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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Songwriter's Navel: Week 27, In Which I Write a Cheerful Song About a Dead Person

Extraordinarily frustrating and messed up recording.


This is one of those songs where I failed completely to capture any of the interesting things that were in my head. The rhythm is all wrong, the melody line wanders away from what it should be at multiple points, and boy did I screw up the B sections. I'm really disappointed in it.

This was the last assignment that I was in class to receive: Write a song with "summer" in it and write in one of the "bright" keys with sharps—E or B, capoing ok, because only crazy people write in B on the guitar.

When I missed class because I was sick, I had intended to go to a Sunday make-up class. My grandmother then died on Saturday and I felt like it was wise to go up to hang with the family on Sunday instead. On Monday, I beat my head against the wall trying to do the assignment that would be due on the coming Tuesday, which was a "Turn the Page" song in 3/4 or some variant thereof. Late in the head-beating-against-the-wall process, I thought about playing around with the summer assignment instead, and the line "Let's spend the summer in the big, yellow house" popped into my head. My grandmother was, of course, on my mind, and the house they lived in when I was a kid suggested itself. I spent a lot of time there as a kid, often with my cousin, who is the same age.

I threw my capo on the second fret and started playing around with chord shapes in the key of D. (Yes, a normal person probably would have just written it uncapoed in E. Have we met?) The melody of that line popped in and stayed there, and I could feel that there was a kind of sotto voce tail end to the line (what the heck do you call that, when there's lyric, but it's kind of filler . . . oh, hell, I am deeply stupid today. Anyway, in the first couple of A sections, it's "You and me.").

Why did the line "chasing helicopter daisies" suggest itself? I could not begin to tell you. I don't even really know what it means, although I'm pretty sure it refers to samaras, which are those helicopter seeds that maples produce. For a while, the line was "chasing helicopter daisies down the street," but then the song told me that, no, there wasn't that tail end to the second line, and furthermore there wasn't a hard AABB rhyme scheme, but rather some loose, suggestive assonance running through the lines instead.

The second half of the first A section ended up being about my grandmother's car—a pea green Nova, probably a 1971 or 1972. The vinyl interior was a busy houndstooth pattern that was always, always hot and had a crackly texture (at the time, both my grandparents smoked, which no doubt contributed). The back seat was always filled with bingo chips and coupons, which suggested some images for later. I fought with the phrasing of the second half of the verse, but it ended up thus:

[A] Let’s spend the [G] summer in the [D] big, yellow house, [D]
You and [A] me, chasing [G] helicopter [D] daisies [D]
[A] Let’s feel the [G] houndstooth burn the [D] backs of our [D] knees in the
[A] Back seat of the [G] car behind the [D] big, yellow [A] house

And this is where I started to ruin the song. Using the refrain at the beginning and ending of the A section doesn't work, particularly as the chord progression is the same throughout. I tried to tell myself that I could vary the melody and fix it, but no . . .

After I wrote this verse, I sat with it for probably 4 or 5 hours trying to write more. I tried coming at if from a stream-of-consciousness perspective, writing down images and memories associated with the house and that time of my life in my notebook. I tried crafting sentences in the same rhythmic template as "Let's spend the summer in the big, yellow house." I tried thinking of words that have the same rhythm as "helicopter," thinking that maybe that second line was the lynchpin of the A sections, given that it was an unusual choice. I had a melodramatic hissy fit during which I declared that I was obviously OBVIOUSLY never ever ever going to write another song EVER again.

Part of my trouble stemmed from the fact that the song was very much about my cousin and me staying over at our grandparents' house, but I'd introduced the back seat of a car in the first A section, which suggests clandestine nookie and maybe a romantic relationship. Those kinds of ideas kept creeping in, and I have "Let's live together" and things like that. In other words, I had a brain divided.

I'd brought my songwriting notebook on the morning of the funeral, because I didn't really know how the day was going to go, if I'd be in a position to go to class that night, and so on. In the car, it suddenly became clear to me that the second A section started with "Let's find adventure in the big, yellow house" and involved hiding in the pantry (neither my house nor my cousin's had anything as cool and exotic as a pantry, and we loved the one at Mimi & Papa's). Back-seat nookie be damned! Nothing says childhood like finding adventure! What I wrote down in my notebook as the second A section actually morphed into part A section, part B section, but I wouldn't know that until the following week, when I picked the song back up to work on.

