Minor Secrets of the Mr T Experience Capvt V

Frank Portman
18 min readJun 25, 2018

If you haven’t been following my recent internet exploits, you may not have noticed that for the past several months I’ve been posting a song each Wednesday (in honor of Odin, so the series conceit goes) and writing up a little essay commenting on the particular performance at hand and on the song itself. Why? Well, mostly just to try to remind an uncaring world that I and my songs exist, I guess. For some reason, this is something I desire. Why does anyone do anything?

Every month or so, I aggregate and edit these song write-ups into a single post, and that’s what I’m doing now, for the fifth time. You can read about how and why I started doing this in the intro to the first installment; and the Odin conceit is explained, somewhat, in the intro to the second. The subsequent installments may be found here: three; four.

[links in preceding paragraph updated, 12.29.2020 — ed.]

So, herewith, the “content.”

1 “Will You Still Love Me When I Don’t Love You?”

As you may have noted, on occasion I will put up a fingerpicked solo guitar arrangement of one my songs on my youtube channel. Well, here we have our own Lauren Banjo, fingerpicking “Will You Still Love Me When I Don’t Love You”! So I don’t have to.

I’m serious: it’s fun and cool to do it, and I’d even go so far as to say it is worthwhile and illuminating to go through that process with one’s own songs, but it’s also not that easy, and the recording of it all in a single unedited performance is extremely nerve-wracking. (It always seems like I can do it flawlessly on the couch, but once the camera is rolling I fall apart, which is, maybe, a tale as old as time.) So along with the coolness, the fun-ness, the worthwhile-ness, and the illumination comes a powerful sense of dread.

Anyway what I like about it is making new things fall out of old songs. You just “worry” them till they take on a new self. I don’t think I’ve ever consciously paid much attention to the construction of the melodies of my songs per se (I just did what felt right) but you really have to pay attention to the melody when you do this and I feel I’ve learned quite a lot about my melodies and what makes melodies work generally from this exercise. And Lauren’s version of “Will You Still Love Me…” certainly does transform the song, lending it an almost wistful character that I doubt anyone would find in the original recording from the Our Bodies Our Selves album. Though it’s there, sort of, if only ironically in the appropriation of the nostalgic “old timey” structure for some (very very slightly) dark humor; and that’s arguably an irony that hung about all the genuine old timey songs in a way as well.

I like the simplicity in Lauren’s rendition, as well as the bluesy/jazzy flourishes that somehow don’t detract from that simplicity. Well done, Lauren.

As to the song itself. This is one of those wildly popular tunes that is also wildly complained about. I suppose I get why it gets complained about, sort of. The narrator is a bit of a rascal. His idea of a romantic reverie is, apparently, to imagine his abandoned love remaining chaste and devoted to him, and not only that, he expects her to send him money! And he expects to be congratulated for it! How horrifying. Well, as I’ve observed before, we’ve got a problem nowadays with people not being able to tell the difference between fiction and reality. Also with people viewing any kind of art as merely “instrumental”, that is as a means to advance an agenda of some kind, or to hinder an agenda of some kind, but basically to such people a song is only comprehensible as it relates to some agenda, positively or negatively. To which you could say, hey, it’s just a silly song. (True.) But what they seem to want to get you to say is something along the lines of: I’m trying to expose these terrible attitudes, so they can finally be eradicated and the world be made a better place. I don’t know why they want you to say that. They just do.

I suppose we (I and the agenda people) have a different idea about what a song is. I mean, there can be songs like that, “save the children” kind of protest songs and such, where you hear them and say “yes, we must save the children, and I will check the lyrics of the song to find out how this may be accomplished: step one, find some children…” But mostly songs, the silly and the grand, are concerned with working through a conceit, presenting a certain point of view in a narrator’s words, and, once you’ve done that as well as you can, just: leaving it alone to speak for itself. It’s not for you, as the writer, to approve or disapprove, or to disclaim. It’s a snapshot among others scattered on your floor. People take some of them to heart (the better ones usually) when they (the songs) illuminate or articulate something they know from their own experience, and they laugh or cry accordingly. You’re not telling listeners how to think or feel. You’re providing them with a possible metaphor for something they may have felt, or noticed, and they can take it or leave it, but if they take it, if it works, you’ve succeeded. With the grand and the trivial alike, that’s what it boils down to.

Anyway, now that I’ve got that out of my system, I want to thank Lauren once again. Her “Will You Still Love Me…” is charming, quite beautiful. She’s basically the superest of MTX superfans these days, and she has informed me that today is the six month “anniversary” of her having discovered the band through the Turn It Around film. It’s so weird that it’s been only six months. It kind of feels like she’s always been there.

