Too Vague to Fail

photo by Neil Motteram, Great American Music Hall, 2003

ike it says, this is the thirty-first collation of Song for Odin posts, the latest installment of a sort of project stretching back three years and covering 129 different songs (in 173 entries.) The basic idea is, each week, on Wednesday, I upload a video “resource” of a song of mine or done by me or my band and type up some commentary. I’ve been doing it most every week. Like most things in life, I do it without any good articulable reason. And every month or so, I compile them, lightly edited and illustrated, into a document like this, so they may be found in future. God only knows why.

Anyhow that’s what this here post is.

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; twenty-one; twenty-two; twenty-three; twenty-four; twenty-five; twenty-six; twenty-seven; twenty-eight; twenty-nine; thirty.

So, let the parade of hits begin.

Table of contents: “Fucked Up on Life” / “The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful” / “The History of the Concept of the Soul” / “Population: Us” / “I Fell for You” / “I Wrote a Book about Rock and Roll”

Dr Frank — “Fucked Up on Life”

Almost Perfectly Sane: Welcome to the return of Song for Odin, that thing where I post a song and type about it. On Wednesday.

And here’s me doing “Fucked Up on Life” in a bar in Aachen, Germany, of all places, 2012. (This was on that “art tour” I did with Kepi and Stefan Tijs, about which I’ve written quite a bit: see links below if you’re interested.)

And, warning: this gets down in some weeds, so if weeds aren’t your bag you might want to skim or skip.

So, on the subject of songwriting, I’ve been known to say things like: a song is only as good as its conceit. But that’s a bit of an exaggeration. What I’m really getting at there is that a song with a strong conceit is broadly speaking probably going to be miles better than a song without one. (Though of course there are great conceit-less songs as well, many such; there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to “art.” But overall, a strong conceit is a better bet.)

Just to be clear what I mean there, a “conceit” is a conceptual plan embodied in some musical or rhetorical idea. It establishes the rules and boundaries for the little song universe you’re going to inhabit for the two to three minutes of the song’s duration. Ideally (though not necessarily always) it is established by the title, and forms a sort of structure on which you kind of “hang” and develop the other elements of the song. You want this development to explore and sustain the conceit and to demonstrate its validity to an audience of skeptics. If you do it well, by the end, you’ve taken the listener somewhere beyond the bare expression of the idea, and you’ve proven it was an idea worth belaboring. Even better if the conceit is unusual or arresting enough that it hasn’t been done that way before. Even better if you combine several conceits that relate to and develop each other.

It doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated. It can be simple. It can be dumb. The best complex ones are deceptively smudged up so you don’t necessarily see all the planning and substructure.

Chances are, a lot of your favorite songs are like this to some degree. And chances are, if there are songs of mine that you particularly like, they’re the “conceit songs” rather than the “throw the lyrics against the wall and see what sticks” ones.

When you set such rhetorical parameters, you force yourself to remain more or less in focus, which is for most people the most challenging thing about writing songs. (Though some people are just natural at it, and I have always envied them.) I learned this the hard way, by trial and error. Some plan is better than no plan. Meandering and free-associating can result in great things, but not reliably unless you’re more of a poetic genius than most of us are, and even then, your naturally devastating genius is going to work better with at least some semblance of a plan.

So yeah, strong conceit, that’s great.

But it doesn’t even need to be all that strong. And in the present case, I have to say, it ain’t all that much. It’s rather weak and pedestrian in fact, the play on “high on life”. Fucked-up on life. Get it? I’m almost embarrassed that I resorted to it. But it’s still one of my best songs, because the development of the pedestrian idea worked out so well, and covers so much ground coherently, yet in what seems like the conversational voice of a real person, despite a great many clever/contrived lyrical fancies. My liking it takes me by surprise. It is way better than it should be. (Or so I like to think. If you like the song, I flatter myself to think that that’s probably why you like it, too.)

Things I like about it: the extra beats in some of the verse first lines, bearing out the off-kilter, emotionally muddled mood, carrying through to an inarticulate end that still manages to comment on itself; all those “writer-y” lines that sound natural only because the setting allows them to come off that way; and the grandiosity and sort of, exuberance of the arrangement which serves as an ironic backdrop for the theme of socially ostracized melancholy, unambivalently accepted and desired. That’s the part that still makes me smile. Because I’m a weirdo.

sculpture by Albert Gyorgy

I actually planned to say a bit more about this song and the recording we made of it, but that’s enough typing for now. Maybe we’ll pick it up on some Wodnesdæg to come. In the meantime, you might as well be good to each other, because you’re all we’ve got.

notes:

— studio recording on YouTube:

— playlists of songs posted from shows on this tour so far (including SfO write-up links in the videos’ descriptions): one; two.

