Song Of The Day 3/10/2017: John Cale – “Paris 1919”

The Final 20

For Those About to Songwrite

Let's not start on a down note. These are the handful of original compositions of mine (not including L. Ron Shrubbery or Duck Drake songs) that, if recordings were to still exist, I could still stand hearing:
  • Awful License - Discussed a few days ago.

  • Sand - A song sung in the character of despised Beach Boy Mike Love that will admittedly confirm your biases against him.

  • The Last To Know - A sort of nouveau country deal imagined as a duet between Neko Case and David Johansen.

  • Somewhere Above - Pseudo gospel with a faux-Oasis break that I wrote for a friend.

  • I Only Work for Memories - Probably the best lyric I ever wrote. Imagined as a wedding of Radiohead and Guided By Voices.
All the rest of the songs that I remember writing cause me to cringe. Some were just over-extensions of internalized rage and disappointment. Others were dangerously self-deprecating. All of them represented some naive detachment from the rest of the world, like that booking manager in San Francisco told me over the phone that one time. Indeed, all the songs about were written in Olympia or Seattle, and only one was written in the 20th century. The rest are all relatively recent. “I Only Work for Memories” is the only one I’ve ever played for anybody.

I think it’s a matter of initial reference points. Most of the songwriters and musicians I adored (and continue to) had seminal influences. Van Morrison checked the early days of R&B and rock and roll, not to mention Celtic folk. The Rolling Stones started off as a straight R&B band. Stevie Wonder had Ray Charles. Tom Waits, Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell drew off bebop and modal jazz. Randy Newman had the Great American Songbook and New Orleans. And the Beatles and Elvis Costello had everything.

Whereas my starting points were those folks, who adapted their influences through the lens of what was going on in the music world in their time and managed some form of individuality. I didn’t go far back enough. I do now, but I didn’t back then.

I started out trying to write like Elvis Costello, who’s a great source indeed, but maybe I should have started off with Leiber & Stoller. Or blues musicians, or Hank Williams, or Doc Pomus. By the time my songs were done they sort of freakish personal statements.

That’s the other thing: I confused my own personal revelations for artistry. They aren’t. I know it must be tempting to write songs about your ex-girlfriends or -boyfriends, but really, unless you’re very able to extrapolate those messy emotions into universal experiences, like Joni Mitchell or Mark Eitzel, or sublimate them into something more ethereal like Robyn Hitchcock—really, just consider writing a book or an advice column instead.

Dylan wrote this song called “Idiot Wind” which was a masterful put-down of an ex. But look how he does it: He starts off with a false verse that tells a crime story he never gets back to—it runs cover for the rest of the song. Then he talks about how people are alternately confused and antagonistic about him, probably because he’s famous and an eventual Nobel winner. Then he launches into the tirade, but wraps up by saying that while his partner may have been an idiot, so is he. “It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”

Okay—that’s how you write a breakup song. You make it about everything and at least reference your own responsibility in the whole thing. Easy revenge is cheap, ineffectual and only good for a hot minute. Except for once-in-a-blue-moon freak events like Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know” (a song I always hotly disliked), the shots fired by lyrical firing squads do not go in the canon of the eternal.

I once wrote an epic-length ex-girlfriend song not long after a breakup, flush with ambition and directly under the influence of “Idiot Wind.” I planned it for weeks. It was going to last forever. Everyone was going to understand how utterly wronged I was for eight whole minutes, and it would be the greatest catharsis ever chiseled onto disc. When I finished it I sat down at the piano and ran through it once.

Then I finished, filed the lyrics away, and never played it again.

Why? Because it wasn’t very good. It was only good for my own purposes. It wasn’t good for someone else’s listening experience. I only needed to get it off my chest. That’s all.

I think one good rule of songwriting is that if your lyric only consists of lines that you could theoretically repeat verbatim with your therapist or in a bar conversation with a friend, start the whole thing over. There’s no shame in starting over. I do it all the time. Try and lift it up. That doesn’t mean you lose your anger, it just means you shoot for something higher.

At many points over the last 20-plus years I’ve identified today’s tune as my favorite song of all time. It evokes something emotional, sad, uplifting, panoramic and surging in me.

