Minor Secrets of the Mr T Experience Revealed Part XV

Songs for Odin™ cont.

Frank Portman
19 min readMay 21, 2019

I chose this illustration for this “Minor Secrets” installment because (a) I can’t imagine how anyone could possibly wish to censor it, and (b) because this promotional tchotchke was the brainchild of our dear old friend Paige O’Donoghue who turns up in the text below in her capacity as triangle player, laugher, and as the Who’s There-er in the song “Knock Knock (Please Let Me In)”.

This was in the late ’90s “hey day,” around the release of Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You, and ridiculous promo items were not only not frowned upon but postively encouraged. We also did heart-shaped fly-swatters. Paige worked at Lookout and was full of such ideas. There is actually a list of over a hundred comb- and hair-related slogans that were under consideration to use on this comb, and I still have it in a text file on my computer, somehow. (I think it was originally an email from her.) We put lots of effort into it, evidently. (e.g.: “We love you, but comb your hair, you filthy animal”, “We’re hair to help”, “Dr Frank’s Comb of Valor” — I suppose we made the right choice in the end.)

Anyways, here’s another aggregate of my Songs for Odin™ posts, the fifteenth installment, if you can believe that. This is something I do every Wednesday, posting a video of a song on my YouTube channel and revealing “minor secrets” of it in a little sort of essay. Then around once a month I’ll post an aggregation of the latest batch songs and their write-ups, so they don’t get swallowed and lost in internet quicksand and become unrecoverable. One of these days I’ll count them but I’m sure it’s over a hundred by now.

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; ten; eleven; twelve; thirteen; fourteen.

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

I’ve also added some stuff about a couple of Show Business Is My Life songs. While not technically Songs for Odin™, I did post about them, they are still songs, and their minor secrets are accordingly included at the end.

Table of contents: “God Bless America”; “She’s No Rocket Scientist”; “Big Mistake”; “The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be”; “Ask Beth”; “Knock Knock (Please Let Me In)”.

1 “God Bless America”

Beauty is only skin deep, and everybody’s beautiful underneath. I believe in that, but let’s not push it: Well, friends, it’s another Wodnesdæg, and time for another Song for Odin™, wherein, for no useful or even discernible reason, I post a song on my YouTube channel and comment on it here. I just started doing it, and kept doing it. I’ll run out of songs eventually, but that time is not yet upon us, to one’s surprise. Accordingly, here’s “God Bless America,” live at the Stortebeker club in Hamburg, Germany, July 13, 1992.

This is not even a week after that Southampton UK gig I’ve posted so many songs from in this space. (See #2, below.) We’d started out on the continent, made our way to Britain and Ireland, and then back, through to Germany and eventually back to Amsterdam.

But those five days were, apparently, rather hard ones, and this set finds the Mr T Experience quite a bit more ragged even than usual. If this performance seems a bit off-kilter it’s because the set was kind of falling apart. The song is preceded in the video by several minutes of the band huddling around the drummer pleading with him to do just one more song. (Apparently he was “tired.”) In fact we wound up doing twenty minutes more of set, though much of that time was spent standing around on the stage awkwardly and embarrased-ly, wondering if the next song would ever start. (As Tom Henderson mentioned in King Dork, if I recall correctly, it’s usually a mistake to have the drummer in charge of starting the songs… you always spend a great deal of your time standing around waiting in such a case. I don’t know why it is this way.)

So I said “Why don’t you…” to start the song, but it looks very much like I didn’t expect the song to, you know, actually start, and was in fact thrown off by the fact that it did. Possibly I had some kind of “bit” in mind, turning our failure to execute proper showmanship into an ironic feature, as I have been known to do. Possibly I simply intended to barrel on and do it solo, come what may, as I used to do with this song traditionally before we worked it up as a full band number. (Previously it had been used to fill in time during broken string breaks and such.) In any case the song happened, and it’s the only live version of this song I’ve ever come across, though we used to play it fairly often.

