I wrote my first song in 1988 while living in a second floor apartment on North Allen Street in Albany, NY. I remember working out the song, "Suburbs of Paradise," in the screened porch on the second floor overlooking the busy street. Below, down half a block was a church. Both the traffic and the sound of the church choir on Sunday mornings appear in the song lyrics.
The music itself is fairly straightforward in terms of the use of basic chords, but the rhythm is a big eccentric with the regular 4/4 count being interrupted It is just the way it came out as I wrote it.
Although I have discarded many songs along the way, "Suburbs of Paradise" has held up over time and I continue to sing it.
I suppose in some respects it presages some of the musical elements and topical themes I have further explored in my music. The spirituality and pondering of class and aspirations in American society are there in this song, somewhat obliquely, and emerge in other ways in subsequent songs.
I had played music for years before writing a song and I am not sure looking back now what spurred it. I was already a father and a husband, and a college graduate trying to find my way to make a decent living without destroying who I am. I do know that once the floodgates were open, I continued to write, though it would be several years before I performed any of my original material in front of anyone.
Note that the songs are a bit rare in the late 1980s - that is because most of what I wrote in that period has not "made the cut" here. I was experimenting, and more often than not, the experiments fell short.
It's Written inYour Face
Unauthorized Autobiography is somewhat clever, an obvious play on the term "authorized autobiography." I think I was trying to get at the idea that each person's face is a living, visible record of everything that has happened in their lives that has made them who they are at that moment. More importantly, it gets at the notion that you cannot prevent this from happening: you cannot hide who you are because your face, your walk, your talk - all betray you. You are your own unauthorized autobiography.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
What about that feeling that there is nothing new to say? It is every artist's secret fear. This notion is often wrapped up in forgetting - forgetting what one's initial aspirations were, one's original motivation, and the overwhelming force of amazing towering geniuses we can never hope to surpass (or even equal). Well, What You're Living For is a song that captures some of that: you're "standing on the shoulders of giants, and there's nothing to invent anymore." I suppose the "take-away" from this song is "Don't Forget Who You Are!" or some such cliche. But as cliche as it is, it's amazing how easy it is to lose one's vision in the day-to-day strenuous exertions of energy required to make a living on this earth. You can spend so many years pretending "you've forgotten what you're living for." This started off as a simple acoustic song and I'd hammer away at the lower E string to render that distinctive riff. But the recording I settled on is a full rock treatment with some psychedelic overtones.
Psychedelic Humor and Reverence
OK, so we come to Your Corporate Logo Destroyed My Hallucination, a truly unique song if I may say so myself. It is typical of middle class late 20th and early 21st century people to have some familiarity with psychedelics, and perhaps to even have tried some. This song is both a reverent comment on these substances juxtaposed against the equally mind-bending power of corporate logos in our culture and psyche -- while at the same time being a parody of the hippy-dippy cliches that come with the territory: you know, "realms of vision" "sea of purple" etc. So I suppose I hope to look past the "baggage" and cliches of the psychedelic culture and establish a clear "vision," if you will, of what corporate logos mean in our minds and cultural reference spaces, and how, quite literally, these ingenious images, designed painstakingly to grab and keep our attention and instill specific ideas about the corporation they represent, can destroy an organic, "natural" hallucination. The artifice annihilates the natural beauty. As in: "I was a seed divided into the nations, but your corporate logo destroyed my hallucination." I stand by the song, which I wrote many years ago now, for its urgent spirit, clever lyrics, and utter lack of cliche. That is an accomplishment.
Remember Dr. Robotnik?
Some songs reference cultural happenings that are equivalent to a time stamp. Such is the case with my song Deadly Nightshade. You'll notice the opening lines: "Johnny's playing Sonic on his Sega machine/He thinks Dr. Robotnik is pretty darn mean" references the Sonic the Hedgehog series of games on the now defunct Sega Genesis game console. Yes, there was one in my house and I played it with my children. The reference in the song is more a comment on how video games can become a central part of a child's life, even as other, more important aspects of life are falling apart. Hence the reference to unemployment, credit card debt, impending divorce, and drug addiction in this song. It's a bit of a downer, but it was something I was seeing in the world at that time, through the lens of being a father. "Deadly Nightshade" is of course a poisonous plant, and it is said to be the only thing growing outside his door. No flower beds, no manicured lawn. A deadly plant instead. Bleak emptiness and despair exist when families disintegrate, so no, this is not a hopeful song. It stares straight into the abyss, where Dr. Robotnik hatches diabolical plots to take down the hero.
I Won't Apologize
This is my (very typical middle class) reaction to finding myself stuck in a certain place economically, spiritually, and in terms of respect (both self-respect and the respect of others). When you realize that you are doing your best and that is not enough to achieve your dreams, it's a bit disillusioning. So what do you do? Blame outside forces of fate. Hence, "dark clouds move across the sky" in the song Dark Clouds. It's a bit of a cop-out, but it does reflect a certain feeling of isolation and not being understood for who you really are - you won't apologize for being who you are, but you also realize you're not going anywhere and you've done an OK job just making it as far as you have against the "dark clouds" of fate.
It's a Novelty Tune
For a long time Vegetarian Blues was my "signature song" only because it is somewhat humorous and a good ice-breaker with audiences. Lord knows, I need an ice-breaker with audiences, since I am severely lacking in "working the audience" skills. I find it difficult to connect with people in general, and especially in a performance setting. So I would sing Vegetarian Blues first on gigs because of this, and people seemed to react well, and it, well, broke the ice! I still like this song, but its shallow novelty nature is a bit tiring. So it's a song I still play, but I don't feel much when I play it.
