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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Songwriter's Navel: Week 05, Mediocrity in Less Than 2 Minutes Or Your Money Back

Coulton's Thing a Week Redux this week resonates.

Jeepers: writing hurts. It sucks and I hate it. That’s not completely true, I love it looking back on it, and in particular the day I just spent in the studio recording them was extremely fun and rewarding. But the time leading up to writing, and most of the time the writing itself, feels terrible. You get these moments of glory along the way, but they are against a background of pain and self-loathing. Jeez, that sounds terrible. But since I’m still so close to the process I just went through, I can tell you that it is in fact, ABSOLUTELY TERRIBLE. Maybe some of you disagree, but that’s how it feels to me most of the time.


Well, it does and it doesn't. Writing really does hurt a ton of the time. I'm really fortunate in having the structure of my songwriting class and UNSPEAKABLY fortunate to have the class itself. I need the accountability and structure for sure, but I also need the support and perspective of other people whose work I like and respect. Otherwise it would be all infanticide all the time chez me. Case in point to follow.

Despite the fact that we did not meet last week, courtesy of #SNOMG, the Kernel e-mailed us all an assignment to write a "straight up classic country song":
1. 3 or 4 chords
2. economy of language
3. short verses

What I do write tends to be country-ish, but with few or none of the strengths of classic country songs. Merle Haggard is at the top of my "Die Happy" list (i.e., "If I could write a Merle Haggard song, I could die happy.") I have written two pretty straight-up country songs: One for the ZK called "Never Get to Nashville" and a jokey one called "Ode to Chris Matthews." Both are AABA with the A sections ending with a refrain and the B section being a bridge that introduces some new chords.

As I was digging out the car last week, I was thinking about the assignment and suddenly the phrase "Close Enough" occurred to me, and I thought, "Ooh, that's a good country song," in the same vein as "It's Not Love (But It's Not Bad)." (It's just possible that I have an unhealthy Merle fixation.)

On Saturday, though, we were watching American Masters—Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides, and someone (Karen Allen, I think as I'm pretty sure this was in reference to Starman) said: "He's not afraid to play the fool." All songwriters are thieves and I thought that a variation on that line would be good steal for a 6/8-y songwriter-y country song instead.

When I sat down to write after the Superbowl, despite having two separate ideas (or maybe BECAUSE had two), nothing was happening immediately. I spent a little time "researching" the examples the Kernel had suggested:
Patsy doing "I Fall to Pieces"
Buck's "My Heart Skips a Beat" (The headstock on that 12 string is so comically large! It looks like it was lifted from a Hitchcock set.) and
Skeeter Davis doing "The End of the World" (Oh, how I want that hair!)
among a few others.

I sort of had my first verse done by the end of Sunday night. I say "sort of" because I was having a really hard time nailing down the rhyme and rhythmic structure of the verse. I knew that "Close Enough" would be an end refrain, and I was hoping that I could set it up so that I was not doomed to rhyming "enough" each time. I spent a lot of time on "I Fall To Pieces," which pulls this off, but no dice!

Early on, the phrase "Cracking wise, knocking back" made it on to the notebook page. I like the comedy Ks (who doesn't), and that gave me a hint on tone as well as some direction on the content of verses. Even if the structure was still fighting me, it seemed like I'd be setting a bar scene. The word "clock" suggested itself on the comedy K grounds, so I thought, "Ah ha, the first verse is about the moment that the subject of the song comes in."

Not sure why "10" presented itself, but the first line became some variant on: "Just as the clock was striking 10, you stumbled in." Obviously that doesn't work as a lyric because it sets up a rhyme and the second half is too short. "Your reputation stumbled in" worked syllabically and I liked the idea of playing with "Your reputation proceeds you." I then slipped something lame along the lines of "There was no doubt in my mind, you'd stumble in a step behind" to fill out the verse.

