cheap and toothless insult that nevertheless seemed fitting, so I ran with it. It wasn't cathartic, though—more like a festering cut—and I found it dangerously easy to progress from false prophecies to something nastier. Slashing with the Sylvia Plath/Ted Hughes allusion was callous and ignorant, but like I said in the lyric, I was the last one to find out about any of this. I've always hated being the victim of inside jokes, so since everyone else knew I was getting dumped except me, I thought it was more than fair to fight fire with napalm. I mean, what the fuck else can you do when someone dumps you and then gets bent when you find someone else?

You know how these things get extrapolated into soap operas; apparently there was some cartoon version of me running around Isla Vista like a superficial, controlled-substance-ingesting gigolo. Instead of trying to meet that guy and see what he'd write, I tried to make the lyric feel like Blood on the Tracks, but ended up barely approximating the lesser Another Side. Lots of poison flowed under many bridges, but it didn't translate perfectly into this lyric. Obviously I hadn't got into Elvis Costello yet. It's a total hyperbolic stretch from what actually happened, but it's okay to be a little cartoonish in a pop lyric, right? Naturally, it had no effect on the girl whatsoever, but the band dug it.

The song happened almost in spite of itself; in spring and summer 1998, Bryn, Adam and I regrouped after the fiasco that was Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor and started over from scratch—writing new songs separately (them in Baja and OC, me in I.V.) and then learning each others' tunes when we reconnected. I wasn't much of a composer back then—I managed to cough up music for "Shivering Sand," but not much else—so I did what I always did in dire circumstances: delve back into my own sordid personal history, looking for abandoned psychic flotsam to bleed the last ounce of meaning from. For "How Far Away," that meant appropriating something from way back: video game music. The four-part MIDI masterpieces that accompanied the 8-bit Nintendo games of the late '80s and early '90s were catchy as hell—I remember recording and compiling cassettes of those songs just as often as making any other mix tape—and for better or worse, one of my favorites was the "Bubble Man" them from Mega Man 2 (yeah, because who doesn't love Mega Man?). It went like this:

It's…uh…eerily similar, no? If I could have started a band like the Advantage back then, I'd be...well, I'd be in a cover band. Still I made the tune mine by laundering it through two bands and endless performances. The music was happy and loud, so that was the only thing audiences heard anyway. "How Far Away" first appeared on record as the original Mojo Wire acoustic surf-noir version from 1999:

The Mojo Wire on stage at Sigma Phi Epsilon, Isla Vista 4/23/99.

Adam sings on that version, dutifully delivering my garbled mania into the microphone. The recording itself quickly proved to be a little too mellow and laconic, though—when we began playing it live, first as a trio and then with Joe on second guitar, it became something different and better. In 2000-2001, as part of a three-pronged recording project that eventually resulted in the final Mojo Wire album, we upgraded "How Far Away" with Adam and Joe’s beefier, double-gain guitar attack, plus some more refined lyrics and what could loosely be termed "vocals" from me:

That version of "How Far Away" became the uptempo closer for the last series of Mojo shows in 2001, but when Honey White got ahold of it in 2002, that band streamlined the tune into a leaner, more economical meld of the two Mojo versions. The song accelerated into a three-minute speed trip under Billy’s propulsive drumming, and cruised along well anywhere it was placed into Honey White’s live sets. Later, it even developed into a fleet-footed preamble to Bryn’s stomping, epic “My Second Shipwreck” instrumental, which led into the homestretch of many a Honey White gig. You know what? I can't help myself—let's hear it again:

Honey White on the balcony of 6701 Sabado Tarde, Isla Vista 5/24/02.

Honey White played "How Far Away" at almost every show in 2002-2003, but after that it gave way to the longer, spacier numbers from How Far is the Fall, and we gradually dropped most of the old Mojo tunes from their sets. I can't remember if we rehearsed it or not during 2004-2007 (if so, it wasn't recorded), but when Honey White reconvened in 2010 for our first rehearsals in 3 years, we tore through a handful of the old tunes. Near the end of that stretch, we just sort of stumbled our way into doing "How Far Away," and for some reason I had a hideously massive headache. I sang the whole thing, though, and it turned out "pretty frickin' fun," as Bryn said:

mp3: "How Far Away" (rehearsal, 12/27/10)

"How Far Away" set the pattern for much of my later songwriting style: three quasi-limerick, four-line verses of 14-syllables each, sing-shouty vocals (if I was on the mic), a hook-less chorus and a root-note-driven bassline. Thankfully, I always had the help of four other talented jokers to get me through it (and it was only three minutes at a time anyway). Like some other Mojo tunes from that era—"Hallelujah," "Fatal Flaws," "Shivering Sand"—I will play it at the drop of a hat. I love charging through those tunes and kicking everyone's ass whether they liked it or not. Cheap revenge may be best served cold, but it sure as hell goes down easier and sweeter when you turn up the heat.

Come back next week to see another, even creepier version of that idea. Creepy? Well, maybe clinical—as "clinical" as the best brain-pounding garage rock can be. That's not much of a clue, but Bryn guessed it too quickly last week.

Song stats:
Music by Keir DuBois and the Mojo Wire, May 1998; Keir DuBois and Honey White, March 2002.
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, May 1998.
Appears on the following albums:
Seaside Hamlet Skids by the Mojo Wire
You're On Your Own by the Mojo Wire
Live and Unprofessional by Honey White
Some Reassembly Required by Honey White


  1. "That's not much of a clue, but Bryn guessed it too quickly last week."

    Well then, do my powers of deduction fail me, or will we be heading into Radblaster territory next week?

  2. Nope—we gotta stick to the Mojo WIre for a bit. There's actually quite a few Mojo (and at least 1 more Honey White) tunes I need to acknowledge before radblasting again.

  3. Bah. Powers of Deduction fail. :(


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