Here's the second A section:

[A] Let’s find [G] adventure in the [D] big, yellow house, [D]
You and [A] me, secret [G] hideout in the [D] pantry [D]
[A] Cold cream [G] disguises, and [D] cloak-and-dagger [D] schemes on the
[A] Dirt-floor [G] in the basement of the [D] big, yellow [A] house

Did we ever disguise ourselves with cold cream? You bet we did! Mimi had a big old white glass tub of ponds on her dresser, and she was foolish enough to give up her bedroom to us when we stayed over. We totally caught hell for using all the cold cream once. I'm not sure that the basement, strictly speaking, had a dirt floor, but it was unfinished and dark and scary with unreliable old light-switches. We both loved sneaking down there and feared getting stuck.

B section! What the what? So, I had two long A sections with repetitive lyrics and repetitive chord structure. Just how many songwriting rules can I break at once? The B section . . . sort of has different chords. I completely fucked the B section up in the recording, because I was trying to follow a suggestion about removing this long, awkward pause at the end of the first line and I just screwed the pooch big time. I guess the B section is more free-form images:

[E] On the checkerboard floor, in the [D] claw-foot [A] tub, we’ll sail away [E] [D]
Down the [A] green stamp [A7] river to the [D] bingo-chip sea [A] to save the [E7] day

Being a big, old-fashioned frame house, it naturally had a big, claw-foot tub and black-and-white tiles in the bathroom. They might have been octagonal, rather than checkerboard, but another strong memory associated with Mimi was the fact that she would never, NEVER let you win at checkers. If you beat her, you beat her on your own merits. I had originally written the second line as "coupon river," in reference to the aforementioned back-seat coupons, but as S pointed out, that's a lousy, lousy word to sing. I think green stamp works because it evokes the same kind of thing. (Does anyone but me even remember what green stamps are?) I'm still murderizing the melody in the B section, and the timing problems I introduced in recording ain't helping.

I had hoped I'd be able to work the story about locking my uncle into his bedroom into the song. (Come on! It's an old house with brass keys in the locks. You're two 7-year-old girls. You're annoyed with the 17-year-old uncle who is not delighted to have you around. Tell me that you wouldn't try turning the key in the door to his room just once.) It didn't work out quite that way, but this A section got filled up with things we weren't supposed to do.

The attic was really just more bedrooms. I'm not exactly sure why weren't supposed to go up there. The screen door on the front of the house was heavy wood on an ancient spring. It shook the whole house when one left it to slam. At the back of the house, there was a weird arrangement of a kind of mudroom and then a very small bedroom, which was my grandfather's. They kept their "frigidaire" (as Mimi always, always called it) back there. Like the pantry, we just thought it was cool and would often set up shop there:

[A] Bet we’ll find [G] trouble [D] big, yellow house, [D]
You and [A] me, we’ll play it cool, [G] we’ll get off [D] easy [D]
[A] Ransack the [G] attic, slam the [D] front door, [D] use the back porch as our
[A] Technicolor [G] stage by the [D] big, yellow [A] house

I thought I was going to go right into a B section, then end on a tag, but as I was leaving the house, another A section cropped up:

[A] We’ll keep our [G] secrets in the [D] big, yellow house, [D]
Safe and [A] sound, locked up [G] tight with a [D] brass key [D]
[A] No one will [G] know, we’ll never [D] tell, they’ll [D] find out what we
[A] Whispered [G] in the dark in the [D] big, yellow [A] house

As for the second B section, I owe a debt to my cousin. She made a collage for the funeral that had pictures and images that she associated with the house and our sleepovers there: Bingo chips (natch), jell-o (didn't make the cut), and a transistor radio. I had forgotten that we were in the habit of sneaking the radio into bed at night and surreptitiously (I'm sure) listening to it.

[E] In our throw-pillow fort on the [A] front room floor, we’ll sing along [E]
To the [A] transistor popping, [D] crackling through our favorite [E7] song

So. You can't end on the B section, you know. So what the hell? How about a schmaltzy taggy thing:

[A] Make me a [G] promise in the [D] big yellow house, [D]
cross your [A] heart, never [G] grow up, never [D] change

I really did try to edit out some of the repetition and work on other suggestions that would have improved this, but nothing was willing to come together. At. All. I'm sorry, little song. You deserved better.

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