As a budding young songwriter at the age of 14, I was influenced by dozens if not a hundred different artists, but none more than John Lennon and Paul McCartney, both collectively and separately, for wildly different reasons.
To put it bluntly, in the beginning I was a “John Guy” and the bias remains, but nowhere near as polarizing as in my youth. John sang the first Beatles song I ever heard, “Twist and Shout”, and wrote all my favorite songs including, “I Am the Walrus”, “In My Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” – a song which blows me away every time I hear it, 40 years and countless listens later. Paul wrote some unbelievable stuff, too. I like Paul a whole bunch.
But John never wrote a “Yesterday” he wrote “in My Life”. Paul never pulled off a “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, but he did write “Helter Skelter”. When it came to their solo careers, again, both guys made some incredible music, but I never owned a Paul solo record, or anything by Wings, until I was in my late-20s and going through a crazy vinyl phase. Ronnie Kwasman of Bob and Ron’s Record Club convinced me to get a copy of Paul’s first solo record, and I’m glad he did.
Sometimes it sounded like he was phoning it in; for instance, the song “Steel and Glass” from Walls and Bridges; and when you do a duet with Elton John (“Whatever Gets You Through the Night”), I think it’s reasonable for a fan to have questions. His cover album Rock & Roll is nice – I really like the Sam Cooke/Little Richard medley which includes “Send Me Some Lovin'” – but from personal experience, doing an album of covers usually means you’re running out of ideas. Meanwhile, Double Fantasy wasn’t that great, and it wasn’t until Lennon was murdered that the critics went back and changed their two-star ratings to four-stars across the board.
All that said, Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band is an eternal Top 10 record for me. [No. 4 on my all-time favorite albums list.] Some records are kind of a chore to get through – especially double albums. Great records always end too soon. That’s the way I feel about Plastic Ono Band.
To get back to the John vs. Paul debate, whereas “Yesterday” tugs wistfully at the heartstrings, I always thought “Imagine” was an infinitely sadder song. While I agree that the peace-to-the-world trope of “Imagine” may have been a bit of hippie propaganda, what lies beneath the surface is real and true. It is easy to imagine there’s no heaven. He was right. It is easy if you try. The tragedy of the song lies in its optimism, its potential of Utopia, which is never going to happen. It’s sad to imagine a different world. This is the one we’re stuck with.
To put it simply, Paul’s music was “too pop” for me to try and emulate as a beginning songwriter. It wasn’t until I was much older that I really began to appreciate what he was doing, but still, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is one of my least favorite songs in existence and if the A.V. Club ever called me to do a Hatesong, it would be one of the contenders. And those mid-80s collaborations with Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder? You don’t want to know what I think about that.
While I gravitated towards John’s lyrical imagery, I was repulsed by Paul’s sentimentality and storytelling. When I took into consideration that Paul’s “Penny Lane” – a beautiful song nonetheless – was a double A-side with “Strawberry Fields”, there was no question in my mind which direction to follow.
It was 1984 and I had only been writing songs for a year when I had a minor epiphany about lyrics, triggered by McCartney’s “Rocky Raccoon” from The Beatles (aka the White Album). That song became an example of what I didn’t want to write. You could throw “Ob-La-Di” in there as well. Simply put, I didn’t want to write songs that went: “Listen to my story about a man named Jed.”
That was campfire bullshit. “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt/That’s my name, too…” I wasn’t down with that, you know?
Furthermore, even though I dig a bunch of his jams and bow before his greatness, Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” was another classic example of the story-song – that I consciously tried to avoid. Arlo Guthrie and Alice’s Restaurant, for chrissakes. Shut up. As a budding songwriter, it was a major crossroad. And I learned an incredible lesson. The most important part of trying to write a John Lennon song is acknowledging that you will never write a John Lennon song.
While I have always admired certain songwriters who could tell stories in their lyrics, from start to finish—Dylan, Springsteen and even Tom Waits and Lou Reed to a certain extent—in the early stages of my development, I aligned myself more closely with guys like Jim Morrison and Robert Smith, whose lyrics relied more on imagery than a logical trajectory. Those dudes, whether they would have ever admitted it or not, wouldn’t have careers if not for John Lennon.
