Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Breaking Point

"Breaking Point" started off as a poem by Arlene. She would sometimes write poetry - always on Sierra Designs notepaper - I guess it soothed her troubled soul. No, really, I never knew what she was on about in her little poems. They never made any sense to me. They didn't rhyme! The verses weren't always symmetrical! They drove me crazy. When she'd show them to me I'd always say something like "That's great!" or "You should keep doing this!" - you know, bullshit. I'm not really sure how it happened - she may have shown me the first verse and asked me to put music to it, or I may have read it and offered to finish it - but the way it ended up was Arlene wrote the first verse and I took it and ran with it. It's pretty obvious when you read it - I turned it into a "comin' home baby" type love song. The central riff that the guitar and piano play together was loosely based on Frank Zappa's "Willie the Pimp" and the piano riff in the middle eight was lifted from "Speed of Life" from David Bowie's Low album. It's a jaunty tune and was always fun to play. We recorded it at Xandor, but I couldn't get the harmony vocal right. In the end, we took the tape to Mike Cogan at Bay Records and he solved the harmony problems by slowing the tape down a bit. I sang my harmony part to the sl
<a href="http://sparkygrinstead.bandcamp.com/track/breaking-point">Breaking Point by Sparky Grinstead</a>ower, lower version and when the tape was sped back up to normal I was magically in tune! An interesting side effect was that my harmony vocal, slightly sped up, made me sound not unlike my sister Olga.

When I wrote my part of the lyrics I was thinking about driving back and forth to L.A., which we did quite a lot in those days ('78 - '79). Olga was attending graduate school at U.C.L.A. and we would often hop into one of our Volkswagen bugs (we had two: "L'il Keenie", a red '69 automatic stick shift and "Tony" a brown '68, both of which we kept in tip-top running condition. I'm not kidding. We really doted on those cars) and visit her for a weekend. It was always a big adventure for us. I'm a homebody and not well-traveled so going to L.A. was a big deal for me. I didn't visit Disneyland until I was in my 20's. Arlene and I went with Olga and Greg. I was smoking then. My brand was - get this - "Tramps". There was a picture of dear old Charlie Chaplin on the pack. I remember walking down (up?) Main Street wearing my jeans jacket with a pack of tramps in the chest pocket. I quit smoking in '82.

Arlene and I tried a few times to write together, but it never worked out. Our styles were simply not compatible. She couldn't write melodies - something I simply could not fathom because she played piano and knew all about chords and music theory - and for some reason I could never find a decent melody for her words. And if I had a melody floating around I never liked the lyrics she would write for it. "Breaking Point" - even though it was 80% mine - was the one exception.

guitar capo
G                                     C
Breaking point along the highway
G                                     D
Comin' at you like wild weeds
Am                             G                       Em
On a cold, gray open morning my machine
G               Em
Machinin' clean
          G                    Em
Like you ain't never seen

The first time that I met you
You didn't notice me
But I knew we could have something with style
And you could make me smile
Well it's just a few more miles

F                C             G
What am I doin' in L.A.?
F                 C             G
I ain't seen sun in 14 days
F                    C                             G        Em        
But don't you worry none because I'm okay
         G                   Em
I just had to get away
            G                     Em
But I'm comin' back today

Breaking point along the highway
No time to stop and eat
I've got the 8-track goin' and ah, look at me
I'm as high as I can be
I need you to talk to me

Ah, look at me
I'm as high as I can be
I need you to talk to me

Yeah, I know it's not my greatest set of lyrics, but it sings well. I was intentionally trying to keep it simple - just a sweet little uncomplicated love song. When this was written, 8-track players were already obsolete

Monday, August 23, 2010

Everything They Say

<a href="http://sparkygrinstead.bandcamp.com/track/everything-they-say">Everything They Say by Sparky Grinstead</a>
A lot was happening in 1978. I was more or less happily married. I had 3 or 4 girlfriends (depending on the day of the week). I was working on Won Out and Le Bonx while writing songs hand over fist. I had a cool job driving a delivery truck for a local office supply store which gave me a tremendous amount of discretionary time during the day. Lots of music, lots of women and sex and lots of alcohol and drugs (well, marijuana, anyway. I didn't discover cocaine until 1980). Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. It was a fun time. I was young, foolish and kinda happy.

There was no e-mail, no cell phones, no GPS, cable TV, satellite radio...really, it was a very free time. If you were out, you were out. Nobody had to know where you were. There weren't CCTV cameras everywhere to make you a liar. I didn't even have a gas card, much less a Visa or anything like that. Everything was cash or check - usually cash because even though I had proper ID, some places were reluctant to accept a check from a guy with an afro. 

I wrote "Everything They Say" sometime in '78 and for once I had a song that wasn't about how I wanted someone or how she had gone and broken my poor heart. It's one of my favorite compositions and recordings. Lyrically it's all over the place. In the first verse I'm admitting to a little jealousy - my baby sister Olga was now the star of the family (rightfully so - she'd been accepted to Stanford and was on a very positive life path. She was so ant and I was so very grasshopper) and she was stealing my thunder. The second verse is four of the warmest, most tender lines I ever wrote about Arlene. The chorus is from something Matt's mom, Nancy, said to me after she discovered that I'd done the dirty with one of her friends. I still remember sitting down to write it - I had a capo on my guitar, which I hardly ever used, and it gave the chords a different feel (I'd been fooling around with that type of chord progression for a while) and the words just spilled out. The only change I made when we went to record was I dropped the words "...isn't wrong" from the last line of the chorus. This was recorded at Xandor in Orinda with me playing my Martin and Arlene plonking out that cute little piano part on a grand piano that was in the studio. The backing vocals were a last-minute idea. Peter Helgeson was present in the studio, sitting on the floor reading a book. In fact just as the song begins you can hear him knocking over a guitar stand!

