|Posted by powerpopclassics on October 8, 2016 at 12:45 AM|
One random day in the summer of 1988, I met Alex Chilton in Memphis. I had taken the Tennessee Bar Exam a few days before, and was waiting on the results. At the time, I was making very little money working at First Tennessee Bank. I was also recording radio jingles on the side, but that side of music production felt dirty and wrong to me, and the money wasn’t good there either. For all practical purposes, I was still being supported by my father, and felt broke all the time.
On this particular day, I made my weekly stop at Tobacco Corner, on the corner of Union and McLean, to stand at the magazine rack and absorb Billboard Magazine quickly, and then justify my actions by buying some gum. As I walked in Tobacco Corner, though, a somewhat disheveled guy was standing in my familiar spot, and, coincidentally, was reading a Billboard Magazine. As he saw me approaching, he broke his attention from Billboard, and looked right at me. I immediately recognized him as Alex Chilton, and, before I could think, blurted out at breakneck speed, “You’re-Alex-Chilton-‘September-Gurls’-is-one-of-the-best-songs-ever-written-Big-Star-is-like-Wings-with-better-lyrics-really-cool-strings-on-‘Kizza Me!’”
Alex Chilton smiled. He said in a slow and deliberate drawl, “Yeah, I am, and thanks a lot.” For a long moment, it seemed as though there would be nothing further said, but Alex put down the magazine and mustered, “And who are you?” Wow. The coolest of an ever-shrinking group of musicians I idolized just asked me who I am. It might as well have been Paul McCartney. Or Jeff Lynne. Or Tom Petty. Alex’s question put me at ease, and his Memphis accent instantly cured me of being star stuck. I told him my name, that I had recently moved to Memphis after having graduated from law school at Ole Miss, and that I had come into the store to read this week’s Billboard, just like he was doing.
“Yeah, you caught me,” he said with a partial laugh. “If you’re a lawyer, can’t you afford to buy it? And why would a lawyer want to read this anyway?” I told him that I was not yet a lawyer, as I was waiting on results of the bar exam I had just taken. And, since he asked, it was only right to tell him that I was also a musician, and that several years back my band’s album, THE TREND IS IN!, had gotten a favorable review in Billboard. But that we had since disappeared. He nodded his head and knowingly said, “It happens.”
Even though a cassette copy of his latest solo release, HIGH PRIEST, was right outside in my car, along with a brand new briefcase full of every kind of pen ever manufactured, I was determined to carry on this conversation with Alex Chilton without asking for his autograph. Besides, he had just indirectly compared Big Star to The Trend! There would be no “cool” way now to ask for his autograph.
“So where are you originally from?” While my mind was preoccupied by thinking about what NOT to ask Alex Chilton, he had actually asked me another question. “Kennett, Missouri. 90 miles away up in the Missouri Boot....”
Alex interrupted, “I know where Kennett, Missouri is. We were at a hotel there while ‘The Letter’ was on its way to #1. Our manager booked us to do a high school dance close to there before the record broke.” Seamlessly, he had shifted from Alex Chilton, king of ’80’s underground music, inspiration to The Replacements and R.E.M., to Alex Chilton, former teenage lead singer of that ‘60’s Pop/Soul group, The Box Tops.
“Cool,” I replied, feeling suddenly awkward. Having been reminded that I was speaking with the lead singer of a #1 hit made me more star struck than I was when I first recognized him.
“But I haven’t been back there in over twenty years…” He trailed. Thankfully, his drawl slowed his language down enough for me to recover from my lame response brought on by nervousness.
“Our band played a version of ‘The Letter’ that included the introduction to Heart’s “Crazy On You,” the guitar riff from ‘Ridin’ The Storm Out,’ and the solo from ‘My Sharona.’ I actually skipped a test in college to finish that arrangement,” I proudly exclaimed. “It really kicked!”
“That’s a little different,” he said, as he grimaced in doubtful curiosity.
“I sure never thought I would be talking to you, telling you about it,” I remarked, still not recognizing the lunacy of my telling Alex Chilton that The Trend’s version of HIS number one song “really kicked.”
“So what happened to your band?”
“We got a cool break before we expected it, but my dad wouldn’t let me capitalize on the momentum that Billboard started for us.”
He just looked at me with a squint.
I continued, “Taking any time away from school, even temporarily, to promote a record was not an option with my dad. He kinda took my music career away from me. I get mad every time I think about it.”
He just stood there, nodding at what I had said.
“Well, I have to be somewhere in a couple of minutes,” he said. Before he even finished his sentence, I was already cursing myself for talking to Alex Chilton about my dad instead of Big Star, Jim Dickinson, or the “No Sex” single. Now my one chance conversation with Alex is being wrapped up because I mentioned my dad. Typical. Even five years after the fact, and even at a magazine stand in Memphis, Dad was at it again, shutting down any chance I might have to salvage something in music.
“But if you want to come by tonight we can finish this conversation.”
I certainly wasn’t expecting that.
“I’m at the Holiday Inn right next door. Come by sometime after 8 and have the front desk call my room,” he said as he stuffed the Billboard back into the magazine rack. “Tell them you’re the Billboard guy.”
“See you tonight,” I beamed out.
Back in the car, after my obligatory gum purchase, I cranked up HIGH PRIEST and cruised toward the suburbs, still partly mad at myself for not doing a better job of controlling the conversation. Nevertheless, no less than Alex Chilton had just invited me to hang out. I began mapping out our upcoming meeting in my mind and talking to myself. “No autograph at all. No fan worship. I have to dupe Alex a copy of The Trend’s version of ‘The Letter.’ Maybe he will dig the strangeness of it enough to produce us just like he produced The Cramps! Or maybe he’ll listen to our vinyl album and tell Jim Dickinson to produce us! He will probably be impressed with my ideas enough to hook me up with the people at New Rose Records.”
I could already tell that this was going to be a life changer. Not a dead end like all the other false starts and contacts that ultimately led me exactly nowhere. I could tell. This indeed was going to be a life changer.
Back at my apartment, I found the one and only copy I had of THE TREND IS IN! and played it all the way through to make sure there were no skips or scratches. I then perfected the most pristine cassette dupe I had ever engineered, copying our direct-from-the-board live version of “The Letter” onto the most expensive blank cassette I could find.