— another write-up of a song from this tour.

— 2012 Art Tour flier.

— original post on minds.com.

“The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful

More parades to rain on: Hello my friends, it is Wodnesdæg and time for this Song for Odin thing I do. This will be the 170th entry and this time I’ll be relatively brief.

It’s “The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful,” live at the Euclid Tavern in Cleveland, October, ‘97.

Two reasons for this choice: [a] a post about Lookout’s promotional postcard of the song came up as a “memory” yesterday; and [b] when I was looking over various videos looking for something to throw on the Odin pyre I noticed our old friend Rebekah standing on the stage during this one.

Though we’re still basically in touch, I haven’t seen her in quite sometime because you know how it is, and it was nice to see her again, if only on low-res video like this. She drove all over the country going to show after show after show in those days. I’m sure she’s seen this band more than any other person, and by a lot.

Also, standing next to her is Robert Shimp, another old comrade who was kind of “crew” on that tour.

Anyway, just seeing them took me back, conjured some nostalgia, stirred up feelings, etc. Those were genuinely good times, though I will admit that I didn’t realize it at all at the time. That they, the times, were good, I mean. I was all “woe is me” all the time, like I always am. It’s just the way I’m hewn.

Alfred Stevens (Belgian, 1823–1906), Marine par temps orageux 1886

I have written up this song before, rather extensively, compared myself to Jimmy Buffett, outlined the lyrical-conceptual plan, blown my own horn — see notes below.

One thing I noted, in comments, when I originally posted the postcard post was: ‘that first verse with all those multiple-entendred “out of”s…. lyrically I don’t think this one could have been done any better.’

I second that emotion, if one can second one’s own emotion, though good as it is at what it was trying to do, that thing it’s trying to do wasn’t then, and isn’t now particularly, something too many people are interested in seeing done. If you know what I mean. Such is life.

I like how the crowd does the “sing-along” thing to a song that isn’t really much of a sing-along. God love ’em. That made me sort of smile.

This has been another entry in the Song for Odin annals, if annals means what I think it does. Thank you for Song for Odin-ing. Please stand clear of the closing doors…

notes:

— studio recording on YouTube:

— previous Song for Odin write-up for this song; and another write-up for this song (the Jimmy Buffett one).

— my Revenge Is Sweet… retrospective essay, My Stupid Revenge.

— the other song from this show posted so far, “Dustbin of History”.

— original post on minds.com.

“The History of the Concept of the Soul”

ibid.: So it’s Wednesday and time for another one of these Song for Odin things, and instead of skipping it like I might well have been tempted to do, here’s “The History of the Concept of the Soul,” from a show at the Square in Harlow, Essex, on October 18, 1996.

It’s audio only, sourced from a pretty good sounding board-tape from what I can tell. Too bad there’s no video of this show as it sounds like a pretty wild time with a wild guitar. (Oh, and, the way that guitar solo ends, I totally meant to do it that way — that’s the art rock talking.)

Benni

My only memory of the show is that the PA melted down mid set. This was from a short run of UK shows with the band Broccoli of Dundee, Scotland. They were great. (And, RIP Benni D’Arcy Esposito.)

Oh wait, I remember one other thing about the Square, which is that in an area behind and off to the side of the stage and underneath some ghostly, dusty, black shrouds we found a whole bunch of Iron Maiden’s old stage setting props, stacked up in storage. (If I’m not misremembering the venue and date in this anecdote.) You know: “Eddie” and all that. Wish I’d taken some pictures, maybe even a “selfie,” but that wasn’t a thing people did a lot of back then.

(Also the sound guy regaled me with tales of John Otway, for which I was very receptive audience, leaving us both a bit astonished.)

Anyhow, I played this song in last month’s Lookout Zoomout (number two) and realized I hadn’t done a write-up of it yet. So I went searching and this is all I could find in the way of a “video” resource. Which is a bit weird because this song was pretty consistently in sets across the various line-ups. But as far as I can tell it was never captured on video, for whatever reason.

Speaking of: “LOZO” number 3 is this coming Sunday, March 28, noon Pacific. See link below if you want tickets. [Link removed as this already happened — ed.]

