It’s here! Just in time for the finish of the Major League pennant race, Wrong Side of Dawn has released the “Baseball” music video! But the video isn’t directed at World Series champions. This one is for the rest of us.
“Baseball” is actually partly the musical daughter of “The Grinder’s Tale” (another song about the effort to make a living by playing a game). It’s origins are in this Music Theory 101 project that I wrote at age 18 (please excuse my amateurish violin-playing on the melody–the composition is good, but the execution is not). I’d recently written the guitar riff that would become “The Grinder’s Tale.” It was one of the few riffs of mine that I really liked. When my music theory class was given the assignment to finish the semester by writing a classical composition, my goal was to create a classical piece based off of my favorite original riff.
You’ll notice the similarities to “The Grinder’s Tale” in the opening motif. But as classical pieces often do, I let the melodies and harmonies venture off into other places. In particular, I latched onto the little transition back to minor that you hear at 2:04 to 2:07.
So I decided to reverse the process I’d used to write this song, and create a rock version of that classical section! The melodies and chords that you hear in the “Baseball” bridge riff (2:31 to 2:51 of the music video) are based off that portion of my music theory project. The chords became the song’s chorus.
The opening riff was something I thought of mentally while in the shower. Based around an F# octave, I harmonized it with 2 otherwise-unrelated chords that both contain F# (D major-add9, and B7).
Because of the lineage from “The Grinder’s Tale,” I initially intended to write a song called “The Grinder’s Tale Part 2,” and use this as its musical base. However, I eventually decided that the world has enough poker songs for now. Besides, despite being one of the best, and definitely the most heavily-promoted, song from Stay Awake, “The Grinder’s Tale” and its poker theme didn’t exactly vault us into Miley Cyrus-level stardom. So maybe it was time for a new direction.
The lyrics stem from a conversation I had with my brother in my parents’ garage. We were commenting on the amount of boys who dream of being professional athletes, compared with the microscopic percentage that actually make it to the highest professional league. I observed, “Almost every man in America is some boy who failed to make it as a professional athlete. We all have that in common.” In the song, this became shortened to: “Every man is just a boy who never made it in baseball.” And that’s where the lyrics began.
“BASEBALL,” THE VIDEO
The “Baseball” music video was filmed and directed by Adam Chinoy, the man behind our “Crossing the Bar” video. But while “Crossing the Bar” was shot in a single morning, “Baseball” was a more ambitious project.
The “live” footage of the band was actually taken on two separate nights. Any close-ups of the band were filmed on the Tuesday before the “Baseball/If I Ever Loved” release show. The wide shots (where you can see the audience) were filmed at the show itself, on Friday. It was a simple trick to create the illusion that all the footage is from a single live performance… All we had to do was wear the same clothes both nights.
From there, we went into several rounds of “this needs something more.” For a song about baseball, the live performance footage was lacking in, well, baseball. To fix this, I talked to a family that I coach swimming with. In addition to swimming, their son also plays baseball. So we asked if we could attend one of his games and get some Little League baseball footage. Andrew, our child star, had the additional advantage of bearing certain physical similarities to me (mainly, he’s a white guy with blond hair). This allows the video to be interpreted as us playing essentially the same person. He’s the Little League ballplayer with the potential to make the majors. I’m the adult former ballplayer who never actually got there.
Nelson, Adam and I arrived early to film the batting practice scene you see at the end of the video. And while I insist that I can hit a ball over a 305-foot fence, I’ll admit that the ball you see me hit in the video didn’t actually travel that far. My “near-miss home run” was actually tossed against the wall by hand.
(Some time had passed since our initial performance footage, and that time included a haircut for me! You’ll notice that what’s hiding under my Yankee cap doesn’t exactly match what you see on the stage portion.)
Finally, we decided to add a little bit of a narrative element to the video, via the text portions shown during the instrumental sections. Told through statistics, it’s meant to underscore the essential theme of the song: big dreams are available to everyone, but only a few people fully achieve them. And most of us manage to build a decent life despite the fact that we fall short of greatness.
(Some people have asked about the exclusive focus on “American” baseball players. There are two reasons for this. The first is statistical consistency. We combined an estimate of how many American boys begin playing baseball each year with how many new Major League careers are created every year. If we started with Americans, we must end with Americans, and that requires an acknowledgement that men from other countries are competing for the same finite number of jobs. Also, in a song that mentions “American dreams” in the chorus, we wanted to keep the focus on the “American” element of its theme: the idea that an ordinary American boy can grow up to become rich by playing “America’s pastime.”)
“Out of Time” started with the chorus chords, I think. I had come up with them in high school to go with one of Tyler Currier’s songs. I think they are kind of Goo Goo Dolls-ish, which makes sense for me at the time. But Tyler decided that they didn’t really fit with his song. As in, they didn’t really sound like part of the same song. I guess they still don’t really fit with the verse chords of the current song; that’s why the song needs the stop-start transition between verse and chorus.
I eventually came up with the verse chords by mistake. I was trying to go from a D to a D/C#, but my finger landed one string too high on an F#, and it seemed like I should go somewhere from there… In a couple minutes I had the rest of the progression.
I immediately went to show Nelson, but his reaction was lukewarm. In fact, he described the progression as “boring.” And I thought, “I’ll show him. These chords aren’t boring, they are pure gold!” Originally, I had strummed the chords, but I rewrote them again as more intricate finger-picking. Now Nelson approved. I had proven that my chords were not boring! Then again, maybe Nelson proved that my chords used to be boring. Either way, if he hadn’t criticized me, I never would have put in the extra work.
