I had an unexpected thought last night.
I was leafing through some old typewritten transcriptions of lyrics from songs that were recorded long, long ago. Since almost all the songs were improvised while they were being recorded, I always had to go back after the fact and spend a long time hitting the pause button, rewinding, and playing through ten seconds or so at a time to transcribe the words, which somehow meant in my mind that the song now officially existed. And slowly it dawned on me. I think I need to pull out some old songs for the Mackenzie Hall show in March. And I don’t mean band songs from eight or ten years ago that only about three people in the world have ever heard, though there may be a few of those mixed in somewhere. I mean songs from way back in the days when my “studio” consisted of a keyboard and a cheap tape recorder, and a new album (or a tape full of songs) was finished about every two weeks.
If you think I’m prolific now, back then it was on a whole different level. Between 1994 and 1998, these tapes were recorded…
…along with some more tapes that aren’t in the picture.
These are all albums that pretty much no one will ever hear, recorded during my “formative years” as I honed my ability to improvise songs while recording and, after a while, started to make sounds with my fingers that were somewhat musical. There are a few early tapes where I was pretty reliant on the built-in demonstration songs of whatever keyboard was around at the time, because I couldn’t really play. But that didn’t last very long. There are quasi-concept albums, mock live albums (with the only applause supplied by the two performers themselves, which is kind of hilarious), “greatest hits” and best-of collections, an attempt at a songwriting seminar (ha!), and more than a thousand songs through which my early musical progress is captured in ridiculous, meticulous detail. You can even hear my voice change in tiny increments as I experience the strangeness of puberty.
It would take months of solid work to transfer all the tapes onto CD. I’ll get around to doing that someday before the tapes start to deteriorate to the point that playing them becomes a gamble, but it’s not the sort of thing I would ever make widely available. There’s at least a few hundred hours of music there. Some of the very early stuff I did is a little embarrassing, and for a while there Johnny Smith (the other half of the West Team, as we were known at the time) was a much better musician than I was. Though I did play a mean pencil box while he was seated at the keyboard.
The bulk of the music recorded back then is stuff I’m still proud of and can listen to and enjoy, but it would be a little like publishing my family photo albums for all to see. Only there are about two hundred photo albums in this case.
For me, though, it’s great to have this stuff, and it’s great fun to listen to. I can hear myself at ten years old (and — on a few tapes — even younger than that, before the “official” documentation began) singing about cats while failing at playing anything at all musical on a keyboard, and starting to find a somewhat coherent musical voice not long after. At the time I kind of thought I was making albums like you would in a recording studio. I came up with titles for the improvised songs, wrote them on the tape jackets, used a stopwatch to time the tracks, came up with names for imaginary musicians who played other instruments (which were really just keyboard sounds I was usually playing myself to create the illusion of there being a rhythm section), and there was an album. A few weeks later there would be another one. And then another. And another.
Some of the fake musician credits kill me. Thomas Larousage was in charge of writing string arrangements in the early days, and he left the group for a while, only to return some years later after fences had been mended. Bob Darren played piccolo on one song and I wrote, “Thanks, Bob, for lighting this one up.” Because he made the whole song, you see. Even though he didn’t exist. Daniel Stymie was a mainstay on drums in the early days, until he left to do whatever imaginary session musicians do when they leave the nest. Rick Dalamna slid into his place without anyone noticing. Ferdie Schnick showed up sometimes to contribute brass parts.
Seems like every few albums I would fire most of the imaginary band and come up with new names. In a way it’s too bad I didn’t keep this up. I could have been coming up with ridiculous fake musician credits on my CDs all these years, instead of being honest and specifying that I’m the person playing everything. Could have had some fun with people back when there was all this hilarious speculation about me.
I could write a book about those days of cassette tapes and sweaty musical discovery. But the point is, the music I’m making now wouldn’t be possible without all the time I spent fumbling around, trying to figure out how in the world to get out the music that was inside my head, and today I’m glad I was so obsessive about capturing almost every moment of that on tape. It really is like having hundreds of photo albums instead of just a handful.
