I’m very hard on myself as a songwriter. People tell me my lyrics are interesting, but the songs still sound too heady or too saccharine to my ears. Lou Reed is my absolute hero, the way he squeezes emotion from the most basic melodies and chords and an imperfect voice to boot. I admire Nick Cave for the same reason, although his voice is better, and he tends to spit out his words. The holy grail is greater and greater simplicity, writing from a child’s perspective. With age comes calmness and economy.
I have notebooks galore filled with bad poetry and coming-of-age angst, and so when we formed Acrylix my early attempts at songwriting were essentially poems put to music. While they had some pep to their step and were certainly clever little things, the songs were much less polished and more primitive or naive than those of bandmates Jim and Marcus. Theirs were more seasoned and came to the group as fully realized tunes, while mine required some work to arrange and figure out which end was supposed to be up. Marcus brought topical and concise pop tunes, like Modern Romance. Jim wrote cool, creepier stuff like Night Vision (about a stalker). He also really liked to sing Roxy Music’s Editions of You and Bryan Ferry’s sped up version of the Beatles’ You Won’t See Me. Between the three of us, though, we had the complete package; it really is true that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
I’m going to focus on my songs. From those notebooks I mentioned, I pieced together my first song, called Everything Went Black and White, which I no longer have a recording of. It was my reaction to the death of John Lennon in December of 1980, and began “Ahhh, this is the city. Let’s, let’s eat out again. You, you look very Warhol. Now that we’re in LA, where do we park?” It had a lot of words and I forgot to include a chorus. Jim and Marcus gently reminded me that I needed to repeat lyrics and/or an instrumental hook so that people can remember the song after it is over. I was inspired by David Byrne’s songwriting – the randomness, the cutting up of newspaper headlines and putting the words back in a non-sensical pattern that later reveals something more profound. I would say Byrne, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, and Lou Reed have had the greatest influence on my songwriting, and I am also fond of John Cage’s use of the I Ching, Captain Beefheart, and beat poets for the way they approached their art with a sense of humor. However, all these people are geniuses, freaks of nature, and as much as I wanted to be cooly oblique and hard to pin down, “Black and White” was transparently introspective and autobiographical in a my-heart-is-an-open-book, teenage kind of way, which is a little embarrassing since I was 27 at the time.
The song was my attempt to be crafty and unemotional but also had me wrestling with deep grief: “I’m afraid to turn the radio on, they keep playing Beatle songs,” I sang. That night of December 8, to which I referred in the song as a “down payment on my personality,” was pretty intense. When I think how close I came to unplugging my phone before bedtime, but didn’t…..I received about 5 calls that night, one from a cousin in Los Angeles who made the Operator (remember them?) cut in on yet another call I was already on with someone else in Los Angeles. The last call came from a friend who was in Switzerland – 5 or 6 hours ahead – when he found out at 3 am (my time). I guess I was the Beatle guy to call. I checked the Washington Post headline the next day in hopes of it being nothing but a bad dream. A couple months later, I had a conversation with someone who told me that the assassination “was the 80’s killing the 60’s, man.”
Since Lennon’s death, I haven’t had much patience for the holy church of Lennon and McCartney, although it’s obvious they had a huge impact on me. Too painful. I have become almost obsessed with moving on, perhaps out of fear of getting old and becoming irrelevant. I didn’t want to be the guy complaining that today’s music can’t compare to the Beatles, or that it was so much better back in the day. I even wrote a song Nostalgia (see music tab, Acrylix Color Blind EP) about it: “All I’m hearing is the same old song. Nostalgia lasts for far too long." There is a lot of romance associated with the Sixties and I’m happy I came of age then, but romance is primarily tied to youth and energy and hope. While not absent, all 3 are in shorter supply as I get older, but I am inspired by young people and their energy, new ideas, and idealism. In 1974, I remember watching a tenth anniversary screening of “A Hard Day’s Night,” reminiscing with misty eyes about the first time I saw it. We all have songs that remind us of our youth, like in that old Buckinghams song Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song). I had romantic crushes that became crashes over I’m Telling You Now (Freddie and the Dreamers), Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Cryin’ (Gerry and the Pacemakers), and the entire Carole King Tapestry album.
