Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sleeves




John Prine is one of my favorite song writers. While it's true that a lot of his stuff sounds the same - especially on his later albums - they're still good songs with great lyrics - literate, funny and sad all at the same time. Back in the days of vinyl I used to go to Tower Records in Berkeley and pick up albums that looked interesting. That's how I discovered Mr. Prine. The first album of his I bought was Common Sense. Produced by Steve Cropper, it turned out to be quite different from the rest of his stuff and remains my favorite album of his to this day (give or take Storm Windows. And Pink Cadillac). There's a song on Common Sense called "He Was in Heaven Before He Died" that I wished I'd written. So I did - and the result was "Sleeves". Musically I lifted the waltz time and some of the chord changes and melody, hopefully changing it enough to make it my own. Lyrically, the Prine song seems to be a dense string of unrelated images that probably meant something to him but that I could never decipher. My lyrics were a more straightforward and sad tale of lost love.

I remember recording it in my living room at the Family Compound. Steve Hanamura was there in the room with me although he didn't contribute to the recording. The last song recorded for FSGBOC, it's the only one where I use an electric (my Fender Telecaster) for the rhythm guitar and the only song to feature an actual bass guitar (a 1972 Fender Jazz that passed back and forth between me and Steve for several years. It now belongs to Sally Englefried - more about her later). Unlike most of the songs on the album, the lead vocal is not a first take. I remember Steve commenting that my pitch was a bit wobbly, prompting me to have another go at it. He also made some comments about the lyrics being trite but I ignored him. Steve fancied himself a lyricist - we'd collaborated on several songs in the past - but his romantic stuff was always too florid and overwrought for me. As the years went by I was taking less and less advice from him.

Another song, "Still Wishing" was recorded at this session using the same instrumentation, but it didn't work out. The chorus included the lines "If you wanna laugh, laugh out loud / You're still running with same old crowd / And I'm still wishing - wishing that I'd married you"


D                       G            A                  D               G               D                        A
Last night I was thinking of books never written and diaries that should have been kept
G                     A                            Bm           G                               A
Remember the night in that run-down hotel? Remember how little we slept?
D                      G              A        D                   G              D              A
The lord of the manor was just an illusion and the lord of the flies was a pig
G                    A                           Bm                G            A                 D
Remember us reading the National Enquirer and laughing until we were sick?

G       D           A     D       G    D             A
Time changes everything - time changes a man
G                     A                                       Bm
Sometimes our dreams simply slip from our hands
    G              A           D
I promise that I understand

When you're waking up in your suburban bedroom content and with nothing to fear
I'm already out in the cold city dawn watching the world disappear
If you ever bother to challenge or question the things you've been led to believe
You may find the magicians running your life have nothing but air up their sleeves

(repeat chorus)

Some of the lyrics are goofy and some are vague, but I was writing about the night I'd spent with "Sara". There was actually a National Enquirer in the room which we read and laughed about. During our conversation we imagined that we were in a hotel (instead of a friend's spare bedroom) that was so run-down that it had no furniture and certainly no room service. We were quite drunk and this fantasy greatly amused us. The rest of the lyrics are bits and pieces of the conversation we had that night.\


File:CommonSensePrine.jpg
Here's the album that contained the song that inspired the song!


When I wrote this song I had no idea what had become of her, and in the last verse I'm imagining that she's fallen under the sway of someone, somewhere who has convinced her to stay away from me.

("Sleeves" is available on the album FSGBOC as a digital download)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

That's What Happens to Love





The album that eventually became FSGBOC went through many changes before it was finally released in January of 1984. Because I was writing and recording almost constantly I was always coming up with new songs that edged out others on the list. As 1981 ended - along  my short but intense relationship with Dianne - I had 10 songs recorded, an album title (Save the Unicorn) picked out and even an idea for the cover picture. Needless to say, the songs were all about Dianne, my most recent romantic folly. Only one song from that first group, "Heart Thief", ultimately made the cut because it fit very neatly into what would become the album's theme.

