An Historical Review by Himself
A curious fact of my literary life is that, though the bulk of my writings over the last 38 years is in the form of songs, and though, as entertainment columnist for the Phuket Gazette and other local publications, I wrote a great deal about music and musicians, I never wrote of my own music. In so far as no one else is capable of, or interested in, undertaking such a task, herein shall I make an attempt.
My first try at songwriting occurred when I was aged nine years. I lived then with my great aunt, Harriet, in Monrovia, California, and was thick with another boy on the street, Greg Rentschler. We were both wannabe musicians but came not from musical families and had nor idea nor means of actually playing any but what’s now called ‘air guitar’.
Nonetheless, one day, getting together, we decided to form a group with another boy in the area — I don’t recall who — and tried to practise. The Beatles were big then, it was 1965, so we knew success could come only by composing.
Most anyone can hum or whistle or sing ‘doo doo doo’, but I can assure readers it is damned hard to come up with a good tune thereby, especially sans musical training.
We tried, however: I made up a song, including melody, verse and chorus. It had something to do with ‘gentlemen stepping out’, if I recall aright, and sounded a little like ‘When the Saints Come Marching Home’.
We did it.
It was terrible. We couldn’t sing harmony, couldn’t find the tune, the other boys couldn’t remember the lyrics, and those derivative and meaningless.
So our group dissolved, after a few days, in frustration. Greg early admired the Rolling Stones’ music, and as a teenager played bass in a group inspired by Grand Funk Railroad — a band I thought ridiculous.
He learned to play, but I didn’t till much later. The guitar seemed incomprehensible, likewise the piano. Guitar fingering was painful to the novice; piano was a blur of fingers tapping the keyboard — how did they know where to go?
As a small child in Venice, California, my family was much impressed, and I too, by my mother’s ability on piano. They had bought her a spinet upright and she took lessons.
But she never got past simply reading and playing sheet music, couldn’t listen to a tune and find the chords, and after graduating from high school (aged 16, my mom was a prodigy), she left it idle with my great grandmother, at whose house I lived. I banged on the keys a lot, dismaying others in the house, when four or five years old. I didn’t comprehend intervals, and the trick of 1-3-5 chord harmony, till in my 20s.
From time to time people showed me chord fingerings. I didn’t get the hang of it till, aged 13, I learned ‘G’, ‘A’, ‘A minor’, ‘C’, ‘D’, ‘D minor’, ‘E’, ‘E minor’, and ‘F’ at my friend Paul MacTaggart’s house on the hill above La Costa beach in Malibu; he also showed me ‘bar’ chords, which, as he explained it, was what the pros used when playing.
Paul came from a musical family. Both his father and elder brother were fine musicians, on a variety of instruments. They set up a practice studio in the garage. Paul, the youngest, was drummer.
He was a great musician, brilliant I thought, and the leading guy in band at Malibu Park Junior High, where we went to school. He introduced me to the Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and blue-eyed blues classics such as ‘Super Session’.
I didn’t care for them much. My inspiration was the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Donovan, The Turtles and such — real songwriters not genre players. I later grew to like blues a lot, especially Cream, but never got out of my head that to progress one must observe the Beatles, who did all, and all their own. Though occasionally lapsing into genre on the early records (‘Roll Over Beethoven’), that’s certainly not what they’re remembered for.
Cream is remembered now mostly for bringing jazz-style improvisation to rock, which forms a genre. Who now plays music from the Cream?
My thinking on music veered in a radically new direction after getting to know two bands, King Crimson and Soft Machine. They served as a sort of epiphany in my musical understanding.
I was introduced to those groups by my closest friend in Malibu during my teenage years, Jimmy Evans (originally surnamed ‘Cooper’). He got into underground stuff early. All the hippy paraphernalia, dope, tie-dyes, Acid, the LA Free Press, strobe lights, colour organs, organic foods, psychedelic posters — you name it, he, his father Don, and his sister Georgie (originally ‘Ann’, this family had a curious penchant for changing names) were into it.
He had ‘Trout Mask Replica’ by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, the Mothers of Invention ‘We’re Only in it for the Money’, Country Joe and the Fish and many more albums of seminal weirdness. Jimmy joined a record club, which he never paid, that sent him albums through the mail while dunning him with increasingly threatening bills.
One album he received was Soft Machine’s Third. I hated it. He bought an 8-track tape of King Crimson’s first album, In the Court of the Crimson King, I liked that a bit better, and bought their next record, ‘In the Wake of Poseidon’.
