Minor Secrets of the Mr. T Experience Revealed #2

Frank Portman
14 min readMar 5, 2018

This “minor secrets” stuff started a few months back when I acquired an old, surprisingly clear and disctinct twenty-year-old video of my band. I posted a song from it on youtube and added some comments on the various social media places. People seemed interested, so I did a few more songs, each with their own write-ups — which I styled “minor secrets of [song name] revealed” — and eventually wound up posting the whole set, song by song.

Then I aggregated the comments, with a bit of editing and links to the videos (along with various links and pics) in a post here after I was done with all the songs in the show. But in the meantiome I continued posting songs from other sources along with their “minor secrets,” settling down to a one per week schedule. (On Wednesday, which is why you may find a few instances of “Praise Odin” and “gesælig Wodensdaeg” and the like in this, though I think I edited most of them out. I don’t know why I do stuff like that: I just do.)

Aside from whatever interest may lie in the videos themselves, it’s basically an occasion for thinking about and writing about those songs, as well as curating, as it were, a sort of platform for discussion of the songs and the history of the band and my writing and such, which is interesting and fun, and tickles my narcissistic, self-promotional fancy, so that’s why I’m doing it. Plus, people seem to be interested.

So, now the time has come for a second installment of “minor secrets,” and let’s just get to it.

1 “You You You”:

Every so often I attempt a finger-picking arrangement of one of my old songs. I’m not the greatest picker in the world, and there’s nothing particularly fancy or difficult about the arrangements, but it is really quite a challenge to get through a whole song on video without choking too bad. There are times, on the couch, when it seems like I can play them pretty flawlessly, but I must be kidding myself there because I can never manage to replicate that feat when the laptop is rolling. They’re offered “as is.” (Here’s a playlist the ones I’ve done so far.)

“You You You” is a simple enough tune, and quite traditionally structured, but there are just a few counter-intuitive bits that were easier to sing than finger till I got used to them. Not technically difficult, but your fingers keep wanting to go a different way, or mine did at any rate, so it took quite some effort to train them to do it proper, basically months of zombified, semi-autistic playing, over and over.

A lot of people really like this song, I’ve found. It closes the album Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You (replacing, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere) the originally-planned, far grander “I Was Losing You All Along” which we couldn’t finish. When that album came out Ben Weasel sent a lengthy, quite heartfelt and detailed, song by song critique of the album via email, and about this tune it said only that it was a weird way to end the album. Which is true enough.

The track as recorded verges on a lot of arguably contradictory things without ever committing to any of them: minimal, traditional, bouncy, punk-but-not-really, mournful, bubblegum, restrained and over-wrought at the same time. Kevin Army captured a truly great guitar tone on that one, really dark and brittle, and the vocal is stark and rather “intimate.” (The guitar was an old 1950s Les Paul goldtop, borrowed for the occasion, that had been hilariously, tragically refinished and stained so that it matched the previous owner’s yacht or the hardwood floors of his faux-Scandinavian lodge in Marin; smart things come in stupid packages, that is to say, some things look stupid and sound great, and I regret not buying it to this day.) I remember Kevin saying to someone at the time that it was best vocal from me he’d ever recorded. Well, maybe maybe not. Always punching above my weight in that regard, I’m well aware.

As originally conceived, this song was supposed to be much more restrained and quiet, wistful or whatever, more like this arrangement to be honest, at least in “feel.” But that wasn’t a thing we did, or were capable of doing, in 1997. That’s why people like ’97, I know. To the extent that the RIS “You You You” is something special, it’s the result of stumbling on to whatever it was that made it so. It leaves a lot unsaid, which is why ending the album that way turned out to be apt, though it was almost entirely accidental.

I’m still pretty pleased with it as a song (which I sure can’t say about all of them.) That “expects to see” / “more agony than ecstasy” rhyme is a too-trite Cole Porter-ism that is pretty awkward in the context and it makes me wince slightly when I hear or sing it. (Not to mention the fact that it alludes to Michelangelo and invokes Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison.. none of these guys should be intruding into what was meant to be a simple, plaintive elegy to a love affair.)

Anyway, though, back to this version: how about that guitar? A 1949 Martin 0–15, if I’m reading the serial number right. I’m kind of “curating” it for my friend Lawrence, who acquired it back in the ’80s from a student of the great Furry Lewis. Furry may have even owned it previously, or if not, at least he played it. You know how “provenance” is. This is the Furry Lewis guitar. The tone is out of this world, which is what you get from 70-year-old wood Christened with the sweat of a delta bluesman.

(Grim Deeds, by the way, on the shirt, is your future favorite band.)

2 “Coffee, Tea, or Me?”

“The kind of girl I dig, some of her was big, but part of her was petite…”

Here I am doing “Coffee, Tea, or Me?” with the Smugglers at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on July 26, 2003. As you can see, the front bit is missing, but as it’s the sole document (as I must assume) of something that happened only once, that is, me singing this song with the Smugglers it seems worth a post, praise Odin.

