Sunday, October 10, 2010

Major Networks

<a href="">Major Networks by Sparky Grinstead</a>

I have been trying over the past few nights, with little success, to get through David Lynch's Inland Empire movie from just a few tears back. The movie is like 2 1/2 hours  long and is the most boring, incomprehensible thing I have witnessed since the last state of the union address. I simply cannot stay awake long enough to see what happens at the end - if anything does actually happen at the end. For all I know there is no end.

Don't get me wrong - I am a HUGE fan of Mr. Lynch. He is responsible for one of the best things to ever happen to television - the mighty Twin Peaks - and 2 or 3 (give or take Eraserhead) of the greatest movies ever. What makes his stuff great for me is the weirdness that he incorporates into the stories in his films. The problem with  Inland Empire is that it's all weirdness and no story.. Laura Dern walks around looking concerned and/or confused while lights flash on and off and things are generally spooky. Every now and then someone - usually Ms. Dern, but sometimes one or another of the interchangeable supporting cast - screams and runs around. At one point there was a menacing-looking bald  man with what appeared to be a light bulb in his mouth - Uncle Fester! This movie (for me, at least. I know there's Lynchites out there who are gonna say I'm not "getting it". Fine. I'm not) works better than most sedatives. And that's not all bad. I'm still recovering from back surgery and need the rest!

Recently I cancelled cable television and now I only watch stuff I stream from Netflix. I like this arrangement much better - I watch what I want, when I want and no more "lose weight get a bigger dick buy this lose weight get a bigger dick buy this" commercials. So, I'm catching up on movies I meant to see but didn't get around to....kinda like 1980... (no, not really but I need to connect this to the main part of the blog)....

Toward the end of 1980 it was becoming clear to me that the rather esoteric single "Wa" / "Whatever You Want" was not going to catch on (it wasn't getting played - even on the stations that loved the Won Out album). I decided that the next thing I did needed to be a bit more mainstream if I hoped to regain any career momentum. I had recorded an album's worth of "Wa"-like material (some of which would end up as part of Rodent to Rodent a few years later) and the Le Bonx project was in the can (more about that - much, much more  - later) but I really didn't have anything that could remotely be considered "commercial". Since I'd purchased my own 4-track tape machine after the release of Won Out, my muisc had been moving away from traditional song structures and I needed to find my way back. It was then that I became involved with Dianne, a young lady who would be my muse for years to come.

Arlene and I stayed together despite my frequent affairs. Nancy and I had stopped seeing each other for the time being - we'd had a disagreement at the end of '79 and simply stopped calling each other. I had left the phone company in '76 and by ,79 was working at the Zellerbach Paper Company in South San Francisco. Since Arlene was working at The Gap headquarters in nearby San Bruno it made for a convenient commute. I met Dianne at Zellerbach She worked in customer service and I was on the order desk -  a classic workplace romance.

These were the days before cable television -the days before cell phones (even pagers) were on every belt and in every purse - the days before i-anything. There were the major networks - ABC, CBS and NBC, whatever the goody-two-shoes PBS station was and 1 major local independent.. The UHF band - a new thing then - featured reruns, cartoons, game shows and old movies on stations with a range of 2 or 3 blocks. Slim pickings by today's standards, but back then it seemed like a lot.

"Major Networks" documents the very beginning of my year-long affair with Dianne. It was November of 1980 and I was home sick with my yearly bout of the flu. Dianne, at this point a good friend, took an afternoon off and visited me. The next day she came over in the morning and we spent the day in bed making love and watching cartoons. When she left I sat down in the kitchen and wrote the song, obliquely describing the day's events. I've always thought of this song as my "Norwegian Wood".

About a week later I recorded the vocals and guitars - the 4 track was set up in the living room (at the time we were living in the rear unit of a duplex on MacAuley Street in Oakland). I was in love and I'd started to write pop songs again. I was at the beginning of the most productive songwriting cycle of my life. Throughout its many ups and downs, this would be the most well-documented of my affairs, and although I didn't know it at the time, I'd already begun work on my next album, FSGBOC. "Major Networks", with drums added later at Mike Cogan's Alameda studio, was released in '82 as the b-side to "Rollin' Home". Throughout 1981 I wrote dozens of songs, many of which I still perform with the Backorders: "50 Miles An Hour (in the wrong direction)", "Get In", "As Graceful As She Seems" and many others. Since I had my own home studio I was recording on a regular basis. Any of these songs would have made a fine single a-side and returned me to more commercial music after the decidedly unusual "Wa".  Typically, however, I didn't release any of these songs that year. Instead, I decided to foist upon the world the most uncommercial, musically obtuse piece of work I'd ever committed to tape: it was time for Le Bonx. "Major Networks" and the song that became the single a-side, "Rollin' Home" were recorded and mastered by the summer of '81, but not released until '82 because I wanted to put out Le Bonx first. But that's another story. And another. In fact, several more stories.

D                                                  G
I don't feel like interacting - there's nothing much to do
            Em                    A                     D
Except read about some murders in the news
Life is surely wonderful but sometimes it gets slow

Me and you watching the major networks

Me and you watching the major networks
Me and you watching the major networks

It might have been the weather, it might have been the booze
Sometimes I feel like kickin' off my shoes
Couldn't get to sleep last night - had nowhere to go


Em                                      D
I've got these pictures in my mind
Em                              D
I fall in love fro time to time
Em                                                   G                                              A
I know it sounds silly but I just about fainted when we kissed the first time

So I'll just sit here dreaming and when you do arrive
I'll have the TV tuned to channel 5
Don't get good reception but who cares what's on?