If you’re bothering to read this, you probably already know that this was a punk rock song version, sort of, of a paper I wrote in college. Not, as I’ve sometimes seen, my “thesis”; and certainly not my “doctoral dissertation,” as I’ve also seen it described. (Beyond the imaginary doctorate of nothingness, my only degree is President of the United States of Love, and that’s only honorary.)

It’s basically just a stunt, i.e, let’s see what happens if we condense an undergraduate essay into a three verse, one minute twenty second punk rock song, with notes. Well, this is what happened, obviously. It is, I believe, unique, for what that’s worth. And you know me, I love a good gimmick. Or even a gimmick of modest virtue. Not too mention lousy gimmicks, which have their place as well. The point is, gimmicks like this are great. Once I was a schlepper, now I’m Miss Mazeppa… Fight me on that if you want.

E. R. Dodds’s The Greeks and the Irrational was certainly cited in it, but as I recall it had more to do with Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato and the theories of orality and literacy that clustered around it, a hot topic in those days. But that’s all ancient history, as they say. What’s important is that there’s a conventional bibliographical citation that is singable, and known by heart by, I don’t know how many but… a good number… known by heart by let’s say thousands of “kids” who wouldn’t know an E. R. Dodds if it came up and bit them on the ass. (I’d recommend reading it, though, if you like that type of thing: it’s still a compelling read, and beautifully written.) The song is noted as a “cultural reference” in Professor Dodds’s wikipedia entry — that’s lasting impact. Unless some killjoy edits it out one day, just to spite me. Wikipedia editors, what are they like?

A large, sweaty, drunken audience literally rocking and literally rolling to all that Plato and Pre-Socratics and Orphism jazz and shouting “ibid.” at the end is really something to see. And I have seen it.

Rock and roll. Op. cit.

notes:

— studio recording on YouTube.

John Otway:

Dr Frank — “Population: Us”

Destination: Consummation: Well now, it’s Wodnesdæg again and Song for Odin time. (If you don’t know what that means, go to the playlist link below and it’ll become pretty clear.)

So here it is, me doing “Population: Us” at 1234Go! Records in Oakland, California, November 9, 2012, on cell phone video from Marisa:

came really close to including this one on the Lookout Zoomout III set list but it got crowded out by requests. Also it’s quite a bit longer than the usual two minutes and a bit and time was of the essence.

When people ask which of my songs I like best or am most proud of and such, this is usually what I say. And the reason is, mainly, that it thoroughly does what it’s meant to do and lives up to what it promises. That’s not the easiest thing to accomplish. Some writers are, I suppose, praeternaturally gifted and do it all the time without too much trouble; but most of us, and maybe especially even I, must let fly scores of misfires before anything lands. When something hits the target, it’s often something of a surprise and you think: did I really write that? It seems so unlikely.

I wrote this one up a couple years back (bouncing off the version of it I did with the Bye Bye Blackbirds.) Here’s a snip from it, about the original Show Business Is My Life recording:

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.

The minimalism freaked me out and disappointed me at the time, but now I quite like it.

I don’t have a whole lot more to say about it all at the moment. Maybe if there’s ever another occasion for playing songs I’ll do it. It’ll be pretty much like this. And when it happens I hope you all do the backups from the floor like here because that’s fun.

Bye for now.

(Original post on minds.com is here.)

“I Fell for You”

But what have you done for me lately? Wednesday again, and time for another song for Odin, if you know what I mean. (And if you don’t, there’s a sort of explanation at the Songs for Odin playlist link in the notes below that should make it clear.) The Odin train keeps on rollin’, evidently.

So here’s “I Fell for You” from a May 11, 1998 show at the RCKNDY in Seattle:

This show was with Ten Foot Pole and the Ataris and happened six months before the show from the same venue that kicked off this series way way back. (Three years ago, if you can believe that — here’s the playlist of songs from that set.)

I remember it as being a really great show, though this isn’t the greatest video and mix.

The main notable thing about the video of this particular song is that couple dancing on the stage, which is cute, and maybe even sort of fitting and appropriate considering the song. I don’t remember much about this show but I do remember that happening. And I probably did note the cuteness at the time. But mostly, when people climb up and crowd around you during songs, especially when its a narrow stage with limited space to stand (as it always is) the chief thing in one’s mind is trying to avoid losing one’s precarious balance and pitching face first off said stage. It’s been known to happen, when one is hemmed in or drunk enough. And had it happened here, then it really would have been fitting and appropriate. (I Fell for You — get it?) I sort of wonder what happened to those kids, if they still know each other, etc.

