Sing a Simple Song

NOTE: This blog was originally posted at BretAlexanderMusic.com

The Real GigSince it is Mother’s Day weekend, I want to tell a quick story about my parents’ role in my musical development.

It was the 1970s, I don’t remember how old I was but I know I was under 10. While my parents were off shopping for whatever in Kmart one night, a cousin of mine and me wandered through the entertainment section. And that is where I saw it. The first record I ever asked for. I had never heard this band’s music, but damn did they look cool. After we got home that night I told my folks what I wanted for my birthday. It was a record by a band whose name was a letter and a bunch of numbers. The band was called “K – one – seven – seven”. My folks had never heard of them, but they agreed to get me the record. And off to bed I went ready to begin a life of rocking as soon as possible.

My folks went back to Kmart. The clerks there had never heard of that band. They went to Nichols Department Store. They went to Ames Department Store. They went to a few mom and pop record stores. They went to the Arnot Mall in Elmira, NY. No dice. No one had ever heard of “K- one- seven-seven”. It must have been some obscure punk band. So, much to my disappointment, I never got that record. To this day I have never bought it.

But not long after that, my mother opened a record store. I don’t know if not being able to find my record was the impetus of that decision, but it probably was. In this store is where I actually did get my first records. There were 3: The Beatles Live At The Hollywood Bowl, The Beatles Live From The Cavern Club, Hamburg, Germany 1962 and Fleetwood Mac Rumours. I still have them. I am sure you all remember your first records. In the back room of that place is also where I started learning to play the guitar. My family had won me a guitar in a contest at the Rexall Drug Store down the street and a woman taught lessons at the store. It’s also where I learned to play poker and euchre. My grandma was a badass card player. Pretty much everything I needed to learn about living as a musician got started in that place. Well, almost everything.

Some time later I would come to realize that the album I was looking for was called Dressed To Kill and the band was not “K177”. It was “KISS”. My poor parents. That logo confused the hell out of me. But it was a sign for me too. A sign that I better learn a thing or two about how to play music because I really didn’t have much of an eye for graphic design.

Anyway, cut to the present. A few days ago I was poking around online throwing around ideas for the artwork of our band’s new double album. And that old ghost of K177 reared its head again. Yes, there is a reason I am still not in charge of graphic design. I was lost again. Too many options to deal with. I had no clue how to narrow it down. So that got me to thinking of why I am so lost in that world but I find the audio side of things so intuitive. They are both creative processes. And the more I thought about it, the more I remembered how my long musical journey has led to a place where all the options and noise got melted away into “me” and my particular style of doing things. I would never say my way is brilliant or the best way. There are many roads to take and they never really end. It’s always a work in progress. I’d just say I am happy with the way I went. But no matter which road you take, they all lead to the same conclusion. A different “KISS”. “K.I.S.S” – or aka “Keep It Simple Stupid”.

And that is this week’s story.

You hear people say it all the time. Stick to the basics, things will get complicated on their own. Keep it simple, stupid. This is good advice in making music and for life in general. But I want to add a corollary to that adage. K.I.S.S. does stand for “Keep It Simple Stupid”…..BUT….. it does not stand for “Keep It Stupid, Stupid”. There is a difference. And that line is what makes “simple” so very hard to pull off.

Being married to a baker, I used to like watching the Food Network. I remember one time when a master chef took a bite of some plain white cheesecake that a contestant had made for a competition. The master tasted it and started talking. He expounded for minutes about the history of the dish, what was typically in a good cheesecake, and what the aspiring chef had done to add a twist to the classic dish. All that from an 8 inch plain cheesecake. Nothing outwardly unique about it. But the judge understood what the young chef was trying to do. How he took the basics to the next level without destroying the greatness of the classic thing. Very difficult to do. Conversely, I have seen master chefs get literally insulted when a novice took things too far or didn’t respect the basic premise of whatever they were making. Like I said, doing something simple but new is a formidable task.

To quote Spinal Tap, “There is a fine line between clever and stupid.”

Songwriting and music in general is the same way. There is form, structure, and history there. But there should also be some sort of context that plants the tune firmly in the present and pushes things forward. It should sound fresh in some way but not confusing. Anyone can do something indiscernible and call it “art”. As Keith Richards said, “In rock and roll, art is short for ‘Arthur’.” When asked what he wanted on his tombstone, Keef said, “He passed it on.” Not “He was a genius.” Simply, “He passed it on.” He knew who his ancestors were and he took it to the next level.

I think writing a decent, simple song that connects is kind of like staring at Medusa’s head. If you look at its reflection and dance around the fringes you might have a chance of showing the familiar in a new light. But if you look at it directly in the eye you turn into Nickelback.

It’s tricky business.

People do not care as much about how eloquently you say something as they do about how whatever you say makes them feel. They are more interested in the content of your words than your command of the English language. They are more interested in how dinner tastes than how difficult it was to prepare. Books do not become best sellers and classic literature because of the fancy words the author uses.

I always found John Lennon to be the master at writing a simple tune in a unique way. “Imagine” is one of those songs that I think will be around in 200 years. Just a simple, brilliant idea brought to life with a beautiful melody and plain language. But some of the ideas in that song, well, let’s just say we are still not ready for them. It’s deceptively complex. A 6 year old could sing along or it could be a subject of a college level course. Or take Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”, for example. Check out this verse : “They keep you doped with religion, sex, and TV/ And you think you’re so clever, classless, and free/ But you’re all f***ing peasants as far as I can see/ A working class hero is something to be.” That’s a full length documentary or movie right there. In 4 lines over a 2 chord song. Even if you don’t play guitar, I could teach you how to play that song RIGHT NOW. But it’s brilliant stuff.

We have all know someone that was so smart they lacked common sense. In the world of music and songwriting, the same paradox exists. Some musicians (not all) are too damn good to write decent songs and play effective parts. In my opinion, it smells of a large ego and a lack of self confidence. They can’t set aside their technical abilities to tap into the fundamental stuff that everyone connects to. They will add element upon element to their first draft so their snooty muso buddies won’t scoff at how “obvious” they are being. It’s kind of selfish really. The best compliment I could ever pay another musician would be to say that he “serves the song”. In other words, he plays what the song call for, no more, no less. This is what a great session player does. I’m lucky enough to have several at my disposal. When Steve Ferrone plays “boom, crack, boom, boom, crack” for several minutes on Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” most people do not realize that he was the drummer in Average White Band. That dude can play ANYTHING. But on that song he chose to play the simplest of drum grooves. He served the song.

So then, how do you do it? How do you do simple but not stupid? There is nothing more important than knowing what to keep and what to throw away. And you get that knowledge by picking lots of things up and leaving lots of things behind. And over time you and your work become “distilled”. And with that, you can hit harder. Peter Buck once said, “With age, I write fewer songs. But my batting average has gone way up.” You get a sense of what is good and what is just noise. Eventually you can say more with less.

In the Wizard Of Oz, all the characters eventually found out that what they were looking for they already possessed. But the two things that none of them had were confidence and wisdom. Those things you can only get from the Yellow Brick Road itself……..and from time. You get it by trial and error, by studying those who came before you, and by stripping away the unnecessary. Then eventually you might write something like “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”. And you can rest easy knowing that the whole world, young and old, educated and uneducated, red, and yellow, black and white have probably been there. And they know what you mean.

Bret Alexander is the owner of Saturation Acres Recording Studio as well as the guitarist and chief songwriter for The Badlees. His “Real Gig” blog runs each Friday.

The Real Gig: A Musician’s Guide to the Universe by Bret Alexander. May 10, 2013.