Because you’re a J. D. Salinger fanatic like me, a completist and obsessor who photocopies stories out of eighty-year-old issues of the New Yorker, you recognize the title: “You Needn’t Be So Mean, Baby” is the song that Les and Bessie Glass made semi-famous in their vaudeville act. Neither Franny nor Zooey nor anybody else gives the reader a really good description of the song, but from context clues, it’s a safe bet that it’s witty, and urbane, and light-handed, and something of a lark. All of which is pretty much the opposite of this, its namesake, one of the spazziest and most desperate/restless songs in the Tris McCall catalog. Now why would I do that to Salinger, the artist to whom I owe more than any other artist? Beats me. I’m a jerk, really.
In fairness to us, we’re calling this the Starlite version of “You Needn’t Be So Mean, Baby,” which means it’s not at all what you’ll be getting when the album is ready. When we listened back to the basic tracks, we discovered that I’d pushed like crazy on the piano, and tipped the whole thing into a frantic, higgledy-piggledy mess. But I like that kind of thing, and I wanted to work on it anyway. Our compromise: we’re going to cut a groovier, more restrained version — one that Les and Bessie wouldn’t want to disown us over — that’ll eventually replace, or supplement, this one on the site. In the meantime, we put together a mix of this to accommodate the Los Angeles page, and we’re sharing it right now.
Since this is the Starlite version, we felt authorized to glitz it up as much as possible: synth solos, guitar solos, a clavinet, horn samples, backing vocals, a Moog part that somehow reminds me of a machine injecting jelly into doughnuts, whatever else we could fit. The L.A. song, I felt, required a maximalist approach anyway, so if it sounds overstuffed to you, well, that’s not entirely an accident. It’s not entirely by design, either, since in my mind at least, all the instruments are as meticulously arranged as a Bacharach production, or at least Prefab Sprout. I’ll try again sometime, probably on the Nashville song. But I promise: this is about as overwhelming as it’s ever going to get. Thank you for hanging with me.
All disclaimers aside, I’ve been wanting to name a song, or an album, or something, after “You Needn’t Be So Mean, Baby” for many years. There aren’t too many loose ends in Salinger’s stories — even when he’s racing around at greyhound speed, he’s usually careful to satisfy whatever emotional curiosity his narratives engender. The Glass family parents are an exception to that. They’re mysterious figures hovering above the stories, and their motivations are left for the reader to supply. How do they feel about It’s A Wise Child after the fact, for instance, once they’ve seen that their children haven’t exactly survived their encounter with the world with all their f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact?
Much as I love early-’80s Genesis and Phil Collins in general, I can’t really defend “Illegal Alien.” I’ve tried. Genesis was then a tight little art-rock machine with its eyes on the mainstream, and Collins and Tony Banks were in the right midst of their deep fascination with criminal activity (“Robbery, Assault & Battery,” “Who Dunnit,” “Home By The Sea,” etc.) “Illegal Alien” was just the one where Collins could really indulge his penchant for offensive caricature and grandstanding theatrical stereotype; in this case, a drunk Mexican willing to pimp his sister to get him to America. I still think that now is the time for somebody to do a cover version, and sure, I’d like that somebody to be me, but I’ve never found musicians crazy enough to accompany me. Something about their public reputations, I think.
So, yes, I acknowledge it’s a nasty song, an unconscionable song — even if it isn’t exactly a bad song; it’s got Collins, Banks, and Mike Rutherford on it, applying their considerable musical talents to problematic material. (The video is even worse, or, if you the kind of person who likes to collect racist artifacts for kitsch value, way better.) Randy Newman used to do this kind of thing all the time, although his touch was much lighter and he’s never exactly been a corporate rocker, so we let him get away with it. If you take the long view, you can see “Illegal Alien” as the most extreme version of a practice popular with many of our Seventies heroes: phony Latin numbers, often sung in crummy South Of The Border accents. All the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers did it — Jackson Browne with “Linda Paloma”, Billy Joel on “Rosalita’s Eyes” and “All You Wanna Do Is Dance”, Carole King on “Corazon” and the Fantasy album, many, many others. Hell, Paul Simon was down by the schoolyard with Julio and ripping off “El Condor Pasa” long before he pirated anything from Africa. Lou Reed, Donald Fagen, Dylan, all the legendary Jewish-American urban storytellers; none of them could resist a little pinch of Latin appropriation.
