IL N'Y A PAS DE QUOI
Originally inspired by the title expression which my flamboyant wife Carol tosses off from time to time. It is virtually untranslatable literally, but colloquially it means "it's nothing," or as we might say, "no problem!" I thought it would make a good song.
The next problem is what to write about. This was back in March of 2004 and I was frustrated by the fact that John Kerry had all but locked up the Democratic nomination months before the Oregon primary. (I actually live across the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington, but spent most of my life in Portland.) I began to think about other meaningless or inane exercises which because of human or technical foibles strain our faith in the democratic process.
The choice of Zydeco for the musical style was a natural one because many Cajun songs are partly or entirely in French. This of course is no accident since the Cajuns were French Canadians who migrated to Louisiana. I had great fun listening to Buckwheat Zydeco, Beausoleil, Wayne Toups and others to get the feel of the music.
("Cajun" is a compression of "Acadian," and Acadia is the original name of Nova Scotia. When the French Acadians were evicted by the English in 1755 and migrated south, the area some of them settled in Louisiana became known as the Acadian Coast.)
This is my first bilingual song. Each of the French phrases in the chorus is immediately translated, abeit loosely. Il est tout sans souci literally means "It is all without concern," and C’est toute la même chose is "It's all the same thing". My actual French training is limited to 3 weeks of summer camp, so if I've gotten the idiom wrong, I'd be interested in hearing about it.
CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER
The songwriting process for many of these often becomes an amazing learning exercise and intellectual journey. "Clear And Present Danger," is perhaps the most remarkable example of this.
This song began with the lines, "He told me that his family name was Walker/He said he used to be a Texas Ranger...He told me that his middle name was Walker/He said he used to own the Texas Rangers," referring of course to fictional Cordell Walker and President George Walker Bush. I thought it was a cool coincidence and a great idea for a song. That the middle name of the unfortunate soul alluded to in the fourth and fifth verses* also happened to be Walker was an astonishing piece of serendipity and gives the song a marvelous symmetry.
*[John Walker Lindh] BBC America 1/24/02
As I said above, many of my songs have become wonderful learning exercises. The research for this song involved, for one thing, a survey of notorious prisons around the world as I strove to complete the line, "I met him in a cell in _____ prison." (The song could have ended up being set in Cambodia!)
The line came to me, "We'd recite The Prisoner Of Zenda word for word." A cute and apt reference, I hoped. As I researched the book and the movie (there are at least 3 versions) I was astonished to find that, fortuitously, the star of one of the versions gave me another rhyme with "ranger," a rhyme which I ended up carrying through the entire song.
There is a certain ambiguity, which I am loathe to resolve, about the political stance of the lyric as well as who the "he" of the song is. Is "he" one person or several? This was the subject of hot debate among my wife and school-age daughters as I wrote this song. Is the writer being literal or ironic? Remember that the narrator of the lyric is not necessarily the same person as the writer and does not necessarily share the same world-view. Steely Dan's Donald Fagen loves to pose as a beautiful loser ("What A Shame About Me," "Bad Sneakers," "Deacon Blues") but the guy himself is undoubtedly a millionaire.
In my research, I learned that ancient Babylon stood just a few miles from present-day Baghdad, and that Alexander the Great conquered it in 331 B.C. I tentatively had "While Basra girls walk miles to fill their gourds..." and had a bit of a challenge checking the accuracy of that. I was remembering the story of the water plant at Basra being knocked out in the early stages of the invasion of Iraq and the women having to walk to a well 3 miles out of town to fetch water. I finally found a story that reported the women and children were fetching water in old plastic milk jugs and gasoline cans.
I remembered the next-to-last line of the song, a reference of course to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic", after I had the song almost completely written, and the way the line scanned and fit seamlessly into the structure of the lyric, to say nothing of the wondrous irony with which it resonates with the rest of the song, was another remarkable piece of serendipity.
The theme that begins the long version is from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
THE BIG LIE
A bluegrass bassist gentleman came up to me once after an open mike and said, laconically, “I enjoyed your music. Your songs have a lot of words.”
This song began with an inquiry I undertook, as I am wont to do from time to time. (No one will ever accuse me of not possessing intellectual curiosity.) I was thinking about the rule “I before E except after C and sounding like ay as in neighbor and weigh.” I started to think of exceptions to the rule (and its exceptions) and kept coming up with more and more: weird, heist, heifer, foreign, and dozens of others. There are, in fact, whole web sites devoted to this question, believe it or not. I racked my brain and polled my friends. I kept coming up with more and more exceptions. At some point, I decided to include not only words with “ei” following a letter other than “c” and not rhyming with “ay”, but the converse exception—words in which “ie” follows “c”, of which there are at least as many as the first case.
