Thursday, November 09, 2006

Through All These Years I Burned For You

With trepidation I clear my voice (wobbly and tending to flatness an it may be) and unveil my entry in the great "Cover a Bobby Lightfoot Song Contest" of 2006. In a magnanimous gesture of farewell, I dedicate it to the outgoing United States Congressional Class of 2006. The lyrics are pretty fuckin' apt, thought of that way. Were I some kind of HTML boffin I'd scroll the names on the screen, each miserable, hellbound name fading tastefully into the background as the song plays: Santorum... Talent... Burns... Fuckin' Macaca...

This Goodbye. (Pops.)

To say I was knocked out by Bobby's song when I first heard it last year is to understate the case a bit. His original is utterly gorgeous, detailed, chewy -- an intimidating thing to approach as a musician with an eye to covering it. But it wasn't until I prepared to record it, tweezing it apart note by note, that the full mastery of Bobby's songcraft became apparent.

The first thing that struck me was how Bobby uses major/minor tension to heighten the effect of his lyrics. The first few lines, the lyrics self-reflective and inwardly directed, are sung over a fairly standard chord progression (E/C#minor/G#minor), but when the lyrics begin to introduce a note of anger at the subject of the song ("Through all these years I burned for you...") he introduces an A minor -- a chord not in the home key -- exquisitely underlining the word "years." Through the song, he uses the tension between A minor and A major to surprise us, keep us on our toes. Building surprise by introducing the minor voicing of a IV chord that "should" be major is a McCartneyism borrowed from jazz; "Blackbird," for one example, employs this trick to great effect.

But there's a second, even more subtle major/minor tension going on in this tune. In the line following the one quoted above -- "You see I've burned myself right out" -- the chords are E major/F#7/A major. Now the A is "correct" -- that is, in keeping with the home key -- but the F# isn't. And oh, hey! Check out the word that's being sung on that "incorrect" chord: myself. Once again, an example of the perfect marriage of unexpected tonality and lyric: You burned yourself out? Really? Are you quite sure someone else isn't actually responsible?

I also fell really hard for the lovely syncopation of the "And all these years" line -- to the extent that I included it during the guitar passage, where Bobby left it out of his version.

As you listen to the song, you'll see that the word "goodbye" ends each of the three verses. But it's sung to different intervals each time. In the first verse, it's a quietly resigned descending major second. The second time it's sung, it's a descending minor second to accommodate the B tonality of that beautiful and disturbing and, I think, quite frightening bridge, which hints at suicide ("And ain't there just a million stars..."). It's in that bridge that we really learn what the song's about: towering rage directed inward that we, the audience, can clearly see should be targeted outward toward a capricious lover. You'd never think such cognitive dissonance could occur to the serene and Earth-touching bodhisattva who writes at Bobby's blog.

Rage directed inward that should be targeted outward: Isn't that a perfect expression of Life Under Bush?

It's the interval given to the the last "goodbye" -- an ascending perfect fourth -- that resolves the whole song. In my current mood, it's an immensely satisfying resolution, a transcendent, orgasmic kissoff to those crooked, bile-rising bastards who have made every morning's approach to the newspaper such a frightening event: Good-byyyyyyye!

Because I can't play keyboards to save my life, I've simplified and, I hope, pared down Bobby's arrangement. Where his piano is all subtle colors and delicacy, my fingerpicked guitar has, I hope, a Lennonistic directness. I also closed my eyes and blindly lurched in the direction of George Harrison in the lead guitar bits, and to my quiet, surprised pride, think I may have actually hit the mark in spots. The twin Harrisonian slides that come up during the fade particularly please me; I'd intended them for the guitar passage following the bridge but they were a bit unprepossessing in a lead setting. Moving them to the fade gave me a pleasant surprise.

One last thing: I've listened to both Bobby's original and my pallid copy of this song about 600,000,000 times now, and it's only just now occurred to me what inspired the genesis of the song! "But it's hard to say/The words get in the way"... Where have I heard that before...?
I would have made this instrumental
But the words got in the way
Rock on, Bobby. Rock on forever.


