The Casual Observer Songblog

The Casual Observer Songblog is a co-production of sportswriter Steven Goldman and physicist Rick Mohring. We’ve been writing and recording music together for years, but they don’t make a van big enough for us to take our families and day jobs on the road. Instead, we’ll be making our songs available here for free, with new material appearing periodically. Along the way we’ll talk about our music, other people’s music, and anything else that might come to mind.

Apple Orchard

Posted by Casual Observer under Ballads of the Republic, CO Music

“Apple Orchard” is a song that looks back at a full life from the vantage point of its ending. Please see the notes below for background and commentary, and our mp3 page to download this or any of our other tracks.

I’ve spent a long time, far too long, trying to think of how to introduce this song. In the end, I think it best to say only this: it is the story of a person I greatly loved looking back at a long life from the vantage point of its ending. Watching her go was a transformative experience for me in ways that are difficult to discuss. It’s not just her absence that has left me shaken from that day to this, but that she left slowly, but inexorably. I had always understood the reality of death, had lost people, but only by sudden strokes. Somehow losing someone by pieces was much harder to put in perspective.

Having said all of that, this song is not about my reaction to the event, but hers. While she did not want to go, she was very much a realist, not someone who took comfort in religion or other emotional palliatives, and while I was not privy to her final thoughts, I would like to think that in her last dreams she went back to those places where she had been most happy and alive, restored to those whom she had loved. I never did go apple-picking with her, but heard her talk about it on several occasions, and somehow her happiness in describing those moments became a metaphor to me.

I am mostly satisfied with this song as I have written it, and I won’t bore you with the few cavils I have. I do hope that it is neither sentimental nor maudlin, but is simply as close as I can come to biography, to capturing the spirit of a unique mind in a moment of both pain and elation. Most of all, I wanted to say, “Yes, I listened. I heard every word you said, and I understood.”

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Recorded in Aug 2009, in Rick’s Home Studio

Steve: Vocals
Rick: Acoustic guitars, orchestral programming, vocals

Of the songs in our catalog that Steve wrote both the lyrics and music to, “Apple Orchard” is my favorite. I remember when he first played it for me on his guitar, not too far removed from his loss, and I was really moved by it. A song like this could easily have taken the tone of a cautionary tale where an older, much wiser person shares their experiences with a young man, warning them that things can (will) be almost unbearably difficult at times. But I see an optimism in the song that extends well beyond that, where she is encouraging someone much closer to the start of the journey than to the inevitable conclusion to embrace the parts of life that give you joy as they are occurring, and to always be looking out for new opportunities and experiences, despite the obstacles and setbacks.

As for the recording, the instrument tracks are a single acoustic guitar which I put down for Steve to use in the recording session, and a number of individual orchestral instruments and ensembles using the Garritan Pocket Orchestra under the Dimension Pro soft synth. I love working on string and woodwind arrangements (cf. Haven), though I find it’s particularly hard to convince my inner perfectionist to stop tweaking those tracks. The guitar track is there mostly to provide a sense of rhythm, and I pushed it lower in the mix in the places where the arrangement could stand up on its own. The harmonies are also purposely low in the mix, because I felt that Steve’s voice needed to be clearly in front.

I’ll close by stating that while the lyric is not about Steve’s reaction to the event, as he says, the composition of the song itself is infused with the love he felt for her. I hope that I’ve been able to do it justice in the arrangement and recording, and also that you can find an uplifting message in it as I have.

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Apple Orchard

Apple Orchard, 1955
Husband, children, on a Sunday drive
This is my favorite place
I close my eyes, I see…
Dreams are growing just like fruit
I pick one from a tree

Apple Orchard, 1942
Husband’s a sailor aboard the Richelieu
I’m displaced in time and space
A multiplicity of
Dreams are growing just like fruit
I pick one from a tree

I am confined to bed but in my head
The love I’ve lost walks again in the where and when

Apple Orchard, 1999
Light is fading on these walks of mine
I have had three daughters, one has gone ahead of me
Dreams are growing just like fruit
I pick one from a tree

I am confined to bed but in my head
The time I’ve lost walks again in the where and when

Through the seasons, time keeps rolling on
Apples growing, even when you’ve gone
And when I pass, my grandchild
Remember this of me
I have had more time than most
And known such tragedy
But even in the saddest times
Are possibilities…
Dreams are growing just like fruit
Pick one
Dreams are growing just like fruit
Pick one from a tree Powered by Hackadelic Sliding Notes 1.6.5

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Her Letters To Joshua9

Posted by Casual Observer under CO Music, Haven

“Her Letters To Joshua9” is the fourth installment of Haven.  Our narrator is again in love with Coie, and seemingly having a grand time indulging in unrestrained physicality. Yet, he quickly realizes that even successful mattress gymnastics have failed to fully occupy Coie’s restless, troubled mind. The whole mess of songs is still located on the mp3 page for easy downloading.

I have had the experience described here, or at least a similar one, and although we haven’t discussed it, I think Rick has as well. You’re a young man with a young woman, and although things seem to be going well, as a certain hour approaches, you begin to sense that her mind is elsewhere, that you have gone from companion to impediment, as you are standing between her and whoever is on the other end of that screen…
Who knows how Coie met the man she and we only know as “Joshua9.” No doubt it started innocently enough, one of Coie’s online explorations bringing her into contact with the fellow on one social networking site or another. Somehow, though, as badly as she wanted to find our narrator (as she explained in the last song, “Twilight Bark”), she is unable to resist the novelty provided by her new, disembodied friend. Whatever he does or says during their moments of electronic conversation, it’s working, and if our narrator is the thing she has, Joshua9 is rapidly becoming what she wants. As the song proceeds, Coie pacifies our hero with her body, but rushes back to the computer, none-too subtly indicating where her real interest lies. Whiplashed by love, the narrator can only roll over and passively accept it when Coie informs him that Joshua9 is coming from whatever faraway land he resides in to woo her in person.
As I said at the outset of this project, the “Haven” song cycle is fictional, but aspects of it are drawn from real life. I can truthfully say that few experiences in one’s romantic life are as frustrating as competing with a ghost. You are present, you are the one making the gestures, doing the talking, laughing, touching, but some other guy who is not there somehow occupies a greater place in your lady’s mind. It occurs to me now that the proper way of dealing with this scenario is to walk, but I was never very good at taking a hint. After all, you like the girl, the girl likes you, and the competition is, for whatever reason, not present. Surely all you have to do is keep showing up, and you’ll win this one on superior attendance alone, right? Wrong.
The Internet, in its relative infancy when I had this experience, opened up endless possibilities for this sort of torture. You might have taken the girl to dinner and a movie, but Joshua9, off in Switzerland or Saskatchewan, sends superior mash notes. The reason she has to be home by 10 isn’t due to a curfew or an early day at work the next morning, but because that’s when he comes online.
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Recorded in Aug 2009, in Rick’s Home Studio

