Revenge Is Show Business and So Are You

more old notes, on RISASAY and SBIML

Frank Portman
17 min readOct 8, 2019

it was really “Knock Knock” that necessitated [the solo album]. If that song hadn’t been rejected, I bet there would have been another album of Love is Dead-Revenge style versions of the songs that wound up on the solo album. It would have been awful, and everybody would have loved it.

Here’s another installment of the “old notes” series, where I reproduce the old posts and comments I made on Facebook back in 2011 when I first started reviewing and re-assessing the old records, the beginning of the meandering, intermittent project of rescue and re-issue that we’re engaged in now. (More on that soon, by the way: lots going on in that department.)

There’s more detail about that in the intro to the previous installment (concerning …and the Women Who Love Them, Milk Milk Lemonade, and Our Bodies Our Selves.)

portrait of the artist as a young young fresh fellows fan

And what we have here is Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You (1997) and my solo album, Show Business Is My Life (1999). These records are closely related, the bulk of the material culled from the same large batch of songs. Any of said songs might have ended up on the other one rather than the one they were on, if you know what I mean. With Revenge Is Sweet…, as I’ve mentioned before (most recently in this RISASAY retrospective assessment) I was frustrated with the “genericizing” process that — as I saw it — squashed, leveled off, and buried some of the subtler aspects of the compositions and frustrated my grander ambitions, even though I was fully aware that that’s precisely the thing that made the record so popular. I wanted the songs to be able to “breathe” more, and to distinguish themselves from each other, though I wasn’t sure how to accomplish it. Another factor in the eventual decision to take these songs solo was the growing number of songs that had been rejected for one reason or another. (Drummer’s veto, producer’s passive-aggressive deflection, sheer inability of the band to know how to play them properly, etc.)

Our drummer Jim’s joke when he signaled disapproval of a song was to say “you know what this one would be great on? Your first solo album.” These songs were piling up. It was, perhaps, only a matter of time before I took him up on it. And on that subject, the epigraphical quote above, which is from that 2011 thread on RISASAY. It was “Knock Knock…” that caused all the trouble, starting a process that would ultimately lead to Alcatraz. (About which, the 2011 notes are coming: I warn you, it’s kind of a doozy, if doozy means what I think it does.)

In the present, the time for regrets and complaints is long past. These two records are part of “history,” an obscure, esoteric arm of history to be sure but history nonetheless. They are what they are. And it is extremely gratifying that people still listen to them, enjoy them, and care enough about them to regard their resuscitation as worth doing. After all these years. And petty grievances aside, they’re both records I’m proud of. If there’s one thing I’ve learned through all of this agonizing process of excavation and reappraisal, it’s the songs that matter, more than the production, more than the vagaries of performance, more, in fact, than just about anything, including your hairstyles. And the trousers. The songs are it and I’ve done some good ones, and many of them are here.

So here are the 2011 notes, post first, select comments following, all from me unless otherwise indicated. (One final note: in reviewing these comments, clearly many of mine are missing from the post as it currently stands on Facebook, as there are responses to them. Kind of interested in what they might have been, but they’re lost. Yet another reminder, trivial yet important in this context if only there, that “social media” doesn’t do a great job as a repository of information.)

Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You (LK-180)

Now: Revenge is Sweet… Conflicted about this one. Pro: best collection of songs of them all, hardly anything I’d want to change in the lyrics except for a few of those fancy Cole Porter/Irving Berlin type rhymes that don’t always work in the context. Surprisingly good vox. Pretty decent, if overly-compressed, sound. [Ha! See below as well — ed.] Con: generic, uninventive arrangements on around 75% of it. I recognize that generic arrangements are what people like, though, I really do.

— My main reservations about the album all boil down to how it could have been so much more than what it was. But I fully realize, if it had wound up more like I’d wanted it to be, everyone would have hated it!

— I don’t think the arrangments have to be clever in a hit you over the head kind of way, but that they should be determined by the song. My criticism is that we had this way of doing it that we were comfortable with, and the tendency was to do everything that way, and it was occasionally to the detriment of the songs.

— It’s really amazing to listen to six songs in a row and not feel like changing any lyrics.

— on the “interesting chords” (in response to a comment now missing): Thanks, Christian. And it is nice you noticed the interesting chords, because I tried hard there. But I think it is kind of hard to notice them, and in fact, you’re the only person I can recall ever having mentioned it.

— “Who Need Happiness” is one of those songs where the cool chords are totally squashed by the heavy-handed arrangement and production. You can hardly hear that they’re there.

But: “me on assistance and you on the pill…”

Sentimentally Retarded was one album title idea that was kicked around.

