Yo! DK again. In the last post I made a claim that I expect readers to view skeptically, namely, that I am not praising myself when I praise a song I have written or a part I have played. Honestly, Dear Reader, it’s critical judgment, not boasting. Auditory Man is a very good song, so I guess it follows that whoever wrote it is a good songwriter. I don’t really believe it. I mean, I think I’m a good songwriter, but it’s is not really true that the song or the part is the result of what the creator of it has put into it. I know this to be the case with improvised solo, of which Auditory Man provides an excellent example. Quite simply, while I’m playing the part, I’m just thinking about the part. I’m not thinking about a critical judgment—my own or anybody else’s—that might arise weeks, months, or years later. And to be fully sincere, the guitar solo that we kept in Auditory Man was one instance (yes, the best instance, in my judgment) of many attempts (many “takes” in studio jargon) at that improvised solo. I did probably thirty takes of that solo, and the one that I selected as best made it on to the album. So note the two correctives to my arrogance: first, that it took me thirty tries, and second, that an unsympathetic critic might sneer, “That’s the best you could do?” But the primary factor is that while I’m making all those attempts, I’m not thinking what a great guitar player I am. On the contrary, I’m trying to make this current take, say 23, better than the last one which (truth be told) was not that great. It then takes about ten minutes to throw away, hopefully beyond retrieval, the takes that are just terrible, maybe twenty of them. Then I work through the remaining ten to find the one that is least imperfect. And it’s hard for me to describe to you how different is the sensation of listening to a recording from the performance of it. Weirdly, it’s a joyful process, finding the least imperfect. You would think that making the painful choice to eliminate one of two perfect beauties would be sorrowful, not joyful. I just don’t experience it that way. I’m, how shall I put it, outside my ego when I manipulating the material for a recording. It doesn’t matter whether the part originated with me or with one of my beloved collaborators. So, long story short (too late for that), the outcome always differs, nearly diametrically, from the input.
And as it is with a solo, so it is with a song. In the last post I mentioned how the meaning of No Easy Way unfolded to me over the years since I wrote it, and I see that process underway already with Auditory Man. Now, to review my thesis, I am not boasting when I recognize the excellence of this song I wrote because it has turned out differently, and indeed better, than my original conception of it. I suppose it’s obvious that the deepest origin of a creative work is shrouded in obscurity, even for the composer. But my earliest awareness of the germ for AM came from my awareness of myself as a bit of a misfit: a listener in a world of watchers. Kids today consume music as part of the primarily visual experience of looking at a screen. My favorite recent musical/visual experience, in contrast, was watching Julian listen to a playback with his eyes closed. So I knew early on that I was writing a song to express my simultaneous feelings of marginalization and superiority. And I hasten to disclaim that if I feel a little superior to those who listen with their eyes, I know intellectually that I am not superior, and I certainly don’t judge others. Instead, I criticize the spirit of a technological age that diminishes the sphere of sensual enjoyment by limiting to to “the optical machine.” And yet, even this disclaimer is a critical thought distantly subsequent to my devising of the song.
So it always turns out differently from what I imagine it will be. In Auditory Man, I recently realized, the verses (with the exception of the last) are really expressions of inadequacy, of deficiency: I do not understand the optical machine; I cannot see what dress she wore. The two bridges tell the opposite story, a Song of Myself: I am one for whom all sounds make sense. I certainly never considered this oscillation of moods while I was writing the song. The last verse exemplifies something that I think I’ve noticed in several of my songs, a change of subject to the Song of Love, or at least of lust: I love you talking dirty on the telephone; I love to hear my baby make delicious moan. I find it fascinating that the song achieves that great value of inventiveness/variation when I was thinking (consciously) about the technique that I had selected for this song, the strategy of cataloging, The bridges, where the greatest vigor of this song resides, merely list sounds that the speaker (explicitly an autobiographical image) insists are significant:
Sizzle of the steak and the clatter of the bones
Grandfather clocks tell-tolling out like Big Bens
Distant chime of power saws and diesels on the roll
Hounds that howl in answer out to sirens on patrol
Big hall hollers and the noble saxophone
High bird callers and the voice that calls me home
I offer this easy technique to my beginning songwriting friends. I discovered it in short poems, sonnets mainly, in British literature. Shakespeare. Wordsworth’s sonnet “London 1802,” for example, catalogs the tall things the speaker sees upon looking over the city before it wakes up in the morning, the ships, steeples, buildings, and towers. I confess that as an auditory man, I must make a conscious effort to vitalize my songwriting with that heart and soul of poetry, imagery. But while the word “image” implies and no doubt originates in visual impression, impressions in sound no less deserve the name of image than do their visual cousins. So Auditory Man was a liberating romp for me lyrically, luxuriating in the world of sound that is my happy place. Indeed, the only difficulty was reining in what could have been a much lengthier list of auditory images than that which finally made its way into the song.