Later I changed the last line of the break to:

I know I ought to be more careful 'cause it's my heart that I'm puttin' on the line

because the part about nearly fainting - while only a slight exaggeration - was a bit embarrassing. Otherwise the lyrics stand the way the were first written down that afternoon. I'm usually pretty meticulous about the grammar in my lyrics - the "me and you" part is a notable exception. But it sings better than "you and I watching..."
Sparky meets Buck

I wrote many songs for and about Dianne over the next few years. She was a beautiful young woman with large, luminous cat-like eyes (her best feature) who was extremely high-strung and given to alarming  emotional outbursts and dramatic mood swings. After a few weeks of cloak-and dagger surreptitiousness, we gave up any pretense of trying to hide our relationship at work. Arlene quickly found out but chose to ignore it, saying later that she knew the affair would burn itself out within the year and it wasn't worth getting excited about.

Recently Greg wandered into a music store in Pleasant Hill (of all places) and there, hanging on the wall was a battered but original Buck Owens American - the red, white and blue acoustic guitar marketed by Sears in 1970 and '71. Knowing that I'd been on the lookout for one of these guitars for years, he haggled a bit with the owner and bought for a price that I will not repeat here. He brought it over to my house only to find me fast asleep. The next day I called him and said: "I had the weirdest were dancing around in my bedroom with a Buck Owens guitar". I went up to Greg and Olga's later and played it - and the first song I started to strum was "Major Networks".

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Trucks In the Sky

<a href="">Trucks in the Sky by Sparky Grinstead</a>

I'm not sure what year I wrote this song. I've always had the romantic notion that it was the first thing I composed on my new Martin D-35, which I purchased in 1976. But I have a clear recollection of performing it the previous year in the break room at the phone company building where Nancy (Matt's mom) and I worked. The last half of the 70's are kind of a blur, so I really can't be sure. I do know that the version that appeared on the Won Out album was recorded in 1977 during the same session that produced "You Know Me Blues" and, of course, "Big Ass".

Most likely it was written in '75 because it deals with the beginning of my relationship with Nancy. I've always considered "Trucks.." my first real song - the first time I was able to combine a little Bonkeenie silliness, country-pop musical sensibility and still pass the Hanamura lyrical content test. Plus it's got that nifty little riff - the first time I'd written a song around a guitar motif. I can't remember where I came up the idea about the trucks themselves, but the rest of the song is pretty straightforward - it's clearly a "this thing is just starting" song. At he phone company we worked odd hours - graveyard shifts, split shifts, swing shifts, etc. - and further down you were on the seniority totem pole the less say you had in when you worked. For this reason I would sometimes find myself coming to work when she was leaving and vice-versa. That's the complaint at the heart of the song's chorus. The songs also formalizes one of my most prevalent lyrical conceits: "Look at me - the victim of love".

Including this song on  the album was a forgone conclusion the moment it was written even though it was actually recorded a few years later. Arlene and I took another crack at it at the Xandor session with her playing a Fender Rhodes but it didn't work as well as the '77 cassette version (on which she's playing a Wurlitzer 200). In the later, unused version - and pretty much every performance of the song since - the lyrics are slightly altered. On the record in the last verse I sing "I'm not Rumpelstiltskin but I'm still pretty tough", but I always liked Greg Reznick's line: "...but I still know my stuff" better. But that line hadn't been written at the time of the first recording.

(opening riff is played over the first two lines)

I'm really a mess now - she made me that way
                            Am                           G
Sometimes I'm so high and then I'm so down
                              Am                          G
Should I take the next exit or get out of town
I'm feeling so bad


                          G                                          Am                
But she's working nights now and I'm working days
                         G                           Am                          
I don't get to see her but what can I say
                         G                               Am
And I had a vision that the harbor was dry
                                 G   Am                          G
And the ships were all flying like trucks in the sky

I'm feeling so helpless. What if she knows?
Would she understand me if I came out and said
That I really love her or would she just shake her head
And say I'm a fool?


I'm watching a newsreel that shown (sometimes "thrown") through a wall
I smoke and that's dangerous, I drink and that's rough
I'm not Rumpelstiltskin but I'm still pretty tough (or "still know my stuff")
And I'm still a fool

But she's working nights now and I've got the blues
Butterflies in my stomach and rocks in my shoes
Oh, if I could just see her without straining my eyes
When the stars are like headlights of the trucks in the sky

Sparky and Greg perform together in '74
I've always been fond of this song and I still like to perform it. Greg accompanied me recently to a radio interview where we reminisced about the early Bonkeenie days and talked about Won Out and the Backorders. At the end we pulled our guitars out and sang this song.

..and together again in 2008 with the Backorders
Greg and I have been 'guitar brothers' since almost from the moment we met. Olga and Greg met at Stanford and fell in like. I think she brought him over to meet us at the end of  '73 and by the early part of '74 he was officially in the band. The reason he's not more of a presence on Won Out is due to fact that the album was recorded after he and Olga had been Arelene'd out of the band (the first sessions in '75) and then after they had gone their (temporarily, it turned out) separate ways (the later sessions in '78 and '79). He's like my Danny Whitten or Frank Sampedro (and if you don't know there they are I'm not gonna tell ya) - a totally sympatico musical buddy that I just don't have to worry about - I know he'll get it. He knows my stuff so well that when I bring a new song in he pretty much already knows it and what to play on it (it might help that I use the same 5 chords over and over).