C               F                  G          C 
I see your name on the old marquee
                     F                   C
Right where mine used to be
                 F               G              C            
I see your face in the upcoming show
                     F                   C
Right where mine used to go

Dm               G                    C        F
You've been picking up on all my friends
Dm                G                   C        F
What kind of stories are you telling them?
                           Am    C       G
Everything they say...          (piano riff)

I remember your blue nightgown
The one you wore when it got cold
I kept a fire in a lonely place
Til you were warm enough to hold

(repeat chorus twice)

The Backorders (my current band) did a very nice version of this at the Won Out 30th anniversary show, which you can watch above left! The Backorders are like an older, more professional version of the best Bonkeenies line-up from 1974. Jim Usher plays drums. Jim's daughter is one of my daughter's bestest  friends, and Jim and I got aquainted via the "our kids hang out so we'd better get to know each other" route. We'd actually been friends for a number of years before I found out that he played drums. More about that later. Mark Bluestein is the bass guy. He walked up to me after I'd performed at the local elementary school (helping out my youngest son's class) and introduced himself. Mark, Jim and I started getting together in my basement soon after that. I hadn't had my own band in over 10 years. Eric Kampman plays keys. Eric's son went to school with my youngest son and we met when he came to pick him up after a birthday party at my house. Our conversation went something like this: Me: "I understand you play keyboards" Eric:"I understand you have a band". Eric and I made Winter Comes and Goes together (yep, more about that later). My sister Olga (going by the name Robin Famous) and her husband Greg sing and play guitar. They were both in that classic Bonkeenie lineup with me - and that's a long, long story that deserves its own entry. So....more about that later, too.....

Saturday, August 21, 2010


<a href="http://sparkygrinstead.bandcamp.com/track/wa">Wa by Sparky Grinstead</a>

Won Out was released in 1979. Our intention was to release it in 1978 but due to some typical last-minute change-my-minds it was held up. Arlene and I did all of the mailing and marketing ourselves. I remember buying the LP mailers from Tharco, writing the letters to disc jockeys around the country - each one was typewritten by Arlene on our IBM Selectric and hand-signed by me. We aimed mainly at college stations because back in those days college stations were free-willed creatures that would, could and did play anything that struck their fancy. The big-time commercial radio station were pretty snooty and for the most part would have nothing to do with us even though most were still locally-owned and operated. These were the days before some fat rich guy bought all the stations and made them all play the same 3 songs over and over again between commercials for the other companies that the fat rich guy owned. We got a lot of positive feedback from the station managers and the jockeys themselves - each album went out with a stamped return envelope for comments. I wish I still had those letters! We were working pretty much without a blueprint because there were almost no other independent (indie? Did I invent indie?) artists/labels out there doing their own footwork. It was frustrating sometimes because we'd ask someone to play us or carry us in their store (yes, there were many independent record stores then, too! Not like now when some fat rich guy...you know), and it would go something like this:
Q: What label are you with?
A:  The label is Sparlene.
Q:  Sparlene? I've never heard of that label.
A:  It's my own label.
Q:  Your own label? You have your own record company?
A:  Well, it's not really a record company. I just put my own record out under my own name.
Q:  Sparlene, huh? What does it mean?
A:  What we'd really like you to do is play/stock my album.
Q:  Who does your distro? Your publicity?
A:  We do everything ourselves
Q:  Are you getting any airplay?
A:  Yes, they're playing it on (local college station).
Q:  Wow, man, I dunno...that sounds cool, but we/I don't usually deal with the artist directly....
A:  Well, I can let you talk to my wife....

Sometimes they'd buy them directly from us, sometimes they'd take them on consignment and sometimes they'd insist on a bunch of free copies for "promotion" (which we couldn't afford to do). I remember the manager of Tower Records in Berkeley being very sympathetic to my cause. He was the first to stock Won Out and even sold out of his first batch (of 5)! It kind of went sour when Arlene and I went there to look at my name in the record bins and discovered that I was "Sparky Grimstead" - a very common misspelling of my last name but disappointing nonetheless. I suggested we bring it up with the manager but Arlene went ballistic and got into a shouting match with the cashier, demanding that they change the card immediately. The cashier marched up the aisle and removed all of my albums, thereby ending my relationship with that particular Tower Records store.

As I said in an earlier post, we were planning to issue "Fall On Me" as a single, backed by a newly recorded version of "Ten Years".

At the tail end of '79, after all of the initial work on the album was done, we had purchased a TEAC A-3440-S, a gigantic 4-track reel-to-reel machine. It was similar to the Sony machine that Chris Troelson had used to record the initial sessions back in '75. I remember how exciting it was to bring it home, open the box and set it up in the living room (by this time we were living in the rear unit of a duplex on MacAuley Street in Oakland, just down the street from the headquarters of the music magazine BAM) I could now do my own multi-track recording. At first I rather over-ambitiously planned to record everything I'd ever written, but soon made the more realistic decision to record whatever I felt like recording. Arlene and I used the TEAC, which we dubbed "Milton the Monster" to work on a new, more straightforward version of "Ten Years" for the single.

I'm not a patient man when it comes to recording. If I don't get a usable take in the first few tries I tend to move on to the next thing. "Ten Years" was, for some reason, difficult to nail down and after a few tries we put it aside. Then inspiration struck - and the result was "Wa".

