My Love Is Dead, and Yours
A “behind the music” essay, some old notes, and a video playlist
24 years. Funny, it feels like only 22. My favorite LID memory is when Metal Mike took me aside to tell me about this album he’d heard in a record store, Is Love Dead? by a band called MXT, saying I’d like it and it was better than my band. Also the review that began “Love Is Dead, a.k.a. the dumbing down of the Mr T Experience…”
That Metal Mike anecdote is quite true (as anyone who knows him can readily believe I’m sure) but in fact it’s not easy to arrive at a “favorite” memory, not literally anyway. All the memories, the smooth and the rough, are jumbled up together. It was, after all, nearly a quarter of a century ago (jeez) and they were not particularly easy or happy times, at least for me personally. I wrote the songs for the most part in a pretty good, hopeful state of mind, though of course I expected nothing much to come of them as usual. But by the time the recording came around, I, for reasons I won’t get into now, was mentally falling to bits. And maybe you can hear it in some of the recordings? I sure can.
Even if it’s not quite so noticeable outright, it is partly responsible, I’m sure, for an underlying dark tinge, a spirit and a “sonic mood” a shade darker than the rather run-of-the-mill melancholy of the literal lyrics. (Well, run-of-the-mill for me.) It’s what gives the album its cohesion, whether or not you notice it. It’s in the sound itself, built-in, so to speak. And such darkness coupled with the bright, peppy, racing-away songs with good melodies can be a great recipe. I knew this all along (it’s why the Buzzcocks were and will forever remain so irresistibly compelling) and it has always been an aspiration for my songs, by deliberate design. But the fact that it came together with such resounding er, success this time around — relatively speaking, of course, but by general consensus of those few who have paid attention and cared — is still mostly an accident of circumstance. A purely “fun” album recorded with an on-top-of-the-world hey-how’s-everybody-feeling-tonight kind of singer / songwriter, wouldn’t have been as good, even if it still sounds like fun to a great deal of its audience.
Sounds Rad head honcho Chris Thacker remembers it this way:
I picked this little gem up at Smash Records in DC a few days after it came out. I had broken up with a girl and it was still really raw. This album actually made the pain worse — but I am a glutton for suffering. Still one of my favorite records.
“This album actually made the pain worse.” Exactly. Same here.
Subsequent events place this album in the context of a sort of new beginning for the Mr T Experience (new bass player, greater recording and promotional resources, more touring, more public interest in “pop punk”); and it was. But the songs themselves were, for the most part, written in quite a different frame of mind, with a sense that everything had finally pretty much wound down all the way this time, and this “collection” would, if it ever saw the light of day, be a kind of coda or epilogue. (So much of my “work” has been like this — I should have maybe figured this out by then. That I was too dumb to quit, I mean.)
I remember thinking what a shame it was that this wind-down happened just as I was finally figuring how to write songs properly and that no one would ever hear them.
I’ve shared this picture before, the notebook in which these lyrics were written down:
I recorded a live acoustic demo (around forty songs!) to pass on to Kevin Army to see if he could help them see the light of day.
At that point, doing them as punk rock was a possibility rather than a certainty. They were, for the most part, conceived as singer-songwriter-y folk songs, and I envisioned most of them either solo acoustic or done as lightly arranged folk rock. But somewhere in the timeline as this was happening, Joel joined the band and “pop punk” started getting big — this latter matter forcing an attitude adjustment at Lookout Records, whom I’d pretty much given up on by that point. (And the feeling was mutual, for the most part, from what I was able to gather.) But the new regime, at least our corner of it, now led by Chris Appelgren developing his own projects, was a different kettle of fish. He was able to approve a real recording budget for once — real relatively speaking that is. $10,000, which was around ten times the usual amount, if that. (This was to lead, as you probably know, to a longstanding friendship and working relationship that continues to this day: he did the Mtx forever artwork, and working together on it was pretty much exactly like it was 1995 again.)
