Euclid Avenue: The Liner NotesSeptember 22, 2014
I didn’t think I’d be doing any promotional material for Euclid Avenue, which is my second solo album (I quietly released Gastonia last year) I just figured I’d put it out there and let people listen to it or not. It’s very nice if people want to buy a copy but I don’t expect to do more than break even with the project. Maybe buy a nice guitar and make a donation to an animal rescue group.
Everybody tells me I shouldn’t say this but I will anyway. I’m not really a performer and if I could have recorded these songs with real musicians and an actual singer I would have. I’m a songwriter, and I have been doing that since the ’70s. I have played in punk bands, and for a time in the ’80s even had my own band — we recorded a single that was produced by Tom Ayres, the man whom signed David Bowie to RCA — but I’m far more comfortable just writing. I wish someone competent would simply take theses songs in hand.
Anyway, here’s how it all came about. A couple of years ago, myfriend—Eddie—who I haven’t seen in more than 20 years — called me out of the blue. We were in a rock ’n’ roll band together in the 1980s, in Shreveport, where he still lives. And as it turns out he’s still making music. As it turned out, he’s still playing some of the songs that we played back then—including several that I either wrote or helped write.
And his current bandmates—who I take it are somewhat younger than Eddie and myself, and were not playing music in the 1980s—kind of liked some of those old songs. So Eddie tracked me down. He told me what was going on, and he asked me if I had some of our old lyric sheets (Eddie had forgotten some of the words), or tapes of performances and rehearsals, and if I did, if I could send them to him. And, did I have any new songs?
As it turns out, I did — in the 25 years or so since Eddie and I shared a stage, I’ve probably written a thousand or more songs, most of which I’ve discarded or forgotten. It’s something I’ve been doing since I was 14 years old, and something that I’ve had a mild degree of success at—something that I could have at least tried to do professionally. (Back in 1981, a college friend and I won a national songwriting contest that landed us on The Merv Griffin Show. Brenda Lee recorded our song. Kenny Rogers almost did. My friend went to work as a staff writer for a Nashville songwriting combine. I took a job as a sports editor.)
Or maybe not. Our contest-winning song notwithstanding, I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that sounds like a hit—though some of the stuff I wrote in high school when I was figuring out how to play guitar is pretty moony-juney. I don’t generally write romantic love songs—at least not ones I like (there are one or two that are OK)—and I’ve rarely followed the AABA form or any other convention. I tend to write a lot of six minute songs, some of them without a release, chorus or a bridge.
Part of that is no doubt due to the reality that most of these songs were written with no expectation that anyone other than myself and maybe a few close friends would ever hear them. Since I last shared a stage with Eddie, I have played guitar and sung publicly maybe five times. I retired from performing 15 years ago and though Eddie’s asked me to come down and do a show with him I mean to stay retired.
Part of that is because I’m simply not very good—and that’s not false modesty. I never really was, and over the past 20 years or so my hearing has become noticeably less acute. Were it not for some high quality headphones and a low latency digital audio workstation I couldn’t come close to reproducing the sound in my head. But the larger part is that I genuinely have no interest in performing—I just like writing songs. Even when I was in bands, I never aspired to being a rock star — I remember thinking that Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin had a good setup; he was essentially in a band without the responsibility of playing in tune every night.
I was never a natural musician, sometimes I got through songs by learning chord progressions by rote and watching my bandmates’ hands. I was a limited vocalist, passable for the songs I sang but incapable of hitting and/or holding all but a few hand-selected notes. (About the time I quit playing in bands, not long after the release of Guitar Town, I interviewed Steve Earle and he told me that the executives at MCA had made him take a humiliating singing test. I could relate—I never would have passed. )
For me, it was never about being onstage—though that could be exhilarating, for me it wasn’t worth the pre-show nerves or the after-show come down. I had a writer’s mentality—I wanted to connect, to communicate, but I didn’t necessarily want to the center of attention. (To paraphase something I once heard Gene Lyons say, I wanted to go into a room alone, do some work and have everyone congratulate.)
Looking back, I realize my songwriting has always been a lesser and included offense in my larger work. When I was in a band with Eddie, I was also a police reporter, and so I tended to write songs about the stuff I covered in my day job. I did a 30-part series following the flow of cocaine from Miami to Shreveport for the newspaper, and I wrote a couple of cocaine songs — one of them, “Murder in Miami,” I’ve reworked for Euclid Avenue. I wrote about an alleged hit man I knew; he’s the guy in “Monsters (While You Sleep).”
Anyway, once I started putting stuff down, I realized I was getting better. Not good exactly, but better. And I liked doing it. So I did.
Thanks for the interest in the album. Here’s a little track by track rundown:
1. “The Red Peace” — It’s a hymn. Sort of. You can take it that way, at least. It’s about a guy — a skeptic — who gets saved: “These days, I don’t trust nothing/ I can’t touch, taste, smell or see/ But grace is real, I know your lovin’/ So I don’t mock your mystery.” It’s also a love song to my wife, though people shouldn’t take it literally. On the other hand, starting the album with the line: “It’s like my ears are filled with cotton/I’ve lost all acuity” is on purpose.
2. “Murder in Miami” — I wrote this with the late Pete Ermes in the early 1980s, after the aformentioned newspaper cocaine project. I’ve updated it a little — he performed it as a blues but I don’t play stinging slide guitar.
3. “Euclid Avenue” — Novels and operas have been written about the great, tragic love affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Boatwright Cheney. This is the rest of the story. “One can’t expect the angels to attend to/The tuneless grief of some bald engineer.”
4. “Boston Corbett” — My attempt at writing an old-timey folk song about the man who killed John Wilkes Booth.
5. “In Flood” — A typically equivocal love song. “Don’t turn me into Charlie Bovary …”
6. “Thomas Chatterton” — Chatterton was an 18th-century English poet and forger of pseudo-medieval poetry. He was also the first rock star. He committed suicide at 17, dying of arsenic poisoning. This is Karen’s favorite song on the album and for a long time was my choice for the title track. If I were to release a first single, this would be it.
7. “Bill Clinton” — I wrote (and performed) this for Stephen Koch’s very first Louis Jordan birthday celebration back in 1996. It’s a little dated now, but anyone who lives in Arkansas — or anywhere outside the coastal cultural centers — can probably relate to it.
8. “Going to the Boats” — The last song I put on the album. More of a Tom Waits-like noisey recitation than an actual song. But it’s different.
9. “Never Going Back” — As straightforward a song as I think I’ve ever written. Young lovers on a spree, of some sort.
10. “The Boys From Montreal” — Ron Howard’s reportedly making a movie about Barry Seal. This is my version of that movie.
11. “Rapture Me” — I wrote this for my friend Levi Agee’s unreleased zombie/rapture movie. I didn’t like the version that ended up on Gastonia, so I recorded a stripped down version. I like this one better.
12. “Monsters (While You Sleep) ” — A true story. The guy I’m writing about is still alive. I believe he might have killed a dozen people. He was probably a good cop. If you read any of James Ellroy’s L.A. crime fiction, he’s a real-life Dudley Smith.
13. “Cassius Clay” — This is a song about watching the Friday night fights with my dad. Randall Berry produced this version, he plays all the instruments except what I play (acoustic guitar). I have no plans to be in a band, but if I were to be in a band, I’d be in a band with Randall — who’s a tremendous songwriter in his own right.
14. “Act Like Nothing’s Wrong” — A country song, and the only one on the album where I play a real guitar solo. (Try to find it.) More than anything else it’s me testing the limits of my little home studio.