From Ben: “Nobody in the audience got the joke when I read ‘Who Needs Happiness (I’d Rather Have You)’ as my wedding vows.”

— “Knock Knock…” was meant to be on there [RISASAY] but got the drummer’s veto. “Thinking of You”, too. I wrote it on that toy keychain thing at the studio, but no one seemed to get it. [See below — ed.] I really wanted “Thinking of You” to be a hidden track, but there was literally no time left to do it even quickly.

— At the time, Nancy, there was no thought of a solo album. It was only afterwards, realizing that I had songs I’d never be able to do with the band, that I started to think of doing them on my own.

— Of course, criticism aside, it really is all about the songs, and I do feel I can stand behind them all pretty squarely.

— I am so self-consciously trying to be the 30s lyricist here (“Love is Dead” at the moment but throughout) It shouldn’t work at all, but I guess the saving grace is that I really meant it.

It sometimes works, and it sometimes doesn’t. Worst offender is the ecstasy line in “You You You” — one of the few lyrical regrets here. [Many people, I’ve learned, when I express this self-criticism, really, really like that line/rhyme. And Joel points out that I was uncomfortable with it even at the time of recording. Still seems like too much of a good thing to me, but I get why people like it. — ed.]

— “Here She Comes”: "…savoir faire and joie de vivre and je ne sais quoi like you wouldn’t believe…”

“Her eyes are saying yes, but her nose are saying no.” Goofy works.

— on “The Weather Is Here…”: “Here She Comes” works great just as it is. But playing “The Weather Is Here Wish You Were Beautiful” as though it were “Here She Comes” wasn’t so successful. If you listen to the guitar bits there is a kind of “swingy” feel to them thatthe arrangement just kind of squashes. It should have been done with more of a British Invasion style feel, which is how I imagined it when I wrote it, but we were incapable of executing that, so we just reverted to the tried and true.

1st bridge of “The Weather is Here” is great; second bridge, not so much. But the feat of having two bridges in a 2 1/2 minute song is still something.

Oh and I meant to mention, the line that cracked me up the most that I’d forgotten about was: “every time you miss the boat you try to kiss the boat one more time.”

— The bridge of “She’s Coming” is maybe my best bridge.

— Man, this is an album of decent bridges.

— “Swiss Army Girlfriend” is one of those songs where extending a metaphor into absurdity comes off pretty well. And that is one sweet bridge, too. The basinet line still kills me

— “I Don’t Need You Now” is probably the song I receive the most mail about, by a wide margin. People using it as break-up therapy. [And also trying to figure out how to play it — maybe I’ll do a tutorial some time — ed.]

Whatever works. “You’re moving to the bottom of a pretty, long list.”

— On “When I Lost You”: “Freedom, freedom, you’re just gonna be dumb…”

Kevin successfully vetoed the line “pretty sleaze with sugar on it.” He was probably right. But that’d be a hell of title if anyone wants to use it for anything.

“…to make it through this fog that I’ve been lost in, that we had our love holocaust in…” I wrote this song in my head while standing off in the side stage area at one of those big Green Day Euro-shows. Then I went to the dining area and ate fried flowers. True story.

— I have seriously said “will you waste your life with me” before.

— on “Hell of Dumb,” in response to a comment from Ben who said it’s “a bit too country-sounding for my taste”:

Well Ben, it is a country song. I’ve always thought we should have played it more that way, though listening now it works better the way it is than my impression was.

The pedal steel on “Hell of Dumb” was meant to wake people up, and it does do that. and the punk rock playing heightens the surprise. I wish there had been more moments like that.

— Yodeling is fun.

— “Lawnmower of Love” is maybe the WORST metaphor anyone ever came up with, which is why it is great. The Cosmo verse still cracks me up.

— “Our Love Will Last…” is in the top five of my favorite songs I’ve written. “…so if we’re not vaporized in world war three, and if there’s nothing good tonight on tv, and if you don’t meet somebody with more money than me…”

— Before there were lyrics to what eventually became “.. and I will be with you” it was known as “A Rat on a Bun” because someone had a T shirt depicting a rat on a hot dog bun. And that’s why set lists from that era always listed this song as “Rat.”

— comment from Angela: “This album prompted me to ask you in a zine interview if you found smart women unattractive or something along those lines. I think your response was something like “it’s often overrated”! Love love love this album.”