But the watershed event was release of ‘Lark’s Tongues in Aspic’: it was horrible, maddening, in fact, all the tunefulness the band occasionally achieved in their first records they abandoned with that. It was 1973. Jimmy listened to it over and over, and I was always at his house. “Can’t we listen to something else,” I exclaimed one afternoon. I pointed to a row of some hundreds of albums: “You have a lot of records, surely there’s something worth listening to!”
“Go ahead,” he said, gesturing expansively, “put on whatever you like.”
I put on the Turtles: it sounded dead. The Beatles — dead. The Cream — dead. The Doors — dead. Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ — dead. Everything had lost its flavour. I suddenly realized my understanding was become quite perverted. In trying to focus on the queer rhythms, melodies and harmonies of King Crimson, I lost my taste for all that went before.
So I thought to myself, “If that’s the case, then perchance what I hated then I’ll like now, or at least be able to listen to,” for in fact I wasn’t yet charmed by Crimson, just perverted by them.
But I was right: I found I could listen then to music formerly a turn-off.
One day I put on Third by Soft Machine, which neither Jimmy nor I had really listened to much since it arrived in the mail: I suddenly saw it was brilliant, completely different from Crimson, but just as far out — a jazz record by a band till then thought of as rock (the group had toured with Hendrix on his first US tour, which is why their record was released there).
That led me into jazz, where I remained until starting seriously to play when I was 23.
I had got a flute, and could read music owing to some training in 6th grade on recorder. But flute is a frustrating instrument lacking an accompanist.
My friend Pat Moser used to leave his nylon string guitar around the house of another friend, Peter Colby, who lived in the garage of his parents’ home on Malibu Rd. I still remembered the chords I learned hanging out with Paul MacTaggart, and found myself constantly playing Pat’s guitar. I got past the painful fingertips, and began to see logic in the instrument’s peculiar arrangement.
My eyes were opened: I could find pleasing harmonies on an instrument for the first time.
So I spent 30 bucks on a new nylon string no-name guitar. The neck was a little too fat and not really in tune all the way up — but it was good enough for me. I used it several years before getting into electrics.
The first thing I did was to sit down and write a song. My friend Mark Lanzarotta had a band with his brother, Matt. They had written several really good songs. It was 1978, punk and new wave were ascendant. The B-52s and wacky lyrics were all the rage. Matt and Mark’s band did such songs as ‘Ped-Xing, Don’t Cross that Line!’ and ‘(Let’s Go) Surfing in Red China’; the latter really wonderful, really catchy.
I thought, “If they can do it, I can do it.” So I wrote ‘Jesus is My Hero’, my first song and a sardonic take on religion (natural, you know, for good Catholic boys). It was terrible: D-A-E repeated throughout with sophomoric lyrics:
“Oh, Jesus is my hero,
He’s a legend not a zero.”
Mark L liked it, however, and provided a chord change for the chorus, D-G-A, which he borrowed from ‘Surfing in Red China’. I liked it better with Mark’s chord change, but it still sounded uninspired, like my first tune when I was 9. So I set about writing another song (and never really finished ‘Jesus is My Hero’ till two years ago. That was recorded last December, with a new bridge, added lyrics, and Mark’s chorus. It’s one of the best things I ever did).
When you set out as songwriter it’s quite natural to record your compositions, especially when no one else pays them heed. I had a small ghetto blaster with built-in mic, but that wasn’t satisfactory as I wanted to multi-track. So I got another little cassette recorder. I was living then in a small travel trailer — 13 feet long inside — up Corral Canyon in Malibu. Mark, Michael Dimich (a splendid writer, composer, guitarist and vocalist — the best in our set) and other friends crowded in to record several times weekly.
We drove the neighbours crazy: one night I went out to take a whiz only to see my very middle-class, paunchy-businessman next-door neighbour scrambling up the dirt embankment to where my trailer sat, hurling insults and epithets as he came. He was obviously beside himself.
I guessed why and magnanimously offered to reduce our riot. That was enough; he slid away down the hill.
Recording with ghetto blasters on cheap acoustic guitars was also less-than-satisfactory: in bouncing tracks, especially, much brightness is lost; the sound is thin. I dreamed of recording on a reel-to-reel professional deck.
As it happened, an acquaintance had bought the latest Teac model 3440. His name was John, and he was a computer nerd — cross-eyed with thick spectacles and half-a-dozen pens in his shirt pocket protected by a vinyl liner.
John had not enjoyed high school. Other students mocked him. So he stayed home. His father worked in technology, and had a phone modem at home with which he connected to mainframe servers at work. John knew the key, and with few other friends to talk to, began communicating with the computer.
In those days — pre-DOS, mind you — not many programmes were standarised. To do anything with a computer besides run it one had to write programmes. John learned quickly, became an adept, was contacted by the US Department of Defense, and wrote programmes for firing ballistic missiles.
