February 03, 2012

30 Songs #28 - Historical Friction: Writing is the Most Hateful Kind of Work

Cover artwork for my "novel," The Weapon of Young Gods.

"Writing is the most hateful kind of work. I suspect it's a bit like fucking, which is only fun for amateurs. Old whores don't do much giggling." —Hunter S. Thompson
Whappo! How's that for some Friday Night Freakiness? Well...sort of. It's more a reaction to a lousy week that I will happily wish goodbye and good riddance. However, that HST quote is tangentially relevant to this week's "30 Songs" post about a new-ish Honey White song called "Historical Friction." It's a great little syncopated reggae-like groove (sounding like the bastard spawn of "Blacking Out" and "Mercy Rule") with lyrics that are essentially a massive piss-take on the time I spent in recent years attempting to write my first novel. Have a listen:

I described the novel, titled The Weapon of Young Gods, a bit in last week's post for "Tempting Fate," but what I forgot to mention was that for that four-year-period, I re-immersed myself in some of my favorite old fiction and non-fiction, just to get in the right headspace. I read way more in that time than I had for years, probably since college. I mean, I never stopped reading, but I'd usually drift into exclusive binges like reading only non-fiction for a while, or plow through all my books by a particular author. For example, I took the opportunity to re-read all my Irvine Welsh when Reheated Cabbage came out, and did the same with Bret Easton Ellis when Imperial Bedrooms was released. The 2008 election happened during that stretch too, so of course I had to revisit all my Hunter S. Thompson and Matt Taibbi stuff as well.

Speaking of Thompson—another exercise I committed to back then was blogging like crazy, as a way of warming up and cooling down from writing the novel. Thompson, of course, did that in a way—after long nights working on the "Strange Rumblings in Aztlan" Rolling Stone piece in 1971, he'd let it loose with the goofy, deranged semi-fiction that eventually became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Now, I'm not saying I came up with anything remotely near as awesome, but some of my wild screeds that ended up on silly lefty sites like Daily Kos were pretty fun to write, and I'm only slightly embarrassed when I read them now. They're still collected on this blog, in posts like this. Might have to unearth some of those ugly things just for a laugh.

Back to the novel though (which I wrote more about here, here, and here), because it's the real impetus behind "Historical Friction." The whole idea seems a bit ludicrous these days, but after Honey White went on hiatus in spring 2007, I felt like I needed another creative outlet. The lyrics weren't coming (though "Tempting Fate" anomalously highjacked most of 2006), and I guess I just felt compelled to express, in novel form, that weird nostalgia that people sometimes succumb to in their early 30's. Well, maybe it was just me—but I vaguely noticed that people seem to think along these lines once they become secure enough with themselves to own up to their past. I didn't fully do this—even though the novel is set in the town I grew up in, and the novel's plot and events are often grossly distorted versions of real things that happened to me, my friends, and my family—I mostly followed my grandfather's advice and "never let the truth get in the way of a good story."

So, my New Year's resolution for 2012 is to finally self-publish the thing—it's been through two drafts at this point, the second wrapping in about January 2010—and I feel like I have enough distance from that period of debilitating nostalgia to accept the work for what it is and just let it go. I'd decided to avoid fiction as a career ever since I failed to get into the UCI and SFSU fiction MFA programs back in 2001, so I'm not about to barf out the Great American Novel. Maybe the Great Suburban Novel, but not likely. Anyway, by the end of the second rewrite, in fact, I had such a healthy sense of security about it that I could churn out a self-deprecating lyric like "Historical Friction." It goes like this:

You call this archaeology? It's desecration, man
Exhuming ancient melodrama just because you can
You're way too busy ripping fiction from the facts
to notice that the fossil record's still intact

but I know what happened, I know what went down
and nobody rewrites history as long as I'm around

You call this therapeutic? It's reckless shuck and jive
manipulating dead emotions just to feel alive
cause everything was epic until you lost the plot
and wound up with an epilogue that everyone forgot

but I know what happened, I know what went down
and nobody rewrites history as long as I'm around