— “I Was Losing You All Along…” [an unfinished out-take from the sessions] was one of my best songs that is kind of a classic example of a song that we were just not good enough as musicians to play. It was planned to be the finale, and just came out so awkward and stilted (because we tried to play it with the same beat and same everything as all the other songs) that it would have had the wrong effect. I tried to jazz it up after the fact with overdubs and stuff, but it really taught me that that is not a solution to a song that is basically just not played properly. You have to start with it being played properly. And to do that, you need to understand what playing it properly takes. It killed me not to be able to put it on the record, but it was a real “learning experience” more than any of the others. So we ended on abrupt note instead. “You You You” is not a typical album ending track. To me that symbolized what was missing, what was unfinished.

— I had big plans for the post production on this, but never got the chance to try them because we ran out of money. And honestly, because no one was really interested in them.

—on not being able to make the record you wanted to: in response to Jittery Jeff Gammill (of the Capitalist Kids) who said: “I’m sorry you didn’t get to make the album you may have envisioned, but, as you said, we like this one better. So, thanks.”

Jeff, that is indeed the way to look at it. At some point, a record no longer belongs to the person who made it but to the people who listen to it. It is just interesting to revisit it as a listener and reflect on it.

— One thing that used to irritate me quite a bit was this one thing people always used to say when they were trying to make the point that, when you’re recording an album you should stick to what you know, do what works, not deviate from the formula, etc.: “no one wants to see Jackie Chan doing Shakespeare.” and Jackie Doing Shakespeare was an original idea for the title of the solo album, but of course that would have been too abstruse.

— Most of the studio time was spent on the basic tracks leaving the vox and guitars to be rushed and crammed into a couple of days, and you can really tell.

— on the guitar sound: a lot of the guitar was done with this old (56?) Les Paul, that had once been a gold top but had been refinished by some idiot hippie in the 70s to a woodtone, hard-wood floor-like finish (presumably so it match his deck and hot tub.) Nevertheless it sounded great. I think the soap bar pickups were original. We had borrowed it from Univibe, but I seriously considered trying to come up with the money to buy it, despite the atrocious look. I think it was $1000, quite a lot for an old guitar in those days.

— This band had reached the “fader wars” phase of a band’s existence where everyone wanted their own parts turned up to eleven in every mix, which sure didn’t help!

— on the compression/loudness: Yeah, Joel, I’m with you on the loudness/mastering. it was definitely the right thing to do with this. [wow — hard to believe this was genuinely my opinion back then! How things change (though it’s very possible I was dissembling, going along with the crowd…)— ed.]

— It’s the only one that was all recorded in a single studio. REM had been there just before!

(Original post/thread is here.)

Show Business Is My Life (LK-222)

So: Show Business is My Life. Strengths & weaknesses. I always thought of it primarily as a necessary experiment. “Population: US” is perhaps the song I’m proudest of out of all my songs, and the screwy performance/arrangement (basically a recreation of the demo I did on a four track cassette machine at home) that always used to embarrass me a little works better in context than I thought. We tried to do it later as a band song a couple of times, but couldn’t make it happen.

— This is the first time I’ve listened to these records since they came out. I obsess about the songs though.

— on the title: Kevin Wilder asks, “OK I guess my biggest question is what the album title might’ve been derived from?”

“Show business is my life” was Sammy Davis Jr.’s reported answer to every interview question, and I just thought it was funny to appropriate it.

— I always thought that a real band with a good singer could really take “Population: Us” somewhere. But maybe it is actually too quirky/goofy for anyone else to do, at that. (I hate people, they’re not like you and me.)Had the same feeling about “London”.

“I guess the world is here to stay. But that doesn’t make it right…”

— The weakest point perhaps is “Sad, Sad Shadow,” which was an attempt to do a song about depression that I just didn’t have the gravitas to pull off. The sonic “Freebird” quote on the eq of the guitar in the intro is the part that works best.

“Suicide Watch” skirts the gravitas-problem that sinks “Sad, Sad Shadow” but winds up just on the right side of it.

I wanted to use this pic for the cover but photog wanted too much for it

— I have always hated when someone tries to “rhyme” a word with itself in a lyric, and have been pretty withering in my criticism of others in that regard. So it’s funny, to me, that the first two tracks commit that sin! In the first one, though it was deliberate, meant to surprise, and fitting with the character of the narrator; plus it is a funny line. In “I Made You and I Can Break You,” though, it’s just sloppiness. IMYaICBY is still pretty good though.

— It’s impressive that the punchlines in “She Turned Out to Be Crazy” are still funny to me.

— I wish Joe [King] had had the time to do more vox. He just stopped by quickly post-soundcheck pre-show. That “line up” [on “She Turned out to Be Crazy”]was pretty great: Aaron Cometbus, Joe Queer, Kepi, me.

— My bass playing leaves something to be desired throughout, too timed and tentative. First time I ever played bass on a record I believe. (I feel I’m miles better at that now.)