I’m not going to “explain the song,” as I hate doing that, though I have written a bit about it in the liner notes to Shards Volume 1. People associate it with the Our Bodies Our Selves album because it was piled on to the end of the CD of that release, but it pre-dates all of that material by a good few years. All I will say is, people love it, rightly or wrongly. It’s one of the most requested and most, you know, “sung at me” songs in the catalog, by people I run into here and there in my daily life. I suppose it’s because it is short, to the point, funny, and mildly politically incorrect. Of such ingredients are anthems made. It works pretty well on its own terms, for just about exactly sixty seconds, and then it’s over. It gets in, gets out, and nobody gets hurt. There are worse songs out there, surely. I’m glad it’s there.

Here’s the studio recording, by the way, if you don’t know it.

And so another Song for Odin™ comes to a close. Like, subscribe, comment, upvote, share, and do your best to be at your best because the alternative, face it, is what you usually do and how’s that working out for you? Just as I suspected. Or just let everything go to hell, that’s an option too. In the end, as you’ll learn when you’re older, whatever it is, it doesn’t really matter all that much. See you next time, should there be one.

(Original post on minds is here.)

2 “She’s No Rocket Scientist”

Another Wodnesdæg rolls around, and another Song for Odin™ is upon us. Seems like only last week I was doing “Rock and Roll Love Letter” in this space… and “New Girlfriend” the week before… and yesterday’s Odin XIV collation… so I am filled with the spirit of the Faðir galdrs, the Father of Magical Songs. However, things have taken a turn for the worse in Odin’s Oakland nonetheless: the Sun is irrevocably out and ravaging the landscape, burning with relentless hate; the temperature creeps into the 80s; all is bright and nauseating and migraine-inducing out in the harsh, blinding world of Spring. I huddle by the fan in my darkened room, ice packs on wrists, neck, and head. This, too, shall pass, I know. It always does. But it’s a long time till October. Till then I dream of the rain. The clouds will come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be shade…

And yet, the show must go on. Rock and roll dreams will come through. And, accordingly, here we have the Mr T Experience — “She’s no Rocket Scientist” from Southampton UK, Summer of ’92.

As you know if you’ve been following this series, I’ve posted quite a few songs from the video of this lengthy set, preserved by an unknown videographer and certainly the clearest document of the band in that (Milk Milk Lemonade era) phase. This is in fact, the next to last to be posted. When I post the final one, I will share a pretty good UK anecdote with it, as well as posting the entire file. So stay tuned for that when the time comes.

As for the song: like “New Girlfriend,” this was always a crowd-pleaser, and for similar reasons I suppose. It’s one of those “signature” tunes of that era, and it has turned up on a great many Mtx forever lists. I have to say I’d rather written off that album, to be honest. (Making Things with Light.) I figured the comp. should include an obligatory nod to it, and no more. However forensic listening to the transfer/capture of the original full spectrum audio of the mix has revived it quite a bit in my mind. It has more going for it than I’d thought. I’m not sure the studio version of “Rocket Scientist” lives up to its full potential sonically but it does have something. I’m sure someone better than us could do it better. The Dickies would be my choice. But, you know, they’ve got their own songs.

Lyrically it is just a big ball of silliness, which isn’t necessarily a drawback when it comes to Songs about Girls™. I still like this line, hard to articulate in practice as it undoubtedly is: “when I meet her at the mall there’ll be an avalanche of holding hands.” (I remember someone once telling me she thought the avalanche was of “falling ants”: Robyn Hitchcock, call your office. I’m not capable of that level of surreality, even as I appreciate it greatly.) The form of it is, I suppose, a rock and roll-ified aggregation of some tropes of that sort of classic compositional structure I learned as child from cartoons and game show theme tunes. They’re all like that a bit, really.

Anyway this performance certainly rocks and rolls. Even the MTX was capable of that, when pressed, and when the stars were right. But when the stars were wrong, they could not live. Such is astronomy, my friends.

Feel free to like, subscribe, upvote, comment, share, and talk amongst yourselves. Drink a nice, cool, refreshing beverage. And if you happen to have the idea of cooling yourself off by means of placing a small hand-axe in the freezer for a few hours and then applying it to your head to soothe your boiling brain, take care to wrap it in a plastic bag first, or it may stick to your forehead. I learned that one the hard way.