Me neither. We’re supposed to be in a more sensitive era where we’re all far beyond finding something like “Illegal Alien” permissible, but seriously, have you looked at the news lately? Most musicians only appropriate stuff they respect, and want to be like, and that goes double for Phil Collins, who, in 1982, was a guy in a prog rock band desperately searching for some cool. I’ve been doing Latin fakes even since I started writing music: there’s “Go Back To West New York”, and “WFMU”, and “Robert Menendez Basta Ya”, and many others that haven’t ever been a regular part of the repertoire. Are these my best songs? Well, no, but they’re sure fun to play live. Latin rhythms don’t come naturally to me, but neither do any others. If I’m going to play music at all, I’ve got to swipe from somewhere, so it may as well be a tradition that excites me.
“Every Day Is Children’s Day” is 100% Latin fake. The programmed drums are copied into the track from a MIDI folder called, I kid you not, “Cuba”; there are great conga sounds in there. That’s me on bass, too, attempting the sort of line I remember from the Gloria Estefan records I used to dance wildly to at people’s Bar Mitzvahs before getting escorted off the floor by concerned adults. The “Oh, Miami” chant — much like the TripStar concept in the accompanying story — is a tip of the cap to Fagen, who isn’t Latin-American, but he sure is from Jersey. Somehow it all works for me: I really do love this one, just like (and probably because) I really do love Latin music. If Dierks Bentley can invent an entire Southern outlaw mythology for his listeners based on vague recollections of The Dukes Of Hazzard, I feel I’m allowed to conjure Miami Beach via Ricky Ricardo. Once or twice, only, I promise. If by chance you’re not offended by this, trust me, there’s worse to come. Wait until we get to the San Juan song — that’s about as far down the road toward “Illegal Alien” as any North American ever ought to go.
Several years ago, I wrote a book called The Trespassers. I like it a bunch; if you haven’t read it, I wish you would. It’s what I have to say to you. It’s not really an adventure story — what action there is mostly involves a bunch of kids breaking into abandoned buildings and photographing them. The narrator is a sixteen-year-old aspiring troublemaker from North Carolina at large in Jersey during the summer of 2004. Recent historical fiction, in other words. Just like most fiction is, I guess.
I was compelled to write the story because of certain sad conclusions I’d drawn about America, and Americans, and how we view the landscape. I don’t necessarily want to give anything away about the story in case you do decide to read it sometime, but I did feel like I was writing against techno-conformity, and I hope that people who did read The Trespassers understood my intent. Since I put everything I care about in that book, I can’t help but return to those themes in the short stories I’ve been writing for the Almanac. Maybe obsessively. I can’t tell yet. I’ve been trying to vary the style and tone as a safeguard against redundancy.
The latest is the longest at eight thousand words, which is too many words for the Internet, but there it is. I like it best of the stories, and that’s probably because it’s the one that reminds me the most of The Trespassers: there’s a gently anti-social and wholly unreliable protagonist who is looking desperately for connections with others without compromising a skewed set of personal ethics. I’ve paired the story with my favorite song in the entire Almanac, at least for now — and when I ask myself why it’s my favorite song, I’m forced to conclude that’s because it, too, reminds me of The Trespassers. There’s something I’m trying to get at; I’ve been trying for twenty-five years, at least. I may never get there, but when I feel like I’ve been able to render some of it in a book or on an album, that’s the stuff I’ve done that’s meaningful to me.