I started playing an A chord (my guitar at this time was a natural-finish Telecaster that I'd found at Subway guitars in Berkeley. The Fender Telecaster is my second-favorite guitar after the big red semi-hollow and , with a few notable exceptions, those are the electric guitar you'll most likely see me playing.) and began improvising lyrics, switching to a Dm when it seemed appropriate. It started out as a call-and-response kinda thing: "Gimme a W, Gimme and A" but then I didn't know where I was going with that so I just said "What that spell?" and suddenly I knew. I made up a few verses and then let it ride on the A chord for a while. Then I overdubbed the bass part, which is actually the Telecaster with the tone knob turned all the way to the bass, and just jammed away. The percussion is the Telecaster again - I just laid in down and played the strings like bongos. The tag at the end was added a few nights later. Arlene, Steve Hanamura, Peter Helgeson and I sat around the kitchen table and chanted "What that spell?" while I stomped out the beat.

"Wa" was going to be the single. I took the tape to Mike Cogan and Bay Records in Alameda to mix, splice the two parts together and master. For the b side I reached back and pulled out the "Whatever You Want" from the original '75 sessions (detailed in another blog). We put it out in the summer of 1980 and followed pretty much the same marketing scheme that we'd used with Won Out. Stores wouldn't stock it, so we had to sell it ourselves.

A (vamp)
Gimme a W, gimme an A

What that spell? That spells Wa

What that spell? That spells Wa
Wa is what that spell

Wa is what that spell

Why do I say Wa?
Why do I say Wa?
Why do I say Wa?
I say Wa 'cause I say Wa
I say Wa 'cause I say Wa

What does it mean?
What does it mean?
What does it mean?
I say Wa means Wa
Wa means Wa

(repeat first verse)

What that spell?
What that spell?
What that spell?

(bass improv to fade)

What that spell?

"Wa" is still one of my favorite pieces. To this day I believe that in the right circumstances - the right chain of events - it could very well have been massive. It is a very unusual song, kinda nursery rhyme-ish but at the same time subtly subversive. Kids loved it. Adults would admit that it was catchy but for the most part just raise their eyebrows and back away. The radio stations that happily played songs from the Won Out album, despite letters and phone calls from the Sparlene Records publicity machine, generally ignored it. I was surprised and disappointed. I knew "Wa" was unusual, but I thought that the independent-minded program directors and disc jockeys of college radio stations would like it for its uniqueness (it was only later that I learned that "Wa" means "harmony" in Japanese). Boy, was I wrong!

("Wa" was released in July of 1980 as a single a-side)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Lend A Hand

<a href="http://sparkygrinstead.bandcamp.com/track/lend-a-hand">Lend A Hand by Sparky Grinstead</a>
Recorded in January of '75, probably right after "Fall On Me" (it uses the same instrumentation had has a similar feel), this song, like "Whatever You Want", was completed but did not make the Won Out album.To this day I don't know why. It's a good recording of an energetic performance - and it's an actual message song, full of pithy observations like: "People change so much once you've known them / And feelings change so much once you've shown them" (In fact, looking back on the lyrics now, I'm amazed at how fatalistic they are!).This song was written too late for the Mills College show, but not by much - I remember teaching it to Dennis in my (and Arlene's) new apartment in a security building near Lake Merritt in Oakland (after the first burglary we decided to move up in the world) in December of '73.
After the Mills show I had continued to write - in fact, it was like I had turned on a tap and couldn't turn it off. Songs were pouring out of me - good, bad and indifferent. I can't even remember a lot of them now. Sometimes I'll be going through an old notebook and a song will jump out at me: "Oh my god! I remember this! This is terrible!".

Mills College was, as I mentioned, a women's school with nothing but college-age females all over the place - in classes, on the sports fields and socializing in the campus coffee shop. Since my own class schedule at the J.C. was minimal I spent a lot of time on the Mills campus waiting for Arlene, dropping her off and picking her up.

Arlene's best friend at school was girl named Melissa, who came from a wealthy family in Menlo Park. A trained singer with a fine voice, she was briefly attached to the Bonkeenies (along with another Mills student name Mary who couldn't sing at all ) as a back-up singer. Melissa and I were briefly involved (ditto Mary, but that's another story. Mary was crazy about Tom Jones and used to go to his concerts with her mother and actually throw their underwear in the general direction of the stage...like I said, another story...) and "Lend A Hand deals, however obliquely, with the rapid deterioration of that affair.

In 2003, when I took the Won Out tapes to Mike Cogan (the first time we'd seen each other in 25 years!) for digital remastering, we found the original mix of "Lend A Hand" from 1975 and, after a little spiffing up, went ahead and used it for the CD as a bonus track. In fact, the CD features all of the original mixes from the album. Here's a picture of the first CD version of  Won Out. In 2009, we did a special 30th anniversary version that more closely resembled the original artwork (thanks, Ian!).

Mike had moved the Bay Records studio from the old Times-Star building in Alameda to a larger, more luxurious space behind a storefront on the Oakland/Berkeley border. It was a real pleasure to work with him again. During the remastering process I was able to hear the music in much finer detail. For example, "Lend A Hand" was recorded on an intermittently rainy day - just as we finished the drum track it started pouring outside and the storm is just audible at the end of the track.

