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.
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.