(By the way, I encourage anyone who feels like fingerpicking one of my songs to go ahead and do it and send me a video. I’ll host it on my channel and write it up. This was fun.) I will be spending this weekend in Milwaukee and Chicago, so if you’re in M. or C. maybe I’ll see you. And if not, see you next Wednesday with another song, Odin willing.

2 “What Do I Get?”

So, as I said above, I spent the weekend in the midwest, and what we have here is yours truly singing “What Do I Get?” with the Smoking Popes at our show at the Bottom Lounge in Chicago during said weekend.

It was a casual, unannounced kind of thing and it took the audience by surprise. It didn’t occur to me to arrange for it to be documented till halfway through the song , when I thought, “man I should have arranged for this to be documented.” Fortunately our buddy Patrick managed to capture the entire song on his cell phone and here it is.

I said that it took the audience by surprise, but it also kind of took me by surprise. Up till about halfway through the song I’d just been thinking of it as more of a goof, just a fun throwaway cameo that allowed me to invade the stage during a great band’s show. And it was that of course. But then I noticed the audience reaction, all the faces contorted in awe and disbelief and perhaps even maybe something like actual joy, and kind of thought about what I was doing, and noticed a tinge of emotion limning the fun and burning through the sardonic pose I usually adopt. Because there’s something quite … resonant, I guess about my singing “What Do I Get?” with Josh Caterer’s band.

Josh and I are different in many, many ways I’m sure, but there’s an affinity in the kind of songs we write, and on some level, I think, a source of that affinity is Pete Shelley. Not the guy, obviously, but rather a kind of sensibility and approach to the love song. We’re like different sub-branches of that sub-branch. (Maybe Jonathan Richman is somewhere along the root branch there too, I don’t know.) Songs are a big thing for me, but that said, sometimes I take it all for granted. Anyhow, the Buzzcocks meant a great deal to me as a kid, and those songs informed many of the choices I made as I fumbled toward figuring out what kind of songwriter I wanted to be. And in fact, the fantasy rock dream of my 14 year old self played out pretty much exactly along the lines of what happened that Saturday night: singing “What Do I Get?” for a room full of several hundred screaming people and not falling off the stage.

So it was a “moment” for me. I had a sense of things coming to together, and the briefly elevated consciousness that can go along with that sense. Kind of cool when that happens, and I’m grateful to the Smoking Popes for letting me invade their space and have that moment. By the way we’d discussed doing additional songs: AC/DC’s “Live Wire” and the Popes’ own “Midnight Moon” as a sort of duet. In the end though, we didn’t manage to learn those in time what with one thing and another. “What Do I Get?” was easier because it was already written in our souls. And that’s fine, I’m good with that.

3 “What Do You Want?”

A song for Miðviku, once again, Odin be praised. This is another one from that 1992 show in Southampton, UK.

This was the encore of the set, fervently demanded by the crowd (they can be heard shouting the title throughout the video) and acceded to not so enthusiastically by the management who had clearly had enough MTX by this time and who left the house lights on to signal their disapproval. Not sure why the crowd was so jazzed about this particular song. But it is a peppy little number with a cool “riff”, a rousing energy, and an interesting structural/compositional plan.

Well, sort of with that stuff. Anyway, it’s an anthem. Of what, I have no idea.

You may have noticed that rock bands tend to play too fast live. (One thing I really admire and envy about the Smoking Popes is that they are an exception: they have mastered a rare art.) Speeding everything up is a reflex, a cheap trick for creating the impression of energy when the audience’s attention flags; and it works, to a degree, but ultimately you do yourself no favors by presenting a blur of 15 nearly identical too-fast numbers and calling it a set. You tend to lose the rock and the roll, for one thing, which is, after all, the point. The hell of it is, it happens whether you want it to or not. It’s the ironic nature of the beast to a large degree.

There is one way around this: make the song too fast to begin with! viz. “What Do You Want?” This performance, like the song itself, like the album it comes from, and maybe even like the band that played it, is a dubiously-conceived, not all the way baked, barely held-together contraption zooming down a hill in a cart with no brakes, the wheels liable to pop off at any moment. The only suspense lies in whether that will happen before or after the inevitable crash into a tree or the side of a barn. I have lots of criticisms about this situation as you can see, but, for all that, I have to say, there’s something kind of cool about it as well.

As for the song, well: it remains the same, and will be so however I might try to “spin” it. It’s got an interesting structural plan and conceptual underpinning along with the aforementioned energy. It is an overwhelmingly silly, kinda fun, song that seems to want to point to some underlying depth that is simply not articulated and most probably is not even there, beyond a general, vague emotional entropy (that is, granted, about as deep as low gets.) In that, it is of a piece with the very peculiar album on which it appears. The lyrics about confusion, inarticulateness, and failure to communicate are themselves confused, inarticulate, and, largely, fail to communicate. This is a result of quite genuine confusion, inarticulateness, and failure to communicate — on the part of me, the writer, concerning what I was supposedly doing and how to go about doing whatever it was. The description of the thing is also an example of the thing, and it succeeds through failing, as it were.