As I labeled the cassette I had just recorded for Alex Chilton, the radio was playing Elton John’s most recent hit, “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That.” Although Elton had always been a favorite of mine, I could barely tolerate this song. It suddenly dawned on me that almost every rock musician that I had ever liked had somehow eventually become a disappointment, usually by simply remaining alive, or continuing to record. What happened to New Wave? Those bands had somehow changed during those critical “college radio” years during the ‘80’s, and not for the better. What was happening with the older rockers was, for the most part, far worse. Had John Lennon or Buddy Holly lived, would they have been reduced to creating something as dreadful as Elton’s current hit? Or would they be cool, like Alex Chilton?
Walking into that Holiday Inn at McLean and Union exactly at 8 p.m., I understood just what type of stroke of luck this had turned out to be. To the desk clerk, I said discreetly, “Would you please ring Alex Chilton’s room and advise Mr. Chilton that the Billboard guy has arrived?” She smiled, rang Alex’s room, and passed on the message. Instead of the expected, “He will be right down, sir,” though, the clerk gave me his room number and told me to go right up. A little bit of a curveball, but I was certain to follow all instructions.
The moment I knocked on the door, Alex opened it and invited me to come right in. He pointed to the typical table and two chairs positioned at the window, which I took as a suggestion to sit down. I handed him the cassette of “The Letter” and the vinyl copy of THE TREND IS IN! He looked at the album cover for a moment, and then looked up at me, possibly noticing a difference in the 1982 photographs on the front and back, and the 1988 version of John McMullan. Without saying anything immediately, he nodded, then turned his attention to the cassette. He studied my handwriting on the card insert, and opened the case for a moment. He looked up, glanced around the room, then looked right at me and said, “I will listen to this, but I don’t have anything to play it on in here.” Then he closed the case and tossed it onto one of the two beds in the hotel room. It hit his acoustic guitar case which was also on the bed.
I sank with disappointment, and began to doubt whether he would ever actually play the tape.
After an awkward silence, Alex said, “Well, how did you ever hear of Big Star? That’s how you knew who I am, right? I mean, looking at your album makes me think that you are probably into that music they call power pop.”
Every Big Star fan has a story about how they discovered Big Star. Because of their initial lack of mainstream success, Big Star was rarely heard on the radio. My discovery of Big Star was not necessarily all that exciting, but it WAS exciting for me to tell that story to Alex Chilton himself.
This is how it happened for me, and I am certain that I told Alex Chilton every detail, as the two of us were seated at the table and chairs in his hotel room.
Big Star was introduced to me in the spring of 1983 by Mike Ritt, a DJ that was playing The Trend’s record on WESN in Bloomington, Illinois. To repay me for sending him our vinyl LP, he sent me a mix tape of other stuff he loved and was playing on the radio. As a result, I heard, for the first time, “September Gurls” by Big Star; “We Were Happy There” by The dB's; “You Tore Me Down” by The Flamin’ Groovies; “When She Cries” by The Poppees; and “Cars And Girls” by The Dictators. While another song from that tape, “Here I Go Again” by The Spongetones, initially caught my attention, the song that stuck in my head, above all of these other college radio classics, was “September Gurls” by Big Star.
There was nothing about the sound of Big Star that hinted that they came from Memphis, Tennessee. I presumed they were a New York or London group. Their name reminded me of the grocery store chain called Big Star, as there was a Big Star grocery store in Kennett. I certainly never guessed that this English-sounding band actually named themselves by looking at another location of that same grocery store chain across the street from their recording studio, a mere hour and a half from my own home.
I just kept playing that tape and going back to that song. “September Gurls.” The treble in the guitars bounced right out of the speakers. Other than maybe George Harrison’s guitar solo on The Beatles’ “Nowhere Man,” never before had a guitar sound been so crisp and “blangy.” Each time I rewound the cassette to play it again, I would concentrate on a different aspect of the song. The wistful vocal. Those vague, but longing lyrics. I really wanted to see a record cover, or any visual reference. Because I was hearing it from a mix tape, I had no idea when “September Gurls” was recorded, what label it was on, who wrote it, who the members of the band were, or anything. It was a mystery, but a melodic, lovely mystery, complete with a backstory that I would not know for years.
For about six weeks, this tape was constantly in my car being played. I listened to “September Gurls” and the other favorites of mine over and over. Then, inevitably, other songs came out, and my attention turned elsewhere.
Several months after I received that tape, I borrowed a friend’s copy of the first Big Star album the very moment I discovered that he had it. While I was initially disappointed that “September Gurls” was not on that album, I immediately fell in love with “The Ballad of El Goodo,” “Watch the Sunrise,” “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” and “Thirteen.” Right around that same time, I was in a record store looking for “Little Willy” by Sweet, a classic early ‘70’s bubblegum single on Bell Records, prior to Bell’s name change to Arista Records. “Little Willy” was only available on an Arista compilation album, which also included “The Letter” by The Box Tops. That compilation reminded me how much I loved “The Letter,” and another Box Tops song, “Soul Deep.”
Later, after knowing a little bit about Big Star and also realizing that “The Letter” was by The Box Tops, I happened to hear KCOU in Columbia, Missouri play “The Letter” by The Box Tops followed by “September Gurls” by Big Star. The college DJ, whoever it was, pointed out that, surprisingly, the lead singer on both songs was the same guy, a guy named Alex Chilton. He also said that “September Gurls” came from the album RADIO CITY, giving me some guidance for my next trip to the used record store. RADIO CITY was purchased immediately. Eventually, I tracked down BIG STAR 3RD/SISTER LOVERS as well.
My discovery that this group existed invigorated me. They made me want to write better melodies. It was a privilege to now tell Alex Chilton this chain of events and of the effect that Big Star had on me.
As my story trailed off, Alex, again in his slow, deliberate Memphis drawl said, “It’s always something like that. Except that your discovery of us was directly tied to your own band’s record.”
“Yep, it was,” I answered, looking down at the traffic.
“You loved your band, didn’t you?” Alex half asked, and half stated, more in a tone of statement than question.
“Yes, very much so.”
“You know, I thought about what you said about your dad at the magazine stand. Your dad must really hate music I guess?” Alex nodded and looked directly at me as he slowly finished his question, likely expecting my answer to confirm that I had been raised in military barracks or in a silent house completely devoid of music.
