ODIN XXI: still more Minor Secrets of the Mr T Experience
Believe it or not, friends, this is the 21st installment of Song for Odin™ aggregates, in which the weekly Songs for Odin of the previous month or so are compiled into a convenient, more searchable, document here on Medium. With last week’s entry on “Checkers Speech” we are at 109 entries covering 94 different songs. I think a sensible thing might be to stop at 100 songs, but I’ll probably keep going and overstay my welcome as is my custom. There are still lots of songs left to cover.
It has been suggested to me that this material could be edited into a book, and I suppose it could. Not sure how much of an audience there would be for it. I know if one of my favorite songwriters were to do a Song for Odin series I would be all over it and if there were a book I would buy it. I know there are those who like my songs enough to be interested enough in what I have to say about them but I don’t know how many. I can’t imagine it’s a huge number.
However, maybe something super limited and fancy and beautiful could be worth doing. (Sort of like how we do the records with Sounds Rad.) There could/should be an audio component as well. Maybe something to mull over.
At any rate there are at this point thousands upon thousands of words on songs here.
But now back to earth from la-la-land, here we are, five Songs for Odin.
Table of contents: “My Stupid Life,” “Pathetic,” “Somebody Who Cares,” “Time to Change,” and “Checkers Speech”.
Details about how and why I started doing this can be found 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; fifteen; sixteen; seventeen; eighteen; nineteen; twenty.
[links in preceding paragraph updated, 12.29.2020 — ed.]
And here’s the full Songs for Odin playlist on YouTube if you want more.
1 “My Stupid Life”
It might be apocryphal but anyway: “You know, underneath our raiment, our nipples are erect. How ‘bout you guys? It’s something that happens… This is a song about a girl. [Checks setlist.] Well, it might as well be about a girl, what the hell…”
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the sort of witty banter and riveting showmanship that made me almost quasi-famous for about a minute there in the mid-90s.
Anyway, ’tis Wodnesdæg, to my slight surprise — so welcome to Miðviku and Song for Odin, which, as you will have gathered is “My Stupid Life,” live at Emo’s in Austin Texas, November 4, 1995.
This was, I believe, on one of several short tours we did with the Dickies in that general time period. They were always one of my favorite bands and remained so even after these tours (which shows you how committed I was, because, honored though I was to be in their presence and such, these tours weren’t all fun and games.) I’ll probably have more to say about that situation in future installments. I spent much of the downtime hanging out with Leonard Graves Phillips whom I regard as a sort of genius, and who was quite a gentle soul in the midst of considerable chaos and much reason for dispiritedness, dispensing bizarre avuncular wisdom like a cartoon yogi. I value that experience quite highly still. And they were, of course, great.
As for the MTX, there are three songs in the set announced apologetically as “on our new album we just recorded which isn’t out yet” — that would be Love Is Dead which was scheduled for release in January 1996. The assumption that that would make any difference whatsoever to the crowd is rather sweet. That said, they seem to be having a good time in the video, which is my recollection all these years later as well. Emo’s was always one of the best venues for us, and Austin was always kind and welcoming. (Speaking of which, did you know we’re playing there with the Queers and Capitalist Kids on Saturday Dec. 7 at the Barracuda? Well, we are.)
As I mentioned in a previous write-up about …and the Women Who Love Them, “My Stupid Life” was the closest among those songs to have resulted from the chaotic songwriting “method” I tended to use in the past, which was:
basically free-associating on a general topic and hoping it came out all right. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t (I think it does pretty much work on MSL) but the rest of the songs [on the e.p.] were more carefully planned.
Not coincidentally, probably, it’s the oldest of those songs as well. And it’s is a good, solid tune, unusually focused, I’d say, despite being so lyrically chaotic. In this case, all those non sequiturs randomly seeded throughout — something I used to do a lot back then — kind of work. (They sure didn’t always.) The intended effect is to evoke a mildly twisted, puerile-precocious “stream of consciousness.” I’d done it so many times inadvertently, I suppose, that it had developed into a sort of “style,” ill-advised though that might have been. As I’ve noted before, clumsiness and inarticulateness can be quite effective when your subject is clumsiness and inarticulateness. And I suppose this was kind of a transitional phase where, for better or worse, I was at least doing it on purpose to at least some degree. In so many of those situations I feel I could have done so much better had I focused more intently on the composition (as I tended to do, arguably to a fault, later on.) In this case, though, I’m not sure it would have been all that much of an improvement, at least in the area of getting across the “stupidness,” if not necessarily the “life-i-ness” of a stupid life.