So Love Is Dead was recorded as a punk rock album rather than a singer-songwriter folk rock album after all — another juxtaposition, perhaps, that lends it a unique quality. And it was recorded in a real studio this time, approximating the way real records were recorded by real musicians, on 24 track two inch tape, multiple takes, overdubs, even a degree of pre-production. It was still all a bit of a rush. It always is — there’s never enough time. And like I said I was rather a mess.
But we threw ourselves into it with absolutely everything we had. The resulting thing came out alright and did recoup this budget — about which everyone was skeptical, including me —and, whatever else you might say about it, it has stood the test of time, at least to the extent that people still listen to it. That alone, twenty-four years later, is really something. To my great surprise, it was money, and tears and sweat, well spent.
As with most of my own stuff, it is a struggle even now to see past its flaws. (Not wild about the bass sound, the vocal tone, some of the tempos, some of the cursory arrangements — though in the latter case, that’s a characteristic part of it, arguably one of the things people like about it.) I couldn’t bear to listen to it for years and years, in fact. But these past years of reviewing tapes and re-assessing this stuff has given me a bit of a new perspective. People like it, they like it for a reason, and what are flaws in the face of that, really? In the end, as so often and maybe even always, it’s the songs that matter, they rise above even the worst treatment if they’re good enough.
I’m glad it happened, as it turns out, and the way it happened was pretty much the way it had to happen. Otherwise it would have been something other than itself, maybe nothing. Go figure.
Speaking of that re-assessment, here’s where the old notes come in. Back in 2011, I made a series of posts on Facebook, where I listened to the back catalog for the first time since release and commented on their ups and downs and discussed them with virtual friends. I realize now that I was on some level trying to determine if it was worth resuscitating, worth anything at all, and in fact, that was the true beginning of the process in which I’m engaged now. I have previously posted a couple of digests of this material (for …and the Women Who Love Them, Milk Milk Lemonade, and Our Bodies Our Selves here; and for Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You and Show Business Is My Life here.)
So here, for what it’s worth are those notes concerning Love Is Dead, which are from a single post and its comment-thread. (It’s here in native form if you’d like to check it out.)
— So: Love is Dead. Been thinking a bit about this one because I’ve been trying to reconstruct some of the songs found in an old notebook from that era for a possible upcoming project type thing. Lotta “firsts” here: first album recorded in a real studio, first with new bass player, first one that sold okay, first after having quit my day job for full time “show business.” Weakest moment: “I’d Do Anything for You.” Unexpectedly semi-okay: “Hanging on to You.” Beautiful cover.
— The guitar sound really works, I’ll give you that. And the songs are (mostly) solid.
— first time I ever saw Kevin Army mic a garbage can. But not the last.
— Biggest sonic regret is the weirdly distant snare intro to “That Prozac Moment” — what the hell? It seems like something could have been done about [it] but somehow nothing got done. Maybe we just felt no one would notice by that time.
— “I’m Like Yeah…” is a swell song, played too fast though.
— “I’d Do Anything…” just doesn’t quite come together, despite some nice things about it. I’m glad there are so many fans of “I’d Do Anything…” It has its moments, but I think it is just trying too hard.
— “Deep Deep Down”: [in response to a “what’s up with that song” question] I always wanted to try a “murder ballad,” and that was my try. Based on an abduction/murder case in Berkeley. Possibly a bit inspired by “Miller’s Cave.”
— I remember when we did the record release show at the Bottom of the Hill and seeing a group of kids immediately buy and break open the CD and just sit there reading the lyrics for like twenty minutes. Which felt like the most gratifying moment of my so-called “career” at the time, and kind of still does.
— “Sackcloth and Ashes”: [a]“She’s bad, she’s strong, or maybe she’s stupid…” Man, the arguments there were about that line! [b] kinda hard to know how to sing-pronounce the word “querulous” — still don’t know!
— “Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba”: there were also comments/complaints about the “teacher please” part of “ba ba ba…” comparing it to some kind of “hot for teacher” trope. When what I was thinking of was, like, a zen master or something.
— “feel so down when I’m not feeling you up” shocked Dallas Denery enough that he mentioned it twice, awkwardly.