Anyway, it’s kind of funny when Joel and I fall back to do our customary synchronized guitar lifts in the break and we all get in each other’s way. (Though truth be told, we were quite capable of getting in our own way all by ourselves.)

As for the song, I’ve written a fair bit about it in previous Song for Odin entries and elsewhere, and you can read all about it in the notes below if you like. Here’s a snip:

The song, qua song, speaks for itself, I’d say. One of the good ones. The conceit, wherein the narrator argues that his “falling” has placed a reciprocal obligation on the one for whom he has fallen, is absurd to be sure; but it is nonetheless precisely the sort of absurdity that lovers do, in my observation and experience, from both ends. Most people, I imagine, can remember applying this sort of reasoning to someone else, and /or having this sort of reasoning applied to them, as well as the awkwardness that follows. In real life, it’s an argument that almost never works, but in a song it’s dynamite, because people are funny and we are them.

And… that’s all I got. Have yourselves a merry little Wodnesdæg and we’ll be back next week I suppose. I mean, it’s possible.

notes:

— studio recording (Mtx forever remastered version):

— original post on minds.com.

Dr Frank — “I Wrote a Book about Rock and Roll”

Sometimes I even stump myself… Good Wodnesdæg to you and welcome to another entry in the Song for Odin lists. Or, list rather. There’s only one list, really, and this is it, for what it’s worth. As you’ll know if you’ve followed my activities over the past three years or so, the program here is, I produce a video resource of a song by or done by my band or me alone and type up some commentary.

So here I am doing “I Wrote a Book about Rock and Roll” on a Sunday afternoon at a secret “Massoneria Ramonica” BBQ somewhere in Italy during the 2012 Art Tour with Kepi:

Massoneria Ramonica = the Ramones Masons, I know that. And that’s about all I know about the Ramones Masons.

I played the barbecue but wasn’t initiated into anything, wasn’t given an apron or a sword or threatened with death by lightning if I divulged any secret rituals or anything like that. I was just the entertainment. You’re in the middle of nowhere in Italy and you’re asked to play a secret set for a secret gathering of a secret society called the Ramones Masons, you just sort of go with it, that’s my policy. I’d do it again.

Anyway, this isn’t a bad rendition, and I like the ambience, if ambience means what I think it does. We were all having a good time and you can tell. You can see Kepi and various punk rock and Massoneria Ramonica luminaries shuffling in and out of frame doing this and that, almost just like real life.

That shirt I’m wearing is some T shirt art by the great Paolo Proserpio. There’s some background about that 2012 Art Tour in other entries, a couple of which are linked below if you’re interested.

I wrote a pretty substantial essay trying to account for and “explain” this song on its previous appearance as a Song for Odin a couple years back. Snips:

Local bands and music writers often came into conflict because they (or rather we, the bands) wanted them (the writers) to write about us and our records, while they… did not want to write about us and our records. There was a built-in adversarial relationship, though in retrospect it can be seen that both camps had basically the same objective, which was to use each other (or not as the case may be) to get noticed and remunerated by the wider world. Moreover, a lot of these music writers tended to be rather arrogant, silly, and pretentious.

The scenario was ripe for satire… though I concede, and the song implicitly acknowledges, that in the bigger picture such complaints were and are just as silly…

And now, of course, no one gets paid at all, for anything, by anyone, so it’s basically moot. Rock critics may be just as pretentious, but they tend to be more humble these days, as they must, like the local bands they once might have trashed or ignored. We’re all in the same boat, with equally dubious claims to justification for our existence…

It’s all water under the bridge now, and it’s still a good song that I flatter myself to think still holds up twenty years later despite its being situated in a largely vanished world. We grumbled about it a lot at the time, but that world (of music being worth more than zero and people getting paid for art and writing about art) was in some respects a better world than what we’ve got now, despite everything being “free.” Or so I would maintain.

And we’ll leave it at that, my friends. Until such time as we meet again,

I will endeavor to remain,

your Song for Odin.

notes:

studio recording (the Mtx forever remaster) at left.

— more on the 2012 Art Tour.

— still more on the 2012 Art Tour in another post.

— the Art Tour poster art by Stefan Tijs can be seen here.

— original post on minds.com can be found here.

I am Dr. Frank. I write books and songs. Mtx Forever.