“The Unmapped Man” was directly inspired by a different book — The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. If you haven’t read it, it’s sort of a Louisianan version of The Catcher In The Rye: Binx Bolling, the main character, has come unmoored from the society he keeps and maybe even from himself. He wanders around a spectral version of New Orleans, periodically attempting to jump free from his quotidian existence but mostly just going with the flow. If you’ve read the book, some of the references in the song might make sense, and this was initially subtitled Binx Bolling’s Blues, but the narrator isn’t Binx, it’s Bo, who is an entirely different can of worms, or drawer of knives. So yeah, Walker Percy can’t be held responsible for any of this. A small tip of the cap goes to my wise friend Sarah, who, just a few days ago, told me, with all sincerity, that Utopia begins with U. I popped it right in the story. It needed to go someplace.
Long song, long story. Something about Texas makes me stretch out. Might be the wide-open spaces, or the big rivers, or the Miranda Lambert double albums. “Houston Calls The Space Cadet” is my idea of country music, which in practice means Jackson Browne plus thick Wakeman-inspired synthesizer. Most farmers use plenty of synthetic products these days. Think of the Moog on the verses as pesticide and fungicide stacks, and the MS2000 on the refrain as a genetically modified organism.
The Almanac has now been up for a month. Hope you’ve been enjoying our game. It’s a noisy world and it can be difficult for the peeping of a little otter like me to be heard over the din. From the outset, I figured it would be a good way to give people a regular reminder of the existence of my music and my writing without being too too annoying about it. See, I’m only a loudmouth on the Internet; in person, I’m shy. But like other introspective megalomaniacs throughout history, I like to be drawn out of my shell by the enthusiastic applause of others. I welcome this. In an effort to get some, I’m getting out of the house and back into showbiz.
Yes, shows; American Almanac shows. I will be playing some Almanac songs at a Blowup Radio-sponsored guitar pull — basically three songwriters trading numbers — at Espresso Joe’s in Keyport on April 8. That’ll just be me and my ole acoustic guitar; no synthesizers in sight. Before you decide conclusively not to go, I’m actually not a terrible acoustic guitar player. I can kindasorta do it, and I’ve been practicing. It’s true, I can exist without an electric current!, right this moment, I’m not plugged into anything. Later I’ll need to be connected via USB to the grid in order to recharge.
Six nights later, Maxwell’s Tavern will be celebrating the 35th anniversary of Jersey Beat. This’ll be something of a music marathon with mini-sets from lots of friends, including the Negatones, Richard Barone, Prosolar Mechanics, Glenn Morrow and his Cry For Help, the Cucumbers, and Jerseybeat Jim himself, who was nice enough to ask me to do a few songs. I’ll be playing with Marc Maurizi, who you might remember as the frontman and principal songwriter in Cropduster. (‘Duster drummer Scott Kopitskie might join us, too.) We’re doing a couple of his songs and a couple of mine, and a timely cover that I think you’ll be able to sing along to. Just hope I don’t mess it up too bad.
Finally, we’re planning an official Almanac kickoff party at Pianos on May 12. This’ll be a real full band show, which means a battery of synthesizers I can hide behind as I sing. It won’t be all Almanac songs: we’ll do some old favorites, too. By then, the site will be two months old, and the world ought to know all about it. Or at least my mommy and my little sister. They both checked it out last week and they liked it, or so they told me at my father’s birthday party. Always got to keep your mommy happy.
P.S. If you’re an aging emo kid and wondering, the title of today’s song is indeed a shout to a North Jersey band that I liked a lot: Houston Calls. No references to Hidden In Plain View or Armor For Sleep, alas. (Early November references are general across all these songs.)
You might recognize this one. Unlike most of the rest of the songs in this Almanac, it wasn’t written in 2015 or 2016. “(That’s What I Like About) Baltimore” dates back to late 2008, and it’s been performed a few times by a couple of different combos.It’s possible you heard it at a show and, given its simplicity, you might even be able to sing along to it. I posted the original bedroom demo of this song to this website years ago, and I think that recording was downloaded by a bunch of my pals. Maybe even you, reader.