These new chords got thrown together with the old chorus chords I had lying around because… well, why not? I wasn’t just going to let them go to waste. I tried for a long time to give the song a bridge, but eventually decided it wasn’t necessary. The song uses only those two progressions.
I guess it’s pretty standard for a song to hit the (vocal) chorus at least three times, and that was my original plan for “Out of Time.” First would be the two choruses you hear, then a short guitar solo over the chorus chords, and the song would end on a repeated loop of the chorus vocal, fading out.
In order to facilitate the fade-out on my demo of the song, I had played the chorus chords over and over at the end. Just fooling around, I tried improvising some guitar melodies over this ending, and started to like what I was doing. I rewound the machine and pressed record. The first take didn’t quite work, as the chords stopped playing before I could squeeze in all the ideas I wanted to record. Rather than make the demo longer, I just tightened up the solo so that I could fit it in. The second take is here (skip to about three-quarters through if you don’t want to hear the boring part). It’s basically what I later recorded on the album.
I immediately fell in love with the idea of ending the song on a solo, and so the third vocal chorus went out the window. But there was still more to be done with the lyrics. As I wrote in an earlier post:
I also started to have second thoughts about my lyrics. A song with a guitar solo this good would need better lyrics than this…
…I figured that something was nostalgic and backward-looking about the sound of the guitar. From that jumping-off point, I fashioned some lyrics that worked sort of in reverse chronological order. The first verse starts in the present, watching the sun rise (on the wrong side of dawn, in fact). The second verse recalls an old friend. The last verse looks back to childhood, when you did stuff just because it was there to be done. Then the last line says there’s no more time for that, but hey…. GUITAR SOLO!!!!!!
The lyrics are still intentionally plain. I’m not very partial toward flowery language anyway, but I think these are plain even for me. I like to think that, if you just read my lyrics aloud, they’d sound more like regular speech than “poetry.” The last line is very quiet, very resigned to reality: “I could use a little more money. Guess that means I could use a little more work.” I like to think this leads well into the final solo which is, in contrast to the closing words, very big and cinematic. In order to facilitate this, my instruction to Anthony Santoro toward the end of the solo was, “Just be really loud and dramatic. Lots of crashes.” And of course, this again contrasts with the calm, march-like aftermath. The harmonized “oooh”s by Nelson and Karen also add to the intensity. I hope it sounds like a sudden recollection of a really old memory that you thought you forgot… but didn’t quite forget.
Anyway, I’ve probably already over-interpreted my own guitar solo. Never take the writer’s word for what something means, especially in the case of instrumental sections. So don’t just listen to me. Check it out yourself: “Out of Time.”
In the coming weeks, Nelson and I have decided we’ll relate some of the stories behind how our songs were written and recorded. They might not be as exciting as, like, a story about how we thwarted a bank robbery or something (I’ll tell you if we do), but the hope is that if you know a little something about the songs, maybe you’ll get more attached to them. Actually, forget what I just said. It’s too early to reveal our master plan.
Starting from the beginning of the album, we’ll skip over the 47-second “Flight I” (perhaps including it in a combined post with “Flight III” later) and start from track 2, “Running Scared.”
Very rarely have I ever sat down and said “I am going to write a song now.” Most songs I write begin with some sort of lucky accident; I’m more likely to begin a song by fumbling around with some chords that I played by accident than I am to begin writing with any sort of conscious attempt. (Specifically, the guitars to “Out of Time” and “Where Is Bobby McGee” were born out of a misplaced finger that occurred while attempting to play something else.) When I take the latter approach, it usually winds up being a waste of time, and I spend many hours working on something that will get thrown out by reason of sucking real bad.
That’s why “Running Scared” (track 2 on our album) sticks out for me among our songs. When I started writing it, I sat down with a specific goal in mind. Naturally, the song was a total FAIL in actually accomplishing that goal. This is about as close as I come to consciously choosing the direction of my songwriting.
“Running Scared” was supposed to cure a recent spat of amateur attempts at weird chord voicings and other experiments that sounded like shit. The basic idea behind the new song was this: Stop trying to find sounds that are weird or unique. If no one’s ever done anything like it before, that’s probably because it sucks. (Actually, I’d still argue that the main riff to “The Grinder’s Tale” is unique, but I’ve already spent too much time on that story.) Instead, create something straightforward and old-fashioned, and use your instincts to make it catchy. Go for something simple, something “Stones-y,” something short and powerful that will leave an immediate impression. Oh, and it should be nice and easy to play, like a Stones song.
In the interest of being Stones-y and rootsy, I started with something resembling a boogie pattern on an A. Nothing more basic rock-n-roll than that. From there, I played some other barre chords, throwing my fingers on to all the most practical embellishments I knew, until I had the basic form of the chorus: A-D-C-G-A-D-C-F.
By the next day, I was back to being dumb and trying to do things the hard way: “Hey, I’ve never written anything starting with the bass before. Let’s do that today!” I took up my bass and bounced through an overactive, unseemly, ostentatiously funky bass line. “This will be the verse to my rootsy song!” said I, rather arbitrarily and stupidly.
But first, I needed a guitar part to play over my hyperactive bass line. Following along the chord progression that my bass line only obliquely suggested, I wrote a guitar riff that was as fast, active, and funky as the bass. Rookie mistake. If I had really wanted to go all the way with this bass line, the smarter decision might have been to simplify the guitar as much as possible. The bass line was so overactive, I had simply run out of room for more interesting instrumental parts. Try as I might to cram by the guitar and bass together on a demo, it all sounded like unconnected mush.
