Wednesday, December 9, 2015

My Songs: French Fries for Breakfast

Sometimes a song grows out of a random phrase. Such was the case with French Fries for Breakfast, which came into my head for reasons not clear to me very late in the 20th century, and struck me as nice way of conveying nutritional depravity. My daughter and girlfriend and I sang the phrase at random moments for a couple of years, to the tune of the title line of the Bonzo Dog Band’s Death Cab for Cutie. I thought no more about it until Mistress Chloe, as the lapsed British new wave chanteuse Zelda Hyde, was calling herself back then, agreed to record an album of my songs. 

As I began work on French Fries, it’s pretty clear I hadn’t much of an idea of where I was going, or what I was saying. In the first verse, I used the British verb whinge (meaning complain, or, more earthily, bitch [v]), for which I needed a rhyme. Binge came to mind, and the song’s mission suddenly revealed itself. It would be about a young woman who, like my daughter at the time, tried to make herself feel good by overeating, but succeeded only in making herself more miserable. 

I pause to note that I am painfully aware of my complicity in my daughter’s eating problem. Throughout her childhood, I’d unthinkingly offered food as consolation. If she’d been upset, I would commonly suggest we head over to Baskin-Robbins on Irving Street, near where we lived in San Francisco’s dismal Sunset district. My bad. My very, very bad.

I spoke yesterday of how, when one writes the melody before the lyrics, he commonly forces himself into awkward rhyming and metrical corners. No such thing was the case here, where the music imposed few constraints. I imposed the unusual rhyme scheme on myself, as in the verse about a pretty classmate who mocks our poor heroine:

The pretty swindler with translucent eyes
compliments her on her slender thighs
She’s more accustomed to the local guys and dolls
ridiculing every breath she draws,
slashing at her with their razor claws
’til she’s bloody. Then they hid the gauze.
It galls!

The tradition in rock and roll has always been to try to appear as uneducated as the poor black blues musicians who inspired it. If you know proper grammar, you’re supposed, in the name of Authenticity, to pretend you don’t.. Don’t come around here no more. I don’t need no friends (as long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset). I’ve always thought, though, that the more authentic thing was to actually be authenticI I have not hesitated in my own lyrics to evoke celebrated literary works, as I do in my 2002 song French Fries for Breakfast. Always drowning, never waving, no is of course an allusion to the famous 1957 poem by the British poet Stevie Smith. 

As ever, I played everything myself, including the bluesy little piano descension in the middle of the verses. I will not deny, though, that I recorded it at half-speed to preclude my thick little fingers becoming hopelessly entangled. Before calling me a cheater, you may wish to note that The Beatles did this sort of thing all the time, the guitar solo in A Hard Day’s Night being the most notable example of something they recorded at half the speed at which it was intended to be heard. 

For purposes of live performance, The Freudian Sluts have jettisoned the first verse and added a deliberately corny augmented chord where the piano break occurs in the recorded version. The idea is that Ms. Hyde’s three gentlemen accompanists will all grin at the audience at this moment, to signal that we’ve just done something quite wonderful. A small homage to the Bonzos, you see. I
am not so sure we will be able to recreate my Jordanaires imitation in response to Ms. Hyde’s calls. 

I have always been a fan of musical irony. Here, the, uh, girl singers  (Ms. Hyde, multi tracked  coo most prettily right after the most heartbreaking lines in the song, about our girl wishing she’d never been born. I think French Fries might be one of the saddest songs I’ve ever written.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

My Songs: The Prostitutes of London

I wasn’t a gigantic Lovin’ Spoonful fan, though I did love Darlin’ Be Home Soon, and the background vocals on You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice make me swoon. What I admired most about them was that each new single sounded very different from its predecessor. No relentless milking of a particular sound (a la The Kinks’ first three hits) for these boys! Around the same time, I very much admired how Revolver covered a wide range of styles, and created a wide range of sonic atmospheres. I have always tried in my own work to do the same thing.

When I presented The Prostitutes of London to Ms. Zelda Hyde, then recording as Mistress Chloe, in 2002, during the recording of her much-praised Like a Moth to Its Flame album, her green eyes filled with skepticism. “What does this have to do with rock?” she fretted. “Nothing at all,” I admitted happily, “and therein its great appeal.” It’s more like something you’d hear in a Lionel Bart musical, or in a pub, being bellowed by the same sort of people who pipe up with such ardour at the sound of Daydream Believer or Sweet Caroline.

(I don’t understand why rock is perceived as sacrosanct. Put on a leather jacket, sneer, step on your distortion pedal, turn your amp up too high and suddenly you’re no longer a spotty little twerp with no appreciable talent, but the living embodiment of cool? (Joan Jett, come on down!) I so don’t think so.)

It wasn’t until 2014 that I started a song with the lyrics, rather than the melody. Prostitutes was a jaunty little tune before it was anything else. I have long believed that a lovelier melody is apt to result when one composes it before writing lyrics, but there’s at least one major pitfall in this approach — one commonly discovers that the tune he’s devised forces a difficult rhyme or metrical scheme.

I thought it imperative that my new band, The Freudian Sluts, based in SW London, include this song in its repertoire, as it’s a nice change of pace from the mid-tempo, minor-key mediations on eating disorders, domestic violence, and romantic betrayal that make up much of the set list, and likely to appeal to those who enjoy being shouted at to sing along. We play two verses in a row before the chorus, and then two more verses before the next chorus. In both cases, we play the first half sort of sweet and loungey, and the second with every bit of funk we can muster. Andrew, the bass player, uses the percussive slapping style that Larry Graham of Sly & The Family Stone introduced in time for it to define Seinfeld musically.

The song will be performed live for the first time ever at Andrew’s big birthday party, on December 19. Ms. Hyde will hold up cue cards to help the audience sing along on the choruses. What fun everyone will have!

Speaking of Revolver, around the time it came out, I was in a band with a brilliant (very!) young guitar player who pointed out that the rhythm playing on the exquisite Here, There, and Everywhere was actually very sloppy. He pointed to the Spoonful’s Zal Yanovsky’s playing as far tidier. I remember being flabbergasted at the thought of anyone daring to compare The Beatles unfavourably to…anyone. And all these decades later, I remain puzzled by John Sebastian's asserting, in Darlin', that, at around 25, a quarter of his life was almost past. I'm no mathematician, but he seemed to expect to live to 100!