Every Monday and Thursday for seven weeks, there was a new Thunderegg History Lesson: a song from the vault accompanied by a story. (For optimal results, listen and read simultaneously.) There are now fourteen, representing a song from each Thunderegg album, and thus completes Thunderegg History Unit #1. See the complete list after the jump, and stay tuned for what happens next. Continue reading
Monthly Archives: February 2012
“Skeletons,” from Line Line (2011; recorded 2006)
I had arrived in Richmond Friday evening. The rest of the band drove all night from Connecticut for our weekend session at Sound of Music: Over the previous two years, adhering to our strictly languorous pace, we had recorded parts of four songs at the Shed. Now we wanted to finish the second record, and we’d found the people (most prominently engineer Alan Weatherhead) who could help us get it done. The big red van, also known as the BRV, pulled in early Saturday morning. They all collapsed onto the beds that had been laid out Biloxi Blues style along the top floor of the big three-story building that had once been one of Broad Street’s many department stores during its heyday. Everybody slept a little in the rock-star beds. Then we went for a big breakfast, biscuits, sausage gravy, the works. When we got back to the studio we watched a little college football. Around one o’clock we were ready to record, so we sent the intern out to buy us some bourbon at the ABC. After a couple hours we had laid down Keith’s drums for “Skeletons” but then it was time for dinner, which we ate at a leisurely pace. We returned to Sound of Music and then one of Bob’s friends came by and we showed off for him by jamming out some super-extended versions of Bob’s six-string showcases, “It Was Really Pretty Good” and “The Envelope Pushes Back,” neither of which we actually intended to record.
Yet somehow when everybody left around five o’clock the next day, we had enough in the can for five new songs, and then over the course of the following week, taking the day off for Thanksgiving, Al and I added guitars and vocals and put together two other songs ourselves. As I listened to the initial mixes in the big control room with the gigantic sound board I couldn’t believe how good we sounded. I remember thinking it wasn’t possible to be happier. I made some phone calls to tell people as much.
The next Sunday, exactly a week after the boys left, my last day there, I lollygagged around the studio, digging around forgotten rooms filled with old gear. I watched more football. I hung out with the three-piece sludge-metal band—six-string bass, four-string bass, drums, and they were very nice—that was recording upstairs. When I finally got around to looking at my phone I realized it had blown up: messages from my dad and my sister. Mom was in the hospital. In the next room, Al mixed “I Died Today (for Just a Minute).”
“Skeletons” had been written at a time when I’d suddenly realized that, after kicking around in hopeless romantic quicksand for a long time, I’d somehow managed to fall into a good relationship. Things were, in this song, looking up. In Richmond it was recorded under similarly optimistic circumstances, a feeling that the Egg had finally turned a corner, and then life got tough—tougher than my well-trodden territory of dorm-room heartbreak, not that dorm-room heartbreak doesn’t suck, by a thousandfold. By spring the record would be mixed and mastered and ready, but it would take a backseat to more important things. For the next couple years, though, I would listen to it all the time, particularly this song, walking around my neighborhood in Brooklyn worried, to remind myself that good fortune could come again, that it would come again. When it did, I would be ready. Or at least ready to be ready.
“The Mighty Battlecat,” from Thunderegg (1997)
I sometimes think that the five months between getting accepted to writing school and actually starting writing school—April to September 1997—may have been the single period in my life when people thought I was coolest. Nobody had read my stuff, and for all they knew, I was some kind of secret genius. For all I knew, I was some kind of secret genius. In May I quit my job with gusto (“I’m outta here,” I actually said to my amused boss) and playboyed that entire summer, watching the boats bob on Nantucket Harbor while listening to Ladies and Gentlemen We’re Floating in Space as loud as my Sony Sports headphones would go.