By the time I finished writing the song, I had to write two choruses to accommodate all the exceptions I had found. (I’ve included almost all the exceptions in the first class that I was able to find. There are many, many other exceptions in the second class, words ending in “-cies”, “-cier”, “-cience”, etc., so I tried to include a representative sampling in the process of filling out the second chorus.)
Ultimately, not wishing just to write a Sesame Street song, I decided to give it a deeper meaning. It became a musing on the futility of believing everything you learned in school, either because the ideas were deficient in the first place (reflecting European ethnocentricity, for example), or because they have been overturned by the inexorable march of scientific progress. Be that as it may, my hope is that someday 5th graders all over the country will be singing this song as a mnemonic device.
Carol gave me the idea of ending the song by singing the two refrains in successively higher keys. Wraps it up very nicely, don’t you think? For awhile, I was doing this song as a medley with Little Feat’s “Rocket In My Pocket,” and the very beginning of the intro is a holdover from that song in homage to the Feat.
I AM WHAT YOU SEE
I spent 10 years working in the office of L’Arche Nehalem, a non-profit community devoted to making home with folks with developmental disabilities. The L’Arche model is a paragon of acceptance, forgiveness, embracing diversity and celebrating humanity. Being a part of the L’Arche family affected me very deeply, as it does almost everyone. I’d been there about 4 years when I was inspired to write a song about my experience. Carol and I went to Lincoln City, and I sat on the beach all day and wrote the lyric. It began with the germ of an idea expressed in the line “I am what you see in me.” I got a terrible sunburn on my face and arms—Carol called it “writer’s tan.”
The literary allusion in the first verse just came to me, and perfectly capsulizes the message I wanted to convey with the song. The line “A weed’s just a flower the lawn doesn’t need” was contributed by Carol. I spent a long time trying to find some corroboration of the word “muling,” meaning “being a drug mule.” I finally happened to hear the word used in an episode of “NYPD Blue.”
I have performed this song at many L’Arche gatherings and benefits since. I also had the privilege of singing it at the installation ceremony of my adult son as president of his chapter of his fraternal organization. I hope it will inspire more hearts to look at someone who’s different and see the handiwork of the same Creator who made them.
All proceeds from the dissemination, sales, and licensing of this song will be donated to L’Arche, a worldwide network of communities (L’Arche Nehalem is one of 16 in the United States) in which adults with developmental disabilities and other adults live together as a family, with all in the household participating as equal members according to their capacities and unique gifts.
THE JERK WHO RUNS THE OPEN MIKE AT LUCKYTOWN
This song is based on an incident which actually happened to me. I had played an open mike at a bar in Vancouver whose name has been changed to protect the, well, anal retentive. The next week, the announcement in Craig’s List referred to a new list of rules for the open mike. As I read the new rules, I thought, “Am I paranoid, or are these rules directed at me?” The emcee acknowledged that they were indeed. My songs had supposedly triggered a (his phrase) “perfect storm” of controversy, prompting some patrons to get depressed and others to turn around and walk out. (Really?...)
The song lyric is drawn, with very little embellishment, directly from the new rules, the email debate that swirled around them, and the subsequent revisions as the emcee, under pressure from the club owners, strained (with laughable futility) to make the rules sound reasonable in and of themselves and not directed at a particular person. The songs which inspired this tempest in a teapot were, as near as I can figure, “Clear And Present Danger,” “The Fog Of War,” and “Sometimes I Imagine Asking Joni,” all of which are included on my new album. While the experience gave me a great deal of consternation at the time, I determined ultimately to feel proud and inspired that my lyrics were able to grab people’s attention and provoke such a vigorous response. (Writing a song is a great way to make lemonade out of lemons. Also see “You Ain’t Playin’ In My Sandbox.”)
SOMETIMES I IMAGINE ASKING JONI
The music takes a great deal of inspiration from the work of Steely Dan, my idols, specifically “Negative Girl” from Two Against Nature. The chord progressions float around the tonic (the key of the piece) like a butterfly, without ever settling down. This song and “Cyber Pal” from my first album pay the most conscious homage to Steely Dan.
The lyric actually began with the fact that the songs “Amelia,” “Dr. Wu,” and “Silent All These Years,” inexplicably, actually do make me weepy even after repeated listenings. Joni Mitchell also happens to be one of my idols, for her lyrics. The music of Steely Dan and the lyrics of Joni Mitchell are the yardsticks against which I measure every one of my songs as I’m crafting them.