While I’m at it, here are a couple more quotes from the aforementioned ATWHLT write-up as they are apt:
My guitar rig at the time emitted constant out of control feedback (and picked up radio signals) whenever it wasn’t actually being played. I used to ride the volume control on the guitar to mute it, but inevitably the feedback slipped out. We wound up “using it” rather than trying to hide it on lots of tracks, going all the way back to Big Black Bugs… It didn’t always work, but I think it did on “My Stupid Life”.
“…it might be apocryphal but anyway…” I remember, while doing the vox, having to counter Kevin Army’s skepticism that “apocryphal” was a word. That’s right: our recording sessions were much like playing Scrabble. And yes, I really did hear a story about a guy who chopped off his own head, and it might well have been apocryphal. Boredom is just my guess as to the reason, but why else would you do that?
And speaking of another allusion, that’s Maurice Sendak’s Pierre popping up there, the boy who could only say “I don’t care” even when his parents offer to let him fold the folding chair. If you’ve followed my scattered comments on these matters, you may have gathered that the album that became Our Bodies Our Selves in the end was originally planned (in my head only) as a sort of concept album oriented around children’s literature. It was far too ambitious a plan to execute in the circumstances and it was abandoned as soon as the reality of actually composing the songs (and recording them here and there on almost no budget when we could get away with it) set in. Anyway, the bare bones of this song do stretch back into that abortive OBOS project and that’s mostly why Pierre is in there.
Way back when, our old comrade Paige O’Donoghue made a shirt of it as a sort of gift, which I still have.
Finally, that’s Dallas Denery of Sweet Baby (Jesus) / Bomb Bassetts fame doing the back-ups on the studio recording. He knew what “apocryphal” meant, I’m sure.
And that’ll about wrap it up. Happy Odin’s Day to you all. Like, subscribe, comment, and share, because you might as well and it allegedly helps, somehow.
— studio recording (on YouTube) here.
— MTX / Queers / Capitalist Kids play Austin Dec. 7: details here.
— original post on minds.com.
Hello. So, today’s Song for Odin™ is another one from that May 1995 Gilman show that I posted “Semi-OK” from a few weeks back and it’s a cover of Sweet Baby’s “Pathetic.”
It's not the greatest quality video, but it does genuinely evoke the spirit of that venue in its middle period. Plus, while it’s a song we used to play a lot, this is the only video of us doing it that I’ve come across. (And thanks again to Shayne Stacy for supplying it.)
Matt and Dallas wrote great songs, and this among my favorites. They were high school buddies down in Saratoga where they grew up, and I knew Dallas from the dorms at UC Berkeley where we were in the same “unit.” I met him in the dining commons, knowing I could talk to him because of the Joy Division button on his peacoat. That was what it was like in those days, ca. 1982: every third person you ran into wasn’t wearing an Unknown Pleasures shirt like they are now. In King Dork terms, that button meant that the guy wearing it was quite unlikely to be a psychotic normal person. And so it proved to be, or rather, it didn’t prove to be, if you know what I’m getting at. (I’m sure my shoes performed a similar signaling function for him.)
We “bonded” on music and assorted other shared geekery, and when he and Matt started toying with the idea of doing a band, I tagged along as a sort of drummer. And I do mean “sort of.” I used to play the eighth notes with a tambourine in my left hand and hit a cardboard box or a plastic bucket with a stick on beats two and four, and that was it. For the rare non-house party gig, I’d borrow a snare drum to use instead of the box. In those days there was another guy too, on bass, a guy named Crispy Jim. Matt and Dallas named him Crispy because he liked bands like Crispy Ambulance and Prefab Sprout, a style Matt despised as “Ipanema rock”. (Which I never really got; but this intra-band culture stuff didn’t matter with regard to me because, you know, I was just the drummer. Sort of.)
Later on, when they got a record deal and changed the name from Sweet Baby Jesus to Sweet Baby, they for very good reason, replaced the acknowledgedly terrible rhythm section, and I was all for it. I was no kind of drummer, plus I had my own dumb little band to do. I loved their songs, though, and still do.
I think we used to do “She’s from Salinas” sometimes too. Also, roughly at the same time as this video, we teamed up with Dallas again to do the Bomb Bassets (original name: Cuban Rebel Girl.) Dallas was always good value.
So, that’s that one done. Enjoy your Wodnesdæg and we’ll see you next week.
3 “Somebody Who Cares”
I know you’re gonna do that violin thing again: Song for Odin, let’s go.
