January 13, 2012

30 Songs #25 - Unprofessional: All the Gatekeepers Can Go Straight to Hell

Honey White rehearsing at Table Salt, Oct. 2002.

I like to think that my dreams of rock & roll stardom died quickly and painlessly, but they didn't. Someone's always too happy to tell you why you won't make it, especially if that means they think they're putting you in your place. I'm not too hung up on that stuff anymore—believe it or not, I've actually learned to take criticism less personally, even when it's painfully stupid, but the few times I've run into people "in the industry" who claimed the authority to know who has "what it takes" and who doesn't, they've never hesitated to tell me that I didn't have it. I always assumed that meant I didn't have the all-consuming manic bloodlust to Succeed No Matter What the way we're supposed to in America, and once I got over the idea that people who believed this were worth my time, I was much happier.

Until then, however, there were all kinds of useless gatekeepers in the way: sneering promoters, bored A&R people, clueless commenters, blah blah blah. Today's "30 Songs" entry is called "Unprofessional," and at its worst it's how I chose to deal with those people: stuffing their lame arrogance into four verses and a chorus, and dispatching it all within two and a half minutes. At its best, though, "Unprofessional" became the de facto theme song of my second band, Honey White. It's the first song on our debut studio recording from 2002, and a great way to kick off our epic garage rock run:

I almost can't believe it's literally ten years old this month. The studio take doesn't quite do the song justice but "Unprofessional" became a constant live standby, a two-minute burst of gritty garage-rock often sped up to near-punk tempos when played live, galvanizing the rare tanking gig back to life. It would have suited the final Mojo Wire lineup just fine, and in fact the first demo was based on a Mojo jam from Oct. '01:

mp3: "Unprofessional" (composite demo, 1/02)

That's me sing/sneering, but I had my reasons for putting up a front. Fall 2001 was a strange time. The horrible things happening in the world certainly made people rethink their priorities, even if they weren't personally affected by terror or war or whatever. For me, silly as it sounds, that meant wondering if I might be better off as a recording engineer instead of a struggling UCSB bureaucrat in a crumbling, no-hoper band. The Mojo Wire had been on hiatus since our final gig in June, and I was sort of feeling like that group had run its course. Adam spent the summer working, Joe spent it in New York, and Bryn and I endured university paychecks while we figured out what the hell we were supposed to do with ourselves. We all reconvened for a few rehearsals at our then-new digs at Table Salt, but for whatever reason the spark wasn't there and we just let it fall apart.

Normally that would be another story for another time, but I got the itch to Do Something Important Because Of The National Tragedy Of 9/11—or something like that. It was a dumb, reactionary move, but I did it anyway—signed up for (what amounted to) a mail-order course for recording engineers. The company that did it hooked me up with a semi-retired engineer named Mark Anthony, who was a nice guy but who also proved just a little too jaded and cynical to really be a good teacher—or so I thought. After about three weeks I called the recording school and spoke to the owner, some smarmy Hollywood asshole who basically tried to shame me out of giving up. I believe his exact words were "well, don't you wanna quit your day gig, dude?"

Honey White at Giovanni's, Feb. 2004.

Mark Anthony, the engineer, simply shrugged when I told him I wasn't interested anymore. He also said it would be a waste of money, and I guess he felt bad about that because he offered to use up the rest of the time recording my band. I explained I was sort of in-between bands at the time (this would have been about December '01), but he put the idea on layaway until I was ready to do something about it. Between that fiasco and a few others (the cold exclusionism of the "Taxi" A&R service, the sheer brainlessness of Garageband.com), I was pretty burned out on trying to make the world care, and "Unprofessional" was the annoyed result. The lyrics go like this:


Survival on the naked truth has saved another boring youth
from having any bit of fun or getting close to anyone
and by the time I bought the myth an amateur can deal with
I heard the luck was running out for everybody anyhow

come on love, forget about the pressure and the fear
come on love, we can't afford to waste another year

It used to mean the world to me, but chasing down elusive dreams
and second-guessing everything is so unhealthy mon ami

come on love, forget about the pressure and the fear
come on love, we can't afford to waste another year

Here we come now, here we come, so unprofessional to some
but we know better, we know best, and we'll endure nevertheless

you're wrong love, you'll never know if it's a revelation
you're wrong love, the payback isn't any consolation
come on love, forget about the pressure and the fear
come on love, we can't afford to waste another year

I still like them a lot—they're a great snapshot of my state of mind at the time. I'd finished college and felt stuck at a dumb series of jobs where nobody trusted me to not be stupid. It didn't matter to them that I kicked ass in school or was a gifted and talented designer/wordsmith/rockstar. No one cared, and I didn't have the patience to make them care if they couldn't figure it out. It still smarted years later, when successful designer me was asked to write a piece about my background as a "gifted" student.