(Original post is here.)

3 “Big Mistake”

Misty Water-Colored Memories: Last night was Valborgsmässoafton, otherwise known as Walpurgis Night, otherwise known as, you know Tuesday. I hope you all had a wild one. And now it’s May Day, which means the children dance around a great big phallic pole, if they still do that, and a certain sort of person calls in sick to work and heads out into the streets for some class struggle theatre, if they still do that. And yet, with all that happening, or not happening, it is still Wodnesdæg and time for another Song for Odin™. The songs go on, without regard to anything outside themselves, eschewing “relevance,” evading topicality, ignoring the here and now in favor of aiming at some sort of universality, and falling well short of that mark, as they must. At least they’re trying, though, sort of: you’ve got to give them that.

So, here’s “Big Mistake” from Gilman, Berkeley, 1988, one of the earliest songs in the repertoire dating back to before this band was a band, springing from some inarticulate angst that is quite unrecoverable from the extant “text.”

When I think of the songs of the twenty-ish Dr Frank, “Big Mistake” is a pretty apt metaphor for most of them. You can often sense a genuine song buried deep inside all the fumbling, one that, had it been cultivated and shaped more competently, might have emerged as something good, even great, or, at least, much, much better. If only I’d had some real adult supervision, of the writing and execution, someone to point out what I was doing wrong and what could be done better, I could have avoided a solid decade of lazy, meandering trial and error and got straight to the good stuff leaving behind a much less awkward and embarrassing “legacy.”

If I could go back in time and have a chat with him I’d know exactly what to tell him, though I don’t know that he’d have paid any heed. Probably I just would have made it worse. The Dr Frank of that time embodied chaos and randomness in pretty much every aspect, not thinking too much about what he was doing but just doing it for no particular reason. I doubt he could have been disciplined in any meaningful or effective way. I just thought standing up there strumming and yelling was enough, I seriously did.

The thing is, it didn’t matter that much in those days. The difference between writing and playing a great song and writing and playing a not-so-great one mattered not at all in any practical sense. (In a way, it still doesn’t, let’s be honest: if you do it well, if you put any effort into it at all, you’re doing it Quixotically, for its own sake, God love ya.) Those kids at Gilman didn’t care whether your song was firing on all cylinders, doing all it could. I chose not to work so hard, the only excuse being that I didn’t have any idea what working hard would entail, and I didn’t care all that much and didn’t realize it would ever matter.

What I would have told the young doctor is, go to your record collection, identify five songs you like better than all the others, and think seriously about what you like about them and how what you like about them was accomplished; and when you try to put these techniques into practice, make sure you know what the song is supposed to be about and what you want it to do, and don’t let anything “slide” just because you can and no one is paying much attention. And if it’s not great, don’t “release” it till you’ve made it great. And also, get the drummer to play a steady, uncomplicated beat that stays at the same tempo for the entire two minutes. So simple, yet so hard to grasp in the moment, somehow. It’s weird seeing this picture of the past so stark, glaring, and in your face. I’d prefer misty water-colored memories. I’ve got those too, probably. Somewhere.

(Original post on minds is here.)

4 “The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be”

Still falling short of close enough… Wodnesdæg is here again. Today is also, coincidentally, May 15, which is in some traditions the final day under the influence of the Eisheligan, the “Ice Saints,” dedicated to Saint Sophia or Cold Sophie. One last blast of frost before seedlings can be planted safely, is the idea. The San Francisco Bay Area isn’t known for its frost, of course, but I’ve seen news of an impending Weather Event, wherein an entire winter’s worth of rain, however much that is, is scheduled to come down from the Heavens on this single day. That seems likely to be an exaggeration, but I’ll be watching for spectacular scenes of inundation and preparing to move the records, books, and guitars to higher ground, so to speak, if the deluge creeps past the threshold. It will likely be an anti-climax, though, like most things. Like, The Drought, for instance.