Overnight he grew well-to-do, though never graduating from high school. He got an American Express Gold Card (before Platinum cards were introduced) and bought expensive stereo equipment, including the aforementioned Teac. It cost $2,000 — a month’s income for middle class folks then — and was a real gem.
But not for him: he wasn’t a musician, recorded music was no longer released on reels, which are anyway cumbersome to use. So he didn’t use his deck.
Seeing me multi-track by turning on one deck and playing along on guitar or singing while miked to another cassette deck made him laugh. “You know, I have something you need,” he said. “Why don’t you come over and try it out?” A mutual friend, Steve Finn, who had introduced us, urged that I really should.
So I went over with my acoustic nylon string. For drums I snapped my fingers and hit my knees; for bass I used the guitar’s bass strings. I sang and did back-ups on the deck’s four tracks, bouncing twice on to quarter-inch tape. I thought it sounded wonderful.
John told me to take it home, but I said I didn’t want responsibility for such an expensive item. He said he didn’t care, but I demurred. Then, about a week later, all unannounced, he walked up my stairs with Steve helping him carry the Teac, put it on a table and said, “It’s yours.”
I allowed that, indeed, I loved the thing and had been dreaming of it since first using it. “Well, I never use it, and I’d rather someone who really wants it did.” That was too kind, I said, but I couldn’t accept. He said, “Pay me for it later.” I said, “I don’t make that kind of money.” The thing was brand new.
“How much can you pay?”
“How much do you want?” I asked.
I told him that was a ridiculous price. “Look, I really do want the thing, I’ve been wanting something like this for years, and you know I’ll use it. If you aren’t…”
“For what can I use it?” he interjected.
“Okay, how ’bout this: I’ll give you $550 if you’ll allow me some months to pay it off.”
“Sold,” he said, and my life was transformed.
At least that’s how I saw it. Others — not the musicians, of course — saw it merely as an expensive, icon-like curio. Even with the Teac, I got quality nowhere near as good as what we heard on radio. Getting a four-track deck doesn’t mean you’re getting into Abbey Road studios. But it’s a damn sight better than ping-ponging with ghetto blasters.
Though still a terrible player, I acquired more and more instruments and equipment, and later an 8-track Teac with built-in mixing board and auto-rewind. Whoosh! I thought I was in Heaven, but, in fact, it had many of the same drawbacks as my four-track, chiefly, it used 1/4 inch tape — too narrow for good fidelity multi-tracking.
A year or two after buying that I came to Thailand, leaving it and everything else in the US behind for good. I wasn’t able to do much recording thereafter — except occasionally in the studio at FM 89 radio where I worked — till last October, when I put the PuppyLinux Studio 4 operating system on my netbook computer.
This, though free, is better than any studio I ever used. It’s digital, obviously, so both loss-less and largely noiseless. I no longer resort to ping-ponging: I create new tracks as needed, with no limit on how many.
For a studio junkie such as I, it’s Nirvana. I used to gaze at 24-track decks in the pages of Recording magazine with the lust normal men reserve for Playboy.
Of course, it’s still less than perfect: much have I yet to learn, with regard both to the studio and to music (I was never one others admired as a musician — except those who wrote songs).
So my recordings still don’t sound as if from Abbey Road: one can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, as they say.
Be that as it may, my netbook studio is a wonderful tool. I record using Ardour, a professional studio programme, running through the Jack connection kit. For drums, I use Hydrogen’s drum machine programme, which is astonishingly flexible and multi-faceted; for keyboard sounds, ZynAddSubEfx.
Anyone would laugh to see my other equipment: this netbook came with a cheap microphone/earphone headset, for people wanting to use Skype and similar apps. I record everything using that mic. I have no speakers worthy of the name, so for playback I employ the ‘bud’ headphones from a Nokia cellphone — the tiny ones that hang inside the ear.
The sound is remarkably good; the voice sounds like my voice, the guitar like my guitar. Sounds are bright throughout the spectrum, and, what readers may find amazing, I am troubled by TOO MUCH bass and have frequent resort to notch filters, EQ and compressor plug-ins on Ardour.
But that’s okay — they work and are hassle-free.
My guitar is a nylon string Takamine; the neck is straight, the frets buzz-free; it plays like a dream. For keyboard, I use the computer’s QWERTY keyboard: I am too poor to afford a proper piano layout. So I don’t often make keyboard chords, using organ sounds to compensate.
C’est la vie.