E                            A                                E
I was born with the promise that I'm gonna die
E                            A                                 E        D
I was raised understanding that I'd have to get by
                                                           E                D
But Life changes so much while you're living it
                                                            E                          B
And love changes so much once you've given it - so come on
       E        A     E         A       E        A
And lend a hand, lend a hand, lend a hand
 B                   A                  E
And life won't be so hard to understand

I was taught that the future's not ours to decide
I was taught that we'll never return once we've died
But people change so much once you've known them
And feelings change so much once you've shown them - so come on
And lend a hand, lend a hand, lend a hand
And life won't be so hard to understand

A                                          E
It seems like yesterday I was crying
A                                                    E                                  B
And now I'm trying to find a way to deny it and it makes me sad

Because I'm too scared to decide
Just what I've got left that I'll be able to hide
And love still stands so tall next to worship
And freedom costs so much it's not worth it - so come on
And lend a hand, lend a hand, lend a hand
And life won't be so hard to understand
B                   A                      E
And life won't be so hard to understand

Around the time I wrote "Lend A Hand" the Bonkeenies ever-changing line-up took a big step towards solidifying when I asked my sister Olga to sing with me. At this point - '73 was ending and the great adventure that would be 1974 was dawning - the band consisted of me, Arlene and Dennis. Drummer Don Whitworth from the Mills show had vanished (although we found out later that he was telling his wife he was off to Bonkeenie rehearsals every Sunday). I remember telling Dennis that I was bringing my sister in as lead singer. Dennis looked up from his beer and said: "Can she shake it?". Now we just needed to find a drummer.

("Lend A Hand" was released in 2004 as a bonus track on the CD version of Won Out)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ten Years

<a href="http://sparkygrinstead.bandcamp.com/track/ten-years">Ten Years by Sparky Grinstead</a>
I had a guitarist friend named Richard back in the early part of the 70's. Richard came from a fairly wealthy family that lived in the Oakland hills. His dad, an engineer of some kind, had made his fortune by inventing a little electronic gizmo, a model of which he kept on a counter in the family room of their spacious home. I was never sure what it was for - it just looked like a bunch of twisted wires. I never asked him about it because on the few occasions that we crossed paths he would glower at me and retreat to another part of the house. Richard explained that he thought we were "scruffy musicians" who only wanted to eat and drink at his expense.  Richard was a decent enough guitarist and we played in a few bands together when I was learning to play drums. We played covers of the popular songs of the day, usually at local house parties (we were too young to play clubs) and snuck in an original now and then. Richard had a car (of course) - a souped up Volkswagen Beetle that his girlfriend wrecked at one point. He later got summer work as a carpenter and accidentally knocked his front teeth out with a hammer. Richard's parents were from one of the Scandinavian countries - I was never sure which - and they spoke this impenetrable language whenever they were together. There was an electric fence surrounding their property.

Richard Lundquist, 1973
The chords for "Ten Years" are based on a riff that Richard played when he was just fooling around on the guitar. The band's singer at the time, a good friend named Dupree, and I used to fool around with lyrics to Richard's little creation. In fact, Dupree had concocted this pretty horrible story-song about two kids named Fred and Sue who were in love - let's see....Fred's mother was a teacher and Sue's father was a preacher....I think the gist of was that Fred went off to war and got killed. The chorus was "look at all the love we lose in war". It was pretty noble in sentiment but frankly hilarious in execution. The few times we actually tried to make it work as a song it sounded...well, terrible. No real melody was ever worked out so Dupree would just bellow his lyrics while Richard played his chords. Whoever was playing bass - I remember a blonde kid from Hayward named Dave - would plonk along and I would try to keep up on drums. It never really gelled into a song.

The Bonkeenies, 1974
What I did for "Ten Years" was take Richard's noodlings and strip them down to the basic chords, write some simple love-gone-wrong lyrics based on some of Dupree's extemporizing and give the whole thing a funky, rolling beat. This was one of the songs I pulled out and finished up for the Mills College show. The Bonkeenies continued to perform it through the next year. In fact, in the picture at left you see the actual Bonkeenies performing the actual "Ten Years" in some horrible little club - Central Pool Hall in Point Richmond, to be exact. Earlier that day we had played a wedding reception out in Pleasanton) in 1974. Left to right: Jeff Busby, Rick Johnson, Greg Reznick, me, Arlene Lee, Olga Grinstead.

The burglary that ended the initial recording sessions left me with no guitar of any kind for nearly a year while we hassled with the insurance company. This was actually the second time we had had a break-in. The first was shortly after the Mills College show in '73 - I lost 3 guitars, but the insurance came through quickly and I was able to resume playing - in fact that's when I bought my first big semi-hollow body, an Epiphone Casino. The second time, though, the mighty insurance giant dragged their mighty insurance feet. I guess they thought I was making it up. Finally they came through and I went out and bought my Martin (which I still own). The result of all this insurance company foot-dragging was that I did no recording for the rest of '75 and all of '76. But in '77, when I had my Martin and a couple of real fab cassette decks - A TEAC A-360 and an A-170 - I recorded EVERYTHING.

The recording of "Ten Years" that wound on the Won Out album was not, however, recorded on one of my decks. Greg Reznick showed up one evening with his new cassette deck - I think it was a Marantz - and we set it up and started playing with it. It could record in stereo like mine but it had pan pots that allowed us to move the sound around. We had our guitars - Greg owned a Martin very similar to mine - and started running through the Bonkeenie songbook. That evening there were several other friends and relatives visiting - you can hear them talking in the background. While we were running through "Ten Years" - and not taking it seriously at all - Steve Hanamura walked into the room, commented on the "sharpness" of Greg's machine, noticed we were recording, apologized with a laugh, and left. We finished the song leaving out a verse because we were laughing. That's why, on the LP the song is listed as "Ten Years (Abortive)".

Am     Dm                  Am    Dm
Now, now that you're gone
Am                   Dm                       Am    Dm
Gotta find, gotta find someone who cares
Am   Dm                    Am   Dm
Now, now that you're gone
Am                    Dm                        Am Dm       F G Am
Arlene, Greg, Sparky, and Olga, 1978
Gotta find, gotta find somewhere to go

We traveled all around
We soared above the ground
Then you let me down

Oh, ten years went by so fast
I never thought I would last

We traveled all around
And then you let me down
But we soared above the ground........