But I digress. Song for Odin™, Song for Sophie, Song for the Cancelled Drought begins now. And what we have here is “The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be”, live in Genoa, Italy, October 1996.

The song is from the Love Is Dead album, which came out in January of that year. I don’t remember playing this particular song all that often and this is in fact the only video documentation I’ve seen of it. It’s a song a lot of people seem to like, but it’s not spectacularly distinguished in any particular way. It works through its conceit in an unceremonious, efficient manner without pausing to do anything interestingly weird. (Though the dual bridge, to be sure, is just a bit weird.)

It’s funny how we sensitive, narcissistic, fragile-ego’d artistic types tend to take even mild criticism so much to heart. Writers never ever forget or forgive a mean review, not ever. If you give someone a negative review you are making an enemy for life. This is a truism. I’d never admit it, other than the fact that I guess I’m sort of admitting it now, but there was some review somewhere at the time dismissing the Love Is Dead album as just more generic “nyah nyah everything sucks” banality (paraphrasing here), citing this song as a characteristic example. It may just have been in a zine put together by an eighth-grader, but of course it irked me as only a precious, self-regarding songwriter can be irked. And I’m not at all sure that’s not why I’ve always felt a little down on this song. Generic banality, good Lord. I shy away from such. I have been known to describe the song as “not my finest hour.” To which fans of it have objected strenuously, bless their / your hearts.

However, considering it now for the first time in awhile, well, it ain’t perfect but it’s not half bad. The title and chorus is a paradoxical apophthegm usually attributed to Yogi Berra. (I certainly thought of it as a “Yogi-ism” at the time, though now the internet tells me it’s got a longer, more complicated history.) The song’s program is quite simple: the narrator takes the conventional supposed malapropism literally, comparing the love-gone-wrong future with what might have been. There are some good lines, some good rhymes, and nothing particularly awkward, plus some interesting melody-cum-chord variations slightly off from the conventional (the occasional flatted third in the I and IV chord, mainly.). It sticks relentlessly to the conceit, which doesn’t seem so difficult to do till you actually try it: when songs go awry, it is most often from straying from this focus, which this song doesn’t do. Solid B, maybe even a B+ if I’m being generous. Or am I kidding myself?

It contains the only lyric on the album that alludes to the title, which makes it a bit more prominent than it might otherwise have been.

I’m not the first or only guy to try to turn “the future ain’t what it used to be” into a song by any means of course. This is just the way I did it. Of course very, very few of those mostly teenaged fans who dug this record when it came out were aware of Yogi Berra or the title qua well-known epigram. They mostly thought I made it up all by myself. And every so often I’ll hear from someone who, much later in life, stumbled on to and was taken aback by the “source material.” Not just with this song, it’s a fairly regular phenom. Sometimes it’s an appreciated “aha” moment for them, and they are charmed by it; sometimes they’re kind of mad, like I pulled a fast one at their expense. Why didn’t you tell me it was from Yogi Berra? Well, I don’t know, that’s not how I write songs. The song wouldn’t have been better if I had inserted “as Yogi said” before the choruses. That would just have made it more confusing, really. It’s not about Yogi Berra. It’s about the guy lamenting his incipient loveless destiny.

So there it is. If you always hated this song, I hope, like me, that you hate it just a little bit less now. If you feel betrayed by the unattributed pseudo-Yogi appropriation, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s too late to do anything about it now.

(Original post is here.)

Et cetera: Show Business Is My Life

LK 222, Show Business Is My Life came out 20 years ago, jeez! This record wasn’t a huge seller when released but it hung in there the whole way through, pretty good for a one-off solo album. Like most of the stuff I’ve done, people seemed puzzled by it at first, then it gradually became an unnoticed part of the scenery, like wallpaper. Mostly these were rejected songs from the demos for the previous MTX album (which already had too many songs on it) done more “my way.” I think the original title idea was to call it: REJECTS. I still like it, which I can’t say about all my stuff. I’ve got some fairly ambitious plans for an expanded re-issue, if the time ever comes.

Anyway, some “minor secrets”:

— “Ask Beth”: who’s this song about, I’m often asked. Or if someone named Beth comes up, the question will be, is that song about her?

