Minor Secrets of the Mr T Experience Revealed! Part X!

Frank Portman
14 min readDec 4, 2018

Below you will find the “minor secrets” write-ups for the six songs I did since the last time I posted an aggregation (which would be part IX, if you’re counting.) In case you’re new to this whole thing, I’ve been posting a song, usually a live video, each Wednesday for the past year with a little write-up. I have styled these “songs for Odin” because of Wodensdæg, hence the cute Odin references throughout.

The first “minor secrets” post (for “She’s Coming Over Tonight”) went up on Nov. 30, 2017. At first I was posting several a day, of that one RCKNDY show, and settled into the Wednesday routine only after having done that. I don’t have the exact number to hand, but it’s probably around 70 songs so far. That’s a lot. When I first started doing it I thought I’d run out of material and just let it die, but I haven’t yet. So, onward, eh?

There’s more detail 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; five; six; seven; eight; nine.

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

Biór fǫri ec þer, brynþings Apaldr! Magni blandinn oc megintíri; fvllr er hann lioþa oc licnstafa, godra galdra oc gamanrvna.

1 “Sackcloth and Ashes”

Wodensdæg again and hail Odin and all that. I don’t mean to be flippant or cursory, but it’s Hallowe’en besides just being Wednesday and there’s lots going on. Mysterious things to do, sinister people to see, you know how it is. But the schedule calls for a Song for Odin and some minor secrets, and accordingly a song and minor secrets you shall have. I wish I had a suitably spooky song on tap for the occasion, but in fact all I’ve got is another dyspeptic, rueful song of love and loss.

This is from our 2016 show at Reggie’s in Chicago, captured and generously shared by our friend Trey. Chicago was always our best city to play during the fruitful ’90s, and as the intro says, the last time we’d played there was on the Yesterday Rules tour in 2004 at the Fireside Bowl. So this was the “triumphal return” or whatever, and it sure was great, possibly the best, most enjoyable show I’ve ever done. We’ve been back to Chicago a couple times since, and that’s been fun, too, but nothing could match the magic of that night really. Just one of those nights where everything clicked. Maybe there should be a twelve year gap between all the shows, if that’s the secret, I dunno.

As for the song “Sackcloth and Ashes” I’m slightly surprised there hasn’t been an occasion for a “minor secrets” write-up of it before. It just didn’t happen to be in that Seattle set from ’98, or any of the other videos I’ve been cutting up for this purpose — this enterprise depends on what has been captured and come into my possession. But we played it in most sets from ’95 on, and continuing. It’s a song that could arguably bear some analysis, but I don’t think it’s seemly for a songwriter to analyze his own song and I’m not going to do that.

I will say it is a good one, one that “works”, and a testament to that is how popular and meaningful it has been to many people who have no idea whatsoever of what “sackcloth and ashes” means or implies. (I remember one kid, stretching to reach for a context he could grasp, issue the request: can you please play that one song, “Suck Cock and Asses”? It wasn’t a joke, he was quite sincere, but, well it was funny nonetheless. My initial thought was, this sounds like a job for Pansy Division, and I think I mentioned it to Jon Ginoli, but nothing ever came of it. That I know of.) I think it probably gains something from the slight mystery, and the theme of penitence, and the ungainliness of the position of the morose lovelorn martyr, does come across regardless, and it is “relatable.” Kevin Army criticized the vocabulary quite strongly (“tresses,” “querulous”) but it absolutely suits narrator’s aggrandizing agenda and I kept them in. I mean, obviously I did. Despite the vocabulary, the abstruseness, and general tricksiness of the song, it doesn’t come across as over-written, which is its own kind of miracle. Considering how over-written it actually is, I mean.

This song began life as a… well, “folk song” I guess you’d say. I remember when it began to take form, while I was walking up 40th Street from the MacArthur BART station some time in ’94, just the title with that same melody that is in the song now. I thought of it as a solo acoustic type thing, much slower and more mournful (and it was originally in a minor key as well.) I tried it different ways, e.g. here. But like many such songs, once it got plugged in with drums and such, it transformed into the more familiar “signature sound” or whatever. A blessing within a curse, in a way. Sometimes you just go with it, and the way it “plays out” is just fine. So a very happy Hallowe’en and Odin’s Day to you all. Do something spooky and/or penitential. And see you next time.

