“Halfway” is relative ’round here. If you broke in right now, you’d note, firstly, that I must have run out of the house halfway through doing my laundry. I did. And this and that are halfway from one place to another, but I don’t want to leave them in my car overnight, or just forgot them, and so I’m sitting beside a Casio keyboard from around 1992. I know this is true because I used it in 5th grade during show and tell to teach the class how simple it was to play Ace of Base. Pre-programmed drum beat. Pre-recorded backing track controlled by left hand. Melody on the right. Everything but the history as a neo-nazi.
But it was just a toy. It wasn’t at all like my piano. Until 1996, which, while only four years later, is about a million years when you’re that age. What happened was I decided to start my first band, based on John Lennon’s comment that the Beatles “were just four guys who decided to start a band.” What he didn’t mention was that they also knew how to play instruments. No matter. I got the neighborhood kids together and Doug wrote the first song, “Playing With My Puppy” — entirely literal — about how all the time he spends with his girlfriend is taking him away from time with his dog. There’s a lot of wisdom in that concept.
I was talking with my girl. Drinking coffee with my girl. But the only thing I was not doing was playing with my puppy. I see her sad eyes every day. I want to be with her night and day. I don’t have a choice between my job and my girl, I want to live in a dream world. Playing with my puppy.
There’s more lyrics than that, but those are all I can remember offhand. It should be noted that Doug was 9 years old when he wrote these. But since his parents let him watch R movies he had a better grasp on reality than the rest of us. Anyway, we recorded it and it completely sucked. I spent some days reconsidering the whole plan…we didn’t sound anything like the Beatles! And then I brought the group together again for a second try, and had a revelation. This time I produced the track myself, changing the structure, adding multiple vocal parts, drums, guitar…it was brilliant. Mostly it was brilliant because without knowing anything about songwriting I knew to add the middle eight. And even if the song sucks, anyone would listen to it and recognize that it’s structurally perfect.
Anyway, the drums were played on this keyboard. And a year later, much more mature, I’d taught Brian how to play drums, we were now a duo, I’d accidentally scratched the paint off Doug’s guitar when he let me borrow it one night, so I quickly sold it on eBay for twice the amount he’d paid for it and “bought” it off him, pocketing the difference. Business! But no guitarist anymore. Those were, in retrospect, perhaps the happiest days of my life. Because everything was simple, and everything felt possible, and all life was ahead of us, all our dreams might still come true.
Fast forward a few years and you know that your next relationship is probably the one during which you need to pop a few kids out because you’re already slated to be the oldest father in the kindergarten class.
But, back then we didn’t even know we could catch flying tits on the scrambled porn channels.
I was at a bar mitzvah party and won some contest, the prize being the single “Character Zero” by the band Phish. I remember sitting at one of the long tables, feeling very grown up, clutching my prize, wondering what in the world it might sound like…CD’s were very hard to come by…well, money was hard to come by. I’d selected it because Emily Eaton, my first real crush on a woman, a 12 year old woman whose passions included the film Clueless, “going out” with boys, and the Beatles, had told me about drugs and Phish. I wanted to impress her. So, Phish.
The song begins with some acoustic bit, and then a bum-bum-bum-bum bum-bum-bum-bum leading into the main song. My mind was blown. I’d never heard anything like this intro before. It doesn’t take much.
Zipping across the bridge on the way to the studio, this Kenny Loggins song began to play. I knew I owned a copy of his hits, but I hadn’t listened to much of them except the ones I’d known in the first place. But it blew my mind. Here’s what goes through my mind:
That initial bass/piano run. What the fuck is that? How can the drums be so sparse and hi-hat do so much since bossa nova? The pre-chorus, still sparse, what’s the pad under his vocals? The chorus…what the fuck! the bass doesn’t even play anything but accents! And is that Michael what’s-his-face singing harmony? No. Way. Kenny can sing soulful like this? Oh shit! In the pre-chorus listen to how he’s using the divisions between vocal registers artfully! I’ve gotta hear that again. Brilliant. And what’s that chord progression of the last four chords before the chorus? A 2-5-1’s dropped in there, hot damn! First note of sax solo–is Kenny growling underneath it? The sax is too smooth to make that sound. “For-ev-er” phrasing while moving down the melody is really tough!
And then I hit repeat. About ten times.
At the studio for the first time in ages to actually work on music. Not to be creative. But to force myself there for my new schedule. Just to be there. As far as creativity goes, Nathalie asked me to write an English “story” to go along with her new photograph. I wrote it over the course of an hour and…surprised myself. I’ve still got my style. I can still hold command over my language. She may or may not use it, translating it to the French may prove impossible, though I learned how to use commas from Proust. But I never explained what I was getting at. She takes a photograph of a woman and all I can focus on is the wallpaper. An hour practicing something I’d seen a drummer doing–keeping the rhythm of the high-hat with his foot the moment his hand isn’t there anymore. And then monkeying with strange chords on a Wurli, chords that are mostly great for color, a la Kenny Loggins, but useless to put a melody over. Hours developing some tracks that lead me to believe I’ve gotten better with time, tracks that will inevitably sound muddy next time I sit down there, and fall apart when I try to make them better. But, Kenny Loggins drove me home, everyone is standing at the Chinatown bus station, just like they did before all the Chinatown bus accidents, and I bought some new milk.