Something had to go. It was the bass. The guitar part that I’d written to “support” the bass stayed, and it became the basis of the verses. I’ve since forgotten the bass line. Go figure.
There was still one more problem to get around in order to awkwardly paste my chorus and verse together. While the chorus had been written in A, the verse was written in G. To accomplish the modulation up to A, I hammered out a simple pre-chorus. Of course, it wasn’t until long after the song had been recorded that I realized, “Gee, I don’t use any open strings in the verse. I could have played the verse in the same key as the chorus by just moving my fingers up 2 frets during the verse.” Way to write a whole section that you didn’t have to, genius.
When I finally went to record what I’d written, I used Nelson’s digital 8-track recorder, and backed it with one of the built-in electronic drum beats. What do you know, the pre-programmed beat just happened to stop at a transition point in the intro, and then restart in the middle of the first verse. This quirk was carried over even when we started recording real drums. Where is that demo, anyway? Oh, here it is. Speaking of unintentional drum parts, you’ll notice that, on the final “Stay Awake” version, Anthony keeps the song interesting by handling each verse and pre-chorus a little differently than the one before. I haven’t asked him about this, but I’m convinced that’s because he was just making all that shit up as he went along. Before going into the studio, he knew the exact beat that he wanted to play under the guitar solo at the very end. (Listen to the drums there starting around 3:49; they’re pretty cool). The song up until then? I’m not so sure. But hey, if you’re good enough to get away with stuff like that…
And then there’s the lyrics. I must have written at least a dozen drafts of lyrics for this one. No, not drafts for “Running Scared,” mind you, but drafts for a whole bunch of other songs with names like “Duck Tape,” “I Can’t Take It,” “She’s Got It,” and God only remembers what else. Nothing really worked.
And there was that day when I decided, “You know what, we don’t do enough backup vocals. In one of our songs, we should shout something catchy and moronic like ‘hey hey hey.’ How about this song?” And so “Running Scared” had it’s first official lyric. The word “hey.”
Finally, I was driving home one day (from Target, how the hell do I remember that?), listening to my instrumental demo, and started improvising some vocals along with the music.
I think the basic idea was about a fear of… what ? Commitment? Success? Of growing up? Maybe a realization that actually reaching one’s potential eliminates the excitement of the potential itself, thus creating an incentive to run away from success? Is that making sense to anybody? Doesn’t really matter. Because either way, the lyrics to “Running Scared” still don’t make any sense to me, and I wrote them. They were written so quickly and in such a freewheeling fashion, I’m pretty sure there’s still a couple lines in there that don’t have any relation to anything.
So I wrote the current “Running Scared” lyrics and showed them to Nelson. And I promptly threw them out on the basis of… they sucked.
Then I wrote some other lyrics on another concept which sucked, and showed them to Nelson. Nelson’s response? “Um, I’m pretty sure you were done with this song last time.”
On and on I battled, insistent that I could do better. But Nelson was right. The song was done. And once a song is done, what else can you really do? Bloodied and exhausted, I came crawling back to the lyrics now known as “Running Scared.”
How should I describe our approach to actually recording the vocals? As a kid, I think I remember seeing a movie on TV in which a guy accidentally pees on his pants a little while going to the bathroom. In order to hide it, he covers all of his clothes in water, so that the wet spot on his pants doesn’t stand out. I think that pretty much sums up the recording of “Running Scared.” In order to cover up the slight sloppiness and looseness with which the song was written, the only solution was to turn the recording into total chaos. Nelson shouts out random lyrics behind the third verse and behind my final guitar solo. The crash ending has a couple gratuitous “heys” after the song is over. In the middle of my first guitar solo, I beg for extra time to continue soloing: “Wait, I got one more.”
This last one caused my high school music teacher, Jamie Egan, to laugh uncontrollably when I showed it to him. I think that was the desired effect. In all honesty though, I stole that one from Stevie Wonder’s interjection of “Can I play!?” in the middle of his “Boogie On Reggae Woman” harmonica solo. It also seems like the sort of thing Buddy Guy or other performers might say in the middle of a solo.
And that’s “Running Scared.” How did we get here? What happened to my easy, simple, Stones song, and why did it turn into the finger-tangling, vocal chord-tearing, most technically challenging guitar song on the whole album? The idea of this song was never to make things harder for me. Things were supposed to get simpler. But why don’t you try playing the verse guitar riff and singing the song at the same time? Yeah, I thought so. Welcome to my nightmare. More self-analysis of our songs to come over the next few weeks…
This post is the necessary outcome of a promise I recently made to Nelson: that I would write a Wrong Side of Dawn-related post this week. More specifically, it’s a promise I made to Nelson five weeks in a row, breaking it the first four times.
Procrastination is surely one of the culprits, but it is exacerbated by trepidation toward my proposed subject: tracing the evolution of “The Grinder’s Tale.”
The song seems ripe for examination, as it is one of the centerpieces of the eventual Stay Awake album, and lends its title to our recent “3P” preview. While the timing may be right to give the tune some background, its coming-about lacks the sort of snappy, one-paragraph-or-less description that constitutes your typical songwriting legend.
I like to read song-origin stories, and perhaps that’s why I’m prone to writing them myself, even though some of my past efforts have turned out to be better insomnia cures than anything else. A lot of the famous stories seem to describe songs which emerge from the brain whole, in a single moment. It’s as though some songs were written by the hand of God at the beginning of time, then floated slowly through the universe until certain lucky mortals stumbled upon them to transcribe them into tangible form. (“Yesterday” and “Cliffs of Dover” come to mind.)
