Minor Secrets Revealed, the Mr T Experience and Dr Frank Part 13
I think we’re at around 100 Songs for Odin™ posts thus far, which is pretty crazy. I figured I’d run out of material, or steam, sooner than this, but material remains. As does steam. So here are the most recent entries, plus an extra “bonus” entry at the end: “I Believe in You”, “Sackcloth and Ashes”, “Not Guilty,” “Population: Us”, and “I Feel Love.”
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 it being scheduled for Wodnesdæg, hence the cute Odin references throughout.
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.
[links in preceding paragraph updated, 12.29.2020 — ed.]
By the way, the “Not Guilty” video got hardly any views because its posting coincided with a big Facebook outage. Sad as it is, Facebook is the preferred information distribution hub of The People, and when it goes dark the result is that no one looks at anything. It’s a really awful platform, too: it does literally terrible, evil things under the hood and it doesn’t even work very well in what it purports to do. Lots of material is invisible, everything is out of order, and nothing posted there is reliably findable after the fact. Even when it’s “up” and not glitching, it still doesn’t work, by design it seems: stuff you might want to see is deliberately hidden, censored, and manipulated. I will rejoice when it finally cracks apart and sinks into the earth, and I will dance on its grave. But this is a pretty good example of the need for indexing, archiving, and preserving “content,” on your own. (As I’m doing here.) You can’t rely on anyone else to decide what is worthwhile, obviously, but that is essentially the post-“web 2.0” ethos to whose regime we are subject on this Internet of ours. Let this big, weird, stupid company organize your information, and let them make the call on what you should and should not see on the basis of its own sinister agenda. That’s how we live now.
I don’t know how many people there are who are interested in these song posts of mine (hundreds? thousands? dozens?) but if, as seems to be the case, most of them are relying on Facebook to tell them when a new one goes up they are going to miss stuff. If you don’t care, fine, I don’t care that you don’t care, but for those who do, at least there’s a record here.
If you are interested in this stuff, and in other material that I post, you can follow my activities on:
— minds.com. Despite some bugs and growing pains, this platform doesn’t censor or manipulate, and if you go to my page you will see everything in chronological order with nothing hidden. (And here’s a referral link if you want to join rather than just lurk.) The main thing it’s missing for my purposes is an archive system and effective search. If they ever do get that going, and if they can keep up the no-censorship policy, they’ll be dynamite, and I won’t have to work so hard to “index” things. That’s probably why Facebook hides minds content and threatens you and accuses you of being “unsafe” when you post minds links. The fiends!
— Medium: I generally post something new here on Monday or Tuesday (as I’m doing now) plus a round-up of the week’s links and activity on Friday (the “weakly reader.”) This is an attempt to provide the internet’s “missing index”, for me at least, so that if I, or others, might like to find something I’ve written or posted there’s a place to go to check for it. It ain’t perfect, but it’s the best way I can figure out at the moment. My Medium profile page is here.
— YouTube: my YouTube account is small, but comprehensive. All the stuff of the kind collected in this post is there, and it’s well-organized within the account’s display. Nothing is big enough or controversial enough to trip the increasingly sensitive censorship wires over there and I don’t expect it ever will be. So yay for being small. I urge you to subscribe, share, etc. as it is a help to me and the channel and can’t hurt. However, if you rely on YouTube alone to alert you to new posts you’ll miss things. They de-emphasize smaller, non-monetized channels in the “recommended” flow, even when you’ve subscribed to them, and they do at least some of the usual manipulation and invisibilizing I’ve complained about with regard to Facebook. They are, in fact, a powerful force in the War on Chronological Order: their sort filters have recently been disabled so you can’t even search for recently uploaded content by date, and I have no confidence in their search by “relevance” either. Who knows what’s being suppressed? But if you go to the main Dr Frank channel page, you’ll (probably) see everything. And if you check it around 9 AM PST on Wednesday, there should be something new there. Maybe you can have Siri remind you.
Those are the main places, for what it’s worth.
Anyway, on to the songs.
1 Dr Frank — “I Believe in You”
Happy Wodnesdæg, or dies Mercurii if you’re fancy. As you may know, I post a song video with a little write-up at Miðviku, for Odin, for Mercury, and for rock and roll. Praise them. (I know, I’m weird. I pick a stupid conceit, I run with it till I collapse sobbing in the corner saying “why why”: you must know that about me by now.) Anyhow, what we have here is another song from that new flexi e.p. Dr Frank Live at the Court Tavern. As with the previous one, “The Grooviest Girl in the World”, this is video of the actual recording, both captured by our own Lauren Banjo on a New Jersey night, June 2018.
