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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Songwriter's Navel: Week 25, In Which I Crack Myself Up

Two recordings.
Megaphone vocals. (Because I hear there's a man who'll pay you fifty dollars to sing into a can.)
Live performance vocals.
(Because some people prefer less silliness to more silliness.)


I'm not going to lie to you, Marge: I had fun writing this.


A few weeks ago, we had a discussion of "fun" in class. The Kernel, who may have been exaggerating for comedic effect, or may have been giving us a glimpse into the lives of quiet desperation that musicians lead, declared that there was too much pressure to have fun, that he couldn't remember the last time he'd had "fun," and that both songwriting and performing were hard work, rather than fun.

Although this treads on my desire for OTSFM to fulfill my workplace pr0n needs, I get the point*: Songwriting is scary, often frustrating, difficult, and sometimes satisfying, but "fun" isn't a word that usually springs to mind. I mean, it's "fun" for me in the same way that having my intellectual ass kicked for 4 years as a U of C undergrad was fun, but it's not . . . amusement park fun.

Except writing this song was TOTALLY fun. Pretty minimal requirements this week: Use a diminished chord and the song should include someone's name. Early in the week, I joked that the front runners for the subject of the song were "Lothian" and "James Victor, King of Croatia." A robust and hilarious comment thread ensued.

I then spent Thursday and Friday with the King himself.

I defy you to look at that face and not write a song about it.** In addition to the powerful cuteness field pulling me in that direction, I suddenly thought it would be really funny to write a talking blues from the point of view of a baby, particularly one whose face is so expressive, he constantly looks as though he's deeply frustrated by his inability to share his deep thoughts with the world.

From there, it was just a matter of setting down a rhythm and filling in details from my visit. I listened to a little bit of Woodie Guthrie and Townes Van Zandt to get a feel for how to do a talking blues. To be honest, though, it was pretty easy to get going.

The first verse was just about how waking up in the morning looks to a baby. On Friday, Jamie was inclined to sleep in a bit, but was woken up by the dogs of the household having a fight over food. My brother had come into the guest room probably 20 minutes before and waved me back into the bed as I started to get up, saying "I don't have the baby!" After the dog fight, he came in again to change him and said, sadly, "Now I have the baby." My brother is big and bald. I'm certain he loves having this pointed out in song form.


[C] Woke up of a morning, but it wasn’t the heat
[G] Dogs snappin’ and a-snarlin’ over something to eat
[F] With my big, bald daddy leanin’ over my crib
[G] Told him good mornin’ with my toothless . . . grin


The second verse is a bit of filler (other than a diaper change definitely being the first order of business each morning—Jamie is an Olympic peer, a detail I'm sure he'll be delighted to have memorialized in blog format), but I needed to go into the chorus in such a way that it reads like the message the baby is trying to communicate.


Wasn’t but a minute, I was clean and dry
And my giggle put a twinkle in my mama’s eye
She kissed me and she asked, “How’s mama’s little man?”
Took a deep breath and answered, . . . the only way a baby can


Up until the chorus, the chords are some what irrelevant, and C does as well as any key. It figures, then, that trying to hammer out the melody and chord progression in the chorus was a real pain in the ass.


I got the [C] blues, I got the [G] blues
I got the [F] baby blues, ‘cause [F#dim] I can’t sing the [G] blues
I got the [C] blues, I got the [Gdim] baby blues
I call ‘em [F] Jamie’s not-talking blues [C]


In particularly the melody over the second line was giving me fits, possibly because that's not really an F#dim in the second position, but a D7 with an F# in the bass. (I swear at some point, I tried it as a D7, but it didn't seem like it worked. Fortunately, my Check-Plus grade for the assignment was not jeopardized, because I had a back-up diminished chord, and the Gdim was the genuine article. (On a side note, Jamie likes when I play guitar and talk music theory to him. I kept playing diminished chords and singing, "There's a baby on the train tracks!" and he would giggle.)

Continuing in the "things that are only amusing to me" vein, I thought it was funny to turn his time spent on his play mat into a kind of business meeting. There is a big elephant dangling from the mat, which sometimes sits on his head, and let's face it, "pachyderm" might be an outdated taxonomic category, but it's a great word for lyrics. Moose, with its oooooo sound, ditto. And Monster needed to be included, not just because it was a gift from me. I'm sorry to malign monster's work ethic, but the rhythm of the words dictated that he be mentioned third, and "late" rhymes with "eight."




First meeting of the morning starts round about eight
With my pachyderm and moose, but my monster’s always late
I call things to order on the jungle mat
Monster reads the minutes in a minute . . . flat


Jamie is, generally, a happy little guy, but it's true that Tummy Time sends him into a rage—a highly illogical rage, given that he can flip from tummy to back and back to tummy more or less at will. Also, the threat about blowing this joint makes me laugh, both on its own merits and because it would involve tummy time, given that his mobility is limited to the army crawl at the moment. It's also funny, because when we speak in Jamie's voice, he sounds a lot like a Jim Henson's William Faulkner Baby.


New business, first item is the heinous crime
That mama and daddy call “tummy time”
Sure, I can roll over, but that ain’t the point
If they keep that up, I’m gonna blow this . . . joint


So we do nicknames in our family. Lots and lots of nicknames. Many of them terrible, inappropriate, and carried through life with no expiration date. (Example: One of my sisters had no hair until she was nearly 3. My uncles still call her "Moonie." Klassee with a k and two es, that's us.) Jamie has nicknames to suit his moods, most of which come out when he is pointedly NOT. TIRED. I'm pretty proud of having worked the most common into this verse. Herr Professor Big Eyes gave me some trouble until I realized that it had to be at the beginning of the line (despite its being a near rhyme for "tired"), and I hit on "real live wire" for a little bit of Talking Heads flavor.


Round about nine, James Victor rolls in
He’s the King of Croatia, he’s Anger Piggs
He’s Herr Professor Big Eyes, and a real live wire
With one thing to tell you all, he’s not . . . tired


And finally, I had to work in "baby ennui," which a concept I have long embraced. Let's face it, Dr. Spock, T. Berry Brazelton, and all those other LIARS tell you that babies always have a solvable problem when they're crying. SHENANIGANS. Sometimes babies feel suffocated by and bored with the sweet baby life: Baby Ennui.


No, he’s not tired, he don’t need to sleep
This is nothing but a case of baby ennui
That was an itch, he wasn’t rubbin’ his eyes
How many times can he tell you, he’s not . . .


I made an extremely rough recording of the song on my phone and sent it, along with the lyrics, to my brother and sister-in-law so that they got first listen. (It seemed only right.) Per good suggestions from E, my voice and guitar teacher, I'd like to work on how I play this, hopefully getting to the point where I can do a stumbling, irregular finger-picking pattern instead of the Carter-family strum which is boring (and I'm not very good at).


*No, not the kind of workplace porn that has coworkers having a doubly adulterous affair on your shared desk ('cause, been there. Neither fun nor porny): Workplace pr0n involves a workplace that one does not absolutely hate the thought of going to each and every day.
**That specific face happens to have resulted from me singing "Moo moo moo moo moo moo moose" (vocal exercise) and making his moose toy dance. He thought this was hilarious.

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