Not so, “The Grinder’s Tale.” Even under normal circumstances, I can be shockingly verbose about an extremely simple song I wrote. But I imagine that, if I really wanted to, or were under the influence of a strong sedative, I could manage to summarize the process behind a song in less than a minute. I can’t do it for this tune, except to say that the track is the product of the accidents, frustrations, failures and false starts of at least 9 different musicians over the course of 9 nine years. That, and my consistent hardheadedness throughout the entire process. I was the one who insisted on starting the whole god-forsaken project, and also the one who insisted on finishing it. I guess I can begin with that part.
See, when I took my first guitar lessons at 15, a world of music became demystified. Geez, a chord was nothin’ but a buncha’ notes. A song nothin’ but a buncha’ chords. Simply type “[song title] tab” into Google, and even an extreme novice like me could be playing right along with a radio hit in a matter of minutes. This probably contributed to a phenomenon that I’ve discussed with several people, but Adam puts it most succinctly: “In high school, I knew more people who could play this song on guitar than people who could actually play the guitar.”
Sometimes I can’t help but reach for an old cliché about not seeing the forest for the trees. This was the opposite. A good song had always been a great forest to me, but I’d never really seen the individual pieces. I can’t identify a specific moment of clarity, but I eventually started to realize, “Wtf, man, it’s just some trees. Nothing special after all.”
Led Zeppelin had their “Stairway to Heaven,” the Who their “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” Oasis their “Champagne Supernova,” Eric Clapton and Duane Allman their “Layla,” Don McLean his “American Pie,” Guns N’ Roses their “November Rain.” To a fan, they are demigods. To a guitarist who’s made it past the tenth lesson or so, they are a bunch of guys too arrogant and foolish to write three-minute hit singles. Their “epics” happened in front of an audience of millions. But if cockiness and foolishness is all it takes, well shit, a beginning guitarist like Brian Rose can have his own “epic” right here in his bedroom. (That sentence looked a lot less sexual in my head than it does now in print.)
Before I’d ever written a note of music, I had a silent resolution that I would someday have my own overblown epic, even if I was the only person to ever hear it. Keep this in mind. It might become significant later.
Writing for “Ohm”
At some point, I finally started trying to write material of my own, with the hopes that I, Tyler Currier, Pulsar Li, Anthony Santoro, Tom Shea, and Kunal Desai (collectively referred to as “Ohm,” by those in the know) might take to the stage with this stuff at our high school’s “Battle of the Bands.”
To be honest, I was forcing myself. Covering “Wonderwall” was so easy, and so much fun. Original material was so much goddamn work, very boring, and it never sounded any good. Other bands performed original material at the Battle of the Bands. They would rock my world with a couple masterful covers. Then the dreaded words: “OK guys, now we’re going to play you one of our originals!!!” And it would be downright unlistenable.
Though confident my “epic” would come, I was presently content just to sound good, to be fun, to be a cover band. With only a precious half-hour to do our set, why remove a Lennon/McCartney song in order to make room for an original? Their songs were better, after all. There was only one reason: the respect of other musicians. The bands with original material had it. I felt I didn’t. At least, not enough of it.
Tyler and I would work on our songs. Nobody else really had the time to spend. At first, they weren’t really our songs. I helped Tyler work on his songs, as I had yet to stumble on an idea of any worth. We agreed the songs weren’t ready yet, but they always seemed one jam session away from being finished.
One afternoon after school, I sat alone in my basement strumming an unplugged electric guitar. I played a 4-bar chord progression thusly: E-D7-A-E. I liked the sound, and with a couple hammer-ons and strumming flourishes, I convinced myself that I was playing something completely original and utterly wonderful. I ran upstairs to present the discovery to my family. “Listen to this! It sounds like the beginning of a song!”
Untrained ears hear very few sounds that they consider special. If you can figure out what does sound special to the untrained ear, I guarantee you will be the eternal king of the music business and a multi-billionaire. A well-trained ear, after all its experience, is similarly hard to impress. Only novices (I’m not the only one to make the mistake), somewhere in the gray area between trained and untrained, can convince themselves that there is novelty in their own wholly unoriginal shit.
Therefore, I was the only person I impressed. I got some white-lie compliments from my mom. My dad and one of my siblings (I forget which), decided it was best to keep their eyes on the television and pretend they’d never noticed me coming upstairs. Defeated, I disappeared back into the basement.
By the time I got home from school the next day, my ignorant bliss had stubbornly grown back. I think I already mentioned that stubbornness is a big theme here. I had the beginnings of a killer song on my hands. It’s hotness was not perceptible to anyone else, but that wasn’t about to change my mind.
By now, you’ve figured out that I’ve got one piece of “The Grinder’s Tale” in place. And you are 100% wrong. I’ve actually just started to write “Last Warning.” And let this be a last warning to you: this really is a long story. [As a footnote, “Last Warning” sounds way different these days.]
We return to find our hero sitting in his bedroom, thoroughly convinced that his three-chord song is actually a smash hit. “Well, now that I’m just days away from finishing this classic high-energy rocker, I’m going to need a slow song, too.” Thus, “Last Warning” gives rise to “The Grinder’s Tale” as its necessary antithesis.