(The original “minor secrets” post write-up is here.)

2 “Psycho Girl”

First off: I voted. You can send my medal to PO Box 12093 Berkeley CA 94712. Second: hail to Odin, and a happy Miðviku to everybody. Third, well… …for today we’ve got another side-view tune from that Gilman show, August 6 1988.

“Psycho Girl” was one of the earliest MTX songs but it hadn’t been recorded or released yet at the time of this show. I believe it was one of the six songs recorded as demos in the aftermath of Rough Trade US’s post-Big Black Bugs demise, which became the first half of the Making Things with Light album when it finally materialized. Its first appearance was on the Very Small Records 10" Make the Collector Nerd Sweat, VSR 003, which came out in late ’89. It always got a good crowd response, and was one of those songs meant to be fast to begin with (so the drummer couldn’t accidentally speed it up), i.e. it usually came off okay, and more “together” than some of the other songs where more could go wrong. I’m sure most of the kids in that crowd were quite familiar with it despite its not having been released yet.

Beyond that, there isn’t much to say about it, except maybe to note, on the general subject of psycho girls, that I, like a lot of young men of my generation, for some reason found something glamorous, alluring, and romantic about mental instability. This is still inexplicable to me, though it’s undeniable that it was the case, and that, at some point thereafter it stopped being the case. But while it was the case, many strange and perilous things occurred, in which everyone involved is luckily to have survived as intact as we did. “Touch her, lose touch with the world” may not be the greatest line (and Lord knows I won’t defend rhyming “girl” with “world” so frequently, as I did) but it does accurately sum up a sort of truism, which is that you can’t involve yourself with crazy people without entering into the craziness yourself to some degree. There isn’t a way to avoid this contagion as far as I can see. On the other hand, craziness, maybe, is a spectrum, and interesting people are interesting because of their not being normal and ordinary. Judge not lest ye be judged. Don’t try to hit me with anything made of metal, and maybe a bit less yelling, and we’re good, basically.

So there you have it, another Wednesday, another song. Be good to one another and have yourself a nice, creamy after-dinner drink, if you happen to be reading this after dinner.

(Original post is here.)

3 Lauren Banjo — “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend”

And.. your Friday morning “Hitler…” Yes, it’s back, because this just came in, a swell rendition of my much-covered old song “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend” by our own Lauren Banjo, which she recorded as a sort of commemoration to mark one year of MTX fandom. (She discovered the band through the Turn It Around film, started listening, and came to see us for the first time in Brooklyn last year. Since then she’s been a rather prominent presence in the MTX-o-sphere. Hard to believe it’s been only a year.)

I really dig this arrangement and performance. The song sure does lend itself to that triplet figure going down to the relative minor chord, something that never occurred to me before, and she throws in a couple of cool chords that also never occurred to me till hearing them. Kind of brightens up the place.

I’ve heard many people do this song and this is my favorite yet, including mine. Well done, Banjo!

Also, while I’m at it: three cheers for female voices singing “male” songs (and vice versa). That’s way more interesting than trying to flip it, and nearly always works on me, as it does here. The image, a kind of parody of the cover of the album this song first appeared on, is from a picture snapped by Kepi and posted on Instagram; the layout was done by Klode Maloon. It was one of those spontaneous internet things.

(Original post here.)

4 “There’s Something Wrong with Me”

Oh, Odin. Oh, Wodensdæg. I’m writing and rocking and rolling like mad these days and I still can’t keep up with you. There’s something wrong with me, and if you don’t play along with me there’s no telling what I’ll do…

So yes, here is another song from Southampton UK, 1992, a slightly shambolic rendition of “There’s Something Wrong with Me”.

First, a word on that goofy intro. “This song comes from my home state North Dakota…” This is a verbatim quote from Lawrence Welk, who I heard introduce a song this way on his TV show when I was a kid (and that’s a LW accent I’m attempting.) It struck me as hilarious then and I still think it’s funny, and I still use it to introduce songs sometimes, accent and all. Why? Well, do I need a reason? Sometimes a good Lawrence Welk reference is just the thing to do, rightly or wrongly. (We — siblings and I — used to watch the LW Show ironically all the time when I was a kid, and even used it and a feigned enthusiasm for Lawrence to embarrass one sister when she was picked up by her date for the prom, which worked and I don’t think she’s ever forgiven us… man, dates and proms and such sounds just as old fashioned as Lawrence Welk in this day an age. Well, I am a bit old.)

