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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Songwriter's Navel: Week 11, Which Is Surprisingly Chipper and E-Majory

What E-major is doing in a song about adolescence I do not know.

First, an epilogue to last week's entry: So after my guitar/voice teacher asked why my songs are so creepy and weird, I explained that it the E-minor cliché's fault (this is before I realized it was Catholicism's fault), and gave her the backstory about it starting in a good place. We got to talking about big families, sharing rooms, and so on.

So this week she looks at me very seriously and says, "I've been thinking about your song. And I'm wondering: Would it have been better if it was just your younger brother you had to share a room with?" I said that, no, it really would still have been strange and problematic, because it basically meant that from the age of 7.5, I was getting up with a baby in the middle of the night. She then looked worried and murmured, "Well, V is only 4 years older than S. . ." So now I have my poor beleaguered teacher worrying about how sharing a room is messing up her kids. Go me!

This week's assignment was to start with a personal timeline, filling in our first memory and all the striking memories that crowd childhood, because it seems like an eternity. We were also supposed to thinking about how big events overlap imperfectly, even if the memories seem separated. Then we were to write a song using age 14 as a jumping-off point.

Like most human beings, I was miserable when I was 14. It was Freshman year of high school. I got the mumps. I read Gone With the Wind. Several times. Back to back. See above, re: the mumps. The piano teacher I actually liked got divorced and moved away. I met D, who is on the very short list of people from the first 18 years of my life that I still talk to, and we amused each other and ourselves by exploring the rococo art of telling time in German.

But 14 is post-12, and so the Odd-Numbered Boyfriend dominates the scene. There had been torturous Circling and communication and miscommunication through friends. There was liking, Liking, not liking or Liking, liking but not Liking. And so on. And finally, very late one Sunday night in September, we kissed for the first time. (Well, the first time that counted.) I hadn't necessarily intended to write about the ONB.

I sat down with the guitar and nothing much was happening. I pulled out a Kate Wolf song I'd been working on in my lesson for alternative strum patterns and played with that a bit. I practiced a song I'm going to play this coming Monday with my songwriting codependent. Then the stalling officially started, as I sat there muting the strings and just playing around with different strums and rhythms. I hit on the kind of poor-man's reggae thing, and started to play around with that and some A-shaped barre chords.

I was trying to do this in conjunction with memories in the hopes that music and lyrics would fit together better than they usually do for me. My main theory about why the ONB IS the ONB is diabolical hormonal imprinting of some kind. We certainly had nothing in common, never got along, had temperaments that were very different in some ways, and very much the same in the most destructive and difficult ways. I was never happy with him (and it's not a stretch to say he was never happy with me), but I was very often happy (or a teenage-approximation thereof) at his house.

It was bigger than mine. His sisters shared the upstairs room at the front of the house and he had his own room at the back. But even better than its size was the fact that I liked his mom, she liked me, and she lacked my own mother's "guilty until proven innocent" approach, so she left us all more or less to our own devices. Our whole group of friends hung out at his house a lot.

While I was playing around with the barre chords, I remembered hanging out in his room for an afternoon that was more amicable than most. He was teaching me to play chess and ended up having to cheat to beat me. Later, we did crawl out the window of his room to sit on a bit of roof overhanging the backdoor.

That got me to thinking about my neighborhood in general. About five years ago, without meaning to, I wrote something about my neighborhood that turned out to be one of those things that people respond to that you don’t know how you created. I thought I’d actually transferred it over to this blog, but apparently not. Not very long, so here it is:


It's also June. But we are, nominally, grown ups (although I'd like to take this opportunity to any accusation-hurling Bunnyfaces lurking about that I am spouseless, childless, and the house is really the Zombie King's. Neener.) so the month doesn't hold the magic that it once did. There aren't long months of delicious school-lessness stretching out in front of me.

Free time and welcome breaks come in smaller packages now, with stretches of hard work and long "to-do" lists zigzagging along between them. That's not a complaint. I'd traveled to 41 out of 50 states, Canada, and Mexico before I was 16, all of them on the modified endless summer deal that is a cop's furlough. But I've only really been to a small fraction of those—all on my own, piecemeal adult time, summer and otherwise. And that's ok. The places I'll go are farther, richer, grander, and altogether more rewarding than the little world open to me in summers past: A trip to the country hand in hand with one to the Big City, the Big Easy to make wedding plans, indubitably a trip or two to check the corruption levels on the godless child.

