7. The Year of The Dog

This was largely written and recorded just after Chinese New Year, in Hanoi, but inspired by walking around Hong Kong and seeing dogs being treated like royalty. They were having a whale of a time. It was about to be their year.

The last Year of The Dog was 2006; the song is bluntly autobiographical. February 2006 was the last time I was unemployed, and I did spend a week doing a sudoku (which I did not complete), I also spent a week doing a crossword (which I did not complete), concluded I have limited problem-solving intelligence, and spent a week doing an EP called Tissue of Lies, my first solo recording. After that I worked in Westminster Council transcribing questionnaires from users of drug, alcohol and homeless services, worked for four years as a medical physicist, lasering and imaging various parts of the body (most of them not parts you would not have on display, even wearing a swimsuit), became a data visualisation lecturer, started several podcasts (in 2006 I had no idea what a podcast was), and here I was – 12 years on. Unemployed, on a sofa. In Vietnam. Not doing a sudoku.

I asked twitter for recommendations for the worst synth sounds in GarageBand, eventually finding some really terrible ones and layering over a vocal that sounds like I’m drunk even though I’m basically teetotal and a square. The first letters of each line form an acrostic for “The Year of The Dog”, and I had some idea of changing the lyric on each verse to reflect different takes on the same ideas, but in the end just gave up and stuck with the original weird direct “straight out of my brain” approach because it seemed more fun. And added some sentimental chat about dogs in the second chorus.

I’d previously not been a huge fan (of dogs), but then I’d met Inscrutable Rita (as mentioned in Rusty Horse Bones) and Reproachful Flower, a border collie we dogsitted in Los Angeles in December 2017, and who didn’t like to give affection and didn’t like going for walks, but nevertheless stayed calmed while I was freaking out when Elon Musk launched his rocket from Southern California and I saw it from the street in Los Angeles and thought it was a North Korean missile attack/chemical weapons/aliens. These dogs were a lot more like cats* and I am a cat person**. So I was pretty well-disposed to dogs by the time The Year of The Dog rolled around.

I am not a heat person; and I’d already spent several days in Vietnam in mid-30s*** heat with impressive humidity. By the time we got to Cambodia, which was even hotter and more humid, I needed a day hiding from the world in an air-conditioned room. So I took a Snow Day, the subject of next week’s song.

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 1 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1 this week and you’ll get the download of this track (and all previous tracks) right away, and the full album when it’s released on April 8th, 2019!

*weird and distant

**weird and distant

***Celsius – mid-90s F

6. Hey, Veronica

February 2018. We were staying with a friend in Sai Kung, a fishing town in Hong Kong blessed with an arsenal of black kites who swoop in at dusk from the outlying islands. The Heathers TV show had just been postponed because, on Valentines’ Day, a terrible school shooting had occurred in America. For the unfamiliar, (the original) Heathers is a high school movie – some* would say the high school movie – from 1988. Its writer was consciously reacting to the bittersweet John Hughes portrayals of high school, and concocted a bitchy and witty story full of smart and funny pokes at bullying, conformity, 80s materialism, homophobia, shallow liberalism, and the media. It also features Winona Ryder’s Veronica being led, somewhat unwittingly, on a trail of destruction instigated by Christian Slater’s JD – a character who I thought was amazing in his James Dean-y (JD, geddit?) nonconformity and I now have to sadly report was obviously written as a sociopathic arsehole. There are poisonings and shootings and explosives and you can see why they postponed the TV series for a while.

The same week, writer and internet brainperson** Jay Owens talked on social media about JD and how we can be attracted to someone we wish we more like. Braver, more of a rule breaker, stronger, faster, better. I always felt I related to Veronica more – naive, idealistic, and ultimately stronger because she’s not at the mercy of her homicidal urges. And I fancied Winona Ryder, because of course I did. But yes – ultimately I wanted to be her – a braver and more self-possessed version of me – someone unprepared to deal with the social forces and personalities swirling around her at school, but ultimately immune to the allure of violence as an end in itself – a decent person, but a little braver.

Did the Heathers series ever come out? It did, in October 2018. I was surprised that there was a time in 2018 it wasn’t crass and inappropriate, or framed by another bout of death. There’s certainly things that in 1988 seemed an ok way to talk about the pain of adolescence and tackiness of American culture that just seem like on the nose reflections of reality in 2018 – things that seemed liked melodramatic fantasies now seem mundane – horrible, but everyday. And as the role of violence in high schools has changed, so has its role in movies about high schools. The closest comparators I can think of in recent(ish) years are The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner films – where teens are sacrificed mercilessly for a greater good, or at least a greater purpose.