And I grabbed my guitar. The steps seemed clear. I had a rocker. Today, I would do slow and pretty. By the end of the week, I’d have two songs which I could present to the band as fait accompli. We’d take the stage at the Battle of the Bands, and somewhere in between “White Room” and “Baba O’Riley,” I’d say the magic words: “OK guys, now we’re going to play you one of our originals!!!” Obviously, this sentence would make everybody very sad. But I’d be a real musician after that. I probably imagined that Tyler and I would have to report to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get our pictures taken and printed on our very own Musician/Overall-Cool-Guy licenses.
Back on planet Earth, I still needed that ballad. And a ballad (something of a misuse of the term) had to be pretty. So, what’s pretty?
The beginning of “Boys of Summer” is pretty, with its never-ending keyboard melody: down a half step, then down another major third from there. The bass line moves underneath it, but this top part stays the same.
The beginning of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is pretty, as Slash plays an arpeggio that always ends with the same melody: down a half step, then down another major third from there. The bass note moves, but this top part never changes.
Young Brian realizes that maybe this whole songwriting thing isn’t so tough after all, and writes a simple arpeggio ending with a melody that goes down a half step, then down another major third from there. But I decided to do Slash and Don one better: instead of just changing the bass note, I would change position on the guitar and do the whole darn thing over again a few frets lower. There! I’ve improved the formula! I made it more complicated!
The Brian Rose who began writing “The Grinder’s Tale” in 2001 had a very different attitude than the guy who ultimately worked on the 2009 version. High-school-Brian considered musical complexity to be an end in itself. Unemployed-graduate-degree-Brian considers elegance a virtue, and complexity a necessary evil. High-school-Brian’s only saving grace was that he was so stupid, he successfully convinced himself that his simple (and therefore, good) riffs were actually very complicated.
I needed a chord progression. My riff was a G arpeggio. I decided the first chord would be, you guessed it, a G. This song is almost done! Two complete songs, very soon! A fast song and a slow song! (Play the current “Grinder’s Tale” recording from 6:02 to 6:11. Listen to just the guitar, and you’ll hear the entirety of what I wrote that day.)
But there was no melody. And no lyrics. I tried, but I knew I was failing. It became almost a daily routine: Write lyrics on loose leaf paper. Put paper in desk. Open desk 24 hours later and read lyrics. Vomit just a little bit in my mouth. Decide the song will have to be about a completely different subject matter. Get new sheet of loose leaf.
The material was never presented to the band. Weeks and months passed. We went on at the high school “Band-fest” (castrated of its “battle” element in order to avoid controversy) without Tom (family vacation?), and without Anthony (little brother Steve subbing for him on drums). The crowd enjoyed a fun set consisting entirely of well-known classic rock standards.
Tyler and I met for a jam session at the beginning of summer. I played my riff, which was masquerading under some title or another at the time. Before I could explain the chords, Tyler took to the bass strings and started playing along: an “e” … “d” … “c” … “a.”
“What was the bass line you wanted?”
“Uh… I think your bass line is probably better.”
I was learning a lesson that surprisingly few rock writers ever learn. You see, even in pop music, the bass is the boss. It doesn’t matter if everybody else plays exactly the same thing. Change the bass note, change everything. It’s like uprooting a house right down to its foundation, then reinserting it, whole, right into a completely different neighborhood.
We sounded good. Sometimes I try to forget what the song sounds like, and listen to the opening riff with the same ears I did then. But I can’t. I have expectations. I know what’s coming. Those harmonies will never again give my brain the shock of energy that I unexpectedly felt on that first day.
I was satisfied, but Tyler kept going, jumping octaves and throwing in embellishments.
“You can’t do that Red Hot Chili Pepper stuff in this song. It’s supposed to be a slow song!”
After listening a bit, I was converted. Tyler and I set about saving the idea to my 4-track tape recorder. Tyler played the bass riff repeatedly until he got tired of it. Then I overdubbed the guitar riff a few times, transitioning into an improvised solo. At the point where the solo began, there were 20 bars of Tyler left. When the bass stopped, I stopped. That’s really the only reason why, even now, the song’s main guitar solo is 20 bars long. (The equivalent section now runs from 0:40 to 2:00 of “The Grinder’s Tale.”)
Later, I was alone again with the 4-track. In a moment of insanity, I thought: The riff sounds good with my my chord progression on guitar. It sounds good with Tyler’s bass line. Maybe it would sound good with… both! I overdubbed my old progression. The result was actually less cacophonous than you might think, as the two progressions are actually quite close. But even I knew this sounded like gobblety-gook on the playback. I’d have to keep the two progressions in peaceful separation. The old progression as verse, new one as chorus. This was the high water mark of my “complicated equals good” attitude.
That’s pretty much all I had before I went to college and met Nelson. Nelson also fancied himself a songwriter, but he had actually finished one song. “Break Free” used some interesting rhythm guitar techniques, and was meticulously structured at 3 minutes long. And it was exactly what songwriting is supposed to be: the product of bad experiences, yet bouncy and fun nonetheless.
I discussed a lot of song ideas with Nelson, including my recent jam with Tyler. I mentioned to Nelson that I might want to switch my main guitar riff over to the piano. (The music building at Swarthmore is filled with piano practice rooms. Not really knowing how to play the piano, one day I had sat down and plinked out the first thing I could think of. I tried to make out the guitar riff in my right hand while playing the bass notes for Tyler’s harmony in the left hand. I wasn’t much of a pianist, but what the hell, it sounded nice.)
Nelson disagreed. “That part sounds like it’s written for guitar. If you want to write something for piano, write it like you’re writing for the piano!” Nelson set about adapting the song to be more piano-driven, including a rapid-fire 16th note version of the 8th note guitar riff. It was so fast as to be almost atmospheric, rather than a proper melody. Nelson and I recorded a demo on his 8-track digital recorder (so much easier than the 4-track tape!).
