Keeping it Real
Song lyrics don’t have to be overly clever to grab my attention. On the contrary, a song that tries too hard is often simply too much work to listen to.
Taylor Swift, for example, has a song on the pop charts currently called “Love Story”. It’s a catchy, high school-themed song with a pseudo-literary Romeo and Juliet metaphor going on. She maintains this theme throughout too until she sings, “‘Cause you were a Romeo, I was a scarlet letter”. Of course, The Scarlet Letter is a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel about a woman who has a child out of wedlock and is marked by her town as an adulterer. Yeah, she lost me there, too. I assume she is trying too hard to show how smart and clever she is. As a result, I just can’t get through it.
I heard a songwriter introduce a song from the stage once by saying “I wrote this song with my thesaurus”. Unfortunately, it sounded like it too. Clever word choices are only clever when they don’t draw attention to their own cleverness. For me, a good song has a good lyric that wraps the narrative together in a parallel melody and brings the listener along each time it’s played. After all, there is no point in putting a song into your iTunes collection if you’re not interested in hearing it again and again.
Here are some local artists who have put together some pieces that don’t try too hard; that don’t strive to be all things to all people; that aren’t weighed down by self-conscious cleverness; and that breathe with an honesty that is evident on each re-play:
Song Title: “Long Beach Birthday Blues”
Words and Music: Jeff Hickey
Last month, on July 14th, Jeff Hickey passed away due to complications following a car accident. Though I’d met him several times, I didn’t know Jeff well. He was a volunteer engineer at Madison’s community radio station, WORT, and I’d listened to him off and on for years. The first time I met him, I was doing some live, shameless-self-promotional event or other and he was behind the console putting it out on the air. I remember thinking he looked exactly like he sounded. Not that I had pictured him looking like he did, but that he just looked like himself. I can’t explain it. As I was leaving that day, he handed me a copy of his CD, Loose Ends. It won a Madison Area Music Award for Best Acoustic Album in 2004.
Loose Ends is a gem. Jeff’s voice is resonant and beautiful and his guitar playing is superb, skillful and interesting. The stand-out piece for me on this collection is “Long Beach Birthday Blues”. It’s a traveler’s tale told from the perspective of someone who is down on his luck and trying to make the best of it. This is not just any traveler though; this is Jeff himself with all the easy honesty of a good songwriter coming through. In this song, Hickey tells about a hinge day – a day when one phase of his life ends and another begins. It’s his birthday and he’s trying to put a good face on his unsettled disquiet as he walks through the airport killing time. And as he does so, he frames where he’s been and where he’s going within the context of the flight and the terminal.
But the ticket girl smiles like she means it / Gives me free drink coupons for the flight / I’ve got a pretty friend waiting at the other end / If I didn’t feel so bad I’d feel alright
It’s easy to picture Jeff walking about, drinking at the bar, looking out the window, and sensing that traveler disconnect when he knows that where he stands is all journey and no destination:
Dawn turns into daylight; nice again today / Not too hard to see why people move here / Maybe I will someday. It won’t be someday soon / All my chips are on the cards I’m holding
He moves from here to a brief conversation with someone at the bar. It’s all small talk and it really doesn’t matter if it’s Hickey speaking or the stranger. But there’s an almost sad superficiality left behind with this short exchange that puts a lonely stamp on the events of the trip.
Good old boy drinking at the counter / “I’m headed for Chicago how about you?” / “It’ll be cold up there” / “Yeah no doubt” / “Say, did you hear the one about..?” / “So long have a good one” / “Yeah you too”
What makes this so real for me is that I have had similar short bursts of conversation with Jeff. He always seemed to be an outgoing stranger who liked to talk, which made radio seem like such good fit.
Hickey wraps up the song neatly by making the entire trip; the airport; the jetliner; the bar; the drink coupons; and all the strangers a metaphor for life. It’s a simple idea and he ties all the elements of the song together with this simple coda.
