I had the cable guy out to my new place yesterday to install internet service. This turned out to be a vast ordeal that spanned three hours and took years off the end of both our lives, but at least the guy was… interesting. I offer the following statements of his without comment, quoted as close to verbatim as I can remember:
“You into golf? No? Well, you know Vijay Singh? I got called out to do a job at his house one time. It was strange, man. Master bedroom took up the whole second floor. The bathroom was huge. Guy had a hideaway bed and a treadmill in the bathroom. You gotta be one runnin’ motherfucker to have a treadmill in the bathroom. The sink was like twenty-five feet long. Had one sink down at one end, then waaaaay down at the other end had the other sink. Guy must be like, ‘Bitch, I don’t even want to see you in the mornings.’”
“You know what my home security system is? I make friends with the neighbors, so they’ll call the cops when they see somebody messin’ around my place. But that’s not good enough for my wife, so she had to go out and get a gun. It’s this little pistol. I’m like, hey, maybe you should try shooting that thing a few times, just in case. So she does. And I’m like, babe, you’re closing your eyes when you shoot. You can’t close your eyes when you shoot! And she’s all, no I’m not. And I’m like, don’t tell me, I just stood here and watched you! So we got rid of the pistol and got a shotgun instead. With a handgun, maybe somebody won’t see it or something, then you have to use it. My buddy says you never have to use a shotgun. Somebody comes into your house, hears you cock a shotgun, they gone. Never have to use it.”
[To the woman on the phone at tech support, since the equipment wasn't working at first]: “I need you to reset the modem… No, I can’t do it from here. I’m locked out… Well, it’s because you’re back at the office, and I’m just a black guy in the field. Can you reset it or not?”
“Yeah, I used to do a bunch of remodeling. And I tell you what. I’m not racist, but you never give a Hispanic guy a hammer. They’re all fixin’ up their place, and then you get called in later, and it is all fucked up. I used to think code compliance was stupid until I worked on a bunch of those houses.”
Me: “I don’t think that has anything to do with them being Hispanic. I used to do remodeling in Wisconsin, and it was pretty much the same with all the farmers. We’d come out to the houses to do a remodel job, and they’d cobbled six rooms onto a trailer house, and it was a total mess. It’s just guys with a hammer who think they know what they’re doing that are dangerous.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s right. I tell you what, though, those Hispanic guys are hard-workin’ motherfuckers, though. I used to work a roofing crew with a bunch of guys, and I was the only guy who spoke English. Didn’t matter. We’d have a roof torn off, decking on, and the new roof put back on by nine in the morning, then go start the next one. Hard-workin’ motherfuckers.”
[While rummaging in a wall trying to find a mysteriously absent cable]: “This house of yours is mad that the previous owners sold her. She ain’t givin’ up any of her secrets. She’s like, ‘fuck this guy.’”
“You got any pets?”
Me: “No. I keep suggesting we get a dog, but my wife doesn’t really want to.”
“You just gotta bring one home. Just show up with that little motherfucker. ‘Hey, I don’t know where he came from, he just followed me home.’ Then she’ll have to let you keep him.”
Me: “Um… She might keep the dog, but I’ll be sleeping outside, I try that shit.”
“Yeah. True that.”
I have been laughing at the “You gotta be one runnin’ motherfucker to have a treadmill in the bathroom” bit for a day and a half now. It never gets less funny.
by Joe in Music
As is (probably) obvious, I’ve been playing around with a bunch of instrumental electronic or electronic + guitar music lately. And it has been bugging the shit out of me that the songs are boring. Despite adding a bunch of sonic doodads and other ear candy, somewhere around the second verse the melody gets old, and it feels like there’s a shitload of repetition that needs to be changed up some. There are a handful of ways to deal with this — play the melody up an octave, throw in some embellishments, or throw in a harmony part, for starters — but they weren’t really doing it for me. It was still boring. So I took a look at structure. The typical pop song is structured something like this:
1st Verse (sometimes 1st Verse and then 2nd Verse)
3rd Verse (highly optional)
Outro (or just end it)
There’s a lot of variation available, but that’s a pretty typical skeleton, and there are a million ways to put some meat on its bones. But for whatever reason, my stuff starts to drags after the first chorus. In a song with compelling vocals, this doesn’t happen. The lyrics will be changed up enough during each verse repetition that there’s always something new in the main element to focus on. But like I said, the usual changes to the melody line in the instrumental stuff haven’t really satisfied me.
So I thought, hmmm. You know who does a really good job of making sure things don’t get boring, even with simple monophonic melody lines? Joe Satriani. What the hell is it he’s doing that prevents me from getting bored? And I mapped out whole bunch of his songs, including Summer Song, War, Surfing With the Alien, and Ice 9. What I found was this:
He never goes into another verse right after the first chorus. Never. Not in one song. Sometimes he’ll repeat the first verse an octave up before going into the first chorus, but after the first chorus, he’s already into the bridge/solo section, every time. The typical structure ends up more like this:
Intro (almost always 32 measures with a main riff and maybe some embellishments over it)
1st Verse, sometimes followed by a second verse up an octave, but not usually
Bridge/Solo, usually lengthy, usually contains at least one key change or chord center change, and often more
And it works. I’ve had it in my head that you have to repeat the melody more than that to make it memorable, but it’s just not true — and, duh, no wonder I’ve had problems with too much repetition! No wonder the songs I’ve been writing have stretched to five and six minutes, too. (I realize that’s very typical for many kinds of electronic music, but — and this should come as no surprise — that stuff tends to bore the shit out of me. Just not my thing.)