If states (and more specifically military and police forces) are conceived as holding a monopoly on violence, gun advocates presumably view the deaths caused by gun violence as a regrettable but necessary sacrifice which prevents that monopoly on violence existing. I know this sounds very callous, but I feel like we accept these sorts of calculuses every day – we want the freedom to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, drive cars , fly in planes, and so on – all killers, and not always to the person smoking or drinking or driving a car or riding in a plane – a sacrifice we accept. But to break someone’s monopoly on violence, you have to do violence yourself, directly or indirectly. Then the plot of Heathers, played out again and again across a country, with variations, isn’t an act of isolated, fruitless rebellion anymore. It looks like the offerings at the Quarter Quell; a series of sacrifices to prop up a status quo. Heathers was such an important film for me that I hope I can watch it again and enjoy its amazing dialogue and cartoonish death and carnage without thinking too much about the reality, which is grim as fuck.

We left Hong Kong for Hanoi just before the Year of The Dog began. So in the Year of The Bird, I was a few days behind reality with next week’s song.

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 1 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1 this week and you’ll get the download of this and previous tracks right away, and the full album when it’s released on April 8th, 2019!

*I

**not how she self-describes***
***to my knowledge

5. Hawaiian Oulipo Hell

The Hawaiian written alphabet contains 12 letters: 5 vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and 8 consonants (h, k, l, m, n, p, w, and ‘). Someone who knows more about linguistics than I do convinced me that this doesn’t significantly limit what can be said or expressed in Hawaiian – I still think it’s a pretty shoddy act of colonialism to decide that Hawaiian is ok with fewer than half the letters English has.

So this became my first (knowingly) Oulipean writing exercise – to write a song using only those 12 letters (I didn’t use the ‘ – the ‘Okina – which is a glottal stop, because it’s not, to my knowledge, used in written English). I’d heard of the Oulipo (a bunch of poets who did crazy constrained writing from the 1960s onwards) years ago, from performing with poet and, uh, trombonist Trombone Poetry at acoustic nights in London, but it was Ross Sutherland’s work that restarted my interest. His wonderful podcast, Imaginary Advice, tackles all kinds of forms and styles, but one of the recurring strands is his own creative process, and how imposing constraints stopped his writing being awful. I was hoping to recreate that effect with my own writing.

Ross talks on his show about his writing becoming less polemic and more specific when he started writing using Oulipean forms. You can hear an example of this in his Univocal Lipogram in O – a poem written using all the consonants, but only one vowel, O – which appeared on his podcast last year. The way that he looks back upon youth with wry affection and sharp recall, revelling in the innocence and nostalgia and at the same time rueful of youth’s ignorance and gaucheness – they’re themes and moods that come through in his longer pieces too. These constraints have freed him from the blank page, and delivered a deeper, more specific, more personal piece of writing.

For me, I think the constraints make me write more distantly and abstractly – maybe as a defence mechanism against getting too raw? There is another Oulipean piece much later in Year of The Bird, as well as various other formal pieces, and they all seem to have that distance and dreaminess in common. And I’m not sure whether the constraints made my writing any better, which would be a goddamn shame, because I’m going to have to find another shortcut to replicating Ross’ immense creative talent that doesn’t involve 20+ years of hard work. I’m hoping to retire before then.

The song Hawaiian Oulipo Hell describes a nightmare about drowning whilst surfing. I had a couple of surf lessons in Hawaii, and my surf instructor was the same age as me – 39 – and had been surfing for 30+ years. I think surfing is a wonderful thing – I don’t know whether to say “sport” or “form of exercise” or something else, because I don’t think people do it to be competitive, necessarily, or for their health, and there’s so much in it about reading the waves and being in nature and leveraging the sea’s power to carry you through space, which is all much more experiential to me. Dick Dale talked about recreating the sound of the surf crashing with his speed-picked guitar playing. I mean – I’m absolutely terrible at surfing, but that doesn’t stop me appreciating its appeal. Anyway, if you’re surfing, you’d better not be flicking Poseiden’s* nose, or you will Get. Fucked. Up. My instructor had scars from the broken ribs he’d sustained getting pushed down into a reef by a particularly angry wave. You can play in the sea, but never forget it’s a wild beast.