It was never recorded for real, by a band, though — and, given its subject matter, it seemed like it was a good fit for this Almanac. A person who appreciated the original demo (or at least the silly doo-wop backing vocals) said to me, cleverly, that she felt it had more to do with Jersey City than it did with Baltimore. In 2008, my writing wastrending toward autobiography — this was the time of Let The Night Fall— so I guess it was only natural to assume that the criticism of what went on in “my town” was actual criticism of my town. But this isn’t supposed to be my voice. “Baltimore” was always meant to be a character song: one narrated by a guy whose perspective is, to say the least, problematic. I was thinking of Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” and stuff from Good Old Boys like “Birmingham” — songs where the narrator’s superficial engagement with a place hints at some of the deep troubles beneath the sunny-day exterior. So “my town” could really be anywhere: just a place that the main character deems inauthentic by comparison with Baltimore as he imagines it.
Still, I entertained writing a different song about Baltimore and leaving this one out of the Almanac. Richmond comes close, and San Francisco is great for baseball (sometimes), but Baltimore is my favorite American city that isn’t in New Jersey. It’s already taken a beating in the popular imagination — which is kinda what motivated this song in the first place — and I didn’t want to pile on. I’ve never seen The Wire or Homicide, but whenever I’d go to Baltimore, people felt the need to bring them up and mention the desolation that inspired them. Songs about Baltimore do tend to be bleak: not just Randy Newman’s, but Lyle Lovett’s, and Gram Parsons via Bobby Bare, and “Hungry Heart” and etcetera throughout the pop catalog. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want a casual listener to think that I thought that Baltimore was just crab cakes and Berger cookies; a kitchy pit stop on I-95 where I can grab some stuff to eat and enjoy some local color as I joyride home. That would make me cry.
Ultimately, I decided that this song belonged in the Almanac — or belonged somewhere, so why not here? “Baltimore” is the rare Tris McCall number that I have good reason to believe that people like, and that I’ve actually market-tested a little before I tried to foist it on anybody. It’s about two minutes long, and I still think that’s the optimal length for a pop song. As for the accompanying story, it’s a sad one, and it trades in the same complex, ambivalent emotions that (I hope) peek through the spaces between the big, bouncy major chords. Liberal guilt is one of the debilitatingforces in American life at the moment, but risible as it is, I don’t think it’s all that pernicious. We’re dealing with worse. While I question Philip’s motivations and some of his methods, too, the poor schmuck certainly has my sympathy.
The decision to do the Almanac was mainly driven by webcomic envy. It feels like the ideal way to tell a story: episodically, a page a day, on a regular update schedule. The Pittsburgh song I’m posting today doesn’t have anything to do with Kate Beaton, but I’m dropping her name here in tribute, and as an acknowledgment of one of my biggest inspirations for the project. You might know Kate Beaton — she’s such an amazing caricaturist and storyteller that her fame has spread far past the still-small world of webcomics. There’s an archive ofher history and literature cartoons at Hark, A Vagrant (that’s her site); it’s about as lively as visual art gets.
My favorites, though, are a couple of artists who you probably wouldn’t know unless you know webcomics. Meredith Gran draws Octopus Pie, which has been running for ten years now — and is coming in for a landing — has evolved from a goofy slice-of-life comic about a couple of young women in New York City to a work of sublime narrative poetry. It’s simultaneously the best reporting on life in Brooklyn and the finest epic novel I’ve ever read a page at a time. I’m going to be so sad to see it go, but it’s going out on top. Unsounded, a wild ride created by a Floridian named Ashley Cope, features a fully realized fantasy world (and magic system loosely based on computer programming) of her own invention. She’s great at drawing action scenes and trippy, otherworldly landscapes. But what she really excels at is the character stuff. The comic is, at base, an on-the-road buddy story starring a young girl with a tail and a compromised set of morals and a deeply religious zombie wizard (she says wright) whose prose is even more purple than mine. At times it reminds me of Fritz Leiber, and other times of Dr. Seuss, but mostly it’s just Ashley Cope, the great fantasist of the moment.