“Joni” returns to a subject I visited in “Only One God” on my first album: the long-term effects of childhood abuse. It is not strictly autobiographical, but it is drawn on personal first- and second-hand experience. Without going into too much detail, I will mention that I have had considerably more success at overcoming my problems in the long run, with the help of my Higher Power, than does the narrator of this lyric. I’m indebted to Tori Amos (“Silent All These Years”) and Susanne Vega (“Luka”) for preceding me into this territory. I have also dealt with these issues at considerable length in my poetry, which you can find on my web site dougwestberg.com . However, when I take up this sort of topic, especially in a song lyric, I feel obligated not to be too heavy-handed about it, and hope listeners will enjoy the irony, self-deprecating humor, and 70s/80s song references.
YOU’RE IN THE PALM OF MY HAND
More prescient with every passing day. With GPS, Internet, and cellular technology, there’s no privacy anymore. So I got to thinking, what if it could help my love life? How would that work? The result is one of my absolute fan favorites.
The phrase “We’ll be fartin’ through silk,” is from Carol, who got it from her dad years and years ago. Recently, I saw the phrase pop up in an episode of Roseanne.
The Myers-Briggs reference might be arcane to anybody not in the field of social work, but for those familiar with it, I’m actually an INFP.
The choice of ragtime seemed both an apt one for satire (ala Randy Newman) and an ironically inapt one for a song about technology.
MY TV’S MY ONE PRIDE AND JOY
Based on one of my poems, “The TV,” this song makes the perhaps ironic point that while television, to some, may be stultifying, isolating, and time-sucking, for some people (like me), having the TV on can stave off morbid thoughts and help you feel a little special in a world that can be overwhelmingly dehumanizing.
My intention was just to write a good ol’ country song, and while I don’t know if it was conscious when I was actually writing it, the finished product feels to me like something Tom Waits might have written. If you see that resemblance, I will consider it a high compliment.
THE FOG OF WAR
I wanted to write a “nah nah nah” song, ala “Hey Jude,” or Everclear’s “Wonderful”. I was deeply impressed by the Errol Morris film, “The Fog Of War,” and I was deeply troubled and needing to express myself about the handling of the country during the years 2000-2008. I presented the song to several people at the time but was never able to find a wider audience with it before the 2008 election. It remains a cautionary tale, and although there’s no question about what events are being talked about, I ultimately decided to gloss over some of the more specific details so that it reads more like a parable.
For the entire 2 or 3 years since I wrote this, I have agonized over how to end it. I wrote verse after verse, only to cut them again because they sounded too preachy. It was only in January of 2010 that I hit on the idea of ending the song by putting the experience of the Portland, Oregon, attorney who was jailed for the Madrid train bombing based on an incompetent fingerprint analysis into the first person. (In actuality, the attorney never ended up at Guantanamo, but he did have a frighteningly difficult time getting due process and clearing his name.)
I’M A CLONE
I have spent much of my 50-year protracted adolescence fighting deep feelings of insecurity. I noticed over the years that this insecurity sometimes manifested itself in a tendency to adopt the speech idioms and hobbies of people I’m close with.
Also, there’s a saying in the Program: “[Addicts/alcoholics] don’t have relationships. They take hostages.”
Randy Newman, another idol, is the master of the technique of satirizing a questionable assertion or philosophy by casting it in the first person and putting it in the mouth of an unreliable narrator.
YOU AIN’T PLAYIN’ IN MY SANDBOX
Some people just have to be the only expert or star in the room, even in the noblest of enterprises with supposedly the noblest of motives. People who compulsively sabotage or exclude others in order to puff themselves up are everywhere, even churches and non-profits, not just in Dilbert cartoons. The verses are all based on personal incidents: I have indeed been the victim of rockband politics, church politics, and board politics. Songwriting sure is a terrific way to exorcize one’s humiliations!
I recorded this song one year on my annual vacation, then pretty much forgot about it. When I started moving towards a more organic, piano-based sound, “Sandbox” got left behind. (Not because it didn’t lend itself to acoustic piano—it obviously does.) Then when I quit my job in 2009, one of my goals was to finish my second album. I surveyed the tracks sitting in my digital multitracker, which I had recorded over maybe 5 years, mostly on summer vacations. “Sandbox” was sitting in there, fully recorded, with a killer piano track and vocal overdubs, the works. It sounded awesome!
“Sandbox” was one of the few tracks for which I’ve had the patience to overdub harmony vocals, with great results. Moreover, I overdubbed myself in unison, to create a real-time chorus effect. The result is remarkable. Usually, I create a chorus effect by copying a vocal onto another track with a 1/24 sec. delay. (I once went to a seminar on home recording at the local music store and asked the teacher how professional recordings get that nice warm chorus effect on vocals. He told me they actually sing along with themselves, which surprised me. But you can really tell the difference on this recording.)