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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