But for a whole segment of the population, the world changes in these few weeks, with the heat and with the month. When I drive home now, it's light, no matter how late Castle Demented has kept me in its clutches. And the heat and the month mean that there are children everywhere, because that's the kind of neighborhood we live in now. I'm an interloper—because I'm a an adult, because, mostly, I drive my car down our streets. I'm off the sidewalks, off the porches, off the asphalt, which is where you are as often as possible, for as long as possible if you're part of the swinging under-12 set.

So as I was making way for a gaggle tonight (hey, they're their streets for now; I can wait), I was wondering who we are to them. When I think back to when I was them, we knew where to go--whose houses were fair game, who'd freak out if you stepped on their lawn, let alone cut through their yard or used their porch as a base or glue. It was a pretty simple blueprint: Most of the houses had yielded one or more of the pack, so we'd have a man with the inside line—someone who knew what influence shift and seasonal work might be having on the would-be killjoys within.

Even without an insider, we had a feel for what we could and couldn't get away with, and when we didn't need to try:The Lynchs were grinches, their own kids grown and gone, they had no interest in giving an inch more of ground to anyone else's. Worse still, they were our parents' friends and there was no argument we could win, no complaint against which we could defend.

But for every Lynch, there was a Mrs. Zelko. Her yard was off limits, because she had big dogs—an Irish Setter named Freedom and, later, a Doberman whose name I've forgotten, but her porch, her tree, and her front lawn were fair game. When she ventured out to do work in the yard, we'd descend on her in a swarm, begging to help. No matter how many of us showed, she'd find a job for each and buy us ice cream, either from a passing truck, or by taking us on an illicit walk to The Drugstore (across 63rd street and definitely verboten) where she worked. Her grandkids, Seamus and Allison, visited infrequently enough that they were always novelties: Hours of entertainment even when half of us were on the run from babysitting duty for sibs their age.

I know there were mysteries. Exotic people like the Hidalgos, who got superbonus points for being Hispanic (the only non-white people I'm aware of living within a half mile of us), of unknown profession, and living in the upstairs apartment of the two-flat next door.

Unknown quantities like the Medullas (yes, the Medullas)—two ancient sisters living with their even more ancient brother, who would walk three house lengths twice a day, every day.

Mrs. Manus, a widow with two adult (relative to the pack) daughters, one with Down Syndrome. She initially replaced the Hidalgos when they move. Before I think I really understood what a widow was, she most scandalously wound up remarrying an old man who lived in a house across the street. I never knew his name. He lived in one of the few houses set far back on the lot, leaving too much of his yard visible from the house to be of much use to us, and anyway, Mrs. Manus she remained to everyone.

But people like us aren't on my childhood block—no kids, strange jobs, odd hours. And my block is not my childhood block. I can't guess what these kids' parents do for a living. There are probably nearly as many cops, more firemen, fewer carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and so on. Lord knows there's more diversity, racially, ethnically, culturally, however you want to slice it. There's no particular reason that they should know the lay of the land in the same way we did, except that the kids are so much the same, it seems like the adults must be too. We're in there somewhere. I wonder where.


So, I had a sort of pleasant vibe thinking about the neighborhood and sitting out on that roof. And then I was thinking about how terrible Sundays always were when I was 14, particularly September Sundays, when I wasn’t really resigned to being back in school. It always felt like I couldn’t stave off that sinking feeling that came with Sunday evenings.


I wasn’t getting anywhere interesting trying to strum off-beat barre chords on my acoustic, so I picked up FrankenGibson. All of a sudden with the off-beat strum, a B to A to E thing came together with a little padder split measure of E and A. And the lyrics started to just fall on to the page in a very specific way. Wrote the first verse in about 3 minutes.