Of course, if I’d really been that cool, then I would’ve had better luck with the ladies, especially with one in particular with whom I’d attended high school and who, in the back of a roadhouse in Ewing, New Jersey, the late-August night we all learned Lady Diana was killed, quoted the entire He-Man introduction flawlessly from memory and made me fall in love with her:
Fabulous secret powers were revealed to me the day I held aloft my magic sword and said, “By the power of Greyskull! I have the power!” Cringer became the mighty Battlecat, and I became He-Man, the most powerful man in the universe! Only three others share this secret—our friends the Sorceress, Man-at-Arms, and Orko. Together we defend Castle Greyskull from the evil forces of Skeletor.
Her recitation easily ranked among the purest, truest music I’d ever heard, even with the particularly noxious backdrop of Central Jersey jam funk from the band we’d come to see. My unconsummated summer love, the girl from my high school math class and for that matter my middle school math class, gyrated along lamely but gamely. “Don’t you dance?” she asked me as I stood transfixed by her and repelled by the funk, and I told her Yes, but only when you’re not looking.
At that moment I had reached a pre-MFA vista from which both childhood and adulthood rolled away from the central point of this beautiful girl from my hometown. I hadn’t thought of Orko, He-Man’s floating buddy, since I was eleven. She had reached my awed inner fifth-grader just as she had inspired my usual what-if-we-got-married fantasy and I imagined our house, our car, our children. Yet as she danced and the five-string bass popped and the wah-wah diddled—hard riff now!— I also somehow knew that while the house, the car, the children would happen, they weren’t going to happen with me. I was a chicken, I wouldn’t make the move, and far in the distance, when I was the unfathomable age of thirty-four, most people would have driveways and families, but I would not. When I got to graduate school and most likely well beyond, I would just keep doing what I’d done all my life. I would write some stories and read some books but mostly I would sit around, space out, and listen to records. Four, fourteen, twenty-four, thirty-four, it’s my primary mode. Plus the then relatively recent hobby of writing songs about unrequited love. In a couple days I would start grad school, and my five amazing potential-filled months would draw to a close.
“I Don’t Want to Stay Here (with Me),” from Where Are the Cars (2008)
For about one week of the summer that I lived in my parents’ empty house—not coincidentally, a week when my father was home for meetings—I took to putting on a tie when I got dressed in the morning. I thought that if I “dressed” for “work,” I’d be more productive. I didn’t get more done, but during this time I did steal a container of hummus* from Bon Appetit at the Princeton Shopping Center. I think I was rebelling against my tie and although I wasn’t caught I apologize for the whole sorry situation. Eight years later, when my mom was sick and I was in charge of making Christmas dinner, I spent $300 in overpriced groceries there in hopes of making up for it.
On the latter end of one afternoon that week, I decided I’d tried hard enough for the day and that I’d walk to town and get a beer or two. It was happy hour, after all. Princeton has like three bars, and they’re all lousy. I headed for the one I knew to be lousiest, the too-sleek Triumph Brew Pub, and on my way there I stopped at the bank for some cash. There, sitting on the sidewalk in front of the cash machine, was a kid I went to high school with, Kenny Martinson. Remember that I, unemployed, living with my parents, a hummus thief about to go drink alone, was wearing a tie. Kenny was dirty and dazed and looked in a bad way.
We played on the Elks together in Little League. He’d been a harmless wise guy who used to wear his helmet cocked back on his head, and one time he hit a double and was so excited that he was jumping around near second base and Coach Davis yelled at him. In high school he stopped going to class and was into the Dead and tie-dyes and LSD, and once in the hallway I saw him knock back an entire vial of what I later heard was liquid acid. It must have been like fifty hits, right in the middle of the school day. Now, in the summer of 2000 on the sidewalk of Nassau Street, I tried to say hi to him and he just stared into the middle distance.
“We used to go to school together,” I continued, now feeling awkward. “I’m Will. You’re Kenny Martinson, right?”
And on hearing his name, he finally looked at me and said, “I was.”
I hesitated. “Uh…so who are you now?”