The further I got into punk and alternative rock, the more I realized that the lyrics could be secondary to the spirit of the song. The Sex Pistols?!?! “Good grief!” said Charlie Brown. I had zeros in common with the Sex Pistols but I was completely onboard with: “Fuck this and fuck that/Fuck it all fucking/Fucking brat!” Count. Me. In.
R.E.M. was also huge influence in that regard, and ironically, Michael Stipe has gone on record that he never really cared for the Beatles.
From the New York Times:
It surprised me to read that you say the Beatles were virtually of no importance as an influence. You actually compared them to elevator music.
Stipe: I still get death threats about it from Beatles fans. The point that I was trying to make was that I was three years too young for them. I grew up in an era where the Banana Splits, the Archies and the Monkees were the music that I listened to. The Beatles were the music that was playing in the background. By elevator music, I wasn’t being insulting. I’ve sat down with Yoko and Sean and Julian, and they joked with me about elevator music, and I turned bright red and they said, “It’s O.K., we understand.”
I’ve heard it said several times, and for the most part it’s true: Lyrics don’t always read well. That’s OK. They make sense when you’re listening to the song. It took a long time before I understood this, and began to forgive bands who didn’t include a lyric sheet with the record. They were actually doing us both a favor. I’ve seen the lyrics to R.E.M.’s Murmur.
It was also circa 1985-86 that I entered a poetry competition at UW-Whitewater and won an honorable mention. Poetry. Enough said.
In the end, Robert Smith was my main lyrical influence during those formative years. Many of my earliest songs were attempts to write a song from The Cure’s Pornography (1982). The band’s next two records, The Top and The Head on the Door, were equally impressive.
Frankly, I’m always happy and excited when somebody asks about my work, but it rarely happens. So rather than wait for people to ask, I just go ahead and tell them. That’s what this right here is all about. And then, someone asked. That’s actually quite a nice feeling. Thanks, Robert Schramm. To be fair, Bob and I go back to high school and we’ve been having an on-going musical discussion for a while. Among his musical endeavors are a folk-blues band in Germany, Bobby and the Brawlers, and you can check them out on Reverbnation, too.
Bob’s Question: “I’m curious as to why you were interested in or willing to do the direct lift of lyrics from other songs/movies.”
The Too Long; Didn’t Read Answer: Writer’s block, Bob.
The Underlying Truth: Stealing from our predecessors is one of the core principles of rock and roll music.
The Contrary Position: Nobody would have noticed if I hadn’t pointed it out.
It has only been the last six years that I have been getting paid to write anything. It just so happens to be words. That’s been a positive development, but it’s a job now. Obviously, I still love writing whether I get paid or not, but just a little bit of the fun as been sucked out of the experience, mainly because nowadays I write a lot of stuff I couldn’t care less about. That’s the nature of the game.
They say there are two sides of the brain, right? And each side has domain over certain skills and whatnot. For me, doing this kind of detailed writing – blogging, essays, stories, etc – uses one side of my brain. Music uses the other side of my brain. My brain hemispheres are divided: Words/Music: Concrete/Abstract. Meanwhile, it’s the same for writing prose versus lyrics. Each activity or discipline is dominated by its parent hemisphere. Some people can turn them on and off like a switch, but I can’t.
I’ve had to learn this the hard way. Unless I’m disciplined, everything is too scattered to make sense. In my creative life, it’s a very definite choice: Pick one side, give it 100% focus, finish it, and move on to something else – which is exactly what I’ve done with In the Spirit of Almost. That’s my artistic m.o.
From 2008-2012, for the most part I was removed entirely from music, and I concentrated on publishing my written work. That means I hadn’t written a song since – eh – call it late 2007. While one of the first things I did upon arrival in Taipei is buy a cheap-ass beater guitar, I rarely even tuned it up, never played it, and wound up giving it to my photographer friend, Ian Kuo. In 2010, I returned from a trip to the U.S. with my 12-string and some other gear in tow – all of which was used to record In the Spirit – but it was sort of a “just in case” decision; there was no plan to get back into music, let alone Aztec Hearts.