Steve: Vocals
Rick: Acoustic and electrics guitars, synth/bass/drum programming, vocals

My first comment is that I’m frightened by the fact that the “recorded” date above is more than a year ago. In fairness, that was only when the process started — my laying down a guitar track (since scrapped) and Steve doing his vocals in the chorus — but still, wow.

My own experience with the type of situation described in the song is thankfully restricted to a much more platonic version where I’ve been resigned to accepting that a conversation was going nowhere until the other person turned off the computer. At the risk of seeming prehistoric, that was back when were were in college (pre-Web) using the UNIX “talk” command to chat in realtime to other students (on our IBM XTs with amber-screened CGA monitors, on 1200 baud modems, uphill both ways). Still, even back then it was obvious how the Internet was going to revolutionize communication and interpersonal relationships, even if my CS-major college roommates and I weren’t clever enough to invent Facebook at the time.

Recording items of note… the percussion is split into two parts: (1) the verses use an emulated vintage TR-808 electronic drum kit, which I chose because it reminded me of the older computers from back then, and (2) the chorus uses a more traditional set so that it has more punch. The choruses also get the addition of some brass backing to fill it out a bit.

Also, in an early version of the mix, I’d somewhat randomly dropped a single “plink” of the TR-808′s cowbell in the open space in the middle of each verse (the same place where I put the bell on the last verse). Steve did not have the fever for which it was the only prescription, so I took it out — but my kids (who had grown quite fond of it) still plaintively ask why Uncle Steve didn’t like the cowbell. Alas, I have no answer for them.

The final addition to the track was per Steve’s suggestion to bring the opening theme back for a brief fade-out at the end of the song, which he mistakenly “remembered” my having done at some point. It’s no cowbell, but it’ll do.

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Her Letters To Joshua9

I vow I won’t touch
But I touch too much
There’s not an apple I leave hanging on her tree

She swears she won’t cry
So she cries inside
Pretending that she’s still in love with me

We say such pretty things
Weaving dreams in the afterglow
Tell adventurous tales of romantic heroes

And it’s all gone wrong
I may be hers but she’s not mine
It’s all gone wrong
She’s making love to me
But her fantasies are of her letters to Joshua9

Pretend that I’m blind
A blank mind unlined
With the weaknesses of fear and jealousy

She says she won’t lie
She can’t help but try
And once again she’s making love to me

When we’re done, she plugs in
Naked, blue in the plasma glow
Writing to a boy that she has come to know

Use me while I’m good for you
A haven from the hail
Let me saw the wood for you
While you’re waiting for the daily mail

Not much left to tell
Can’t put her in a pumpkin shell
Or squeeze her ’til her mind is finally clear

She says that she’s sure
But that she needs more
And now she says that boy is coming here Powered by Hackadelic Sliding Notes 1.6.5

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Twilight Bark

Posted by Casual Observer under CO Music, Haven

“Twilight Bark” is the third chapter of Haven — and no, there are no vampires involved. As usual, the “play” icon above will make music emanate from the speakers of your internet-enabled device as if by magic, the sliders below conceal an abundance of background material about the songs, and downloads patiently await your arrival at our mp3 page.

In the next song from our cycle “Haven,” our protagonist is found by Coie despite the anonymous rural retreat at which he had cloistered himself. “How did you find me?” he asks, and off Coie goes into an explanation that is fanciful to us but completely realistic to her: her friends in the animal community told her.

As with many of our other songs, Coie’s musical explanation is based in real events. Coie is a composite, and this particular belief in talking to animals was explained to me in painful detail one evening when I was first introduced to the lady in question. It was an inauspicious beginning to a relationship that was, fortunately, not fated to last long. “The corgi dog told me I would like you.” Or maybe it was “wouldn’t like me” — judging by the way she acted later on in the evening when she began ranting about how the backrubs she shared with her women friends should not be viewed as anything beyond platonic, then demanding that I bring her all the ice cream in my freezer and put raisins on it, and wrapping up by insisting I abjure the works of the Satanic firemen that had wired her thoughts for sound.

What was most wonderful about the evening was that it had begun somewhat normally and showed no signs of becoming the gunpoint tour of the asylum that it became. I should add that the occasion had been expected to be a happy one; an old friend was introducing me for the first time to the woman he thought he was in love with. I was impressed, though obviously not in the way he intended. You can only hope that your friends’ partners are people that you can get along with half as long as you get along with your friends themselves; the screaming ice-cream junkie with the anthropomorphic delusions wasn’t the kind of woman I had imagined we would one day add to our summer barbeque roster. “On Labor Day, Mary and John will bring the hot dogs, Jane and Chester will bring the potato salad, and Beth and Ralphie will bring the shrill, delusional invective.” Mercifully, the relationship didn’t stick; there wasn’t enough ice cream to go around, and besides, the coyote and wallaby advised against continuing.

In expanding the talking-animal part of the rant into a song, I expanded on what was said that night and paraphrased a few things, changing, for example, the name of New York’s Museum of Natural History to “The Extinction Museum,” something that I have always thought would be a more appropriate title for a building that houses so many dead things. The bit about flying through the air with a polar bear is hyperbolic. However, I do distinctly recall something about her rapport with all the animals in Central Park. As for the “Twilight Bark” itself, I acknowledge a debt to the Disney film “101 Dalmatians,” where it is utilized to find lost puppies in much the same way that Coie uses it to find our narrator here. And hey — everyone should do the twilight bark if they’re capable, but for God’s sake don’t tell anybody lest they lock you up — something that eventually happened to the confused young woman I met that night.