PS: Speaking of surprises, I know it'll come as a major shock to all of you, but Bobby Lightfoot actually did survive the Bush 43 Administration and lived a full and happy life to the end of his days. Here's the proof. Lori Lightfoot took a new name when she converted to Zoroastrianism, but that's her in the pic, all right. What a hottie.


fgfdsg said...

Damn, I love how you write about music. (One of the things about never being successful is I would have loved to have found out exactly what I was doing in half of my songs). LOL.

This is a great version of an already great song. The man's writing the great American Songbook - i wish someone would damn notice already.

I attempted to cover Bobby out of respect, (Brattleboro April 6th), but thought he'd be mortified to hear a song of his destroyed by an amateur like me, so gave up on it halfway through.

They say a great song can survive any treatment, but I don't think whoever 'they' are quite fully know the truth depths of my suckitude, for it is wide and vast.

Matt said...

Great stuff, Neddie. Brilliant song, Bobby.

I just fucking love the fact that I can come here and listen to you sing out like this. For all of the world-weary skepticism and sarcasm that characterizes a typical Neddie Jingo post (if there is such a thing), your singing discloses the earnest sincerity of your voice.

And that's why I love ya, Neddie. Carry on.

Ben said...

Great job! I've always really liked this song, and you've done it up right, and made me hear it in a new way, which is, after all, the point of doing a cover.

I recorded one of Bobby's songs myself once, and it was a fun challenge to try to adapt it to my own style, such as it is. Unfortunately, I had a cold that month and it seriously, um, affected the recording. Say, maybe I'll redo the vocal track. Now there's an idea.

By the way, you and 7,000 of your neighbors are my hero. Hell, you're the whole country's heroes. Maybe even the world's.

Kevin Wolf said...

Finally resolved my sound issues (damn PC) with stuttering all over the place. Now I'm catching up with some listening here and over at Bobby's.

This is indeed a thing of beauty. I can't read a note, so I take your word for the effects Bobby's built into the song. The great thing about music, of course, is you need not be literate to have the effects work on you.

I bow to the Master.

Bobby Lightfoot said...

Congrats, man. That's gorgeous. And you got like six times more juice out of the A minor (or F# half-diminished- more later) than I did. Ha- you started the lead vocal panned soft-left just like mine. You know, it doesn't sound as "Julia"-esque to me as it sounds like the stuff Lennon copped i.e. Chad Atkrindge and that nice textbook fingerpicking figure. Great pedal-steelish electric, there. It's nice to hear this done by a real guitar player.

Zeroing in on those little Motown V-VI-I-VI-I bass licks is clutch. It's one of those things that just feels good under the fingers.

I think my favorite thing about your version so far is what happens to this song with your plaintive and un-histrionic vocal. Its a little sadder this way. I'm all widescreen and mannered and hung up on phrasing.

You've found the hard center around all the liquid candy, ain't ya? Rage and self-contempt and distant suicidal glimmers all wrapped up in pretty pretty polly. And this: the inward direction of all of it which is th' textbook definition of depression as any armchair shrink knows. There really _is_ no weird dissonance to me just because my songs have choirs of angels. The angels are pissed, but see, they're on the clock, man.

Your past and future song analyses are all vindicated by this. This is th' rare case where the subject can actually respond and you just bloody nailed it. This is what ALL my songs are about regardless of whatever Romeo and Juliet lyrical vestments I wrap them in. Every single one. I had to let go of my obsession with public vindication because I couldn't not internalize it and it was about a year away from just plain ending me. And it's a lot easier to just lose a dream than it is to have it curdle and reveal itself as threadbare.

On the academic front I think there are few more powerful ways to illustrate ambivalence than toying with majors and minors. We thank Professors McCartney and Bach for this. And nothing illustrates letdown than the beautiful sinking of that third; this is what Kevin is talking about when he states that he can enjoy these games as much as anyone with an analytical background.

