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Songs I Wish I’d Written

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2020: Arts, Music & Dance.

Michael Gira by Andy Catlin

A Long Struggle

I began studying music in school when I was 9, learned the saxophone when I was 10, and started playing guitar when I was 11. I started a band with friends at age 12 and became the lead singer. I had my first poems published in high school at age 15, but I didn’t put words and music together, writing my first song, until I was 17. Believe it or not, I called it “The First Song.”

Writing songs was fairly easy for me as long as I followed the familiar formulas of American and British popular, rock, and folk music. But in the fall of 1980, inspired by punk, post-punk, and the incredible variety of music around me in the San Francisco underground, I woke to broader horizons. I began deconstructing everything I knew about music and experimenting in all directions. I had no preconceptions about song structure. I was interested in raw sound, ambient sound, free improvisation, rhythm before melody.

That was liberating for a while – I actually stopped writing songs and just improvised freely with my new band, Terra Incognita. But in 1982 I discovered African music. And that made it harder, because I took on the challenge of creating a new genre that would infuse my Appalachian roots with what I was learning about African music. Unlike what David Byrne was doing or what Paul Simon did years later, it wouldn’t sample or imitate African music. It would sound like nothing anyone had ever heard.

It was a long struggle. Finishing a song was incredibly hard, and they only emerged in bursts, a handful at a time, with years in between. I was seldom satisfied with them, and kept reworking them, re-recording them, performing completely different versions with different lineups of Terra Incognita. I believed the rhythm and musicality of the lyrics was more important than the words, but I agonized over the words for years anyway.

That’s one reason why I’m blown away when I discover that someone else has written a song that perfectly expresses something I’ve felt or experienced. Why couldn’t I write that? Why has it been so hard?

No Formula

What makes a perfect song? There’s really no formula. I love ambiguous, mysterious lyrics, but I also love lyrics that are simple, direct, and didactic, like “Nostalgia,” or even “Whole Lotta Love.” The didactic songs can become classics, but ambiguous songs can give us more over time, revealing hidden depths.

How do you write an ambiguous song? I don’t think you do. I think you write a song that means something clear to you, but is so personal that it seems mysterious to others. When I analyze the lyrics of songs that I like, I often find that it’s only the chorus, or a single repeated phrase, that endears it to me. The rest of the lyrics may seem like gibberish. After all, I love many songs in other languages that I can’t understand at all. I’ve believed for a long time that the overall musical impression is far more important than the lyrics.

I mostly shun the mainstream of pop music – Elvis, The Beatles, The Stones, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Lady Gaga et al. But whereas I’ve tended to write songs that are obscure – about the ancient Moundbuilders or the geological decomposition of granite – some of my favorite songs are sappy pop standards from various eras, like Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Unchained Melody,” “Scarlet Ribbons,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and rock clichés like “You Really Got Me,” “Hang On Sloopy,” “Wild Thing,” and the Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love.” I definitely wish I’d written those.

Then there are traditional songs from my Appalachian heritage that I’ve covered with my bands and have been inspired by, but can never match, like “Working on a Building” and “Rank Stranger,” and songs in the Yoruba language like King Sunny Ade’s “Ja Funmi” and Paul I. K. Dairo’s “Mo Wa Dupe,” which have inspired me to venture outside the narrow focus of Western pop themes.

Leaving out the classics and hits most everyone’s familiar with, the traditional country repertoire and the African songs, here, in chronological order, is a partial sample of less well-known songs I wish I’d written.

Boomer’s Story (1972)

Written by early country singer/songwriter Carson Robinson and recorded in 1972 by Los Angeles musicologist Ry Cooder, this song is an instance of serendipity for me. It’s the story of an old hobo, and I began riding the rails myself in 1978, about the same time that my high school friends discovered Ry Cooder and his album of the same title. The lyrics perfectly capture the harsh romance of riding the rails and the premature but deeply-felt sense of world-weariness that we twenty-somethings had by the late 1970s, after coming of age during the Vietnam War, the environmental and civil rights crises, and Watergate.

Final Day (1979)

I discovered and fell in love with the Welsh post-punk trio Young Marble Giants at an underground arts festival in San Francisco in 1980. Their stark, minimal, artfully primitive sound showed that post-punk was never a coherent genre, but a broad spirit of deconstruction, exploration, and experimentation. They only lasted for two years, releasing one studio album, but their work continued to inspire me along with more well-known artists like Kurt Cobain.