The song sat in this condition for about 3 years. Many of my musical ideas during that time were briefly considered as new sections to the old tune. It’s 6:45 length stretched out to as much as 10 minutes as I hoped to increase its “epic” scope. But the new sections were always scrapped in the end, except one, which became the first 22 seconds of the current “Grinder’s Tale.”
Still, my biggest problem was yet to be solved. No lyrics. Ideas continued to be written down and scrapped. I had moved from loose leaf over to .doc files. In three years, the only set of words I saw fit to keep was “Where Is Bobby McGee?”
A bunch of things happened in my senior year, though:
I made a few of the first truly stupid decisions of my life. Way worse than trying to play different chord progressions at the same time. This caused me to jot down a short line, in my ever-growing Word-.doc cache, about logic and emotions leading people to opposite conclusions. It’s now the chorus of “The Grinder’s Tale.” (“What you believe is not the same as what you know.”)
I started watching an excellent TV show called House M.D., about a character who suppresses his emotions and focuses on logic in search of the correct decision. He also has a never-ending supply of sarcastic insults for people who can’t do the same.
I saw Ben Folds live, after which I had an epiphany about what good lyrics really are.
And of course, there was Jeff Billion. Billion taught me how to play poker, and very nearly convinced me to move out to Las Vegas with him and give pro playing a try. I declined, but my fascination with the game continues to this day.
I wound up with a handful of lines that combined to make a song called “The Grinder’s Tale.” Here’s what I like about these lyrics: there are multiple ways to hear each line, based on whether or not you choose to take it as poker jargon. Just to give an example…
Term: “draw me out” Poker definition: “draw out” refers to the worse hand catching a lucky card, thereby becoming the better hand. Regular English definition: in its non-technical use, to “draw someone out” might mean to lure someone “out of their shell,” or make them reveal some sort of secret.
And then there’s the title itself, “The Grinder’s Tale.” In poker, a grinder is a moderately skilled professional who is just good enough to grind out a living against the low-stakes no0bs. But even in a non-poker sense, words like “grind” or “grinding out a living” are very rich terms. They suggest a mode of living that is simultaneously masculine and powerless at the same time.
And so the thing was finally written, I guess. A good four or five years overdue.
Wrong Side of Dawn
Nelson and I first tried to pull off some of our songs with a full band in 2007, but we were grossly ill-prepared. Being the only person who had memorized the unwieldy structure of “The Grinder’s Tale,” I attempted to conduct Nelson (guitar), Andrew (bass) and Greg (drums) through the song’s rhythm tracks. Those sessions eventually became our EP, but “The Grinder’s Tale” had not gone well, and was the first track to be abandoned.
The track was revived for our next attempt at a full LP this past December. This included my reunion with Anthony Santoro. When I wrote the first notes of this tune in high school, I imagined Santoro, an Ohm member, would be the man to drum on it. I was happy to bring him back in. It almost seemed like I hadn’t strayed too far from my original goal, after all.
In rehearsals, I tried to explain the sort of drums that I pictured for “The Grinder’s Tale.” I handed my iPod to Anthony and had him listen to “Orange Crush” as a reference. It was the first thing that came to my mind only because I had recently pretended to play its drums myself, via Rock Band. Part way into rehearsing the song, Santoro decided he was feeling something a little bit more “Carter Beauford” in this tune. And so the drum part came to be.
Gray Reinhard added the piano/organ tracks. His opening solo is the first highlight you’ll hear in the song. Between takes, Gray would play the song’s progressions and improvise to himself. “There’s not much going on towards the end,” I said. “Why not throw some of those melodies in there?” (See “The Grinder’s Tale,” 6:02 to 6:39). On the way home from the studio, I listened to that part over and over. Damn, if this wasn’t the final slap in the face. Almost nine years of trying to make this joke work, and Gray nails its punchline as an ad-lib!
Nelson still saw changes to be made. I recorded the guitar solo as a verbatim copy of the improv I did with Tyler back in high school. Nelson disapproved. “You said you liked more emotive guitar solos. Can’t you play something more emotive?” I did a retake with a simpler, more gut-level attitude. Now Nelson approved, but needed one more change. Sensing a “Hotel California” feel at the end of the solo, he suggested it be harmonized with another guitar track. And it was done.
Nelson also thought the album, as a whole, needed more background vocals. “Good background vocals separate the professionals from the amateurs,” says Nelson. Combining ideas from Karen Rustad and I, we found a way for all three of us to sing the chorus.
Still, there was one suggestion I could not abide. Having played our rough mix for some friends with more pop-music sensibilities, Nelson returned the news that “The Grinder’s Tale” should be edited from 7 minutes down to 4 minutes.
I should have understood. I was no longer the stupid kid who wanted everything to be more complicated than necessary. In fact, I was in the middle of reading Jimmy Webb’s Tunesmith, and realizing that something like his concise “Wichita Lineman” might actually be a greater songwriting accomplishment than the sprawling and incoherent “Stairway to Heaven.” I might have understandably relented.
From somewhere in the back of my brain, a 16 year old kid came forward and said he was putting his foot down. Screw brevity and economy. The new 2009 Brian Rose might be OK with that shit, but goddammit, this kid had been waiting 9 years for his 7-minute epic. And I’ll be damned if he’s gonna give it up now.
Nelson and I recently got back in the studio for the first time in 3 months. Work on the Wrong Side of Dawn album has been suspended for a while, due to a lack of money, time and manpower. Though we’d hoped to be finished back in January or February, Nelson and I are happy to be back to work and hope to have things wrapped up, uh, someday.
