Notes on Cerebellum Blues, Playlists One and Two: the songs start.
Welcome to my series of posts about how I got into music and songwriting and the events that ultimately led to the 2012 release of my first album. Here are the posts, so far
1. a little bit of blood, lots of sweat, a few tears (the launch!)
2. what’s with the title?
4. from high school to LA and back
5. the talent question
6. the lost years
7. walking away from music, part one
8. walking away from music, part two
9. Europe, part one.
10. Europe, part two.
12. the accident.
11. my life in advertising begins.
If you read anything that strikes a chord please let me know in the comments section or via email. As always, thank you for reading.
all the years before I suffered a brain injury writing songs was never
easy for me. Sure, every now and then a song would seem to write itself
but it would suck just as bad as all the others, maybe worse. My finest
moments were novelty songs — jokes, really — with titles such as Jesus
Christ Has Jock Itch, Down to the Whorehouse, Turkey Franks. Oh, and who
can forget White Punks Dance Too Fast? (Everybody, that’s who.) I did
have one shining moment, a song called Weird Things With A Gun, which
became a staple of Germano Warfare’s live set (Germano Warfare was the only original
band I was ever in), but mostly, my songs were terrible. What was I
missing? What was the secret? How did Keith and Mick do it? Townshend?
Lennon/McCartney? Paul Simon? It seemed like it must be so easy, but, of
course, the things that look easiest are often the hardest. But I had a
friend, Toby Germano, who could do it.
Toby and I first met years and years ago on the front lawn of Woodside High School and he and I have remained close friends to this day. Early on, Toby wrote a song called She Makes Me Hit Things with My Car and when he played it for me I swore up and down I thought it was a hit. Later, when we played it in Toby’s band, Germano Warfare, it always got the crowd going. I studied that song up one side and down the other but could not suss its secret. Over the years, Toby has written so many songs I’ve lost count and they are all good, some more commercial than others, but all good if good means they rock and do something new and sound a touch familiar but always fresh. I have always tried to learn from Toby, by watching him play, by seeking his counsel and by taking his advice, and yet... nothing. He was born with it; I was not. The world is hard that way.
But I fought my genes. If songs were not in my DNA I was going to put them there. I listened to music all the time, worked harder on the guitar, played in bands, went to guitar school, lived a little and still... nothing. Ideas for songs came to me all the time — lyric snippets, riffs, drum beats — but they would never fully reveal themselves to me. I could sense there was something more but I could never get to it and and I would feel like I was back in school and trying to work out a word problem in math and knowing the answer was right there and no doubt simple and obvious in hindsight but being unable to figure it out and feeling my fragile confidence crumble and then falling into a void of hopelessness and on and on. I began to think of this barrier between me and songs as an infinitely tall, infinitely wide and infinitely smooth wall that was translucent enough to let me know something was behind it but offering no clue how to proceed. What do you do? How do you solve a creative problem, what’s the method, the secret, what did Toby know that I did not? Invariably, I would begin the hard work of making a demo knowing I did not have a complete idea, and hope that the process would help me crack it. It never did. But I kept trying because what else could I do? It was all I wanted in the world.
Then I fell and hit my head and everything changed.
It’s all so long ago now. Over seven years. A few months after I fell, I remember I was feeling well enough to be out on the living room couch. Maybe it was April? I don’t know. But still, I remember being on the couch in the living room and I was sunk back deep with my Steinberger guitar across my lap and I began to noodle on People Change, a song I had started way back when I lived in Europe, probably 1992. The song had thoroughly flummoxed me for ages, with the middle 8 being an uncrackable bit. True to form, I recorded the song anyway, hoping I would hit on the solution in the process, hoping the work would bring it out, but no matter how I tried, I just could not find chords that flowed. They either set up a section that was too different or not different enough and so I ended up, yet again, with a song I knew could be a lot better but I just could not figure out how to make it so and I was stuck. But on that day in maybe April of 2006 I began to be unstuck. I did not figure out the middle 8 that day, but the ideas I tried were better than any I had tried before. I was encouraged and kept at it.
And the ideas kept coming, not only for People Change but also for brand new songs. And they hit everywhere: when I was out on walks, while I meditated, once during acupuncture and many, many times after getting a cup of coffee at my local Peet’s. It was as though some sort of internal bottleneck had been shattered and the musical ideas planted in my head by all those years of listening to The Beatles and the Stones and Paul Simon and so, so many others could flow from wherever they resided in my brain to where I could process them and work on them and complete them. My doctors even said as much might be true. They mused that somehow my accident had disrupted the communication between my older, emotional brain (cerebellum) and my modern, rational brain (cerebral cortex). Or maybe it was just that I had more time on my hands, also a theory my doctors put forth. Regardless, by the end of that first year after my accident, I had more than enough songs to do an album. I figured what the hell. I had gone on disability from work and had plenty of time so I scheduled two days to record bass and drums at a friend’s studio, guessing my total production time would be maybe a week.
Planning has never been my strong suit. Production actually took about 6 years — with breaks for health issues, innovative brain therapy in Madison, Wisconsin, freelance ad gigs, my wedding, my honeymoon, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, babies (the stork brought Catherine and me twins on December 5, 2010), complex legal proceedings, and a side musical project called Deep Salvage. Thinking back on the whole process, if there is one person more responsible than any other for helping me along the way, for keeping my hopes and spirits up, for comforting me during bad times and celebrating with me during the good it’s Catherine. At the beginning of this journey, we were boyfriend and girlfriend and now we are not only husband and wife but also parents. Catherine, I love you very much and I could not have done this without you. For the first time in my life, I’m making music I’m proud of and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for being forever encouraging (even though I’ve spent an obscene amount of money!).