1982 was a tumultuous year for me, I'd broken up with Dianne, changed jobs, met Sara and reconnected with Nancy. I also started a new musical project, The Rummies, with Arlene and downstairs neighbor Bill Bergstrom (who heard us practicing one evening, grabbed his guitar and came upstairs to join in).

Finding Nancy, once I'd put my mind to it, turned out to be easier than I thought I would be. I discovered through mutual friends that she was living in Berkeley, renting a cottage behind someone's home while she prepared to buy a house. I was able to ferret out her unlisted phone number through friends at the phone company. One weekend when Arlene was in L.A. visiting Olga I picked up the phone and dialed Nancy;'s number. She wasn't particularly pleased to hear from me but agreed to meet for lunch.

We met at a Japanese restaurant in Berkeley and caught each other up on what had been happening in our lives for the past year or so. To my great surprise Nancy told me that she had discovered that she was pregnant, decided to keep the child and not tell me but had miscarried a few weeks later. She was now working at a phone company office in San Francisco. After lunch, she took me across town to show me the house she was buying, a two bedroom bungalow on Hearst Street in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood. Soon after that, I met Sara. Any romantic rekindling with Nancy would have to wait. As it turned out, it didn't have to wait long.

Doin' what he did best - shades, champagne and a sly smile, 1982  
After our drunken night together Steve's I saw Sara twice. Once the following week when I met her at the mall where she worked. She was wearing some kind of uniform and I remember thinking that she worked in the mall's theater. I don't know now whether that was fact or assumption. In the daylight - and sober - she looked every bit as beautiful as she had appeared to me the week before. She lived with her parents and they had somehow found out about me (she must have told them) and had, in her words "totally freaked out" and had forbidden her to have anything more to do with me. A month later - towards the end of October, I think - I saw her again and she seemed sad and distracted. We sat on a bench in the mall holding hands. She told me she loved me. We kissed and made plans to meet again in a few days. Then she disappeared. I would see her only one time after that, two years later at Steve's - a fraught encounter that posed more questions than it answered. It would be another 23 years before I would begin to understand what had happened.

But in November and December of 1982 all I knew was that I'd met a beautiful, funny and amazing girl who had simply vanished. Her phone number was disconnected. I couldn't go to her parents - they hated me. We had no mutual friends besides Steve and he didn't really know her. Steve's girlfriend, who had brought her into my life, turned out to be no help at all. She didn't even know where she lived. I realized that I knew next to nothing about this girl and, barring a miracle, I was never going to find her.

"That's What Happens to Love" is a song I tossed off almost immediately after writing "Rockin' and Rollin' in Heaven". I had no idea what had happened to my new girlfriend. Did she find someone else? It's a lighthearted song that's disguising my worry and despair. I recorded it quickly, playing acoustic guitar and singing, then overdubbing harmony and lead guitar.

D                                                              Em
The ticket-taker down at the theater well I know her
                                      G  
I used to know her in the biblical sense
                                     D
Now our relationship is past tense
                                                              Em
Her father caught us out on the local bus kissing
                                   G                     A
And he insisted in was morally wrong
                                      D
Now our relationship is all gone
G                  D                    G                        D
That's what happens to love - you see it every day
G               D                              G                     A  
That's what happens to love - it's always slippin' away - away
                   G             D     A        
Well it's the same old story again
       G        D              A
The same old story again
          G          D         A
It's the same old story again
G       D   A
What can I say?
       G         D              A
I let situations take my woman away
        G                   A            D                 GDA   GDA  GAD
I let situations take my woman away

Although I loved her she loved another - I was thinking
Thinking it really shouldn't matter to me
Now our relationship is his'try
I coulda had her - what does it matter now, I'm older
A little older now a slightly confused
Now our relationship is old news
That's what happens to love - you see it every day
That's what happens to love - it's always slippin' away - away
Well it's the same old story again
The same old story again
It's the same old story again
What can I say?
I let situations take my woman away
I let situations take my woman away


It's a simple song but I've always liked the wordplay - the way the lines circle back on themselves - and the sly references to religious morality in the first verse and the many different ways I use to say "it's over". A jaunty little pop song about the futility of love.

