It was supposed to be
an eleven-hour drive from Fairwater, Wisconsin, to Milford, Kansas, and I nearly made it in eleven hours, except for the detour at the end, sixteen miles out of the way in one direction, and sixteen miles back. I was on my way to Kansas to meet Doc and Dean, the fellows I played bass for this past June in Sioux City when we performed at the reunion of Trinity Prep alumni. I had to arrive in time for supper, cuz we planned to go into Milford for shrimp and hush puppies there, at the little bar which will give you a pound of tasty peel-em-yourself shrimp and an bowl of exceptional hush puppies at quite a reasonable price. I've eaten there twice before, and knew that you don't want to be late for such a treat. And I wasn't late, but only just barely....
Yet such a lovely supper was not the reason for the trip. Doc and Dean and I were planning to start recording an album of songs based on fairy tales – Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Three Little Pigs, The Pied Piper, etc. – and during this long weekend would start putting together the music Dean had written for the twelve songs with the lyrics I'd provided him. After performing for the Trinity reunion, we all thought, "That can't be all there is to it," so we decided we'd do an album. Fairy tales, because those of us with grandchildren could pass along our silliness to grandchildren. We'd record the fairy tales first, and then go on to create an album of original trains songs. Yeah, that's what we would do....
"Put together" is not an exact description of what happened during the weekend. Dean had already put words and music together for himself, so now he was teaching the songs to me and Doc.
Doc is the real musician among the three of us; he plays the front guitar and sings the lead vocals. Dean wrote the music, sings harmonies to make you cry, and plays rhythm. Tom is in the band because he writes the lyrics and – with lots of practice, practice, practice and a good deal of patience on the part of his band-mates – can lay down an acceptable bass line; he's a poet, not a musician, but likes hanging out with musicians because music is a lot less lonely than poetry: two guitars and a bass talking to each other sounds like real conversation.
So we had supper in Milford, came back to Doc's house, and went downstairs to "the studio." Tom and Dean worked at printing out copies of the songs with words and chords properly together on the page for our reference. Twelve songs. It took us all evening and part of Friday to complete the task to our satisfaction, with some breaks here and there to play the songs, actually play them, and to hear that the chord changes were falling over the proper words.
And then – what? We played the songs over and over again and again, at first with Tom on bass and Dean on guitar and vocals while Doc listened and learned the melodies. And when he had learned the melodies, Doc took over the lead singing. And right away we knew everything would be alright – Doc sang the songs so well.
Everything would be alright, except he thought "Snow White" was boring and that it went on too long and maybe there was something the matter with the chord changes too.
So, thought Tom, it's either fix the damn thing – assuming it's fixable – or end up with one less song on the album. What would it be? I set to reducing two and a quarter pages of lyrics to a single sheet, without losing the story. And Dean wandered off now and again to a far corner with his guitar and tested new chord patterns in the fifth and sixth lines, to see what might work more effectively. About the time I had the lyrics revised, Dean had his stroke of genius for what to do with the music, and the song was re-incarnated. "And," Tom said to himself, "now it might be one of our best."
We worked on Thursday night for about four hours. We worked about twelve hours each day on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Most of the time was spent playing the songs over and over and over again, arranging and re-arranging them, changing words sometimes, changing chord progressions more rarely. We were learning them, and making them fit us.
"Tom," Doc said while we rehearsed our nonsense song about Switchy, "at the end of the verse, do a walk down from A to D, to take us into the chorus."
"What would be the timing on that?"
"Okay, let him practice. He wants to practice that. Let's repeat it til he gets it."
"Now listen to this! Dean's going through the chords in the walk-down from A to D. Let's do it that way."
In there somewhere – it's all a blur – Dean and Doc and the drum machine recorded a version of "Brementown Musicians" that was so good it's going on the album as is, because there's nothing you can do to it to make it better. All the animals, those Brementown Musicians, sing the chorus simultaneously, "in disharmony," as the instructions direct.
Some things you might have heard during the weekend, had you been a fly on the wall:
"Honor your obsessions...."
"Some songs write themselves...."
"Are you singing harmony? Don't sing harmony until I learn the damn melody...."
"That D7 is not the right chord. There should be something else that will take us from D to B, but I don't know what it is. I'll call Cuz in the morning...."
Cuz is a friend of Doc's who plays fiddle and steel guitar in a real working band, and who has already forgotten more about music than I'll ever know. He came over that next morning. We told him about our problem. We played him the song. He listened.
"When you go to B there," he said, "it is as if you have changed keys, and I think the chord you are looking for is the II-chord in the new key. If B is the V-chord, what key are you in?"
"And what's the II-chord in E?"
"Right. Play it with an F# there, and see what it sounds like."
"Oh, my God – that's it."
The F# made the song sound like jazz.
"Let's try recording it," someone said.
And so we did – Doc laid down guitar and vocals; Dean added his rhythm guitar and harmonies; Tom played bass.
And Tom played it again. Perhaps he was way too excited.
"Everybody stand up," Cuz said at one point. "Take a deep breath." He was staying around to take photos of us with Doc's camera, and was listening to us go back and forth, sensing that we were excited or stressed or something, and maybe we needed to relax a little bit. "Put your hands up, like this is a hold-up," he said.
Then Tom sat down and recorded his bass line, played it through entirely, as well as he has played anything, ever. Doc mixed the bass with the other tracks. Tom could hardly believe what he heard. "That's me!" he said to himself. "That's me on bass."
Tom, the final take, bass line for "Does Jack Lack Sense?" His fingers are on fire. Dean sits next to the bass player to point out the last verse so Tom remembers to go to the tag lick next, to end the song. Silly bass player. Thanks, Dean! Photo by Cuz.
Too soon it was Monday morning. Both Tom and Dean had to head for home, and they took a practice recording of each song with them, "the Trinity Basement Tapes," you might say.
It was quite a weekend. Doc's patient and loving wife, Marcia, kept us fed and hydrated throughout, and made sure we were comfortable. Thanks, Marcia! Doc grilled thick T-bone steaks for supper on Sunday, and mine was so big I barely had room on the plate for peas and potatoes! After supper, we went out to get some beer, and we put the practice songs on the CD player as we drove. We got beer and drove some more,** so we could listen to all the songs on the car stereo. [**Please note: As Doc correctly points out in the appended comment, the beer remained sealed in its containers until we got home; while we were riding about, the only thing we were drinking in was the loveliness of what the words and music were doing....] Then we went back to the basement, and rehearsed some more.
Over the weekend, words and music melded together to make twelve songs. We recorded final versions of two of those songs – "Brementown Musicians" and "Jack and the Beanstalk," which we may have to call "Does Jack Lack Sense?" We figured out the arrangements for the other ten songs, and all of us will practice them until we're ready to record our various parts in September or October, whenever we can find a slot in the calendar to make the trip back to Kansas, those of us who come from a distance.
Lately I've taken to saying, "If you had told me, when I was twenty years old, that old farts can have this much fun, I wouldn't have believed it."
Yet it's true, it's really true.
Stay tuned, and I'll let you know when we have CDs for sale on CD Baby....