Friday, March 20, 2015

Under Cover

More than 30 years ago, I made my first demo-tape.  A keyboard player who worked with some rockstar really liked it-- took a copy, gave it to his boss.  A year later, my song was on the radio.  A little changed, rearranged, but it was definitely the song.  Funny--- no one had contacted me; I hadn't signed any papers.  I called a friend; he recognized it-- then we called the keyboard player.  He stammered and stuttered, apologized… apparently it had been 'adopted' or folded into some recipe which someone else seemed to think he'd invented.  But the hook-- even the lyric, the theme--- it was there…

My friend consulted a lawyer.  You are going to be a rich girl, the lawyer said to me.  But what was the meaning of this?  That I would sue some huge record company-- me, a small-time new artist with a 4-track demo?  We had meetings, we had papers… and I pulled out.  It wasn't about the money, it was the shameless version of apology I received from the producer--- about how maybe you hear something, and it stays in your subconscious, or it re-emerges with an idea-- it may or may not be mine.  What-ever.   It was the first music-business lesson.

Later, I was asked to co-write with a pop-star.  This meant she would cover my song and we would split royalties.  When I protested, they said they'd rewrite the song and I'd get zero.  Second lesson.
Besides, if my music was so eminently adaptable, maybe it was generic and not good enough.  Back to the drawing room.

So the Pharrell/Marvin Gaye thing registered as something of a 'Huh?' moment for me. I mean, there is little I hear these days that is not traceable to something else.  The production may be updated or changed--- the beats, the sounds-- but the melodies are so non-memorable.  I'll bet after the Grammies this year, the only person who really saw a spike in sales was whoever manufactured John Mayer's glasses.  The visual seems to have eclipsed the song.  The spectacle, not the soundtrack.  I'll bet Stevie Wonder has noticed this.  And then there is Angus Young--- in the same clothes he was in the first time I saw him, almost 40 years ago.

I'm about to publish a small book of poetry and have been obsessing about the cover.  The Bo Diddley song has been going over and over in my head.  It's odd-- in old times, books looked pretty much the same-- leather bindings--- occasional hand-tooling and gilt trim for the very rich.  But what was important and valued--- was the text.  A book was its contents.  Now?  So many are so under-read.  The classics are recycled, reprinted-- covers evolve, books are 'styled' to sell as objects.  Sometimes, in 'new' books,  good writing is hidden beneath the plot; like a metal guitar shredder, the 'notes' obscure the absence of core melody.

When I was younger I did a Sunday afternoon solo gig on Bleecker St.  Don't you know any covers, the owner used to complain? No, I answered, priding myself on my principles.  I actually wrote a song called 'Cover' so I could finally answer 'yes'.  And one called 'Undercover'.  That one felt right.   I am neither a borrower or a lender.

So now it is the first day of spring, and we in New York City are about to get a dusting of snow.  Our sidewalks and streets have just been stripped of the last of the winter 'cover' which revealed underneath a vast layer of soaked and pressed litter-- like fossils of Christmas and Valentine's Day and thousands of candy wrappers and flattened Starbucks cups everywhere.  Walking down Madison Ave… to my right were the clean shop windows filled with all the bling a rockstar's wallet can buy… and to the left, is the gutter spread of trash, of objects covered with the grey-black film of melted dirty snow.  Jewelry, garbage, leather bags, garbage, porcelain, garbage… art galleries…garbage… until I began to reverse the order and really everything lost its meaning, its 'cover'.  Later today this will change… like a new coat of paint, the sweat and spit and dog-shit and the papers-- everything will be magical again for a few hours.

There is another author with the same name as mine.  Her book is about incest--- about her father raping her, her childhood trauma.  I don't know what the cover looks like.  My own father thinks I wrote this book.  He hasn't spoken to me for years, but he really hadn't spoken to me before, so the mistaken identity thing was a kind of icing on his paternal bitter cake.  It's useless for me to explain that this is another person, because having a reason to excommunicate me-- it suits him.  As I was contemplating my cover today-- maybe a moment where I'd hand my finished book over to my father and receive exoneration-- I began to think.. .well, this never happened to me… but other things happened.  The fact is there is shame in my family history and cause for shame.  Cover-ups and substance abuse… and my own father never harmed me, not physically-- but his absence and lack of sobriety caused childhood trauma that shouldn't have happened.   The irony is, I am the one that spent years trying to apologize--- trying to atone for his sins, trying to appease his anger.  So maybe, in a way, that other girl is me, has uncovered things that are not so far from the ones that should not have happened in our house, even thought the 'cast' is different.

Making up my bed this morning, I thought of all the things that happened, inside these covers, and other covers--- the intimacies, the passion, the nights of refusing intimacies, the hours of sickness, of feverish children who feel entitled to pass nights of illness in their mother's sheets, of nights of grief and desolation, of nightmares and beautiful dreams of our missing loves that cruelly disintegrate as we wake. The way my son and his girlfriend spent hours picking the quilt that dresses the bed in their new apartment.  Because so much of their life will take place there, and it is important.

In truth, my father, like most people,  will never read my book.  He won't listen to the songs I've recorded, and that is fine.  But he just may see the cover.  Or not.

2 comments:

darrolyn said...

this is really a strong and touching piece of writing. really resonates with me. let me know where to get a copy of your book of poetry.

Billy said...

A recording artist that we both know told me once that when it was time to do an album the label would give him all the demo tapes that people sent in and he could lift the songs, change one note, and put it out as his...
Sound familiar?
Actually, there's alot of interesting stuff out there, yours for example, but I don't think they really want to put out anything too creative, because of all the trouble last time, with the kids organizing and everything...They don't want THAT happening again, so everything is kept MOR and non-threatening...
No Jimi Hendrix, Elvis, Beatles, Stones, John Coltrane, just nice Taylor Swift type people that don't make waves or question the rules...
And that's the reason today's music sounds the way it does...