I always feel a little bit awkward praising my bandmates’ unique achievement in a particular song, as if it were missing everywhere else. For example, in the first verse of Auditory Man you hear a particularly piquant pop on the rim of the snare, actually a rapid pair of pops. Now, Joseph always plays with delightful pop, so I don’t want to suggest that the pop in this song is unusual. But the pop is unusually awesome in just this spot. So all you can say is that Joseph always lays it down with mighty pop, but the pop in the first verse of—and throughout!—Auditory Man is among the mightiest of the mighty. Ditto Julian. Many bass players shy away from the lowest note on the instrument as too, well, bassy. Not Julian. The first note of Nightingale, played absolutely solo on the bass, and to which that song recurs constantly, is an “open E,” the lowest note the instrument can intone. So too the bass part on Auditory Man. Sound rumbly? Yeah! Bring it on, Julian! And Adam, as always, is a standout out among standouts. To cite but one example among many in AM, the honky-tonk piano in the bridge of Auditory Man literally gives me goose bumps. If I may get a a bit technical, we were overdubbing the keyboard parts when Adam suggested a raggy (in the metrical sense) part during the bridge. I suggested that he play in the high register, and Adam didn’t know my evil scheme for digital treatment of the part. So Adam played this perfect ragtime part, which, during the mixdown I detuned. That is, I mixed in a digitally slightly flattened (in the harmonic sense) copy of the track with the in-tune copy. The opposite of Autotune (grr). I also used eq (management of frequencies) to highlight the attack. The result is the sound of a piano, very bright in tone, in which some of the strings are slightly, but pleasantly out of tune. The part sparkles and dazzles, almost painfully, high above the low vocal harmonies murmuring, “Distant chimes of power saws . . .” The cool thing is how Adam played a part perfect for a treatment that he knew nothing of in advance. He just has that kind of instinct. On the other hand, it takes great intelligence and technical ability to allow that instinct to manifest itself. Honestly folks, this is the sort of thing that makes Louder Than Dirt so great: a baseline of excellence which frequently ascends to—whatever is beyond excellence! How is this possible? Well, considerable talent plus excellent communication plus genuine closeness, friendship, and affection.
One of the nifty things about the recording (not the process, but the product) of Auditory Man is the three moments of quietness that inhabit the second bridge. My hope was that the listener really wouldn’t hear anything upon a first listening and would have to learn of the presence of the three quiet little interludes only later. But upon mixing the track I decided that nothing belongs in a recording but that which one intends to be audible. So in the second bridge of Auditory Man are three breaks when the band remains silent. However, where humans are is never silence—read the first two lines of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” This is also a point in John Cage’s 4’33”, in which a pianist plays nothing for 4 minutes and 33 seconds: ambient sound makes the music. So I though it would be cool to fill the breaks with quiet sound. The last of these is in fact ambient sound, that of crickets chirping. The idea of crickets originated with Julian, and it’s great. The chirping of crickets has come to symbolize an audience’s boredom with a performance; I first encountered the motif in a Daffy Duck cartoon. The other two breaks are equally wry. In the first, Adam plays a ridiculously frenetic version of Mozart’s “Turkish March” on the old, out of tune, 110-year-old Kohler and Campbell piano that rests in the Bottom Floor Studio like a beached whale. The second break consists of a four part, multi-track ocarina performance that appears later on Twirling Like a Hurricane as “gigue.” The quite little breaks in Auditory Man inspired the three brief instrumental interludes that form separate tracks on Twirling. They will serve as the subject of my next post.
I suppose the appalling length of this post exposes my affection for Auditory Man. Did I mention the outstanding musicianship on the track? The pop of Joseph’s snare? The lead guitar bass and the rhythm guitar keys? (There’s also plenty of bass bass and keys keys.) My solo is one of my better efforts, I think. Adam’s honky-tonk on the bridge. The groovy background vocals—five-part harmony! Mm-hmm, inventive lyrics and stylistic gestures toward country and western, rhythm and blues, gospel, jazz, and classical music. So yes, it is splendidly egotistical of me to praise a song I wrote and recorded with my* excellent rock band, Louder Than Dirt. And so, dear critic, prove me wrong if you dare. This post is a wet kiss for those who have endured wet kisses from me in the past and no doubt will again in the future. I speak quite literally, of course.
*The possessive pronoun here signifies not ownership but relation: my family, my friends.