That’s pretty damn good for a song about how the Treaty of Versailles was a hot mess that set Europe up for some real awful shit.

INDIE SNOBS SUCK OFF

Speaking of terrible music, ever hear of Rusted Root? They were partly responsible for one of the funnier feuds I was ever involved in, during the last months of my first run at KAOS.

I was looking through the station’s copy of the latest HITS magazine and found this photo of Rusted Root in an advertisement. Rusted Root had a piping hit radio track called “Send Me On My Way” around this time that I had no patience for at all. The photo was an ingratiating shot of the band walking down an anonymous alleyway trying to look both fierce and life-affirming. One of the band members had a particularly dumb-looking grimace on his face, and another one was wearing sweatpants. It’s telling that I cannot find this exact photo on the web—they must have realized how dumb it made them look.

At the time I was one part of the three-headed music directorship at KAOS, the other two being Ian Jensen and Ricardo Wang. I snipped the photo out of HITS magazine and put it up on the wall outside the music director offices. I wrote on a slip of paper at the top of the photo: “This is the worst band in America.” A little catty, I know. We were catty people. We’ve changed a bit since.

A couple of days later someone wrote a retort on the photo: “INDIE SNOBS SUCK OFF.”

“SUCK OFF.”

I have never heard those two words used as verbal warfare before. I’ve heard “fuck off,” of course. “Suck it” as well. But “SUCK OFF”? Not at that point, nor since. I knew we were dealing with someone special.

We knew who did it. I’m not going to name him, there’s no point in doing that now. But we knew who it was. He was a guy who had asked me about KAOS’s 80-20 indie music policy, and whether “Hendrix or U2” would be considered independent label music. I replied in the negative.

Somehow we—this guy, the three-headed music director, and a couple others—engaged in a series of verbal exchanges. One of us wrote a response that referenced Pearl Jam as a bad that we didn’t like (until Vitalogy anyway). This guy’s response: “Pearl Jam. Good band. PERIOD.”

It wasn’t that the guy was misguided. And look: We were insolent little pricks. A lot of our viewpoints softened as we grew older. Mine did anyway. I respect Pearl Jam as people and admire Eddie Vedder quite a bit, though I don’t really listen to their records.

It’s just the methodology and tactics he used that we had great fun lampooning. The war was eventually settled with a nuke: a 10-minute all-star radio play I co-wrote called Attack of the Indie Snobs. It was great fun. Arrington de Dionyso played a music biz employee killed by a head cleaner. Specifically, “the Steve Albini Head Cleaner of Death.”

Fun times. Dumb, silly, stupid, immature fun times.

Best Performance by a Grammy Prognosticator

There was one more thing that happened at KAOS involving me and HITS magazine, and that was when I won their Grammy prediction contest.

The contest was pretty simple: Pick the winners in the Top 10 or so category of the year’s pending Grammy Awards. The year was 1995. Big winners that year included then-new artist Sheryl Crow for Record Of The Year (“All I Wanna Do”) and Best New Artist, Tony Bennett’s Unplugged for Album Of The Year, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” for Song Of The Year. On top of those categories, I had to pick the winners of around seven to nine others.

A lot of industry folk—those who read HITS—entered the contest. Experts and prognosticators retained by the industry for their perception, wisdom, analytical prowess and overall music industry acumen.

Yeah, I beat all them suckers.

I picked correctly in all categories except one or two. (I think Song Of The Year was one I missed; I probably thought “All I Wanna Do” would take that one too.) That was enough to win. They put my picture in HITS magazine. I was wearing a Hüsker Dü T-shirt. The winner of the 1995 HITS Grammy Contest was an insolent punk from KAOS Community Radio in Olympia wearing a Hüsker Dü T-shirt.

Second place went to Paul Grein, creator and writer for Billboard magazine’s Chart Beat column. He supplied a head shot. He still writes, for Yahoo Music. I write for this blog.

So HITS and I had a special relationship for the rest of that year. The grand prize was a very nice Ovation electro-acoustic guitar that I always wanted. I had it until my then-wife forced me to sell all my musical equipment when we were out of money in L.A. and she needed to fly to Seattle to visit her boyfriend.

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