“Actually, my dad loves music, and is an accomplished organist and pianist. My mom, too. She teaches piano now, but before I was born she played in recitals. Classical stuff.”
“You kinda hit the genetic jackpot,” Alex drawled.
“I suppose I did,” I answered, really wanting to change the subject.
“Did your mom teach you piano?”
“Yes, she taught me to read music, and theory, and chord structure. I did classical pieces for judges, and played compositions by the big composers in recitals. She was a drill sergeant to me and my sister, but we know music, that’s for sure.”
“And your dad plays the organ. Does he play in a church?”
“He does. And he’s really good at it. The best I’ve ever heard at that sort of thing,” I said as I looked away, by now REALLY wanting to get on with talking about something else.
“So do you think that church was the reason that he stopped you and your band?”
I sat for a minute and actually thought about it before I answered.
Carefully choosing my words, I said, “No. I don’t think it had anything to do with church music versus rock music, or good and evil, or anything like that. It was more about not letting anything interrupt the education process. He told me that postponing or leaving college for a band, or even for a hit record, would never be worth it.”
“He was certainly right about that,” Alex said immediately.
I was stunned. Speechless.
Alex, not knowing how off-balance his previous sentence had thrown me, picked up THE TREND IS IN! from the table and looked at it closely again. “And if he was the reason that this album disappeared, then you should thank him. Your dad did the ONE THING that could possibly make this album cool.”
I was now stunned, with hurt feelings.
“Look at this. As a rare record, your album looks like a fantastic discovery. With a major label pushing this up into everybody’s face, it wouldn’t be the same. Had you, on the basis of this album, signed with a huge record company, and toured on their advance, they would have changed your sound, owned your songs, and decided who stayed in the band. Even with a hit, by now, a band that looked like this would be over. One single would have been it. And you’d probably still owe money to the company that was moving on and dropping you.”
I looked straight at him, not believing what I was hearing. I understood very clearly every word, of course. I simply had no idea that the rock musician that I THOUGHT was the most rebellious, most irreverent, most underground musician of all time would basically sound like, and side with, my dad. I still was unable to speak.
Alex kept on, though. Still looking at our album cover, he blurted, “This album might contain great songs, but most A&R guys never would have gotten it. They would have signed you, if at all, based on looks, not on the songs on the record. At best, you would have been a teen idol or nothing. Chances are, by now a used-up nothing.”
Finally, I gathered my wits enough to speak, and said, “Well, that’s all easy for you to say. You were touring to support a #1 hit by the time you were 16 or 17.”
“Which is exactly what I mean. Bell Records was finished with me by the time I was 21. You’re older than that right now,” Alex drawled.
“So you’re saying that I am actually fortunate that I don’t have a music career,” I snarled, still smarting from Alex’s previous remarks.
“You have been given the gift of not having to chase a hit or a record boss’s approval. All I am saying is appreciate that. Appreciate the options that your education gives you. And quit being bitter at your dad, mainly because he appears to have saved you a million headaches. I mean, overall, the Bell Record Company was OK to The Box Tops, but I was just doing a job that managers and producers told me to do. I didn’t really enjoy being in the studio for those records, though, because I felt like I was just singing jingles.”
Jingles. Ouch. I looked right at him, and nodded. I knew that exact feeling.
Then, with no particular emotion in his voice, he offered, “I have had a number one record, and I did everything they told me to do. And it was fun for a while. But it’s not worth losing your father over.”
I sat there and looked at the traffic below. “You’re right,” I said quietly. “I guess I have been bitter, expecting him to apologize and make it up to me. And I could be bitter forever, because he never will.”
“He doesn’t owe you an apology,” Alex said bluntly.
Alex took the Trend record out of the jacket and held it with both hands along the edges. He studied one side, then flipped it over quickly and looked at the other.
At that point, Alex was apparently finished making his point, so I asked him, “What would be your suggestion to me about trying to make another album?”
“Being a lawyer will hinder you, no question about that. A lot of record people will dismiss you, far worse than if you were a junkie or if you had some disease. Maybe worse than being a former teen idol. So, you should probably do it yourself, keeping in mind that someday, you will die. The disgrace of being a lawyer won’t matter then. Maybe somebody somewhere will find your trail of recorded work, which will be the only thing left of you. They won’t call them ‘vanity records’ then. Vanity, to me, is to pursue fame with all the time you have, or to make records that aren’t really you, solely for the purpose of being famous.”
I just sat there.
Then, after looking the record completely over again, he put it back in the sleeve and said, “Get into the studio whenever you can, and always do it by paying for it yourself. With your schooling, you ought to work as a lawyer for a year and put back some money for studio time. Then cut what feels right to you and see what happens. Don’t worry about what anybody else thinks about it or calls it.”
My dad had made similar suggestions many times.
“Memphis has the best studios in the world. Maybe you could do legal work for them and trade out your time for studio time.” Alex continued, “Of course, in the music business, if you’re honest, you’ll starve.”
My laughter cut the earlier tension, and he smiled at his jab at both record companies and attorneys.
“So what would you suggest I do if I want to work with Jim Dickinson?” I asked, hoping that Alex would have an easy answer.
“Dickinson,” Alex exhaled deeply, looked straight up at the ceiling, and continued, “…sometimes you wanna hug him, sometimes you wanna slug him.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, afraid that I had asked a prohibited question.
“He IS brilliant. He does what he wants, always. And when he wants, he can climb inside an artist’s vision. But he has to want to first.”
I nodded, thinking that I understood.
Alex clarified, “If you want to work with him, I hope you get the chance someday. That’s just about the best I can do. It’s not like I can make it happen or anything.”
Just then Alex’s room phone lit up and rang. He looked at it with apparent dread for several rings before he finally got up to answer it. As he began to talk, I got up and pointed at the door, to communicate with him that I would happily leave the room if it were necessary. He shook his head and motioned for me to sit back down. I did so, and heard his end of the conversation, as he made no attempt to speak quietly. Obviously, somebody was going to come pick him up relatively soon.