Anyway, introductions aside… “There’s Something Wrong with Me”, from the Milk Milk Lemonade album that had just come out before we embarked on this tour, is an unassuming little song that became a sort of inadvertent anthem and I know a lot of people really like it and relate to it. At the age of six or seven I was in my prime… this is actually quite true.

This was one of those tracks largely put together in the studio, not played live repeatedly beforehand, which partly explains the slight awkwardness of this performance. We were still trying to learn it. Fitting for the song, in a way, but then that’s an excuse I could always use (and have.) I had had some rather grand ambitions for this studio track, including a horn section part all figured out in my head and more sound effects — the studio recording begins with a baby crying, but trust me there was much more of that nature that would have been included had we had more than a shoestring budget. Despite / because of that, it didn’t come out too badly. The guitar solo happens to be one of my favorites that I’ve ever managed, with the “pentatonics” just slightly in enough of an unusual place to make it interesting. I don’t quite pull it off, so to speak, all the way here, but it’s mostly there.

Looking back, this is one of the more cohesive tracks on that scattered album. The largely unfortunate, haphazard approach to writing and recording managed to work nonetheless sometimes, and this is one of those times. Or so I tell myself, but maybe I’m just kidding myself once again. What do I know, I’m just a poor North Dakota boy like my buddy Lawrence.

Anyhow, enjoy, if such a thing is possible. Till next time, go with God and I wish you well.

(Original post here.)

5 “Up and Down”

It rained last night as forecast and the Bay Area air has finally moved into the Environmental Protection Agency’s “moderate” yellow category, meaning “acceptable” down from purple “hazardous” meaning “emergency, entire population at risk”. I’ve seen reports in the media that the rain will just visit a whole new and even worse disaster on everyone, but, you know, they kind of always say that, and have been for thousands of years really. It’ll be a relief when the world finally does come to an end, putting an end as well to the speculation about what’s going to cause it. The suspense is killing me.

In the meantime, here’s my band, at Gilman Street, Berkeley, 1988, playing a Sesame Street cover.

This was one of the most popular songs in the live set for a stretch there, and when we finally recorded and released it on the Big Black Bugs 12" ep on Rough Trade in 1989 it got pretty good airplay on college radio. At this point, it seems, we had just started playing it and hadn’t worked it out all the way: the goofy intro, following the dialog of the muppet monsters in the original, is there, but I’m singing the whole verse rather than trading lines with Jon von as the monsters do in the song, and as we eventually started doing. (Jon’s usual line was that he was looking down because he was looking for his beer, but he says “glass of water” here because, you know, Gilman, no violence, drugs, or alcohol: all the alcohol was got at Picante down the street pre and post show. You can’t have rock and roll without some alcohol. You just can’t.) I eventually came up with a pretty nifty guitar solo for this, but either I hadn’t by this point or I just kind of choked in the middle and gave up.

It’s a basic arrangement of a very well-written song by Jeff Moss, who also wrote “Rubber Duckie” and “I Love Trash” among other iconic songs. I’d do the chords differently if I were to do it now, but part of my missing some of the compositional nuance here is the fact that the mix on the cassette version of The Sesame Street Book and Record that I was going from has the music way in the background, almost completely over-shadowed by the monster vocals. It was hard to hear what was going on, exactly. I did the best I could, and basically it worked out okay.

We had lots of fun playing it. This rendition is rough, but pretty much everything was. There are a couple of compilations of bands doing Sesame Street covers that came out in the 90s, one on a real, legit label, I think, and many people assume this track was from one of them, but in fact we did it all on our own, only to watch it fade away into oblivion like everything else we did.

As for the particulate matter in the air, may the good lord bless the air, and keep the air… far away from us. Have a great Thanksgiving.

(Original post here.)