Fear of the Bomb permeated my childhood in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the aftermath of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in 1979 that YMG produced the perfect song about nuclear holocaust. This was another serendipity for me, because when I first heard it in 1980, I’d just started having the nuclear holocaust nightmares that would plague me for decades.

Atmosphere (1980)

Today, 40 years after singer/songwriter Ian Curtis hung himself, people reference the short-lived British band Joy Division to prove their hipster cred. But when I was at California Institute of the Arts in 1979, writing songs and playing in a garage band, their first album had just come out on the tiny U.K. label Factory Records, and nobody in the U.S. outside of the top art schools and tiny urban punk enclaves was aware of them yet. The first Joy Division songs that stuck in my memory were “She’s Lost Control,” from that first album, and the single “Transmission,” both played and danced to over and over at CalArts parties that winter.

They were our contemporaries, just another crest in the waves of inspirational new music that followed from season to season in the wake of punk’s first appearance. Like us, they were inspired by the Sex Pistols, but like the Sex Pistols’ successor, John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd, they seemed like punk’s fateful, nihilistic next step, and we couldn’t get enough of them while they lasted.

This is not the only Joy Division song I wish I’d written, but I sometimes think it’s my favorite. Like so many great songs it’s completely ambiguous yet captures in powerful imagery the gamut of human feelings in a relationship, from tenderness to mistrust and fear.

I’ve included the video version by Joy Division bassist Peter Hook and Rowetta, because it perfectly captures the spirit of Ian Curtis’s original, whereas the imagery of the official video distracts from the lyrics.

Nostalgia (1982)

After Young Marble Giants broke up in 1981, singer Allison Statton formed Weekend, another Welsh outfit that wrote and played generally bright, ethnic-inspired pop music, released in one studio and one live album.

They also covered old standard ballads, and wrote the painfully didactic song “Nostalgia,” which has been one of my all-time favorites since Weekend was introduced to me in 1982 by my San Francisco loftmate and former best friend Tiare.

I’ve included the version from their extremely obscure live album, Live at Ronnie Scott’s, because it’s better than the studio recording.

Up on the Sun (1985)

My former songwriting partner Katie introduced me to the Phoenix area band’s breakthrough album Meat Puppets II when we first met in 1984. We listened to those punk-inspired tracks while driving around Los Angeles, then we listened to their more laid-back third album, Up on the Sun, when we drove out to camp in the desert.

I’ve started many songs while stoned, and I’ve worked on many songs while stoned, but I’ve never finished a song that’s as perfect a stoner anthem as this. What I love most about the Meat Puppets and Curt Kirkwood’s lyrics is that they so often evoke nature and living outdoors and the mystical sensations we campers and hikers share even when we’re not high.

Although the Pups are an awesome live band with a rabid cult following, I’ve included the album version because their shows are never recorded with an adequate audio mix.

Pictures of You (1989)

By the time this song was released, I’d been deep into my obsession with African music for years, and I shunned the vast majority of rock music, not to mention the goth subgenre The Cure came to be labeled with. It wasn’t until three entire decades later that I heard their poppy “In Between Days” on the radio, and digging deeper, I discovered “Pictures of You,” which made me a long-belated Robert Smith fan.

This English songwriter has penned a whole slew of tunes I wish I’d written, but this one so perfectly expresses the nostalgia I’ve felt, and unashamedly embraced, for lost love affairs. In my humble opinion there’s nothing more worth singing about.

The Maker (1989)

Whereas The Cure were completely off my radar in 1989, I was open to the Canadian Daniel Lanois’s album Acadie when a mutual friend suggested it to Katie, my former partner and bandmate, because its Acadian – our Cajun – focus fit into my fiercely traditional, mostly ethnic aesthetic. As a musician I’d heard of Lanois – he produced U2’s The Joshua Tree, one of the biggest albums of the late 80s, along with records by Bob Dylan and other big stars.

The lyrics of “The Maker” are almost too perfect an example of a modern gospel song, the kind of devotional confession I have tried to write with less success. It’s one of those that some people call the “greatest song ever written,” so it’s been covered by much more popular artists like Dave Matthews and even Jerry Garcia, and few even seem to realize that Lanois wrote it.

I’ve included the stripped-down live version because live is usually better and the official video sucks, and best of all, Daniel is playing a Fender Jazzmaster with clear finish, exactly like my first Jazzmaster, a now-classic guitar purchased for $75 back in 1978. But if you haven’t heard the perfect studio recording with Aaron Neville, check that out ASAP.