Long before my wife gave birth to our son, she wanted to know what I was going to tell the kid about my life. Would I encourage or discourage him to pursue music(?) – a lot of questions along those lines. It forced me to consider my past and to a certain degree my legacy, which however slight, has a profile. When I felt like I was ready to start making music again, it took a while before I could even pick up the guitar. Unlike a lot of other things I write about, there was no moment like, “One day I just decided to…” There was a transformation.
Above all, I didn’t want my musical legacy to end with the second AH record, Bigger Brighter – I had to do something else, even if it was the last thing I ever did. A bookend on my career, I guess.
Beginning in early 2012, I went about re-learning how to play guitar, and played a show in June – my first public performance in six years!
Ten years ago, prior to embarking on the Aztec Hearts journey, I did a lot of writing but it was strictly for utility or pleasure. Even with a degree in creative writing, there didn’t seem to be a career in it, unless I wanted to teach creative writing, and I didn’t. In those days, a big chunk of the songwriting process took place in the practice space. I would come up with the jams at home, but we would flesh them out in practice.
At the same time, I could freely improvise a melody over whatever riff we were working on. I got a ton of melodic and lyrical ideas from spitting them out on the fly in practice. Then I’d go home and write them down.
Technically speaking, Aztec Hearts has never had a practice. When I started making the first record, I didn’t wait to record a song until the lyrics were finished; I just tracked whatever I heard and said, “Eh, I’ll come back to the words later.” That worked out pretty well the first time, since I was still tuned in to the whole lyric-writing mode. But it got sketchy on the second record because I had fallen out of practice. I had been ignoring the Golden Rule: Write Everyday. In fact, the songs that got ditched were the ones I couldn’t come up with any words. At the same time, I developed a different routine which is still in place.
Have you ever told a story, or remember having told a story, but go back and find no evidence of telling it? For instance, I have a very persistent memory of telling this story in writing and in person, on several different occasions. My friend(s) have no recollection of the tale, and no such document exists. It’s entirely possible that I told the story at the end of a long night of drinking, and my friend simply doesn’t remember. It’s also very possible that I wrote the story, but trashed it somewhere along the way. The latter is much less likely, since I tend to save everything and trash only the absolutely nonessential stuff.
The point isn’t that I’m irritated to be recounting a story I swear I’ve already told.
On this one particular evening came on the heels of several unproductive sessions in a row. Somewhat of a consequence of my environment and circumstance, I’d fallen into a solid routine of writing and recording between 6:30 and 10:30 p.m. or until the first bottle of wine was drained—whichever came first.
Three hours was generally the line in the sand; anything after that was usually a bad idea, both lyrically and technically; like driving, drinking and digital recording are incompatible. Anyway, generally speaking, after work I’d turn on the machine, let it get rolling, check the levels, and listen back to what had been done the night before. The wine didn’t get opened until everything had passed a double idiot inspection.
The song was “Ain’t No Man of the World” and the vocals from previous session were so bad that I took the rare liberty of deleting them after the first pass. They were so terrible that they needed to be eradicated right then and there. And that was the moment of impact when I’d finally hit the wall. The desperation kicked in. What am I going to do?
Before I began working on lyrics, I did a full sweep of my writing catalog dating back to 2002. For every song or story published, there are a dozen that never saw the light of day. The search compiled approximately 32 pages of unused material, which I then printed out and used as “scat sheets”, wherein I would play the backing tracks and sing-speak random lyrics to see if they fit.
When I found a line or a melody that worked, I’d write that down on a separate sheet and use it as an anchor. It didn’t matter if it was part of a verse or a chorus; the lyric was just a point of reference, like a point of perspective for a painter. Having used this process many times in the past, it’s been an effective way for me to fight through writer’s block.
Not this time. The writer’s block kicked into overdrive, and it got so bad that I found I couldn’t even plagiarize myself. And it occurred to me that one of the problems was the “cheat sheets” themselves. There was a good reason why most of those lyrics had never been used—they were crap; mainly written during periods of heavy substance abuse, and man, it showed. Time and time again, I’d sit there and think, “What the fuck is this? What am I even talking about?”