One of the inadvertent sub-themes of that night was that the little crowd tended to burst into applause at every lull in the proceedings, even in those bits in songs that call for a dramatic pause before heading into the final chorus or whatever. I guess it’s to be expected with “false endings”, and it happens all the time with “More than Toast” (as it did on that night as well.) But I was able to turn it into a “thing” and wring thereby a few drops of badinage out of my rather modest showmanship dishrag, as here.
It was fun, and I suspect they may have been doing it on purpose to an extent, wringing a few drops out of their collective dishrag as well: that’s entertainment. But it does occur to me that many of my songs do have “punchlines” like that, whether they’re meant to be funny or not. I mean, “I Believe in You” could well have ended before that last verse, but, as I explain gormlessly here, it’s good to stick around to the projection of the future at the end, which kind of changes the character of the song.
Zooming out from this particular song, and thinking about what makes an effective song, the reason this sort of thing works (and a reason why many songs that are good in every other way can fall flat nevertheless) is that it gives the whole thing some direction. It creates a sense that something has happened in the course of the two minute production you’re presenting, that the song “takes you somewhere.” Not all songs have to do this, and many great songs don’t, but the really good ones tend to do this in some form. Of course, by playing the pause before the final verse for laughs, such as they were, I distracted attention from the song itself I suppose. But no one cared. They all knew this song pretty well anyway. It was all just a good time.
I consider this to be one of my best songs, unusual in that it is well-structured, rather complex in fact, but not over-written (which is something I struggle to achieve to this day.) It’s also, perhaps, a bit unusual in that it drops the sardonic parole of my usual sort of narrator (something the narrator actually refers to in the first pre-chorus.) That’s hard to do for a guy like him, and me. Anyway if anyone remembers any of the stuff I’ve done after I’m gone (which I expect some will for five minutes or so) I’d be good with this being the one.
A final note on the Dr Frank Live at the Court Tavern release: the flexis are limited to 200 numbered copies. There are, I believe, still a few left: go here if you want one, or other Dr Frank “product.” The digital version now seems to be up on all the services if you missed out on the flexi, e.g. Amazon. And that’ll wrap it up. May Odin smile grimly upon you all.
(Original post on minds.)
2 “Sackcloth and Ashes”
Gesælig æsc Wodnesdæg to eow. On þone wodnes dæg wide geond eorðan sacerdas bletsiað swa swa hit geset ís clæne axan on cyrcan and þa siððan lecgað uppa manna hæfda þæt hi habban on gemynde þæt hi of eorðan comon and eft to duste gewendað… Yes, I’ve broken into Anglo-Saxon verse (copied from Ælfric’s paper) to commemorate Ash Wednesday and present yet another Song for Odin. I know it’s weird. Like many things, it works better if you don’t think about it too hard.
Anyway, “Sackcloth and Ashes” seems like the right song for today. I spilled some “minor secrets” on this song a ways back, with video from a 2016 show in Chicago.
This one is from Genoa, Italy, October 1996, that is, twenty years earlier, and just a year after it was recorded, with the line-up that first recorded it, so you could say this is “Sackcloth and Ashes” in its purest form. To be honest, though, the voice plus tremolo guitar version on Shards vol. 1 is more along the lines of how it it was originally conceived. When I imagined it being done by a band, I always thought of it as a kind of folkie acoustic string-band “Walk Right in Sit Right Down…” sort of thing. I was very into the old time music at that time and I had the New Lost City Ramblers in mind when I wrote a whole lot of those Love Is Dead songs, believe it or not. Probably the stupidest idea I ever had, I never coulda pulled it off I’m sure. But it turns out simple “folk songs” with complex lyrical compositional conceits concerning love and loss played in minimal punk rock arrangements did “click”.
And it is, of course, the most popular and approved-of thing I’ve ever done. It resulted from a combination of our own limitations, and misfiring on some ambitions that laid bare unintended consequences that were unexpectedly viable… and of course, good songs, you can’t do anything without that. But distilling something to its essence isn’t always as easy or obvious as you might think, and when it happened here it was largely accidental. That’s the thing about studio recording… you never have as much control as you want to have, and things sometimes take on a life of their own and come out their own way. (And when this happens in a big way it tends to be really, really awful or really, really good — you have no way of specifying, or even of knowing, which it is to be, or which it was.) I guess that’s how it is with all art. It’s certainly the case with writing novels. If it “comes out” exactly as planned, it’s dead. Something has to happen in the process to zap life into it. Then you’ve got to catch that charge and amplify it and try to capture and present it in such a way that others out in the world can grasp it. It’s not all that easy to make that happen.
Anyway, I’m not knocking it. This is one of my best-loved songs, as far as I can tell, the opening track on the best-loved album described above. I see why, but I also don’t quite get it either. Just, you know, remembering that I am dust and to dust I shall return. Rock and roll, folks. Like, subscribe, comment, share, and do all those other things one does with “content” these days. It can’t hurt.