That was all Onawa had to say to me. I got my cash and walked a few blocks farther to Triumph Brewpub, now with a new song in my head that went Onawa Xavier, Onawa Xavier. I don’t know where I got the “Xavier” part. I sat down at the low-lit bar and ordered a beer and in time, sure enough, I met an attractive blonde who had just finished her day at one of myriad financial-consulting concerns in that town. I told her I was a musician, recording two new albums in my home studio, which was not a lie, and maybe my tie helped a little but she gave me her business card. After a couple drinks she left, and I did too, humming Onawa Xavier all the way home, and when I reached my studio/parents’ house I was uplifted enough to bang out an e-mail to the Thunderegg mailing list—which, if you’re on the Thunderegg mailing list, you know is not a frequent affair. I included my new Triumph Brewpub ladyfriend’s address, hit send, and finally took off my tie with gusto—the way I remember my father doing when he came home from work at the bank when I was a little kid so happy to see him—to celebrate a day well spent.
The next morning I woke and put on the tie and when I got to my computer, there was already a message in my inbox waiting for me. It was from the blonde, curtly requesting that I remove her immediately from any and all future mailings. I immediately apologized, trying to explain that I hardly ever sent out Thunderegg news, and she didn’t respond. I would never hear from her again, but I would forever remain paranoid about adding people to my e-mail list. And I would never forget her name. I looked her up on Facebook just now and found her. She got married in 2004. She visited Los Angeles at some point, but in the headline of her photo set she couldn’t even spell it: “Los Angelas.” It is amazing the people we cannot forget.
Five years later, I recorded this song as a snippet, replacing “Onawa Xavier”—and consequently Kenny Martinson—with “I Don’t Want to Stay Here” as I stewed about how somebody had just smashed my car window on Carroll Street in Brooklyn for no good reason. Maybe that was the payback for the hummus. The next day was the first day of school in the Bronx, so I was already in a sorrowful mood. Summer was over. When I got up at six the next morning I would be putting on a tie.
* Dad: “I have drawn freely from the imagination and adhered only loosely to the pattern of my past life. To this extent, and for this reason, I ask to be judged as a writer of fantasy.” —Frederick Exley, “A Note to the Reader,” A Fan’s Notes
“Keep It with You (demo),” from Powder to the People (1998)
I was in graduate school for fiction, writing short stories like I was supposed to. I hadn’t managed any songs in a few months, but I had a cute girlfriend I loved, and I told myself that was the reason why: Most of my songs had been about heartbreak. I didn’t know how to write about being happy. And surely I was so happy. I was so happy that I was panicking. It is as hard for me to explain fourteen years later as it would have been then.
I had a small pile of microcassettes: recordings I’d been making on the fly since college, forgotten conversations with the blare of background barrooms, punctuated by little snippets of myself singing—usually as Dee-dee-dee-dee-dee—propulsive bass lines, muscular guitar hooks, piano arpeggios, entire choir parts, the grandest arrangements ever, sprinkled with fairy dust, all of it nearly impossible to decode in the hard light of morning, never mind the hard light of three, four, five years later. Nevertheless I had to try because I was so happy. I was so happy, if I didn’t record something I would be lost, and I would lose my cute girlfriend. I was so happy.
For two weeks that summer I sifted through the tapes and fleshed out thirty-five snippets that I thought someday I could turn into real songs when I had something to write about. These became Powder to the People, which despite its magnanimous title wasn’t supposed to be heard by other people. And several of its songs did become real: “Pardon Your French,” “In the Loft,” “Keep It with You.” Sad, hurt songs written about a year and a half later in the winter after, indeed, my cute girlfriend was gone.