You call this creativity? It's kleptomania
you keep a muzzle on the muse, she'll keep betrayin' ya
she knows all your secrets, she knows when you lie
she knew all about you when you were some other guy,

and she told me what happened, so I know what went down
and nobody rewrites history as long as I'm around

There's a lot going on in there, and I think it's just restrained enough to not tip the thing into serious "pretentious asshole" territory, but who knows? I thought it might be interesting to see if I could dismantle any alleged original motivation; "archaeological," "therapeutic," and "creative" are all essentially ways to figuratively bullshit my way through explaining what exactly I was up to, and why I even bothered. The narrator is calling the writer out, like I'm arguing with myself, and the bit about the Muse is probably the best; as much as I now know how to bait the creative impulse, whether at work as a designer or on my own time as a writer and lyricist, I can't force it, and conversely I can't redirect or alter pure creativity too much, or else it gets watered down and boring. It's kind of happening to me again on a lyric I'm currently trying to finish, too. But none of that matters much where "Historical Friction" is concerned. Seriously—one of my favorite things about the recording above is Marika's laugh near the end; it's almost like the Muse brushing off a creative's attempts to control or direct her.

Bryn had a different interpretation of it altogether—as a history teacher, he is well aware of how the past is manipulated and distorted when the winners try to tell their stories—and it's definitely a legit one. Perhaps he can elaborate in the comments. We've all been through enough bizarro looking-glasses in the past decade to lend credence to his take on it. And hey, it side-steps all my self-absorbed egomaniacal shit too—double trouble. There will be plenty more of that next week, though, so let's get back to the music. The tune for "Historical Friction" has a long and roundabout genesis. Its main riff, for instance, began as a guitar part, played double-time by Bryn. You can hear it crop up at the end of this jam from a Honey White rehearsal in April 2004 (listen to the left channel):

mp3: Historical Friction (original riff 4/25/04)

I always loved that riff but was never able to mold it into anything lyrical at the time. Then three years later, when I was writing some music that ended up being the novel's soundtrack, I remembered this riff and tried to make it work there. I slowed it down, overdubbed lots of bass and effects, and created a low-rock ambient monster. It ended up being the main "soundtrack theme" for most of that album, and specifically drove at least two of the 16 songs. They were:

"Morbid Frieze" and "Archaeology" were actually two different attempts to give the riff some identity, and for the most part it worked. I thought that's all it would be, but when the lyric bug bit me again (after finishing the novel's second draft), I thought I could build an actual song out of it. I've joked before about not really being much of a composer, but I think when the time is right I can make things work—in that simple, repetitive, groovy way that bass players do. About the same time (late 2009) Honey White's drummer Bill Fedderson began shaking off the cobwebs using this fancy thing:

Billy's electronic kit.

He sent us several samples of what that kit was capable of, which Brian and I promptly raided for use in demos. For my part, I built a drum track from about 20 seconds of Bill's original sample, and melded that with the vibe of "Morbid Frieze" to create the first demo of "Historical Friction":

mp3: Historical Friction (Keir's demo, 4/10)

That makes me woozy just listening to it. It's way more trippy and dubwise than what we ended up with when Honey White actually rehearsed the song in November/December 2010—the lighter-weight, less-pretentious Bryn-sung version at the top of this post. It was hard to get there, though; we struggled with it almost to the point of frustration, eventually omitting the original demo's fast bridge in favor of a more uniform syncopated groove. We haven't actually played the song all the way through in rehearsal—the "Corridan" version above is pieced together from a few different takes—and obviously the song has no live history. However, it's probably one of my better compositions—definitely living on the low end of my best stuff, but still not bad.

It's also not the last gasp of crippling nostalgia either. We'll have the best example of that next week. Hang in there sports fans—we've reached the "30 Songs" two-minute warning. The fourth quarter is almost over, but I intend to go out with a bang: one of my very best lyrics ever. Seriously. Stay tuned...

Song stats:
Music by Keir DuBois and Honey White, January 2010
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, April 2010.
Appears on the following albums:
The Weapon of Young Gods (as "The Morbid Frieze" and "Artificial Archaeology") by Low Tide
Corridan E.P. by Honey White

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