I'm calling her Sara White, but the truth is I don't really remember her name. I remember her wearing a uniform for her job at the mall but I don't remember - if I ever knew - what that job was. In the song I refer to her as a ticket taker but I don't know if I knew that or made it up. During the night we spent together we starting talking about how we were both light-skinned black people who were often mistaken for white - and ended up giving each other fake names. I was John White and she was my wife, Sara. I remember that but I can't remember her real name. Like I said, my recall is bit patchy.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Rockin' and Rollin' in Heaven




At the end of 1979 I was working at the Zellerbach Paper Company in South San Francisco on the office supplies order desk. I had parlayed my 2 years experience as delivery driver/store clerk at Kerry's Stationers into a more professional, higher paying job. I was commuting to work every day across the Bay Bridge with the gazillions of other nine-to-fivers, Arlene had landed a job in the loss prevention department at the headquarters of The Gap, which was in San Bruno - just a few minutes away from Zellerbach. We drove to and from work together in our red Volkswagen Beetle, "Little Keenie". We were living on McCauley street in Oakland in the same duplex we had lived in before.

We were working hard to promote Won Out to college and local radio stations while trying to get attention from the local media. I remember BAM magazine's headquarters was a block away from where we lived. I personally brought a copy over to them in hopes of getting a review. They wouldn't give me the time of day. Fuckers. Our efforts were greatly hindered by the fact that I had no desire to perform live. Still, we got encouraging responses from some stations - especially in the northeastern part of the country (for some reason). I was already thinking about the next album.

Now that we had a little more money, the first thing I did was buy my own 4-track machine: a new TEAC 3440-S. I had been greatly inspired by Greg's 2340 (which used smaller 7 1/2" reels) and wanted the freedom that multiple tracks would give me. I was determined to record the follow-up to Won Out on my own. Over the next 4 years I managed to record enough material for several albums, but the two that I completed were FSGBOC and Rodent to Rodent.


By the time I'd started to work at Zellerbach both Nancy and Malerie were no longer in my life. Malerie, who was always practical, simply started seeing someone else when it became apparent to her that our relationship was going nowhere. Nancy, realizing the same, had pulled one of the most amazing disappearing acts I'd ever witnessed. We'd had a disagreement of some kind and hadn't spoken to each other in a few months. In that time he sold her house, moved and transferred to another job in the phone company. I had no idea where she lived or worked. I decided it was time to move on. We would cross paths again in a few years with much more dramatic results.


Things start to get a little convoluted here, timeline-wise. FSGBOC was recorded from 1980 to 1983 but it dealt with a very specific situation that occurred in 1982 and had repercussions that effect me to this day...and not in a bad way. So, a little history:

In August of 1977 I was visiting Olga in L.A. where she was attending graduate school at UCLA. While Olga was in class I would putter around her apartment or "socialize" with her across-the-hall neighbor, another UCLA student named Carla. We were listening to the radio one morning when it was announced that "entertainer" Elvis Presley had passed away. I knew nothing about Elvis or the sad sordid details of his later life, so the announcement had little impact on me (Carla seemed to think that he had died in the 60's in a car crash). I didn't own a single Elvis record. That was due to change, but not for a few years.

Arlene and I used to frequent the local flea markets - the Ebay of the time - where I would look through the record bins. One Sunday in 1982 I picked up - for two dollars - the album From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee, my very first Elvis album. The cover featured the man himself in one of his famous white spangly jumpsuits and the back cover  had a list of the measly 10 songs on the record with a scrawled note from Elvis expressing his hope that you will enjoy his latest record. Well, I did enjoy it. In fact I found it to be one of the greatest records I had ever heard. I had no idea at the time that I had stumbled upon the music from his last sessions of his life - some of the starkest, most heartbreaking music anyone has ever produced. In my mind this album was every bit as good as Dylan's Blood On the Tracks and Neil Young's Tonight's the Night. There is nothing in Elvis's entire catalog that is remotely like this - and I know: over the next several years I bought nearly everything he released and most of it was crap.