Back to my early efforts at songwriting. Got the Money was a political song and….earnest. “Got the Money! Living in a fancy neighborhood” and “The muscular drone of insincere laughter, leaves me speechless a couple minutes after, the wall is fleshtones and your face is lathe and plaster, it’s 1981 and we can’t move much faster. We’re baking on the corporate half shell, they forget they’re dealing with flesh and blood, fool a lot of people with a promise and a hard sell, and drag their Cadillacs through the mud!” Then, I would recite this, pull out a cigarette lighter and a dollar bill and light it on fire, on stage: “He got to thinking. He starts to wonder about a lot of things. Like, where’s the money coming from and where’s the money going?” A little dramatic, a tad idealistic, and a smidgen over the top, but, hey, I still feel the same way about it. At no time did the fire marshals step in.
Negative What posed the eternal question “Are you positive this is negative you?” Asexuality is in this Year (I have a recording somewhere; maybe I'll look in the sock drawer) had a long percussion intro that turned into a two-chord reggae beat: “I see your face stretched tight, over every woman. I melt at the sight, I feel the waves hit my face….I neatly transfer your name, from my wallet to my phonebook (!). I wanted you tonight, but we couldn’t work the car situation out right.” It had a nice jam and a piercing Moog melodic figure. I found the chords and lyrics to Cubist Rock, but I don't have a recording and I can’t remember the melody. Age is a bitch. Cubist Rock was about not fitting in anywhere, kind of like Groucho Marx not wanting to join a club that would have him as a member: “I’m a beatnik, I’m a hippie. Feelin’ different, it’s got me. Feelin’ new now, Cubist Rock!” A lot of what I wrote at this time seemed to have an ironic B-52s or Talking Heads vibe, except for Big Comedy, which had a nice power intro and bass line and which in retrospect may have been a transition point for improvement in my songwriting.
We recorded a 45-rpm single “Waiting/Dancing” (see music tab) in 1982, in an isolated suburban house owned by Rick Sheltra out in Clarksburg, MD farm country north of rockin’ Rockville, Maryland (now, of course, the area is much more built up). Rick converted the house into Island Studios, and purchased Omega Studios equipment as they upgraded. According to Rick, they had a “16 track 2” MCI and modified Altec mix board with lots of outboard gear at that time as Robert Levin would always lend me gear to try out on recordings. Nothing like an EMT 18,0000$ reverb to play with lol.” We recorded two songs: Waiting in the Car (For You) and Dancing in the Middle of Inflation and put it out on our own label, ChiChi Records in 1982. We would do a mix down to cassette and run out to the car to listen to it on the funkiest, worst speakers we could find to mimic how people would actually listen to it. Waiting in the Car is a bouncy, harmless pop ditty for which I came up with the opening riff after hearing U2’s I Will Follow. I was thinking pop, I was thinking banal: “There’s a bucket seat next to me for you.” Dancing was more political, featuring a moody arpeggio synth figure and the opening lines: “I’ll always be richer than you; I’ve got the best that money can’t buy.” I had written that line after Reagan was elected. Marcus rescued the mood with a catchier chorus and title.
The first Acrylix EP, Color Blind (see music tab), featured 4 tunes: Downtown, Nostalgia, Dear John, and America’s Best Kept Secret. I co-wrote Downtown with Marcus – I remember hammering most of it out quickly on my little Peavey Decade practice amp in my room in a group house on Park Road. I mainly came up with the chords and melody but some lyrics too, and Marcus then filled in the lyrics and made it much, much better. It really was fun to play and listing all the cities at the end was priceless. I wrote Nostalgia and America’s Best Kept Secret by myself and Dear John was all Marcus. Dear John really happened; the lyrics are practically word for word from a note that his girlfriend Genni left for him. Boy, was she ever pissed. “America’s” got some local airplay – that’s a thrill incidentally, to be driving down the road and hear your song come on the radio - with its chorus of “You’ve got no imagination, it’s America’s Best Kept Secret.” I don’t really know what that means, but it flows, and sounds profound.
Next chapter, I’ll get into later Acrylix songs and more on life in the recording studio.