Gathering the cheat sheets scattered around the room, I decamped to the balcony and set-up a little station with the wine, an ashtray, and stool. The burning of ghost money is ubiquitous in Taiwan, so just about everybody has one of these red urns somewhere in their crib. For the next hour, I sat there are burned the cheat sheets one by one, so as to minimize the smoke. I suppose I could have just tossed them all in at once, splashed some oil and lit a match, but that would have caused a big stink, someone would have complained, and I would have heard it about in the morning, for sure.
But it was kind of nice. I’d read each sheet one last time, curse myself, spark the lighter, and toss it in the urn. For once, I kind of understood the ritual.
Many of my lyrics tend to jump from one image to the next, sometimes without relative context. That’s really not how I think and it’s definitely not how I normally write, but that’s how I write lyrics. Another problem with lyrics is that I don’t have that much to say, particularly in the realm of things better said in a song. When I was young and full of myself, I actually believed that I had SOMETHING TO SAY. I truly believed that I had something that EVERYONE NEEDED TO HEAR.
As you write more songs and begin to hone your skills, stringing lyrics together becomes second nature. You figure out how to construct verses, choruses, bridges, intros, outros… Once you’ve developed a personal template, it eliminates a lot of static noise in the background. At the height of my songwriting prowess, 1990-1999, writing lyrics was just as easy as coming up with guitar riffs. And then, a confluence of events threw me off balance, destroyed my template. It was just like starting over. [Extra credit to anyone who catches that reference.]
So this night I’m working on “Ain’t No Man of the World” and following the burning ritual, still nothing was happening. Good grief! Looking for something I’d written a few days earlier, I began shuffling through the sheets on the music stand, and I came across the lyrics for “Beautiful Girls” by Van Halen – my all-time favorite song – which I’d recently been goofing around with. It was one of those songs that I really enjoyed playing in private, but wouldn’t dream of playing in public.
Anyway, that’s when I had a light bulb moment. Why not just sing these lyrics over the song and see if you come up with any melodic ideas? If something sticks, I could simply rewrite the words.
Much to my surprise, singing “Beautiful Girls” over the music to “Ain’t No Man” worked out pretty well. It wasn’t a perfect match, but it sounded pretty cool. Too bad David Lee Roth wrote the words and Van Halen owns the copyright. Anyway, the title comes from the chorus of “Beautiful Girls”:
Here I am
Ain’t no man of the world
All I need is [my] beautiful girl
To make a long story short, I wound up trying this method with a handful of other songs, notably “O Mercutio”, “Kung Fu Gringo”, “Face”, and “Right Now You’re Feeling Me”. This was a turning point. Once I got a line or a melody going, everything went a lot smoother, and I felt like I was back up on the lyric writing bicycle.
For the most part, the process was totally random. I poached everything. One of my favorite instances was singing “Born to Run” over “O Mercutio” – I should have kept the original of that. It was funny.
Kansas, U2, Led Zeppelin, Barney (“The Airplane Song”), The Beach Boys, Henry Miller Sextet, The Cure, The Glove, Bob Dylan, Van Halen, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Mike Post (“Theme from the Greatest American Hero”), R.E.M., Frank Sinatra, The Eagles, Evita (“Don’t Cry for Me (Argentina)”, and The Beatles were just a few of the artists that I used during the process.
In all honesty, I am one of the worst lead singers in the history of time. I don’t want to be singing these songs, I’m sorry. Being a lead singer just happened by default. Back in 1984-85, I wrote this song called “I’d Like to Be” and somebody had to sing it. I was 16 at the time and had no idea I would be doing this 30 years later. Over the years, I have prodded and cajoled my band mates into at least discussing the prospect of finding a real lead singer, but they have steadfastly refused. “No way,” they’ve said, “you’ve gotta do it.” If you’re reading this fellas – and you know who you are – just imagine me playfully punching you in the throat right now.
Ain’t No Man of the World
Given its sheer volume, next to gravity, the ocean is probably the single most powerful force on the planet. Even though we’ve given names to certain areas, it’s easy to forget that it’s all just one ocean.
From being born and growing up near Lake Michigan, to living in San Francisco, and now an island in S.E. Asia, my entire life has been spent near large bodies of water – for the last 15 years, the Pacific Ocean. It has had a direct and major influence on my life, which manifests in some strange ways.