While working at Zellerbach I met and fell madly in lust with a young lady named Dianne, who worked in the customer service department. She has the dubious distinction of being the person who introduced me to that most evil and insidious drug, cocaine, that would proceed to rule my life for the next 6 years. Dianne and I got involved at the end of 1980 and it lasted until the end of the following year. I wrote a lot a songs about her but, oddly enough, none made it onto any of my records. More about that later.

So, FSGBOC stands for From Sparky Grinstead Boulevard, Oakland, California and is my tribute to one of the greatest albums of all time. It's a concept piece (of course) dealing with lost love (what else?) - but this was a special kind of love and a special kind of lost.

My best friend at Zellerbach was a guy named Steve Hay. His desk was next to mine and we spent most of our work clowning around and having fun. Our supervisor, Jaylene, was greatly amused by us and pretty much let us do whet ever we wanted as long as we got our work done (of course that all changed after Jaylene and I were briefly involved) . Steve was a few years younger than me and was an aspiring songwriter and musician so we socialized frequently after work and on weekends. We wrote and recorded several songs together and he was slated to appear on an album, Go for the Juggler, that was, sadly, never completed. It was through Steve that I met the girl I'll call Sara White.

One Saturday night in late 1982 I was visiting Steve at his apartment when he decided to invite a young lady over for the evening, Since I was there he asked her to bring a friend (I remember him whispering into the phone: "He's black", making sure that his girlfriend brought an ethnically-appropriate partner for me. That friend turned out to be beautiful, half black, half Spanish and barely 18. I was 29. When she shook my hand and introduced  herself, I was completely smitten. We spent the evening together in Steve's spare bedroom, drinking, talking and finally making love. It was her first time. I called Arlene and told her I was too drunk to drive home.

When cocaine came into my life, things began to spiral out of control. After 2 years at Zellerbach had I moved to a local dealer, Litton Office Products, located in the same city. I was working at Litton, trying to forget Dianne (who had seriously broken my heart by refusing to be my mistress forever), when I encountered Sara. She was smart and talented, with a wicked sense of humor. Like me, she was Catholic but had a very cynical view of the Church. We spent much of that first (and only) night together laughing. I remember that she brought along a sketch pad and drew very detailed off-the-cuff portraits of herself,  me, Steve and Steve's girlfriend. She put cat ears on everyone. I loved her.

There was a LOT going on in the years 1980 through 1984. I will try my best to trace these threads of events, activities and relationships as I move through these songs. The fact that I was ingesting superhuman amounts of booze and drugs means that some of my recall is patchy.

"Rockin' and Rollin' in Heaven" leads off FSGBOC, but it was recorded in 1983, near the end of the sessions for the album. It is a recounting of the day in L.A. when I heard that Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, had passed away. I still perform this song with the Backorders - it's  good little rocker and a great way to kick off a set. A standard I-IV-V progression (though without the traditional turnaround on the V chord) in the style of some of Elvis' early hits like "Ready Teddy", "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and "Tutti Frutti". I recorded it in one sitting at the Family Compound, first singing and playing Young Neil and then overdubbing electric lead guitar. A simple yet very effective recording.

          E                
Well, I woke up this morning and I got out of bed
                                           E7  
Turned on the T.V. and the newsman said:
    A                                                     E
In Heaven, they're rockin' and rollin' in Heaven
                                     B
Didn't think God would let'em
                   A                          E
But they're rockin' and rollin' in Heaven

And I went in the kitchen and I fried up an egg
Hoping that man wasn't pullin' my leg
In Heaven, they're rockin' and rollin' in Heaven
You better get up and go get 'em
They're rockin' and rollin' in Heaven

And I called up my lawyer and I said: "Is it true?"
And she said: "Boy you better start believin' it, too
In Heaven. they're rockin' and rollin' in Heaven
They're down at the 7-11
They're rockin' and rollin' in Heaven"

I'm gonna get out of town, get out of state
I'm gonna get out of debt so get out of my way
I'm going to Heaven, I'll be rockin' and rollin' in Heaven
If somebody asks just tell 'em
That I'm rockin' and rollin' in Heaven

Many people looked at the title of this song and assumed that it was Christian Rock!

