I’ve tried my best never to be too too hokey about any of this stuff. Just as I’d hate to have an out-of-stater come here and write a bunch of junk about the Jersey Devil and Taylor ham, I don’t want anybody to think that the only thing I’ve taken away from the cities I’ve visited is the schticky superficials. These songs and stories are inspired by places I’ve gone and narrated by characters I’ve imagined there. I don’t think they necessarily have to namecheck specific landmarks. The exception that demonstrates my scruples (hopefully) is “That’s What I Like About Baltimore”, which is a song about the way in which a fixation on kitsch culture associated with a city can make engagement with that impossible: the actual culture of a place as rich as Baltimore occluded by Berger cookies and pink flamingos. Which, come to think of it, is the sort of thing that happens in New Jersey a bunch. Even Jersey people do it.
But I goofed with Phoenix, and I know it — but I don’t want to take it back or scrap the song. Here’s what happened: I found the names of the East-West streets that run straight through the Valley of the Sun so evocative that I felt the need to build a song around them. Once I started, I couldn’t stop, and it became a kind of game. If we crossed a major road, I had to find someplace in the lyric of “On Indian School” (Indian School is an East-West road) to tuck it in. Thunderbird, Baseline, Bethany Home, Greenway, Bell, Camelback; Phoenix knows how to name its streets.
If that sounds to you like the recipe for an incoherent lyric, one full of annoying wordplay, well, you can decide for yourself. I acknowledge that this one isn’t as tightly written as the last few were. The scenario is too complicated for a three minute indiepop song: there are a couple of different characters in dialogue, although that’s hard to pick out unless you’re listening closely. The main character might be a recovering junkie, or a justifiably resentful Native American, or a musician without a band. His interlocutor is definitely a social worker. Mentioning Kokopelli in a song about Arizona is sort of like putting a reference to orange juice in a South Florida number or wind in a verse about Chicago. Yet I did find that the cult of Kokopelli in the shops of Phoenix and Scottsdale was so weirdly compelling that the old trickster had to wriggle his way into the song. We almost bought an insanely expensive seed pot in a store in Scottsdale that was covered with hundreds of marching Kokopelli figures in a spiral. It was mesmerizing. I couldn’t stop looking at it. After that I started noticing Kokopelli everywhere, which in Arizona isn’t exactly like riddling out the locations of the Tristero Post Horn. There’s a big Kokopelli waiting to greet you on the way to the airport. They drew him right on the ground. He’s everywhere.
So yes, in a thirty plus song project, some of the numbers are going to be a little more scrambled than others, and I was resigned to relegating this one to digital b-side status. Imagine my surprise, then, when “On Indian School” came together like a popcorn caramel ball during the mix. I now sort of love it, and I have to think that the same listeners who enjoyed “Route 52” will also dig this song, too. I believe it went from off-putting to magnetically confusing in a single afternoon of hard work by Mike Flannery, and I thank him for that. It also features the only triangle part I’ve ever put in any of my songs, played here by the mysterious Mr. Irving Sosceles. He rocks in a geometry outfit with Joe Scalene. No two of his sides are equal.