Your Weekend Listening • 7/19/08
Ergotism • June, 1996
Firstly, apologies for the unbelievably lo-fi quality of the recording. That's becuase this was committed to ethnographic record on a field archival trip by Alan Lomax when I was living out in a shack in western Mississippi in the late Spring of 1928, and the only way we could get power to his wire recording machine was to run a line out of his Hudson truck battery, into a single pole Echo IV-2 mic.
Ha, ha. I fucking kid. Actually, I have to confess some serious annoyance at the quality of this recording, because you'd never guess it was put together in the priciest studio I've ever recorded in. And the major source of annoyance is that somewhere out there is a perfectly clear mixdown of this, and chances are good I'll never get my hands on it.
See, this song was my last minute desperate attempt to get a composition of mine into the full-month sessions that were booked for the Lizard Music album. I won't go into depressing detail about it, but suffice it to say that this wasn't the most approved-of use of our studio time. Nor was I allowed use of the band, so I ended up doing a solo recording (save for some very nice backing vocals from Erik and Chris) in as short a time as I could muster. Which is all fine and good, except that the point of being in a band is to be able to avail yourself of the arrangement and performance skills that reside in the band as a whole. Sadly, Ergotism as multi-tracked by me is only proof that I wasn't ready for prime time. Which may have been the point.
The only history you need to know is that I had desperately hoped to be welcomed as a songwriter in the fold of the band, and came to the realization slowly - due to the incredibly dysfunctional communication among the members - that it wasn't ever going to happen, and I was just there to shut up and play.
I certainly can't defend Ergotism as a lost work of genius on my part, but I find that upon hearing it for the first time in about a decade, I still rather like the overwhelming sense of melancholy that comes from one of the saddest extended periods of my life.
I invite you to look up the meaning of the title. One of those cases where I would get obsessed with a word or concept and found myself compelled to fold in into a creative piece, whether or not I could really bring it home. I definitely didn't here, but I guess I own the name, seeing as how no-one else ever got the brilliant idea to use it. A fairly straightforward portrait of the regret that follows the true end of a relationship.
About the only compositional thing that bugs me is the use of the phrase, 'a candle I forgot to put out,' which strikes me as somehow (if such a term applies) lyrically inaccurate. But the whole thing was a rush job, a quick attempt to write and arrange a song that I could pull off in an acoustic context in the limited time available.
None of which really annoys me - frankly, I was asking for too much to be afforded any use of the studio's resources, and I'm amazed and grateful that I was able to pull even a couple of hours out of the full month of sessions. The thing that does annoy me is that when I asked for a dupe of the CD master of the full recordings, the bass player (who lived in a group house at the time and decided to dupe my copy late at night) gradually kept turning the output sound to the tape lower and lower over the course of the dub that by the end, there's more noise than signal.
Perhaps perversely, Ergotism, which is 28 out of 28 tracks on the tape, is quieter than any track before it, by a very wide margin.
It's episodes like this - fighting for a small bit of respect and not even getting that in the end - that made me realize that the only way I could function musically was to head up my own project, for better or worse. Even if the music I made outside of Lizard Music was never at the same level of invention or tunefulness as what was being produced by that remarkable band, at least I would be able to hear my contribution.
Curiously - or not - it turns out that I'm the only Lizard Music alum who hasn't gone on to a decent career in music. The member I replaced went on to play keys with Wilco; the leader is now the bassist with Cat Power, and the rhythm section each went on to play in somewhat successful acts. Someday, when the history of alternative music is written, I hope to be a footnote somewhere to that effect.
Let none of the above suggest that I regret my time in the band - I loved the music and learned a lot. And I strongly recommend the band's three albums - particularly the two without me. The band's chief songwriter, Erik Papparozzi, had a truly distinct and genius voice, the rhythm section was truly on fire, and Mike - the one I replaced on keys - brought a real sense of jangly modality to the proceedings that's the exact kind of sound that I enjoy. Track down Fashionably Lame, or Lobster T, if you can.
Or heck, just ask me. I'll be happy to burn you a copy.