("Ten Years" was released in 1979 on the album Won Out)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Whatever You Want

There's a few formats that my songs generally adhere to. One is the comedy rocker, like Big Ass. This is usually a jaunty tune based, however circuitously, on blues changes. Then there's the country number, represented by "Trucks in the Sky" and, more recently, "Take This Life". These are usually love songs based on country-like changes and featuring an identifiable central guitar motif. The song "Whatever You Want" is my first attempt at a format I would struggle with over the years: The Grand Romantic Statement.

The album Won Out was originally set to be titled Whatever You Want. Steve Hanamura was working - or at least talking about thinking about working on - a screenplay called The Attack of the Police Helicopters. I really don't think he ever wrote a word of it except the title, but in those days we were always coming up with grand creative schemes that never achieved liftoff. This song was intended as the theme song for the movie, hence the recurring helicopter references. In fact, the song's working title was "Theme from The Attack of the Police Helicopters". After hearing the song in all of its glory, Steve rejected it outright as the theme for his nonexistent movie, which immediately called the title into question. I remember asking him: "Well, what should I call it?" and his dismissive reply: "Call it whatever you want."

The text - 5 verses and two 'middle eights' (no real chorus, just a repeated two-chord motif between verses) - deals with tracking down an ex-lover (the same woman referred to in the lyrically and musically more direct "Fall On Me") and discovering her in a new life that has no room for me. Written during the early '75 recording sessions at Chris's, probably in February, it is clearly - like "Love Is All Right" - written in my new Hanamura-influenced style - trying to use more poetic imagery and pack more meaning into my verses.

The song was originally recorded as a simple ballad, a vocal over an simply-played electric piano (Arlene's Wurlitzer 200-A) with an overdubbed bass. I don't remember why, but Chris and I decided to scrap that version and record a new one from scratch. Version two featured a more complicated arrangement - switching back and forth between waltz time and a thumping rock beat using acoustic guitar, drums, lead and harmony vocals and some tricky backwards cymbals and heavily echoed tom-toms.  This is the version that was mixed and mastered for the album. Why, in the end, I decided to leave it off is a complete mystery to me. It did finally see the light of day in 1980 as the flip side of the "Wa" single. A few years ago, when Won Out was being remastered for CD, I pulled out the original piano-led version out, hoping to include it as a bonus track. To my dismay,I discovered that the tape had been damaged at some point over the years and was not usable.


D                                      G      E    D                                              G         E
I saw you standing with an older man down on the corner where the 'copters land
D                                              G             E
And as I stood and watched he took your hand
        D                                         C
And waltzed with you through the intersection
              D                              C
And you smiled at him with sincere affection
              D            C                 G
And he waltzed so fine for someone so old


I saw you talking with the boy next door comparing notes on what you had in store
I thought you saw me but I wasn't sure
I turned away feeling changed and older
The sun had set and the night grew colder
And I'd always thought you were made of gold

You caught me telling my reflection lies - I could have seen it if I'd only tried
And after reading off a list of sighs
I forced a smile and I found the staircase
I climbed the stairs and I went up to space
And the stars came out just to see me home

G             Am  C                           D
I can't protect you 'cause I can't protect myself
G                      Am         C                       D
It leaves me convinced that I won't make it by myself
C                    D                  E
Out there with someone else alone

The 'copters landed as I drove away - the men in blue had come to save the day
But I'd stayed long enough to hear you say
You couldn't leave 'cause it wasn't easy
Your plans were made and you didn't need me
And I realized that you'd never known

I can't forget you 'cause I might forget myself
It leaves me convinced that I can't make it by myself
Out here with someone else alone

If I'm still living in a year or three the helicopters will have taken me
And from my vantage point up high I'll see
The city steeped in restless worry
Machines and men in constant hurry
But you'll be a sky I can call my own

As I said, the movie The Attack of the Police Helicopters never had a plot - never really had anything more than a title. But I do recall discussing an opening sequence involving a helicopter landing on a baseball field as a dixieland band plays in the stands. I don't remember much more than that. And ultimately Steve did have a point - the song "Whatever You Want" for all of its many charms, probably wouldn't have worked as the theme song.

("Whatever You Want" was released in 1980 as a single b-side)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Love Is All Right

Let's call it "The Yoko Syndrome" - a perfectly serviceable friend/bandmate/creative partner meets their soul mate or whatever you want to call her and is gone. It never happens right away, but over time they become more engaged with their new partner and less engaged in the project at hand (the band, usually). Now this kind of stuff happens all the time and for the most part it's pretty benign. People grow up, get married, buy houses and have kids and have less time for the things that occupied them when they were younger. What makes it a "Yoko" situation is when the new partner starts meddling. You saw it happen in Spinal Tap. That was classic. The girlfriend comes in and proceeds to replace the manager and oust the lead guitarist (her main rival). Yoko herself made a place for herself in the Beatles by talking through John, who was completely under her spell. The Beatles, of course broke up very acrimoniously soon after she inserted herself into their midst. I know that's a real simplistic description of what was undoubtedly an extremely complicated situation, but...well, yep, that's what it is.

It happened to me. When Arlene came into my life - we hooked up at the tail end of out senior year in high school - the Bonkeenies of America were me and a ragtag collection of nerdy school buddies with (sometimes only rumored) musical ability. Arlene and I became extremely close extremely fast. Before my friends knew what  had happened, Arlene and I were never without each other. We even started dressing alike. She of course became a member of the band (well, she was an actual musician!) and in no time was helping me get things organized. Within months we became "Sparlene" (an unkind nickname that we proudly took on ).