And I wish you a very happy Hallowe’en e’en, I’m sure. It’s a bit of a shame that I have no spooky or vaguely seasonal song to offer. We did “Andromeda Klein”, which is kinda close, in Hallowe’en season as a SfO last year (see notes below for link.) The flip side of that single, “Bethlehem” could also bear some minor secreting, but the rules for Song for Odin require a unique video resource and (as yet) I have none. It’s not like I haven’t written any such songs: in fact I have quite a lot of magick songs floating around, but none have ever seen the light of day. So, it’s just an ordinary Wodnesdæg here at Song for Odin, and what we’ve got here is the MTX of 1997 doing a rough-hewn “Somebody Who Cares” at the Rivoli in Toronto.
The only thing I remember about this particular set was that I was deathly ill during it, and you can kind of tell. Still, that guitar sounds great and that’s the important part.
And the song, well, all self-deprecation aside, is pretty, or at least substantially, great as well. This is the lead-off track of the rather peculiar though belatedly much-loved MTX album Our Bodies Our Selves. I’m sure we did play it as a Doctor / Aaron / Alex three-piece live in the handful of shows we did in that configuration, but no video of that line-up has ever crossed my radar. It was only occasionally in the set during the subsequent three-piece line-up. I remember thinking of it as an “oldie,” like a blast from the past, even though it was, here, only four years old. Well a lot can happen in four years, even if it’s mostly a whole lotta nothin’. And I was a different man in 1997 than I was in ’93, that’s for sure.
The song was among those written, or at least begun, in Fall 1992, in that bare Oakland apartment that contained only a futon, a Marshall half-stack, and me seated on the floor against the wall despondently cradling that white ’57 Les Paul Jr. once reputedly owned by Johnny Guitar Watson and trying to figure out if I had any more songs in me. (It proved to be a productive environment, yielding e.g. “Swallow Everything,” “More than Toast,” and other songs that people still know and listen to today, which ain’t nothing.)
Things I like about it: the loose but consistent play between the double entendre in the title, dependent on how you punctuate it (essentially it’s “Somebody Who Cares” vs. “Somebody, Who Cares?”) Plus the repeated “who cares” refrain that goes from losing one’s puppy who cares, to needing some money (who cares?) Get it? It stops just short of heavy-handedness, which is great for a wry effect, and not that easy to pull off. (I’ve done it worse, anyway.) Plus the violin line, which still “paints a picture” that makes me smile just a bit. And the mock (or is it?) earnestness in the final verse, which puts all that who-cares-ing into a new context, if you think the narrator means it, which he may well not. Pretty good, I’d say, for a guy who didn’t know what he was doing and was ready to hang it all up. Also the guitar solo is ace, though understated, except at the end where it just gets ridiculous all of a sudden.
Things I don’t like: the bridge is lazy, and more could have been done with it. And the recording, in which the drums are way too aggressive sonically and basically overpower the song. Even the memory of that snare hurts my ears. It doesn’t “gel” as a rock and roll song like it should, because the drums are a separate entity, while the song itself filters in and settles tentatively around them as though it has come from another building, if not indeed another planet.
A remix would sure be great for any OBOS re-issue, especially as it’s the lead-off track and all. It could sound so much better! However, the tape archive and documentation for this album is patchy. There are two 1 inch 16 track reels extant dated 12/92 and 6/93. The first is labelled “reel 2”, and includes the songs “More than Toast,” “Together Tonight,” “Don’t Go Away Go Go Girl,” and “Swallow Everything.” The other has no documentation beyond the date. Maybe it contains “Somebody Who Cares” (and when the time comes I do intend to find out) but quite possibly it does not. Four songs max per reel is just about right here, meaning that, basically, at least half this album is missing, and a comprehensive remix is logically impossible. This breaks my heart like the nothing ever has in my sorry little life.
Also missing by the way: 100% of the analog mixes. The mix only survives in compressed, processed, already-mastered form in the 1630 digital tape cartridge format, which isn’t ideal for remastering, though obviously better than nothing. A whole lot would have to happen for an acceptable re-issue of this album, even as is, to be feasible. But, as always, we will jump off that bridge when we get there.
Finally, I’ve told this anecdote before, somewhere, but here it is again: Quite often people will leave lyrics behind in studios, and it is a sort of ritual to check them out, read them aloud, sing them to a tune, especially if they are really funny or really terrible. (Which they almost always are.) This led to my leaving fake awful lyrics behind sometimes, just as a kind of prank and also to brighten up the day of the next band coming in. One of the ones I remember was called “Don’t Play Yahtzee with My Heart,” a title I liked so much I used it in King Dork years later. Anyway, in keeping with this tradition, during one of the OBOS sessions at Dancing Dog, someone found a lyric sheet and started passing it around. Kevin Army recited it aloud in a kind of mock-solemn tone in a spirit of ridicule and everybody laughed. The line he read was “I wonder if there’s any hope left in this world or if anybody cares for anything anymore. That’s what I’m so frustrated for.” I didn’t say anything at all, but when I got up to do that vocal and sang that line — from the song “Somebody Who Cares” — well, it was pretty funny.