Anyway, there’s nothing comic about today’s song, which is my attempt to rock a little (as Stevie Nicks once said) — with plenty of bass synthesizers, of course. The riff is lifted from a thousand different new wave numbers, but the tale is my own invention. Here’s one time when the short story on the city page is a retelling — actually an elaboration — of the song lyric. It’s all pretty coherent. Next week, I’ll be more mysterious.
In Ecology Of Fear, Mike Davis writes about our national obsession with West Coast apocalypse. Filmed depictions of Pacific disaster are big entertainment for the whole country. If the earthquakes don’t get Southern California, it’ll be the landslides, or the tornadoes (Los Angeles is weirdly prone to them, he suggests), or a tsunami, or a megadrought that will leave millions of beautiful and formerly well-hydrated people gasping for a drink of water.
In part, we’re fixated on Californian disaster stories because we know that the planners are throwing dice with death, taking major chances by overdeveloping a region that isn’t exactly geologically sound. But if we’re honest, we ought to concede that we’re also rubberneckers, and little Savonarolas who believe that vanity will, in due time, be punished by the universe. We’re pieces of work, we are. When the cataclysm comes, we expect Californians to stop tanning and turn on each other; this is the theme of, among other songs, Jamey Johnson’s excellent-repugnant “California Riots”. While the liberals will be killing each other over scarce resources, Jamey will be in his pickup truck and headed back to Macon. I hope he’s not laughing.
But just as the secret of eschatology is in understanding that every day on earth contains its own little acts of genesis and tribulation, the awful truth of California — especially Southern California — is that apocalypse happens in slow motion all the time. The burdens of apocalypse fall disproportionately on the damned, which, in a country that worships money, mostly means the folks who haven’t got any. California is the Garden of Eden, but you won’t find this place too hot if you ain’t got the dough-re-mi; it’s as true today as it was when Woody Guthrie first sang that chorus oh so many moons ago. Right now, a regime in Washington that appears to hate the whole West Coast is making life hard for the immigrants and illegals and asylum-seekers who are huddled at the bottom rung; this puts extra pressure on folks who are already the most vulnerable to droughts and mudslides and all the other dangers of a land that has never wholly been tamed. That gorgeous, flower-dotted country between San Diego and the Mexican border is home to many of the wealthiest Americans, living in beautiful houses. It’s also a transition zone populated by poor workers whose hold on American life is getting more precarious by the day. When disaster comes, guess who’s going to ride it out okay, and who is going to fall into the fault line?
You may have noticed that many Californians are sick of this treatment — sick enough that they’re contemplating taking their beach ball and going away. A #Calexit, if it were to happen, really would be a disaster, a comet-strike to the political world: a huge percentage of America’s gross domestic product would be wiped off the books, probably for good. There were similar rejectionist movements in Texas and other Southern states when Obama reached the White House, so it’s tempting to think that Californian separatism will also come to nothing. But I hope that the success of the Brexit campaign and the rise of the SNP has taught us to take secession movements seriously. A year ago, nobody thought that the MPs in Westminster were really going to turn away from the EU. Well, hell, they’re really going to do it.
Would Sacramento really kiss the rest of us ingrates off? Well, honestly, why wouldn’t Californians at least consider it? They have no voice in the electoral college — Presidential elections are usually decided even before their polls close. They are taxed to pay for an aggressive foreign policy that doesn’t serve their interests. Now they’re at the mercy of federal immigration officers whose brutal practices undermine municipal police departments and erode trust in authorities of all kinds. The state that has been a tremendous driver of innovation ever since it first consented to be part of the Union has to watch, voiceless, as a bunch of know-nothings in office deny scientific consensus. Climate’s heating up; cool heads aren’t likely to prevail.
The action-adventure-y “Route 52” is set at a not-so-distant future moment when California is in the teeth of a drought and readying for the big divorce. None of that is spelled out explicitly in the song’s lyric, but it’s all hinted at, and one of the things I’m enjoying about this Almanac is that I can fill in the narrative blanks with the story and the essay. This particular story is a little gonzo, I admit. I’m not going to make a habit of that, hopefully, but I felt that “Route 52” required me to take a few liberties. As a hokey person I went for a Californian sound: a little Game Theory, and Allen Clapp, and Aislers Set, and CVB. I realize those are all Northern Californian acts. Beach Boys mimicry is beyond my capacities.
