Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Demo-itis! And an ode to the joy of creation.

I. Your Newborn Baby is Perfect to You and You Alone. To Everyone Else, it's Just a Noisy, Incomprehensible Mess.

Have you heard the term "demo-itis" before? If you're not a recording artist, there's no reason why you should have. It refers to when an artist begins to fall in love with his or her demo--or recorded rough draft--of a song; when the artist might start to think, "I should keep that wrong bass note/messed up harmony/missed snare hit when I/we record the real version of this song". That's when you know you've caught it. You fall in love with your mistakes.
What it really is, is endorphins. When one records a demo of a new song, there is a high one gets, like (what I imagine would be) seeing your child for the first time, or seeing it walk for the first time. It can do no wrong. It pukes on you/you hit a horrible clam in the guitar solo, and you look skyward and crow, "Wow! Isn't life amazing!". Meanwhile, your more objective cohorts are looking at you with a mixture of pity, exasperation and outright disgust. What you need to do in this situation (if you are in a band, and if you can be sure that no one in the band has any personal issues with you) is listen to your band mates. They really don't care how you raise your real baby, but they definitely do not want wrong notes or embarrassing silliness in the grooves of a record with their name on it.  See, no one could tell that to Paul McCartney  in the 70's. There was too much weed, too much fame, too much money and too many kids tied up in the equation.

"Your kid's lisp and talent for belching at the dinner table are very, erm, cute, but do you want that to be the impression he/she makes on the world?". Ask yourself that and it's that easy to cure one's self of demo-itis. You know the potential of your innocent creation. You hear the genius in the goo-goo-ga-ga, but it's hard for others to hear it.

II. Tangent: Perfection? 

Let's get more complicated. Perfection is impossible in real life. There are just too many variables and too many points of view. But, it IS possible in art. Or is it?  Do you want your art to reflect real life, or reflect your idea of perfection? What IS perfection? Why is it so important for you to obtain it and impose your idea of it on everyone? Aren't you just gonna get mad and disillusioned when the world doesn't also see your creation as perfect?  Good questions with no correct answers.

I've used the metaphor before of something being perfect in a natural, unplanned and random way--a shooting star, a rainbow, the sound of wind through a dead tree; or in a totally planned way--a building or a statue. Thus, an inspired, improvised John Coltrane solo is as miraculous as a written out symphony.

I can say that Echo and the Bunnymen's song "The Killing Moon" is the most perfectly recorded/arranged/produced song in pop history, or that George Harrison's solo in The Beatles' "Something" is the most perfect guitar solo ever played, but 99% of people are going to disagree with me. And I'll most likely disagree with their arguments. "There's no accounting for taste" is so true and yet sometimes so hard to accept. 

IIIa. There's no "me" in "Demo", unless you look at it in the mirror.  
IIIb. There's no real meaning behind that last sentence except that it sounded clever. But perhaps I shouldn't have told you that.

Having been recording demos for the next Sitting Next to Brian/Beth and Brian project, I've been listening and re-listening to demos as I finish them. Because that's what you do. You totally dig hearing your new baby coming through the speakers, but you're (hopefully) also thinking things like "that's a stupid lyric--must change it", "that harmony ruins that part of the bridge, but keep the one in the second verse", "maybe add a shaker in the final chorus", etc...
I've done this enough now that I know a happy accident that adds to the song from just a careless mistake that I didn't bother to fix because it's a demo. I love to have fun with my demos. I'm physically and mentally incapable of trying to make something "perfect"--in a demo at least. So I start to walk down the hazardous road of getting used to the mistakes and goofy stuff on the demos.
I work with Henning Ohlenbusch on my records, and if, by the time we're making a record and I'm unsure of whether something should stay or go, I know I can get an objective opinion. Quality control. Sometimes I'm advised to play it safe, but sometimes I get the green light to add to the weirdness (and truth be told, my sense of what's normal and what's weird has always been skewed.)

There's also the question of lyrics. I've written lyrics that I thought were just awesomely amazing, and never heard one word about them from anyone who heard them. Then I get people saying they love the tossed-off-in 5-minutes goof fest that is "Familiar Old Sugar". So I should stop trying to write anything meaningful and let people find meaning where they may. 

IV: I've Been Blessed 

I was thinking about how odd it is how large of a role other people's demos have played in my life in the last 15 years. Really, not many people have been in the position that I once was in (and am still, but to a lesser extent, due to technology), and that is this:
From about 1997 to 2005, I was consistently the recipient of cassettes--and then CDs--of new songs by amazing songwriters that I happened to be in bands with. In the course of a two month period I might have received three new Lord Russ songs for The Aloha Steamtrain, seven Thane Thomsen songs for The Figments next album, six Henning Ohlenbusch songs for his new solo venture. And perhaps some more demos from Kevin O'Rourke or Adam Greenberg.