Just a few weeks before I quit my job and moved out of the loft and back to my parents’ house, I came up with the words to this song. They were about trying to keep someone you love when she’s already out the door, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought I still had a shot. On the streets of South Norwalk, before the 1999 Fairfield Weekly holiday party, I sang it all into my little micro-recorder like I used to, along with ideas for a horn part and a guitar lead. A couple days later Jake came down from Hartford and we put a three-piece together and we laid it down in a studio in the city. Now there is a band, I wanted to tell her. This is the best I can possibly do. I gave my girl the song for Christmas: I only want to keep it with you. It’s going to get better. See? I’m writing songs again. It’s going to get better.
“Conversation Hearts,” from Universal Nut (1995)
Every Valentine’s Day, my mother used to send me a card and a little box of Necco Conversation Hearts. My senior year of college, I spread out the chalky candies on the bedspread in my dorm room and strung them together to form this song. Would that there’d been a girl to share the moment with, a girl to please with my cute little word games, a girl to muss that bedspread with. In those days I was sure she was out in the world somewhere. Sometimes as I lay awake, heartbroken over one romantic fiasco or another, I would even call out to her. And wherever she was, telepathically she would say, “That’s bullshit. That’s bullshit the way they’re treating you. Just don’t worry about her, my love. Someday we will finally be together.”
The following summer, now graduated and subletting an apartment in New Haven, I recorded the song after returning from a Stereolab concert in Central Park. I sang la la la as I thought Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen might have, their effervescence and forthrightness in equal measure. I pictured the la’s floating up to the sky like a smoke signal, maybe straight to the heart of my hypothetical soul mate.
In time I would break college’s bad-luck streak and I would find women who loved me, and I would love them too, and consequently in the dead of night I would speak less and less to the girl I’d conjured when I was in college, the one who’d always stuck up for me. I couldn’t say whether we’d had a falling out or just drifted apart.
As I typed this today, seventeen Valentine’s Days later, from another sublet, still single, now in San Francisco, I looked down and realized I was wearing a Stereolab T-shirt. I found it at a used-clothing store in Austin last fall. When I brought it to the register, the pretty cashier, twenty-two at the most, held it up, then crinkled her face. “Stereolab,” she said. “I don’t get the reference.”
“It’s not really a reference so much as a band,” I said.
“That’s cool,” she said, ringing me up.
“They were really good,” I felt compelled to add.
“Would you like a bag?” she asked.
Maybe tonight I’ll try telling my hypothetical soul mate about it.
“I Felt Wonderful,” from This Week (2007)
Elliott Smith is said to have frequented O’Connor’s when he lived in Brooklyn, but Farrell’s, in Windsor Terrace, is the only bar where you can actually write a song. There is no jukebox competing with what you’re hearing in your head, and the televisions are on mute. If you get there early enough, the only sound is rustling newspapers. A Bud—the sole beer on tap—being placed on the bar doesn’t even go thunk, or clink: It is set before you silently because the bartender doesn’t say much and because it came in a shock-absorbing 32-ounce Styrofoam cup that they call a container. It’s like your beer is wearing socks. Early on, it is quiet enough to hear the head fizzing. It is quiet enough to write the chorus. As the night progresses the room fills with locals, many of them firemen and cops who really don’t give a damn what you do, and it gets louder and louder but for me there’s always this blissful moment when I realize it isn’t music and it isn’t Tim McCarver: It’s just people talking. Or yelling. A crescendo of collective conversation, of simultaneous stories and jokes and bullshit from the altar of the bar and the tables scattered around it, tables with little doorbells mounted beside them because in the old days the ladies weren’t supposed to come to the bar when they wanted a refill; they had to be served. I never made it to last call at Farrell’s. For all I know, it never closes. I would just get a lid for my container and walk out the door and down the hill and eventually home, and I felt wonderful.