As he hung up the phone, I stood back up, knowing that he was leaving his room soon. I reminded him that my phone number was on a card in the album and in the cassette. He promised to listen to them and call me with any suggestions that he might have. Then, he stopped me from walking out of the room and, almost in an angry voice said, “Listen, I want you to remember one thing from talking to me, and I mean it.”
I said, “Of course,” thinking that he was going to remind me to thank my dad.
He pointed right in my face with his index finger and said, “Lawyers like you always get into politics. It’s like dope you can’t stay away from.”
I had no idea where this came from, or was going.
He continued, “If you ever look up and find that you have become a Senator, I want you to remember me, and remember what I am about to say.”
“I doubt that will ever happen, since I make fun of politicians, and can’t ever see myself becoming one,” I said, still curious about this pronouncement that Alex had for me.
“There is no other option than to go to a four-day work week. The United States of America is doomed until those in the position of power impose a mandatory four-day work week on everybody. Four days a week, no more, no less. I don’t have time to explain it right now, but if you become a person in power, track me down, and it will all make sense.”
As he assured me that his plan was perfect for our country, he had a gleam in his eye that was a little alarming. His personality had completely changed. The Alex Chilton that carried on that conversation with me prior to the phone call was gone. I felt that it was urgent that I leave as quickly as possible.
I made my way to the door of the hotel room, and tried to be courteous and thank Alex for meeting with me. He kept interrupting me, repeating the “four-day work week” mantra. Finally, he shook my hand and allowed me to leave, but only because I promised him that I would help implement the four-day plan if I ever became a politician.
With only the sound of tires on the pavement breaking silence, I drove back to my apartment. I replayed the evening’s entire meeting in my mind and thought about everything Alex Chilton had told me. I tried to see the music world the way he saw it. His angle was understandable, based on what he had been through. He could not be blamed for his negative opinion of big record labels. And, because he had made such a big deal about it, I decided to be grateful, rather than bitter, for Dad’s concerns over my future. Nevertheless, I still felt like I blew a big chance to get somewhere. The whole experience was basically a failure. The only thing that would change my mind about it would be a phone call from Alex.
For the next several weeks, I checked the messages left on my answering machine numerous times a day, hoping to hear Alex Chilton’s voice praising either the record or the tape that I gave him. But no such message ever came. The days went by, and summer began slipping away. Early in the fall, I learned that I had, thankfully, passed the Tennessee bar. Although I was still working at First Tennessee Bank, a whole new world of potential employers was opening up to me.
One Friday during the fall of 1988, while checking my phone messages and holding out hope for some contact from Alex, I heard a disjointed message from my dad. The answering machine had cut him off and I had trouble understanding him. I called him back immediately, thinking that something was wrong, based on the answering machine. As I waited for him to answer my call, I realized just how worried I was about him. Finally, he picked up, and I heard a gruff, “Hello.”
“Dad?” I said, wondering what the whole message thing was about.
“Hey, Hey!” he responded, sounding healthy, happy, and apparently very glad to hear my voice.
“What’s up? I couldn’t figure out your messages,” I said.
“Yeah, I hate that machine of yours. Just wanting to see if you wanted me to stop by and pick you up on my way to Ole Miss tomorrow. They’re playing Tennessee.”
“Sure. Love to,” I replied.
“Great. I have a meeting right now, and have to get to it. I will call you when I leave tomorrow morning so you will know when to expect me there. Just us. Your mother won’t go because she thinks it’s going to rain.”
“I’ll be ready,” I said, before a quick goodbye.
The next morning, Dad arrived at my apartment complex exactly when I expected, and we made our way to Oxford for the football game. All the way down we talked about nothing significant, just general catching up. I remember telling Dad that Mom had made a terrible mistake by giving up her ticket to the game, as it did not appear to me that it was going to rain.
“Well, that’s fine with me. You and I haven’t done anything together in quite a while,” he said in response. He was right.
We got to campus very early, and, at my insistence, parked in the law school overflow lot, near the old depot. This meant that we would have an extremely long walk to the stadium, but both Dad and I loved everything about the Ole Miss campus. As we walked through the crowd in The Grove, it began to sprinkle. Our umbrellas were in the trunk of the car, now very far from us. We did have ponchos, which Dad carried per Mom’s instructions. But, as it was just misting, we laughed and vowed to tough it out and walk on. Soon we were in the stands at the stadium, sitting on the ponchos because the seats were slightly wet, using them as cushions to keep our pants dry. Or so we thought.
Suddenly, the wind howled. Before anyone could move, sheets of the most torrential rain I had ever seen fell on the stadium. We were soaked completely through before we could even unfold the ponchos that were supposed to keep us dry. It rained sideways, then straight down. It swirled, and stung when it hit us. There was nothing we could do, and the ponchos were worthless. But, as there was no visible lightning risk, the game continued on. We joked about Mom being right, as she always was, and agreed that, since we were as wet as we could get, we might as well stay out in it.
It was the most enjoyable moment I had experienced with Dad since I was a little kid.
We laughed, yelled, persevered through the monsoon, and watched the entire game. Ole Miss lost to Tennessee, which prompted a few curse words from each of us. Ruining our shoes, we fought our way through puddles, mud and running water to make it back to the car. In hopes of avoiding the usual traffic getting to the interstate, Dad asked me to drive, and to “take the back roads to my apartment.” I agreed, believing that, by avoiding traffic, it would be a quicker way to my apartment.
As I started his car, and turned on the radio, the unmistakable sound of “Soul Deep” by The Box Tops, featuring Alex Chilton on lead vocals, blared out of the speakers. Hearing Alex’s voice made me smile. It was a smile of gratitude. At that moment, it became obvious to me that my anger could have ruined my relationship with my father forever. But thanks to some unexpected wise words from that moody renegade musician known as Alex Chilton, I was able to see that Dad had never taken anything from me at all. In fact, Alex Chilton may very well have been the only person on planet Earth that could have gotten through to me about that issue. I cannot calculate how thankful I am that he did.
Maybe now I can figure out how to implement that four-day work week thing that Alex supported so passionately. I would love to have the extra day to spend with my family.
John T. McMullan
March 21, 2016
|Posted by powerpopclassics on August 8, 2016 at 6:05 PM|
I wrote the basic tune of “Almost Gone” in Columbia, Missouri back in 1983. My inspiration was hearing “Someday Man” by The Monkees one random day, and noticing that its initial chord changes and the changes in “Here Comes My Girl” by Tom Petty were practically the same. Very consciously, I sat down with my guitar and attempted to find a way to use a similar chord structure to create a new song for The Trend. What I came up with was fast, loud, catchy…and lyrically terrible. The title was “She Don’t Like the Shirts I Wear.” It was scribbled out, hastily recorded onto a TDK cassette, and today, is very likely located in one of several trash bags full of tapes slowly melting away in the attic over my garage.
A few months after making that tape, I had a less-than-pleasant conversation with a very pretty Mizzou girl who was upset with me. Things deteriorated to that point that she eventually blurted out, “You don’t own this world of mine.” She was absolutely correct. Her words stung me because I deserved to hear them. After about a week of reflecting on that conversation, among other thoughts, it hit me that “You Don’t Own This World of Mine” needed to replace "She Don't Like the Shirts I Wear" as the hook of my newest song. Such a drastic title change also required me to come up with an entirely new set of lyrics. Since I was the one to whom those words were directed, the theme of the song had to be written from the other person's point of view.
It was not a song that developed easily. While the tune was always the same, the lyrics took many rewrites over a period of years, all under the shortened title "This World of Mine." Eventually, in 1992, I recorded a demo of it, as a punk influenced, up-tempo power pop song, at Jon Sousan's Ambience Studio in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. Unfortunately, just a few days after I completed the recording, I wanted to change it around, but could not afford to. I was broke, and too ashamed to send it anywhere. So I gave up on the song and concentrated on projects that were much easier to put together.
Then, last summer, I found (and immediately bought) an original Colgems vinyl copy of "Someday Man" by The Monkees in a very cool used record store in Seaside, Florida. Because I was on vacation, I had time to think about just how much I loved that song, and I laughed to myself about my failed attempt to write a different melody using a similar chord structure. And then that melody came back to me, but slower. Instead of blasting through the phrase "You don't own this world of mine," it was a slower, more reflective thought, which became "You used to own this world of mine." And it stayed in my head. And stayed. And stayed. It needed some form of closure at the end of the chorus, but not complete closure. The lyrics “I’m almost gone” came from another forgotten song called “And the Time Ticks On” that had only two good lines in it. I used them both.
It all fell together when Abigail came home from Ole Miss this past spring to see Marie in the high school musical. While we were all sitting around talking, Marie broke into a Voca Bella song composed by Leadbelly, “Bring a Little Water, Silvy,” which Abigail also knew. They sang it together, and sounded great. Then they held out the last note. I was knocked out. I asked them to hold that note as an "ah" again. And then again. That’s when it hit me. Abigail and Marie needed to be the primary voices behind a wall of backing vocals in “Almost Gone,” layered very much like 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” or Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.”
As the song became less punky, the countermelody became more important. With an electric piano supporting the song, I tried out styles of several of my favorite keyboardists. After playing the initial riff as much like Benmont Tench as possible, I felt that the bulk of the song should be very conservative, like Richard Carpenter. Then I thought to myself, “You know, Richard Carpenter would put an oboe in this song.” So, I had no choice but to score an oboe part. The idea of an oboe caused me to also dig out my vinyl copy of “Life in a Northern Town” by the Dream Academy and study it. The ‘80’s timbre of the Dream Academy’s production made me want to add a sustained low synthesizer to the normal bass guitar at the bottom of everything. So, in my mind, the instrumentation was set: Electric piano, acoustic guitar, bass, drums, synthesizer doubling the bass, and a zillion layers of backing vocals.
At this point, it was time to play the song for my longtime co-producer, Don Smith. Immediately, Don came up with a number of suggestions in order to create space within the song. Several unneeded vocal repeats were deleted at Don’s suggestion. Instead of those repeats, effective pauses replaced them. Don also believed that I needed to be less worried about whether the song would “fit” into any particular concept, and that its length should not be pre-determined. Finally, and very importantly, Don practically demanded that I play the acoustic guitar rhythm part a little lazy, almost grunge-like.
The recording process for this song was unlike anything I have ever done before. Because Abigail and Marie were going to record with me, I asked Ben to play the synthesizer part. He reluctantly agreed. As my vintage ‘80’s Roland MC-500 ran a click track, I yelled out the notes to Ben. He played them into the MC-500, which captured everything. We did this at home, with my plan being to use the click from the MC-500 as the guide at the studio, which meant that the synthesizer part was already synchronized to it. Ben’s part would already be in the can before we even arrived at the studio. As I explained this to Ben, he rolled his eyes and reminded me that he was doing this as a favor to me, and to hurry up because I was disturbing a basketball game he was watching on TV.
I finished my scribbles on the oboe score, and decided that it was time to find the perfect player for the upcoming session. With the help of Beth Luscombe, who has played viola on two of my previous recordings, I tracked down Shelly Sublett, an oboist for the Memphis Symphony. She graciously agreed to play, so I immediately went to work entering the score into the computer program to make it look like real sheet music!
On May 26, 2016, with Ben’s synthesizer part securely in my Roland MC-500, Abigail, Marie and I, along with Don Smith, Robert Hall, and Shelly Sublett entered Music + Arts Studios in Memphis, ready to get to work. The brilliant Dawn Hopkins engineered our two days of recording. After Dawn transferred the click and Ben’s synthesizer part from my Roland to the multi-track, the girls, in unison, sang a minute of “ah” on nine different pitches, with 10 overdubs per pitch. (On two of the lower pitches, I joined them, until Dawn advised me that they sounded better without me!) As they continued to “ah” for hours, they staggered their breathing on each take. Dawn meticulously then edited out each breath. The multiple tracks of each pitch were mixed together so that the volume of each note could be controlled by a separate fader on the mixing board. We did it this way because a couple of years ago, Dennis Nail sent me a documentary on 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” that explained how 10cc “played” the mixing board to finalize the backing vocal parts. That ‘70’s technology seemed perfect for this song, and hearing Dawn’s layering of my daughter’s voices was a true highlight of my life.
Of course, as with every single recording I have made in Memphis, Don Smith served double duty, playing bass and co-producing with me. And my good friend Robert Hall provided the perfect drum part. Direct and simple, yet tasteful. Shelly’s oboe is exquisite, tugging at the heart on each entrance. She played it perfectly during her first take, yet she felt that a change of reed could bring about a more haunting sound. So we did it again, and she was happier. We used her second take, even though she recorded two more.