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Recorded in Aug 2009, in Rick’s Home Studio

Steve: Vocals
Rick: Acoustic guitar, synth/bass/drum programming, vocals

Steve has an affinity for writing songs about fuzzy animals, and though I can’t say why it happens, much of the time I have trouble writing music for them. I guess I’m always afraid I’m going to end up with “The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers”. Anyway, such was the case on this one — and I ended up punting it back to Steve while I slogged ahead on other tracks.

Drawing inspiration from Steve’s scratch take of the song, I recorded the guitar with a strong martial rhythm, which in turn led me to add the snare-driven drum track. I also wanted the “You know what he/she/they said to me?” parts to sound more ethereal than the surrounding verse, so I added the harp arpeggios and processed Steve’s voice a wee bit through an “AM radio” filter. We also added some simple “ooohs” in the background on the first day of recording, but it was Steve’s suggestion of the “What did he/she/say?” responsorials that I think had the best effect. Turns out that we both had slightly different ideas on when to start singing the first response… so I included both versions on top of one another.

After the guitar and drum tracks were completed, I couldn’t resist going back to my synthesizer “roots”. I started layering on the keyboard tracks — beginning with the theme that comes in with the second verse. Going way back… even before Steve and I started collaborating, I first started writing and recording music with my friend Ian back in junior high school on our matching Yamaha DX-11 synthesizers, using a QX-21 two-track midi sequencer, and RX-120 drum machine (that is, writing music when we were not spending our time figuring out Tony Banks’ keyboard solos…). We wrote a lot of fun instrumental songs back then, many of which only survive in the deep, dark recesses of our memories, or at best on well-worn 60-minute mono cassette tapes. These days, my DX-11, while really quite flexible for its time, sounds a bit dated… but it’s still working (aside from a busted velocity sensor on one key). In fact, it has been given a second life, coming out of retirement as the keyboard I’ve been hooking up to my computer to record the midi notes for the synth parts in all these tracks.

With the fancy visual midi sequencer in Sonar or any other modern digital music workstation, it’s a simple matter to keep adding and arranging midi tracks — I believe this one has about 10 different soft-synthesizers running at the same time. The main constraint is that it becomes a bit challenging for my non-top-of-the-line CPU to handle, and as a result my computer occasionally spits, coughs, and chokes like a Stanley Steamer. I’m sure my trusty old DX-11 and QX-21 are laughing on the inside.

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Twilight Bark

“How did you find me?”
I asked her at last
More in amazement than regret
She said, “I’m a true-born child from the Precambrian past
“And my friends haven’t let me down yet.

I was sitting on the steps
Of the Extinction Museum
When I saw this cute corgi dog come along
I said, ‘Hey, little corgi dog! Dear little corgi dog
Where has my sweet baby gone?’

You know what he said to me?
You know what he said to me?
At best I can provide only a rudimentary translation…

So I ran up to North Alaska
Where the caribou roam
Sat on the tundra and I prayed
I opened my eyes, what was the first thing I saw?
A pretty little polar bear maid

I threw both my arms around her neck
And the two of us went flying through the sky
I said, ‘Hey, you ol’ polar bear, poly ol’ polar bear
Where did my sweet baby hide?’

You know what she said to me?
You know what she said to me?
You know, I don’t think you’d really understand it…

The bats in Carlsbad Cavern
Fluttered out into the dark
And carried word to every rat that dwells in Central Park
They swarmed the Great Meadow where the horned owl waits
And told him to wake up the meadowlark

All the furries and the feathers
Fanned out across the land
Even the ferrets fought to ferret you out
And my four-footed brothers, panting little brothers
And my whiskered sisters sussed your whereabouts

You know what they said to me?
You know what they said to me?
They said, ‘You’re the only one who really gets us.’

They said:
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Storm Crow

Posted by Rick under CO Music, Haven

“Storm Crow” is the second chapter in Haven, our song-cycle about a romance gone tragically awry. As usual, click the “play” icon above to listen, the sliders below for more information about the music, or check out the mp3 page to download any/all of our tracks.

To remind you of the plot, here’s what we said last time around:

Our protagonist has found that despite her exterior charms, Coie’s interior contains something ugly, dangerous, and tenacious. He’s taken off in hopes of putting some permanent distance between himself and his former inamorata. Coie, though, always knows what she wants and she has some unconventional ways of getting it…

The first song told the story of how said protagonist had hidden himself away in some remote rural paradise so as to put some distance between himself and the crazy Coie. In “Storm Crow,” he finds that despite making his escape for the best of reasons, he still misses the woman that almost destroyed him.

I sometimes miss people I know were bad for me. That seems like a weakness, since I fully accept the idea that some people are not meant to be together and no matter how many times they have rapprochements, sign cease-fire agreements, settle their differences, there can be no lasting peace between them. Why do we always want the things we shouldn’t, we cannot have?

The lyric itself was mostly written during a day of walking around Manhattan between engagements with various friends and business relations. I often find that as I’m walking between places, my mind will open and present all sorts of ideas. I had earlier thought of the Storm Crow as a metaphor for someone who flies into your life and sows discord, but initially I didn’t know quite how to use the idea. My initial notes treated the idea of a bird too concretely. What I eventually realized is that I should just set the scene and the storm crow would speak for itself. I chose something like a blues structure, with some repetition followed by a resolution, and then hoped that Rick would totally ignore that when scoring it, which he did.

On that day in Manhattan, there really was a couple sitting at a fountain kissing and laughing, as in the second verse. It was the one at Columbus Circle. It was a windy day and the water kept spraying me as I jotted down the words that they had suggested, and I felt a little guilty that I was forecasting doom for their relationship when they seemed so happy.

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Recorded in Aug 2009, in Rick’s Home Studio

Steve: Vocals
Rick: Electric guitars, electric bass, synth/drum programming

Per Steve’s comments, the blues structure in the lyric was apparent to me, but I didn’t go down that path musically for a couple of reasons. First off, I honestly didn’t think I could pull it off convincingly – I’m good at some things, but blues guitar isn’t one of them. But it also didn’t fit how I read the song – I wanted this song to sound angry, not contemplative. Along those lines, I abandoned the acoustic guitar for the recording on this one (although I did come up with the main riff on it during my initial flurry of writing back in Oct 2008). I’ve known people resembling the version of Coie reflected here, who I truly liked but for one reason or another were a source of bad reactivity when we were together. Yet, even knowing that, a lot of the time I kept going back for more of it – that’s the root of the anger I envisioned the speaker feeling during Storm Crow. I still miss the good parts of those relationships, but I guess I’m a little wiser these days in that I recognize that the negatives are sufficiently bad that it’s best to not even take a single puff.