The first song we worked on was the same song I had been working on when I was last in the studio, a song that will be titled either “Out of Time” or “Running Out of Time.” As we finished up with it, Michael Nuzzo, the owner of the studio, made a passing comment about the fact that the song “has something to it,” which is big for me because it’s one of the few times in my long history as an amateur songwriter that anyone outside of my own band has ever suggested to me that one of my songs has any redeeming qualities whatsoever.
I wrote the rhythm guitar parts and chorus melody to the song more than four years ago, but never got around to writing some decent lyrics until about one year ago. I could say that sort of thing about a lot of songs, because lyrics are so goddamn hard to write. Strangely, these lyrics might be inspired by the song’s own guitar solo.
Last June, I was trying to record demos of some of my songs. I had three verses written for “Running Out of Time.” I had a chorus with some “whoa whoa” nonsense singing that still remains part of the song. I had one guitar solo in the middle. The song was supposed to end with the chorus being repeated over and over as everything faded out.
After recording bass and acoustic guitar, I took out my electric guitar to record the short solo in the middle of the song. After I finished, I started improvising just for fun, playing over the part at the end where I had recorded the chorus chord progression over and over in order to facilitate the fade-out. After playing around a little bit, I decided that this sounded pretty good, so I pressed record. On my first take I ran out of space. I hadn’t played through the chord progression enough times to accommodate all of my improvised ideas. After a couple more takes, the solo was condensed down to fit the space I had unintentionally allotted myself, and the solo I recorded then is basically the same solo I play now.
As I listened back to what I played, I decided that the song would have to end with this guitar solo, rather than the vocal chorus that I had planned. I also started to have second thoughts about my lyrics. A song with a guitar solo this good would need better lyrics than this.
I closed my eyes and listened back over the solo. Strangely, a memory popped into my head, a memory of playing in my yard when I was four.
Yeah, I remember when I was four. I guess some people don’t remember that far back, but I remember being two. My oldest memory is of my mother trying to explain to me what a birthday was, because the next day was going to be my third birthday. Since I didn’t know how to count, I don’t think I actually realized that I was two. I just knew that I was about to be three.
Where was I? Oh yeah, the guitar solo. I figured that something was nostalgic and backward-looking about the sound of the guitar. From that jumping-off point, I fashioned some lyrics that worked sort of in reverse chronological order. The first verse starts in the present, watching the sun rise (on the wrong side of dawn, in fact). The second verse recalls an old friend. The last verse looks back to childhood, when you did stuff just because it was there to be done. Then the last line says there’s no more time for that, but hey…. GUITAR SOLO!!!!!!!
On another subject, recording the “Out of Time” vocals in the studio provided me with an early moment of panic, when it initially turned out that I couldn’t hit the lower harmony on the intro of the song. Since I’d recorded the demo, my voice had apparently gotten… higher?!?!?!? Let’s go back and figure this out…
My senior year at Swat, I joined the chorus because I needed one year of participation in a performance ensemble to graduate with my music minor. Not confident that I could work my violin chops back up in time to join the orchestra, I approached John Alston about the possibility of joining the chorus. He asked me when was the last time I’d sung classical music. I said, “Eighth grade.” John seemed pretty concerned about my ability to keep up with his chorus. Good thing I didn’t tell him the truth: “Never, John. I barely listen to any classical music. But sing it? Never.”
I remember the first day that I showed up for chorus rehearsal. Some of my friends were in the chorus, and as I walked towards the men’s side of the room, clear confusion on my face as I tried to find a seat, they asked me, “Are you a bass or a tenor?” I didn’t know. I thought I could figure out a way to sing whatever I had to. The bass section was about three times the size of the tenor section, and the tenors seemed pretty desperate for some more support, so I sat down next to my friend Misha in the tenor section. This didn’t last. A shocked John Alston spotted me and had me move into the already overcrowded bass section. “What are you doing over there? You’re a baritone.” John had yet to actually hear me sing. It wasn’t until after that rehearsal that I would sing and barely pass my overdue audition. John had apparently gleaned my range just from talking to me.
He seemed to be right about me not being a tenor. I definitely got less comfortable as the notes got above middle C. Some of the lowest notes were also a problem too at first, but I was eventually pretty comfortable getting down to an E below the bass staff.
Fast forward to this year in Nuzzo’s studio: I’m trying to record the two-part harmony from the “Out of Time” intro. The lower half of the harmony goes down to a G, the one on the bottom line of the bass staff. Back in June when I made the demo? Piece of cake. Clearly within my range. Now, I’m doing take after take and I can’t quite get there. I’m getting a little panicked, since the clock is ticking by on my studio time, and Nelson and I have already spent more money on this than we planned.
Ever since graduation from Swarthmore, I do most of my singing while driving, singing along to the songs on my iPod. Most rock singers sing in the tenor range. Tough for me at first, but I got used to it. I thought my range was expanding. Apparently it wasn’t; it was just shifting. I never realized your voice could actually get HIGHER as you got older.
Nuzzo, the owner/producer/engineer/everything of the studio, is a school choir director. I expressed my frustrations at not being able to reach notes that were so easy less than a year ago. Not too long after John Alston was so surprised to see me sit down next to Misha in the tenor section, it was Nuzzo’s turn to be shocked. “You’re not a bass,” he said. “If you were in my choir I’d use you as a tenor.”