Trying to move on to the second verse, I spent some time circling the drain of other bar-related images like barmaids and jukeboxes. At some point, there was also something about either "Always on my Mind" or "Georgia on my Mind." But ultimately when I steal, I like to steal from the best, and one of the best bar-related songs is, of course, "Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night" by Tom Waits:

Is it the crack of the pool balls, neon buzzin'
Telephone ringin', it's your second cousin
Is it the barmaid that's smilin' from the corner of her eye?
Magic of the melancholy tear in your eye


I became obsessed with "Buzzing" "Busted" and "Neon sign." I also realized it was already the second verse and the dude hadn't even gotten in the door yet. Hurray! It's a problem that I also struggle with in prose: I get fixated on describing something and end up with paragraphs describing how, exactly, someone unfolds a napkin. (Actually, one of the things I find satisfying about songwriting is that the form is demanding about being pared down and forces you to chuck your pet images over your shoulder.) I eventually realized that the neon sign was not what happened in the second verse, but in the first.

So Sunday night, I at least had one verse:

Just as the [A] clock was striking ten, your repu- [G] tation sidled in
Cracking [D] wise, kicking back and acting [A] tough
Like a [A] busted neon sign, you buzzed on [G] in a step behind
And I [D] said to myself, that's close [A] enough


On the train the next morning, without benefit of guitar, I had second thoughts about a 4-line verse and wondered if I could just do an AAB, ending on a non-rhyming "Close Enough." I think I was resisting having to rhyme "enough" in each verse and ended up taking two steps back and a dubious step diagonally. I got a feel for the B section with "Close enough for comfort" and "Close enough for government work." Then I felt all brilliant because I was SURE that I could somehow work in "Horseshoes and hand grenades" as well.

Monday night, of course the song was all like, "Bitch, please. That is not happening." The first problem that presented itself was how to get in to the B section (and later how to get back out of it). I was not too proud to deviate from the "stick to 3 or 4 chords" criterion, but I did spend a lot of time cursing Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran over chord sheets for "I Fall to Pieces" asking myself how the hell they get a completely different tone and color out of the same freaking chords just in a different progression.

In addition to not being Harlan or Hank (or, as aforementioned, Merle), I was having a problem that is not infrequent with me: The astute reader will note that the chords in verse 1 are D, G, and A. Superficially, this puts the song in the key of D—D is the I chord, G is the IV, and A is the V. But A is the I. The A is TOTALLY the I. So D is actually the IV and G is . . . a flat VII? I don't know what the hell the G is, frankly, but I'll tell you what. Those Gs would not—WOULD NOT—turn into Es so that the song could just be in A. I ended up settling for getting the lines to the B section down on the page and moving on to trying to write another verse.


Yeah that's [D] close enough for comfort
Close en- [G] ough for government work
This ain't [D] horseshoes, this ain't [D] hand grenades
Believe me when I [G] say
That's close [A] enough


At this point, I thought that the song was still going to wind up with the narrator eventually settling for the doofus who is the subject of the song with the punch line being very similar to a certain Mr. Haggard's song. In that vein, I thought the second verse would be the narrator telling the doof that she had his number and, no, this was not happening. By the end of Monday night I had:


Don't you know I know your kind, could get a dozen for a dime
Every single one a diamond in the rough
Every one misunderstood, every one just no damned good
So I'm telling you right now, that's close enough


I sort of liked the play on "dime a dozen," because I like playing with clichés and metaphors (and I love songs that do that), but my satisfaction with it is probably overinflated. I spent a long time trying to figure out how to parlay "I'm on to you/I know your type" into a verse.

Class is, of course, Tuesday night. My brain was riddled with anxiety over having only 2 verses, a B section that did not work, and several aspects of the lyrics that Did Not Work for me, namely "sidled" and the "ain'ts." Believe it or not, I don't really care about grammar in others' songs, nor am I usually concerned about vetting authenticity. But I feel like there are some things I have no business trying to pull off. Sidled and ain't come to mind, for example.