Listeners will observe in the recordings frequent, and repeated, crowing of roosters, the roar of cicadas and chatter of mynahs — but, no, I didn’t record in a menagerie. I live, however, in a wooded area of southern Phuket, which lies in the tropics but eight degrees north latitude from the equator, without air conditioning. The windows are always open, so whatever sounds in the external environment necessarily makes itself felt on the recording. Mea culpa.
Since installing the studio, four or five months ago, I’ve recorded 50 of my songs, perhaps half written in the last year-and-half. Only a few people have ever heard them. I am perforce a reclusive musician, having ever resisted the urge to play standards and popular songs.
That, alas, is what nearly all musicians want to play — a preference I see as lazy-minded. Audiences, however, are all with them, and that, I suppose, is why we rarely hear anything that’s cuts new ground, and why ‘format radio’ has been so successful.
Works I wrote before last year have mostly not survived; only those few left in the hard memory of my brain. I write too many songs — some quite complex, lasting 15 minutes or more — for me to practice and retain all. So I have been a great keeper of notebooks and maker of recordings.
But that has not saved my compositions from oblivion, for Fate decreed otherwise. Recordings I made in California were lost to the storage locker management when I never returned to pick them up.
All my papers, and memorabilia of my youth, including lyrics and chord notations, were lost when my aunt’s house in Malibu burned down in 2010.
All I wrote here in Thailand, as well as everything else I owned — 25 years’ accumulation — my boss Chaowapong Mekarakkul, owner of the daily Siangtai newspaper, deprived me of in a fit of pique.
Bosses and the God of the Old Testament have much in common: both think they are Lord. My sin was in having failed instantly, when ordered, to remove a heavy industrial fan from one spot to another, a thing requiring no small amount of connecting and disconnecting computers, as well as furniture removal. When he blew up, I told him what I thought of him: humiliated at my insubordination, he called the police and said I attacked him. So, cherishing freedom and unwilling to rely on Thai justice, I fled. He kept my belongings out of spite, knowing how much I must miss my library. But that’s another story.
What remains, then, of my works, and here announced to posterity, is but a tiny portion of what I’ve done over the years. Fully uploaded, it nevertheless will amount to several hours listening for the intrepid. With luck, I’ll add to it.
Most songs were done in a single pass, meaning I didn’t spend time re-recording tracks to create finished works. Still, they have a charm, I think. I admit to being my own biggest fan, which doubtless strikes the reader as terrible conceit. Yet, if you are fair, or an artist yourself, you will confess any artist must needs focus mostly on his own work; how else does one create art?
So I listen to my tunes (rather than iTunes) when alone. I’ve heard quite enough, more than most people, I suppose, working on the radio for twelve years, going to pubs and associating with musicians — almost none of whom, by the bye, write music.
I know three songwriters in Phuket: one says he’s forgot all he ever wrote; another — a hit songwriter, no less, and musician of striking virtuosity and versatility — who’s composed nothing in the three years we’ve been acquainted; and a guy who visits from California, Ken Mineni. Ken reminds me somewhat of myself: he still writes and plays with enthusiasm, and his are good songs, too, every one.
What does my work sound like? Nothing like the Beatles, Soft Machine or King Crimson. Some have compared a song or two to one of Nick Cave’s or Leonard Cohen’s. But my oeuvre fits no genre as a whole that I recognise save that of popular song — which is rather broad.
I leave it to the musicologists, should any care, to define it more narrowly. Anyway, I trust that if anything readers peruse from among my essays and journalism on this page or elsewhere is found worthwhile, my songs too will have potential to excite interest and comment, even perhaps enlighten by their perspective.
I urge that, while listening to these songs for the first time, you read the lyrics. Many are accompanied by notes at the bottom which, together, comprise something like my autobiography.
Uncomfortable with a linear concept of time, of travelling from A to B through his life without pausing to interject an aside on G or H, Mark Twain tried to write his autobiography by clipping news items and then appending comments to them, thereby revealing his thinking and his life, albeit somewhat haphazardly.
I am doing the same here, but with song lyrics.
Twain, one of our greatest story-tellers, failed at his autobiography. I don’t compare myself to him, but if I can succeed where he himself thought he’d flopped…well, that’s something any Nobody might be proud of.
Moreover, I think poetry has ultimately more weight than news clippings. I turned to songwriting in earnest when young after realizing no other vehicle than popular song exists for poetry in metre and rhyme (if one expects to have an audience). It is nonetheless powerful in its influence: think what a different place the world would be had not Dylan turned his hand to folk songs three generations ago.
I don’t expect my lyrics to have anything approaching the influence of Dylan’s, they are too cynical and antagonistic towards popular trends to find many sympathizers. But whether they excite to love or to hate is no matter: I will be fulfilled if only they excite you to think.