In between the recording of the first two Aztec Hearts albums, my friend and band mate Chris Lanier encouraged me to try surfing. Before you think, “Wow, yeah of course, why not?” remember that I was in San Francisco and the water temperature out at Ocean Beach is generally between 52-57ºF. That’s super cold. In fact, it’s so cold that Bay Area surfers almost as a rule wear 4/3mm wetsuits, and some even go with the hooded wetsuits and booties. I know I did. [For reference, the thickest wetsuit made is 6/5mm, and used for diving in Arctic conditions.]
Furthermore, bear in mind that cold water is denser than warm water. For example, water at 55ºF has a density of 0.9994 g/cm³, while water at 65 degrees has a density of 0.9973 – which might not sound like a lot of weight until you put it in a much larger perspective. A cubic foot of water at 50ºF weighs nearly three pounds less than water at its boiling point; and about a pound less than water at 100ºF, which is just below the average temp for a shower.
Meanwhile, water does something really strange around the 39ºF point – it starts to become less dense. An ice cube at or below 32ºF is less dense because it has changed from a liquid to a solid, and its molecules have formed a different pattern. Thus, ice floats because it is slightly less dense than the surrounding water.
tl;dr: Cold water is way heavier than warm water.
“Hey, the surf report says it’s going to be head-high out there [at Ocean Beach]. You in?”
Head-high means the height of the wave was just above shoulder level. The surf report wave height indicators included waist-high, shoulder-high, head-high, and over-head.
The previous night was a typical mix of booze and drugs that went until 3:30 a.m. Technically, I was still drunk, but the dope had long worn off. In other words, I should have stayed in bed, but being a newbie, I was plagued by an eagerness to learn. This would be my fifth time “in the water.” The sun was shining, so I counted myself in.
A big part of surfing is learning the terminology that goes along with it. Waves, conditions and behaviors all have unique names, and until you learned them, you might get lost in conversation with another surfer. For the most part I had all the terminology dialed in, but since I really hadn’t done a lot of “surfing” at this point, much of it didn’t apply to me. However, there were a couple of terms that I was more than familiar with. Let’s start with paddling out.
The paddle out at Ocean Beach was known for being unpleasant, especially for beginners, and is noteworthy for its strong currents and waves. The water is cold, due in part to a process known as upwelling, in which frigid water from below the ocean surface rises to replace the surface water that moves away from the beach as a result of the Coriolis effect. The rapid rip currents and cold water make the ocean dangerous for casual swimmers. Thank you, Wikipedia.
Imagine we are standing on the beach at the edge of the tide. The sand is wet beneath our feet, which are gently kissed by whitewater foam. With surfboards tucked under our arms, we begin wading out into the water. It is about 15-20 yards [this varies due to the tide, of course] before the water is waist-high and we encounter smaller waves or bigger waves breaking down, sometimes in multiple directions. Breaks are formed when waves gain enough height to have a Face. We are now using our surfboards to get over or through the waves. This is called Inside and generally defined as the area between the Impact Zone and the shore.
Another 25 yards of working against the tide and the waves, we are now in the Impact Zone, an area where waves are breaking the hardest and most consistent.
“Often when a surfer gets stuck in the Impact Zone, it is difficult to paddle out past the breaks.”
Conditions can be rough – even lethal – and this is where many surfers ditch their boards and dive under the wave. If you don’t get past the Impact Zone quickly, you will get washed back Inside – provided you don’t get caught in the Middle: the no man’s land between the Break and the Impact Zone; the one place you don’t want to be.
For explanation purposes, we’ve successfully made it through the Impact Zone and we’re Outside: farther from the shore than the area where most waves are breaking. This is where we want to be. There’s nothing but open ocean – and Hawaii – all the way to China. Here the water is calm, and we are now happily lying belly down on our boards, paddling toward the Line-up, where most of the waves are starting to break and where most surfers are positioned in order to catch a wave.
My first two paddle outs were failures and I never got past the Impact Zone. Third time was the charm. My fourth session was successful and I caught my first wave.