The main instrument here is a sample of a freight train that passes through the harbour area of Oakland, I thought it had a wonderful chordal quality. I recorded it at the same time as the ice and finger pops for Footnote – I know it’s a bit of a cheat, it wasn’t recorded in Oahu where I recorded the rest of the song, I just forgot to use that particular sample before. The keyboard solos are me waggling my finger wildly over the iPhone keyboard with “glissando” mode turned on. Uh, I mean, doing something really melodically complex.

Next week we talk about Winona Ryder, Christian Slater and gun violence whilst desperately trying not to spoiler the plot of “Heathers”.

*my one slight cheat in this was to spell “Olimpian” the old Greek way; Hawaiian has no letter “y”.

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 1 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1 this week and you’ll get the download of this track (and previous tracks) right away, and the full album when it’s released on April 8th, 2019! The lyrics for “Hawaiian Oulipo Hell” are there too.

4. Obliterate, Annihilate

Ursula K. LeGuin died on January 22nd, 2018. This post will contain significant spoilers for LeGuin’s work.

Her 1968 book, a Wizard of Earthsea, is one of my favourite books, and one of the few books I reread. It is a sort of a high fantasy novel about a young man called Ged who grows up on an island in an world where magic exists, and he becomes a great wizard. Over the course of the book (spoilers!), Ged accidentally unleashes a ‘shadow’ – an antagonist which takes a distorted version of his own form; it is only by accepting it as part of his own nature that he is, towards the end of the story, able to prevent the harm it’s been causing.

She has written other stories in this universe; The Tombs of Atuan, dealing with freedom of thought and religion; The Farthest Shore and The Other Wind, which address mortality; and Tehanu, a break from the high fantasy style that delves into the powerless people of Earthsea; a feminist and socialist story, if you like. And some fascinating Science Fiction which deals with gender and politics and all sorts. But A Wizard of Earthsea is the book I love the best.

I read an interview some time ago where she talks about writing it at age 37 and it became clear to me for the first time that the shadow was not “the evil that men do”, or even some more specific harm like addiction or power; it was her anxiety and depression, and A Wizard of Earthsea was her way of coming to terms with those as part of her personality rather than trying to eradicate them. There’s a wonderful quote contained in her comments on Tales from Earthsea, a version of the Earthsea stories made by Studio Ghibli in 2006 – largely to her displeasure:

“In the film, evil has been comfortably externalized in a villain, the wizard Kumo/Cob, who can simply be killed, thus solving all problems. In modern fantasy (literary or governmental), killing people is the usual solution to the so-called war between good and evil. My books are not conceived in terms of such a war, and offer no simple answers to simplistic questions…. the darkness within us can’t be done away with by swinging a magic sword”

Fascism was in the news. Is Punching A Fascist Wrong? And so on. And I could see in my intense hatred for those people the desire to obliterate their existence rather than deal with the reality of their existence. And on January 22nd, I had a conversation with my own shadow – my inner critic, insecurities, anxiety, and depression. There was no special occasion that prompted that conversation (that I was aware of), and over the course of this discussion, they convinced me, for the first time, that they weren’t antagonistic, didn’t exist to torture me or hold me back – that, in fact, they loved me. That they – that is, this powerful and destructive part of myself – just wanted to prevent me from falling to harm, to making a fool of myself, of being hurt. I told them they had probably oversteered a little.

The next day I found out that Ursula K. Le Guin had died. That this conversation with my shadow had happened the night that Ursula K. LeGuin died, an author who had helped me come to terms with the very existence of my shadow, not as something to nuke from orbit, but something to embrace as part of myself – it was a hell of a coincidence. And I couldn’t not be moved by it.

One final note – this was also around the time I read Consider Phlebas, my first foray into Iain M Banks. I found it full of fatphobia and misanthropy – a mean spirited boys’ own adventure. I’ve been told I should persevere with others of his books, but I found his writing so in opposition to the thoughtfulness and imagination in UKLG’s science fiction, it will be a while before I want to. I only mention this because the second verse makes zero sense without this titbit of bitchy trivia. I do not regret including it.

(The photo is of a shadow; in Captain Cook, on the east side of Hawaii Big Island)

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 1 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1 this week and you’ll get the download of this track right away, and the full album when it’s released on April 8th, 2019!

