“Once in a While” 01

Welcome to the birth of a new song:

Well, it may be a song when it grows up. What it is right now is a refrain I repeat over and over (“Once in a while / You get (the/that) good thing / Ain’t it a good thing?”) with a minimal acoustic guitar accompaniment.

What I notice is that, in the course of the two and a half minutes, I hear myself going from tentative to confident. As it starts, I’ve probably only sung the line a few times before deciding it’s worth trying to record, so I’m handling the lines gingerly, like a new cat I don’t know whether will purr or pounce. As the tune goes along, the refrain clicks, and I start being able to work it a bit.

And what do the lyrics mean? Well, the clay hasn’t hardened yet, so there’s no telling its final shape. Actually…that’s not really true. You can tell by the measured pace, by the cadence, and by its call and response form that it’ll probably want to be some kind of soul tune, a slow jam. That suggests it’s probably about something romantic, clicking with somebody, a relationship song. Or maybe it’s about, y’know, knitting a sweater.

If you’re interested in seeing how some (of my) songs start out, this is a perfect primer.

“Spies”

Who are these youthful spies with double-breasted trenchcoats so very smart?

Some of the inspiration for “Spies” came from comic artist Antonio Prohías’ iconic “Spy vs. Spy“. Some of it came from people I knew years ago when I used to spend a lot of time at Border, an artsy, Burlington dance club currently in its latest incarnation as Club Metronome. The rest was just, y’know, me makin’ stuff up.

Do these people really take extreme measures of identity protection, maintaining perpetual surveillance or conducting espionage in the service of their mother countries? Are they natural-born secret agents no matter what they do for work, living in a delusional haze in which there are plots and conspiracies in every official explanation for the way the world works? Maybe they’re just twenty-somethings who feel so alienated from their peers and communities that they invent undercover personas as a narrative that explains their painful isolation?

Regardless of the explanation you like, for me the song is a sort of sympathetic ode to these people, sharing their existential conditions in a waltz-time, vaguely country music bed. With lots of soft-loud-soft sections.

Spies

Spies try to booby-trap their partner’s desks
Spies push their know-how with a daily test
Spies got so much that’s going on
Spies do the worst and call it best

Spies look for signals in the grocery aisle
Spies keep their shades on when they go to trial
Spies talk in riddles, talk in tongues
Spies are never photographed with smiles

   Sun-starved skin and love-sick eyes
   Leopard dresses, leather ties
   Double-breasted trenchcoats, very smart
   Classified tattoos over their hearts
   Excuse themselves before the movie starts
   And slip away

Spies try to syncopate their every step
Spies disappear for days to build their rep
Spies got too much they wanna do
Spies always leave a tiny tip

Spies bug and document each place they stay
Spies change their iris color every day
Spies keep one hand just out of view
Spies make a point to lose their way

   Sun-starved skin and love-sick eyes
   Leopard dresses, leather ties
   Double-breasted trenchcoats, very smart
   Classified tattoos over their hearts
   Excuse themselves before the movie starts
   And slip away

Mysteries are oceans, enigmas shallow bays
They’d keep on wearing wetsuits even if it didn’t pay
Conspiracies are mountains, and secrets little hills
They’d keep on climbing even if it didn’t pay the bills

   Sun-starved skin and love-sick eyes
   Leopard dresses, leather ties
   Double-breasted trenchcoats, very smart
   Classified tattoos over their hearts
   Excuse themselves before the movie starts
   And slip away

© Copyright 1999-2012 Nate Orshan

Who’s that guy playing all the tasty electric guitar? None other than my friend and musical hero, Matt McCarthy, who also recorded and assembled the tune on a desktop PC in a bygone age where they laughed at you if you even thought of doing anything creative in a non-Mac environment. Matt: 1. Mac: 0.

“Free Thinker” Live at Rose Street

“Free Thinker”. The song that adds a little carpe diem to bromance.

Some of my songs are written top-down: I’m setting out for a specific result, and I do everything I can to make the song achieve that objective. Others are written bottom-up: I come up with something I like (a cool music line, melody, or chord progression), and I keep working it like clay, adding more and more material until a form takes shape that I like. And then there are times where a chorus appears almost out of nowhere, and I know right away it’s so obviously cool that I’m gonna have to create verses and a whole song around it just to justify its existence. “Free Thinker” is one of those.

I was in my wife’s and my hotel room in Boston, doing something uninspiring like shaving, and then –you know what comes next– this freakin’ chorus just popped into my head, unfurling itself all catchy and comfortable like a classic rock song I’d known all my life. I almost fell over myself scrambling for a pen and paper, and I got the music and lyrics down immediately.

So I had this chorus that felt like it wanted to be on some lost John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band track, and now all it needed was, y’know, everything else.

It would have to wait another seven years for me to finish. Why? There were lots of excuses, but I suspect I just wasn’t comfortable writing what was going to have to be a homoerotic song. If I let myself chicken out and direct the narrator’s come-on to a woman*, it might suffice, but it wouldn’t rock.

Yeah, rock. Remember real rock? Rock music was supposed to be disobedient. It was supposed to be lawless. It was supposed to be transgressive. Like, say…putting the moves on your recently-dumped, hetero buddy…

Free Thinker

Lovers let you down again and again
Ooh, ooh, ooh
What you need is right before you, my friend
Ooh, ooh, ooh

When love shows up, you never can say
But in the mean time, I’m here today

   Come on and
   Use me
   Use me
   Use me like you know you really
   Want to
   Want to
   You wanna be my friend, come on and
   Use me
   Use me
   Use me like a friend
   You say that you’re a free thinker

Half your life is wasted, waiting in line
Ooh, ooh, ooh
Cut that rope, and have one hell of a time
Ooh, ooh, ooh

And if you’re feeling ready to hear,
I’ve got some words to put in your ear

   Come on and
   Use me
   Use me
   Use me like you know you really
   Want to
   Want to
   You wanna be my friend, come on and
   Use me
   Use me
   Use me like a friend
   You say that you’re a free thinker

Ship is leaving, get on board for the ride
Ooh, ooh, ooh
Don’t let trepidation keep you inside
Ooh, ooh, ooh

You’ve got the world in front of your eyes
You’ve got a friend, and here’s the surprise

   Come on and
   Use me
   Use me
   Use me like you know you really
   Want to
   Want to
   You wanna be my friend, come on and
   Use me
   Use me
   Use me like a friend
   You say that you’re a free thinker

© Copyright 2006-2012 Nate Orshan

* So, after all that, am I hedging my bets by having the narrator never specify the gender of his friend? I hope not. I usually take great pains to avoid reference to gender in my songs, partially out of a hope that will make them more sharable by all (“Women can sing them to men! Women can sing them to women! Men can sing them to men!”), and partially out of an egalitarian conviction that, as soon as you start getting gender-specific in a song, you’re immediately marginalizing someone. If nothing else, I hope at least you’ll think I’m fair.

“Free Thinker” was recorded on Friday, July 6, at the Rose Street Artists’ Cooperative and Gallery Coffeehouse.