So much talent, so many great songs and imaginative ideas.

Because I am, by nature, a lazy and slow learner, my first reaction when given a new batch of songs to learn would be "awesome! but...ugh! I have to make space in my brain for more songs? I have to come up with nice drum parts? Haven't I done enough? Oh...I'm tired and my brain hurts...and I haven't even opened the tape case yet..".

But then, I'd think "Yeah, Brian. Poor you. You have to listen to more amazing new songs by your friends and band mates, and you have to learn them and come up with ideas for them because they respect your opinion. And soon you'll be playing these songs for an audience and/or hearing them on a record. Yes, I'd say your life is horrible".

Then I'd curse myself for my laziness and shitty attitude and put the goddamn tape or CD in and listen--either in the car (or library van) or with headphones. I need to have nothing else distracting me. And then, I make it all more exciting and fun to learn by imagining myself playing these new songs in a recording studio or on stage, and that promise reminds me why I'm in it, and of what a lucky drummer I am.

V. Demos of the Stars. Or Baby Pictures of Plato, Shakespeare, Jesus, Siddhartha and the like.

I've written about how weird it is to be a music fan now, and how the inclusion of an "unreleased demo" version of a song or a bunch of songs is now almost standard when a record from 20, 30 or 40 years ago is reissued. We live in a weird time that way. Who will want to hear Radiohead demos 30 years from now? Will they sound exactly the same? Or will they be quirky and full of hiss, cars driving by the window and various blunders?
I'm not implying that every "unreleased demo" bonus track is engaging. Indeed, the majority of them are worth no more than one curiosity listen. However, every once in a while, there's one that reminds you what an amazing song this was, and that at one time it was naked and newborn, unable to get around on its own, still nursing, and maybe even didn't have a name yet. Perhaps its creator wasn't even sure if it was going to live past its first couple weeks. Or maybe one parent would fall in love with it, but the partner(s) insist you put it up for adoption, or else you can kiss the marriage buh-bye.
God damn, it's scary when the song-as-child/band-as-marriage metaphors start to get more involved. 

What follows are some rather noteworthy demo versions of well known--some more than others--songs. These are baby pictures of future legends.
When I hear these, having listened to so, so many demos for my various bands, I once in a while can't help imagining "ok, I am this person's band mate and they just handed me this demo of a new song to check out".
Then BOOM, it's George Harrison singing a solo version of "Something". It really makes one rejoice at the thought of writing songs. Or creating any art. One day, "Something" didn't exist. The next day, it did, and was put on tape, copies were made and given to the other members of that band George had in the 60's, and they had to either come up with some interesting parts on their own, or play what George was hearing in his head.

And knowing that as long as you pick up that guitar/sit down at that piano, keep singing in the shower etc, there's no telling that your best idea yet might come crashing through the stratosphere and land squarely in your mind. Then it's all up to you. This is the meaning of the famous literary phrase, "In dreams begin responsibilities". 

Imagine being these guys' band mates and hearing these songs for the first time:

 Strawberry Fields Forever--John Lennon, 1966

Recorded while filming How I Won the War in Spain, weeks after the end of The Beatles' final tour and weeks before the first Sgt Pepper recording sessions.

Down, Down, Down--Neil Young, 1966

You may or may not recognize this song. By the time this demo became a Buffalo Springfield song, it had been chopped, groomed, inflated, rearranged and given a completely new identity. It was born "Down Down Down" in 1966; in 1967 it had some radical experiences and changed its name to "Broken Arrow"--Neil Young's masterpiece that ends Buffalo Springfield Again.

Pictures of Lilly--Pete Townshend, 1967

So beautiful. Townshend's voice communicates on a whole different--and much deeper--level than Roger Daltry's. Even if--especially if--singing about masturbation.

St. Matthew and Tapioca Tundra--Mike Nesmith, 1967-68

I had to go and make my own video for these two songs. I couldn't decide which I liked better, and neither was represented on any video site, so I took matters into my own hands. Great songs, accompanied by great pictures (largely thanks to psychojello.tumblr.com ).

Angel--Jimi Hendrix, 1968

The demo dates back to early 1968--two years before Hendrix recorded it with a band. I believe he said that this song was about his mother visiting him in a dream. I love this more than the full band version. 

Something--George Harrison, 1969

Just imagine hearing this song for the first time. A little something you whipped up at home then, George?