3. Lighthouse

Content note: #MeToo

The eastern side of Big Island is largely fresh volcanic land – black rock and coral exposed to the Pacific Ocean. When the weather is good, you can bob around in the sea and look at fish and massive turtles. When it’s bad, you get pulled and pushed above sharp coral and rocks even in the most sheltered spots, and so it’s not a great idea to go into the water. Some of those rocks are really close to the surface.

I’d be very suspicious of anybody who looks like me and who has strong opinions about #MeToo, especially after the people who look like me talked a lot of shit about witch hunts and things going too far and what about the rich white men and CAN’T WE EVEN ASK SOMEONE ON A DATE DURING A JOB INTERVIEW WHY DO FEMINISTS WANT TO RUIN ROMANCE?!!???! – which, to reiterate, is some basic bullshit. I wrote the song in late January 2018 when a famous man generally known for being on the woke spectrum was the centre of a story which cast him in a different light. I was thinking about these men – not those big bovine bullying men who are systematic in their abuse and cunning at covering their tracks. I was thinking about those men we think are better – i.e. not monsters – but who we find out fall short of these somewhat higher standards – but standards that don’t stand much higher than basic decency.

Why did I feel the need to write a song about these men? I suppose because I can put myself in the place of a weak man abusing his limited power and reputation more easily than the oversized monsters, terrifying and evil. I’m not sure any of us should have any power, ever – I can see how tempting it is to abuse that power. And the weakness of character of the ‘I’ in this song shouldn’t be conflated with weakness of impact or harm – I don’t think the two correlate well. But I hope he gets what’s coming to him; and I think he knows what’s coming. I get a certain sense of satisfaction of what will happen to him after the song ends; my intent wasn’t to create a likeable sex pest.

The sound you hear at the beginning (and all the way through) is of the Coqui frog, so-called because of the incredibly loud sound they produce at night, despite being smaller than a penny, and tree-coloured, so effectively invisible, should you be tempted to pick the noisy bastards up and put them on a car/boat/jet plane heading to a different time zone. They are endemic to Puerto Rico, so much that Lin Manuel Miranda sampled them on his fundraiser “Almost Like Praying” – which he talks about on a really good episode of the podcast Song Exploder. I’d forgotten about this and thought I was being very original. For Lin Manuel Miranda, they represent the ubiquitous sound of Puerto Rico – for me, an ubiquitous sound keeping me awake at night in Hilo, Hawaii, where they have established themselves, supposedly smuggling themselves in on plants and fruit. In Lighthouse, they created a melody, a siren warning or calling from the rocks. They sure are loud.

Next week I’ll be talking about a song called Obliterate, Annihilate – it’s about the death of an author – a specific one, not the general concept – that moved me a great deal.

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 1 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1 this week and you’ll get the download of this track right away, and the full album when it’s released on April 8th, 2019!

2. Footnote

I’m sure we all remember the second week of 2018 for one of the most momentous events of the year – Jim’s 40th birthday.

Jim is one of my oldest and dearest friends. I hate to sound like Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher, but it’s hard to express a friendship which has existed for 25 years, from hanging out every day to seeing each once a year, and now being on different continents fairly frequently/most of the time. At the moment, Jim lives in Machynlleth, a smallish town in west mid-Wales, and I don’t live anywhere, so when his 40th birthday arrived in the second week of January 2018 (I was in Oakland at this time), we weren’t going to be partying it up together.

I did something I never do (because I am bad friend and barely remember people’s birthdays, never mind create a touching appreciation of their continuing existence): I made him a card – well, it being 2018, I drew him a card and WhatsApp-ed it to him. I don’t want to mark this blog as explicit, so I can’t be too detailed about what this card depicted (and nor will the image appear with the track – listen to the song for a clearer idea). It included a rainbow which said “Happy 40th Birthday Jim” – it just didn’t have a pot of gold at the end. Jim was shocked and touched in equal measure. I mean, I assume he was touched, but just too touched to express it. He certainly seemed shocked.

The other noteworthy event of the second week of January 2018 was somebody sending out a warning telling everyone in Hawaii they were about to be nuked.

I was on the way to visit Hawaii to the first time. I wasn’t there yet, and the warning was a false alarm. So this wasn’t a “brush with death experience”. It was more like the time when I was a kid, and I was ill in bed, and my mum went to a bakers in Oakengates and saw Philip Schofield order a custard slice*. Nevertheless, I was on a deadline to write 40 songs so I take tangential inspiration where I can. What if I had been in Hawaii? And it had been real? And the last thing I did as a 39 year old man before I went all Sarah Connor was to draw a really juvenile/bawdy 40th birthday card?

The song really helped me to work through those feelings, thanks for listening. I’m not sure why I went with a Prince vocal, but it made sense at the time. One of my few bouts of falsetto-only singing.

Before I left Oakland, I recorded the sound of ice being swirled around a glass; the fizz of a bottle of fizzy water being opened; and me popping my finger out my cheek, because my wife taught me how to do it a couple of years ago, and the amount I do it now really annoys her. This was the first time I used environmental elements and sounds I found in the place I was in (excluding Delaney’s acoustic guitar in Rusty Horse Bones) – but I think you’ll agree, you can find a glass of ice, a bottle of fizzy water, a finger, and a mouth, almost anywhere**, so I resolved to do a bit better next time – which is why next week’s track – Lighthouse – incorporated some local fauna, all the way from Puerto Rico.

*it was a large slice.

** this is an appropriate place for a “‘You can find a glass of ice, a bottle of fizzy water, a finger, and a mouth almost anywhere’ is what Chapter 5 of my autobiography is called” joke, but I have led a dull life so it’s really not remotely suitable

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 1 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1 this week and you’ll get the download of this track right away, and the full album when it’s released on April 8th, 2019!

1: Rusty Horse Bones

I have experienced an earthquake before, believe it or not, in London. It was about 8pm and I went for a lie-down (because even in my 30s, I had the life of a pensioner) and I felt something – as if my whole body had the sort of tremor that an eyelid gets when you’re really tired. I just thought I was just having a little funny turn. Sometimes I experience a euphoric rush like a rollercoaster just as I’m falling asleep, and I thought maybe this was a new development to enjoy in my middle years. A little light Delirium Tremens as I was nodding off. Later I found out, no, it was a tiny London earthquake.

The earthquake in Oakland on January 4th, 2018 wasn’t like that. It didn’t shake the decorative plates off the walls or break a window, and the Shiba Inu we were dog sitting (who, with some reluctance, I am forced to describe as inscrutable) displayed ambiguous feelings about the event, and fell back to sleep. But it was enough to wake me up, and give me enough time to think “Where’s the best place to be in an earthquake?” and “Can I imagine living in a place where the fear of sudden death at nature’s hand is a real constant?” as I lay in bed not doing anything. I did not attribute this earthquake to a weird psychosomatic quirk.

We were dogsitting for Delaney, an audio producer. She owns the Shiba Inu, Rita, the ultimate doge; and more pertinently, an acoustic guitar. Using instruments and sounds at my disposal as we travelled seemed like a smart way to stop everything sounding the same, and this one only had five strings, so it would sound 16.6% less like whatever other guitar recordings I’d be doing this year. I didn’t finish the recording at Delaney’s – I had to record the vocals in our friend Nick’s spare room in Los Angeles, and at this stage in the year, I was very self-conscious about singing about Rusty Horse Bones particularly loudly, so I wrote something spoken word – also as a way of trying to make sure what I wrote this year didn’t sound exactly like what I’d done before. I remember whispering “Rusty Horse Bones” over and over again, Nick in the next room, incredibly self-conscious that I sounded like a ranting conspiracy theorist.

“Rusty Horse Bones” came out of nowhere; for me is the “He Who Must Not Be Named” of 2017/2018; the thing you say when you’re tired of talking about the thing you’re constantly talking about because it’s on everyone minds, but it’s fucking horrible and depressing so you’d rather not talk about it, or even say its name for the fiftieth time today. “Rusty Horse Bones” was doing some heavy lifting standing in for both the UK’s and US’ national car crashes; sometimes a piece of writing comes out so obvious and on the nose you just have to make it weirder so you don’t feel like a simpleton. I never worry that I make it too weird. Maybe I should? Making things weird for their own sake is annoying. I worry I’ll offend goths with this song, but for the record: people who aren’t goths should talk about death. As much as they want.

Oh – and. The picture isn’t Rusty Horse Bones. Or at least it wasn’t when I did it. It’s a drawing I did before I wrote the lyrics, and it’s one of my favourite drawings I’ve done. The others aren’t nearly so good.

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 1 at https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-1 this week and you’ll get the download of this track right away, and the full album when it’s released on April 8th, 2019!!!!