The mix is Dawn’s, even though I “played” the notes of the backing vocal, raising and lowering my girls’ layered voices according to the changed chords in the song. Don manually handled the echo throughout the song. All three of us were managing the volumes as the song played on. No automation. Live mixing, just like in the late ‘70’s. It was a true joy to control my daughters’ vocals, while Dawn, right next to me, was bringing out “just enough” of Ben’s synthesizer part to make the bottom end have a little “wow” in it.
Even though I wanted to spread the word about this track from the moment we finished mixing it at the end of May, I have patiently waited until now, as it is included on International Pop Overthrow Volume 19. The promo copies of the new IPO are now out. I just received my own copy, and I must thank David Bash for once again including me in the impressive line-up he has assembled! The iTunes single should be available a week from tomorrow. I am truly excited about this release, more for the credits of the backing vocalists and the synthesizer player than I am for myself!
John T. McMullan
August 8, 2016
|Posted by powerpopclassics on February 1, 2016 at 4:00 PM|
I started law school at Ole Miss in the fall of 1985 after having graduated from The University of Missouri the previous spring. I felt confident about my survival as a law student, and knew that a legal education would help me in a variety of ways in the future. In the back of my mind, though, I was conflicted, and feared that I might be prematurely giving up on my true dream, life as a power pop musician. Some well-meaning, but nay-saying friends advised me against this law school thing, pointing out that I was setting into motion a "fall-back" plan that would inevitably lead to something other than songwriting and record production. In an attempt to prove them wrong, I vowed that every single day my first responsibility was to capture any decent melody that flowed my way, regardless of how difficult doing so might be. Nobody else I knew was attacking law school this way.
One random day in the spring of 1987, I met some Ole Miss classmates at The Gin. We had a late lunch, followed by a drink or two. As we dispersed, I wandered across the parking lot and found myself in The Hoka, a legendary gathering spot for students, authors, authors-to-be, and general hangers-on. The Hoka was like no other place on earth. They showed movies of all kinds in the back, served cheesecake, salads and sandwiches in the front, and provided the perfect setting for most of the great conversations that took place in Mississippi during the ‘80’s. Best of all, The Hoka had an old console piano near the screen door entrance.
The first time the urge struck me to play the piano at The Hoka was around Halloween of 1985. I am not exactly sure why, but I sat down and played all of side one and part of side two of Elton’s GOODBYE YELLOW BRICK ROAD album to a roomful of late night cheesecake patrons. After I finished my set, the guy in charge, a guy that most people called “Ronzo,” came over to me and said, "I was going to make you stop, but you didn't sound too terrible. As long as you don't suck, you can play." Over the next year and a half, I probably gave 10 or so impromptu “concerts” on The Hoka’s piano. My song selection usually consisted of Beatle covers, a bit of old Elton, a little Billy Joel, and, on one rare occasion, Steely Dan. Ronzo eventually recognized me well enough to once greet me with "Hey, Piano Man. The bench is empty.”
By that random spring afternoon in 1987, I was comfortable sitting down at The Hoka to test out some of my own instrumental piano songs that were soft and melancholy, in the vein of Liz Story and George Winston. I was lost within the slow melodies, when suddenly my concentration was broken by a sweaty, older gentleman who steadied himself by grabbing my shoulder. He appeared to be falling, but he landed beside me on the piano bench, facing away from the piano. Obviously drunk, he interrupted me, demanding to know if any of my songs had lyrics. Being knocked out of my zone so suddenly, I scowled, "Lyrics aren’t hooks. Only the SOUND of each word matters when it comes to lyrics. The words just need to match the motion of the melody."
My retort sobered up my overweight benchmate and stabbed him right in the heart. He gathered himself, sat up straight, and loudly announced, "My good man, there is nothing on this earth that matches a well-told story or a vivid poem. A set of song lyrics should, just as vividly, impart such a story." I nodded politely, hoping to get rid of my new fan. Finally, while still playing chords, I asked him if he was some kind of author. He said that indeed he was, and that his next book was coming out later in the year. Further, he said that every person at his table was a published author. All of his friends had stories to tell, and they each wrote about their experiences and the people and things they encountered. Unimpressed, I kept playing and promised him that I would next do a song with words. He got up, patted me on the shoulder, loosened his tie, and staggered back to his table.
As I meandered through my new age piano solo, my mind ran down the entire catalog of songs recorded several years earlier by my band, The Trend. I immediately realized that my power pop lyrics were going to be too bubblegum, too trite and teenie to impress a table of authors. So, instead of playing anything from The Trend’s album, I hacked my way through a song I had co-written with a girl at Mizzou. I knew my tune well, and at least I wasn’t ashamed of HER lyrics. My performance had to have been generally bad, but the table of bookworms applauded. As I got up to leave The Hoka, the intoxicated and soon-to-again-be-published author croaked, "Not a bad story, my good man. Remember, write what you live." Ronzo nodded, and I made my way through the screen door, toward my apartment to rethink my approach to song lyrics forever.
During the next month or so, there were dry runs on the guitar, as chord changes were interrupted by an inner voice whispering, “Every single word matters.” Why couldn’t I just dash out a quick melody with quick words, and then replace the words with something better? Still nothing. Humming, which had always been my favorite way to develop a riff or a verse, seemed futile now that any new song’s message had to be as important as the melody. This self-imposed change in writing technique really knocked me out for a time. Melodies simply stopped coming.
And then suddenly my day job took over my world. It was, once again, time for finals. Finals! That word makes me nervous even now. To me, the word “finals” meant the three week period leading up to that barrage of single exams in each law school class that determined our grades, our status as students, our futures. Based on the constant attention music had gotten from me that spring, I needed to cram. And I did. Everything else stopped. In other words, even I knew to leave my guitar alone during finals.
I can’t remember how I did on those exams, but I do remember the mental freedom that hit me once finals were over. That rush hit me as I walked from the law school building to my parking spot at the old train depot. As I started my car, I felt euphoric. I felt creative. I felt like the guy that used to write power pop songs for The Trend. Heck, I even felt like just listening to some music that I truly loved! I really needed to hear some Fools Face, an incredible band with whom we had played a few Kansas City and Jefferson City dates four years before, in 1983.