Looking at it now, the “recorded” date above isn’t quite accurate – it’s correct for the vocals, but the instrument parts came together in a very spread-out, iterative way. The original backing guitar and bass parts were recorded against a metronome prior to Steve doing the vocals, and when I subsequently added an initial cut at the drum track, things just didn’t sound tight enough. In Oct 2009, I went back and re-recorded a much better version of both the guitar and bass parts (with the benefit of having a real drum track to work against). The lead guitars in the chorus and solo sections came together the following weekend. Then, after a long hiatus (busy working on the other tracks…), I went back and re-did the drums again a few weeks ago (May 2010) to sync up the kick drum with the updated bass guitar, as well as adding some additional fills.

It seems to me that a boot-strapping process like the above is the only practical way to record, by oneself, a song that has a full-band sound. Spreading it out over some time also helps, because I can start to hear the already-recorded tracks from almost a third person perspective, which in turn makes it feel less like I’m trying to compose and balance everything simultaneously.

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Storm Crow

They say I’m better off without you
They say I’m more myself
They say I’m better off without you
If you are someone else

I’m not sure I accept that
When I’m myself I’m bored
The days stagger like a drunkard
Bottle’s empty, wine all poured

    If I’m so happy, why am I lonely?
    If I’m so rich, why am I poor?
    Why am I always listening for a Storm Crow at my door?

Couple sitting by a fountain
She’s not you and he’s not me
Couple sitting by a fountain
Sharing love and levity

By the morning she’ll be absent
There and yet not there
Last time you lay beside me
I couldn’t find you anywhere

    If it’s torture, why am I longing
    For resumption of that state?
    Why can’t I keep from watching for a Storm Crow at my gate?

I’ve heard the universe is rational
It can’t explain the things we do
I’ve heard the universe is rational
Can’t explain why I’m missing you

When the winches cease their pulling
And the fulcrum’s spilled its load
Archimedes in the bathtub
Screaming space and time are bowed

    If it makes sense, why am I crying
    For the life we had back then?
    Why can’t I keep from praying that you’ll come back again?
    Storm Crow, back again

I’m told that there’s a mercy
Through pain you’re granted clarity
I’m told that there’s a mercy
Comes to save your sanity

There’s a glen deep in the forest
Barbed with thorns of sharp regret
If it comes, that’s where I’ll hide out
I’m not finished with you yet

    If it’s sacred why am I listening
    For a scream that quakes the trees?
    I could tear down all these hollow walls
    If you’d come back to me
    Storm Crow, back to me
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Deep Brown Studying

Posted by Rick under Ballads of the Republic, CO Music

A bit of a departure from the previous tracks, “Deep Brown Studying” is an instrumental piece for solo piano. As usual, click the “play” icon above to listen, and the sliders below for more information about the music.

Recorded in May 2010, in Rick’s Home Studio

Rick: Digital Piano (Clavinova CLP860)

Something I generally take for granted, but am really thankful for when I take the time to think about it is the fact that I see colors (or “sense” them at any rate) when I play music. It’s been like that as long as I can remember, and it’s consistently the same colors… for example, “D” chords are a vibrant blue, “A” is orange, “C” a goldenrod yellow, “F” a slightly-magenta red… and the key of this song, “G”, is a deep, earthy brown color.

When I’m writing music, the color palette definitely figures into it (at least subconsciously). It’s clear to me which colors blend together well, and those color changes translate directly into sensible chord progressions. Sitting at the piano for this song, my hope was to explore (i.e., “study”) the color space around that brownish hue, imagining being lost in reverie. At the same time, I tried to develop a prominent melody to sit out in front of the chord progression to guide an outsider observer through my wanderings. Funny enough, because I wrote the song over 7 years ago, I’ve had plenty of time to interpret it myself… I tend to picture traveling through farmland in the late fall. A few years back, I had a business trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, and the flat-ness and brown-ness of the place seemed exactly right.

The recording was done on my digital piano at home, but once I got it into Sonar (the digital audio workstation that I use), I decided to double it with a second piano (“TruePianos Amber”) reading the same recorded MIDI stream at a very low volume level to fill out the sound.

One challenge I had to address is that the song intrinsically has a bit more dynamic (volume) range that the other “band” songs we’ve been putting out. After my first mix attempt, I popped it on my iPod where it directly followed “The Shortstop Song“. I played “Shortstop” at a normal volume level and when the tracks changed, the opening section of “Deep Brown Studying” was really soft. However, in the middle sections the piano becomes relatively loud in comparison to the opening, so I couldn’t simply raise the levels (without risking deafening legions of fans, or causing the senseless destruction of myriad speakers).

So, despite my conflicted feelings about it, I decided to apply a little bit of compression when mastering the mix. Over-simplistically, “compression” reduces the volume range of the song – the would-be soft parts are made a little louder, while the would-be loud parts are made a little softer. In a sense, doing it takes away a little bit of the “emotion” of the song for the sake of conformity to the other tracks – and were this being released as one of a number of similar instrumental songs, I wouldn’t even consider it – but I think it was a necessary trade-off to make it blend in more smoothly with the other songs. At a minimum, it soothes my guilt to be honest about it here.

As a last note, I’m perfectly awful at giving names to the instrumentals I’ve written. My wife likes to tease me about that – if she or my kids want to hear something specific, they’re forced to do it by the “hum-a-few-bars” method. In this case, however, serendipity came to my rescue by providing the phrase “brown study”… which is a somewhat archaic term for being in “state of serious absorption or abstraction”. That fit perfectly; the song was a “Deep Brown Study in G”, which I eventually shortened to the present title.

