Thursday, July 8, 2010

Biography of a Song: Click

This is in response to a discussion of songwriting started by Edric Haleen on the TMA forums, which is now ongoing at our new artistic "home", Artifiction. I'm simply moving some of what I wrote there onto this blog for safe-keeping.

Be warned, this "biography" contains sensitive personal information, which - as it's written from my perspective - is subjective and probably completely innaccurate. Also be warned that these lyrics contained strong language, not suitable for children.

To read the lyrics and hear the song in "final" form, click here.

Since I (Dave) usually work with a lyricist my process is a little different, but in many ways not so much. The work I'm about to describe is more collaborative than usual for me... I don't usually go back for seconds or thirds on lyrics. Perhaps I'll describe a more typical example later.

It's reading Edric's line about the death of a friend that prompted me to write about this particular song, as it's about that very thing. Keith was one of my very best friends in the world. I had known him since high school. He was a pawnbroker who owned a string of pawnshops in two states. He had a beautiful wife and two children. Then his business partner embezzled every dime from the company. Keith lost the business, his house, his wife & kids... everything. The only indication that we had of his impending death was a single statement weeks before; "I'm too old to start over." That, I think, is the crux of it. I think he felt he was old and used up; he thought he was alone. One night when he was scheduled to be at another friend's house for dinner, he sat in a room instead, put a gun to his head, and pulled the trigger.

Writing the song was a bit of a challenge, in that there are some places you simply don't want to go (and there are places we did not go), but we felt we wanted some kind of memorial for Keith.

The concept began a few weeks after his death as I was driving. I was trying to imagine the emotions that could drive somebody to such an act, and came to a few conclusions. One is that a person doesn't decide to kill himself on the spur of the moment. There must be a process of deliberation with oneself. It's a thing you have to talk yourself into, and it must seem logical from your point of view at the time. I also thought about the gun. Keith was a pawnbroker and former prison guard and had a concealed carry permit. His gun was an automatic; not the kind of thing you play Russian roulette with. I had not been thinking about a song until this very point, when I thought that Russian roulette provides a fitting framework for the internal dialog I mentioned. Then I wondered if I was actually capable of getting through the process. I began with the structure of the song, which would be that each verse culminates in a decision to pull the trigger, with the hammer striking the chamber with an audible "click". The last verse would have no click.

I called William and told him what I was looking for lyrically (unusual, in that most of the ideas originate with him). Ninety percent of the time we collaborate through the mail; first snail mail, then email; and the process begins with me receiving a lyric. This time it was telephone and mail.

I should mention here that I recognize two basic kinds of lyrics in popular music: the story and the mood. Most of the people on this site, for instance, are storytellers. You have a narrative and convey that in the song. This then that. On the other hand, a lyricist like Bernie Taupin doesn't write a story, he creates and sustains a mood. So there's no real answer to the question, "What is 'Grey Seal' about?" It's about what you feel. "When You Go" is a JoCo example of that style. William doesn't write stories, but we had a few additional guidelines to follow for this song so that though we don't tell a story you can imply one. First, the mood should start dark and get progressively darker and violent until the end (that is, to the extent that I'll allow myself to get violent in a song, which isn't much). Second, we weren't going to constrain ourselves with actual events or facts. Facts do not convey our message. Anyway, I got back some lyrics starting as follows:
Pop the cork
The champagne has gone to my head
Snap the picture
For in seconds one could be dead
The hammer falls
I couldn't really use them, in that they didn't convey the emotion I was looking for. Champagne, for instance, alludes to celebration. I know what he was going for... to start from the happiness of his wedding and move forward, and sometimes you can do that with a word or two, but here we didn't have time. The thoughts conveyed here are not a memory of good times, but brooding about the present having turned to shit. I didn't think it was necessary in this case to start at A to get to B, so I asked for a re-write, and got back something like this:
tock tick tock
the spider builds her web
it’s only me and you now
and the demon in my head

tock tick tock
no hands are on the clock
as time has lost all meaning
with my head upon the block

That was more like it. Six verses for six chambers. Now we start out in a room, alone with just the spider, and the ticking clock. I liked the demon because it gave us a clear indication of where this was going. With two sets of lyrics to draw from it was my turn to start writing the song, which begins with editing the lyrics.

William is a rare individual in that he has no apparent possessiveness about the words he writes. The way he sees it, he writes poetry and I write music. The poem and the song are two different things. Sometimes I use what he writes verbatim, but often I cut and hack and re-arrange based on the needs of the music. Since we've always worked by mail we don't have a lot of give and take, so he just trusts me not to screw it up too badly.

In this case all of the verses were very short and identical, so I knew that I'd have to extract a chorus and bridge (I wound up keeping the bridge and half-discarding the chorus). I also thought the "click" would get lost in the "tick tock tick", although I did like the clock. I still didn't have a tune, and I thought I'd be using a sampled sound or something. In the end I just say, "click". I also thought it would be more effective to highlight the inner dialog by removing the "and" so that he's talking directly to the demon in his head. And by removing some of the clicks and combining some verses I have a longer verse to work with:
the spider builds her web
it’s only me and you
the demon in my head
no hands are on the clock
i'm down upon my knees
my head upon the block...