“Retarty” (explicit), from Platinum (2009)
And so after writing an enormous number of songs—sometimes I claim 350, 400, but it’s probably more like 200 if you don’t count the snippets and re-recordings, the experiments and the foolishness—Thunderegg finally hit the road in November 2011. In a van, as I’d always dreamed. Driving from town to town, bringing all those tunes to the people. Well, not all the tunes: That would be impossible! Actually not too many tunes at all, because the tour was for my cousin’s band. Thunderegg joined at the last minute, and my cousin was kind enough to insert us at the front of his already short set. So really there was only time for three or two or, really, one song. One song, we’d play, although “we” might be a little misleading because I was touring solo, no Jake, no Ken. That one song, though, it was going to be a good one, the best one I ever wrote. I was going to pick one with sophisticated lyrics, an intricate chord progression, subtle modulations. I was going to make all these strangers in far-off cities, some of them twenty years younger than me—a new generation of Egg fans there for the taking—run to their computers that night to find out who Thunderegg was, where had they been? What had they missed? How do they download ALL OF IT?
The song I chose was going to make me look smart, cool, and totally pro.
I did “Retarty.” Every night I would play “Retarty,” “Retarty” from Chapel Hill to Atlanta to New Orleans to Houston to Nashville, until at tour’s end, after we all awakened in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the boys dropped me off at my father’s house in New Jersey just after dark. For a few minutes we all stood awkwardly in the brightly lit kitchen, my father holding a piece of cheese that I knew he wanted to set out for them. But they were eager to get home, so he settled for giving them some fruit for the road, and then I watched the Econoline’s tail lights disappear in the distance of the quiet street. I came inside and a little later sat down to dinner with my father. He was wearing his pink golf shirt and I explained as best as I could how my life had changed.
“This Is Just Like California!,” from In Yanistin (2000)
That February, my gamble at adulthood—living with my girlfriend in Westchester County—proved to be not very well thought out, and I finally caved and slunk home to my parents’ house to record snippets (complete songs were not possible in my state) on my four-track in the attic. By the summertime I was still there, although my parents were not, and some days in the empty house were better than others. This was one of the iffy ones. I thought maybe if I tried to wag the dog, make a happy party picnic jam—smiles beget smiles!—then maybe I’d feel better. Yipp-i-doo! At 0:41 there’s this one double “Yahoo!” that sounds so starved for joy that it’s practically choking on itself. The poor little feller, he tries so hard: I daresay the entire effort is heroic. But in its barely articulated desperation, it still might be the saddest song I’ve ever recorded, which is no small statement. Here’s a transcript.
This is the sunshine song. (Yippee!) Pretend you’re at a park. Pretend you’re at a park! Just pretend you’re at a park! Ohh . . . (Whoop-i-doo! Yay!) what a nice day it is! (Skip-i-dee-boo!) I’ve got the picnic basket (Who brought the Frisbee?), I’ve got the Frisbee and the transistor radio . . . (Catch! Catch!) Whoo-hoo. (Yippee-doo! Yippeeee! Whoo-hoo! Yahoo! Yippee-doo!) Yahoo, yahoo! La la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la (I feel like taking my shirt off!) (Go for it, man!) (Whoo-hoo.) Yahoo! Hey, throw me the football! (Okay, here I go! Catch! [Whee-hee!] Nice catch!) (Whoo-hoo.) La la la la la la la. Hey, man, this is just like California! Yee-hee! (Skee-be-dub-i-dee-dub-i-dee-doo!) (Rrrrrrrrrrr-row-de-dow-dow-dow-dow!) (Here, boy! Here, boy!) (Arf! Arf arf arf!) (Yipp-i-dee-dipp-i-dee-dap-i-dee-bap-i-dee-bow!)
A picnic, some people tossing the Frisbee, a hippie guitar circle, a little dog barking as he tries to track the flying disc: From my lonely perch in my parents’ house in the summer of 2000, is this all I wanted? Last Friday afternoon I found myself in Golden Gate Park as the shadows lengthened and the action all around me unfolded, I swear, 100 percent exactly as scripted. “This is just like ‘This Is Just Like California,'” I said aloud as I walked through the heart of Sharon Meadow. I was by myself so nobody heard me, but at least I thought it was pretty funny.