The really funny thing here is that most of the songs with vocals in them that I’ve written over the past couple of years have two verses and two choruses, maybe with another chorus thrown in after some kind of weird bridge. I’d already deviated from the “normal” structure in the genre I was comfortable with, but once I started focusing on a different kind of music, I went right back to the basics of what I (supposedly) knew — and it was wrong. Or at least it wasn’t working, which is basically the same thing.
So now I’m going to revisit some of those songlets with an eye toward cutting out some of the crud at the beginning. That extra stuff is just bogging things down.
Probably no lessons for me there I could apply to my writing…
by Joe in Writing
There’s a concept in topology called homeomorphism. Two items are said to be homeomorphic if you can continuously deform one into the other without tearing or puncturing or gluing bits together. The classic example is a donut and a coffee cup. If you had a clay donut, you could squish it until it formed a coffee cup — they are both solid objects with a single hole.
For whatever reason, my brain is wired to grasp homeomorphism in concepts almost automatically, whether I want it to or not (I suspect nearly everybody’s brain is). This can be incredibly useful. For the day job, that means I can generally spot, for example, how a mathematical construct I’m already familiar with can be deformed for use in a different application, and that’s really handy. As a writer, it also has its uses. Metaphor, after all, could be considered a class of homeomorphism in literature (does that mean metaphor is homeomorphic to homeomorphism?), so being able to spot and deform one concept into another is definitely a necessary skill. Better yet, if I can write a donut in such a way as to suggest to the reader that they can transform it into a coffee cup, then I’m really cooking with gas.
The problem comes in when dealing with issues of structure and plot. Long about the 50,000-word mark of anything I’m working on, the parallels between the work-in-progress and any number of other works start to become glaringly obvious. In many cases, this can suggest new avenues to explore or it can be used to shore up existing resonances. But in a lot of cases it’s simply crippling. Oh my god this has been written unto death already. Why bother?
The answer is that, homeomorphic or not, you can’t drink out of a donut.
But it sure is hard to keep that in mind sometimes.
And this is reason eighty billion why I should never be allowed near a midi sequencer, let alone anything that sounds like a pipe organ.
I started with the slightly fucked-up pipe organ sound, and I liked it so much that I got carried away. Two hours later, I came out of the music room with a dazed expression on my face, a ringing in my ears, and this rather odd, busy track to show for it.
The guitar is improvised in one take straight through, and if I were concerned about this thing being, you know, actually listenable, I’d go back and come up with something that resembled a melody. My brother would then rag me endlessly about having made a “compromised second draft.” There’s no pleasing some people.
by Joe in Writing
So, in a moment of utter randomness, I recently bought Sebastian Bach’s latest CD. It’s about what you’d expect — competently executed but eminently forgettable hair metal — so I pretty much got what I paid for (or deserved, depending how you look at it). I listened to it a few times in the car, and then shelved it, and I don’t expect it to resurface often.
There was, however, one item of interest — the guitar solo in the song TunnelVision. The guitarist for the band is a 20-year old guitar prodigy, and the first time I heard that solo, I laughed and laughed, thinking, “That guy totally robbed John 5 blind!” The second time I heard it, I revised my opinion. “Jesus Christ, he did more than rob the guy. He enrolled in a fourteen-month ‘How to Play Guitar Like John 5′ seminar, and graduated with flying colors.” And the third time I heard it, I thought, “You’re an idiot. That IS John 5.” And I went looking for the liner notes to verify it. Of course it was John 5.
So that all made me laugh, but it was a little later that I realized that’s what we mean by “voice” in the creative world. I can recognize a whole lot of guitarists on hearing them play for a bar or two, and some are so distinctive it literally takes only a couple of notes. Slash, David Gilmour, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Michael Kelsey, Neil Young, Billy Corgan, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Johnson, and John 5 fall into this latter group. The combination of note choice, guitar tone, playing speed, attack, vibrato, and other expressive elements combine in a way that is utterly distinctive for these guys who have really developed their individuality on their instruments, and it’s what differentiates them from thousands of nameless session guys who can play literally anything, but seem to have no soul.
The same is true of the written word. If you handed me anything I hadn’t read before by Joseph Heller, Stephen King, Caitlin Kiernan, John Irving, Neal Stephenson, Charles Stross, Elizabeth Bear, or many others, it would take maybe a page — and maybe a paragraph — before I recognized the author. And again, that comes from a combination of a dozen things — word choice, rhythm, attitude, point of view, and sentence structure for starters. It is also, I believe, more than anything else, the single most important element that gets us to come back to a given author time and again.
A friend of mine once returned a draft of an early novel of mine with a comment very much along these lines: “The writing in here has two voices. Much of the time it’s your voice, but when you get into the straight-up horror stuff, you slip into something that reads a lot like a Stephen King imitation. It’s a pretty tolerable Stephen King imitation, but if I want to read Stephen King, I’ll go read Stephen King. Your voice is irreverent and profane and full of bizarre black humor, comic exaggeration, and wordplay, and that’s what I want to read here.” It was an important moment for me — the moment I realized I have a voice, and it is distinctive, and I don’t need to fall back on rote imitation of others to say what I want to say. It was an extremely liberating moment, much like when I realized I had reached a similar place with my guitar playing: I can say the things I want to say the way I want to say them. It’s like taking the training wheels off and riding faster than you ever have before.
I think that may be the hardest part — realizing you have a knife, and what kind of knife it is. The rest is just sharpening.