The 1000th Song Of The Day, 12/27/2014: Paul Pearson - "Story"

Photo & thumb model: Brooks Martin
You can imagine my delight when I added up all the numbers and determined that the last Song Of The Day of the 2014 calendar year (the annual top 30 countdown runs tomorrow through New Year’s Eve) was going to be the 1000th of this series.

I knew we’d have to do something special. At first I thought I’d write an original song called “The 1000th Song Of The Day” and get a bunch of friends to help out on the playing and the video, but that, like so many plans, got cast aside. Also, I figured out the math back in late January when there was still a very good chance we’d be moving to Boston, and I wouldn’t have time or logistics to set it up before leaving. Then when it became clear Boston wasn’t happening it was too late to do what I wanted to do anyway. I was pretty sure I couldn’t afford the street permits.

Fortunately – for you, anyway, not sure about me – “Story” popped up, reared its bouncy head back after almost 20 years.

What is “Story”? Well, this is going to take some explanation. Since I’ve been striving for brevity this entire year, for you, I’d appreciate it if you read this long, detailed, absolutely true story of “Story.” It’s Song #1000, fer Chrissakes! This is the money shot for this entire series!

Pour yourself some coffee; it’s not even 3000 words. It’s more like 2800.

The Recording

In 1995 I was finishing up my college career at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

The most poignant, aggravating thing about living in Olympia, which I otherwise love, is the stunning and enthusiastically maintained lack of job opportunities. So many trajectories in my personal and professional life would have been significantly less persnickety and needlessly tragic had I just been able to find a fucking job in Olympia. That goes for both eras I lived there, 1994–95 and 2000–05. In general I do not enjoy being unemployed. I’m employed now, but man it sure would have been something else if I could have gotten a job when I was more limber and had better metabolism. But I digress, which you’re used to by now.

One of the classes I took was something called, in classic Evergreen fashion, “Hybrid Music.” Peter Randlette was the instructor. I forget what the exact course description read, but what it boiled down to was that we’d play with synthesizers, old and new, and then – uh, “hybrid” them with something. I forgot what we were going to blend them with, but what it amounted to was that I got college credit for learning how to make sample-based compositions.

“Story” was, more or less, my “final paper” for the class. It was very reflective of my pissed-off state of mind at the time. Both the joblessness and an astoundingly duplicitous marriage had taken a toll on my psyche, and as much as I loved being in Olympia I was beginning to hate its procedures. I am told this is not uncommon. During my final class project on a Mac with a ProTools-like audio program (might’ve been ProTools) I managed to merge all of my frustration, snark and ambition into something relatively positive, or at least something that allowed me to graduate.

At the time I thought sampling groovy, lite-pop hits from the ‘70s was clever as hell, and it probably was. It’s played out now, but I started that shit. I thought it would be a powder-keg of irony if I built a song around the piano figure and vocal hook from the Four Seasons’ “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night).” These were the days before mp3’s made living-room sampling so easy. I think I obtained this sample through purchasing the 45rpm record, taping it onto something at KAOS radio where I volunteered, then scurrying back to the Comm Building to get it all loaded up in the Hybrid Music Mac.

I don’t remember where, when or how I wrote the words, but I’m fairly confident it was in a hurry. Besides “December 1963” I used samples from Ice-T’s “Escape from the Killing Fields” (“you gotta get out”), Dub Narcotic Sound System’s “Fuck Shit Up (Version)” and a snippet of Jack Webb from the TV show Dragnet. I believe (I did not take project notes and wouldn’t have kept them if I had) they were all conveyed to cassette tape and then digitized in the studio, so I couldn’t work in any more samples than those because it was such an arduous process in those days. Also I had to walk five miles in the driving snow barefoot and all that.

All the other parts, “original” parts in the song – bass, drums, percussion and organ – were played by me via a MIDI control keyboard. The software I used had this quantizing function which was hot shit back then. This meant no matter how sloppily I played, all the bass, drum and percussion stuff would land on an exact count on the measure, like a sixteenth or thirty-second note. The drums, despite the ’80s reverb on the snare, are my favorite part of the song: I just played certain keys like individual drum and cymbal components and they all fit nicely.

The organ part was all improvised and not quantized so it sounded like it flowed naturally. The “December 1963” recording was in the key of D-flat, which contains five flats. It’s not my favorite key to play in; most of the proper notes are the raised, black keys on the keyboard. It’s more difficult to play than keys with relatively few flats or sharps. But I couldn’t figure out how to transpose the key using either the software or the keyboard, so I just played the organ in D-flat.