Boy, that was a lot of words. If you made it all the way through, my thanks. And even if not, from all of us here at Song for Odin™, once again, a very Happy Hallowe’en E’en to you and we’ll see you next week I’m sure.
4 “Time to Change”
For every girl’s a man inside, a boy’s a woman too: Welcome, friends, to another entry in the Songs for Odin “series,” wherein, as a regular feature for Wodnesdæg a. k. a. óðinsdagr, I find a video iteration of a song done by me and/or my band and ramble on a bit about it. How come? Just because, which is usually the truest answer to that question.
For today, we have something from our set at Hamburg’s Stortebeker club in the Summer of ’92, a cover of the Brady Bunch song “Time to Change.”
Sort of. I mean, it’s sort of a cover of it, but not… really. In fact it only vaguely resembles the song it purports to cover, which is a bit of a shame because it is a genuinely great song of which I am very fond and an actual, well-executed cover of it would have been terrific. I guess the generous way to describe this rendition would be as a “work in progress.”
It was casually “worked up” during a sound check or two on this tour, and I doubt it was ever played in a set outside of this one time. I loved and appreciated the song then no less then than I do now, but I didn’t know it by heart, from memory. Nowadays a band on tour in Europe (if bands still do that) wanting to cover some song from 70s TV can simply grab a “smart phone,” google the lyrics and “tabs”, pull it up on YouTube, and listen to it in the van to figure out how it goes and such. But in Europe 1992… nevermind about smart phones, even the regular phones didn’t work.
(I still have my old “dialer” kicking around, a clunky appliance with a speaker and a keypad that you held up against the mouthpiece of a primitive European payphone so you could use touchtones with it… the idea was to over-ride the ancient Deutsche Bundespost technology, which was basically a couple of gerbils inside the phone casing: when you pressed the buttons, needles would stick into their bodies in such a way that their tiny paws would strike the proper number of pulses on a dedicated telecomtrommel or “phone drum.” This dialer was an essential piece of tour equipment in those days. The Deutsche Bundespost gerbils were fairly good at their job, but they were simply rubbish at disclosing Brady Bunch song lyrics.)
Even back home, figuring the song out would have required a bit of effort and research, scouring record stores for a copy of the single and waiting by the TV, finger poised above the VCR’s record button hoping to catch just the moment when that particular episode would happen to play in syndication.
Basically, it was far easier just to write your own songs, which is what I usually did.
But I’m pretty sure my plan was to start out with the sketchy bare-bones version from memory, mumbling through with some pseudo-lyrics, and fill in the missing elements once we were back home and in a better position to do so. And I’m sure that, had we done that, it would have been pretty good, or at least no worse than other such songs like “Spiderman,” “Somebody Wants to Love You,” “Speed Racer,” “Don’t Go Away (Go Go Girl)” and so on. (I know I was also planning to alter the lyrics, once I knew them, with the gender-bending one used as the title — ahead of my time, obviously, had anyone only but known it.)
In the event, though, the band collapsed on touching down in SFO the following month, and when we re-emerged as a three-piece subsequently, our mind was on other things and the “Time to Change” work in progress was duly abandoned. In fact, the band was never to record another cover of a song from TV thereafter.
Nevertheless, as I said, the song spoke to me. I mean, I took it kind of personally. In the 1972 Brady Bunch episode in which the song appears (titled “Dough Re Mi”), Greg has written a “sure-fire hit song” called “We Can Make the World a Whole Lot Brighter.” He and his brothers and sisters (the Brady Six) are all set to record it at the local recording studio in a few days’ time, when Pete’s voice starts to break, ruining the carefully-constructed six part vocal arrangement, and rendering the song unusable. They’d already paid the studio 150 non-refundable dollars, so something had to be done. The solution is, Greg writes a new song, one that uses Peter’s cracking voice as a feature rather than a liability and incorporates the challenge presented by it into the song’s narrative and “message.” It is in fact a way better song than that insipid, generic, cliché-ridden thing about saving the earth, because it is original and genuine. This is a sort of parable about making the most of the hand you’re dealt and the song is a “work with what you’ve got” anthem.
I’ve often said, of my own “career,” that if you can figure out a way to make the most of your liabilities, they can almost be assets. That’s what this episode and song say to me. And that’s why I always wanted to do it, even though in the end, I didn’t really.