That sets the mood. "My head upon the block" tells us in no uncertain terms that we're looking at an impending death (I'll talk about the clock later). Now I want to increase that tension, make a decision, and pull the first trigger. This is going to be different musically.
all the life long struggles
to stay above the ground
the hopes and dreams are beaten flat
by the hammer coming down
And the hammer falls...

It doesn't take us many words to get there. I think the ambiguous imagery evoked by the "hammer" is very effective. But the hammer fell without report, and he's still alive. So we start over, moody again.
absent sense of humor
by the white coats and the blood
staring up mesmerized
by the naked light above
swinging like a pendulum
flying like a dove

The words from "absent" to "mesmerized" don't appear in the first two of William's drafts, and I'm almost certain I didn't write them, so that was probably pulled from another of William's drafts at the last minute (when it gets to the point when I'm working with the music I'll often just leave a placeholder for words and ask him to fill them in later). I do know that the white coats and the blood actually started as a flash-forward reference to the paramedics and it's now out of context, but I kept it because we're not telling a narrative. Don't ask me why I know what the line is about but not who wrote it. A lot of times we don't know afterward who wrote what. I have a lot of detailed notes about this song, but lost or forgot that bit.

It's the bare incandescent bulb hanging from the naked wire that grabs our attention. I particularly liked the religious implications of the last line, so I left that whole bit as written.

By this time I know where the music is going. Each verse beginning with a spoken "click" will start softly and rhythmically, to allude to the ticking clock I took out of the lyrics. The actual tune is pretty much determined by the lyrics, and I don't have a lot of conscious input there. I simply read the lyrics and hear the tune, and it's right, and that's the end of it. I know when the lyrics are right because the tune is there in them. I HAVE to have lyrics to get to the music, even if I'm writing an instrumental. That's not scientific, and I really don't care, 'cause that's how it works.

Now it's time for the second decision, which will musically parallel the first. That's as close to a chorus as we're going to get, which is to say not at all:
years and lives and fortunes
pass away without a sound.
time’s just numbers on a clock
whose hands won't turn around

I know now that this decision, like the one before, is delivered with a wail of frustration and anger and the pent up longing for things that are lost. And when they're gone, they're gone without so much as a glance to the rear to acknowledge that you were even there. It's filled with nameless emotion that you can't admit to because you're too busy convincing yourself and others that you're "dealing".

The "numbers on a clock" theme is one we've used before, but we have no problem plagiarizing ourselves. Part of the meaning here is the irrelevance of any outside influence on what is going on in this room at this moment. He is in a pocket of time, alone and isolated. It also alludes to the frustration of a life that doesn't seem to have moved forward, and in fact has slid back down the slope. (And yes, the clock had no hands before and now it has hands. It doesn't matter. We don't care. In dream-state, nothing is fixed.)

Instead of immediately pulling the trigger, he re-affirms his decision, forcefully:
and the time is here at last
moments here on earth were fun
while this final one’s a blast...
...and the hammer falls.

He's ready. He's doing it. This is it, NOW. Close the eyes, pull the trigger, GET IT OVER WITH.
damn it! i'm not a droid
when i get annoyed
why can't you avoid spouting freud at me
i don't give a fuck
'cause lately i'm struck
how my luck is just stuck in the toilet so...

Sadly, at this point I'm out of words from William. He gave me six verses for six chambers. I reasoned that we don't know where the bullet is, but six being unlikely, and being in need of longer verses, I combined them and ran out of words. So these were written by me, and at this point I was writing the lyrics to the tune, because the tune had legs and was running away, which explains all the internal rhyme which I wouldn't have come up with on my own. "Damn it!" is a venting of the frustration. The decision is made. He's no longer playing Russian roulette, he's out to murder himself. But he does have some last things to say.

We live in a world where men are not allowed to have emotions. An angry man is a threat, he's a danger; he's never just a human being who has been hurt or wronged. We're required to grow from boys into robots. We have antidepressants and mood stabilizers and God what else... as if FEELINGS were DISEASES to be treated with chemicals. We must "manage" our anger instead of venting it to be released harmlessly into the atmosphere. Here, he has been wronged. He's been damaged. He's been hurt, and he has all the pent up anger and frustration that goes along with that. And he can't focus it anywhere, can't so much as point a finger and shout, "Fuck you!" because they're gone. So where's it going to go? All that anger? All that pain?
don't tell me what to believe
to wear my heart on my sleeve
while you steal everything i've achieved...

...and the hammer falls.

This is just wrapping up. From his POV, the decision is made, don't talk me out of it, don't give me a solution, everything I worked for is gone and I'm ending it now. When the hammer falls for the last time the song is over. There's no one there to hear the report.

When the lyrics are done, so am I, for the most part. Other than directing the mood, as I described, the song usually writes itself. I make a few conscious decisions like time signature and major or minor key, and I pitch it to where I can sing it (although I've found it increasingly difficult to sing earlier songs that were higher pitched). Stylistically... I don't care. I don't stress over what phrasing or fills or figures I can put it. What I've described above is what it's supposed to convey, which I can't myself impart. When I'm recording it I'm most concerned that you can hear the words. My voice is wrong for it, I can't bring myself to put the energy into it that it deserves something edgier instrumentally. In my head I hear some really heavy electric guitar.

The song is written to start on an A minor chord, but I've knocked that down to a G minor so I can hit the higher notes.

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