Arlene was very protective of me and often at odds with other band members. If there was ever a discussion about a song, an arrangement...anything really...I automatically got two votes. During the Bonkeenies' existence - from 1971 to 1975, several versions of the band broke up due to friction caused all or in part by Arlene's diplomatic skills.

In January of '75 when I started working on what would become Won Out, it was a solo project. I was not even using Arlene's formidable keyboard skills. Though sidelined musically, she was still very much a part of the project, helping me set up the label and notating the songs for copyright and publishing. For the time being, My personal Yoko Syndrome was working in my favor.

My friend Chris Troelson, proud owner of a Sony 808 (I think) was doing all of he taping stuff and we were having a blast. Both of us were learning how to do our respective jobs - on-the-job training really of the best kind. Before the sessions ended in March - more about that later) we had recorded nearly two albums worth of music. Many of the songs remained incomplete or were simply not up to snuff, But we worked well together and we worked hard to get the songs down and get everything sounding the way I heard it in my head.

Chris lived in a little cottage in Oakland with his girlfriend Teresa and we were doing the recording in every room in their little house. The first couple of months - January and February - went fine, but in March things went terribly wrong. First, Chris and Teresa announced that they were going to get married.  They'd been happily living together for several years and Arlene and I were puzzled by the sudden change. We were all pretty "anti-establishment" then and viewed marriage as a primitive ritualistic holdover from our parents' generation. Finally one evening Chris and I got really drunk and he confided in me that it was Teresa's idea to get married. Apparently she'd been unfaithful to him and this was her way to make it right. I was still trying to take this in the next day when Teresa herself paid me a visit at home and made a very clumsy attempt at seducing me. "Love Is All Right" was written before the next scheduled session. We recorded it very quickly. I played the guitar - my Ovation Custom Balladeer - in the bedroom with blankets tacked to the walls for soundproofing. Chris and I never discussed the lyrics.

Em              D               C             Em
My friend I can't let this happen to you
                      D        C           Em
There's still so much we gotta do
Am                     Bm                                 C                          D
My mouth could not keep singing and my hands they couldn't play
Am                       Bm                                 C                         D
When I saw them smother your freedom in lace and drive you away
                       Em A                              Em
But what can i do? It's gonna happen to you

My friend I can't stand to see you this way
But I know there isn't that much I can say
I've seen you with your freedom and now I see you in chains
I've been to the scene of the murder where they washed the blood down the drains
As I passed through - It's gonna happen to you

C              D         G                            Em
Love is all right as long as you don't get taken
C               D        G                             Em
Love is all right as long as you don't get taken
C               D        G                   Em               A      D
Love is all right but when you get taken you're through
It's gonna happen to you

My friend I can't let this happen to you
But I know you don't see things like I do
I see the windows broken and the sun shining down
And I see your car all painted up and rollin' out of town
What can I do? It's gonna happen to you

Shortly after the session - perhaps even the following weekend - we were burglarized. All of my guitars were taken. It was a devastating setback. The recording sessions came to a complete halt and that particular era came to an abrupt and unhappy end. The one good thing that came out of it was that I was insured and all of my instruments were listed as household property. The insurance company typically tried to weasel out of it by saying I was a professional musician and should have been insured as such, but that didn't hold water because both Arlene and I worked regular jobs. When the check finally came, I spent it all on a brand new Martin D-35S which I still own today. "Young Neil", as I named it, would feature prominently on the rest of the recording sessions for the album.

I purchased the multi-track tapes from Chris later that month and we proceeded to drift apart. we did not attend their wedding and when we moved soon after the break-in we did not give them our new address or phone number.

When I started project I had a list of songs - mostly the pop songs I'd written for the Bonkeenies - that I intended to use for the album. I'd gotten pretty good at knocking out British-invasion inspired 3-minute love songs. The creative process being what it is, however, I started writing songs during the sessions that I wanted to use, too. Steve Hanamura had introduced me to Jackson Browne around this time and we bagen our never-ending discussion/arguement about writing songs - Steve fancied himself a lyricist - should they have deep meaning or just be pop confections? Steve encouraged me to make my songs "deeper" and pointed to people like Jackson Browne and, of course, Bob Dylan as possible influences. "Love Is All Right" was really the first time I tried to write along those lines. I wrote a few more, like "Meet Me at the Gate" and "Lend A Hand" that we recorded but ultimately were not on the record (partially remedied later when Won Out was release on CD - I was able to find the master of at least one song and added it as a bonus track. "Love is All Right" passed the 'Hanamura test' and from that point forward I started running my new compositions past him for critique and lyrical suggestions. As a songwriter Steve could be wordy and pretentious, but he did have a knack for adding just the write lyrical flourish  to complete one of my songs. More about this later.

("Love Is All Right" was released in 1979 on the album Won Out)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

No Magic

<a href="http://sparkygrinstead.bandcamp.com/track/no-magic">No Magic by Sparky Grinstead</a>
As I mentioned in the "Fall On Me" post, I'm currently recovering from some deeply invasive back surgery. At this point I'm on the upswing and can see faint light at the end of the tunnel, but last week it was pretty dark and painful. I spent a few days at Herrick hospital in Berkeley in the rehabilitation unit where I guess they were supposed to get me ready to start walking around and bathing myself and stuff...mostly they kept me doped up and lying around in my jammies. Actually not a bad way to go through the days - that is if you're not anxious to get up and get back to working, playing music, riding your bike, walking around your house - you know, doin' stuff.

It was during this "lying around in my jammies" phase that my son Matt came to visit and we started talking about Rodent to Rodent. 