I feel the need to say that I love California as much as any damned Yankee can. I do not, ever, want to be part of a Golden Stateless nation; that would horrify me, and I wish Washington would stop pushing California toward the door. It would really feel like we were shooting the popular kid as an idiotic act of defiance. My fear is that unscrupulous politicians who have no great love of the Union and a great deal of love for power will determine that they’ve got a better chance of imposing their will on the rump of the nation if California goes. You may find that far-fetched or legally dubious; I think it’s frighteningly plausible, and I’ve noticed that laws — even constitutional laws — have a habit of giving way when people in power deem them inconvenient. Consider: right now, most Americans’ primary enemy isn’t Russians, or Arabs, or Mexicans. It’s other Americans — Americans on the other side of the political divide. Once the cookie starts to crumble, the whole thing could fall to pieces fast. Don’t make me pull for #NJexit. You know we’d be fine. We’ve got the Garden.
When I was a young music fan learning about rock history, most of what I loved was called pretentious by the music press.This bothered me.Close To The Edge?, that had to have been received as a masterpiece, no?The consensus said it hadn’t, and wasn’t. According to the Rolling Stone Record Guide, it was about the same quality as Steve Forbert’s second album and nowhere near as good as Willie Nile.Way worse, even, since nobody ever said that Forbert or Nile were pretentious.Their reach did not exceed their grasp.This was the tenor of the time: terror that bands would pretend to qualities or abilities or concepts that were beyond their ability to fully realize.Why rock critics were so intent on policing ambition was never 100% clear to me. It might have had something to do with radical democracy, or a belief that Shake, Rattle and Roll was what rock music was all about and any departure from youthful simplicity was a violation of the sacred code.
I love Shake, Rattle and Roll.Most of the time I can hear the argument that rock music is about cars and sexual frustration and that a songwriter complicates that formula at her great peril.Popular music is kid’s stuff in the best possible way, and that’s because the kids are alright.Through the lens of that understanding I can sorta see progressive rock as an affront to the verities, or to simple common sense, and I begin to understand why critics deemed the moondog and the march hare inappropriate to the enterprise.But I can’t help noticing that the writers who ran down Genesis and Rush and Marillion and Van Der Graaf Generator and the other groups that excited me were the same guys (and it was always guys) who insisted on canonizing their favorites in a Hall of Fame. Surely museum ossification was a greater affront to the very concept of youth music than Jon Anderson singing about Eastern religion, no?Couldn’t rock, generous as it is, accommodate some wondrous stories, too?
Besides, it never felt like pretentiousness was the issue with Yes, if there was any issue at all, which I’m telling you pal there wasn’t.Any group that would choose its moment of commercial ascendancy to record a double album with a single song on each of its four sides is going to get knocked for impracticality, and I can see how that would look very much like entitlement to blue collar heroes in the press. But the swell thing about Jon, as I understand him, is that for him, there was never any other possibility — he was going to sing about what moved him, and that was that. He wasn’t ever trying to impress anybody with his knowledge of the shastras, or of shining flying purple wolfhounds; he wasn’t a damned pseud. He read some holy books and was deeply moved, and this was the music that poured out of him. To me, that’s the very definition of soul. Obviously he wanted to sell records, too — his approach to showbiz was never all that esoteric. It just wouldn’t have dawned on Jon that the average man wouldn’t have been excited by the cosmic encounters he was having. Knock him for his taste, or his hippy-dippyness, but his pretenses weren’t the problem.
