David Schreiber has been aiding a personal-archeological project of mine: he’s been digitally encoding discs of songs I sent him twenty years ago. I had no idea he even had them. I must have made them on my Tascam four-track and sent them to David in Florida. That’s way better than a time capsule. A time capsule can’t convert its contents into MP3s.
He hasn’t gotten to everything yet. As a little teaser, he scanned the handwritten cassette cover of a collection I called Limnetic and e-mailed it to me. Aside from the psychic destabilization that always accompanies an encounter with an inactive version of myself, this has been very entertaining, enlightening even. For instance, did you realize I wrote and home-recorded a song called “Reading Over Your Shoulder”? I guess I did. What about “Electric Angel”? I have a vague recollection of that one, but it must have been important to me in ’97, because Limnetic includes three different versions of it. “Be A Little Tougher”, “Proof Through The Night,” “A Green Feather”, “The Passenger”; what the heck? If ever I needed a reminder that I write too many songs and refine too few — maybe I need one now — David has been providing one for me.
Limnetic was almost certainly created for Scott Miller, who was the recipient of many such cassette tapes, and who used to do triage on their contents. Some of these songs did end up on If One Of These Bottles Should Happen To Fall, which means he liked them enough to want to work on them. He could be pretty brutal about the songs he didn’t like, which was fine with me, because there were so many floating around that I never got too attached to any one of them (except maybe “The View From New Jersey”.) If he stomped a few of them out of existence, it was easier to concentrate on the ones that might point the way to the future. As many of his fans/friends know, he was a copious e-mailer, and he’d send back notes on each; twenty years later, I remember some of his rips better than the melodies of the songs he was ripping on. About “Pepper Martin 1931”: “I hate this song with some energy.” That was the end of that one. To this day, I am glad “Pepper Martin 1931,” existed — even though it really is awful — just so it could have drawn a knockout blow from Scott Miller.
Once he’d put the kibosh on something, it was forgotten by me; wiped from the hissing cassette tape of my brain like I’d never pressed play and record. That might seem harsh of me to do to me, but somebody needed to play an editorial role, so why not my own favorite songwriter? 1997 was a strange year: the band I’d been playing with had released an album, but it hadn’t found an audience. It was not at all clear to me that I ought to continue performing music in public, even if I couldn’t stop myself from writing songs in private. I was drifting without a creative anchor, which isn’t a feeling I mind at all; on the contrary, I rather enjoy it. But it’s anti-social, and I’m glad somebody was there to help fix my course.
For instance, a favorite at performances at that time was a big, sopping ballad called “Song 74” about an actress who’d decided to leave New York City. Everybody seemed to like this number — really, it’s not half bad — and I think that the expectation among those people interested in my development as a writer was that it would be the centerpiece of whatever I did next. When I sent it to Scott Miller, I figured he’d tell me the same and we’d get down to work on it. Instead, he wrote “No thanks, not for me. I’m from California. That Broadway-baby-with-a-broken-heart business doesn’t play over here.” I was surprised by this, and maybe a little taken aback by how frank he was, but mostly I felt unburdened of a song that I’d always suspected was a bit shite, as the Brits like to say. I was grateful to San Francisco — the entire Bay Area, really — for its heartlessness, and its principled aversion to showtuneage.
I’d worked with producers before. My college band made its album with an upperclassman who brought us into the studio in the music building and tried to settle us down long enough to record us. Most of that music wasn’t mine, though — I was still learning how to build barre-chords and triads, and my bandmates who had a firmer grasp of theory handled the composition. We didn’t have much quality material: if anything good got left on the floor, I can’t hum any of it back. When the Favorite Color made Color Out Of Space in ’95 — that’s the forgotten album I was referring to two paragraphs ago — that was my writing, and let’s just say I was very much a work in progress, even if I didn’t care to admit that to anybody at the time. We had very good, very accommodating producers on that project, but they weren’t in the habit of saying no to me. I just served them up and ladled them out, we recorded them, and that was that. Scott Miller was the first person to say to me, essentially, “look, you write fast and you write a bunch, but a lot of what you’re writing is crummy. Let’s fish out the workable ideas and try to develop those into good songs.”
Since then, others have done the same. Jay was very restrictive about what he wanted on Shootout At The Sugar Factory; in general he found my turn-of-the-millennium compositional practices too fast and too sloppy, and I’m sure he was right. I still have a tendency to consider a song good enough, and zip on over to the next idea without considering whether a revision could make the song better. This has been a major problem of mine as a writer in general: once I am done with something, I have no idea how to improve it via internal editing. My writing is like a cylindrical refinery tank with no apparent entrance. All of the songs of mine that any people know are 100% first drafts. They came to me as completed ideas, more or less, with a few blank spaces that I quickly filled in order to be done with it. When I’ve tried to return to a song just to see whether I can do it, I end up with a Frankenstein’s monster with wires and bolts and coat hangers protruding all over the place. Those songs don’t make the repertoire.
My trip down Memory Lane with David has made me question whether I’m back in a 1997 period — just writing and writing and writing and writing because it feels oh so nice to write, snug in a hole and scribbling on the walls, oblivious to quality. All my instincts tell me that these are my best songs ever, but who knows?, I might have said that about “A Green Feather,” whatever the hell that is, twenty years ago. As long as the tunes keep coming and my inane optimism holds out, I’m not getting too attached to any of these numbers, because there’ll be an even better one tomorrow. I think. If you’ve been privy to these songs, and you’ve decided one of them is terrible, please give me the thumbs-down sign. Scott Miller would have.