There’s a pretty staggering amount of variety on these tapes, too, in terms of music and subject matter. There are some really dark collections of songs with titles like There’s a Death in the Family and The Dark Side. Then there are completely insane albums like The Mad Laughter of Starving Asses and Kleenex Desire, with songs about Barney the Dinosaur’s sex life, Mr. Rogers having a career-ending meltdown, and Bill Clinton’s penis. “The Dick That Never Was” is still one of the most poignant ballads I’ve ever recorded.
There’s a song called “Mary” from 1994 with Johnny Smith behind the keyboard and me bashing away on a pencil box with a red pen. He sings the lead part while I add harmonies and background interjections, trying to sound like David Bowie, Rick Davies in falseto mode, and a woman, pretty much all at once. It felt like the moment your teenage garage band suddenly stops sucking and you somehow manage to play a song that sounds like the music you hear in your head, prompting you to walk around for the rest of the day feeling like you’re experiencing a waking wet dream.
Only, I was ten years old, my band consisted of me and my dad, and our drum set was a green pencil box.
That didn’t mean a thing. It felt like the most epic four minutes of my life. It still kinds of sounds like it too.
There were a lot of moments like that where we couldn’t believe what was pouring out of us. And when I think about a few things I wiped out years ago instead of waiting a few days for a new blank tape, it almost causes me physical pain. I recorded over some things that are irreplaceable, like most of an hour-long rudimentary improvised audio play called Mad Dog McGee. I would kill to have that one back. But there’s nothing I can do. You can’t un-erase something that’s been erased from a cassette tape.
At least I only did that sort of thing a few times. But man, talk about wishing you could go back and do it different. Half the things I recorded in place of the things I obliterated weren’t even worth getting down on tape. I almost always recorded over something that was a million times more interesting than what was wiping it out.
Lesson learned, I guess: always back things up somehow, some way, even if you don’t think it’s essential at the time.
All of this is my long-winded way of adding a tiny bit of backstory to my spontaneous brain explosion, which was: “Holy shit. Some of this stuff is surprisingly good for how young and unskilled I was at the time!” I was looking at some lyrics to songs from 1995, the year when the only instrument I had at my disposal was this thing:
That’s not my own personal keyboard in the picture, but it’s the same model I had.
Anyway, looking at those lyrics led to this thought: I could play a few choice songs from those days at Mackenzie Hall, for something different. There’s some seriously dark shit on some of those tapes, and it’s pretty funny to hear Little Johnny singing about death, madness, broken relationships, and castration, before I knew much about any of those things.
Playing a few of these songs would just feel right somehow. Plus, it’s a bit of a kick to be able to play something you “wrote” when you were still a kid without being embarrassed by it. Some of the lyrics I came up with back then boggle my mind. I don’t know if I’ll tackle any epic dark ballads like “I’m a Victim (or So I’m Told)”, but I think something like “Zach’s Life” would fit into the set seamlessly.
It’ll make sense when/if you hear it.
Here, for your amusement, is a random song from those days. Instead of a dark tale of loss, it’s something totally ridiculous.
This is off of an album called Think It Over, which came about halfway through 1995 and the Yamaha PSR-210 period (1996-1998 was the Clavinova period, when a more expensive keyboard came into play and Johnny Smith became an integral, full-time collaborator after I wore him down). I’m not sure of the exact date, but it probably would have been before August, which would mean I was eleven years old at the time. Like pretty much everything I did up until 2002, it was improvised out of thin air while recording.
There are two main voices in the song — a somewhat hammy version of what at the time was my “normal” voice, and the voice of The Stinker, which is delivered in such a weird, rapid-fire way, a lot of the words are impossible to make out. Oddly enough, it’s probably the closest I’ve ever come to rap. Some of The Stinker’s lines I can make out crack me up, like, “Take a hike, you little stereotype,” and, “Looking at my instrument, he’s eating like a wench.”
I can’t even tell you where that stuff came from.
Dig how I have to pause at one point to set up the split mode with fake guitar/bass and get a drum pattern going. Also dig the He-Man underwear references. I really did have He-Man underwear. And a He-Man electric toothbrush.
Oh, to have He-Man clean my teeth again…
The main thing is, here’s proof that even fifteen years ago I was making radio-friendly pop music. It’s been in me all along.
(Random thing: if you type “stinky terminator” into Google, this page comes up right at the top of the results. That quick. If someone ever ends up here after typing those two words into a search engine, it’ll be a beautiful thing.)