But enough about all that. Back to the story: in early March 2002, Bryn and I had our first rehearsals with Brian and Billy (Bryn recruited Brian on guitar, and in February we'd placed an ad for a drummer, which Billy answered—and to this day I love him for it). We all clicked instantly on a musical level, and Honey White was born. "Unprofessional" was one of the first songs we did really well—it merged Billy's punkiness and Brian's cool with Bryn's earnestness and my bitchiness. We played it faster and livelier than the earlier Mojo Wire jams, and it grew from there. When it was time to record a demo, we went back to Mark and he helped us make it work—recording the My Band Rocks! E.P. in summer 2002.

Honey White at Embarcadero Hall, Jan. 2005.

The original tune for "Unprofessional" was my own, but as with most of my ideas, it came out much better when the band got ahold of it. As a musical composition it's probably most like a combination of two early '90s songs from my youth: U2's "Zoo Station" and P.J. Harvey's "Dress." Check it out:

That last clip is us on local Santa Barbara TV in April 2003. We came off a bit stiff, it has to be said—which is a bummer because "Unprofessional" was never really like that in concert. It quickly became our opening song at almost every show, mostly as a tag-team, one-two punch with Honey White's giddy take on the Mojo Wire song "Heart on a Platter." Here's a better live take from a bit earlier, December 2002:

Honey White at the Derby Club, Nov. 2005.

Several years ago, I did the numbers on Honey White live shows just for fun. Perhaps unsurprisingly, "Unprofessional" was our most-frequently-played song. We kept it in the set for a long time. Sometimes it ended up later in the show—on one occasion at the UCSB UCen it was a nice wham-bam quickie after "Lightning Rod," on another it jump-started our Derby Club set after "Blacking Out." Here's another live take from 2006, where Bryn explicitly describes it as our theme song:

Even when Honey White got sloppy and goofy, we still managed to stay sharp in one way or another, and this song is a great example of that. Because really, why is being a rookie such an awful thing? Why do you need to be recognized and respected and validated, by a group of random elitists who barely know you, in order to get anywhere in the world? I decided to make noise about how I don't think it's all that bad to be unprofessional, at least in the music business, and (despite my early '90s exposure) not for all the old dumb reasons about selling out. We don't need to be famous to do what we like doing, so why get all worked up? I know I'm a rock star, so who gives a shit if some coke-addled record label exec can't see that?

Well, because I hate elitism and gatekeeping in all its forms. I hate how people seem to expect you to play the game according to their rules and if you don't, you are deemed to "not have what it takes" to succeed in your efforts and you should pack it up and go home. I guess I should be glad that it bothered me enough to dedicate three minutes of my time to eviscerate it with this song. "We know better, we know best, and we'll endure nevertheless." Damn right.

Honey White at the Ocean Institute, Aug. 2006.

These days, as someone with small amounts of pull in the local design business, I've tried to keep that in mind when training younger designers and interns. I still can't believe they actually listen to me, but they do—and I think it might be my life's mission to not be a sneering, condescending prick (or even a passive, apathetic one!) when working with other creative people trying to break into the business. I want to prepare them for all the other assholes who will try to step on them. I know I can't always be the perfect one-man-envy-eliminating machine, but unless someone really is acting too big for their britches, there's no reason to stomp their dreams before they even know what those are. I don't mean to get all earnest and righteous on a Friday night, but the world's always too full of pompous, arrogant gatekeepers. If I can puncture their egos one at a time—especially in a two-minute-thirty-second rock song, I'll consider it a job well done.

Okay gang, that's all for now. Tune in next week for Radblaster's theme song. Hopefully I'll have lightened up a bit by then, but today swung between boredom and stressed annoyance a bit too much for me. Thanks for enduring.

Song stats:
Music by Keir DuBois and Honey White (2002).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, January 2002.
Appears on the following albums:
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

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails