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Friday, May 9, 2008

Ballad of the Bookstore Employee

Your Weekend Listening • 5.9.08
Her Boyfriend Who's a Sergeant, 1995

When I first returned from Providence in the late Spring of 1994, it was pretty much as a vague, Dave-shaped object that answered to my name. Identity had fled in the face of my overwhelming lack of focus, and was replaced with a feeling I'm sure most of my readers has experienced at one time or another.

I wish I had a less clichéd term for it, but, really, it's sleepwalking. You've finished college, you're in-between relationships but still hung up on your previous girlfriend, you have no career direction mostly because you're not sure you even want a career.

Heck, in May of 1994, I wasn't even sure I wanted a life. And, somehow, without committing suicide, I found myself without a life anyway. I hate to resort to cliché again, but it is my history and I have to rise to meet it. Yes. There I was, living in my parents basement. And not just in it - all three rooms that used to belong to my stepsisters were now mine to do with as I pleased. The damp, moldy air was mine, the lack of natural light was mine, and the poor substitute of flickering fluorescent was mine, along with the low-slung ceilings and the cold concrete floor covered by the merest skim of linoleum.

What else did I have? A BFA in Illustration from a prestigious institution and a job at the local Barnes and Noble. For a brief while, perhaps four months or so, I was a floor employee, which meant flakey hours and dealing with customers constantly, as well as having to dress the part.  Thankfully, I ended up in the shipping and receiving department, which was 9-5 Monday through Friday and away from the 'floor' as much as possible.  Even better, I was the clerk, rather than manager, so I only had to show up and work and not make any decisions, which suited my mindset and temperament quite well.

Most of my free time was spent writing and making home demos, desperately trying to find a band to play in so that the cliché that was my life would be complete.  The material I was writing began to change style as well - most of my college years (also entirely bandless) were spent writing on piano.  I'd only started playing guitar in my freshman year, and it took me a couple of years to break myself of the Billy Joel meets Rick Wakeman in a community college songwriting workshop vibe I'd had going when I wrote on piano.

It took a lot, mostly because my writer's voice was influenced by too much progressive rock, and piano - even though I've never been exactly what you'd call a technical player - allowed me to indulge it to too great of a degree.  Switching over to writing on guitar in my sophomore year was a help, because my technique was so limited that I had to keep everything simple.  I should note in my favor that this was by design; I knew my writing was byzantine and grating, and I desperately wanted to find a way to write pop tunes I could live with.  Songs that hopefully said something personal and universal, and did so with a halfway decent melody.

Of course, I was hobbled on more fronts than just choice of writing instrument.  I had a weak voice with limited range and iffy pitch, little or no sense of song structure or dynamics, positively 'outsider' rhythm, and a piss-poor lyrical style.  On top of that, I never did find my way into the kind of band I wanted to be in during college - at RISD, no less, so I never got into an environment where I could learn by doing in a group.

But at least I had a direction - I knew where I wanted to be and I had some external help in the form of Ansely and Bran, who had spent the majority of their teenage years learning how to write and play music and were now moving into their music career.  I was still a one-man-band, but at least I could get writing and arranging advice from a source I trusted.

The one good thing to come out of this period was it was the time when I finally found my songwriters voice - something genuine and specifically me.  1994 is the earliest point where I can go back and listen to my songs and find that I don't hate them.  Some of them I'm even still pleased with, although much like the parent of a deformed child, it's with a defensive affection.  Of course, there were some earlier songs I liked, and we'll hear some of those, but by and large here's the demarkation of reliable quality.

It's probably not a coincidence that this is the period that I began to realize that arranging is as much a part of composition as the writing process - and the main tool through which this was learned was the Tascam Porta-One four track recorder.  If I couldn't have a band where I learned the importance of parts, at least with all that free time I could work out vocal harmonies and bass figures and all that.

Eventually, I worked up dozens of songs, trying my best all the while to find a band to play in, even a single musician to partner with.  Finally, I just threw up my hands and decided to record an album by myself.  I borrowed the drum kit of a friend's father - a beautiful old Slingerland kit (from his time in an Army jazz band) that if I'd had any sense I would have realized was too good for me, and then proceeded to teach myself how to play, over the course of about three weeks.

I also picked up a bass for pretty much the first time, and went at the best fifteen or so of the last year's output of material.

Since I'd booked time at a studio, I wanted to make sure that I knew what the hell I was doing and not wasting what little money I had farting around.  To that end, I had a rare burst of work ethic, and did a complete version of the album in the month before I went into the studio, on my home four-track.  Since I'd been doing acoustic demos of the songs as I went along, some of the songs ended up being recorded three times in the space of a few months.

Tonight's entry ties up all of the above in one neatish bow. The lyric refers to a crush I had on a Barnes & Noble co-worker - who did in fact have a police sergeant boyfriend (later husband). It's also the first song I can point to as being in the 'modern Dave' style, a distillation of all of the ideas and themes that I'd been working on all year. It's an effective self-portrait, too, of the man I was at the time; lonely, frustrated, and surprisingly focused when it came to music - if not much else in life.

The four track, first:









Drums were single mic, set up and go. I tried to remix this digitally earlier tonight, by playing in each track one at a time, but I found that the tape speed was variable enough to make for some serious dissonance when they were all put back together. Next time, I'll grab the band Alesis mutlitrack firewire mixer and port each track simultaneously. This mix is a little hot and loud - apologies. When I implement this feature on the Copper Man site, I'll remix again.

Only one small computer-aided edit on this - I leave it to you to guess what it is.

Here's the lyric, straight from memory:

Just the other day I met a spanking brand new girl.
Now, whenever she's around, I tumble to a Studebaker world.
I called her up to ask her out, but she kept going on about
Her boyfriend who's a sergeant.

Things with them are very strained, at least that's what she says
And though she's dying from the guilt, we fool around whenever he's away.
I'd like to tell him all about, but I'm so afraid he'd bomb my house.
Her boyfriend who's a sergeant.

A drive on Palisades.
Brag about the friends I've made,
and impress her with my brains.
But she knows what excites her, man...
A capacity for violence.


Note: I did not have any kind of affair with this woman. That's wish-fulfillment. And the boyfriend was a police sergeant, as mentioned, so bombing was probably out. The line about 'a drive on Palisades' refers to a meeting I had on the bus into Manhattan, bass in hand to jam with some band or other (I can no longer recall), and running into a high school classmate, and trying to somehow impress her with tales of how I'd changed and my rising social circle, because by this time, the twins had been signed to Maverick Records and were in the process of rehearsing for their album with producer Ric Ocasek overseeing.

Having gotten the arrangement to my satisfaction, I redid the song at Kevin Lacy's Freudian Slip studio - also in his parents basement, but much more nicely set up - 16-track 2" tape this time around. Mixed by Ansley, if I recall.

Again, the version is all me, with one notable, and slightly sad, exception. Take a listen:









Quite a nice, flowing guitar solo at the end there, no? That's by Virgil - given name Dave Drescher - who was a part of the twins' and Kevin's circle of acquaintances, who played in a funk-rock trio/quartet called Yummy that shared their studio space. I didn't know Virgil that well, and was very grateful when he acquiesced to lending his excellent playing. If I recall correctly, this only took him one or two takes, and I listen back to it now and realize just what a great player he was.

Virgil's been gone now for at least a decade, a victim of a drug overdose. I'm sad at the loss of an obvious talent who just loved to play, and I'm also sad that I didn't get to know him better. He was a sweet and funny guy, very laid back, obviously accommodating, as his presence on this recording shows. Thanks, Virg - it's not much, but this one was for you.

D.

12 comments:

Ansley said...

It holds up.. totally forgot about that on.. but after listening, I do remember mixing it and cutting off that little piano bit abruptly.. that was the heart of the "music era".. we all ate, slept, breathed and lived it.. what a time when thats all we had to consume ourselves with.. Forgot totally that Virgil played a solo on one of your tracks.. youre right, it was a nice one..

Kevin is remixing all the bravo stuff.. and he's finally gotten around to a reel that I havent heard since we recorded that has a cover of the pilot song magic, and the original used to be cool among other things.. ive been dying to hear this shit for years.. hope it holds up.. my voice was so grungy back then it makes me cringe.. hope it wasnt over the top..

theres a cover lying around somewhere of the year of the cat where you played piano.. did we ever finish that? i forgot which session it was on..

Dave Kopperman said...

The piano cut is actually from the original recording, when Kevin - for reasons known only to himself - abruptly stopped the tape while I was still playing. I decided I liked it, though, which is why I didn't bother redoing it.

You never did finish "Year of the Cat," so don't get your hopes up. As I recall, it was on the same sessions as "Grease" and "Car Pool '75" (although you did so many sessions with Kevin in that period that they all started to blend in memory). I do know that Erik & Chris were there that day, which should help to date it - sometime in Summer '95, I'd guess?

D.

Ans said...

I remember the discussions about how any song that uses a major 7th chord heavily in it could never be a hit.. ha..

Dave Kopperman said...

Right, because, y'know, Billy Joel or Hall & Oates never had radio hits. I don't think the Beatles did either.

That was the flip side of the forcefulness of your advice - knowing when to ignore the firmly applied theories that didn't seem to dovetail with reality.

D.

ans said...

yeah, youre right on this...

but, at the time it was true..

but in the end our argument proved to be extremely myopic..

but in the end, the music industry is dead anyway, so what the fuck did it all matter?

go on with your recountances though, Im particularly enjoying this thread..

Dave Kopperman said...

I agree - I'm going to make this tonight's Rambler, if you don't mind. My response was turning into an essay...

D.

bran said...

Great song... funny, all the talk about major 7ths - which by the way, I personally never believed as I was a pretty big major 7ths guy myself - A) it sounds like it could be a totally 90s hit very massachusetts scene-y i.e. Juliana Hatfield, Lemonheads, Dinosaur jr... and B) it definitely holds up.. could be an indie song coming out today... That's a lot more than you can say about 'then again maybe I won't'...

although in our defense.. I was listening to the original cassettes of all that stuff, and it sounds nothing like that polished turd we released..

Dave Kopperman said...

Oh, yeah - that's what I mean in the follow-up blog when I say 'your recordings before and after' the Arista album. The original demos were great, and all the songs were really solid. The final album was both too polished in production and excised some songs that would have let a little air in. But the songs were great - though maybe for us, not the definitive versions...

What's pretty funny about placing me in the 90's indie New England sound is how little the members of that crowd (Small Factory comes to mind) liked my music at all.

And may I remind you - it WAS you who suggested I call the Dave project not "Mystery Mind," but "Major Seventh." So it was on your mind... most likely because you'd forbidden yourself from using major seventh chords in your own music.

D.

bran said...

Yeah.. I always liked that name...

It was more that I WAS forbidden...

Dave Kopperman said...

Yes - that's actually the part I was specifically reflecting on the other night. I was saving that for mention when We Want Too Much is up for the Weekend Listening. Let a girl keep some of her secrets...

D.

Dave Kopperman said...

Whoops- that's the response to your other post. Hold on...

D.

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