Breakdown (1993)

Scottish singer/songwriter Dot Allison and One Dove are examples of how worthless the consumer economy is at promoting and sharing things of real value. I’ve had hilarious conversations with music fans who get all huffy because I don’t worship the biggest pop stars, while much greater artists die without ever achieving significant recognition.

At least One Dove’s “Breakdown” made it into a movie, a corny 90s comedy that I’ve never seen. Dot Allison went on to have an equally obscure solo career, and I didn’t discover her work until 2011 after I resumed my own musical ventures. “Breakdown” is a better pop song partly because of how unpopular it is.

Get Me (1994)

Although the English duo (and couple) Everything But the Girl started during the early post-punk era, they weren’t big enough at the time to show up on my radar, and by the time they reached a wider audience, in the 90s, I’d driven my obsession with African music into the ground and was about to be turned on to grunge.

I was deep into the grunge thing when I joined Katie on her family’s ski trip in early 1995 and heard Tracey Thorn for the first time on Massive Attack’s hit album. You can keep your mainstream divas, your Annie Lennoxes, your Madonnas, your Lady Gagas, but I’ll take Tracey any day. Eventually, I went back and discovered her earlier work, and although Amplified Heart has several outstanding tracks, I picked this one, attributed to her partner Ben, because it never became popular, despite its perfection as a conflicted love song.

Blind (1995)

Los Angeles native Michael Gira seems to have been the classic troubled artist, growing up in an alcoholic family, spending lots of time in jail. As with a lot of my now-favorite artists, I discovered him after resuming my musical career in 2011 and only know about him after the fact, never having followed his early career and cathartic performances in Swans.

But I keep “Blind” in regular rotation in my playlists, because it’s one of those gemlike songs that express some essential realities of our species in a harshly beautiful nutshell.

Protection (1995)

This is an instance where I break my rule and include a song that became a fairly big hit – although never really in the pop mainstream. I believe it became such a big hit partly because the time was right for electronic pop music, but mainly because Tracey’s message is just what we all need, all the time, in our conflicted, violent, dangerous world.

Although Massive Attack’s studio version is perfect and their official video is cool, I’ve included Everything But the Girl’s live version because it’s a decent recording, and it has Tracey!

Ribbon on a Branch (2007)

Younger Brother is a somewhat obscure English electronic duo who took their name – one of my favorites of all time – from the mythology of a Colombian indigenous tribe. I discovered “Ribbon on a Branch” in 2011 and am reminded of it every time I hike a trail in our local wilderness and spot a pink ribbon on a trailside branch. It’s a love song in nature, something I’m always aspiring to write. Get outside, you alienated city people!

This live video has a long intro, but the sound is excellent so hang in there!

No Cars Go (2007)

Perhaps not as big as Massive Attack’s “Protection,”, “No Cars Go” was still a hit single by Canadian stadium rockers Arcade Fire, so it probably shouldn’t be on this list. But despite its bombast, I respect it because it not only trashes cars, it says space ships are uncool, too. What we all need is to get to a place without our machines, without our devices.

Like Radiohead on OK Computer, Arcade Fire are dissing a sacred cow of Gen-Xers and Millennials, which is ironic since both bands are heroes to those generations.

The Never Ending Happening (2012)

Bill Fay is an old English hippie from the 60s who has languished in obscurity for decades, like most great artists. It shows how irrelevant our sacred cow of progress is that he released this perfect hippie anthem in 2012. It’s like a modern, ecologically woke but painfully self-conscious version of the old gospel hymns that have inspired me. It’s liable to make me cry every time I hear it.

Black Monday (2016)

This urban anthem by an obscure SoCal band is a perfect post-punk song that should’ve been written in the late 70s or early 80s. I can never hear it enough and end up singing along and laughing every time I do.

Which video of this song to include was a tough decision! Hilariously, this live version used sound that is obviously dubbed from their studio recording – you can tell 2/3 of the way through when backing vocals mysteriously kick in on the verse, but nobody else in the band is singing. The official video has a bunch of clips that are supposed to add narrative value, but the band looks half-dead. Take your pick!

One With the World (2016)

Rambling Nicholas Heron is a Swedish folk singer/songwriter who writes and sings in English. I love his songs, but rare videos suggest that his sincerity might be tempered by a trace of irony.

No matter, this example, which has apparently never been recorded apart from YouTube, is another perfect gem of the civilized yearning for connection with nature.

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