As for the rest of the musicians in the band, well, sure, they showed off.It was the era; guys in basic blooze bands showed off, too. But more often than not, they took a hokey, community-theatre approach to Jon Anderson’s storytelling. He’d sing “lost in the city”, and they’d drop in a few bars of wandering, rootless, lost-in-the-city music, or they’d knock over a big pile of automobile parts in the studio to simulate the “war” section of “Gates Of Delirium”.Squire may have felt that his frontman’s lyrics were googly-eyed, but he did his best to reinforce their dramatic significance. It was this absolute faith in the communicative power of the grand sonic gesture that really distinguished Yes; not just among progressive rock bands, but among Seventies acts in general. My feeling is that Jon, innocent Lancashire farmboy that he was, drove most of this cheese to market. But I rather think Howe and Wakeman and even Bill Bruford were predisposed toward illustrative playing, too. Sometimes they tried to get over on complicated bullshit, but it was rarely subtle and mysterious bullshit. They just wanted to take you high and blow your mind and leave you agog like any other bunch of shamen; they’d shake that medicine rattle right in your face.
Yes remains my very favorite band. I’m as big a fan as I was when I was 14; maybe even bigger, since I dig parts of the catalog that I used to find compromised by the endless lineup changes, or commercial considerations. I still consider Close To The Edge a masterpiece, and while critical consensus hasn’t exactly come around, I’m happy to say I’m not alone. Most of the pro musicians you’ll meet will confess to an appetite for prog; Scott Miller, to give you one example, could quote you Jon Anderson chapter and verse, and even appreciated records like Relayer and Going For The One that critics still like to slam for density and pretension. Echoes of Yes are intended to be heard straight across all the music I’ve ever made in every group I’ve ever played with, and I think the only reason why I’m never called pretentious is because I’m not good enough at my instruments to make anybody think of prog-rock.But all of my projects wear their pretensions pretty boldly, and of course they do, because how am I ever going to make myself into something dazzling if I can’t pretend, unconscionably I’m sure, to be dazzling first? Even if I never get there, I would like people to remember that I tried.
Much as I’d love it to be, “The Prince Of Daylight” isn’t really a prog-rock song; there’s no widdly-widdly Moog solo, it’s not in a tricky time signature, it isn’t a multi-part epic, there’s no Roger Dean drawing that would suit it well. It takes place right here on earth — in New York City, where a kid is wondering if he’s permanently estranged himself from a God who might not be listening, anyway. That’s a pretty far cry from cars and sexual frustration and I can’t get no satisfaction. But I don’t drive, and I don’t flatter myself that anybody would be interested in my adventures in romance. And sometimes I *do* get satisfaction; certainly not every day, but often enough that if I’m being honest when I’m writing, I’m bound to inscribe those moments when the combination lock to reality suddenly clicks into place and snaps open. That’s what we’ve got here, and all references to Yes, and Pink Floyd, and Fish-era Marillion are absolutely intentional. Alex Lifeson, too, I mean, Jay Braun plays guitar on this number.
Like many Americans with a taste for eschatology, I read Kathryn Schulz’s article on the Very Big One with interest. Schulz wrote the story of the Cascadia subduction zone earthquake like a mystery thriller, which, in a way, it is, even if nobody ever really believed in Seattle’s geological stability. Naturally, seismologists, public health officials, and cooler heads who dislike mass panic were quick with temperate responses to the piece: there’s no meaningful way in which it can be said that a region is overdue for a cataclysm, and the Pacific Northwest is not as unprepared as Schulz implies that it is, and protected as it is by the Puget Sound, Seattle is unlikely to be inundated anyway. But as we’ve learned over and over, in modern America, rational argument is no match for fear porn. Seattle now has a bullseye on its back. I know the next time I get off the plane at Sea-Tac, I won’t be hearing those tempered voices. I’ll be thinking: “when the earthquake comes, everything west of 1-5 will be toast.”