High Time--Jerry Garcia, 1969

An interesting thing to consider about some of these: fashions changed so quickly in the late 60's-70's. In 1969, The Grateful Dead were still largely a loud psychedelic machine, seemingly flirting with a more prog-rock direction. However....lyricist Robert Hunter was leaving "China Cat Sunflower" and "Dark Star" behind in favor of more timeless, universal lyrics. And Jerry Garcia was leaving behind playing in 11/4 time and proving himself to be a songwriter of much more subtlety and depth than he was yet showing on stage or on record. In early 1970, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty were the result of a flurry of songwriting in this new, more conventional vein, but with that Dead twist. (nerdy note: the video says 1970, but I looked to see when The Grateful Dead debuted the song live, and it was in mid-late 1969).

Stairway to Heaven--Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, 1970 

This breaks the mold of the other ones, as it's a group effort. But still, imagine being those guys in that room getting that song together.  It's like (depending on your opinion of the song), Martin Luther King's or Adolph Hitler's parents getting it on, not realizing what they had just created. Or the moment nuclear fission or the compound that makes up LSD were discovered. Or the godddamn Internet. This, children, is what god is. And this is what the devil is. 

Perfect Day--Lou Reed, 1971

At this point in time, Lou Reed was anything but famous, despite having helped to redefine popular music in the four albums he released with The Velvet Underground. He quit the Velvets in 1970, and went to work for his father on Long Island as a typist, unsure of whether his music career was over.  I don't know the full story of "Perfect Day", but I imagine that Lou the typist would still occasionally call on his old haunts and get good and loaded (heh heh) in one way or another. "Perfect Day" is a song about heroin, about a "weekender" spending the day high ("arm in arm with myself"--from another Lou Reed song, but same idea), roaming the city without a care in the world. Then, back to work on Monday. However, a British fan named David Bowie (who also wrote some songs) was hatching plans to get him out of that secretary's chair and back on to the stage.

Ziggy Stardust--David Bowie, 1971

...and, while reinventing Lou Reed and packaging him for mass consumption, Bowie was also inventing (or at least copyrighting) glam rock and coming up with songs such as... 

Still I Dream of It--Brian Wilson, 1976

"What is this shit?", is the reported response that Mike Love had to hearing this song for the first time. What is it? Well, Mike, it's NOT the light disco shit you'd prefer to have on Beach Boys albums. And it IS the best song that your cousin Brian, whom you're forcing to face the public even though he's obviously petrified and embarrassed of his appearance, has come up with in about five years. So shut up.
Unfortunately, Brian didn't stand up for himself, and this song was unheard until the late 80's on the Good Vibrations box set.

Baker Street--Gerry Rafferty, 1977 (?)

Yes, I also went through the process of making a quickie video for this too, because no one else had, and I feel like the demo of this song must be heard. Why? BECAUSE THERE'S NO SAXOPHONE! The riff is played on a guitar with a wah wah pedal. And thus, the song is dreamy on a whole different level.

Senses Working Overtime--Andy Partridge, 1981

Again, I had to create a video to get this one in. This demo and the next one are great ways to go out because they seem to catch inspiration very shortly after they hit. Grab the nearest blank tape and boom box and play what you have so far before you forget it. In this case, Andy Partridge seems to have about 2/3 of this future classic down. There's no bridge and the over all feel and melody aren't yet fleshed out. If you were to hear it, would you hear a top 10 UK hit? Could you see your band lip syncing it on Top of the Pops? Not likely. But Andy saw the international success that this drooling, babbling infant was going to grow up to be, and began saving for its college fund immediately! Bonus points for the sound of a car driving by at the start.


Do Re Mi--Kurt Cobain, 1994

I'm not sure why more hasn't been made about this demo. Or maybe it has, but I haven't read a whole lot. It was recorded by Kurt Cobain on a boom box in 1994. This is pretty significant, seeing as he only survived 15 weeks of that year. It's also significant because it's a damn poppy and uplifting song! Well, the lyrics sound, um, less than finished, so we have no idea what the song was to be about. But it's the most straight ahead pop song Cobain wrote since "About a Girl", which sort of kicked off his career six years before that. So, for Beatle-freak Kurt, it's nice to see that he had one more sunny pop gem left in him. It's just a drag that he couldn't take hold of that beam of sunlight and pull himself out of the darkness. There were probably dozens more where that came from.
Unfortunately, the last "official" posthumous word from Nirvana Inc. was the rather unremarkable and depressing "You Know You're Right", which, to me, sounds like all those bands who came in Nirvana's wake and took only the obvious and shallow elements--the raspy voice, the soft-LOUD-soft-LOUD dynamic, the flannels and ripped jeans--and paid no attention to the subtleties that made Nirvana and Cobain a rock and roll legend.

So now that I've completely intellectualized the process, it's now time for me to return to my own crying, hungry, in-need-of-a-nap babies. Perhaps teach them to walk or talk or something. As I said in one of my own songs, "Riding to the Rhyme",
"I have a thousand mouths to feed/Some may go on to greatness in a while".
(but otherwise I don't really like that song much so don't go searching for it).

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