Song Portrait #5: Avant Garde Heart

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“Reality just is. It is the light that permeates the thin bedroom curtains on the morning of a fierce hangover, after all the nocturnal beer tears and boozy sentiments, and the self-annihilation disguised as fine art”.
-Koren Zailckas, Smashed

I read Smashed, by Koren Zailckas, four years ago and was absolutely entranced by the book. Aside from being able to relate to the author’s experiences on a personal level, I found the imagery in the book to be intoxicatingly beautiful. I found myself writing down passages, and they became the inspiration for this song. Some of the lyrics in the second and third verses were taken from the quote above.

The book is about the author’s struggle with alcohol abuse as a teenager and young adult. This book brought me to a time in my life when my social life revolved around one place – a bar in Chicago called the Inner Town Pub. I hosted the open mic night, ran the soundboard, and performed there every Thursday night for two years. The owl imagery in the song was inspired partly by the physical appearance of the bar. The bar was always very dark and everything was wood – the floor, the tables and chairs, the bar itself. There were also owls everywhere. They were gaudy owl relics from the 1960’s. The entire time I was at the bar I was surrounded by owl clocks, owl lamps, and owl figurines perched on branches and watching me with grotesquely large eyes. There was another type of owl who inhabited this bar: the patrons. They were mysterious and beautiful creatures who lived primarily nocturnal life styles. They would sit on their bar stools drinking, observing, perhaps looking for prey.

Of course, not all of the patrons were owls. As much as I was guilty of overindulgence while at the Inner Town, I was also living the life of an artist. I was writing new songs and showcasing them at the bar. I can say the same about all the people who came to the open mic every week. During this time I met many talented people who were extremely committed to the craft of songwriting. These people continue to be an inspiration to me today. Then there were the owls…….

The owls were not artists. They often posed as artists or hung out with artists as an excuse to live lives of hedonism and debauchery. This is where the inspiration for the main character in the song comes from. The narrator is a sleazy sort of guy who enjoys hanging out at this bar. He does not do anything creative, but to his credit, he does not pretend to either. He meets a young woman at the bar. He briefly enters her world and sees the things she creates. She could be a painter, a musician, a film maker, or a performance artist – it really does not matter. Either way, the man regards her work as being nonsensical. His reaction to her work is that he could have made that. In fact, anyone could have made that. Is this woman a genius creating avant-garde art, or is she a person with little talent making things just because she can in order to fit in with some sort of subculture? The owl man never finds out because he decides they should never meet in day light. He is too emotionally detached to get to know her, or anyone else well. He will go back to sitting on his perch and observing until another interesting looking mouse comes along.

When I starting writing this song, four years ago, I played it on guitar and it had a slightly different chord progression. During the chorus the progression meandered in to a different key and I could not figure out a way to bring it back to tonic. I stopped working on the song and then completely forgot about it. A few months ago I was working on a different song that had a lizard analogy in it. I realized that the character I was writing about was more like and owl. Then I remembered this song – that had been simmering on the back burner for a long time. I dug up the journal where I had written the lyrics and sat down at the piano. After all these years I was able to finish it really quickly.

Overall, this song is about a lot of things I wrestle with: the nature of art, the nature of the artist, substance abuse and substance abusers, and the fact that being a musician seems to be inseparable from living a semi-nocturnal life, where there are always owls perched on a bar stool.

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The Year of the Snake has Begun.

So, here I am blogging in the year 2013.  I have roughly twelve journals (you know, the paper kind) in a box in my garage dating back to 1993.  They detail everything from long winded tales of teen angst to buying my first guitar, to writing my first songs, to meeting my husband, to the birth of my son, and everything in between.  The first few are very narrative and they gradually turn in to books of abstractions – pages of poetry, set lists, shopping lists, to do lists, and then more poetry – something that forms a narrative only in my mind.  The past few years these abstractions have been mainly in my mind, not even making it to paper because of lack of time and disillusionment as a writer.

I released my first solo album in 2003, and my second album in 2008, which means I am due for a new one in 2013 if I continue my pattern of every five years.  2013 is also significant because it is the Year of the Snake – meaning that it is my year.  What the hell was I doing all those other snake years?  1989 just sucked (because being 12 generally sucks).  2001 was wonderful and intense.  I had just graduated from college and was living with an actor friend in Chicago.  I was recording my first demos, writing new songs, exploring the open mic scene in Chicago, and playing my first shows.  Not owning a computer or a cell phone was still considered to be very normal.  I was gloriously self absorbed – too self absorbed to be aware of the cosmos.  In other words, too self absorbed to notice that the sixth sign of the Chinese zodiac had come around for the third time in my life.  Last year a writer friend of mine who is a Dragon mentioned that it was her year and it dawned on me that mine would be next – and this time I would be ready for it.

I am writing a blog because, to quote R.E.M., my favorite band of all time, I wish to “collapse into now”.  In the years that I have been pursuing this dream of mine the world has changed a lot and my life has changed a lot (I’m sure I will get in to both of those subjects in much more detail later).  That said, it seems that keeping a blog is appropriate for the time I live in – which is the present.

It has also occurred to me that we live in a time where people are more concerned with process than product.  Just look at all the reality TV shows that are on now.  As a person who watches Project Runway religiously I can tell you that I have fallen in to that trap too.  The story behind how a garment is made is often more interesting than the garment itself.  You can apply the same thinking to any of the reality cooking shows that are on .  As an artist, other people’s creative processes have always interested me, but it seems like now-a-days the creative process is as interesting to the consumer of art as the product itself.  I have long analyzed my own creative process, so why not blog about it in this process centered time?  (Of course, one lesson always learned on Project Runway is that art needs to speak for itself.  Any contestant that needs a long verbal explanation for his or her work to be understood is sent packing.)

So, this blog takes over where my rotting books of deep dark secrets, tears, fears, hopes, juvenilia, and sketches of my potential masterpieces leaves off.  This year I will slither, hiss, shed my skin and unhinge my jaw to devour prey three times my size.   Namaste.

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