In fact, though, the subject of the song is a syndicated newspaper column by one Beth Winship that I read in the San Francisco Chronicle when I was growing up in the 70s. The column was called Ask Beth and it was kind of a Dear Abby for teens. The questions were usually about sex, dating, drugs… all the Go Ask Alice type “youth issues” pretty much. Using it as the conceit for a song was a pretty good idea, and fortunately I did it well enough (I like to think) that it still works even when you don’t know about Beth Winship and her column, which, I have learned, most people these days do not.

At worst, such dated references make the song in question incomprehensible and quite difficult to explain (e.,g. “Hello Kitty Menendez”); but at best it can be just cryptic “background” that you don’t really need to know about to “get” the song. Which is the case with “Ask Beth” because it’s the relationship drama and its implied story that is in the forefront… there’s an extra kick if you know the he’s telling her to write to a teen sex advice column instead of asking him, but you don’t need to know that. It wasn’t some grand design here, planning for a future in which the song, but not the column, was present enough to be under examination, I just got lucky. But it’s a kind of songwriting lesson nonetheless.

Here’s the wikipedia page for Beth Winship. I wondered whether there’d be a “cultural references” section mentioning this song… but no such luck. As I said it’s not generally known that there’s even a connection. But it should be there, don’t you think? And lest you think it’s way out of line to suggest that my songs should invade people’s wikipedias, my song did manage to make into the E. R. Dodds page.

Finally, as to the photo: this is a DAT, which is the sole extant copy of this recording, in any form. I found it in a boot a few years ago. Otherwise this record would be lost, for good. Life is strange.

btw, I looked around to see if anyone else had done an “Ask Beth” and found this.

Dwayne is falling down on me I’m freezing in the cold…

Turning a knock-knock joke into a relationship-dynamics song in which the lyrical narrative depicts the literal knock knock joke scenario (guy is locked out of house, trying to persuade his girlfriend to let him in by adopting a series of unlikely names, the punchline response in each case being a pun on the name that furthers the “please let me in” argument) — well, I don’t think I ever came up with, nor could I ever come up with, a better conceit. (It’s harder to explain than grasp, really: all you have to do is hear it.)

Plus, there’s a blonde joke in the bridge. Plus “a ball and chain can be crutch…” “I’d really love the feeling of you falling into me…”

This song was supposed to be on Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You, but it was strenuously objected to by Jim, the drummer, who, I believe, thought it was too cutesy and jokey and gimmicky (all of which, it was, I fully admit.) In fact, the first inkling of there being a solo album at all came in the form of a repeated Jim joke, where when he didn’t like a song he’d say “you know what this song would be good on? Your first solo album.” Out of the mouths of babes. I didn’t feel like fighting, or dying on the “Knock Knock” hill; the song was junked and the imaginary solo record soon came to pass.

Anyway, I’m glad it happened the way it did in the end because the production and arrangement technique for RISaSAY would have stomped all over this song, and compressed and genericized it. Sometimes, quirky is better.

It would have been a great, crowd-pleasing live song, though, with Joel playing Paige, I have no doubt. As it is when I do it solo, but moreso. And yes, the girl saying “who’s there?” is our old pal Paige O’Donoghue (who also contributed triangle to “Can I Do the Thing?” plus lots of laughing on various tracks, by the way.) The girls singing back up were from the band Me First; they’re also the backup singers for “Two Martinis from Now.”

This was one of two songs on Show Business Is My Life where I played drums in the studio. (The other is “Ask Beth.”) You can probably tell! No fills, just beat. And the beat is… close enough, I guess. I borrowed Dan Panic’s drum kit for that session, and he congratulated me when he came to pick them up because I’d broken several of his sticks with my rim shot snare hits. Apparently that is a kind of drummer rite of passage or merit badge or something. I can’t remember the name of the guy who played the trombone, but I do remember painstakingly writing out the rudimentary part on hand-drawn music staff paper… I’d envisioned a substantial horn section on this song, but there was only room in the budget for one double tracked bass trombone. You work with what you got.