all through high school, i wrote songs for assignments every chance i got. it made life more fun and kept me on my toes. i had the most success doing this when mrs. gilham — one of the few great high school teachers i had — was teaching english or french, finding endless ways to contort what were meant to be essays or oral presentations into musical shapes.
one time i stood in front of the class and strummed a mandolin while singing in french about celebrity endorsements. the song was called “les atheletes qui chante”. “je suis michael jordan,” went one bit. “j’aime les ball park franks.” another time, for a group assignment, i played the part of bill clinton. i was very attached to my pet pig, oinky, played by matt strukelj. when oinky died, i hit the play button on a CD player and moaned along to some insane instrumental music i recorded at home the night before.
i liked to think it kept things interesting, not just for me, but for the other students too.
in grade eleven one of the books my english class dug into was the catcher in the rye. we were supposed to write something while inhabiting the psyche of one of the characters in the story. i asked if i could write a song from the perspective of holden caulfield. mrs. gilham gave me the go-ahead.
i wrote a song called “holden on”, because bad puns are the best thing ever. it was a good excuse to mess around in a strange guitar tuning and to write in a voice that was a little different from whatever my typical songwriting voice was in those days.
i brought my crummy vantage acoustic guitar to school with me the next day, sat on top of an unattended desk in my first period english class, and sang my song. it went over well enough that some of my classmates asked if i could play it again at the end of the period. that blew my mind a little. i went through it a second time, put a little more energy into the vocal performance now that i was warmed up, and threw in a bit of “henry the horny hamster” from my x-rated christmas album before mrs. gilham shot me a look that said, “that’s as far as you go, pilgrim.”
the guitar came with me to my second period society class. sean lauria was one of the guys i shared that class with. he asked me what the deal was with the axe. i told him about my english assignment and “holden on”. he asked if he could hear it. i told him i’d already played it twice and wasn’t really up for playing it again.
he stuffed thirty or forty bucks into the front pocket of my shirt to try and convince me. i almost fell over. i handed the money back to him, laughing in disbelief. he wasn’t giving up, though. he talked ms. davis into letting me play the song for the class. so i sat on another desk that wasn’t taken and played it a third time, without quite the same intensity as before.
i only knew of one other person who ever talked their way into substituting a song for a writing assignment, and that was gord. it seemed almost poetic, since that was how we hooked up and became friends in the first place. the same year my english class was analyzing the catcher in the rye, his was reading animal farm. he wrote a song in the voice of boxer the horse — the most tragic character in the book.
for a while i only heard bits and pieces of the song. brodie johnston, who was in gord’s class when he debuted his ode to boxer, sang a few lines for me, substituting lyrics about his favourite running back for the parts he couldn’t remember. gord played part of it for me outside of school. but i didn’t hear anything close to the full thing for at least a few years.
most of the songs i wrote for school-related purposes were recorded in one form or another, but outside of a truncated instrumental reprise on WATER ONLY HATES ITSELF SILLY, “holden on” was never documented in any meaningful way. gord’s boxer song was another story.
in late 1999 amanda filmed a performance with her then-new 8mm camcorder. it has to be the first existing recording of the song, made just days before or after gord played the PG-rated version at school.
three years later i asked gord if he wanted to revisit it and give it a proper recording. he wrote out what he remembered of the words, changing some of them in the process. we got down a rough demo just to run through it, both of us playing electric guitar, gord singing through a cold that made him a temporary baritone.
and then we didn’t do anything more with it for fourteen years.
when we were bouncing ideas around for the followup to STEW, the boxer song came up. i learned gord never quite settled on a version he was satisfied with.
i finally got around to mixing the 2002 demo so we could both hear it again, muting my guitar part, since i didn’t think it added much.
we both felt this was the version to build on. it lost the anger and desperation that was there in the beginning and took on a more defeated, mournful quality, with gord improvising some words at the end about “sugarcane mountain” that sounded to me like the doomed horse’s dying dream.
we sat down and tried to work out where we could tighten things up without doing too much to alter the soul of the song, and i recorded a late night demo on my own that reflected the changes we made.
gord first had benjamin the donkey predicting boxer’s fate. a quick look at the source text revealed it was really wise pig old major who warned him he would be expendable once he’d given the last of his great strength. i tweaked that and a few other lines, but left most of the lyrics untouched.
we picked at it some more, experimenting with the length and placement of different sections until it felt right. an instrumental bit that had been forgotten for well over a decade was reinstated. brand new music was written for the “sugarcane mountain” coda.
recording it was pretty straightforward. we got down the acoustic guitars and then the rest fell into place pretty quick. there’s a bit of a different dynamic driving what we do now, though. in the past we never talked much about what we were doing. we just did it. now there’s much more of a dialogue happening, and we’re not afraid to make suggestions to each other.
when gord plays bass, he tends to throw in these great little jabs of unexpected melody. “situations” on STEW is a good example. the bass doesn’t just hold down the low end. it dances.
with this song, i thought the bass might be more effective during the 3/4 sugarcane mountain section if it wasn’t so busy. i asked gord to try a simple walking bass line without throwing in any fiddly bits. as for me, after i recorded a rough drum track gord said he felt playing with sticks didn’t really suit the song. i tried playing with brushes and everything started to feel a lot more open and dynamic.
we were both right.
it’s nice to be able to voice an idea or ask someone to try something a different way without having to worry about any egos getting bruised, because you know everything is being done in service of the music.
a great example of this philosophy in action: i assumed gord would want to handle the vocals here, since the song is really his baby and has been for a long time. he asked me to sing it instead. i did twist his arm into singing a bit of backup for the final “never gonna let you down” bit, but aside from that all the singing is me.
i really liked the acoustic guitar countermelodies i came up with for my demo. when it came right down to it, throwing those in the final recording would have made everything feel a little too cluttered. so that fell by the wayside. but there was still room for banjo and piano. as for the lap steel, that’s the 1950s “mother of toilet seat” magnatone first heard on AFTERTHOUGHTS. this might be that old beast’s best moment on record so far.
i thought it was about time i performed a bit of surgery on the rough mix that’s been sitting around for a while, because i’ve been wanting to make a little music video to go with the song. the moving pictures this time come to you from john halas and joy batchelor’s animated film version of animal farm from 1954 — secretly funded by the CIA! the last time i saw it was when my own english class read the book in 2000 or 2001, so i couldn’t remember how much of boxer was in there. as it turned out, there was more than enough material for what i wanted to do, including some moments that were more evocative than i was expecting them to be.
and there you have the near-twenty-year-long journey of a song that began life as a high school english assignment, from raw teenage howl to refined alt-folk, or whatever it wants to call itself now.