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Steve: If you have been reading along during this series of song notes, you have probably observed that the thing I care about is that these musical compositions tell stories, that they take you from one state to another. “Deep Brown Studying” has no words, yet in the mood it conveys, in the sequence of the notes, it seems to me to have a clearly discernible plot, with beginning, middle, end. Being that we have not cluttered its theme with anything so specific as words, the nature of that plot is up to you. I know that were I ever to attempt to put words to this piece, I should have no trouble doing it, it is so evocative to me, but to do so would be to unnecessarily reduce a song that speaks for itself without my help.

The world abounds in solo piano pieces, and so many of them are so much aural wallpaper. I am quite proud that “Deep Brown Studying” demands that you listen to it. Even if Rick had called this piece “The Flamboyant Yellow Dragon,” I’m pretty sure it would still reach out and grab you with its wistfulness and yearning to find… what? Like I said, that’s up to you. I’ve been listening to this song for a long time—it’s part of my regular rotation—and I’m still considering the answer. I hope I never stop wondering.

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The Shortstop Song

Posted by Rick under Ballads of the Republic, CO Music

“The Shortstop Song” represents the inevitable collision of two of our favorite things: music and baseball. As a reminder, click on the “Play” icon above to hear a streaming version of the song (or download the mp3 from our page full o’ tracks), and check out the sections below for the whole story behind the song.

Steve: Inspiration often comes from unlikely places. When someone asks you where you get your ideas, you’re supposed to reply, “From the idea distribution center in Bird in Hand, Pennsylvania.” No need to dissemble this time, though: the inspiration for “The Shortstop Song” came from the Royals’ acquisition of their current shortstop, Yuniesky Betancourt, in July 2009.

If you follow baseball, you know that the Kansas City Royals have gone from being one of baseball’s great teams in the 1970s and 1980s to a seemingly eternal doormat. They have posted one winning record since 1994, have finished last in their division seven times in the last 15 years, and have lost 100 or more games four times. They show no signs of being less than hopeless now or at any time in the future.

The Royals have never had a good two-way shortstop for more than two minutes at a time—a season of Jay Bell in 1997, an apparent fluke .325 average from Mike Aviles in 2008 (after the preferred starter, Tony Pena, batted .156 over the first two months of the season), maybe a few weeks of U.L. Washington in the early ‘80s—and Betancourt, a fielding and hitting non-entity, fits right into the lineage of mediocrity. Thus it is especially ironic that his acquisition had me asking, “What would it be like if the Royals actually had a quality shortstop, say a Derek Jeter?”

The answer came back instantly: “They would still be terrible and the shortstop would be an emotional wreck.” In that moment, “The Shortstop Song” was born. This mythical fellow, the Royals’ star shortstop, bemoans his fate, thankful to the majors but praying for guidance to Buddy Biancalana, the utility infielder who started at short for the 1985 championship Royals (a career .205 hitter, Biancalana hit .278 in the Series, then was embraced by David Letterman for reasons known only to Dave) and calling out to Willie Mays, only to break down as he remembers that the great Mays never played for Kansas City. Instead, they had Willie Mays Aikens, the slugging, defensively inept first baseman who later went to prison for selling crack to an undercover policeman. When you have no hope, George Brett, Frank White, Dan Quisenberry, Bret Saberhagen, these are distant figures, but somehow Buddy and Willie are always close by. You can substitute your own demigods, but I find the lords of pain pick up their phones faster than the angels of succor… and so does our imaginary Royals shortstop, batting today between Scott Podsednik and Billy Butler.

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Recorded in Dec 2009, in Rick’s Home Studio

Steve: Vocals
Rick: Acoustic and electric guitars, synth/drum programming, vocals

When Steve first sent me the lyrics and a scratch take of the melody it was in the key of G, which made the second syllable of the word “ova” very difficult for anyone other than that guy from A-ha to reach, and kind of painful even if delivered on target. When we sat down to record it a few months ago the overall sound wasn’t gelling the way we were hoping, so we took a break and, on reflection, decided to give it a shot transposed into D. That simple change made things a lot easier on everyone (CO members and listeners alike), although it cost me a few extra recording takes on the guitar because my brain was having a hard time letting go of some of the original chords.

With the song being baseball-themed, I felt it imperative to add an organ part (though by the end of the process it wound up relatively low in the mix, so as to not clash with the electric guitar). I was, however, able to resist the urge to work in any standard ballpark musical fare into the backdrop (no “charge!” or “take me out to the ballgame” allusions…) — but, I have inside information that this isn’t the last baseball song in the CO catalogue, so stay sharp.

The main harmonies presented themselves easily enough, but the bridge section outright begged for something more. How often do you get to sing something as mellifluous as “Buddy Biancalana”? While I had the house to myself one afternoon, I recorded no fewer than 9 vocal tracks to get the “Buddy” harmonies just how I wanted them. I freely admit that I had far too much fun with that part.

As a final touch, I wanted to give a clearer distinction between the verses and chorus sections, so I added a (Steve Nieve-esque?) piano part in the background.

Other notes:

  • Steve’s vocal is mixed out in front throughout, but I added a double through the verses just to thicken the sound a bit.
  • Steve suggested both (a) the fill just following “among the nine” (a combination of electric guitar and a few chords on piano), and (b) adding the extra harmonies on the last chorus and outro to vary things up a little… both excellent ideas in my humble opinion.
  • Thanks to the magic of the fade out, you all don’t get to hear how the recording session devolved into chaos at the end, with Steve singing “Shortstop Song!” repeatedly and me playing something that kind of sounded like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.
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The Shortstop Song

Since the sperm met the ova
I’ve been playing from behind
You’d think I would be grateful just to be among the nine
But I find that when you’re losing
Winning’s not a state of mind
And the coach shouts from the side
“Straighten up, boy, have some pride”
Forgot the meaning of the words
I’ll just pretend I haven’t heard…

I met a woman
Said she’d help to bear my load
When I told her who I was playing for
She said to hit the road
Fate is capricious
And too hard to resist
With high hopes for my prospects I was drafted off a list

    I’m a shortstop!
    I’m Royal
    Always playing in the hole
    I’m a shortstop!
    I’m loyal
    And life is just a bowl of…

Buddy Biancalana
Help me please
I’m on my knees
And I don’t know how to rise up

You’d think that I would wise up
Quit and earn some honest pay
But where else can you make millions
Just for losing every day?
My body’s off the road trip
But my mind is still away
If in April you believed
Then you can’t help but feel deceived
Last night I drove in seven runs
But we were trailing ten to one…

    We lost one-hundred-and-one…
    Willie Mays –
    Willie Mays Aikens!
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Posted by Casual Observer under CO Music, Haven

The era of the concept album would seem to have ended at some point during the stretch where the LP was replaced by the one-track download. Still, we couldn’t help it.