6"Here She Comes”

Wodan, that is to say Woden, that is to say Odin, lord of the wind, Sleipnir-borne, soft-hatted, grey-bearded, one-eyed, the hovering one, viator indefessus, his hounds in pursuit, his ravens Huginn and Muninn (thought and memory) ever airborne, his spear Gungnir shooting out sparks of lightning. I never, EVER, let go of a conceit, and I’m not letting go of this one. It’s Wodensdæg and thus: a Song for Odin. Depend upon it.

To wit: this here rendition of “Here She Comes,” an unlikely survival, from a Bay Area cable channel show called San Francisco Sound, from ca. 1998 probably.

If I’m not mixing it up with something else, the taping was done in the Starlight Room (atop the Sir Francis Drake Hotel) in San Francisco and was arranged by our pal Ian Brennan. If so, we did one other song (“Another Yesterday”) and possibly a third, though as far as I have seen nothing but this one survives. I remember it being a bit of a disaster, just an endeavor where we were out of our element and nothing clicked, and I was secretly glad to console myself with the secure knowledge that hardly anyone would end up seeing it. (Which was true.) But despite a slightly hilarious and unfortunate back-up-vox-heavy mix (“front-ups” we used to say) this really is pretty darn good. And that Coronet plus JCM 800 sounds as terrific as ever.

That great big Mr T Experience logo banner was an expensive folly, made in Europe for our ’96 European tour with Green Day, though we weren’t actually allowed to put it up very often (and maybe never, I can’t remember.) We carried it around through Italy, Germany, Slovenia, etc., and then took it back with us in its own piece of luggage, but were never able to use it at our own shows: it was much too big for any of our venues. This is probably the only time it was ever displayed, or at any rate one of the few times. Not sure if it still exists. Jim may still have it.

As for the song, I revealed some minor secrets on that a ways back, writing about the ’98 Seattle RCKNDY show, and I’ll quote that here, because you may well have missed it:

“Here She Comes” is one of those songs where the Tin Pan Alley / Noel Coward approach to the lyrics actually clicks; the preposterous, yet (or hence) excellent, rhymes work almost in spite of themselves. Plus, I’ll always love “je ne sais quoi like you wouldn’t believe.” And that ayes/eyes nos/nose stuff… well, ya gotta amuse yourself first and foremost, if you wanna dance alone. Maybe folks don’t dig it because of that stuff, maybe it’s just because it’s “peppy” or whatever, but they do seem to dig it.

This was always going to be the lead-off track for Revenge Is Sweet… from the beginning, and though my original plan to give it a “new wave” Attractions-ish tinge with a subtle Farfisa stab and drone on the 7th during the intro parts and bridge never materialized it came out pretty much as intended otherwise. (The released recording, especially the CD version, was way over-compressed, though, something I’d really like to change if a re-issue ever materializes.) But production and technical details that you fret about so much in the moment tend to fall away over time (unless they’re notably great or memorably terrible) leaving only the song, somehow, in the end. A solid song can transcend just about any error of judgment, or lousy drum track, or sacrifice of dynamics for loudness, or terrible vocalist. You just gotta give it twenty years or so. This, at least, I have learned.

To that I’ll only add that since writing it I’ve learned some things about the MTX tape archive. Most of the multitrack master tapes of the Revenge Is Sweet sessions are lost, and quite unlikely to turn up, ruling out any remix outside of perhaps a few songs. (The two reels I have are not labelled — that they are RiSasAY reels is an educated guess — so I don’t know what’s on them. It could be just seven takes of “Lawnmower of Love,” who knows? It could even be some other band entirely.) Basically we’re stuck with the extant mix, which I hope is flat enough that we can work with it, but as per Kevin’s comments in his recent Tape Op interview, it seems like the mix itself was heavily squashed pre-mastering. It was what everyone was doing at the time but it’s rather unfortunate that that’s what everyone was doing at the time, and particularly unfortunate when your masters have evaporated.

I do now have a high-res digital capture of the edited mixed master reels… I’m working up the gumption to listen to it. A re-issue is planned, and I’ll have more to say about that in future. We’ll see if we get there. Wishing you a pleasant Wodensdæg and a blessed holiday season, I remain, your Doctor.

(Original post here.)