Your Weekend Listening • 1/10/09
Selling the Downtown Dream, 2002-2004
What's with the inexact dates for this entry? Surely my memory isn't so poor that I can't get any more specific than the earliest years of this century? Well, no. Selling the Downtown Dream (the album "Square One" is from) had a fairly extended recording schedule, with the original rhythm tracks* being recorded in December of 2002, followed by sporadic and furtive overdubs and mixing over the course of the next two years.
Further confusing the carbon dating issue, "Square One," I'm sorry to say, is one of the least memorable songs (in terms of writing, and possibly terms of listening) on the very lengthy record. There are two possible genesises (genesii?) for the song; 1) it was written in late 2000, part of the initial burst of songs that came when original Copper Man guitarist Rick left for more verdant pastures, or 2) it was written in Summer, 2002, when I began to get a clearer picture of the concept of the concept album that I'd been slowly inching towards.
I think the latter is more likely - "Square One" isn't such a deathless composition that I'd hold on to it for the sheer sake of its brilliance, especially given that there are quite a few Downtown Dream outtakes that I prefer. It really has the hallmarks of having been written to fit a hole in the narrative that had opened when the other songs fit into place. Taking a cue from Dark Side of the Moon and The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner- and you can tell the ambition was high when those were my working templates - I saw the narrative of our album as being a fictionalized take on the last decade of my life (being post-college until that point), displayed in the major arcana, with the first 'side' introducing themes of childhood nostalgia, provincial frustrations, confused musical ambition, guilt over betrayal, creative stagnation and romantic misadventure, and the second side picking up ten years later to see how those themes had deepened or altered in the compromised life of an adult (relatively speaking).
Of course, the narrative is cloudy, and even with the short, Peter Gabrielesque** prose in the CD sleeve, I'm forced to believe that I failed in my mission to create anything resembling that narrative in listener's headphones. Let's see if I do better here; here's the story, as it appeared in the sleeve:
"When Dan is seventeen, a dream of music is sown in him by unsavory characters. Not the easy dream of commandeered Lear jets, supermodels and sold-out sports arenas. Dan instead dreams that it is still 1977, and the music moving from dozens of small East Village stages and SoHo lofts is so thick in the urban summer night that it pushes he and his friends together. Echo a response. Music that matters. A statement to savor.
With amplified instruments, heroin chic and a 1990 Dodge van, the band travels the country, staking out pulpits from which to spread the gospel of the downtown dream. In some flyover town, from the stage of a nearly empty club, Dan hooks a disciple. A beautiful co-ed, who receives the dream and Dan as its true prophet.
Later, she quits their shared midtown NYC apartment, and Dan is left to wonder how she can move on while he must search for a future. He is without fame, without fortune, without a diploma, without a clue.
Ten years on, Dan awakens to find that summer vacation is long over. Stable relationship? Check. Full-time job? Check. Living beyond his means? Absolutely. He still dreams of music, but no longer as a release. It has become an escape.
One night, while he is tuning up on stage, he imagines cracking in a spectacular manner. Scaling his office tower, bellowing, “Fortuna, Imperatrix Mundi!” he prepares to wow the crowd gathering in the streets far below. He remembers his youth, and thinks of the dream.
Now, Dan can’t be sure if he is about to take his first step upon a high wire vibrating in the thin city air, or if it’s just the E-string on his guitar, quivering in anticipation of the first chord of the evening’s show."
That is to say, the entire album is Dan's reverie that takes place in a single moment at the very beginning of a gig. The middle of the narrative represents a ten-year jump, between ten summers, with "Square One" being the first official song of the 'adult' era, illustrating specifically the breakdown of his post-collegiate romance. I should note that a lot of thought went into this transition at the time, even going so far as to give each half of the album its own dedicated drum reverb - the sound for side two being something Ryan Ball (the engineer) and I referred to as 'The Padgham Sound,' for shorthand.
Of course, all of that thinking was kind of pointless, since the hole that "Square One" was likely written to fill in the narrative was likely an unnecessary one - looking at it now, it's obvious that the lyric should move directly from "Summer Vacation" to "40 Hours" - after all, what greater shock than to wake up ten years later to find yourself a corporate wage slave? But I'd thought that it was too sudden to get there, and wanted to ramp up to it a little more both lyrically and musically.
Anyhow, "Square One" ends up being neither here nor there - an album track that doesn't need to be on its album, and a song that isn't strong enough to justify its existence on its own. To the positive, though, I like the un-fussiness of its chord change and structure - you can tell that it was written quickly, without too much agonizing, which always at least imparts an energy to a song. I also like the playing, with the bass and drums locking together nicely (go Edz!), Shaun's arching guitar in the Wings-like intro, bridge and outro, and a few of the lyrics, especially the opening line, "Hey... as we're un-introducing ourselves..." It's somewhat superfluous, but there's a little bit of the Moog Source to fill out that (by design) Wings vibe.
The Downtown Dream production is also too slick for its own good - or my own good, which you can tell by how out of place my voice sounds in the arrangement, but, hey, we tried. The below live version - from a no-joke rooftop concert in Red Hook in the Summer of 2004 (with Shaun already gone, replaced by Bran and Eric) better brings the song to life. When I first saw this video (courtesy Karl), I noted that it looked like the only reason Bran agreed to play in the band was because I'd threatened to eat him - and I wasn't particularly overweight at the time! Skinny bastard...
*That is, if you don't count the tracks on the album from the original demo sessions back in 2000.
**Yes, it's true: everything I do is a reference to something else.