The Same Old Songs

Occasionally, Facebook's "Memories" function will do something useful, like reminding me that I haven't spoken to X in a while, or that it's the anniversary of Y. This morning it reminded me of something that I posted on my wall a while back, and as I thought of it, I realized that I never actually posted it here. Maybe I was feeling paranoid about exposing something to the wider Internet, as opposed to the massively overcrowded cul-de-sac that is Facebook, but as I think about the matter today, I can't see much reason not to share it with y'all, especially since I've been sharing it on Soundcloud for a good three years now.

In a nutshell, here are two of my songs.

Both of these are tunes I wrote long ago. Long ago as in "I'm not sure when I wrote them." I feel fairly certain "Clean Enough to Eat Off" is the more recent, probably written in 1989 or 1990, when my twenties were rapidly running out and I was getting anxious about having to be a grownup. "There Is a Tide" has a much older pedigree, having started as a piano tune that I originally composed and recorded for my high-school girlfriend. Sometime after the breakup of Terminal Mouse in '86 or so, I pulled it out, dusted it off, rearranged some parts for guitar, added a chorus and some lyrics, and voila.

Of course, scholars of my biography will note that I was not playing with a band during these years, though Bryon Settle and I did make occasional appearances around Chapel Hill as the performance-art/randomcore duo PC & Elmo (a/k/a Elmo & PC), where our set lists tended toward self-indulgent cover songs. (Our two-minute treatment of Pink Floyd's "Echoes" was probably the most notorious of these.) In other words, I didn't really have a means of bringing these tunes to life onstage. And in 1991, with my move to Fayetteville and the start of both parenthood and teaching career, it became clear that I probably wouldn't have such means for the foreseeable future.

The one thing I could see was the fact that Bryon and Mike Beard had bought a recording studio, which they dubbed Yellow Recording after the color of the house on Rosemary Street which contained it. I wheedled a promise that I could come back to Chapel Hill and lay down some tracks sometime, and for a couple of years I kept my mind focused on diapers and debate tournaments and grading. Finally, in 1994, Bryon & Mike informed me that a weekend in September had opened up, and that better still our old friend Rob Ladd would be in town. Rob is a phenomenally talented drummer, as he has proved by performing with everyone from Susannah Hoffs to Alanis Morisette (that's him on "Ironic") to the Red Clay Ramblers, so I jumped at the chance. I lined up another of our old friends, Terminal Mouse's own Dr. Carey Floyd, to play bass, and got myself ready.

If only I had thought more clearly about that date, I might have realized that it was a rather important weekend: Kelly's thirtieth birthday. Since Rob was only briefly available, I felt I couldn't rally back out, so instead I ended up desperately cajoling Kelly to come to town and spend the day at a friend's house with Ian & Dixon, who were three and one at the time. When we arrived, that friend backed out of the arrangement--a long and ultimately irrelevant story--which left Kelly driving aimlessly around town with a pair of toddlers for the rest of the day while I went to the studio. Whatever else happens after death, I'm pretty sure I'll be doing time in purgatory over that one.

But still, we got the tracks laid down. Rob, to no one's surprise, immediately picked up the nuances of both songs (I think he'd heard the demo tapes before he arrived, but I can't swear to it) and accepted two pieces of direction. I asked for the double-snare shot in the verse of "Tide," which he said "made it sound like an actual part." Mike, who was playing the role of producer and engineer, suggested that he break up the too-smooth rhythm of "Clean Enough"'s verse by syncopating one snare beat, moving it from the four to the and-three. We all loved it as soon as we heard it.

Carey had been working on the songs for a couple of weeks, and he had come up with a driving bassline for "Clean Enough," one that got slightly more gymnastic with each verse. Mike felt it was a little too complex, especially in the second verse, where I believe Carey was introducing a third note, but eventually approved of the use of the fifth note in the third verse. (He would eventually make Carey come back to the studio to re-record the second verse with a more straightforward part; if you listen carefully you can hear that the bass in that verse is slightly louder than in the rest of the song.)

Bryon had not really planned on playing, but he was in the studio listening, and dammit, when you have Bryon Settle, and a guitar, and a tape recorder, why the hell would you NOT get him to play? He hadn't heard the songs before that day, so he was unwilling to commit to anything more involved than a solo, but once I gave him the chords and Mike played the instrumental sections for him, ol' Elmo dug right into the meat of things and churned out as raucous and expressive a pair of solos as you could want. "Tide" was done in one take; sometimes you just get lightning in a bottle. "Clean Enough" took a little more time--maybe three or four takes while Bryon tinkered with the edges. But to this day, that bent-note wail of an entrance remains one of my very favorite moments of guitar, ever, right up there with the first notes of Robert Fripp's solo on the Roches' "Hammond Song," or the two-note fanfare that opens David Gilmour's solo on "Comfortably Numb."

My own performances are, as you might expect, a bit wince-inducing at this juncture. I can hear my voice flattening out uncomfortably in spots, and though both lyrics show me maturing as a songwriter, there are still a few bits I'd probably rewrite if I had the chance. I'm actually fairly satisfied with my guitar work; I'm not a particularly good soloist player, but I can manage a solid rhythm line, and I've become fairly adept at adding grace notes to keep chords from getting too dull. But yeah, there's a reason I asked Bryon to take the solos.

All in all, then, these are two pieces of music that still intrigue me and engage me, even though they also embarrass me a bit, not purely for musical reasons. They're like old photographs in a way, ones that capture hairstyles and clothing you'd forgotten you ever sported, but which give you access to a whole file of images and recollections you never want to lose. Carey died in 2006, and the rest of us are settled down, with kids either out of the house or preparing to leave. I haven't played a gig in ages--and a paying gig in even longer than that--but I'm still proud of what I did at Yellow that day, and grateful for the friends who did it with me. And for the woman who let me do it without divorcing me.

Play it loud.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on July 25, 2016 9:36 AM.

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