In the liner notes, Hickey refers to this as “a naval-gazing song”. I agree that it’s introspective, but it’s not so much self-absorbed as it is self-reflective. I get a clear picture of this “everyman” every time I hear this song and I like him. Now that Jeff’s gone, I miss him too.
Jeff’s CD can be ordered from the Third Hand Capo Company’s website, http://thirdhandcapo.com. Proceeds of the sales go to Jeff’s family. Order a copy now. There may not be many left by the time you get there.
On Sunday, August 23 from 12:00 pm to 6:00 pm, there will be a benefit concert at the High Noon Saloon featuring many different musical guests including Moonhouse (co-founded by Jeff Hickey and Blackhawk), Bill and Bobbie Malone, and Harvey Reid. All proceeds go to Jeff’s wife and children
Song Title: Drop Of A Hat
Words and Music: Dale Kidd and Aaron Nathans
I first heard this song when it was brand new. I was sitting on my front porch with my guitar one day and Dale Kidd stopped by with Cosmo, his dog. Dale took the guitar. I took the leash. And he ran through an early version of the song, occasionally interjecting narrative critique on the parts that he and Aaron planned still to smooth out or smooth over. I liked it right away. I’ve heard him do this several times since, last time with his new band, The Hang Loueys, on a Madtoast Live podcast (http://www.madtoastlive.com). As his bandmate, Andrew Nath says, “It’s just a sweet, sweet song”.
The song is about love and coincidence and dreams and how they seem constantly to be bouncing off each other and coming together at the same time. According to Dale, this was truly a collaborative work with Aaron Nathans. “It’s a special song to both of us that just came from somewhere” he said. “I had the music down and was just playing it for Aaron and he said that song is called ‘Drop of a Hat’. It’s a total co-write.”
This bouncy, fun song is about Mr. Callahan, his wife, Mrs. Callahan, and their dog Jack. Of course, I can’t listen to this without putting Dale himself in the middle of the narrative because I’ve seen him doing all these same things that he describes Mr. Callahan doing:
Mister Callahan likes to walk his dog / At the end of the day / By the edge of the dam / Hydropower roars as the people snore / And the salmon soar / In an opposite way
It’s the perfect setup. After watching Mr. Callahan wordlessly and quietly walking his dog, you then get an idea of what he’s thinking about out there on the edge of the dam.
Mr. Callahan has a secret plan / To be his own man / In a couple of years / Going to quit that job and buy that hog / Put his wife on the back / Sidecar for the dog
I know Dale well enough to know that he harbors dreams like this himself. I don’t know about the Harley… but he always has some project or other going. He seems constantly to be seeking out and finding like-minded musicians with whom he can play and write. And he is always finding some new equipment or guitar style or songwriter that inspires him.
After we learn about Mr. Callahan, we are introduced to Mrs. Callahan who seems not unlike her husband with her quiet, simple dreams:
Mrs. Callahan never speaks her mind / Keeps things inside / But she’s thinking all day / About that new motor home that she saw on TV / That was really fixed up / Nice bed for the pup
And, of course, it works out for all three in the end:
See the Callahans and their dog Jack / In their new motor home / Scooter tied on the back.
I love how Mrs. Callahans motor home dreams all come true, while Mr. Callahan’s Harley dreams are reduced to a scooter. There is something poignant about it. I like to think that Mr. Callahan is secretly satisfied with the scooter. I think the Harley might have been too much for him – and he knows it.
At the end, Andrew Nath’s comment about this being a “sweet, sweet song” is brought home:
Running down that road life can be so sweet / When the one that you love / Doesn’t have to compete / And isn’t life sweet
It’s a nice sentiment – the Callahans as road warriors. As I listen to it, I imagine Dale and his wife, Jean, and dog, Cosmo pulling up in front of the house in a motor home some day looking just like them.
You can find Dale and the Hang Loueys somewhere on the internet, though where is anyone’s guess. As Dale says, “Hey we may have a My Space deal but I don’t know how to find it. Andy said he was working on something.”