You'll find this interesting: I've searched for different, less obvious ways of playing the major-minor game and "This Goodbye" showcases one of my favorites. I approached that A minor chord as a minor sixth (which the vocal hits on ("...through all these YEARS...") so coming to it out of the preceding F# minor seventh means we're actually dropping a FIFTH instead of a third. It's a wolf in baroque clothing; it's a matter of inversions and context.

A minor sixth chord is a fun little thing. I would encourage any songwriter to avail themselves of its many, many wiles. Invert it upwards once (i.e. put the root on top) and put a fourth in the bass and you've got a big ol' dominant 9 chord a fourth up.

Invert it once _downwards_ and you've got a delicious half-diminished (or minor seventh flat 5 in modern parlance)chord on the sixth, which is the game we've played on "This Goodbye". Either way, you get the juice of a major-minor AND a ii-V (i.e. A minor to D9) which is the biggest building block of 20th century music PERIOD. As an example, see how we reach the climax of the whole verse-bridge assembly: with a ii-V (i.e. F#m7-B9 on "...hard to say..." etc.) which your ear has been waiting for through all those F#minor-A minor (or F# half-diminisheds) teases and finally gets.

The E- F#7- A major- pure, PURE Pet Sounds. The constant tone of "E" would be played by a viola in a string quartet or sung by George Harrison on an Abbey Road song. Paul or th' second violin would get the B-A#-A, wouldn't you know. I got some extra juice out of it by also pedaling the G# which gives us a nice 9th on th' F#7 and a major seventh over th' A chord. I rub your face in it on the second bridge where the strings trill on E-G#-E-G#-E.

Righteous, man. I LOVE music.

And I fucking HATE it.

Major minor.

fgfdsg said...

This brings up an interesting point Bobby, and I suppose I'll ask it here and maybe you can answer it on your own blog so we don't hijack Neddies.

Would you consider the harmonic touches you're referring to part of the inital writing of the song, or more to do with the *arranging* of the song once it's finished?

Neddie and I were touching on the subject of folk songs a while ago, and I have this theory that all songs that originally started out written with complex harmonics were eventually 'dumbed down' to three chords over time because the songs were passed on orally.

Once the non-classical 'popular song' was able to be preserved via affordable sheet music, the more complex harmonics of each song were able to be preserved accurately in the public conciousness.

So, believing this, I write my 'guitar' songs with simple folk harmonics, and then as I gradually arrange a song, I end up introducing the complex harmonics into the mix - (you haven't really heard me do this yet, but it's much like 'Unexpected' where the parts I layer in create the 'true' harmonics of the song).

But anyone who picks up a guitar could 'kind of' play the entire song fairly easy, because I want *the melody* to be the memorable part, because I believe it's through both adaptability to the skill of the player and the possibilities for reinterpretation that songs end up having an extended life outside the original writer / performer.

Your approach gives more formal strength and structure to a song, and sounds incredibly clever, (and i'm damn envious of your talent), but do you think it ties the arrangement and melody together too much, especially now we lived in a musically-primitive age where most bands barely explore anything beyond the occassional major 7th?

One of the most covered albums of recent years seems to be '69 Love Songs' by the Magnetic Fields. The arrangements and performance are piss poor but the melodies and lyrics are extremely memorable, and as such, the songs seem to be open to easy reinterpretation, and have been covered by a wide variety of bands from different backgrounds. (Peter Gabriel's take on "The Book Of Love" is particularly nice).

Love to hear your thoughts on this, or anyone else who wants to chip in.

Bobby Lightfoot said...

Certainly an interesting point, Mssr. De Bouvoir.

I think you're probably right about the elimination of harmonic complexity from orally-transmitted music. Some classic songs from this tradition have such juicy complexity built into and implied by the melody (the first two chords of "Ave Maria", anyone?) that they almost retain that juiciness through the elimination of added tones.