— The post-facto negotiations with the NAACP for the lyrics of “Somebody’s Song” were pretty tricky. [Because Dorothy Parker left them the rights to her literary estate in her will — ed.] I think they cease-and-desisted us.
— Once tried to pitch MTV on a series called Dumb Little Band based on the song “Dumb Little Band” but they didn’t go for it.
— Never was super fond of “The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be” but it’s kind of growing on me.
— Some of these lyrics would make great cranky greeting cards. Wrong business, maybe.
— “Semi-OK” — “I’m Like Yeah” — “That Prozac Moment” — “You’re the Only One” is sequencing that works, but I’m pretty sure the middle two songs were put at the end because of the sonic deficiencies. I’ll always regret the tempo of “I’m Like Yeah…”
— “Sackcloth and Ashes,” “Semi-Okay,” “Deep Deep Down” and “You’re the Only One” are the highlights, maybe? But it’s overall a pretty good collection of songs.
— cover art: Chris Appelgren and I found the image in an old magazine — it was a soap ad. We just played around with it in photoshop till it looked like it does. Because of that there was brief, idle talk about changing the title to Come Clean, but it was always going to be Love is Dead. Before that, we’d been trying to draw coffins.
One commenter said the girl in question looked like the girl in the promotional film for the Troggs’ rendition of “Love Is All Around” and I can definitely see it. That wasn’t intentional, but I daresay it’s all a similar aesthetic:
— From Joel:
[a]“First album recorded in a real studio, first with new bass player …”
Say, that new bass player was me! The studio in question was legitimate enough that an honest-to-goodness gold record had been recorded there and was displayed on the wall of the live room with pride. The name of that gold record? “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”
[b] Also, I’m curious about the contents of those notebooks, and would love to see if any of the forsaken songs I remember from that time period become part of your reclamation project. I’m not just talking about the ones we rehearsed but never recorded (such as “Don’t Hang Up on Me” and “Another Stupid Breakup Song”), but also ones that you never even officially presented to the band but that I would overhear you playing in hotel rooms or humming on long van rides … I recall being quite moved by that one about how you might not live to see another Fastbacks show.
me: That song was called “Fastbacks Show” and I’ve never found it written down anywhere, so far.
— conclusion: Well, at least it goes by pretty quickly. Overall: I cringed a lot less than I expected to listening to this for the first time in over a decade. I can kind of see why some people love it so much, even. And I sure do appreciate all the kind words about it. Thanks, folks.
Finally, I was wondering what else I’d written about these songs recently, and did some searching. To my surprise, twelve of the album’s sixteen tracks have been featured as “Songs for Odin.” This list started out as my own notes, but I thought I’d share it here — seemed like the time to do it. So this is the tracklist with video where available and a snip from the songs’ respective minor secrets with “read the whole thing” links.
I’m gonna have to work on those four final songs. When I do, we’ll have a big party or something.
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.
As for the song itself, I’d imagined it with a sort of 60s folk-pop-psych sound, at least on the chorus. Kind of a semi-ironic hippie vibe. But of course I didn’t happen to have the capability to produce much of a 60s folk-pop-psych sound with a kind of semi-ironic hippie vibe so… it came out how it did, became part of history, and is still one my most popular songs…
3 — “I Just Wanna Do It with You”: two entries, here and here. (The latter is part of the whole set aggregate and wasn’t its own entry — I didn’t quite have the “system” down yet at that point. Scroll down.)
…but of course, for better or worse, I didn’t happen to have a didgeridoo, nor did I have a band that did measured tempos and groovy swingy feels and multi-part harmonies; but I did have a band that could do this. And, in fact, this has a lot going for it. The energy is great and apt. And pointing at the audience at the appropriate time (or should that be “inappropriate”?) was fun and people seemed to dig it…
(This video is a cover… it’s worth your time, as is the story of how it came to be.)
4 — “Somebody’s Song”: no Song for Odin entry yet, and if there’s a live performance of this song on video extant I have yet to come across it. I always been rather proud of the feat of turning a Dorothy Parker poem into a frenetic punk pop song.