3 “Not Guilty”
Welcome back to Wodnesdæg and Song for Odin™, and to the Minor Secrets of “Not Guilty,” which is a song that appears on the 1993 MTX album Our Bodies Our Selves.
It’s been awhile since I’ve posted a song from this 1992 Southampton UK show. (For those who want to keep track this will be the sixteenth posted of the eighteen-song set, leaving, if I’m doing the math properly, two to go on this one. What a long strange trip it’s been.)
I was slightly surprised to see this song turn up in the set, as it is so firmly associated in my mind with the following line-up / era of “Gun Crazy” / Our Bodies Our Selves — as opposed to this MTX iteration, which is basically the Milk Milk Lemonade one. But clearly we were doing this song at that time, pre-OBOS. It seems to be a work in progress, not all the way baked, with the lyrics in a state of transition and some vocal stuff that didn’t make it to the recording stage. I think we were just, you know, fooling around with it at that stage, and I doubt we played it very often. I seem to have been largely free-associating the lyrics. At any rate, the rhymed couplet “keep all your clothes on / or I’ll turn the hose on” did not make it into the final recorded version.
It’s the only non-previously released song in the set. (“Together Tonight,” a version of which was re-recorded for OBOS, doesn’t qualify because it was released on the Spanish Munster Records 7" released for this tour.)
I’m fairly certain that it and “Together Tonight” were the only OBOS songs we were doing at that time, because I remember precisely when I came up with the Gun Crazy songs, in my Oakland apartment with my recently-acquired Les Paul Jr (the white one) and a Marshall half stack. It was in the aftermath of this tour, during which the band basically disintegrated and I was wondering what it was all in aid of, even as I knew that “More Than Toast” and “Swallow Everything’ were worthwhile enough that maybe, just maybe, it would be worth trying to wring one more recording out of the seemingly completely wrung-out Mr T Experience.
And that’s in fact what happened. And it must have been pretty quick (though it doesn’t seem that way in memory — in my memory that post Euro-tour uncertainty and doubt and the staring-at-the-cracks-in-the-ceiling “spirit of ‘91” Les Paul Jr. strumming stretches endlessly.) But the recording session, with MTX now as a trio, in Bob Couver’s shed studio in Berkeley, happened soon enough after our return to the US in July 1992 for the Gun Crazy 7" to be released at some point before the year was out. We recorded “More than Toast,” “Swallow Everything,” “Not Guilty,” “Together Tonight,” and the Banana Splits cover “Don’t Go Away Go Go Girl” in that session. (I’m pretty sure the tiny budget was mostly covered by whatever we got from the label, Skull Duggery, that commissioned the cover — that was how we used to operate.)
Gun Crazy turned out great, but was strangled in its crib, so to speak, by our having stolen the photo for the cover. A cease and desist letter from the photographer’s lawyer ended its career before it was even released, if I recall correctly. That’s one reason why those three songs were awkwardly shoehorned into the CD version of the subsequent Our Bodies Our Selves album, because the 7" was just, you know, gone.
Anyway, back to “Not Guilty”: I’m not sure it ever got all the way “baked,” and it was certainly of lesser overall quality than “More than Toast,” but there is something cool and bracing and, I don’t know, brazen about it. And it’s got “something” even in this ragged performance. It’s trying, sort of, to leverage minimalism without sounding minimal. I was consciously trying to fine-tune and elevate my songwriting approach at this time and I probably could have done a lot more with this one but whatever, it’s part of “history” now as it stood then and stands now. A very small part, I know, but we can’t retroactively re-engineer things like that. Small is beautiful, I think the saying used to go. Peace and love. Like and subscribe. Share and comment. Forever and ever.
(Original post on minds.)
4 Dr Frank & the Bye Bye Blackbirds — “Population: Us”
This is Song for Odin™, our Wodnesdæg tradition, where I take one of my songs and comment on it on the internet. This is the Vernal Equinox as well, known as the feast of Ostara / Eostre. A time for fertility, for fecundity, and for misanthropy, and for avoiding one’s neighbors at all costs, building a fortress against them and hunkering down praying they’ll just go away and leave you alone. Maybe those last aren’t particularly traditional, but they’re important to me. And have I got a song to mark the occasion? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I have.
Taking a break from the live videos, what we have here is the B side, I suppose, of a single I did with the Bye Bye Blackbirds in 2014, two of my old mainly-acoustic songs arranged as full band “electric” tunes. As I explained when I wrote up the other side (“Even Hitler…”) this all resulted from a show where I shared the bill with them at the Starry Plough in Berkeley. We thought it would be fun to do a couple of songs live with them as the back up band, and I chose a couple of acoustic songs that I’d always wanted to electrify (“Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend” and “Population: Us”.) We had enough of a good time doing it that we decided to record them and, after the wind blew away a whole bunch of calendar pages, that’s what happened.
