Thoughts in the Belfry
Welcome to the listening experience of a lifetime, of eight songs I wrote years ago that never got their fair shake in recording technique, arrangement, nor execution, as well as one new thirteen minute epic poem set to two chords and a classic folk melody line (full disclosure, I wrote the words to the tune of “Ring Them Bells” by Bob Dylan).
What follows in this document are the brief stories of the songs chosen for this retrospective, their origins and their writing and anything else I can think of today.
Please listen to the record at a high volume, preferably with a pair of decent headphones, or in your car.
This was the first song I wrote after getting out of the hospital, March 2012. My first full blown manic episode resulted in psychosis and internment at a psychiatric facility in Cleveland, Ohio, where I met people who I thought were other people, and where I doodled and rambled all over my hardcover copy of The Prophet, being both convinced that I had written it – albeit in a different lifetime – and that it was the one true bible of existence. I still have the latter feeling, and have since bought a clean copy to read and peruse. I rarely look at that first, hospital copy.
Either way, I got out after a week of thinking the food was made of plastic, and demanding I be let outside to smoke a cigarette. A carton or so later, I was sitting in my sister’s attic – which had become my bedroom, thank god – and wrote this song. It is chock full of words and phrases that can be said in different accents and rhyme in different ways, or not rhyme at all sometimes. The scheme of those rhymes is ostensibly random, but which also were wrought with great care and precision.
The lyrics go a number of ways as it progresses, but the hook of the song – some variation on “Oh my god” – is a natural viewpoint of my mindset after those ill events of 2011-2012. I can’t speak much about it because one, I don’t remember those years too well, and two, I was at fault for just about everything bad that happened, though I can’t blame myself. Bipolar Disorder is a funny thing, and mine is very very bad unmedicated. Oh well.
The arrangement for this recording, as with all of the songs on this record, was generally improvised at the point of recording. A few takes here or there incurred, but without question I couldn’t do it again if I tried. It’d still be good. But it’d be different for sure.
At the End of the Day
I remember thinking of the line, “I’m just a magazine on the newsstand at the end of the day,” and it floored me. I immediately sat down at the piano and bam, a few minutes later had a finished song. I say it about a lot of my songs, but this is perhaps the best I’ve written. Oddly, I’m sure I’ll say that again before this essay is finished. So be it.
It’s a funny thing, songwriting. At both stages of the writing of this song, I thought that it was perfect. And both versions are indeed. The original I released as a single from a recording I made on Islesboro, Maine, on a piano with more dead keys than live. The video of that performance still exists– probably on my Facebook page somewhere. Either way, it can be heard on some or other single somewhere else on my bandcamp page, which is where you bought this. Bandcamp. Dig.
Obviously, this version of this song is not played on piano.
One day, as I was sitting in our New York apartment playing guitar, I stumbled upon this riff and immediately knew it was for this song. I added the intro from a melody that I’ve been whistling for over a decade. This is a fucking good song. Thanks goes to Allie for suggesting I delete the double tracked vocal. It’s better for it.
The lyrics, as mentioned with that first line I thought of, are all about being forgotten. And the end line, “God save the queen ‘cause I love her eyes,” is a summation of my feelings about revolution for the sake of it. Truly we need one, yes, the world over, but I can’t condone stabbing anyone in the heart, as it were. “Fit for kings, not a nod to the knights,” is me saying, “aren’t you soldiers just hired killers?” Protect me if you might, but the clearest purpose you serve is to rattle the world into oblivion with your bombs and your guns. Cold-hearted, brother. Makes me ill.
“Devil Driven” was written on guitar, but there’s a piano version floating around that I like a lot. This version is an attempt to combine the two, and I like how it turned out.
It was the first song I remember writing and thinking, “I’m pretty good at this.” There’s little structure to the words beyond their rhythmic nature, but the song I think flows nicely and without hiccup. The “devil” in the lyrics, putting his hands out to play on the baby grand, I do believe has taught me how to live and love…rock and roll as a product of Earth means it inherently holds a sort of evil, though amidst a sort of heavenly abode as well.
However, it should be said that throughout the song, I’m writing about my Dad, straight up. “Dry your eyes, my son, and lift your head to sing. Anywhere you are contains most everything,” is exactly what I would have expected my Dad to want to say to me after he died. “I’ll swear by you for my eternal life” are his words to me somewhere outside of space and time.
No Ship For Sailing
I was 19 years old, had just dropped out of college and moved to Asheville, North Carolina. I had played a house gig and a very talented local songwriter, and friend to my sister, et al, saw me and asked if I would open for her. So I did.
About halfway through my set of slow, sad songs – and one in particular with the hook “whose bodies are these?” …yikes! – a man from the back of the bar screamed, “The world is fine. Play something happy.” It goes without saying I took issue with it, and went home that night and wrote this song. It’s one of the first times I thought to myself, “how can I make this just really really catchy?” And I did. In some alternate universe, this is a hit single.