Matt is 26. For reasons that I will not go into at the moment he and I did not meet until last year. When we finally did meet I was immensely pleased to discover that he is an amazingly talented musician with tastes that are very similar to my own (although I find that at my advanced age my tastes are beginning to veer alarmingly into the middle of the road - Matt is decidedly more in the lefter lanes).  But he's not just a musician - he understands how stuff works - you know - he can , like, fix stuff. I'm completely in awe of his skill set. Plus I think he can read music.

Anyway, anyone who follows my stuff (you know who you are - all 4 of you!) knows that Rodent to Rodent is my 1984 album that I recorded but never released. I often modestly refer to it as my "masterpiece". I've actually mastered it for CD twice in the last few years, but for reasons unknown to me (until now?) I never got around to putting it out. I had given Matt a copy of one of the masters, thinking (correctly, it turned out) that of all my stuff he'd like this one the best. He liked it so much, in fact, that he recorded his own version of it. I listened to it, and of course it was fab.

So, as we sat there in my dingy little hospital room we came up with THE PLAN. Sadly, I cannot reveal this "plan" because there's a lot more planning and stuff that needs to happen before any action can be taken on it and I don't wanna go blabbing all over the place about it now. But trust me when I say that's it's a very interesting - even brilliant - plan, as plans go. I'm just being modest all over the place today!

"No Magic" is a song about Matt's mom. I apparently wrote it (I think in 1976) after we'd had some kind of disagreement. A couple of the songs on Won Out are about her and our at times tumultuous relationship. I don't think we'd even met when I started work on the album. No...wait...of course we'd met. I started working for the phone company at the end of '74 (that's where we met - we were long-distance operators) and I started the record in January of '75 so at the very least we'd laid eyes on each other if nothing else.

Looking back at my songs from those years I've noticed that they were much less "incident-specific" than they became later. Don't know if that's good or bad - it just is. I've never been a writer of songs about anything other than me for the most part - I've never been one for the grand statement (unless it's about me).

As I write this I'm watching a recorded episode of Later... with Jools Holland. This is my favorite show at the moment and I'm trying to take in as much as I can because at the end of this month we're dumping the satellite TV. It suddenly dawned on me a few months back how patently ridiculous it is to have to pay nearly 100 bucks a month for the privilege of watching zillions  of weight-loss and penis-enhancement commercials. When I was a kid, TV was free!!

In case you're wondering - and I know you are - that's me dancing around on the beach in Santa Monica shortly after the release of Won Out. In fact part of my snappy beach attire is a "Sparlene Records" t-shirt!

G      Gmaj7 Em         D             Am                     D
I'll be on the sidewalk when they paint the building brown
     Am                      D                  Am                  D                    G
I'll watch them tear it down but I'm pretty sure you won't need me around
G          Gmaj7 Em    D                   Am            D
Give me all my letters back so I can mark them "paid"
     Am                      D                     Am                  D                            G
I'll wish that you had stayed but you finally found out how the game was played
G                           D
What gave you the idea
Am                        D               Am                  D
That happiness can wait? Rides in from out of state
    Am             D                       Am                      D
Inspires me to write the songs I know I'll come to hate
G                         D
It just occurred to me
Am                             D             Am               D
While watching you undress why it was such a mess
Am                           D                 G
I'd allowed your little mind so little rest

I'll turn on your station when they play your last request
I told you what was best and I knew you'd never figure out the rest
It was never my intention in the end to let you down
This godforsaken town will seem the same the second time around
What gave me the idea
That happiness was sand? You held it in your hand
Convinced me that I was the one who didn't understand
It just occurred to me
While looking through your smile you were just another child
Who could only love while lovin' was in style

That little piano/guitar riff  is just Am D Am D Am D G

The original pressings of the album featured an entirely different version of this song than the one that was finally released, a live-in-the-living-room recording with Arlene playing a Fender Rhodes. I wanted to add a harmony vocal so we had to start from scratch. We went to Xandor Studio - actually this guy Jim's garage out in Orinda - and did it again, this time with Arlene playing a grand. I still wasn't entirely happy, though, and we wound up later at Mike Cogan's Bay Records studio in Alameda, re-recording the vocals and tacking on that little tag that has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the song. The tag was actually a separate little piece  intriguingly titled "The Insulting Song" : I know this song is short / Words of no import / The meaning sparse / You stupid arse / What did you expect? It was one of those things that Steve Hanamura and I would come up with late at night, drunk and feeling clever. It was recording using a very primitive overdubbing process - playing along to recorded parts on the stereo. Arlene played the Rhodes and I did the drums, guitar and singing. On my last birthday I was given the massive book "Recording the Beatles" and discovered that a lot of their overdubs were done this way - playing along to prerecorded tracks coming out of a very large speaker.

There's also several sets of lyrics to this song. Some of the lines in the recorded version still make me cringe and to this day I tinker with them. Last year I performed the entire album with the Backorders and I tried unsuccessfully to rewrite some of the lyrics. They are what  they are.....

If you've never seen Later... with Jools Holland then you must, you must check it out. It's on Ovation. Mr. Holland played keyboards for the band Squeeze. If you've never heard Squeeze then you must, you must check them out.

Okay, on to THE PLAN. Rodent to Rodent will see the light of day, but in a very special way: a two disc, vinyl-only release. Disc one will feature my original version and disc two will be, of course, my son's "reply". Matt will be in charge of the artwork and I'm looking forward to what he's gonna come up with. What's magical about it is that Matt was born when I started work on the album (January of '84) - they're the same age! Even though it was ready to go by the end of the year, Arlene and I parted company around that time (yeah, more about that later) and I simply shelved the project. As I'm pretty sure I said above, now I know why. I had to wait for Matt.  It's gonna be called Rodent to Rodent to Rodent to Rodent.