— One of my fondest memories about that session was when Kevin and I picked up Aaron and his drums (we had to go to several locations to get them one by one) he said “we have to stop for new drum heads.” And I thought we’d be going to guitar center or somewhere, but, actually, we went to a dumpster outside a practice space to look for discarded ones.

— “Knock Knock” was intended to be on Revenge is Sweet… but got vetoed. I doubt the solo album would have even happened had it not been for that. How do you like my “drumming”? We borrowed Dan Panic’s drums, and I felt kind of bad because I wound up breaking all his sticks. The back ups (by the girls from that band Me First) pretty much make the song.

My friend Paige did the “who’s there”s, and I believe she sounds quite convincing, i.e., like she is really standing at the door wondering who’s there.

— “Bitter Homes and Gardens” has a lot going for it, but doesn’t quite work as well as it should have. The conceit/pun concept is kind of heavy-handed and obvious, and, though I know people disagree, I don’t think all those self-consciously Tin Pan Alley style rhymes do the song any favors. It’s like Noel Coward snuck on stage at the Grand Ole Opry.

Also funny (and a little pathetic I know) is that I still live in the place BH&G was written about. And it is no less bitter! I’m looking around this room and remembering all the “scattered all around” stuff — weird feeling.

I shouldn’t have used the word “instill” especially since it kind of ruins “it’s not the wishing I was dead that’s killing me.” “Evidence for arguments I’ll lose against the mirror” remains solid, though.

BMI lists three songs with the title “Bitter Homes and Gardens,” including mine. And there’s one other “I Made You and I Can Break You.” I wish they included audio samples.

— That [“guitar”] (on “Thinking of You”) was this toy/keychain thing called a Country Twangin’ Micro-jammer, shaped like a guitar with buttons that played those samples. Someone gave it to me as a kind of gag, like, here’s a guitar for you. (Maybe it was Paige?) Anyway, of course my first thought was, I should write a song on this. And that’s what I did.

“Stuttering when I say grace” is the line that kind of makes “Thinking of You” for me.

— “She All Right” is fun. What a crazy collection of half-baked and mixed whatchacallems. Metaphor type thingies.

— I often get asked about “Ask Beth,” like who Beth is and why I’m saying to ask her. Ask Beth was a sex/romance advice column that appeared in the SF Chronicle when I was growing up. [More on this song and Beth Winship may be found here — scroll down — ed.]

Me on the drums and bass again. Funny.

I used to do a lot more of those dual bridges in those days. Like, one bridge isn’t enough. Just stack them up.

“These are the best years of our lives and if one of us survives he or she will refer to how wonderful they were…”

— I really wanted to do “Coffee, Tea, or Me?” with the band, but we never could make it work. My cassette demo of it was pretty good (or at least, it’s how I wanted it to be done.) I think that is lost forever, though. I’ve actually thought about re-recording it, in fact. I love that the Smugglers did it, but I would have done it differently.

I probably couldn’t improve on their “She’s Another Thing” [another song from that demo] though. Yodeling!

Also unrecorded by me from that batch of songs was “You’re My Hostess Cupcake” recorded by the Go-Nuts under the title “Bombay.”

I think “Coffee Tea or Me?” never got off the ground because of Kevin Army’s deflection: novelty song, plus the sexy stuff. I still shock people when I play it solo.

— The best stuff often comes out of working within restrictions, even artificial ones. The challenge is to take something stupid and figure out a way to make it work, and sometimes it falls flat, but sometimes it really clicks.

— I’m really fond of “I’m in Love with What’s-Her-Name” even though it comes off a bit stilted and there are some awkward lines.

And [in response to a comment that says it sounds like the Hi -Fives] — that IS the Hi-Fives!

“Yeah, baby, let me take you down to the place where they have all the things…”

— So many regrets on the recording/arranging end and quite often on the writing. You do gradually “rewrite” the songs when you play them a lot, over the years, though it is not always an improvement: sometimes they degenerate.

— “This Isn’t about You Anymore” has come in for a lot of criticism over the years, probably justified, but it is what it is and I still kind of like it. Dr. Frank meets drum machine, and devastation ensues.

“Though your spirit lives on in damage that you have done…”

— “Two Martinis from Now” is one of those take-a-conceit-and-run-it-into-the-ground kind of songs, and I probably never did it better than here. I was once challenged by a guy in Toronto, who heard me play the song and said “that’s totally unrealistic, nobody could drink all those drinks.” And one of the other singer-songwriters piped up with “oh yes he can!”

That’s those Me First girls again on the backups btw.

(Original post/thread is here.)