The nautical references ar a clear copy of Okkervil River, The Decemberists, and whatever else I was listening to back then (that’s about it, you could say) but I still like it because it takes the idea of sailing on a vast ocean and flipping it on its side, willing you to believe that all I want to do is sail, but I can’t figure out how. A later song on this collection, “And I’m No Boat” acts in a similar way, and to some degree is the slow, more plaintive version of “No Ship.”
Just FYI, the last lines of the song are, “I would send my patterns, thoughts and doubts as far to sea as I could shout. And you would do the same until it all ended up miles away. And by the way, it really shouldn’t end up miles away.” That’s important.
“Fumblin’ Still” was a strange song to write. For such an early song in my repertoire, it’s pretty complicated and it jumps around key signatures, strumming patterns, riffs, and melodies. It’s almost some kind of psychedelic rock, without the rock. All acoustic guitars, as was my custom throughout this record.
Using the opposite of the boat metaphor: the house metaphor. Originally meant for the Such a Sinister… album, I cut it because that album was too long as it was. It’s too long as it is, too. Nevertheless, it’s a really cool song. And the line “a gentleman in a three-piece suit is a fool. Unless it suits him well” is just great. I dig pretty much all of these lyrics. There’s good couplets everywhere. And the end, “it’s the grey skies that make me blue” is a lyric I know you wish you’d written.
Tricks of the Mind
Another manic episode song. This one was written in Portland, Oregon right in late winter, 2013.
It had been only a year since my first breakdown, and this time proved to be sooooooo much worse. After about six months of pretty constant decline, I erupted into oblivion (again around Valentine’s Day, my god) and ended up on the street, where I walked around for the next six weeks. And say “walked around” instead of “slept” or “lived” because neither of those words bring across the fact that I didn’t sleep and I almost died.
Sometime right before I hit the street, I wrote this song. The whole thing is me freaking out that my Dad didn’t want to be dead and buried in a coffin. I’ve always kind of had a thing about coffins, in a way. From my very real fear of vampires, to the idea that bodies aren’t at rest when boxed up…I dunno, but I know I don’t want one. That should be known. I also would prefer to die outside at night. Just so you know.
The recording of this version was really fun and it sounds just about perfect to me. That’s a clarinet (it’s a clarinet on a good few of these songs) and then the brass comes in, and my goodness. Terrific. Again, all these parts were effectively improvised, one after the other.
And I’m No Boat
A sweet little love song. The first one I wrote for Allie when we first met. I even include the line “…something I have written down in code,” like I wanted to make clear I thought she was aces, but I didn’t want to make it too obvious I was already writing songs about her. Goodness.
It isn’t really about her though. Really it isn’t. It’s that nautical theme flipped over on its head again. I’m the boat. Or no boat, actually. And I gotta wait for the wind, and even when there is wind, I’m being turned this way and that, but not really even this way and that because I’m following the stars, so God’s In Charge. Who knows.
I like this song a lot. Just guitar and vocals here. Nothing else fit.
“I don’t like this one. It sounds like you’re on an acid trip.”
It kind of is. Another song I wrote right after my first hospital stay. Originally, it was a beat Cory Maidens made, hence the writing credit. I ended up recording it not long after, full of noisy electric guitars and bad keyboard drums. This version is a simple kick drum, and “heavy metal organ” and I think it’s cool as shit. It doesn’t fit on this album at all, which is why it fits on this album so well, in my opinion.
The lyrics are just wordplay. They mean as much as you want them to mean, which means they don’t really mean that much. I mean, they mean something…you get it. It’s mostly just practicing internal rhyming and rapping instead of singing. This would prove to be the last song I decided was an okay variation on hip hop.
Thoughts in the Belfry
We’ve made it to the namesake, “Thoughts in the Belfry.” This is a long and complicated lyric on the guilt of living well in the time of suffering. It’s about recognizing the bullshit around you, especially those on the so-called “Christian Right.” More like Reich. Fuck them all, indeed. Neo-facism is no excuse for failing to live by God. Eat the rich.
It’s also about the passage of time, and the willingness to change amidst a changing society. But again, it’s about the bullshit entrenched in the thinking behind the movement. Sometimes people are dumb and don’t notice. And on the other side of the spectrum, so corrupt they don’t notice. “To steal is fine as long as you’re a company man” is just about the summation of it all for me. We have Socialism for the Rich and the Powerful. Bail out the banks, bail out big business. Don’t take me on my word that I need your help…but again, not Me. I’m living well. And there again is the guilt.
This song turns into a song about family, acceptance, forgiveness, and love. I call my Mother royalty. I call my stepdad father. I remind my sisters to be original and regal, because they are.
And then the end comes, after thirteen minutes, and the album is over.
Thanks for purchasing. Thanks for listening. Thanks for reading.