Obviously it was all lost on the audience of German crusties, who wouldn’t have known a Brady from an Osmond I’m sure. Still they seem to have liked it well enough. All that philosophical stuff aside, you just can’t beat some good sha na nas, and maybe that’s the most valuable lesson of all.
See you next week.
5 “Checkers Speech”
Well folks, Wodnesdæg upon us once again, and time for Song for Odin, that thing where I dredge up an artefact from the Mr T Experience swamp and deliver some notes thereupon, styled “minor secrets.”
Today’s swampy, boggy, crumbling artefact is a rendition of “Checkers Speech” from a rather decrepit video of a May 1995 Gilman Street show.
I’ve posted a couple of songs from this tape previously (“Semi-OK” and “Pathetic”): the quality is marginal and the audio a bit out of sync, but it does capture… something, something lacking, somehow, in higher quality documents. Maybe rock and roll benefits from a bit of decrepitude and messiness. (I mean, well, absolutely it does.) I have one other “Checkers Speech” performance available (from that Northwestern University show) which has greater clarity, but I chose this because of the aforementioned crumbliness and because I really like the bit of video of the highway (presumably taken on the way to the show) that randomly pops up at the beginning. Whatever else it is, it is poetry of a kind, and in a world in which there’s little enough of that.
Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech was an attempt to defend himself against accusations of campaign contribution improprieties, one of which concerned a cocker spaniel named Checkers that he said he intended to keep. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” was part of his bitter concession speech after losing his bid for Governor of California in 1962. I just thought it would be funny to base a love song around… that.
Which is to say, “Checkers Speech” is one of several if not many products of the continuing quest to find new and unexpected angles from which to present the love song — in this case, a break-up song, which is, as I’ve often observed, simply the flip-side, or the epilogue, of a love song. I used to consider this matter quite directly, in the form of a question, like, “can I do a Nixon-based love song and make it work?” Presenting myself with a challenge and trying to meet it, you know? Such a project can easily go awry, and quite often did, but in this case my verdict is that, yes, it can be done and I managed to do it, and it’s pretty darn good.
The reason it works, I suppose, is because it is not too specific, alluding to tropes but not spelling them out literally. (That’s a hard lesson to learn and stick to: I frequently regret having over-written things and almost never regret “under-writing” them: but over-writing, like over-thinking, is just part of my nature.) “Let me make this perfectly clear,” the title, the dog, Triumph of the Will, and the not having Nixon to kick around anymore punchline at the end… it’s all quite preposterous, but love-lorn narrators frequently are preposterous.
It doesn’t take much of a shift in perspective to regard the subject matter of the love song per se as Nixonian either. Or maybe that’s just me. But I maintain that the serio-comic bitterness of that punchline’s sentiment, when applied to romance gone awry, touches upon something essential to the experience and to the songwriting tradition of which this is an essay. And the fact that he says “Nixon” in the end rather than trying to adapt it to refer to himself is genuinely funny. Or so I like to think. I also like to think that the way the B parts of the verse pull back from the Nixon conceit to present the narrator’s own, true, plaintive voice are a big part of why it works.
Another oddity here: this song has no chorus, but only a theme and a punchline, and the title and its subject never appears in the song but is only referenced obliquely (and rather inaccurately, as well.) That almost never works, and I can’t think of too many times when I’ve even tried to do it like that.
All that said, the song is a bit of an “also-ran,” never meant to be the centerpiece of anything but rather an solidly defensible throwaway. To quote myself from some previous notes on …and the Women Who Love Them:
This is also the first record where I thought of the CD rather than the vinyl as the “real one.” We still felt we should distinguish between the single and the ep though, so one of the songs was to be left off the CD and be exclusive to the vinyl. The plan was for this to be “Checkers Speech” (and that was probably influenced by Kevin Army’s inclination to de-emphasize the novelty element.) But Jym really wanted that song to be on the CD, as I remember, so we did it that way. That meant, I had to go in to record a quick quick quick extra track to put on the vinyl. So that is the sole reason “How’d the Date End? wound up getting recorded at all. I think we snuck on someone else’s session during a dinner break or something.
I’ve heard from quite a few people who cite this as one of their favorite songs, though. I like to think that maybe they like it for the same reason I do, that it manages to take a truly ridiculous premise and make it work against all odds. I love it when that happens, with one of mine or one of anyone’s.
And that’ll wrap it up for “Checkers Speech” this time, which is the 109th Song for Odin entry, for those who care. I’d also like to thank everyone who responded to yesterday’s begging to subscribe to my YouTube channel. Begging works. Very much appreciated. See you next time.
NB: I included a whole lot more about this song and related songwriting issues at the Odin entry in last week’s Dr Frank Weakly Reader.