[B] Upstairs in the back room there's a
[A] Window that we crawl through just to
[E] Chase the Sunday moments slipping
[B] Down the [A] September [E] sky [A] [E] [A]
[B] For once I bit my tongue and so it
[A] Figures that you're listening as the
[E] Time we have is slipping, slipping
[B] Down the Sept- [A] ember [E] sky [A] [E] [A]


For the second verse, I ended up borrowing an image that I hadn’t used in “Small, Dark Room in Blue.” A friend of my older brother’s lived directly across the street from us. His parents were older and on the odd side even for our neighborhood. His mother, Rose, would stand at the front door and yell “Steeeeeevvveeennn” when she wanted him to come home. Everyone’s mom did this, but somehow Rose sticks in your mind. For me that, might be because when my younger brother (whose name happens to be Stephen) was a toddler, he’d press his face to the screen door and yell, “WHAT?” in response. Rose was rather deaf, so she never heard him.


Three doors down the street we both hear
Rose call out for Steven, hear his
Footsteps on the pavement down be-
Low the September sky
I listen close, you hold your breath, we
Both try not to show we know that
My name could be next from down be-
Low the September sky


I had to work the reference to Rose and Steve several times to make it fit, partly because I was trying to make every refrain be “Down the September sky.” By the time I got done with the second verse, I knew I’d need a bridge, and I was dreading it. I always dread bridges, because I suck at them. But my dread was UNFOUNDED because the other part of the assignment was to try substitutions from the world’s MOST MAGICAL, UNICORN-KISSED chart of substitutions from the Kernel.

So, structurally, my verses go:

V, IV, I
A kind of split measure-y thing that goes V, IV, I again
Then the padder split measure of I, IV, I, IV


The bridge is the same chord progression, just with viable substitutions:

iii-minor
ii-minor
vi-minor
I
ii-minor
And back into the padder measure of I, IV, I IV


Could not have been easier and for once it wasn’t like stopping and starting on the red line.

Even before I wrote the second verse, had the end of the third verse written (and in retrospect, it’s quite obvious that the song ends on that moment). I had quite a bit of trouble with the top of verse 3, although I knew that I wanted one more image suggesting how late it was getting.

I had something brewing about “houses two by two” (most houses in my neighborhood were identical to one of the houses next door) and things growing darker. Windows? No, although I worked on something about windows as eyes that just turned out creepy and not E-majory at all. Streetlights? No, the street lights would be coming ON, not going OFF. Finally, porch lights came to me. (Shoot: Just realized that I’ve used porch light in another song, so now I’ll have to retire the image.)

Then I had a hell of a time with the preposition. I had written in my notebook, “I am shaking, I am half undone,” which I liked, but I couldn’t get DONE to lead into 2 concepts so that the halves of the verse would be parallel. I also was having trouble cramming “by the” or “by something” into that space. Finally, I gave myself permission for this verse not to match exactly as the other two had. (Fear not, I’m still very disappointed with myself. But I do think I get points because Dorothy was actually the mother of my friend who HAPPENED to live right next door to the ONB so I very well COULD have seen her bringing the laundry in late one Sunday night, although I don’t recall actually doing so.) I also decided that I’d just have to work harder to cram the syllables in:


Two by two the porchlights dim
Dorothy brings the laundry in, the
Minutes tick away, tick a-
Way this September sky
Lean my head against your shoulder and you
Let me, so I let you see that
I am shaking, I am half un-
Done by my September sky
Oh, the September sky


During my lesson, my voice teacher pointed out that my padder measure was weird and stilted, partly because I was trying to play 16th notes at the end of the measure, but not at the front, so it sounded clunky. She tried very very hard to figure out something that was less clunky, but I just ended up playing what I’d practiced when I got to class. As I was practicing the song before class, it became increasingly clear that I had left myself exactly nowhere to breath. The Kernel fixed that right up with a full measure of B allowing me to pause dramatically (and breathe deeply) right before “the September sky.”

My time for doing this is quite limited this week, so there’s even more sloppiness in the recordings than usual. I recorded the guitar part on FrankenGibson and I’ve put two versions of my pitch-y, crappy vocals, one “Live Performance” and one “Female Rock” effects on the track. The guitar effect is “Big Wheels,” mostly because it makes me laugh.

Live Performance doesn’t do enough to disguise my uncertain pitch.
Rock Vocals is more forgiving, but I think it destroys some of the rhythm of the lyrics because of the echo effect.

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