Randlette said he liked the song a lot. I was very grateful for that. Especially in the early part of the class when we were learning synthesizer workflow and played on a vintage Buchla synthesizer, the interface of which is basically a telephone switchboard, I felt way in over my head and got very frustrated. Peter assured me I’d make it out okay, and yeah, once we got to doing everything on software, like a digital latch-key kid I did a lot better.

“Story” was played on KAOS. I know Diana Arens and Brooks Martin played it on their shows; I was flattered and appreciative that they did. I did not play it on mine. I’m sure you all know I have a habit of negating or undervaluing my original work, and especially in the case of “Story” it feels like the proverbial naked baby photo. But it’s a lot better than some of the other crap I’d done. Anyway, feedback was very positive, people liked it, I shan’t undermine their enthusiasm. Besides, that’s how the sucker came back to life.

The Release

The next part happened, apparently, sometime after I’d left Olympia for Los Angeles. I always thought it happened immediately after I’d finished “Story” in 1995, but the chronology suggests it happened later. It might have come to fruition in 1997 when I think I made a trip to Olympia. But I always thought it happened sooner.

Nikki McClure is an Olympia-based artist who’s done a bunch of tremendous work. She used to do a calendar every year; maybe she still does. Her primary medium is cut paper and it’s very beautiful. She matches precision with the ethereal really nicely. Her works are like very specific dreams. I’ve always loved them and they’re instantly recognizable as Nikki’s work. You should check them out. Look, I gave you a hyperlink and everything.

Somebody (I think it was Diana) told me that Nikki was looking for me. She was putting together a cassette compilation called Go Olympia! It was an audio accompaniment to a theoretical “walking tour” around Olympia, and a benefit album for Safeplace, an organization supporting victims of sexual and domestic abuse.

Photo: Brooks Martin
I returned Nikki’s inquiry. I swear that it was an in-person contact because I remember talking directly to her. That’s why I assumed it was in the spring of 1995, because I left Olympia that summer and didn’t return for awhile. But now I guess, if I so vividly recall meeting Nikki in person, that I must have returned to visit Olympia in 1997. I know I went back either then or 1998, but it must have been ’97, because that’s when Go Olympia! was released. I’m sure this internal wrangling is fascinating reading for you.

Nikki requested to use “Story” as one of the songs on the compilation, and I of course said yes. I had no use or outlet for “Story” to come out since it was two years old. Since I’d quoted “December 1963” in the song I couldn’t use it for commercial purposes anyway, so I agreed to let them have it for charity. I just requested a copy of the cassette whenever it came out, and it was a done deal.

A few weeks or months later I got the tape from Nikki in the mail. The cassette was really well-put together. It contained a little guide book inside for the walking tour, with each of the album’s 32 songs corresponding to a local Olympia landmark for tourists to look at.

To my utter shock, “Story” was the first song on the tape. Song #1. My “landmark” was the Capitol Theater, the beginning of the tour. I suppose it served the purpose well, since the song addressed Olympia in general, though I thought it was a bit disparaging, maybe insulting, and I felt bad about that. (I’d said as much to Peter Randlette. I felt I was slagging on Olympia a bit too much, but he said it was clearly meant in jest, and besides Tacoma got it worse in the song. Tacoma has since improved, greatly. And once again, Olympia, you just needed to give me a job and none of this would have been an issue.)

Photo: Brooks Martin
When I got my copy of Go Olympia! I’d been separated from the town for awhile, after never really getting very much inside the Olympia scene although I was quite fond of it. It wasn’t until years later I realized just who the other artists on the tape were. I was friends with Old Tim Relijun’s Arrington de Dionyso and the Sandman, so I knew they were on it. But it also had Kathleen Hanna’s project The Julie Ruin, Mirah, Calvin Johnson, Lois, and Tae Won Yu from Kicking Giant. “Carrie” in Carrie and Sarah, who contributed “State Library (Come With Me),” was Carrie Brownstein. We think “Sarah” was Sarah Dougher. Though it might have been Sarah Utter. Nobody’s sure. Or nobody’s telling us.

Nowadays, looking at that lineup, many of whom have gone on to some very influential, even mainstream success, and realizing my song led off a tape that featured all of them together – well, now it makes me feel really stupid. What the hell am I doing on that thing?

And then I forgot about Go Olympia! Even after I moved back to Olympia. It was a pleasant footnote, something neat to have been involved in, and something you can get on eBay right now for $236. I assumed everybody else had forgotten about it too, and certainly didn’t entertain any thought that it might have traveled outside Olympia, or that 19 years after making “Story” I’d be fielding messages about it from a guy in Toronto.

