A Longish Preamble to My New Song

Between the ages of ten and thirteen, I went to a Catholic school just beyond the city limits of Philadelphia. You knew you were leaving Philadelphia because you had to cross a bridge that spanned a set of railroad tracks and ended at the top of a steep hill that descended into the wilds of suburbia. The school sat at the top of the hill, right next to the railroad tracks.

The school didn’t have a schoolyard per se. But it did have a church, and the church had a parking lot, and that’s where we were sent to play at lunchtime regardless of weather or time of year.

Worth noting is the fact that the church was a long block away from the school, and that the long block ran parallel to the train tracks. What this means in practical terms is that the church parking lot where we played every day at lunchtime was right next to a set of train tracks. Other than a low dirt hill and some shrubbery, nothing stood between us and the tracks — not to mention the trains that roared by every twenty minutes or so.

Also worth noting is that the church parking lot was built on the same hill that the school and the church were built on. Again, if we’re thinking about this in practical terms — or at least geographical terms — it means that if the parking lot was level (which it was), then there would be a steep drop at one end.

So at one end of the parking lot there was a set of heavily trafficked railroad tracks, and at the other end was a twenty-foot drop. Between these boundaries ran a horde of ten-to-thirteen-year-olds who liked to set things on fire and believed that everything they saw on pro-wrestling was not only real but should be emulated. Amidst all of this, there was one person (me) who just wanted to be left alone to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the latest issue of Doctor Who Monthly.

There was also a lamp.

SchoolyardDiagram-01

It turns out that I didn’t get much reading done, largely because I was trying to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of the church parking lot while also trying to avoid the hordes of preteen boys who wanted to use me as a prop in their efforts at staging the latest wrestling moves they’d seen on television. Also, my interest in reading and a tendency to make references to things like “Scylla and Charybdis” did not endear me to anyone in my age bracket. Or anyone outside of my age bracket, come to think of it.

The upshot of all of this is that I ended up getting pounded quite a bit, and once went home with a concussion when my skull slammed against the blacktop. At the time, I thought everyone hated me. I felt like an outsider, and that made me miserable. The books I read and the TV shows I liked to watch gave me a bit of an escape, but what I really needed was someone to tell me to forget about all of the kids who made me feel like I didn’t belong — to tell me they could all go to hell. To tell me, in essence, to fuck ’em.

And that’s where this song comes in…

Track-by-Track “Tell Me a Story”

This track gets a tiny bit political — or at least takes a look at some concerns I have about the way we, as a culture, discuss weighty issues. Essentially, “Tell Me a Story” is about the vapid nature of the infotainment that passes for news in our world.

“We play this game, you and I: We hit the gas and close our eyes” is meant to suggest that, on the whole, we tend to act before we think and without regard to consequence. The next lines, “We roll through fire, we roll through flood, we roll past sad men gunning for blood” is, sadly, a line I wrote a few years ago but which continues to be increasingly relevant.

The first part of the chorus, “Tell me a story, sing me a song, tell me it’s okay, tell me I’m wrong,” is directed at two groups: the media and politicians. I feel like both of these groups are, to some extent, responsible for selling us a comfortable myth. Essentially, their job is to tell us that everything is fine when our senses tell us that it’s not.

The second half of the chorus builds on that theme and gives way to the suspicions many of us have even as the evening news assures us that the next day will be bigger and brighter: “Tell me a story, sing me to sleep, I’ve got a feeling we’re in too deep.”

The second verse builds on the imagery of driving, but this time around “we” aren’t in the driver’s seat any more. Rather, “We go along for the ride. We barely blink when our worlds collide.” These lines speak to our relationship with news media in particular. While there are certainly some news stories that can bring a tear to my eye, I see so many tragedies on the news so often that I’ve begun to become desensitized to them.

Watching the news feels like being shuttled somewhere in a limousine and passing scenes of destruction everywhere we turn. And there’s nothing we can do about it beyond shaking our heads, shuddering and heaving, while other people who don’t have the option of watching all of these events unfold from a safe distance literally struggle to breathe.

