Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Yes, we all want to live on Pandora, as Na'vi, in communion with all living things, full of confidence and humility as we interact with all that intersects our lives. Elongated, elegant, sinewy, sensual, dragon-taming blue creatures with poison-tipped arrows making quick, humane kills? Why not?

My more earth-bound response to the movie: My eyes felt cold as I watched in relatively glorious three-dimensions. I don't know that the extra dimension did anything to enhance my viewing experience, though the panaromas of Pandora and the flora and fauna looked...uh...out of this world. A magical place, certainly. Could the movie have succeeded in plain old two dimensions? Yeah. In fact, in terms of composition, I'd argue that the audience in our three-dimension-ready specs was spoon-fed where to look even more than in a stodgy old two-dimensional endeavor. (The audio, too, offered more heavy-handed spatial thuds: Off-screen sounds behind us didn't necessarily lead to consistent entrances and exits, be the noise-maker bug, magic seed or chunk of capitalist metal.)

Oh, but these are quibbles, as are any complaints about the derivative script, the lack of surprises plot-wise, the hackneyed characters, the violence. (Are we really like that? Don't answer!) The overarching beauty of the idea of a world out there that beats ours and our petty ways by a factor too great truly to comprehend makes Avatar worth watching, absorbing. Commune with that. Then figure out how to treat Earth, just a little, as if it shared the magic of Pandora. Because it still does.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Open Mics and Me

When I first arrived in this hallowed land of musicians, clubs and all those trappings of the world's "live music capital" I sought out open mic nights to try my tunes out on the unsuspecting populace, the lucky beggars. Of course, open mics are mostly frequented by the musicians who perform and the joint's lucky/unlucky bar staff. Still, OMs offer aspiring musicians a stage, a generally convivial -- if slightly skittish -- audience, a supportive MC (usually) and something of a performance atmosphere; it's a happy medium between a full-bore spotlit gig and strumming your latest tune in your bedroom to your girlfriend/boyfriend/cat.

I focused on two venues in particular: The Cactus Cafe and the Austin Outhouse, both because they were between UT, where I was attending graduate school, and my house, where I was attending to all things un-academic. The Outhouse is long gone, having made way for the expansion of Flamingo Motor Cars  (that brown, rounded building on the left was the Outhouse.) The old broken neon sign lived on for years, but I think that, too, is gone. Everyone and his guitar-strumming aunt knows the impending fate of the venerable Cactus.

The way open mics work, and certainly the way they worked in the early 1990s, cough, is that you showed up and signed up in the order you arrived for your 15 minutes or three songs, whichever was shorter. I can't recall anyone going over their allotted time, though one or two shaggy dog troubadours came close, "Alice's Restaurant" an evident influence on the weak willed. It's still like this for the most part: show up at such-and-such a time, claim your slot, sing. A time-honored scheme.

But sometimes the muckety-mucks who run the OMs tamper with the formula.

To whit: A few years after my first forays I returned to the Cactus and discovered that musicians had to put their names into a hat as part of a random drawing for the limited number of slots (that the MC was taking 30 - 40 minutes right in the middle of the night didn't help). The drawing occurred as the night wore on, too, not at the start of the evening. You could arrive at 6:30 for the 7:00 sign-up only to discover as midnight drew closer that you weren't going to get on stage. No thanks! I switched my allegiance to the (then) newly opened Ruta Maya International Headquarters, which still does an OM, though I see it's a lottery now, too, sigh. I wonder if the MC draws names before the OM starts? At least then you'd know if you were playing without having to wait and wait and wait...

Is there some lack of trust of the musicians? I always saw us as a polite, orderly little fraternity, taking note of who was there when we walked in the door and who came after us. I remember no fussing at all about whose turn it was to sign up for a slot. People who arrived too late took it in stride that they weren't going to get on that night. Yeah, yeah, musicians can be jerks, but not open mic-ers, whose biggest fault is usually going for those vocals just a tad too hard or apologizing unnecessarily if a song doesn't go the way they want. 

I guess I can put all this to the test when I start to host an open mic night at Cafe Caffeine, the Ultimate Thursday Open Mic.* I plan to run it the old-fashioned way, with sign-up on a first-come first-served basis. So you can choose your time then call everyone you know to come see you play. Yeah, I'll do a slot, maybe the first one, or maybe the last. I'm looking forward to hearing what I anticipate will be a variety of genres and skill levels as I make the acquaintance of a slew of Austin's talented strummers, pluckers and warblers. Plus I intend to drag some of my friends in for those prime mini-sets to hear their new material. I'll post the few rules soon.

First open mic is Thursday, February 25. Sign up at 7:00pm. See you there!

*Because it's the last Thursday of the month, naturally!

Friday, February 5, 2010

I Don't Want To See You Around

I mentioned in an earlier post that there were two songs that emerged from my primordial creative ooze in late December/early January. Sweet Pretenses was one song. This post is about the other.

I was listening to KUT on the way to work, in the truck, as usual, and a Jon Dee Graham song was playing, don't ask me which one. He was reusing/repeating a set of chords and I was sort of humming along and blurted out what turned out to be a promising opening line to a song. So I turned off the radio and embarked on some improvisations as I drove.