David Hume says we have no way of knowing that the future will be anything like the past, so for all I know I may wake up tomorrow making sounds that only dogs can hear. But this still seemed pretty weird to me. Anyways, Nuzzo managed to coach me through my own goddamn music until I got the G, and “(Running) Out of Time” is now recorded and ready to be mixed.
P.S. So when guys are stretching to sing higher, they joke around by pretending to squeeze their testicles. What is the equivalent when you’re trying to sing lower? Do you hold your hands down by your knees, palms up, like Tanaka talking to Pedro Cerrano (a.k.a. President Palmer/the “you’re in good hands with All State” dude/Dennis Haysbert) in Major League II? “You have no… you have no… …. MARBLES!! You have no marbles!”
This is an abridged version of a note I (Brian) posted on my facebook profile some weeks ago, explaining how the lyrics to the song “Where Is Bobby McGee?” came about. Some of my lyrics were written in such a roundabout way that not even I know what they mean anymore, but “Where Is Bobby McGee?” might be the easiest one to explain. And the one most in need of explanation. I have to admit, it’s probably the least favorite WSD song of every other person in the band due to its musical repetitiveness. Nelson reminds me all the time. But I meant it as a lyrically driven song, so whatever.
[Note: After I originally wrote this, Nelson corrected me to say that “Where Is Bobby” is actually not at all boring to listen to, just painfully boring to record.]
The lyrics don’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense if you’ve never heard “Me and Bobby McGee,” originally by Kris Kristofferson (you can find lyrics here) and made famous by Janis Joplin. The song was originally about a girl named “Bobby.” Janis Joplin switched the genders of the characters, and it’s her version that I’m working with in my take on Bobby McGee. Most people think of Bobby as a boy, and that version works better for me anyway.
The inspiration for “Where Is Bobby McGee?” can be traced back to Prof. Rick Schuldenfrei of Swarthmore’s philosophy department. When I first went away to school, my dad had only one request: “Just don’t major in philosophy.” I think this is because my dad wanted me to get a job when I graduated. Dad didn’t realize that Brian Rose could have majored in anything at any college, and in no case would he have graduated with a job waiting for him. So I never really considered majoring in philosophy, but I did take a couple of classes with Schuldenfrei. Contrary to my dad’s ideas about the subject, Schuldenfrei doesn’t seem to think that philosophy is about thinking deep thoughts while you beg for change on the street. Or while you sit in your ivory tower, whichever stereotype you prefer. The man seems to think that the study of philosophy can change lives and predict the future. While I give the guy credit for that, I have to say that what I really like is his tendency to make fun of people and to pound his fist on his desk when he gets frustrated
In Schuldenfrei’s class we read John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty.” Mill is a big fan of freedom, apparently. Sounds like a good guy then, eh? Surprisingly enough, Schuldenfrei is not a big fan of Mill. In “On Liberty,” Mill explains all about how freedom of speech and freedom of action will lead to an enlightened society, where individuality will lead people to develop all their abilities to the fullest: “It may be better to be a John Knox than an Alcibiades, but it is better to be a Pericles than either; nor would a Pericles, if we had one in these days, be without anything good which belonged to John Knox.”
Holy shit, do I have to unpack that entire goddamn sentence? Screw that. That’s an essay on its own. Let’s just say Pericles was a smart guy and leave it at that. And Mill says more freedom = more Periclesesses.
Schuldenfrei disagreed with Mill, and he let the class know. According to Schuldenfrei, empirical evidence tells us that freedom often leads to a society filled with people who don’t want to be Pericles. They just want to feel good. Schuldenfrei pounded his fist on the desk while trying to remember a song that he couldn’t quite put his finger on… “Bobby McGee,” he said. “I don’t think this sort of freedom turns people into Pericles. It turns them into Bobby McGee. Feelin’ good is good enough for me.”
While turning this idea over in my head during class, I came across the phrase “Bobby McGee can have his freedom,” (the original working title of the song) and tucked it away in the back of my mind because I thought it sounded cool. That night I took out my acoustic guitar and started playing a riff I’d written in about 5 minutes the day before. With the original “Me and Bobby McGee” lyrics sitting in front of me on the computer, I wrote my lyrics, not including the fourth verse, in about 15 minutes. A combined 20 minutes to write the song. Quickest song I ever wrote. (Usually writing a song takes several hours spread out over the course of weeks, or in some cases, spread out over a few years). I included a ton of references back to Janis’s Bobby McGee, right down to the “la la” part at the end. The song is based off of one of Schuldenfrei’s signature themes: Americans love to talk about our rights and freedoms, but what happens when freedom becomes the biggest priority in your life?
Rather than say more, I’ll just let the song speak for itself, outside of a couple of clarifications. In my first draft, the song was all about a single character, Bobby McGee. But then I realized that I’d created a sort of paradox in chronology. The speaker in the first verse seems to be at least as old, probably older than the girl, and by implication older than Bobby. In the second verse of my first draft, Bobby is a memory from childhood, a memory of an older guy. I didn’t know if Bobby should be older or younger than the speaker, whether the song should take place in 2007 or 1967… so I got Bobby out of the song all together in my final draft. He’s just a concept and not a character. The guy in the second verse is now the same age as the speaker. He’s not the ex-boyfriend from the first verse. And neither of them are THE Bobby McGee, though they may be analogous to him. I also started thinking the song sounded a little preachy, especially coming from a guy who might not always follow his own advice. So I added the fourth verse to say, “I’d like to avoid being Bobby McGee, but what the hell, I can’t say.” So four decades after the story was born, I guess I’d like to know… where is Bobby McGee these days?