“Haven,” the first track, bears the title of the song-cycle. Befitting the episodic nature of both the story and our releases, we will be building out the story of Haven song by song. The story itself: Hoping to escape his possessive and increasingly delusional girlfriend, Coie (pronounced cōʹ· ē), our hero impulsively abandons his city life for an anonymous rural retreat. Coie, however, will not let him go that easily.

Steve: Let’s start with the important question: is Coie real?

The answer is no, but with qualifications: Coie is real in important ways.

Back to the beginning: We hadn’t been doing this music thing for a long time. I missed writing songs, though, and one day I asked myself: what would inspire me, and more importantly Rick, in the same way we had been back way back when?

I reflected on some of the motivations that I discussed in our last post. I thought about some of the women we had encountered, together and separately, who had inspired some of our most passionate songs. I considered a few more whom friends had brought into our lives in the intervening years. If you had known them, you, too, might have needed an alternative form of expression to deal with the feelings they provoked. One of the rules I live by is, “You can’t win an argument with someone who is insane.” You can, however, sing about them.

Fortunately, those types had long been displaced to the fringes of our lives by happy marriages, well-loved children, successful and diverting careers. As I often tell my younger colleagues who are still threading this portion of their lives, real love is the easiest thing you will ever undertake. If your relationship is difficult, it’s probably because you’re trying to force something. In other words: crazy women, I was wrong to ever want you.

And yet, crazy women will always be my weakness, and even in this settled and somewhat satisfied phase of my existence I can still relieve the feelings that they provoked. My past is never far away from me, and I realized it would be easy to project myself back to those days, to imagine one more tortured affair, the worst one ever, even if I hadn’t lived it. And in that moment, Coie was born. She was a fully-formed adult, complete with a life history and some very interesting quirks, some inspired by the aforementioned women we had known, some all her own (and some surprising to me once I stumbled across them).

As suggested above, concept albums have become passe, but as I began to write about Coie and what it was like to know and be in love with her for the first and (as we shall see) second times, I could see that the story of this relationship would require some space in order to explore all of its aspects and its inevitable endings — as would have been true in the real world, Coie was just too interesting to let go of easily.

We join our story already in progress: our protagonist has found that despite her exterior charms, Coie’s interior contains something ugly, dangerous, and tenacious. He’s taken off in hopes of putting some permanent distance between himself and his former inamorata. Coie, though, always knows what she wants and she has some unconventional ways of getting it…

So is Coie real? She’s real to me, and she’s real enough to the people who, like me, have had the simultaneous glory and misery of loving her for a time, and who ever after carry the scars for the privilege of having had the experience.

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Rick: I first saw the lyrics for the collection of songs comprising “Haven” on October 20, 2008. It was during a short period between jobs, so the timing was fortuitous for me to sink some quality hours into it. In fact, the music for the first five songs from the set came to me in the space of the first month — the most densely prolific stretch I can remember. It had been something like twelve years since we’d been focused like this on a project, and though there were a handful of tracks here and there in the meantime, I was quite pleased (and relieved) that the musical ideas flowed so easily.

As for the music in “Haven”, the acoustic guitar part is played without a pick, which allowed me to emphasize the theme more easily. During that summer in particular, I had invested a lot of time studying fingerstyle guitar, improving to the point that I could comfortably play pieces by the likes of Michael Hedges, Kaki King, and Preston Reed, so I was frankly more comfortable without the pick. To digress for a second, I owe a lot to Stropes Music for their incredibly detailed Hedges transcriptions, which are replete with insights into techniques that I would have been hard-pressed to figure out on my own.

This was the first song Steve and I recorded together in over a decade, and I admit that I’m a touch sentimental about it as a result. I specifically wanted it to be a “dual” vocal at the start (similar to early Lennon/McCartney), but developing into harmonies as it progressed. As you’ll see in the Recording Notes, I spent a long time catering to my inner perfectionist, adding tracks (drums, strings, woodwinds), adjusting effects/settings, and generally tweaking the heck out of this one before I was finally able to let it go. Hope you enjoy it.

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Recorded in Aug 2009, in Rick’s Home Studio

Steve: Vocals
Rick: Acoustic guitar, bass, synth/drum programming, vocals

Here’s a selection of the conversations that we had in the course of converting the raw recording into the final song. All sorts of commentary that took place via phone or IM is left out, but hopefully it gives some insight into the process.

IM: Sat, Aug 08, 2009 3:14 PM

Rick: This second mix will sound pretty similar except for a little variability in the drums, and I inserted a compressor on the bass to tone it down a little, as well as a little bit of mastering/compressor on the whole thing. The vocal is just out of the air on the built-in mics, just there to help me identify where I was in the song.
Steve: The “especially Coie” gets swallowed each time… “Coie” kind of disappears. I wonder if we could take better advantage of the fact that Coie is all open vowels.
Rick: I agree on the name getting swallowed up. You’re probably onto something.
Steve: That’s why she’s not “Dunwallop.” I think about this stuff. :-) I think you left room in there that it can be done without having to change anything.
Rick: Yes, agreed…one thing I’ve been consciously trying to do is “leave room”, so that we don’t end up cramming too many words in too short a space.

R to S: Sat, Oct 03, 2009 8:27 PM

I spent a little more time with Haven today, primarily perking up the guitars in places, fixing vocal levels, adding a separate reverb track to the vox, and re-doing the entire drum truck. Give a listen and let me know how it fits you.

S to R: Sat, Oct 03, 2009 9:43 PM

Snap reaction… The whole thing sounds much crisper, especially the guitars. There’s not enough of you on the harmonies. They were better blended in the last version. I’m not sure about the drums. I miss the maracas or whatever that was. The current ones are a little too homogenous.