This occurred during a week-long Lookout Records festival. We were in the midst of recording Yesterday Rules and took time off to play that show. (I also did a solo set that week at Thee Parkside, leaving the rest of the band to do tracking without me, which felt very weird, though also kind of rock star-y if you know what I mean.) I was a bit pre-occupied with recording stuff on both nights, and remember nothing at all about them except doing this song, but the memory is glorious.

This was one of two of my songs that the Smugglers recorded on the Rosie album. Both date from the Revenge I Sweet…Show Business is My Life era, part of a large batch of songs that included Revenge rejects and also formed the basis of Alcatraz. “You’re My Hostess Cupcake”, recorded under the title “Bombay” by the Go-Nuts, was also part of that aggregate (and I disclosed minor secrets of that one here.)

As originally conceived, “Coffee, Tea, or Me?” was from the stewardess’s point of view, but then I hit on the idea of going all high-concept on it and making the entire composition from beginning to end a literal Penthouse forum letter and I couldn’t resist doing it that way. I love stuff like that, and several of my best/favorite songs are in that category: “The History of the Concept of the Soul” (term paper); “The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful” (postcard); “Jill” (message left on voice mail.)

I’m sure a lot of “young people,” if any there be reading this, have no clue what “Dear Penthouse, I am just a regular guy…” is meant to invoke but for people of a certain age the Penthouse Forum loomed fairly large as an icon, as cultural currency. If it is now mysterious and confusing rather than clever, well that’s the way these things go, isn’t it?

Of course, Coffee, Tea, or Me? originally was a 1967 semi-fictional faux-memoir about the swingin’ antics of some risqué airline stewardesses. That’s another dead reference, probably, but it was also pretty obscure when I wrote the song to be honest. My parents had that book and it made a big impression on me, though I remember very little of it now. The 1973 TV movie starring Karen Valentine feels like it should have had a theme song but as far as I can tell, though it had songs in it, I don’t think it did. Anyway, even if it did, I bet mine is better and if there’s ever a Coffee, Tea, or Me? “reboot” it’ll be here waiting for them. (Not bloody likely, I know.)

Anyway, the Smugglers are one of the greatest rock and roll combos in the history of rock and roll combos, despite being Canadian, and it was a great honor that they did one of my songs, let alone two. I do like my original, quite rudimentary demo of the song, and I may release it in some form one day.

In the meantime, here’s what it’s like when I do it solo. And here’s the Smuggler’s version, from the record.

Here’s a bit of the 1973 TV movie to give you the flavor of that:

And here’s a girl who wrote another “Coffee, Tea, or Me?” playing it on the internet.

Thanks to the Smugglers, Karen Valentine, semi-fictional faux-memoir sexy stewardesses Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones, Donald Bain, Xaviera Hollander, and most especially to Marisa for capturing the event on video and sharing it. You know, it’s funny but I always begin these little write-ups thinking I won’t have much to say and I end up typing loads.

Original post on minds.com is here.

3 “So Long Sucker”

This is from a show in Southampton, England, July 8th 1992, where we played in front a few dozen wild, shouting, vibrating teenagers, one of whom happened to have a running camcorder in his hand. The video is pretty rough, but so were we, and for all its flaws it’s probably the best live video document in existence of that era of MTX.

The way how we used to look like

Lots to tell about that strange and awkwardly miraculous first overseas trip, and I’m sure I’ll get around to telling some of it here. I may not do each and every song as I did with the RCKNDY show, but I will extract at least a few to comment on, after which I’ll post the whole set. (Aaron already posted it a ways back, but I’m going to dribble it out a bit because people seem to like the commentary and it’s fun for me too. Also, I want people to go to my youtube channel and like and subscribe and share and such, so yeah, do that if you care to.)

That first Lookout 7"; the cover design by one of Aaron’s friends featured an image of Telly Savalas, but the yellow-on-pink printing obscured it almost completely.

The rudiments of “So Long, Sucker” go back to my high school pretending-to-be-in-a-band days where it kicked around half-unwritten under various titles. How we came to record a version of it in 1989 for our first release on Lookout Records is a little obscure to me now. When we started playing it out loud as a band, it became clear that the chorus was in the wrong key for me, in that the poorly amplified notes as sung were too low to be heard over the racket of the drums and guitars. This is actually quite a common problem for people who do their songwriting in their bedrooms or in their heads (and also, I believe, why rock vocalists tended to get higher and screechier as the rock got “heavier” in the real show business world in late 60s and beyond — but that’s an argument for another time.)

Anyway, the thing you do in this situation is to start moving the base chord up the neck till you get to the point where your weak vocals stand a chance of being heard in the part you’re worried about. And sometimes, unfortunately, the result of doing that is that solving the problem of the chorus simply makes other parts of the song suddenly un-singable. The technical term for this process is Vocal Whack-a-mole. It shows nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless. (I still have un-done songs I “can’t find the key for” kicking around… it’s not easy being an “unconventional vocalist,” though it’s better than digging a ditch, I suppose.)

