Monday, May 25, 2020

SOS

I woke up a little earlier this morning, from a dream I guess, hearing an old song of mine in my head called SOS (Symphony of Silence). My first waking thought was, "oh yeah, that would have been a good old tune to dig up" for the impromptu gig I did on my 50th birthday. Truth is, I haven't thought much about that song since it was cut as a b-side on the first (and one of the only few) 7"s Beulah released, back in 1997. It technically came out before our first record, Handsome Western States, but SOS was recorded after all of the material that came out on "Handsome" was completed. The 7" has long been out of print - we didn't print that many to begin with, I think maybe 1,000, so it is pretty hard to find.

My next thought, as I was now fully awake, was wondering if I could remember it without the herculean effort of grabbing my heavy-ass convertible ladder from out back, bringing it in so I could go up in our attic and find the bin to dig out either the lyric sheet, my old copy of that 7", or both, and then realizing that there was a reason I gave away my old LPs last year - I no longer have a turntable and I don't have a space for an old school hi-fi stereo setup with a receiver with the proper hookups for an LP record player. And though I was reasonably sure I could find the lyrics I printed out many years ago in my box of memorabilia up there, by then I figured why not just google it and see what comes up. The first pass at it, SOS (Symphony of Silence) brought up an assortment of artwork, a rather emo song complete with a professional video, even a band. I refined the search a little, to "Beulah SOS." Sure enough, bless the heart of someone whose tag is "ninini!" for taking the time to upload and post the song on Youtube. There is a special place in my heart for completists. They are the keepers of all things - just in case. And from the looks of it, I may in fact be the sixth listener now of that post.

"SOS" is a cute little two minute ditty, but the song itself isn't all that remarkable. What's remarkable, for me, is it's the one and only song of mine ever released with Beulah. For the first record, Beulah was mainly just me and Miles, my borrowed Tascam 238 and "borrowed" (using the term loosely, more like unauthorized use of) equipment (especially drums, thanks Dave Sanner) from the practice space where my main band at the time, 17 Reasons, shared with a band called "Shitty Shitty Band Band." There are a variety of reasons why I never contributed any "complete" or even "partially complete" songs to Beulah after that - among them were: they weren't that good and, I pretty much stopped writing songs with any regularity after the summer of 1996.

Well, there is the case to be made for "Gravity's Bringing Us Down," a song that was originally Pat Noel's, which Miles took and incorporated into this song, along with a very small melody line for the bit in the chorus that goes "my trigger finger's cocked, and I'm feeling weak, open wide, I'm paralyzed" that was "borrowed" from, or, maybe more appropriate to say "informed by" a song I had written called "Shake Your Bottle." The line in my song (which extends a bit longer in the same melody) goes "How happy you will be depends on what you take, you open up the pillbox and you grab the microphone, now you've got something to say." I think the idea of my song was something along the lines of using one's med bottle as a maraca while singing Karaoke to get through life. Or something. Like I said...my songs (or at least my lyrics) were not that good.

At any rate, when it came time to credit songwriting on our third record "The Coast is Never Clear," Miles told me that Pat didn't want me credited as co-writer on his song so, in a bit of horse trading, I got credit for arranging on "Coast is Never Clear" as a whole instead. They voted, and I was overruled. Or something like that. Anyway, my job really was arranger and music director by that time anyway (music director often meant remembering all the bits people played, even Miles himself, as people weaved in and out of the band, so I could help them learn - or in Miles' case, remember - how to play them).

Oh, and the concept of arranging informs the other reason, even in the beginning, where I didn't really feel like trying to submit any songs I had written anyway. For me, Beulah was a refuge from the role I tried to play in all other bands, as leader, singer/songwriter/frontman, and I was enthusiastically diving into trying to do all of the other stuff "but" that. I suppose admitting that I was overruled by Pat on what was originally his song is a little like fight club. We don't talk about fight club. I won't sue, I promise. I wouldn't win, and enough time has passed anyway so who the fuck cares? The legal fees would vastly outweigh any royalties. Plus, as far as I can tell, the subject of that song is limp dick and I'm fine with not being credited on a song about that. I've got enough problems of my own.

Getting back to SOS, yes, songwriting credit, that was remarkable...for me. But it's really more remarkable because it represents the marking of time where Beulah transitioned from the two-piece  project Miles and I had to becoming a band, and from the sound of what we were doing on the first record, to the sound of our second release, "When Your Heartstrings Break." And it's all about the people. Steve LaFollette, a member of the aforementioned "Shitty Shitty Band Band," had either just joined, or was about to join Beulah. It's the first track we recorded that he plays on: Bass and keys. And he brought some friends and fellow bandmates from Shitty to join in on horns and woodwinds, including the great Ben Riseling, who jumps right off the vinyl of this track on clarinet. Anne Mellinger, who plays violin and sings backing vocals throughout our first record, also brought in a couple of her friends on strings. They had a weekly gathering they loosely called the "Bierenbach Quartet." They would get together once a week to drink beer and play Bach. They would bring a few more of their friends to add strings throughout "Heartstrings." The expanded lineup of "When Your Heartstrings Break" could, in shorthand, have been written to credit members of "Shitty Shitty Band Band" and the "Bierenbach Quartet" but that would have been just too much.

SOS was one of the last things we did before we released "Handsome Western States." All of the stuff on Handsome had already been recorded, and I think mixed by then too. So SOS was one of the few, or maybe the only thing that documents the time in between. Beulah doesn't have a lot of outtakes or things left on the cutting room floor. Pretty much everything we completed, we put out at some point. And this song is really about the instrumentation, the arrangement. Miles was the instigator in adding these bits to my little song which, if it were left up to me, would have been kept as a little acoustic ditty with a little feedback thrown in or something. In that regard, it was also the first taste of what it would feel like, as a recording engineer with little experience, marginal ability and limited equipment, to try and keep up with a songwriter and bandleader with a million ideas and a determination to aim way, way higher than I was ready for. "Heartstrings" is considered by many of our fans as our best work. And as Miles has often said, your best, or most original work, is usually your failed attempts at trying to emulate greatness (aka Beatles, Beach Boys, Zombies, Brian Eno etc.). "Heartstrings" was a hard record for me to record, because I wasn't ready for Miles' exponential growth. And SOS was the very first taste of that, the first lab experiment, perhaps, on a short, throw-away little ditty that almost sounds like a Vaudeville piece.

There's one other little remarkable tidbit, but it's really more significant to our family, or Kiera's side of the family. Margo (my mother in law), and Gavin (brother in law) more significantly. There is a custom instrument Margo had, called a "banjo mandolin" that she had given me around then as a gift - figuring the instrument would get some use by a musician in the family at some point. It really is a weird sound, and I didn't end up finding much use for it, except on the song SOS. It's the only recording I think I ever used that instrument for. As Gavin began playing and gigging, developing his own material as well as a repertoire heavy with traditional Irish music, I passed along that instrument to its rightful place in the Barry family, and sent it home with him back to Rochester a few years ago. It's a beautiful instrument, and looks great hanging on a wall, but for me it was pretty much a decoration.

Now that I've taken the time to write this rambling essay on a fairly innocuous little tune, I'll probably listen to the youtube post of the song to transcribe the lyrics, remember the chords, and add it to my little set. I may do the concert again with a better computer microphone (en route as of this writing), and add this one in. Or maybe I'll learn it, then record it, and post it here. If anyone's reading, that is. Otherwise, maybe we'll leave it to fight club.

We don't talk about fight club.

The end.



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