R to S: Sun, Oct 04, 2009 11:48 AM

I think you’re talking about the open hi-hat cymbal, which is actually still there. Difference is that the previous version used a drum kit that was played with brushes instead of sticks. I agree that I like the cymbal with the brush better, but I don’t like the brushed snare so much. Maybe I’ll make a hybrid of the two later on. The main thing I was trying to do was make the drums less of a distraction — they stuck out too much in the other mix to me… As for the levels, I focused on getting your vox to have more presence, and on further listening agree that I didn’t bring myself up enough. Will do.

R to S: Sun, Oct 04, 2009 10:34 PM

I re-did the drums and adjusted the levels, but it’s mixing kind of weirdly. I’m tired of listening to it, to be honest, so my objectivity is gone. Need to get away from it for a couple of days. Listen to this version, and we can discuss what things are good about each and try to come up with a happy medium.

S to R: Mon, Oct 05, 2009 12:12 AM

I think just about everything is right, actually. Part of the problem with the last one might have been that the drums were just too loud. I think the vocals now need to be a tiny bit louder compared to the music, or something. I’m starting not to trust my ears either.

I still think there should be a high note on that last Coie going a little longer. Co-EEEE-eeee…

R to S: Wed, Oct 13, 2009 10:43 PM

I felt inspiration and spent just a little more time with “Haven” last night. SONAR crashed a few times because Haven is getting complicated — lots of tracks, etc.

Anyway, I brought up the bass a little and reduced the pan spread on our voices (they were R-30%/L-30%…brought it down to 20%…you’ll probably notice that in headphones), but there are also some subtle changes that start around the 1:15 mark [ed.- I’d added the backing strings].

R to S: Sun, Jan 10, 2010 10:32 AM

I went back and redistributed the tracks/instruments across the stereo field a bit more distinctly, finished off the strings and woodwinds, and touched up the mix in general. I decided to make the strings enter a few lines earlier than before — the “so I gathered up my things” part needed something to distinguish it from the first verse….I had been thinking backup vox, but MIDI is simpler, so the strings win. ;-) I don’t think it needs the backing vox anymore. My computer is going to melt from all the tracks and plugins, anyway…

R to S: Sun, Feb 7, 2010 11:15 AM

I made the handful of final tweaks the we discussed in this one this morning… In particular, I finally figured out how to correct the first set of woodwinds. There was this one note in the guitar part that was causing an audio “illusion” when combined with the woodwinds that was causing me great pain. I was able to notch the guitars out for a brief spot there to fix it, and I don’t hear it anymore. I’m very happy about it now.

I also (a) took a couple of notes out of the bridge and ending woodwinds, (b) nit-corrected timings here and there, and (c) EQ’d away the really super low frequencies so that the bass doesn’t buzz. I’m done with it now, really.

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The cabin by the waterfall
Was a once in a lifetime chance
I said, your majesty, I think I’ll sit out this dance
For the rest of my life

So I gathered up my things
Threw my phone out and quit my job
And I didn’t tell her majesty exactly where I’d gone
For the rest of my life

    I bought this place
    Sequestered from the whole human race
    Especially Coie.

Coie was a masochist
But she also liked to share
And her majesty’s anesthetist must always be prepared
To numb her with his pain

Where Coie went without me
I didn’t know, but boy, I cared
In her majesty’s illusions it could have been anywhere
They’d numb her with their pain

    A fairy land
    Sing “Hallelujah!” and execute the band
    Especially Coie.

In love with her despite myself
A strangely addictive drug
And I pray her majesty crawls under some rug
And never, ever comes back

Here beside the waterfall
Shaded by the trees
My time with her majesty hardly seems real to me
I’ll never, ever go back

    It’s an uphill climb
    Forgetting anyone takes a bit of time
    Especially Coie.
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Why “Casual Observer”?

Posted by Steve under Meta-music

I don’t recall the moment that we settled on Casual Observer as a name. What I do know is the feeling I was trying to capture in suggesting it, an emotion that gripped me in adolescence and has never entirely left me.

To put it bluntly, I was (and still am, to an extent) the kind of person who gets lonely in crowds. The bigger the party, the more I began to detach, feel isolated, and start taking mental pictures of the scene around me. “These are the things we do to fill the time,” I would often say to myself, whether at a wedding or a funeral or a birthday party. I realize it’s a morbid reflex, but a reflex is what it is. I don’t really know where it comes from, this feeling that I’m a crasher even at events to which I was invited.
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Mark Twain Rides An Elephant

Posted by Casual Observer under Ballads of the Republic, CO Music

It may seem like a strange title, but it derives from an actual episode in the intriguing life of Samuel Clemens. Click on the “Play” icon above to hear a streaming version of the song (right-click to download the mp3), and check out the sections below for the whole story behind the song.

Steve: I’ve always been fascinated by Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain. His acerbic writing grabbed me at an early age, but his life was equally fascinating, underscoring that you can be both immensely successful and immensely tragic. So much of Clemens’ life was formed by death and alienation, from the early demise of his father to the death of his younger brother in a steamboat explosion, to being predeceased by his wife and three of his children (one in infancy and two adult daughters). He was immensely self-critical, being unable to prevent himself from turning the powerfully cynical microscope with which he looked at his fellow humans on himself. This tendency towards self-flagellation was compounded by a life full of actual mistakes, particularly the squandering of his fortune on poor investments.

In 1895, Clemens conceived a plan to get his family out of debt. He would travel around the world on a lecture tour. The tour itself would be lucrative, as would the resultant travelogue, later published as Following the Equator. None of this would have been his first choice. He enjoyed the adulation he received on stage, but found it enervating, and of course a writer who is on stage is not writing. He was pushing 60, his wife was in ill health, and traveling was arduous in those days; circumnavigating the globe was a commitment. One of his daughters, Clara, accompanied him and his wife on the trip, but he would endure a long separation from the other two, Jean and Susy. As it turned out, the separation from Susy would be permanent. As the conclusion of the trip saw the Clemens party arrive in England, Susy contracted meningitis and died, blind and delirious, back in Hartford.