That’s an awful lot of toast with your breakfast. But Americans have developed quite an appetite for toast, what with our endless zombie shows and post-apocalyptic dramas and Mad Max scenarios and fantasies about total societal collapse. Bring it all down, I keep hearing people say. Hollywood keeps serving us celluloid representations of NYC demolished: by falling rocks and thuggers and great waves and whatnot. In the New York metro, we’ve already lived through a real cataclysm and its aftermath, and while I won’t hazard a guess about how much out-of-state spectators enjoyed the show, I do know that it permanently altered the tone of the drums along the Hudson. I also recall the psychosexual effects of 9/11: with sudden horrible death staring us in the face, people all over the city became susceptible to (and acted on) crazed urges they hadn’t felt before. This is where, I feel, both the Book of Revelation and those awful last-days books by Tim LaHaye really depart from probability. After the rapture and the tribulations, there really ought to be wild orgies, shouldn’t there?
For “Take Me To The Waterfall”, I imagined the effect of the threat of the subduction zone quake on a guy who’d otherwise been repressed about his physical desires. The threat of disaster pops his lid open, basically. The waterfall in the song is Snoqualmie, which is spectacular and thunderous, and not a little terrifying, and only a short drive east of Seattle. I couldn’t think of a better metaphor for the mercilessness of nature; Mother Nature, human nature, you call it yourself. If you do go chasing waterfalls (I do), I strongly recommend making the trip.
Apocalyptic-themed rock music usually means Jackson Browne to me, but apocalypse plus sexual compulsion will always equal Peter Gabriel. Even as a young singer, PG always sounded like a veteran of a thousand psychic wars; I um, do not. But we tried to bathe this song in a little red rain, if you know what I mean, and I made like Larry Fast on the Moog.I had the great pleasure of interviewing Larry Fast, who is a Jersey guy, a few years ago.That article was pulled away from me in a last minute editorial switcheroo and run before I had a chance to polish it or frame it.Of the million and one writing assignments I’ve taken on over the last two decades, that may be the one I’d most like to have back.I have pilfered so many ideas from that guy.It seemed like the least I could do was write up a good piece on him.Your man dropped the ball.Sorry.
So I came up with this song — the Denver number — around the same time I wrote this essay. Sometimes I’ll write something and it’ll get love and affection; other times, even my friends just pass it by. I figured that the Conspiracy! essay would be a popular one. For whatever reason, I was dead wrong about that. My conclusions might not have been too satisfying, or maybe the writing wasn’t engaging enough to justify the density of the paragraphs. There’s nothing about it I’d take back, though; in fact, if you read it all the way through, I think you might agree that it was one of the few times in my life when I was actually prophetic.
That makes good sense because I am obsessed with conspiracy theory. Seriously: chemtrails, faked moon landings, Pizzagate, aliens, fluoridation, Paul is Dead, whatever you’ve got, bring it on, I’ll stay up reading about it. I am very interested in the way that American consciousness has been reformatted by protracted exposure to the associative logic of the Internet. I also think that conspiracy theory is a natural byproduct of authoritarianism: as rulers get more and more secretive and remote, we’d have to be pretty credulous to accept their word on things. Since we all have some limited investigative resources at our disposal now, and time on our hands, we’re bound to sit in front of the computer and connect the dots into all kinds of crazy constellations. It’s the modern sentence.
The direct inspiration for “Conspiracy Theory” was Camper Van Beethoven and David Lowery, who has authored some fearsome conspiracy theory numbers. I was trying to capture that slightly daft repetitiveness that I associate with the early Camper albums; Elvis Presley died and no one knows why, etc. I don’t think that Camper would have used a Sub 37 necessarily, or played a Wakemanesque line over the chord progression, but that’s my weakness, not theirs.
Anyway, this is where we start with America 2017: a small apartment in Colorado, and an alienated male subject, worried about his money and his health and with no good reason to trust anybody around him. Like a homemade computer (or bomb), his lament is designed to be modular, and I may hop on and change the fifth verse as events overtake me. I hadn’t heard of Vitaly Churkin until a couple of weeks ago; when he turned up dead and the Internet started brimming over with theories, I knew I had to put him on the song. (Also, his name scanned very well.) Prior to that, I’d been singing Jacqueline Sutton/and Serena Shim — Google those names if you’d like to take a trip down the rabbit hole. Given how much conspiracy theory there is in circulation, I doubt I’ll ever sing that verse the same way twice.