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Friday, June 03, 2011

Songwriter's Navel: Week 18, In Which I Write a Throw-Away Song That Is Too Long


I seriously just yelled: "WHAT THE HELL? THIS IS NEARLY 4 MINUTES LONG?!" Just as the mail person came up the steps.

This assignment comes to you courtesy of Richard Hugo, a poet who urges writers to not let the "triggering subject" for a creative work be the boss of what the work ends up being about, to avoid journalistic language and instead embrace imagery and the sound of words, resulting in being "foolish like a trout." I am not even making that last bit up. The other hoops for the assignment were writing in 6/8 and in a minor key.

The Hugo (I'm just going to call him Hugo, because he has mistakenly been called "Victor Hugo" [who, given that he has a tragically journalistic chapter title "Love Under a Rock," seems not to be following the other Hugo's advice] and "Hugo Boss" in class. This amuses me to no end.) part of the assignment was relatively easy for me, as it's how I tend to write anyway. Or at least how I tend to write now. I will never forget back when I was in Songwriting I and really struggling with telling a story in a song and the Kernel said, "You have no obligation to the truth." Bloody obvious, in retrospect, but it was a huge "Ah ha" moment for me, and now, for good or for ill, I tend to work much more with sounds, sentiments, and images that link together at least in my head.

The time signature requirement was a bit of a challenge for me, because I almost never write in 3/4 or 6/8. It's how you know I'm not a real singer-songwriter! Also, being fairly rhythmically challenged, I can't reliably distinguish between 3/4 and 6/8. But the hoop I ended up missing entirely? Minor key. Ended up writing in D Dorian mode (at least I think that's what we decided?).

In some ways, this song was tremendously difficult to write. In others, I feel like it just fell out of me. And I do mean fell. And landed in some pretty unattractive ways.

I decided pretty early that the song would be about Christmas Day, 1978, which is the day that my grandmother died. I was 6 at the time, and I figured that Christmas, death, and the imperfect understanding of same by a 6-year-old wouldn't lack for images. I had lots of memories of that day and of visiting my grandmother (she had Parkinson's Disease and was in a nursing home attached to Oak Forest hospital for as long as I can remember) that I thought would make it in, as well as what I thought were three great material objects to include: Dancerella and my Playdoh Fuzzy Pumper Barber Shop (wow that sounds dirty written out), my two big gifts from that Christmas, and this music box that my dad had uncharacteristically let me by for my grandmother from the gift shop in the nursing home (). It was a small, red hemisphere with a mirror on top and little magnetic ice skaters. I thought it was the coolest thing.

Then, of course, I ended up writing from the perspective of my Great Aunt Elsa (my grandmother's sister, and after my grandmother's death, the only surviving sibling). This is the second time Elsa has showed up in a song. This perhaps is my destiny manifesting: I am doomed to look like Elsa

So, feeling pretty smug that the avoidance of journalistic language would be no problem for me, Queen not only of Zombies, but of Rococo Lack of Clarity, I ran immediately and at full force into obstacles. For example, what does one say when one canNOT say, "And the phone rang just as we were sitting down to Christmas dinner"? At any rate, although the song is not very good (certainly not good enough to drone on for nearly 4 minutes), the exercise made me very aware of how directive I am in my writing. Given that I REALLY dislike this as a consumer of songs, I am chagrined to say the least.

It was also an interesting exercise from a memory-mining perspective. For example, I'm pretty sure that my Aunt Elsa was actually at our house on Christmas Day that year (the picture linked above supports that), but I'm not positive that she didn't arrive some time after Christmas for the funeral. Many of the narrative details that are implied (e.g., my Aunt signing for my grandmother's effects and going through them) are certainly not true. It would have been my dad who did this, and although he never really talks about her death, my mother remarked recently that the staff at Oak Forest were very cold and unsympathetic during the process. Anyway, what came out is all very dissatisfying, but hopefully at least the process yielded some results that are mineable for future songs.

Verse 1 is relatively generic images of the living room on Christmas morning, the combination of crumpled wrapping paper, scattered packaging, and the big, black plastic bags awaiting the clean-up. The phone in our kitchen was an enormous, bright yellow, rotary-dial phone. As you can see my solution to the "no journalistic language" problem is pretty gag worthy:

[D] Bright paper morning, [Em] light chasing shadows on
|[Bm] Faces, un- [D]| noticed and [Em] wise
[D] Black plastic corners, [Em] sagging and hollow the
|[Bm] Last of her [D]| patience un- [G] winds
The |[Em] bright yellow [G]| mouth in the |[C] wall sings [D]| out
|[Em] Brass angels [C]| chime and [D] sway
[C] Blue [D] December, [Bm] January gray

In the penultimate line, I'd initially written "Brass angels chime on the table" (we had one of those candle centerpieces on which the angles would spin and strike little chimes once the candles were lit; cheesy and tacky, yes, but the physics of it was fascinating to me). The Kernel pointed out that I had much stronger rhymes for "gray" in every other verse, so I rewrote it. I absolutely agree with his point, but I really hate the rewritten rhyme.

Verse 2, mostly just physical description of Elsa, whose personal style froze somewhere around 1958:

[D] Silver-white memory, [Em] twisted and pinned
|[Bm] Shoulders set [D]| sharp as a [Em] knife
[D] Neat fingers fumbling, [Em] stitches and buttons
|[Bm] Pictures un- [D]| troubled by [G] time
In the |[Em] checkerboard [G]| hallway they |[C] turn and [D]| wait
|[Em] She traces the [C]| shape of her [D] name
[C] Blue [D] December, [Bm] January gray

Throughout the writing of this song, I had to juggle words that I needed descriptively with words that I needed for rhymes to avoid reusing the same words. (Although guess what? Hadn't noticed until now that I used "bright" twice in verse 1. Kill me.) I can't remember what I had originally written for the "Shoulders" line, but the rewrite employing "knife" was certainly better—more evocative, less directive. Also really hard to sing with the Ss and Shs running into one another.

I wrote the final verse with the idea that Elsa was alone with a box and a bag or two containing everything left of my grandmother's life. I also was picturing her having to get them home on public transit. (Elsa lived most of her adult life in San Francisco, and as far as I know, never learned to drive.) I wasn't able to get that additional note of loneliness into the verse. Probably would have been able to if I were less lazy and had started on the song earlier.

[D] Dark wooden boxes and [Em] brown paper bags
|[Bm] Rattle and [D]| rasp on her [Em] knee
[D] Images knotted [Em], bitter regrets
|[Bm] Dropping like [D]| late autumn [G] leaves
The |[Em] bleak edge of [G]| winter in- |[C] scribed in her [D]| palms
These |[Em] last minutes [C]| bleeding [D] away
[C] Blue [D] December, [Bm] January gray
[C] Blue [D] December, January gray [Bm]

After looking at the solid wall of emo text with an extremely clunky refrain, it became obvious that the damned thing needed at least a bridge to relieve the tedium.

Oh, I guess the Fuzzy Pumper Barber Shop did sort of make it into the bridge in suggesting "clay" anyway:

[Am] Breath solid in her [C] ears
[G] Grief turns like clay in her [D] hands
[Am] Scolding and straight-backed, she [C] travels their years
[G] Heartsore, defiant she [Bm] stands

Still two weeks behind now, and a set on Monday to prepare for. The grim realization that I might not have two songs I want to play at the showcase is settling in . . .

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