When an Empire Gets a Name
The Assertion is a gnostic spiritual about power and empire in this world and the one one must struggle against in this false reality of labor and commerce (as opposed to the beautiful spiritual world that permeates it all, or some such New Age drivel). Really it's a middle finger to the devil, for what it's worth. A declaration that I am not going to be his fool.
Can't Build Anything on Shifting Sand
Job Security is about middle class insecurity. Yeah, you're happy to have a job, and things are looking up. But there's no guarantee you won't be layed off. There is no such thing as job security, they say. And the credit card companies don't know what's going on in your life. They just keep sending offers for more credit, thinking things are hunky dory. A willingness to work, a solid work ethic, a natural curiosity, well-learned skills, and desire to be productive - in the end these things are not enough, because the economy has its own cycles and mind that spits people out when you least expect it.
I Found a Rut But I Prefer to Call it a Groove
Abbreviated Dreams is about exactly that: how we trim back our dreams to fit the emerging realization that are full-fledged dreams are forever unattainable. It shows the arc of one's aspirations in life in terms of the quest for knowledge and spiritual truth, and how those aspirations are taken down by the slow but unending and powerful forces of necessity - the labor of survival strips away the higher aspirations leaving you with abbreviated dreams. When I say "It's good that we're still young" it is with sad irony, or perhaps denial of the truth. I think I can see abbreviated dreams coming, but I can't admit that they are already here. I think the energy-draining nature of work and survival in this world is a recurring theme in my songs. Clearly I am not alone in this feeling of waste and regret - this is a malady suffered by many who have attained middle class status, only to find that one's energy and talent ends up diverted to work and not to life.
A Waltz, a Sadness
Waiting All Night: I picture dark, lonely alleyways and sidewalks, maybe a park bench under a street light. But definitely no girl to whom the song is addressed - her absence is the torture unfolded. Bleak tears for the loss of love - a simple formula, but just real enough to be believed here, at least I hope. Something unexpected: For some reason, perhaps because I wrote this in the same era I played Super Mario 64, I picture the zone where Mario is inside a gigantic clock-like structure. I think the reference to "the hands on the clock, they move so slow" in the song elicits this image. It's all vertigo and immensity in there.
I'm a Walking Cliche with My Guitar
All right, This Is Not Even Rock & Roll gets to the central tenet of my songwriting: a constant effort to avoid cliche. The truth is, as soon as I strap on my guitar, I have become a cliche. My goal as an artist is to banish all that is cliche and start anew. This song describes some of the cliches associated with being a singer-songwriter, including the desire for fame and fortune, to which I say "there's only one hitch - I'm getting too old" which is true, but since fame and fortune are not my goal, my age is irrelevant. The problem is that when you play guitar and sing songs people automatically assume that you are looking for a breakthrough to become famous and wealthy - a celebrity. This song is basically me saying no, I'm not what you expect, my motives are not what you assume, and my art is not derivative, predictable, or easily monetized. It is what it is. And I do not say that as a cop-out for lack of a clearer understanding of exactly what it is. I say that because my art is to be judged for what it is - not within some artificial context of supposed lost chances at success and failed dreams, because that is not the case. I have succeeded already though I may never make a penny from these songs. I am not a cliche. Listen and you'll see.
An Overflowing Stream, an Overpowering Dream
Have you ever seen a stream in spring when the snow melts, an overpowering torrent of brown, chocolately water rushing scarily fast, uprooting trees and moving boulders (you can hear them rumbling below the rushing waves)? A Torrent likens this unstoppable, primal force to love. Your love, I say, is like a torrent that took me in a dream. And I wish I could be like a torrent and sweep away your heart. Nature can be breathtaking and humbling and scary. Love can be the same and more. But sometimes the fear will keep you from being swept away by love. And at those times you can take a lesson from the unrelenting force of the torrent. Let it happen.
I'm stuck in a rut...
The Final Irony is a song about the unfairness of life, but also the self-rightousness that makes one feel one should be exempt from said unfairness. Yes, you've been given much - but not enough. So you think you deserve the last piece of the puzzle that would put you over the top to utter happiness. But the fact is, you don't deserve anything like that. The final irony is not that fate or God have withheld that last needed piece, but that you are ungrateful for having even what you have because you are so focused on what you don't have.
Bondo and Identity
In the song "I'm Getting By" it's like I have a brother and a sister who are different aspects of my personality - liberal and conservative, straight-laced and wild, creative and logical, conventional and on-conformist - and it's all just too much to handle. All I know is I'm getting by.
Only now can I look back at the late 20th century and my place in it, in a reasonably objective manner. Which is to say: make no mistake, today I could not write the songs I wrote in the last century; conversely, back then I could not write the songs I am writing now, in the early 21st century.
True, there is some continuity in the person that I was and am. And now I have the advantage of seeing that person I was; whereas in the 20th century I could only vaguely imagine what I might be like in the future, in, say, 2013, the year in which I currently write these words.
So looking back I like much of what I did, but not all. Very little of what I did seems baldly contrived or artificial. I think I was always striving to be honest and to speak from my real being. But the things I hear in my early music that I do not particularly like are elements or attitudes that clearly sprang from still being young and thinking the forbidden dream: I might some day make a living as a musician. So some of the songs seem to be tailored to specific 1990s imagined audiences. This might seem a cardinal sin, but I must allow that most of what I wrote stands the test of time and is actually quite apart from any commercial consideration. So the songs I have put on this page from the 20th century, then, are not the ones that make me cringe. The ones you see and hear on this page are the ones that can still make me smile. I hope they make you smile too.
Feel free to offer comments etc. by emailing: musician.chris (at) yahoo (dot) com