Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Woody Allen Effect

I once heard Woody Allen speaking on the radio of going through several stages in the making of a movie. At the beginning, he’s all a-tremble with the possibilities of a new idea. By the time he actually finishes it, though, all his early exhilaration has long since been washed away in a river of stress, and all he wants is for the suffering to end.

It’s very similar with me and my music. Virtually all my songs begin with a melody. It’s quite exhilarating to sit down at the piano and discover a new one. Having become more fluent over the decades, I now find that if this doesn’t happen within the first 90 seconds of my sitting down, it probably won’t happen. After that, I cease to be instinctive, and start playing more with my head, going in predictable directions, doing the “right” thing. This is fine if you’re a Brill Building piecework-type composer, one expected to churn out a certain number of songs per week, but I strive at all time to be more about inspiration than craft. Which isn’t, of course, to pretend that craft doesn’t eventually intrude.

Once having composed a melody (actually, at least two, and probably more like four melodies — at least one for the verse, and another for the chorus), I must next write lyrics to ride atop them, and here it begins to get tricky, as often the rhythms of the tune make for tricky, constraining arrangements of syllables.

At this stage, a song is often completely transformed. Several months ago, for instance, I wrote a wistful little melody that fairly cried out for words about love or its loss. It wound up as Xenophobia, an angry, often sarcastic salsa-flavored denunciation of America’s hostility toward Latino immigration, after these words hopped, for no good reason, atop the tune I was reviewing in my head one afternoon.

Underneath the interstate
Refugees are sleeping. Wait!
That’s forbidden. Let’s destroy their camp.

This Supermodel began life similarly, with the first two lines, Endless shoots for French Vogue in the sun/ In these boots, be assured, aren’t much fun attaching themselves to the tune in my head. Imagine my surprise, given my low opinion of those I’ve dated, to find myself writing an apologia for supermodels.

In writing lyrics for the other 12 new songs on my forthcoming album Sorry We’re Open, I did something I’ve rarely done before – allowed the songs to tell me what they wanted to say. To sound less pretentious about it, I let what I’ll call a scrambled-eggs idea (Paul McCartney’s Yesterday was famously called Scrambled Eggs between his composing the melody and deciding what the lyrics should be) dictate the lyrical course of at least a portion of a song. In this way, the chorus of We’re Golden came to open with Put your little hand in mine/In Timbuktu and Palestine…, as it seemed to want to, and the title line of Nights of Cinnamon to be preceded by days of sulfur. Swastikas in Drag, a little diatribe against Republicanism, pretty much insisted on having All these four-leaf clovers starting to bloom in the chorus, though they had in the end to settle for Line 3, rather than Line 1.

In a few cases, I had the words first, and had to compose melodies whose rhythms would accommodate them. I wrote the whole of the chorus of I Followed My Bliss on my way out the door of a local amateur gospel concert at which a very well dressed local clergyman sang just dreadfully while a great many church ladies heaped their plates with one another’s cooking and ignored him, and didn’t it look and smell scrumptious?

I wrote the first verse of Dancing About Architecture on the train home from Manhattan one Friday night in the very early spring. Working on a short story would have made me feel less guilty (yes, I'm driven!), but writing lyrics was a step up from watching an episode of Friday Night Lights on my iPod. (I hate when TV shows or movies ask us to believe that 26 and 27-year-olds are in high school.) The Field I Want to Plow, featuring a defiantly clumsy metaphor to express heterosexual lust, was also written mostly on the 6:45 to Poughkeepsie, albeit with an existing melody in mind, as too was the song that was provisionally entitled Waltzing With An Architect until I remembered that vainglorious bully Frank Zappa’s famous and spectacularly inane suggestion, almost certainly in response to a bad review, that writing about music was like dancing about architecture.

But back to the Woody Allen Effect. Over the course of recording a true solo album, one on which he plays, sings, or programs everything, one ceases to be able to hear the song’s original promise, and begins to hear only the flaws in his own performance. For someone such as I, who doesn’t sing very well, hearing his own vocals over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over in the course of mixing becomes downright excruciating. Every iffy note, every trace of strain, starts to leap out of the mix bellowing, “You’re not really going to leave me in, are you?” You start pushing the voice farther and farther down, and of course wind up only with a rotten mix, making it necessary to start over — and to hear every iffy note and trace of strain another million times. By the time you’re finished, there is no music in the world — not Kiss’s or Motley Crue’s, not Madonna’s or Barry Manilow’s, not even Frank Zappa’s — that you hate more than your own. When finally you whimper, “Enough already!” and burn the CD that you will send the Library of Congress's copyright office, it’s with no assurance whatever that you’ve actually done your best work, but rather with the feeling that you simply can’t endure any more.

I think this may be why people hire producers.

[From the blog For All in Tents and Porpoises. Enjoy the archive and subscribe at http://johnmendelsohn.blogspot.com]

1 comment:

  1. Paul McCartney was 1 of 4 or 5, if you count - as you should - George Martin. I told myself years ago that I wouldn't work alone, but that's where life has led me. Working alone is both bliss and lonely.

    There are some moments of "being in the moment" and perfection/joy, but perhaps more when something finishes only okay because I've gone over it too many times. Too much thinking. No flow.

    Maybe in music, too, you can flow into perfection and capture (record) it - you just can't repeat it over and over again? Reading about Bob Dylan's recording of Like a Rolling Stone comes to mind.