…the narrator of “Thank You” clearly doesn’t like being called an “F word.” How can a character express that sentiment without actually referring to the thing he is objecting to? Beats me. We have turned ourselves into infants, at least when it comes to art. I clearly don’t understand this world we currently live in…
6 — “Dumb Little Band”: only one entry for this one so far, here.
One fun little gimmick in the recording is that in the verse referring to past band members we put in little arrangement “sound bites” that were kind of like impressions. Joel did a quite effective, characteristic Aaron-style bass run at the appropriate line (which feature remains in the live arrangement all these years later.) And we actually had to go out and rent a china cymbal to evoke Alex. I mean, it’s sort of funny, and maybe was even worth it. (Drummers, don’t get a china. Just don’t. No band or audience ever likes it.)
7 — “Hangin’ on to You”: this hasn’t come up yet as a Song for Odin, and I’m not too surprised I haven’t found a live version as we rarely played it. Still, it’s quite a good tune. I’ve recently done it solo-acoustic so maybe that’ll be the “way in.” We’ll see.
8 — “The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be”: here.
…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 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…
…there is one clunky/awkward line in the last verse that I’d probably change to “‘I’ve got a lot to learn” if I were to go back in time. That aside, it all works, the conceit, the lyrics, the structure, the development, all the melodic, harmonic, and conceptual counterpoints. Some of my best writing, though I say it myself, and the recording has some great energy, too. I used to talk about wishing I could “harness the horses and drive ‘em” a little better, and this was a pretty good attempt…
2 — “Deep Deep Down”: Definitely in the top handful of songs on the album and in the catalog, but no Song for Odin entry yet. Soon though. Just waiting for the right “resource” to come up.
3 — “Can I Do the Thing?”: here.
…each time I’d introduce a new song to the band, Jon von would inevitably ask, with regard to his guitar part: “can I do the thing on this one?” He liked doing the thing. And I can see why. The thing is great. Sometimes the answer was yes, sometimes no. And sometimes the thing would manage to creep in unbidden, as things of that kind often do….
4 — “I’d Do Anything for You”: I haven’t come across live video of this song yet, but I have played it solo-acoustic recently so maybe that’s how I’ll do it one of these days. The album recording is rather awkward, but I think I do it pretty well now.
5 — “Semi-OK”: here.
…I don’t know if there’s another such anthem of dourly ambivalent make-do-with-what-you-got qualified optimism out there, but people have noted that the sentiments are quite uncharacteristically “positive” for me. Which is an intended effect, only somewhat complicated by the reality that very few people in this world, even those few who stood a chance of ever hearing the song, know me and my “properties” enough to grasp to what degree that’s the case…
6 — “I’m Like Yeah, but She’s All No”: here.
…that opening arpeggio guitar figure owes a bit to “A Quick One…” by way of “Mirror Star,” I suppose. The song is solid, and certainly one of the most popular of my songs. One thing I like about it is that it takes that “like” / “all” / “going” conceit, which could easily have descended into lazy ridicule, and uses it in aid of “characterization” instead. I love it when that happens, and it turns out it works in narrative fiction as well…
7 — “That Prozac Moment”: here.
…there’s a reference to Prozac earlier on the album, in the song “I Just Wanna Do It with You” where the narrator proclaims his love saying “it’s not just the Prozac talking,” but it’s more or less a gag there. By the time this one rolls around, next to last, as a sort of last-ditch attempt to promote domestic tranquility via appeasement and evade self-loathing and lovelorn pain and anxiety through chemical means, the prospect is more of a question mark. And in fact, the “moment” never arrives. The happy, complacent, artificially-staged Kodak moments that might have been never materialize, and the histrionic resignation of “You’re the Only One” is a return to the beginning, to sackcloth and ashes…
8 — “You’re the Only One”: here (with “I Fell for You”).
…then I got to see a 280 pound guy beat up and stomped into the ground by around a dozen little girls, who then insisted the song be played from the beginning. Now that’s my kinda security detail. I love my people: you can only push them so far…
And that’ll wrap it up for Love Is Dead I think, at least till the next anniversary party. See you then?