On the morning of the fifth session, the surf report may have under-estimated just a little bit. Conditions were over-head and bigger than I’d ever seen. At first, I expressed my doubts. Lanier shrugged and said, “Well, you don’t have to go out. Never know until you try.” So I put on the wetsuit and began the paddle out.
Lanier basically powered through the Impact Zone and was Outside before I even hit the water. The last time I saw him, he was already in the Line-up. As I slogged my way into the Impact Zone, I started to regret the decision. Basically, the worst thing that can possibly happen to you at Ocean Beach was now happening to me. I got caught in the Middle.
The waves generally came in sets of three. Outside, you could see them come rolling in from a fairly good distance. Inside, you hardly saw anything at all, mainly because you were underwater most of the time. It really was like being trapped in a giant washing machine. After ten minutes of trying to punch my way through the Impact Zone, I changed my course and headed back toward shore. I was exhausted.
The Middle doesn’t let you out – in either direction. The rip current is so strong that you might make a few yards toward shore, only to have it suck you right back in. You do that for 20 minutes and unless you’re in top physical condition, you’re going to have problems. And even though I was in fairly decent condition, I was no match for the ocean that morning.
There were a few occasions where I got hammered by incoming waves and didn’t know which way was up. There were more than a few occasions where I was underwater so long that my life flashed before my eyes. At one point, unable to corral my surfboard – thankfully, still leashed to my ankle – figured, well, this is it. This is how I die. Surfing. Or rather, not surfing. Drowning.
Lanier told me later that he saw me go Inside and didn’t see me come out, so he figured I had given up and had beached myself like the previous times. And there was nothing he could have done anyway. You’re on your own Inside.
Finally, I managed to get out of the most violent part of Middle and maintain possession of my board long enough to spit up all the water I’d swallowed into my lungs. My limbs might as well have been frozen. Hanging on with every last strand of life, I didn’t pray or anything, but I was hoping to God that another huge set wasn’t going to send me to a watery grave. I just held on to the board and relaxed on impact. The waves just kept coming and I remember thinking that drowning at Ocean Beach would be one of the dumbest ways a person could die, and that thought kept my fighting spirit alive.
The timeline shows that I was in the water for approximately an hour. Eventually, the tide pulled me south and away from the break. I emerged – literally crawling on all-fours at Lincoln Way, having entered the water at Balboa Street – about a 1/4 of a mile. The board was still leashed to my ankle and beached a few feet behind me. I was alive, barely.
I lay face down on the wet sand for a while. Every ounce of energy was spent. Every breath took effort. Now I faced the daunting task of walking – in a 4/3 wetsuit, carrying an 8′ longboard – a quarter-mile back to where Lanier’s car was parked.
Lanier and his local buddies were already at the car with towels around their waists when I finally came dragging up the beach another 45 minutes later. “What happened to you, man?”
In the following weeks, I went back in the water a few more times, but I was pretty much done with surfing. Eventually, I sold the boards and the wetsuit. In light of the experience, it didn’t teach me to respect the power of the water, because I already did. Like using drugs, the risks of Ocean Beach are inherent. From the near-drowning episode forward, whenever I went to the beach, I would feel and acknowledge the vast, uncaring forces within the ocean. The power is certainly unknowable – like the size of the universe – but by throwing yourself at its mercy, you certainly get a first-hand appreciation of how it could and would kill you in a heartbeat. That wasn’t a bad feeling, it was just a unique perception that I didn’t have before.
More than anything, I came away thinking that surfing would be fun if it weren’t so damn cold and dangerous. And besides, there’s a very short list of guys who’ve ever been killed while playing guitar.
Though I have said that I wouldn’t address the lyrics except to point out instances of cribbing from other songs – which I forgot to do on the last pair of tracks, c’est la vie – it wouldn’t be a breach of protocol to say that “Whales Count” is mainly about my relationship with the ocean as a metaphor for drug addiction. Meanwhile, I had originally presented this song to an acquaintance in Taipei because of a shared personal history with substance abuse. He agreed to write lyrics and sing on the track, but that never materialized.
Anyway, the recording of “Whales Count” was probably the least troublesome of all the tracks. Almost everything was first take except for the guitars in the bridge, which I fussed over for a couple of days. For what it’s worth, this is one of my favorite songs I’ve written over the last 10 years.