("No Magic" was released in 1979 on the album Won Out)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Fall On Me

<a href="http://sparkygrinstead.bandcamp.com/track/fall-on-me">Fall On Me by Sparky Grinstead</a>

My 20th, July 4th, 1973
In mid-1973 my first wife - and Bonkeenies of America keyboardist - Arlene (lots more about her as these things progress) were living in a little one-bedroom cottage behind an old apartment building in a marginal part of Oakland. She was attending Mills (an oddly pastoral women's college right in the middle of town) and I was lazing through my first of two aimless years at the local J.C. and we both worked at a local pizzeria. The Bonkeenies, at this point more of a concept than an actual band, had played our first "show" - my 20th birthday party at said pizzeria - where we performed a few of the Mothers-style, politically incorrect innuendo-laden songs I'd been writing for the past few years to an audience of bemused friends and relatives. Arlene played (surprisingly competent) drums, a high school friend named Steve played oboe and a local musician named Dennis Petersen (more about him later, too) stepped in to play bass. I remember Dennis bringing in his HUGE Ampeg bass rig and I was playing guitar through my little Fender Champ. We had sprayed the bass drum head black and glued on white letters spelling "Bonkeenies of America". Halfway through the set, the "i" in America fell off.

Arlene surprised me a few weeks after the party by announcing that she'd landed the band our first real gig - the Halloween dance at Mills College. We were to be paid 200.00 for 4 hours of music. It was great news, but there was one problem - we had no songs. And no band. The songs I had been writing up to that point - with the possible exception of "Big Ass" - were absolutely inappropriate for the dance. We had to come up with 4 sets of music (it never once occurred to me that songs - even whole sets - could be repeated) and a rhythm section (Arlene would move over to keys to support my barely-competent guitar playing) in about 90 days.

Dennis Petersen solved one problem by not only agreeing to do the show, but also by bringing in a drummer friend named Don McKinney. Both Dennis and Don were a few years older than us - Dennis had recently returned from an apparently rather harrowing tour in Vietnam - and had lots of performing experience. It also helped that they were easygoing, punctual and good players. The other problem - songs - would be more difficult to solve.

I had recently purchased my first electric guitar, a Gibson SG copy, which I could barely play. Arlene, although not a great improviser, was a skilled pianist and could actually read music. I remember taking out our "Motown Complete" songbook and selecting numbers that I could play. We also had a Beatle chord book and the songbook for "Exile On Main Street". We cobbled together a set-list from songs we knew or could learn quickly, but it was very insufficient. I decided that I'd just write appropriate songs to fill up the rest of the time. For the next couple of weeks I proceeded to do just that. Wracking my brain for every song idea I'd ever had, borrowing liberally from the stylings of my favorite artists (I remember being particularly inspired by a Flo & Eddie album) and rewriting a few old 50's songs, I actually came up with enough material - some of it actually quite good - for the upcoming dance. It would have been so much easier if I'd known a few things which in my innocence never occurred to me like people don't really listen and you can play blues progressions, fast, slow and in-between, all night long. I thought people would notice if I played too many songs in the same key!

Fall On Me was one of those things that had been floating around in my head for a few years. I remember walking home from high school singing the chorus. So, the song is comprised of three parts: the chorus, which is basically like "La Bamba" except for that nifty little stop/start thing, the verses ("I remember you...") which I fleshed out in '73 when I decided that this was something that could be developed, and the solos, which I wrote for Arlene to play and are actually the melody to a completely different song called "Burning". The song remained in the band's repertoire through the next year - it's still one of my favorites - and in '75 when I started work on what would eventually become Won Out, "Fall On Me" was the first song we recorded.

G    C D    G    C  D  G   C
Fall on me, fall on me, fall on me
G           C                                                          G
Give me something to remember you by before I leave

                   D                                                     G
I remember you - you were the one who always stood by me
                   D                                               G
I remember you - you were the one who hung around
                    D                                                   G
I remember you - you were the one who looked good by me
                    D                                             G C D     G C D
I remember you - you're the one who let me down

(repeat chorus)
(solo I)

I remember you -you were the one who would think of me
I remember you - you were the one who carried on
I remember you - you were the  one who said you did love me
I remember you - you're the one who is gone

(repeat chorus)
(solo II)
(repeat chorus yet again)

So that's kinda how it goes. The chords in the solos wouldn't make any sense if wrote them out, just G C and D in various places.

Rockin' at Mills, October 27th, 1973
I've been told that most of songs are about loss and regret. I say...well, yeah....and this song, despite the ebullient presentation, is no exception. At the time I was just writing whatever lyrics came into my head, but in retrospect it's probably about an older woman (a neighbor) I was in a relationship with who very unceremoniously dumped me when her ex-husband found out about us. In fact, this relationship and its rather abrupt ending colored my lyrics for years to come, as will be revealed in later postings.

After Won Out was released we considered putting "Fall On Me" out as a single with a new version of "Ten Years" on the flip side. I remember working on "Ten Years" at home with Arlene on the 4-track. In the end I decided to release "Wa" instead.

After the Mills College dance the Bonkeenies became an ongoing operation - a more-or-less working band, with members coming and going for the next year. Dennis was in and out of the band a few times. Don took his 50 bucks and was never heard from again. The band ended at the tail-end of '74 and in '75 I started work on my first album....alone.

I've just started doing this and at this point I'm not sure how I'll go through the songs...randomly, chronologically.....album sequence.....but I'm gonna try to do one a day while I'm recovering from my recent back surgery. I don't know what I'm going to do about the Le Bonx songs yet, either....

("Fall On Me" was released in 1979 on the album Won Out)