It would be impossible to contrive this artificially, to do it on purpose, should anyone want to do such a thing. And the same could perhaps be said of the over-ambitious, under-budgeted “orchestral” arrangements that just about almost come off at intervals. If the resulting mess of an album still has some oomph, some interest, some cohesion, some value (which it somehow seems to have, though there’s no objective standard in these things) that’s a source of it. Oh, plus the guitar solos. There’s some good ones in there.

Anyway, that said, “I’m in love with leather” / “I’m in love with lethargy” is pretty cute.

And there you have it, another hoary old song from beyond the mists of time. Odin be praised. There are still a few more songs from this set that warrant comment and I intend to dribble them out accordingly, so stay tuned for that. Share, like, subscribe, rock, roll, and be good to each other because you’re all you’ve got.

4 “Two-Minute Itch”

It’s Wodensdaeg, and the Feast Day of Jeanne D’Arc, so here’s a song for ol’ Odin and Joan, another from that set we’ve been working through, Southampton UK, Summer of ’92, videotaped and preserved against all odds by an unknown punk Sotonian. And yet another song from the Milk Milk Lemonade album (which was new at the time of this show.)

It’s a rough performance, as they all are, but it’s got a certain something. “Two-Minute Itch” is a song that has always seemed to punch a bit above its weight, though we arguably never quite did it justice or presented it as its “best self.” It’s still among the most requested songs in the catalog.

And I can see why. It’s a pretty good song, all things considered. (It hasn’t been in the repertoire for many years, though maybe we’ll get to it one of these days: you can’t learn ’em all.) As a song, it’s got quite a bit going for it. But it’s also a good illustration of what I was talking about in my recent songwriting interview with Grim Deeds, of having all the “song-y” elements but failing to make them come together and really do all the work they need to do. The idea of using distracted TV channel-switching as a sort of metaphor for the conduct of an indecisive, confused, and messy love life, and the concomitant lack of contact with reality, is pretty solid, but over-ambitious for my skills at the time. I’m sure I could do a lot more with this conceit now. As it is the lyrics are on point but still obtuse, rather inarticulate. Example: the title is meant to be a play on the “seven year itch” but I really doubt anyone ever got that… it’s just not borne out by the composition itself, which is… weak. It’s an allusion that doesn’t go anywhere, and I subsequently learned at least to try to make such things have a destination.

That said, the inarticulateness does leave a sort of “poetic” impression, something that would be pretty difficult to do on purpose if you knew what you were doing. And as I’ve said before, the whole Milk Milk Lemonade album has this character, of ambition not quite realized that ironically proves to be an inadvertent embodiment of the thing it’s struggling to describe. It’s supposed to be a series of snapshots of emotional misfires, miscommunication, immaturity, and confusion, a kind of “life flashing before your eyes” thing, between the “revelation” at the beginning and the resigned “I can see it now” resolution. And, rather astonishingly, it kind of does accomplish that, just not in a very accomplished way. It’s a strange beast.

But back to “Two-Minute Itch”: mysteriously, despite all that, it still works as a song, and a good measure of that is Kepi’s cover of it which is as real as real gets.

That’s all I got for now. Let me know what you think, like subscribe comment dance around the room like a maniac or retreat into your own, private world to brood over lost opportunities and looming mortality. Love, children, is just a kiss away.

5 “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend”

Well, another Wodensdaeg rolls around, and just as Odin the Shaggy Cloak Wearer disguised himself as a wandering farmhand to steal the mead of poetry brewed by dwarves from the blood of Kvasir, he who was formed from the spittle of the gods, so we dip into the fermented effluvium of stirred inspiration… well, sort of like Odin the Shaggy Cloak Wearer with the fermented blood, etc. anyway.

In other words here be another song of ye olden times… Dr. Frank & the Bye Bye Blackbirds — “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend”:

This is basically a case me covering my own song. The Bye Bye Blackbirds is a great rock/pop band and the bass player is Aaron, formerly of the MTX Starship. They shared a bill with me solo once upon a time and we decided to do a couple of songs with me as guest vocalist, the BBBs as backing band. We worked up arrangements of a couple of my old songs and performed them at that show at the Starry Plough. It went so well that we decided to record them, and the result was this fun little record that came out on Goodland Records in 2014.