Most of the classic Christmas carols are fun to approach this way; they might just be the easiest, most identifiable example of what you're talking about. The parade of complicated, remarkable harmony that is the first stanza of "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" is a great example. Christ (heh heh), there are more raised fifths and diminished triads than a Bartok quartet.

No, see- I actually go the other way. Now that I don't have to please anyone I let my creative mind go right where it wants to go, which is straight to Jazz Harmony Land, that happy place so far from the madding crowd. Because I spent two years writing string quartets as a way of learning to love music again I think quartetistically in my harmonic motion.

What this ridiculousness means is that if I'm composing at the keyboard I try to keep as many fingers in the same place when I move chords. The most elegant harmonic motion is that which keeps as many common tones as possible.

This is why we hear of "laughable" baroque rules like "no parallel fifths" and "no parallel motion period". Moving parallel simply means no voice gets to maintain a pedal, or common tone, which is messy and more work than is necessary. More fingers moving, more positions changing, more viola players squinting at all th' extra dots.

I haven't been able to write a parallel chord movement without finding it a little inelegant in years (hey- the middle eight of "This Goodbye"). Thank goodness for The Beatles and The Turtles (the chorus of "Happy Together" is to my ear the most beautiful use of parallel motion ever) to remind us's O.K.

Personally, I tend to hear a melody with the added tones from the get-go and a lot of them get added during the writing process because I'm looking for common tones, and sometimes these common tones will suggest more complexity because my pinky _really wants to hold down that G#_ when I move from an E major to an F#7 to an A.

And you know what else, Simon? Mostly I just do it to piss people off. I'm completely serious. I DESPISE the psychoacoustic horseshit that happens when people approach a song based upon "the effect it will have on people". I don't give a flying FUCK what effect it has on people. I won't allow my reading habits to be informed by amoebas. Why should I allow my compositions to be informed by...ugh...people?

I played a show last night at this bigass club and ripped the SHIT out of the Great R&B songbook and the dance floor was empty until th' DJ took over and played some "I'm a barbie girl in a barbie world" jism at which point everybody got out and writhed in ecstacy. And this ain't news. I've been doing it since 1985.

Should I take pause and think I'm on the wrong track? As far as I'm concerned it's flat-out revolutionary to be all powdered-wig about one's approach to composition. I just like pissing people off. I'm closer to the Sex Pistols than reactionary, safe, backward-looking pussies like Jimmy Eat World or Green Day could _dream_ of.

The Viscount LaCarte said...

Great job Ned. I love the guitars. The tones - the different styles. Maybe one day you two could work together on something. I know how hard that can be because I was in and out of bands with my brother for years...

Bobby Lightfoot said...

Dude you can only get two-three takes out of Jings in the studio before he's gone on th' Bolles. Between that and th' skirts the guy's got his mind on other things.

Neddie said...

Fascinating stuff, Bobby and Simon. Don't even think about continuing the conversation elsewhere; there is no "hijacking" this blog.

I'd add that what we're really talking about here is the physical differences between the guitar and the piano as compositional devices. I'm primarily a guitarist who can form chords on a piano if needed; as such, I necessarily think of chords as shapes first and only think about their component notes if I need to. Muscle memory allows me to form a G major chord completely without thinking, but only rarely -- like, when I'm trying to arrange for other instruments or voices -- do I actually think about the notes that make up that chord. And nearly always in those cases I'll put down the guitar and pick out the notes on the keyboard. It wasn't until fairly late in the process of working out Bobby's song that I realized that there even was an E in an F#7 chord; to me it's just "that note that you get when you lift up your pinkie when making a barre F# chord."

The guitar really encourages that parallelism that Bobby's talking about. All great rock-and-roll is based on parallel movement, from "Louie, Louie" to "Back in Black." Guitarists just don't think about voice-leading, because the instrument doesn't force you to think about it.