This picture was going to be the insert for the FSGBOC LP to cement the connection to the Elvis album. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Another Patron Saint




Steve, Peter and an unidentified female
Greg Reznick showed up one day in January of '79 with a TEAC 2340 4-track reel-to-reel. This song was the first thing we recorded with his new toy. At this point, Won Out was pretty much "in the can" (for that matter, so was Le Bonx) but I remember wanting very much for this song to be on the album. I had written and recorded a song called "Patron Saint" during the first series of Won Out sessions but I was unhappy with the lyrics so it didn't make the album. This song was originally called "Mary" after a young lady with whom I'd had a brief and very unfortunate fling (the less said about her the better - suffice it to say most of my friends had sisters and I had most of my friends' sisters). In fact, if you change the first line of every chorus to "I still miss Mary" you can see how the song originally went. The reason it was ultimately not on the album was because the chord pattern was very similar to "Everything They Say" - and, more definitively, Greg had the master tape and I didn't see him again for about 25 years! The song - in the original mix, no less - is now a hidden track on the most recent digital version of Won Out. Since the phrase "patron saint" was repeated in the lyrics it seemed to make poetic sense to change the title once I had removed the "Mary" references.

The song had been sitting around for a few years - I thought it had promise but I'd never been happy with the lyrics (and certainly Arlene didn't appreciate them!). It didn't come together until Olga and Greg broke up and I offhandedly and very unintentionally reworked it into a requiem for their relationship. Greg was my "guitar" best friend, a guy I could always share musical ideas with and often knew my songs better than I did. I was really quite miffed when he and my sister parted company, hence the faintly mocking tone of the lyrics. I still perform this song occasionally with the Backorders.

C                                         F
She had dreams that couldn't wait
C                                       F
She bought them the going rate
C                                           F
Kissed me in the hallway after class
C                                               F
A subject that I couldn't hope to pass
Dm           G              F                 C                       G
She really scared me - at once my child and patron saint
Dm             G              F                  C                          G
She really scared me - covering  my world like so much paint

I loved her as a bit more than a friend
I thought we'd be married in the end
She left me without warning one July
And I didn't have the sense enough to cry
She wouldn't share me - summer's almost gone and winter's near
She wouldn't share me - what would I be like if she was here

I knew I'd go on living anyway
I heard she'd gone to college in L.A.
I wrote her but she never did reply
And I didn't have the sense to wonder why
Now I smile so rarely and the years go rolling like a time machine
I smile so rarely - I guess I never made it past eighteen



"Guitar" best friends, reunited, doing what they do best: sitting around playing guitars.
Later that year I recorded the song again with Rick Johnson on drums and Arlene on Fender Rhodes. I've always wished I could combine those two recordings a la "Strawberry Fields Forever". If I ever find a tape of that second version version I will post it here! Arlene turned in a brilliant solo and Rick (for once) didn't overplay.

Back when Emeryville was a factory town the Sherwin-Williams paint company had a plant there. They had a neon sign with their motto: "Cover the World" (or was it Earth?) under the fantastic multicolored image of a neon Earth being slowly covered by a tidal wave of neon paint. It was taken down when the plant closed in the early 70's (Emeryville went from a dirty sooty little industry town to a gleaming hipster hub of condos, upscale shopping and overpriced chain restaurants over the course of about 2 decades) but  it was certainly on my mind when I wrote the line "covering my world like so much paint". I'm not sure how much of the original lyrics survived because the song went through several revisions over the years. I believe the first verse was always the same. I began writing it after Steve Hanamura had convinced me to start paying more attention to my lyrics and writing more serious - and less poppy - songs. It was written in what I call my "folky" style, with a capo on the second fret. Steve's influence caused me to become very self-conscious about my lyrics. It took me years to get over that.
Some of Greg's guitars . "Mothership" is 2nd from right.

Greg was playing his Martin D-28 - the "Mothership" - which he still owns today. I played my Martin D-35-S - "Young Neil" - which I still own. Both Greg and I have gone on to amass large guitar collections but these two remain our most prized instruments.

"Another Patron Saint" is available via download at bandcamp.com as part of the Won Out album.