For this, I selected two songs that I’d done basically solo on records, but were meant to be full band songs as originally conceived. (The other was “Population: Us”.) The BBBs are really great musicians and I thought I’d take advantage of that to try to come close to how I imagined the songs while writing them. And we came pretty darn close. In this one, that original conception was a hyper-paced slightly Byrdsy approach at least as to the guitar arrangement. The vocal arrangement, well that strays more into Cowsills territory, which, to me, is perfectly acceptable and respectable, something towards which I have always striven — if striven is the word I want.

(Though it rarely left much trace in the discography as such, I had the Byrds on my mind all the time during that period and throughout my songwriting “career.” Believe it or not, “Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba” was meant to be that way as well.)

I remember lying on this weird-smelling futon, guitar across my chest, staring at the cracks in the ceiling and strumming this song in my squalid little apartment (a different SLA from the one I’m in now, though much the same, across the street from it in fact) and hearing lots of jangle and and pop in my head. This coincided with one leg of the recording sessions for Our Bodies Our Selves. I played the new song for Kevin Army, proposing that we try to do a quickie arrangement to slip it in to the album, but knowing the answer would be no, because there just wasn’t time to do something like that, and anyway we weren’t the sort of band that could “work things up” in the studio with our limited time, budgets, and, it must be said, talent.

But what did happen was: he laughed harder than I’d ever seen him laugh on hearing one of my songs. (Though “I Wrote a Book about Rock and Roll” was a close second.) He said: “I can’t believe you wrote that. This has to be on the album.” Doing it as a solo acoustic song was the only practical way in the circumstances. So the acoustic “Even Hitler…” was born. Also born: the beginnings of my solo-acoustic “career” that I’m still trying to launch to this day. (If you listen to the original recording, you can perhaps tell how uncomfortable I was doing this. Playing solo is always intimidating. But in this case, the awkwardness adds something. Thank Odin for redemptive awkwardness really: I’d be nowhere without it.)

When the song was finally released, it proved slightly controversial among “punks”. They didn’t like acoustic songs, it turns out. More likely, it simply confirmed their quite well-founded suspicions that we weren’t “one of them.” It’s pretty funny, really. New York Times columnist David Brooks, seated next to me at a lit festival banquet — long story) heard the tale and quipped: “so it was like Dylan goes electric in reverse.” And yeah, it was. Me and Dylan, Dylan and me. Plus ça change, amirite?

So there’s some minor secrets for ya. Lots more to say about this song, but that’s for the future.

Final note: I’m gonna be rock and rolling (solo acoustic) this weekend and then kind of occupied and distracted over the next week so my web presence, such as it is, will probably be a bit less present. We’re gonna let this stand as the Friday morning “Hitler” [another thing I’ve been doing, posting covers of this song every Friday — ed.]: just think ahead. I’m gonna be phone only, so regular posting will probably resume only when I get back to civilization — if indeed civilization is a synonym for Oakland. Which it’s not, obviously. Anyhow, I’m sure you will be able to bear the disappointment caused by my absence. I’ve noticed how good you are at that.

6 “What’s in the Cuckoo Clock?”

I was holed up in Marblehead, Mass. last week with the result that the old Allfather and Shieldshaker and I skipped last Wodensdaeg’s commemorative song, concentrating on libations and colonial naval history and the correct pronunciation of the verb “to gerrymander” instead. Did you miss us? Well, we’re back now, with another tune from Southampton, UK, Summer of ’92.

I don’t know what to say about this frenetic rendition of Rachel Sweet’s “Cuckoo Clock” except to observe that, well, they were all pretty frenetic.

The song, written by Sweet’s producer and fellow Akron native Liam Sternberg, was always one of my favorites among the only half-understood songs I encountered when I started to explore college radio in the late ’70s. And in my fuzzy quite delusional 13 year old brain I used to imagine that were I ever to become a rock star myself I’d quite like to do such a song on one of my smash hit records. Which my band did a decade later on the Making Thing with Light album, which was a smash… a smash something anyhow.

They sure must have played it a whole lot on KALX et al. because I remembered it entire from memory alone. (That album, Fool Around, was a record I always wanted but never managed to find anywhere — it is hard to explain now, perhaps, the degree to which one’s record collection was influenced by pure chance and luck back in those pre-discogs days.)

Anyway, I remembered it real good, though I’m not sure there was any need to cover, not to say to sully, one of the greatest-ever new wave pop recordings. The song itself is genuinely unique and brilliantly conceived and executed, and sung by an angel, and we really had no business messing with it. However, it is a bit interesting that I loved this song so fervently as a kid without quite realizing why. But in my capacity as a guy who has tended to pour outsized effort into vessels too quirky for mass consumption and label them songs, I can say: it’s possible some of it (whatever it is) seeped in. A lot of people assume it’s one of my songs and are surprised to learn it’s a cover. I wish. But I get it.

And now we are up to date on the Wodensdaeg songs. Keep checking back, if you like this sort of thing.