Lest anyone think that I’m pinning the blame for the sorry state of the world solely on the media, the last verse turns the situation around and puts some of the responsibility for the way things are on our shoulders as well — i.e., the audience who keeps the 24-hour news industry in business: “We built this world, you and I. We saw it coming and let it slide.”

In the last two lines, I’m thinking specifically of Alec Baldwin’s depiction of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, but also more generally about how we engage in many of our discussions about politics from a cynical distance, as if everything is a joke: “We went for punchlines. We took the bait. We laughed as mad-men turned up the hate.”

I’m definitely speaking from my own perspective here, but my own tendency is always to poke fun at things. If my recollection of a certain MASH episode is accurate, Sigmund Freud once said that anger turned sideways is humor, so this instinct is only natural, but is it productive? Are there better ways to address the ills of society?

Clearly there are, and a lot of people are engaging these ills in productive ways. For the rest of us, though, (by which I mean people like me) this song is meant as a call to question our collective media diet and think about new ways to engage with the world.

In terms of music, I tried to make the serious message of the song a little more palatable by couching it in an arrangement reminiscent of Burt Bacharach. I also think of this track as fitting into the larger premise of the album in that it explains, to some extent, where all of the people went — and why the world is not only populated by answering machines. And the last flourish of trumpets is meant to sound like a circus. Or, if you prefer, a media circus.

Tell Me a Story

We play this game, you and I.
We hit the gas and close our eyes.
We roll through fire. We roll through flood.
We roll past sad men gunning for blood.
Tell me a story. Sing me a song.
Tell me it’s okay. Tell me I’m wrong.
Tell me a story. Sing me to sleep.
I’ve got a feeling we’re in too deep.

We go along for the ride
We barely blink when our worlds collide.
We shake our heads, shudder and heave
While other people struggle to breathe.
Tell me a story. Sing me a song.
Tell me it’s okay. Tell me I’m wrong.
Tell me a story. Sing me to sleep.
I’ve got a feeling we’re in too deep.

We built this world, you and I
We saw it coming and let it slide
We went for punchlines. We took the bait.
We laughed as madmen turned up the hate.
Tell me a story. Sing me a song.
Tell me it’s okay. Tell me I’m wrong.
Tell me a story. Sing me to sleep.
I’ve got a feeling we’re in too deep.

Track-by-Track: “Waiting for a Signal”

Before Thank You for Holding started to coalesce around a single theme, I tried a few different angles for approaching the album. At one point, I was thinking of recording a series of short punk-rock songs about life in contemporary America, so I recorded a song called “Front of the Line,” which eventually evolved into “Waiting for a Signal.”

The main thing I was trying to do with “Front of the Line” was keep it short. My goal was to keep it under a minute in length but still maintain a traditional pop-song structure — verse, chorus, verse, chorus, instrumental break, verse chorus. Here’s what it sounded like:

Not exactly the kind of music you might hear while you’re on hold, so I recorded a new version with slightly different lyrics once the larger project started to take shape in my head.  The main reason I decided to keep it (and change the title) is that the idea of waiting for a signal fit in with the overall theme of being on hold.

Essentially the song is about suffering an existential crisis — or a whole string of existential crises — while sitting in traffic and realizing that everyone is trying to inch forward on the highway of life (as it were) without making much progress. In situations like that, it’s hard not to wonder what it all means.

 

Waiting for a Signal

Wake up in a panic at the wheel of a car,
Suddenly it hits you that you don’t know who you are.
Waiting for a signal, hoping for a sign,
Everybody’s pushing to the front of the line.

Inch up on the red and lose a mile on the green,
Still you don’t believe that you’re a part of the machine.
Waiting for a signal, hoping for a sign,
Everybody’s pushing to the front of the line.

Somewhere on the road, you find a moment of Zen,
But then you come up short of breath and do it all again.
Waiting for a signal, hoping for a sign,
Everybody’s pushing to the front of the line.