At commute's end, what had I got? The first line to a song and a repeated payoff, the punch line to each couplet:

It's brutally cold and the cops are out
You better buckle up and you better slow it down
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

I should add here that it was brutally cold that morning and the cops were indeed out in force, ticketing drivers on Mopac and Loop 360. I sang that line as a reminder to myself to keep it in check as I drove the all-too-familiar route to work. The payoff? Well, I guess I just felt it was time to express a need to be alone. Though I'm still not sure that's what the protagonist really wants.

Now what? Well, two things started to work themselves out between me and my muse (not my "nurse," Andrew S.!): One was that the song felt like it was a slow-burn kinda thing, starting spare and getting more and more robust, leading to a real rocker of a break. I figure with the band we can build from a finger picked, quiet growl to a bit of a roar before we settle back down. Part of making that happen was to sing the payoff after every couplet, sort of reinforcing the admittedly misanthropic impact of each misanthropic verse.

The second thing is this sense of rottenness I'm feeling about how we're living our lives these days. Or not living them. What is it? Unfulfillment? A lack of cohesion between us as friends, lovers, neighbors, people? I don't know. I just know that "I don't want to see you around" feels right in this setting.

Which brings me to the rest of the song. And my struggle with its bastard love-childness.

Now, if you've followed my song writing at all you know that I really want the lyrics to stand alone, sans music, because they're really strong and can withstand that sort of exposure. That's the goal, anyway. And it works more often than not, I think. I'm not at all sure this song's lyrics stand up to such scrutiny, though. They're a bit Samson-esque -- post-haircut.*

Why? I figured out the music pretty quickly, but the words weren't coming. I know the song is about someone whose partner leaves, probably with cause. Or maybe not. Feeling vague about it, I opted for a highly artificial process to kick-start the lyric writing. First there's the rhyme scheme, which I kept identical almost throughout the tune. The challenge was to stick religiously to "old"/"out"/"up"/"down." Of course, I took a liberty or two.

It struck me the protagonist was a gambler, or should be, hence the forced conceit. Nothing like a song about someone who's a loser on two fronts. Or is it three?

Musically, and you'll just have to wait until the band comes 'round to performing the song, I went full throttle with a "plan," where I tweaked the chord structure by one chord in each round: two couplets and their punch lines.

The overall, nagging feeling is that the song may be too artificial, too contrived, and yet it sings well and it feels pretty good when I sing it. Which goes a long way, for better or worse, to making it seem as if it's actually okay, that it's stronger than it first appears on the page. Maybe it can hold up the temple after all. I'll let you be the judge.

It's brutally cold and the cops are out
You better buckle up and you better slow it down
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

The die has been thrown, you want to cash out
But you gotta ante up before you lay your cards down
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

You say it's getting old so now you're getting out
First you bundle up and then you dress me down
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

One thing before you go did you ever have a doubt
That I would screw it up, you placed your bet I'd let you down
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

I heard the door close as you saw yourself out
I know I rode my luck I rode it straight into the ground
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

We were good as gold, I heard you say it out loud
But you gotta keep up your appearance in this crowd
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

It isn't what you know it's how you're found out
I could make it up somehow but, baby, I'm too proud
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

You left me all alone with my shadows and my doubts
I should pay that debt but I'm beyond that now
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

I'm sitting in the cold trying to work it all out
I fill another cup but my sorrows won't drown
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

The rocking break finally arrives here

It's brutally cold and the cops are out
You better buckle up and you better slow it down
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around
I don't want to see you, I don't want to see you around

*I guess that means don't be surprised if the lyrics undergo some sort of alteration (a perm?) in the coming months!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sweet Pretenses

No decent recording of this yet, though at a ruinous 6/8 it reminds me of "Satellite," by Elvis Costello (the one he sings with the help of Chrissie Hynde on "Spike"). I started off calling it "Nothing Much In It," but that was before I stumbled on the last, apt phrase. Because I'm so wordy, I'm toying with plopping "Nothing Much In It" as a sub-head, not that it matters, but then these days ALL modern works of fiction (or non-fiction; or semi-fiction; or duplicitous truth) call for an explanatory sub-head...we'll see.
Dunno if it's going to be a Late Joys song yet, as it's rather delicate. But if I swing that gig in Southern California in March you can bet I'll give this a troubadour's best effort! Here are the lyrics:

There’s nothing much in it between love and disaster
Was it only beginning? Was it all in the past?
In less than a minute, in one or two sentences
You’re at your limit; you’ve dropped your defenses

Did you get what you wanted? A little more clarity
Were you better not knowing? Had you taught yourself not to see?
How could you have missed it, all of the evidence?
Oh what a gift if you’d never come to your senses

You jog on the treadmill, push the cart up another aisle
It’s a matter of inches but it feels like a million miles
You’re second guessing your second guesses
It felt much better when they were all sweet pretenses

There’s nothing much in it between truth and denial
It’s a matter of inches but it feels like a million miles
You’re second guessing your second guesses
It feels much better when they’re all sweet pretenses

Update: Got the gig in SoCal. E Street Cafe. 3/15/2010. More anon.