The solution here was simply to change the key for the chorus and then play it that way all the way to the end, replacing the suddenly un-singable third verse with some solos. Not going back to the E from the A on that riff felt and sounded really, really weird the first few times, though it doesn’t now. It was a pretty crude solution, and a gimmick you can probably only do once. Not that it matters a great deal what you do, big picture, but you get what I’m saying.

One more minor point. If any listeners have ever noticed that the second verse is a literal quotation of the lyrics of the first half of the bridge of Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” they have yet to mention it to me.

Anyways, there you have it. This performance is frenetic which is a technical term meaning “too fast,” but it has a certain punk rock ness about it. Probably helps to be extremely drunk while listening, which was how it was in the room.

4 “Let’s Be Together Tonight”

Rich Levene, the guy who put on this show in Southampton, England, says his diary indicates there were 60 people there, which sounds/looks about right. They really were a wild, exuberant bunch. They shouted incomprehensibly at us throughout the set. It was a good time, as you might be able to tell.

“Let’s Be Together Tonight” was our typical show opener in this era (succeeding “What Went Wrong”), written during, but not recorded in, the Milk Milk Lemonade sessions, late ‘91.

Just before heading to Europe the following summer, we threw together a recording of it along with two other songs for a 7" called Strum und Bang, Live?! to be released by Munster Records in Spain, on the theory that it would be a good idea to have some release in Europe when we went there. That record was presented as “live at the Regal Beagle” — the Regal Beagle being the bar frequently mentioned on the TV show Three’s Company — but it was actually recorded in a Berkeley 8 track garage studio called Smooth Papa’s Greasy Groove Hut, though I’m not sure it had that name yet at the time. (I believe that this and Alex Sergay’s Recording Emporium were same place, but the timeline eludes me, and I could well be wrong about that.)

Strum und Bang, Live!?

The crowd noise between the songs was taken from KISS Alive II, Blue Oyster Cult’s On Your Feet or On Your Knees, the record of JFK’s inaugural address, and a jazz record whose title I can no longer recall.

We recorded another version almost as soon as we got back from Europe, in the same room (which had, in the meantime, acquired a 16 track deck — I think) as a three piece since Jon von had left the band by that time. The Gun Crazy songs and the Banana Spits cover “Don’t Go Away Go Go Girl” were recorded there in that same hurried session, as well as chunks of Our Bodies Ourselves a bit later. This version came out under the title “Together Tonight” on the Gun Crazy 7" and was tacked on to the end of the Our Bodies… CD.

The song itself is a nice little pump-and-pummel pop song, and the slightly clumsy lyrical construction serves to enhance rather than degrade the wistful, pleading, confessional spirit of ingenuous romance-cum-regret-cum-horniness that makes it work. Or so I keep telling myself. I bet I could write the lyrics better now, but I doubt it’d be an improvement. So let’s just leave it as it is, shall we?

Praise Odin, share/like/comment/subscribe/follow, bang your face into your laptop till the blood voids your warranty, and check back next week for something new.

5 “Love American Style”

Gesælig æsc Wodensdaeg to þe!

Gonna shift away from Southampton ’92 to Hamburg ’92, because it’s Valentine’s Day cum Ash Wednesday (if cum means what I think it does) and “Love American Style” is an appropriate song for the occasion. Sort of. (LAS was in that Southampton set but the video has lots of glitches during it.) This was just a few days after that Southampton gig, back on the continent, and near the end of the tour if I’m remembering right. It’s a rough performance, as they always were, but it does manage to put the song across and it’s the best we’ve got as far as live renditions of it in that era.

To paraphrase something once said in reference to Leppo, the fifth Rutle, the Reeperbahn is one of the naughtiest streets in the world: we couldn’t play our instruments but we knew how to have a good time, and in Hamburg, that was more important. I remember that night very fondly, and recall that show as one of the great ones despite what appears in the video to be a distinct too-cool-for-showmanship distance on our part and a sparse, only mildly interested crowd. Well, we were certainly used to those.

The song “Love American Style” was recorded for a 1991 single on Lookout Records, and it is the first recording where I was genuinely satisfied with the way it came out. I think the hot guitar leads way up front were a bit shocking to the tiny, quite conservative, developing “pop punk” crowd, and the cover of the single was controversial in that little world, too. I do think, though I say it myself, that it has held up pretty well nearly thirty years on, as a recording and as a song.

But, it’s a pretty weird song. The idea of forming a love song by mashing up and combining bits and pieces of de- and re-contextualized, unexplained bits of ancient pop culture is strange in itself; it was something I liked to do, and it came naturally for better or worse, but this is arguably the first time it really clicked. “I will defend your right to cry” (the original theme song of the TV show said “try”) is maybe one of the best things of its kind I’ve ever managed, and I still get a kick out of how the tune of the TV theme is unceremoniously mashed in as a guitar solo. I doubt further explication would be useful. I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you. Either you get it or you don’t, and if you don’t you won’t.

There are a few other songs from that set that may be worth pulling out and commenting on, but I’m not done with Southampton yet, believe me.

Have a great time on your mandatory dates tonight. Þu eart dust and to duste gewendst.

And there you have it. I post new video Wednesdays on the youtube channel and comments on the various social media spots. See ya next time.