As I jammed PUBLIC PLACES by Fools Face into my car’s Alpine cassette player, a much younger version of my right hand twisted that volume knob as far as it would go. Driving around Oxford, it hit me that I was singing along with an album that I knew incredibly well, but that nobody else in Mississippi had ever heard. Then, “To Be Someone” came on. This was certainly a Fools Face classic, one that I had heard a million times. This time, though, BECAUSE EVERY WORD MATTERED, I heard something in it I had never caught before. I heard the tone of the story being told. I heard desperation, tempered with humor. I heard defiance, coupled with a dash of longing. This time, instead of picturing my friends victoriously playing this song to a packed house at The Blue Note in Columbia, Missouri, I pictured Jim Wirt, alone with his guitar, singing a skeletal version of the song into a tape recorder.
After numerous repeated listens, I landed back at my apartment, ready to tackle my guitar. I played the “G” chord that starts “To Be Someone” over and over. Just kept doing it, all the while thinking that Jim Wirt had written what he had lived when he wrote that one. Out of the blue, instead of modulating to the “D” chord the way Wirt did with “To Be Someone,” I changed chords in a completely different rhythm, and got back to the “G” early. I played that chord change for many minutes, probably thirty. Then, I opened my mouth and it just spilled out. “Well I learned a whole lot about life in law school.” I repeated that for a while. Soon, I hummed out the rest of the verse. Within minutes, I was scribbling at a frantic pace, following the advice of the author at The Hoka, and the example of Jim Wirt of Fools Face. I simply wrote what I was living, my experiences, and the people I was encountering. It just flowed. There was no work involved in it at all.
With a rough of my song now on tape, I folded up the only copy of its lyrics, and headed straight to The Hoka. While a part of me was hoping to catch up with my classmates and celebrate the end of the semester, a bigger part of me was hoping to track down that table of authors, especially the chubby one that almost fell on me. I really wanted to play my new creation for them. Unfortunately, that night, nobody I knew was at The Hoka. My classmates had started at The Gin, and had moved on to a celebration at Syd & Harry’s. So, I caught up with them, and, I think, ended up driving several of them home.
Fourteen years later, in a Memphis studio, I played the song for my friends, Don Smith, Jack Holder, Robert Hall, Dawn Hopkins and Mike Lawler. I asked them to attempt a run through, just to see how it sounded. They agreed. As I wrote out the chords, Dawn snickered at the lyric sheet. And then we played. It clicked. After a couple of false starts, we caught it on 24 tracks of analog reel. Half a year, and 32 radio stations later, the American Bar Assocation wrote about me in its magazine. My lyrics to “Law School” were actually quoted in a Law Review article about “The Philosophy of Lawyering!” In law libraries forever. Weird.
The author that challenged me to tell a good story? I never saw him again. But if I do, or even see a picture that can help me identify him, I will make the effort to personally thank him. I will buy him the beverage of his choosing. Unfortunately, I will not be able to do so at The Gin. Like The Hoka, it is gone, found now only in the mists of a collective memory. And me? These days, I am a lawyer practically all of the time, and a real musician only a few days per year. But if I could just play that piano at The Hoka one more time...
John T. McMullan
January 31, 2016
|Posted by powerpopclassics on January 7, 2016 at 5:55 PM|
I wrote the B-side of The Trend’s one and only vinyl single in a burst of creativity during that magical summer of 1979. The chord based riff was the key to the song, and it was a true gift when my Lotus acoustic and I stumbled upon it. I mean, how could a riff of mine resemble both The Monkees and The B-52’s? Somehow, without sounding TOO much like either one of those acts, it did.
The lyrics were simple and direct, with no thought put into any sort of message that might be conveyed. The pushiness of the riff carried the song anyway. At 15 years old, I had practically nothing to say based on experience, so I imagined a fictional female protagonist to “admire.” In the context of the times, the song was lyrically my version of “She’s So Selfish” by The Knack, with its original title, “She’s Not Nice.” After quickly scratching out the lyrics and chords, I recorded it and immediately set it aside. As important as music was to me, I had other issues on my mind. I was turning 16 years old the next day, and I wanted a license and a car!
I took my driver's test immediately after school in my father’s shiny Pontiac, and passed it. As I drove Dad back home from the license bureau I flat out asked him if there was going to be a car waiting there. Dryly, he said, “No, there will not.” Within a few minutes we arrived at home and I pulled in. Sure enough, there was no extra car on our driveway. Or on any other driveway up and down our street. Hmmm.
Didn't I remember hearing hints from my mother that I might need to save my lifeguarding money to buy a car stereo after my birthday? Didn't she imply that I was going to be put to work as a regular taxi service for my sister? Maybe I was reading too much into supper table talk. I was definitely not expecting a NEW car, of course. I just hoped for something I could drive, something that would be mine.
Time began to drag. I ran to the grocery store for Mom in her car, and hoped that a car for me would be waiting on me when I got back. Once again, nope. The late afternoon was taking forever! I passed some minutes by playing the cassette of yesterday’s song. It still sounded good to me, but it certainly was not a car. Disappointed and restless, I decided to work out a harmony vocal for the tune by using a second tape recorder for a primitive overdub. Working on the song helped me deal with my dashed expectations.
Then, as I finished singing the harmony vocal that I would later record for real, I made peace with the potential horror of being carless at school. With that song under my belt, I was fine, and didn’t need a car to make me happy. However, at the exact moment that I totally gave up on getting a car for my birthday, my car pulled up! I had forgotten, or had never known, that my grandparents were driving up from Jonesboro, Arkansas to have a birthday dinner at our house. Usually, we traveled to them, and had birthday dinners on Sundays. This was a weekday. Regardless, I can still hear my sister ask my mother as she peered out a window, "Why did Mama T. and Papa come in separate cars?"
Oh yeah! Presuming that I was not getting their Cadillac, I instantly pictured myself cruising around in my grandfather's '69 Mercury Montego. I really loved that car, and Papa did too. I had never once considered that he would give it to me. It was sleek, with great curves. Its only draw back? The AM radio had not been working recently. My mother was right. It was going to take a large percentage of my summer earnings to overhaul the music situation in Papa’s Mercury.