Now, of course there are guitarists who do break that mold and think about the fretboard like a piano. But when you do, you're in a certain sense losing the rock and roll aspect of the instrument and are dabbling with pretentiousness. I'd say that the entirety of the appeal of something like "Stairway to Heaven" is the fact that the passing tones in the first verse are classically inspired, but the journey of the whole song from fey Hobbity goo to kick-ass rock and roll is also the journey from careful voice-leading on the guitar to huge, fat fist-chords, parallel movement all over the place.

Conclusion? You want to write a Bobby Lightfoot song, do it on the piano.

Hey: Don't I get any props for finding that pic of Bobby Lightfoot in his eighties? Come on!

fgfdsg said...


I love your comment about simplistic elegance with keeping the common tones. Thanks to Neddie's posts on the subject, I borrowed the new edition of 'Revolution In The Head' from the library, where the author sneers at Lennon's writing on 'Real Love' as lazy, for 'selecting chords which meant moving his fingers as little as possible' and read it as a sign of his lack of motivation.

I honestly think it's half the reason why your music does sound so 'easy' to the ear, your chord changes sound more elegant for it and it gives your sound a casual ease that disguises the complexity of your work.

Good call on the Turtles. When we talking about people looking down on arpeggios in the melody as kid's stuff the other week, 'Too Young To Be One' is a perfect example of how strong and effortless it can make a melody seem: "There's something that I just can't seem to get off my mind..."

Now here's an interesting difference in how we write. I don't hear the melody to start with. The melody comes from the movement of the chords, and, bizarrely, the simpler and more repetitive the chord movement, the easier it is for me to wander around the scale and create a melody line that sounds more refined to my ears.

I trained myself to do it that way, knowing so many bands 'jam' to write, and 'jam songs' so frequently are tuneless due to this fact and wanted to make sure i would be useful.

As such i went from Tin Pan Alley complexity in my original arrangements 20 years ago for a song, (i was the augmentated / diminished king), to being happier when there's barely any breaking of a repetitive chord progression at all, as in 'Unexpected'. The harmonics in that were complex, but at its heart, if you stripped it down to 'folk harmonics', it was just F / Bb over and over again.

I initally thought this was some kind of minimalistic refinement, ala the verses of 'Baby's Coming Back' by Jellyfish, and puts the emphasis on the melody rather than the arrangement, but now i'm unsure if it's not *too* far down that road.

But usually, without realising it, the parts I layer into a song as i'm arranging it create the more complex harmonics.

What's your opinion? How much is too little? There's one i'm working on where the verse is basically Em / A and the melody wanders around the scale so *easy* that I don't want to 'complicate' it. But would you suggest making the A an A7 and keeping the E and G and 'common tones' between the two chords, for example? What makes a melody too ornamentated? Or is minimalism just another word for unrefined?

Neddie - I'd sensed the guitar / piano dynamic myself. It's why i recently started writing on guitar to force myself to write differently, but I hadn't quite noticed the parallelism to the extent you've painted it. Now you've done so, it's perfectly obvious.

That being said, when it comes time to record, I've noticed as I layer in keyboard parts that the track usually starts becoming far more harmonically complex. Actually that's clarified it for me. Basically, I think in the writing stage, I write folk songs, and in the true arranging / recording stage they become 'proper' songs. A very different process to Bobby, and makes me want to try some 'melody first' works to see if I can aim higher again.

The other big difference: Bobby is writing songs that he *owns* as the singer. I'm not talented enough to do that myself with my own, and I need to leave space for another singer to approach it to truly bring it to life, if that makes sense.

Check out the latest 'Arrogant' post on my blog and listen to the mashup, if you have time. I'm curious what you two think of the harmonic experimentation going on, especially the combination of songs in G (ie. 'X Offender', 'J'etaime', 'Trout') and Em (ie. 'Eleanor Rigby', 'Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?', 'Supernature').

Kevin Wolf said...

I'm glad I stopped by again for the master class.

I'm thinking now of Elvis Costello, who switched from composing on guitar to using piano and taught himself musical notation some time ago because he wanted to do more complex stuff.

It's about the time I started to dislike a lot of his output, whether in the rock vein or not.