All these things were crystallized for me one night when watching Ken Burns’ documentary on Mark Twain. It is not Burns’ best work, having a somewhat slow and stately pace, but a photograph from the “Following the Equator” tour struck me powerfully—a shot of Clemens in India, sitting atop an elephant. The look on his face seemed to say, “What the hell am I doing here?” I would link the photograph, but it doesn’t seem to be online, and to my eternal frustration Burns did not include it in the documentary’s companion book. Clemens’ mood in India swung (as it did in all other places) between elation and depression, and he quite liked the country, staying there about two months, but I may well have read his expression correctly. From Following the Equator:

By and by to the elephant stables, and I took a ride; but it was by request—I did not ask for it, and didn’t want it; but I took it, because otherwise they would have thought I was afraid, which I was. The elephant kneels down, by command—one end of him at a time—and you climb the ladder and get into the howdah, and then he gets up, one end at a time, just as a ship gets up over a wave; and after that, as he strides monstrously about, his motion is much like a ship’s motion. The mahout bores into the back of his head with a great iron prod and you wonder at his temerity and at the elephant’s patience, and you think that perhaps the patience will not last; but it does, and nothing happens. The mahout talks to the elephant in a low voice all the time, and the elephant seems to understand it all and to be pleased with it; and he obeys every order in the most contented and docile way. Among these twenty-five elephants were two which were larger than any I had ever seen before, and if I had thought I could learn to not be afraid, I would have taken one of them while the police were not looking.

Elsewhere, he was a bit more positive:

We wandered contentedly around here and there in India; to Lahore, among other places, where the Lieutenant-Governor lent me an elephant. This hospitality stands out in my experiences in a stately isolation. It was a fine elephant, affable, gentlemanly, educated, and I was not afraid of it. I even rode it with confidence through the crowded lanes of the native city, where it scared all the horses out of their senses, and where children were always just escaping its feet. It took the middle of the road in a fine independent way, and left it to the world to get out of the way or take the consequences. I am used to being afraid of collisions when I ride or drive, but when one is on top of an elephant that feeling is absent. I could have ridden in comfort through a regiment of runaway teams. I could easily learn to prefer an elephant to any other vehicle, partly because of that immunity from collisions, and partly because of the fine view one has from up there, and partly because of the dignity one feels in that high place, and partly because one can look in at the windows and see what is going on privately among the family.

I was aware of neither of these passages when I saw the picture, and by the time I had read them and confirmed my initial impression the song had long since flooded into my mind and been written. Indeed, the song came with shocking ease. As we reach further songs here you will hear some that we struggled with (together or individually) for months or years, but almost all of “Mark Twain” came in minutes, the only exception being the middle, “ghost story” section, which came later, after further reflection about Clemens and his relationship to his family—Susy was among the “bunch of girls” in question and did indeed ask the famous storyteller “not to say,” but being a reflexively contrary fellow, Clemens did anyway.

That is as far as I will go towards specifying the allusions to Clemens’ life and philosophy in the song, hoping that my version of the author will speak for himself. I hoped to point up some of the great contradictions in his character, contradictions of which he was all too painfully aware.

I feel I should say something of the music itself, such as the G-A7 progression that animates the verses, but I have little to say except that the music came as fast as the words, and that this is the way it sounded in my head. I hoped that the pregnant-sounding A7, which seems to want to resolve somewhere more comfortable and doesn’t, conveys the speaker’s basic anxiety at his situation.

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Rick: Collaborating with Steve requires one to become a student of history. His passion for the subject pervades a lot of his lyrics — as will be obvious as the Ballads of the Republic category fills up (as an aside, for my part I’ve kept the songs about physics, math, and science to a minimum thus far; the likes of Jonathan Coulton (example) and TMBG (example) do a fine job of that. But you never know.)

In any case, knowing him as I do, it was no surprise to get a Mark Twain lyric. The elephant was unexpected — but trust me, I’ve seen more peculiar-sounding ideas than that come over the transom. I had a handful of suggestions and chord-tweaks here and there in the development of the song, but most of my contributions were in the recording, arrangement/backing vocals, and production phase, which I’ll address in the Recording Notes.

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Recorded in Dec 2009 at Rick’s Home Studio (a.k.a., living room)

Steve: Lead vocals
Rick: Acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, drum programming, vocals

The recording process started with an acoustic guitar rhythm track against a metronome (which is typical). Steve put down about four full takes of the lead vocal – although the goal was to only double it in the final mix, having the extra takes gives us a bit more flexibility to “comp” tracks by assembling the final tracks using the best parts from each take.

Steve ad-libbed several lines during the song’s play-out, including “I’m lighting out” and “I’ve been there before myself,” both inspired by the concluding paragraph of Huckleberry Finn, but only the former made the final version. We discussed the background vocals a bit and Rick put down a few tracks, but the takes from that day weren’t quite right, so we rerecorded them a few days later.

I (Rick) admit that I went the lazy way on this one, using a synthesized bass. When you’re working on a time-budget and doing all the instrumentation, it’s easy to succumb to the simplicity of not having to set up the recording equipment, set levels, and do multiple live takes to get the bass part just right. Using the synth allowed more time to be spent on the other tracks and mixing. I’ll use a real bass some of the time, I promise.

After writing the drum track and recording the electric guitar, it was still missing a little depth. A little Hammond organ and the “bells” that show up in the middle and end sections (which double the guitar part) seemed to be just what it needed to finish it off.

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Mark Twain Rides An Elephant

My home
So far away
No home
I’ll run away

Telling truths the times I lied
The secrets that you try to hide
False faces that you invent
That’s why Mark Twain rides an elephant

She’s gone
I never knew
My words
Had touched her, too

Counting cars on Hartford streets
The tiny lies, the small deceits
Distinctions irrelevant
That’s why Mark Twain rides an elephant

    I’m on the outside looking in
    At the face behind your skin
    On the outside looking in
    You can’t hide from yourself
    Nor anyone else
    You run away

Told a ghost story to a bunch of girls
Though she begged me not to say
Told a ghost story to a bunch of girls
We’re all ghost stories, anyway

These words
Scratched out in pen
Not heard
Till the comet comes again

No apologies for being me
For all the things she couldn’t see
Don’t think these things are meant
But they’re not coincident
And if nothing’s heaven sent
No help from the firmament
That’s why Mark Twain rides an elephant!

    You run away or write it down…
    I’m lighting out, lighting out again…
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