As with that, this is basically a case of me covering my own song. They’re all like that a bit, when you get far enough away from them, which can easily happen over thirty years of songs.
I’ve always considered “Population: Us” to be one of my best songs. It takes some risks but manages to deliver, that’s the main reason I suppose. And in the quest to find a new angle on “you and me against the world” (which gets harder every time) I don’t think I’ve ever managed to do it better. It was originally one of the large batch of songs in contention for inclusion on the 1997 album Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You, but I never introduced it to the band or producer at the time because I doubted my ability to get across how I wanted it to come out. (That was a pretty solid doubt; I didn’t have the capability to do demos at that time and my strum-and-shout method wouldn’t have managed to do it.) In the aftermath of the that album, though, I’d acquired a Tascam four track cassette “portastudio” and I did do a rudimentary demo to suggest the direction I’d imagine some future MTX recording of it might take. It was acoustic guitar, an electric part played through one of the those cigarette box practice amps, a lead vocal, and back up vocal.
When we were reviewing my various demos to choose songs for my subsequent solo album Show Business Is My Life, Kevin Army said “I know you probably intend this one for your band but…” He wanted basically to recreate the demo arrangement in the studio, exactly as it was but with higher fidelity. I was skeptical (and I hadn’t thought much of the demo version as such) but that’s what we did, and that’s what ended up on the album. And Kevin was right, there’s a unique quality in the minimalism and it definitely gets the song across, which is the most important, and often elusive, thing. But I always wanted to see what a full band version might sound like, and this is it.
As for the song itself, the only thing I’ll say here is: it’s generally a bad idea to rhyme what are in effect suffixes with each other, as this song does all over the place. I mean, it’s not really a rhyme to pair “population” with “defenestration” or “stoicism” with “exorcism” whatever. It’s like rhyming “moon” with “moon”. It’s the same construction and it tends to irritate me when I hear it done out in the wild. It claims credit for a rhyme where no work has been done. It’s okay here and there when needs must, but, like “near rhymes” and “slant rhymes” and other kinda sorta rhyme-like constructions, it’s not as good a real rhyme. A real one is always going to be better. However, I think I found the way to make it work here, and it’s how most things I have made work work: just, you know, beat it into the ground and then beat it some more, turn the flaw into a ridiculous plan, and thus into an unexpected virtue. That’s my contention anyway. There are some good lines, too, apart from the -ations. “I hate people, they’re not like you and me” — put that one on my tombstone if you like.
The artwork for the 7" was designed by Chris Appelgren, and it came out on Good Land Records in a variety of colors. Thanks for listening and reading. Do what you can with what you’ve got, little though it may be. Twenty years later you might find it wasn’t all that bad after all. Happy Odin’s day one and all.
(Original post on minds.)
5 “I Feel Love”
This entry wasn’t a Song for Odin™, but it does reveal some minor secrets about a question I’m often asked, so I’m including it here.
An old pic of me from an old magazine with an even older guitar… that’s a ’57 Les Paul Jr, which was my main guitar from ’92 till around ’97 when I started playing the much more stable, reliable Epiphone Coronet, mainly. The guy who sold it to me claimed its previous owner had been Johnny Guitar Watson, which is big if true, but easy to say. I took it on tour all over the place and abused it mercilessly, all the while unaware that the bridge posts were leaning gradually ever nearer to the pickup (a common problem, I was to learn. I instinctively compensated for some of the tuning weirdness by bending strings and de-emphasizing the third and second string in open chords and when moving up the neck, till in the end it became unplayable. (Then I had to work on breaking those habits when I switched to more, er, traditional guitars.) While it was playable, though, despite the “issues,” it had the greatest tone you ever, ever heard.
After leaving it in the case for 20 years, I recently got it restored and replaced the bridge with an adjustable wrap-around. It’s playable now and still sounds amazing. However, the tuning issues still hover, less severe than before, but still present. Part of it is just a Gibson thing, owing to the short scale I have heard, meaning there’s always going to be a bit of a third and second string “twang” no matter what you do. That’s a sound all its own, and is one of the building blocks of rock and roll. But also, there’s just something wild and out of control about this beast. It is crazy resonant even when not plugged into anything, and the overtones and undertones and what-not are just off the charts. Electronic tuners’ needles jump all over the place, even when you’re pretty solidly “in there” on a single string.
Plus, the pickup tends to tune in to radio signals. (Which have wound up on records — one guy talking on a CB saying “I just hate everybody I want to kill everybody too” kind of defines the song it wound up on (a cover of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”):
It’s just kind of a thing unto itself. You gotta hang on to it and ride it, doing your best to steer but giving it its head as well. I’ve played shows with it since, but it’s too temperamental to take on the road on its own and I’ve largely drifted back to the rock solid Coronet. But I still love it more than just about anything.
(Original post on minds.)