Chicago is still dealing with the sequelae of #SNOMG, so I didn't get up to OTSFM until a bit later than usual, eating into my time to finish up the song. My evil inner sloth kept whispering that it was no big deal, I had a song from last week, and so on. But I plowed on through. I got the B section into plausible shape by messing with the melody so that that I could hang out on D for most of it, and sort of push against that chord melodically.

Then, all of a sudden, I realized that the second verse was actually the third. I felt really stupid, because it was so obvious. The epiphany was all well and good, but this left me with a big hole before the B section. I had no idea what should happen in the second verse other than realizing that the doofus needed to approach the narrator or vice versa. After a long time discarding all kinds of words about selection, pursuit, making picks, a dark time with a thesaurus and the super-sexy idea of culling the herd, I finally came up with "called your shot."

At first I didn't really like rhyming that with "on the dot," but I think it works ok, conveying more of that sense of "Loser with unwarranted self confidence." Also, not crazy about "called your bluff," because it kind of comes out of nowhere. But, hell, it rhymes with enough. I like the third line ok, I guess. This verse is not a lyrical masterpiece, but hallelujah, it actually moves the "plot" along.


Ten oh one the dot, you caught my eye, you called your shot
I stared you down, I held my ground, I called your bluff
Don't wanna dance, don't need a drink, sure don't need no time to think
I'm telling you right now, that's close enough


A couple final notes on the actual writing of this. I think part of the reason that I was clinging to the idea that the two characters would end up in a pathetic "close enough" situation is a "write what you know" thing. Hanging on to a half-assed, sad relationship on "better than nothing" grounds? Oh yeah. Shutting down some loser trying to hit on me? Alien concept. People don't hit on me. Or if they do or did, I am/was too obtuse to realize it. So that throws yet another log on the inauthentic fire.

(True story: I was at Hopleaf with a [male] friend, and we were trading off buying rounds. At some point, I said, "What the heck? The bartender hasn't charged me for like 3 rounds!" My friend gave me a look usually reserved for those who've suffered recent head trauma and said, "He's hitting on you." "Nuh uh!" I scoffed. The bar tender turned around and gave me the same look my friend had and said, "I was TOTALLY hitting on you.")

I copied out the song into my notebook to make copies for class. It's sort of telling that I also made a point of copying out the song from last week. I played both songs for my guitar/voice teacher, and I was more nervous than usual. I am always ALWAYS nervous playing in front of others, even my songwriting compatriots, who are the world's best and most supportive audience, but this was bad. By the time my turn was about to come up in class, I was very much considering not playing anything at all.

I did a lousy job performing in class for multiple reasons: The authenticity beast, I'd changed my capo position at the last moment, I didn't go until near the end of the class, so anxiety had a chance to build. As always I got some good feedback, including a way to eliminate at least one ain't from K (in the recording, I do 2 ain'ts on one pass through the B section, and just 1 the second time; I do like the 1 ain't better, not just for authenticity, either).

The Kernel had a particularly brilliant suggestion, which is to funk the guitar part up, so that it's less Carter family and more Bobbie Gentry. He played a bit of it this way, and it sounds 1000 times cooler. I said I'd never be able to play that, unfortunately, and he pooh-poohed this. All morning yesterday, I recovered from writing an e-mail to my mother by watching Bobbie (what—WHAT I ask you—is going on behind her in that video?) and various other videos on the YouTube. My brain gets how to do this. My fingers simply will not. But I'm motivated to make them do so. Current plan is to talk to guitar/voice teacher about how to work on this.

Recording is just Carter family strum with the "Heavy Funk" effect in Garage Band. I'm trying not to be paranoid about the fact that the Male Vocal effects seem to work better on my voice. I think I still used one of the Female Vocal effects on this? Or maybe the Live Performance.

Anyway, boring recording of a song that is probably for someone else.

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