Seldom does anyone like a song more after the songwriter has explained it. If that isn't a cliche' yet, it should be, because it is true. If anything, familiarity with the intentions and machinations of the author is just going to make the audient dislike the author, and the work by association. If there is any big message on this page, it is that the life and fortunes of a good work should not be shackled by the limitations of the author. My usual compulsion is to say too much or too little, but always with far too many words, as this page demonstrates. In the songs themselves, however, I think I managed to overcome that particular problem.
Here's another instant cliche' for you: Magic happens when there is sufficient ignorance and disorganization in the process to prevent the results from being predictable or re-producible. There is plenty of that kind of magic in these songs.
From the day I realized I had to do this myself, without a band, to the day I finally decided to call it done (any day now), nearly a full year elapsed. I spent at least as much of that time working on these songs as I did avoiding working on these songs. Much of what was intended to be recording ended up being practice, as I don't really play any instrument with any particular competence. Still this has been a year better spent than the three years I spent trying to develop relationships with musicians who I hoped would work with me on my songs.
During the three years I attempted to operate a studio and insinuate myself upon the insular local music scene, I developed a healthy disdain for rock stars of the local hero variety. From my pious perch I judged them to be self-indulgent and lazy people, squandering their great talents and potential, and inexplicably sabotaging themselves at every turn. In the process of producing these two songs I managed to manifest in myself every frustrating and annoying character flaw I had attributed to them. In a way they and I are horrifying funhouse mirror versions of each-other, showing only the worst of our flaws in comic exaggeration. If you, the reader, happen to be a local Portland Oregon Rock Star, please don't assume that I am talking about you here. Just assume I'm talking about those other rock stars.
In the end only one musician showed up to play with an open ear, mind and heart to what I was trying to do. But that one, Shane Fisher (drums, The Bella Fayes), made a huge difference. I can't say enough about how pleased and thankful I am for his work. Like a great session player should be, he was a complete chameleon, becoming and playing exactly what the songs needed from him.
I hasten to credit the lovely, but unused, bass part improvised by Josh Blanchard (Point Line Plane, Momeraths) for "Genius". It took me three months to cobble together a poor substitute, but my overbearing ego demanded that the song have a bass part that I composed myself. Also, Josh's bass part was perhaps a little too lovely and sentimental, unbalancing the intended tension between pity and mockery.
Both songs taken strictly and seriously on face value are just a huge self-indulgent pity party. Fortunately, I think that is only one of a number of correct interpretations. Both songs are meant to be funny in one way or another. "Goodman" is overt comedy thinly masking a great wallowing puddle of melodrama so overdone as to betray itself again as comedy. "Genius" is overt melodrama thinly masking a very dark comedy.
"John Goodman" is not about John Goodman. The original title of the song was "Character Actor", and John Goodman is one of my favorite character actors. But the real Mr. Goodman's mostly brilliant career is antithetical to the thankless meatgrinder of hope that so many character actors have endured in obscurity. The fact that a song about the nameless and forgotten is named after a famous person is itself a sort of joke. And in case anyone can't hear the deafeningly obvious subtext, the song is also about every homely and awkward guy who can't get a date. So is that homely awkward guy really me? Not in regards to literally "getting the girl". I got the girl 20 years ago and so far I have managed to keep her. Or more accurately, I have had the good fortune to be kept by her. But in regard to being someone who gets his heart repeatedly trampled by investing it in the wrong people. Oh yeah, I am that homely awkward fool. Just about everybody is that "guy" (or "gal") at some point his or her life. I'm not sure how many slow learners like me are out there making a career of it. That is just one way in which these songs are mostly about themselves and the long process of bringing them to the state in which they are now. Ultimately, however, for me this is a song about my bitter envy of the real rock stars. The leading role becomes the concert stage and the girl becomes the audience. Of the two, this is the song I consider to be the most commercially viable, and as a recording the more professional-sounding of the two as well. Although I am never likely to be completely satisfied, I stopped hating the playback on this one months ago, which I am finding to be a rare blessing.
"Genius" may seem to be romanticizing the dramatic lives and deaths of misunderstood geniuses, and on some level it certainly is. But at the same time it is just as much a mockery of the absurd mythology of the "tortured artist". It is a song about a fool who seeks pain in life in the belief that it will somehow magically make him a great artist, a genius. I'm not quite that big a fool most of the time. As a song about me, it is a song about someone who blundered into a lot of pain accidentally and once took solace in the delusion that he was at least in good company, historically. To me, this is the height of comedy. As the uncounted hours and takes accumulated, this song became more and more a sick little self-referential joke, a joke I was playing on myself. A joke that continues to sting, as I am still not convinced that I have given this song the treatment it deserves, especially regarding the vocal and bass parts. Bonus points to anyone who can correctly name all of the insane geniuses to which I infer reference in this lyric.
Selecting and editing the footage for the karaoke videos was a revelatory experience. The visual content and the songs seemed to bring new dimensions of meaning to each-other. Paired with footage of the ultimate second-banana "TV's Frank" enslaved to the ultimate bad boss Dr. Clayton Forrester, "Goodman" takes on an unanticipated homoerotic sadomasochist subtext, and reveals an abundance of the same in the original MST3K series which I had not previously perceived. "Genius" paired with the battle of wits and explosive ordnance between rabbit and coyote in "Operation Rabbit", becomes a little Freudian amorality play about the endless struggle between Ego and Id. The perspective of the song as a lament about self-sabotage comes into sharp cel-animated focus.
All told, I have probably written a mere 30 salvageable songs in my lifetime so far. By "written", I mean I have a complete lyric, a melody and a beat pattern, as well as varying degrees of specificity regarding ideas for a full arrangement. My output is so limited largely because I have no discipline or method for writing songs, so I only end up writing the ones that seem to insist on being written. Since I am not a real musician, and have always lacked the talent or discipline to become one, I have long dreamt of finding that magical collaborator who would have the skills to fill in the blanks, find the chords that go with the melody, be able to play that solo I can only scat. But my crude pre-pre-demos, usually just acapella vocal treatments, failed to inspire any interest in anyone upon whom I forced them. In retrospect, I believe I am beginning to understand why. Most musicians start with their instrument, playing with chord progressions and rhythms, and eventually end with their vocal melody and words, often with lyrics being a last-minute afterthought. I, apparently, write songs backwards, so it is difficult for most musicians to know what to do with what I bring to them. Having finally rendered full arrangements of these two songs, and then comparing them to the pre-demos, I can understand how they could not magically hear everything I could hear between and behind the lines.
"Goodman" and "Genius" are among the best from a handful of songs I wrote about five years ago when I still had a good day job. These songs convinced me that I should finally stop dreaming and start doing something. Since then, only fragments of lyric and melody have manifested themselves. There was apparently little impetus for writing more before I could bring at least these first two into some semblance of full flesh. Now I suspect the creative block will continue as I wait to see how these two songs fare as I pimp them around anywhere and everywhere I can. Yes it is absurd to hang one's creative ego and future on just two simple little pop songs, but they are all I have to show for myself right now, and probably are the best that I can do.
A good song is like a little prism of perception that changes with the perspective of the listener. I can afford myself the conceit of calling these songs good because these are songs that seemed to come to me rather than from me. I believe in these songs more than I believe in myself. And like a bad parent, I project all of my lost hopes and dreams for myself on them. I wish for them, demand from them, the success that I could not have, so that I may live vicariously through them. Simply put, an unknown 40-year-old fat man who lacks the coordination to play and sing at the same time is a very poor vehicle for the success of any song. These songs deserve better, and that is why I seek to sell them to an established artist.
This page copyright 2005 by Michael A. Kepler