Starlight, twenty years later

To me, at least, the pick of these songs that David unearthed from 1997 is “Life By Starlight.” It’s exactly the sort of number I overvalue — midtempo, repetitive, diatonic, ominous, etc. — and I still dig that kind of thing. I can see why Scott Miller didn’t like it: it violates all the compositional rules of good guitar-pop that he swore by. This recording is six minutes long, which is ridiculous. If pushed, I probably could have pruned it. He didn’t push, though; he just suggested it was dull, and I accepted that judgment and cast “Life By Starlight” aside. But unlike many of the other songs on these tapes that David found, I never completely forgot it. If I was asked (by a prior version of me, naturally) a month ago to play “Life By Starlight,” I think I could have approximated what’s on the tape pretty well.

I’m not going to post the Limnetic version of the song here or on Bandcamp/Soundcloud, because I doubt David would want me to. The cassette I sent him was, he said, recorded very hot, which like all technical talk about recording, means nothing to me. Practically, it’s a little muffled and a lot distorted, and I think he’d like another crack at encoding it. He’s got all the time in the world, as far as I’m concerned; it’s not like anybody’s clamoring to hear a rarity from the 1990s that I never performed ever.

But I can tell you a bit about it, doggie-treat dangle it, which is in many cases even better than sharing a song. Some of my best music is purely theoretical — I could write all day about the inspiration and strategy behind “The New Math” and I’d have a chance of holding your attention, but there’s no chance that “The New Math” itself, dry as it is, would hold your attention. Past the first few bars, anyway. Any pop cavalier who’ve taken refuge behind the rhetorical moat of a songwriter’s circle will tell you that the iffy ones go down better if there’s a backstory attached. This Limnetic cassette is full of iffy ones, really iffy now, and I still flatter myself to believe that I could make an entertaining evening out of this material if I was given the opportunity to contextualize them within a wider story; i.e., blather to the crowd in a manner that suggests I’ve got something going on upstairs. As a storytelling character-first songwriter, I ought to have a leg up in this department. As it is, the narrator of “Life By Starlight” isn’t very interesting: he’s been dumped by his girlfriend after cheating on her, and he’s facing the consequences. Typical twentysomething emo stuff in a folk-rock package, and I don’t believe I ever get specific enough to justify the portentious metaphor of a world without a sun. This is something that Scott Miller tried to beat out of me with a broom very early in the process — he took a look at my body of work, such as it was, and declared that there were too many rushing rivers and approaching storms and ticking clocks without an objective correlative, as he, the T.S. Eliot fan, called it. He liked it much better when I sang about the New Jersey Department Of Public Works, which doesn’t exist, but you get the point. Sure as hell, he hastened my trip down the road I was traveling.

By the time I completed the demo of “Life By Starlight”, I had a good idea that this was a style of songwriting I’d do well to leave behind, or leave to the experts and/or the electrifying singers. There was never any chance that Scott Miller would have countenanced a song like this on Bottles, where it wouldn’t have fit, anyway — it’s not high-spirited enough. I shot the works nevertheless. Doubled vocals through an EchoPlus pedal, several guitar tracks, a pretty complicated piece of drum programming by the limited standard of the Dr. Rhythm, a needless, underwritten, but still somewhat charming bridge about Hoover flags, aspirin bottle shakers, whatever other junk I could squeeze onto a dubbed cassette via our Tascam four-track. It probably took the better part of a day, now long forgotten, one where I could have been doing something more productive, such as researching securities for my investment portfolio, or building a chaebol, or working on a recording that others besides me might enjoy. But every foray into recording teaches me something new that I can apply to the next foray, or so I keep telling myself. One thing is crystal clear to me: I was in a very comfortable cul-de-sac in ’97, and I was having a good ol’ antisocial time of it. Twenty years later, I hope I’m not in another one, because there’s no Scott Miller around to drag me out of it if I am.