There would be no waiting, no ceremony to present the car. I bolted outside and yelled several times, "Can I keep it?" Papa smiled and nodded, shut the car off, and handed me the keys. Beaming, I turned and saw that Dad was behind me, holding something in his hands. As I looked a little closer, I could see that he was carrying a screwdriver and two maroon Missouri license plates. Obviously, the Arkansas tags were coming off. Dad took care of the plates while Papa advised me of some of the Mercury's quirks. I don't think I listened. I was just feeling ready for the freedom that this very car could provide. It was shaping up to be one of the best days of my life.
Mom demanded a picture. As Papa and Dad moved out of the way, I noticed the rear Missouri plate that Dad had just attached. SHF 650. That was a cool looking license number. I looked at it again, and for some inexplicable reason I saw SHF and said out loud, "She's Hi-Fi." Yes. “She’s Hi-Fi” sure sounded good, even if it did not have a clear meaning. While leaning against my car, waiting for my mother to snap a picture, I decided that "She's Not Nice" had a new title.
Almost two years would pass before The Trend recorded “She’s Hi-Fi” at Kennett Sound Studios. Between 1979 and the summer of 1981, we played it at a Band Dance, a Back-To-School Bash, into the school’s cassette recorder in the high school bandroom, and at our Senior Prom. Four times. Then, on the day that it was recorded, we spent all but a few minutes of our allotted studio time on the A-side, “Lucky Day.” I was the one who felt “Lucky Day” was, by far, the stronger song, and I had no problem lobbying to divide the time between the songs unevenly.
When we finally got around to “She’s Hi-Fi” in the studio, there was no time for anything other than rolling the analog tape and tracking it. We had to knock it out live. We had once chance to prove ourselves. Amazingly, we did. And while it is rough, the recording captured an honest and raw quality that caught the fancy of some unknown college radio DJ at KCOU several months later. They played it. A lot. “Lucky Day,” the A-side, received no such attention. It was played exactly once on the radio in Columbia.
Many years later, in the April 18, 2005 issue of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, "She's Hi-Fi" was praised in a review of the YELLOW PILLS: PREFILL compilation, which licensed the track for reissue.
Almost thirty five years after its release, I am still convinced that, technically, the melody to “Lucky Day” is the better of the two. Yet, a radio guy who played cool records on a cool station was drawn to the other side. Thankfully, because my grandfather gave me his car, and because my Dad took care of getting Missouri plates at exactly the time that he did, The Trend had a song on the B-side that made it worthwhile to flip the vinyl over.
John T. McMullan
January 7, 2016
|Posted by powerpopclassics on July 6, 2015 at 9:45 PM|
I composed the original version of "Florida Girl" in 1981, right around the time I graduated from high school. The first melody was deliberately simple, in the vein of "She's The One" by The Ramones and several early Beach Boys songs. The lyrics, also simple, were inspired by a girl from Florida that I liked very much, Sybil Lombillo.
While it became clear the following year that Sybil and I were never going to be an item, the song she inspired lived on. It continued its unlikely existence through two vastly different versions by The Trend. Our Ramones-ish first arrangement was catchy, but it did not make the cut for our 1982 album sessions. Later, in 1985, we recorded a "country punk" version as a demo, but that experiment failed to produce anything special, in spite of some great playing by the band. Nothing career-wise came of "Florida Girl" or any of that year's other demos. The Trend's members soon went on to real life, and I forgot about the song.
Fast forward almost thirty years.
One very normal day last year, I was working at my office, listening to my iTunes library on the "random" setting. The demo of "Florida Girl" came on, preceded by "The Rain, The Park and Other Things" by The Cowsills, and followed by "Intuition" by John Lennon. Suddenly, and obviously because of The Cowsills and John Lennon, it dawned on me that my old song had really never been completed, writing-wise. It needed to bounce. It needed a better melody. I dictated a quick note into my phone on February 21, 2014 to that effect. (I only know that date because my phone dated the memo.)
At the piano a few days later, I roughed out a bouncy version of the song with new melodic verses along with the hook and the tune of the middle 8 from the original. I determined that it needed an introduction that modulated, sort of like "The Things We Did For Love" by 10cc, and intended to arrange the intro right then. But I got interrupted by my real job and did not follow through.
Then, earlier this year, I bought a classical album by pianist Susan Merdinger. The first time I played Susan's album I was jolted by her brilliant recording of Brahms' "Rhapsody in G Minor." The chord changes were VERY familiar, and I immediately recalled my mother playing this piece many times in my childhood. It also struck me that the opening of the Brahms sounded like something Brian Wilson might have constructed for PET SOUNDS, especially with Brahms' frequent use of bass notes that were not the root of the chord.
Once again, "Florida Girl" came to mind. This Brahms modulation was exactly the kind of introduction my old song needed. I tracked down the classical sheet music, played it passably, and, sure enough, it turned out to be a perfect fit. To truly transform and complete the song, I reconstructed it one final time, and scored a string arrangement for it that had Brahms overtones. I also scored a vocal round to punctuate the “beachy” sound of the song. My good friend Don Smith promptly flipped the background vocals upside down, made them less busy, and put the “Rundgren-ish” slides in as a perfect finishing touch.
So, a mere thirty-four years after first scratching it out, I am finally ready to present "Florida Girl" as an iTunes single, and as a track on David Bash’s new power pop compilation, INTERNATIONAL POP OVERTHROW, VOL. 18. It was recorded in two sessions this past June at Music + Arts Studios and Ardent in Memphis, co-produced by Don Smith and me. Dawn Hopkins engineered. Robert Hall played drums. The string section was Beth Luscombe, Jessie Munson, Wenyih Yu and Jonathan Kirkscey. Van Duren joined Don and me for the backing vocals. I sang, played several different keyboards, and played guitar. The spirit of the late Jack Holder seemed to be present throughout the proceedings. And the new lyrics? They basically have nothing to do with the original song. The new lyrics were inspired by Michelle, Abigail and Marie, my modern-day Carillon Beach girls.
Finally, in a really cool twist, it blows my mind that a song I started writing at the time of my high school graduation was completed and is being released right after my oldest daughter’s graduation from high school.
John T. McMullan
July 6, 2015