Songwriter's Navel: Week 23, In Which I Do Not Write A Hall & Oates Song
So, I did not know this song. Thus, it was somewhat unnerving when I passed out my lead sheets to the class and the Kernel declared "This is a Hall & Oates song." Before I realized that he just meant that my uninventive title was also the title of an H&O song, I stared in horror. Truthfully, I had worried that this sounded like Bon Jovi song, or worse, like "Every Rose Has Its Thorn." (That's right, I Hannah Montana-rolled you. If I have to live with awareness of that cover, so do you.) But never in my darkest moments, had I considered Hall & Oates.
But let's not dwell. The assignment this week was to tell a story in the course of the song and employ the line of fourths (i.e., to use root motion in fourths to spice up the chord progression and borrow from outside the key). I started tossing around story ideas in my head, as usual going first to a couple of stories that I want to tell and have tried and failed to tell before, just to get that out of the way. I then had the image of a woman pulling a wilted flower out of her hair and tossing it away, and the song suddenly became about escape.
Why that and why now? Hmmm . . . a couple of things. My niece recently went to prom. This is very strange, because I'm pretty sure she's, like, 3 or something. They're also letting her take SATs and AP classes. What's that about? Anyway, she really hadn't wanted to go, but a friend pressured her into going as a group of female friends. When I asked if she'd had fun, she said, "Not really. It's kind of a couples thing." I laughed and told her that having gone to three proms as part of a couple, it kind of always sucks. Bad music, bad food, in my case, thanks to single-sex Catholic schooling, the awkwardness of all the members of one sex or the other not knowing each other well. Lots of build-up and expense for inevitable disappointment, which is true of a number of those kinds of events.
The third of the proms I went to was the ONB's—he hadn't gone to his junior prom; I was so comprehensively done with high school and the first 18 years of my life that there was no way in hell I was going to my senior prom (ESPECIALLY after democracy was subverted and they would not let us have "Paint it Black" as the theme), and because people spew all that "Memories that last a lifetime, blah, you'll never be young again, blah" bullshit, he seemed to want to go to his. It was a disaster starting with the limo getting sideswiped on the way there. So. Proms are not fun.
But I was also thinking more broadly about extricating oneself more comprehensively. Not just from the messed romantic comedy low expectations that prom is the magically delicious best night of your life (Although I cannot stress enough: No, no it's not. If it is, you are seriously, seriously doing it wrong. (See Patton Oswalt on Arch Campbell, starting around 7:30 of this clip.), but from the life that's handed to you as a kid, as opposed to the life you make when you become an adult. Also, truth be told, the story started to be about setting fire to an identity in general, thanks to an extremely unwelcome blast from the past recently.
Moving on, though. Verse 1!
| [E] Late-night [Asus2] creases in a | | [B] borrowed [A] dress |
| [E] Careless satin [Asus2] shoes | | [D] cast a- | [A] side like |
| [E] White [Asus2] lies | | [E] [Asus2] |
| A [E] kiss to [Asus2] seal, her | | [B] past to [A] press between |
| [E] Pages, [Asus2] people, | | [Dsus4] places, and [G] times of her |
The content isn't especially profound: As it happens, I borrowed the dress I wore to the first prom I went to. It was fine as dresses go, my boyfriend's cousin loaned it to me, and the experience was not traumatic or terrible in any way, so it's sort of cheap, dishonest shorthand to include the "borrowed" here, but I didn't want to describe the dress in any kind of specific way, I needed the syllables, and it invites the listener to form their own assumptions about why the dress is borrowed—Is it because of money? Does it suggest the woman is not invested in the occasion?
Adding "late-night" before creases was, to me anyway, sort of interesting. Early on, I'd been thinking about this scene as the woman carefully undressing, so I had her smoothing the creases and lining up the shoes. I have a persistent problem when writing narrative that I become obsessed with minutely describing a person's actions. All I want to say is the person went out the front door, but I get hung up with every step along the way. It struck me that in a song, there is NO TIME, LEAVE THE BABY! I didn't want to waste time talking about meaningless actions, I wanted the images of the dress and the shoes to convey something about mood or character. I'd thought about "angry creases," "careworn," "lonely," and the terrible cop out "thousand." I don't know why "late night" occurred to me (I suppose the pressure to stay out all night whooping it up after prom might've suggested it), but I decided I liked it. Again, I feel like it suggests and invites, but doesn't direct.
The other thing that was sort of interesting about writing this verse was the addition of "like white lies" after the shoes. Frankly, I don't know what that line means, and I didn't know that I needed anything after "cast aside," but when I started trying to set chords to the verse, it suddenly seemed necessary to have a simile and a slight extension of that line. I had a bitch of a time coming up with the simile, though. I knew the phrase needed a long I sound, and I had thinkings like "dice," "time," "silence," "childhood" (UGH) . . . I like white lies well enough, even though it's sloppy and I don't know what it means.
The second half of the verse took the place of the image of the flower. I already had a dress and shoes. I didn't want to have to talk about the flower, so I took the image of pressing the flower and spun out a few things that I hope suggest a scrapbook or box of mementoes, implying that the woman is either trying to decide what to take with her or tossing out the whole lot or whatever.