The Canadian Renaissance

Nothing happened between 1997 and March 29, 2012. My formless body drifted in a void which was terrible for pizza deliveries. I rematerialized only after I started doing Song Of The Day on this blog.

Song Of The Day, or SOTD as the hardcore fans, also known as “Sodders,” call it, did pretty well. It got really good this past year when the huge majority of tunes were placed into “Theme Weeks” that I’d previously only experimented with. But before that it was all right too. I have to say it’s been surprisingly rewarding on a personal level, especially on Jan. 21, 2014 when I got a really nice tweet from this guy:
@paulshrug trying to make a playlist of your fantastic SOTD recommendations. Best possible jams.
He provided a link to a Spotify playlist that contained a considerable number of past SOTD’s, which was really above and beyond the call. I was flattered beyond belief. Seriously, this is what I consider validation of the highest order these days. I responded:
Wow… thank you do much! I’m amazed and thankful for your patronage. Much appreciated, all the best!
I have that saved as a boilerplate, by the way. With the “thank you do much” typo. Anyway, I was sincerely blown away that somebody was doing that kind of thing and always make a point to respond to anybody inquiring about the blog. (It happens far less than you’d think.) (No, it probably happens just about as often as you’d think.)

I got another response from this guy, we’ll call him “Addie,” since that’s his name, and it made me fall off my bean-bag chair:
@paulshrug I actually found out about you from @the_g33k, who did a podcast featuring “Story” off Go Olympia! Huge fan, assuming that’s you.
My initial reaction to this tweet went along the lines of HOLY UNREFINED SHIT! and I gasped myself into hiccups. My official response via Twitter was
Oh, wow… that goes a way back. Yes, that’s me. Haven’t heard “Story” in decades. Thanks for the note!
I got in touch with the podcaster in question. His name’s Chris Eng and he’s a writer who currently lives in Toronto. He wrote what Goodreads calls a young adult piece of fiction called Molotov Hearts: A Punk Romance. I asked Chris via Twitter for a copy of the podcast and he graciously responded (tweets combined):
Hi, Paul! Yeah, I was in Oly for Yo Yo A Go Go ’97 and got a copy of Go Olympia and Story always stuck with me. Now that I’m doing a podcast, I thought it would be worth sharing with an audience that would never have heard it. Anyway, here’s the link to the podcast. Hope you enjoy it!
I really didn’t know what else to say at this point, so I believe I dropped the line of conversation and took to listening to “Story,” through my headphones. It sounded pretty much exactly as I remembered it.

When the Broadway production seemed like an impossibility last summer, I remembered that “Story” was, improbably, still floating out there and decided to try and get a copy of it for today’s entry. However, Chris had taken his podcast down, and as recently as Dec. 24 I was scrambling around trying to find a copy of it from other sources. As a last resort I got in touch with Chris on the evening of Christmas Eve, and last Thursday, literally as a Christmas gift, there it was in my inbox. Which brings us up to now.

I’m extremely grateful that people are still finding this song entertaining, and that anybody is still kicking it around after almost two decades. I can’t be objective about it, of course. I still hear some things on it that make me cringe, but I’m that way about everything I’ve ever written or come up with in the past. With a few exceptions.

But I subscribe to the same philosophy about this kind of stuff as I do with karaoke, which is: You’re up there, people are looking at you, they’re probably only going to remember a tiny bit, piece or particle of what you’re about to do – so you might as well go on and make a complete ass of yourself. Only in this case the ass-making included moments of technical competence.

There are obviously some drawbacks on this recording, primarily from its being on a cassette released seventeen and a half years ago. It's in mono for one thing. I tried to beef up the treble frequencies and amplify it a bit, but you’re going to have to get on negotiable terms with the tape hiss. You’d put up with it from Robert Johnson, right? Humor me.

And there you have it: Song Of The Day #1000. It should go without saying, but won’t, that I’m grateful in excess to you all for spending quality internet time with these songs over the last thousand days. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and now we’ll just move along to the next thousand. I’ve decided that for Song Of The Day #2000 I’m finally going to release Chinese Democracy. You’ve earned it.

Meanwhile, here’s my “Story,” and I’m sticking to it. Happy New Year.

Thanks to Chris Eng, Brooks Martin and Diana Arens for their assistance on this post.

Photo: Brooks Martin

Post a Comment

Popular Recent Posts