I don’t usually get autobiographical ’round these parts. In fact, it’s one of this blog’s invisible and unspoken mission statements to remain steadfastly outward-aimed. Probably this is because I usually write these things in the morning, and Diane – I am NOT a looker in the morning. Heavens no. Hair all akimbo, shirt half tucked-in, magically ten pounds heavier… I’ve got problems. It’s usually about four p.m before I start looking like a normal human being that you’d feel comfortable asking for directions, or bumming a quarter from.
Regardless, for a short stretch we are going to GET autobiographical. I want to post a series of essays about songs I wrote, that I like. But in a sneaky fashion, I think these navel-gazes will still reflect more light on the world outside of me than on me, myself. (And I.) I hope they’ll retroactively guide people to some interesting stuff that influenced me along the way. And I hope it will also give some insight into the general creative process; which, no matter what anyone says, is largely about homage, imitation, plagiarism, theft… and MURDER. Mwahahahaha!
Now let’s get on with the first entry.
My musical education was, I guess, like most anybody else’s: you hear some things, you like some things, you start digging. And like a miner in a gold vein, you dig what’s in front of you – what’s connected to the gold you already found. You don’t abandon the vein and start looking for gold five hundred miles away, in another state. That would be pretty stupid of you. Er, me. It’s only when you’re filthy rich and you’ve exhausted all the readily available gold that you go looking elsewhere.
I started with the crap my parents liked (Neil Diamond, John Denver, other folky 70s stuff, and lite rock radio) and moved on to the pop music of my middle teenagehood (Phil Collins and Genesis loomed over the landscape that year, it feels like). When I started getting into the hard stuff, it was hair metal first (pop with guitar solos) and then alternative rock, or what is now being called alternative metal – though that label wasn’t used much back then, perhaps because the whole idea of “alternative” music was making the idea of “metal” very unfashionable. Though in retrospect, Soundgarden and Jane’s Addiction sure seem harder and more metally than Poison and Warrant, who were clearly gay music for gaywads on a gaycation in Gayworld.* From there it was a short hop to punk rock (especially of the melodic and soaring-harmonies variety) and punk-informed alt rock, which gradually became something called post-punk that nobody really understands outside the borders of Washington, D.C.
Years later, it was 1994. I had moved to Chicago, and it was miserable fuckin’ cold most of the time I lived there. Beneath the many feet of snow and icy arctic winds blowing off of Lake Windmaker, in my igloo wrapped in a bearskin parka in front of a frost-caked 4-track tape recorder, I was trying to keep myself warm by whipping up a miniature punk frenzy. It wasn’t working. But I still have the tapes for posterity.
This is the second tape I made under the name Electrotone, which I think I stole from a line of guitars or effects pedals or something (I broke my Googling finger earlier today, sorry!). The core idea is one I would revisit repeatedly later on: it’s essentially alt or indie rock, but with influences from both punk and electronic music. “Electrotone” only managed two releases, and this one was a scant five songs, but at least the cover was horrifying:
Oh yeah, Diane: I drew that. Who wants to fuckin’ touch me?!?
Of the five songs on “Extra Flesh,” two were well-meaning pieces of shit, one was a boring instrumental, one was pretty good, and then there was this one.
The song is called “Klepto.” The lyrics are simple – a girlfriend stole from the narrator, who is now kicking her to the proverbial curb, where hopefully she will get hit by a non-proverbial bus or something. Why was it about stealing and breaking up? Well, to tackle the second part first, I had a strong belief for a very long time that all rock and pop music was better when it was about failing relationships. This eventually culminated in the 1.99 Millers album “Drink Your Way Out of This One,” in which 98% of the 38 tracks were about this very subject. After that, I felt like maybe I had emptied the well. But years before, Electrotone was still doggedly propping up that model. Getting back to the stealing, I totally loved the Superchunk semi-hit, “Package Thief.” Superchunk was one of those very tuneful punk/alt rock outfits that I couldn’t get enough of in the 90s, and “Package Thief” was this invigorating blast of energy and melody, with a kickass video involving puppets:
So two different times I had an appealing song idea with no lyrics, and both times I stole (yeah yeah) from the ‘Chunk, by writing some nonsense about thievery. The first time it didn’t work out. The second, which was this time, it kinda did.
Musically, “Klepto” is a bit like a Superchunk number, but really it came from a different place than that. This was written not long after “Rushmore” and its trailer introduced the world to a song called “Making Time,” by The Creation. “Making Time” is very Kinks-ish and Who-riffic – it’s a psychedelic pop/punk song from before punk even existed. It’s simple and beyond catchy. When I heard it, I instantly loved it – it was like all the music I already loved, only old and British:
(“Making Time” starts at about the 45 second mark in that clip.)
When you combine “Making Time” and the classic Kinks songs I knew with the punk and alt rock stuff I was listening to (especially the band Wire, whose early work made much delicious hay out of this kind of minimalism), you get “Klepto.” I wrote a hypnotic and barbarically retarded little riff, the one that opens the song; then I came up with another, chunkier riff worthy of the Kinks or AC/DC; then I start singing some frantically-paced lyrics about stealing and breaking up; and voila, a song was born. In final analysis, the drums aren’t good (I was still using a mediocre Boss drum machine) and the mix is too fuzzy and distorted, and because of my pre-digital, pre-having money limitations the whole thing sounds kind of crappy – but something almost like listenability still floats through the din.
For those of you for whom this song is too rough around the edges, Part 2 will feature a more recent and much more tolerable recording. I’ll get to that in the next day or two.
* I’d love to remove this somewhat offensive joke, but I can’t. My inner nine year old loves it too much.