Oh, I should talk about the magic of the line of fourths. The little E to Asus2 figure was certainly suggested by my practicing this for the showcase last Sunday. So that split measure started off the verse, and I initially went Bm to a resolved A major in the second half. I can only hope I was singing a slightly different melody over the Bm, because as it is now, that chord is surely a plain old B, which seems to put the song in E until we get to the D in the second line, but it's cool, baby, because that D is just from the line of fourths. But was the song line-of-fourthsy enough? No, it was not until the second half of the verse, when it all goes crazy! I absolutely would have just done exactly the same thing in the first and second half of the verse otherwise. I like this trick. I like ending on the C in the verse and then heading into the chorus on a D, and look! The chorus is actually in A, isn't it?
Now she’s | [D] standing on the [A] outskirts, |
| [Bm] Balanced on her [A] toes |
Half a [C#m] breath before the [E] dawn
A one-way | [D] ticket in her [A] fist, |
And a [Bm] Name that no one knows at [E] all,
And she’s [D] gone
My favorite line in the chorus is "Balanced on her toes." I don't think anything else about the chorus works without it, and I completely stole it from Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games: She describes Rue as standing "tilted up on her toes with her arms slightly extended to her sides, as if ready to take wing at the slightest sound." The idea of using the word "breath" came from problems rhyming "dress" in verse 1, and I admit I also kind of like "half a breath before the dawn." Liminality, man! Go, go gadget Victor Turner! I'm a lot less crazy about the rest of the chorus, but I became attached to the idea that she's not just leaving, she doesn't want anyone ever to find her.
Verse 2 gave me fits. I sort of had the idea that it was about her leaving behind a few things on the porch, propped inside the screen door. Again, this is the kind of thing that you just don't have time to spell out in a song, and I was trying to do that, so I suppose I deserved the fits. I didn't want to talk about a ring, nor did I even necessarily want the thing she leaves behind to BE a ring, so the velvet box got me out of that. Certainly it's most likely a ring, right, but for all YOU know it could be a human head. Or it could be filled with chocolate, ok?
I also got myself stuck on the idea of her leaving a letter or a note. First of all, cliché city. Second of all, as I went on writing the song, I became more and more convinced that she was not sad or uncertain about leaving, but celebratory, so a letter apologizing or explaining was not her style. The dress and shoes in verse 1, I know, suggest that she's running from a wedding (after it's already happened, presumably), and the velvet box and the word "vow" aren't helping there. Going back to the theme of prom, adolescence and the stupid things we think we'll be attached to FOREVER when we don't know any better . . . I guess I was thinking of it as a childhood sweetheart sort of thing and the woman realizing that children pick terrible partners for the rest of our lives. Don't put your childhood-self in charge of the adult you, friends! So the vow became threadbare, and the second part of the verse became celebratory in an impressionistic way. Probably I am the only one who is cheering this woman on at this point. What can I say? I wouldn't run away from my current life in a million years, but I should have run away from a lot of things a lot earlier. (I'm going to spare you the dark hours when the key "die[d] with the sunlight." VAMPIRE KEY!)
| [E] Velvet [Asus2] box and a | | [B7] threadbare [A] vow |
| [E] Memory and a [Asus2] spare key | | [D] she leaves be- [A] hind in the |
| [E] Mo- [Asus2] ment | | [E] [Asus2] |
| The [E] Screen door [Asus2] hisses, | | the [B7] front porch [A] sighs |
| [E] In the distance, [Asus2] promise, | | [Dsus4] tomorrow [G] bright on her |
As usual, I was recording rough drafts along the way, so as not to lose the melody and timing. I knew that with 2 verses and 2 choruses, the song was just under 2 minutes, which is usually my "long enough" mark. But as is happening more and more lately, the song insisted it had a third verse at like 1:30. (I try to leave the house by 2 PM to avoid traffic or leave enough time to sit in it so I'm not late for my lesson.)
I thought that verse 3 would have her at least far away, but no, she was content to barely make it off the front porch. I actually wrote the second half of this verse first, but it became clear that the "nowhere, nothing, no one" part was better supported by the escalating line of 4ths. The lines in the first half are still clunky, and the "milkweed" seems clunky and inauthentic to me. I wanted the idea of dropping the picture (or note, or flower, or whatever the hell it was going to be) into a ditch. Ditch. Ditch. Not a singable word. Weeds gave the same impression of neglect, but was too vague. Milkweed's fine, I suppose. Turning her back on the pay phone was ridiculously hard to get into a line, and it's still not quite there, but inserting the idea of a familiar, childish touchstone (i.e., the swing set) helped a bit.
| [E] Drops a faded [Asus2] picture and her | | [B7] last [A] regret |
| In the [E] milkweed [Asus2] by the swing set, turns her | | [D] back [A] to the |
| [E] Pay [Asus2] phone | | [E] [Asus2] |
| [E] Dusty [Asus2] miles on an | | [B7] outbound [A] road |
| [E] To nowhere, to [Asus2] nothing, | | [Dsus4] to no one | [G] she’s ever |
And there you have it: First song of the new session.