Last night, I was contacted by an old friend from high school with whom I used to make music. He said, “Hey, it’s coming up on the 30th anniversary of Liz Phair’s ‘Exile in Guyville’ album and I think we should do a song-for-song remake of the whole thing.” I thought, Why not? and thus spent the evening recording one of the songs off the album. It’s just a demo and has no vocals, but I laid down a drum track, two guitar tracks, and a keyboard track for the most notorious song on the album. It was decent and serves as a perfect example of the work of another artist filtered through my brain.
There’s something to be said for the work of others filtered through someone’s brain. I have, at various times over the years, recorded cover songs of other artists, and they have served as the perfect distillation of creativity for me. I sometimes say to my students, “Try to copy that filmmaker, and when you fail, you’ve created something entirely new.” That’s true. Whenever I try to record covers of songs, I end up trying to emulate what the artist is doing…I don’t try to do a note for note copy of it, but I try to create something that, in my mind at least, sounds like what the original artist did.
Very rarely does it sound like something the original artist did. Some people would say that’s a good thing. Some would say it’s awful. They’re both right.
But I digress.
I have a long and secret history of recording music. I have been doing it since I pretty much learned to play guitar at the age of twenty-one. I had a girlfriend at the time and I could tell that she was infatuated with the lead singer of this local band at my university, so out of spite and jealousy, I learned to play guitar, just to show her that anybody could play guitar and it wasn’t a big deal. Eventually, I developed a hobby I liked, I broke up with that girlfriend, and the lead singer of that band committed suicide.
(I guess that got kind of dark…).
There was one problem with me playing guitar…I didn’t want to learn anybody else’s songs. I learned to play by buying the “Achtung Baby” U2 song book, and almost every chord that I have ever learned came from that book.
But that was boring. You can only play “One” so many times before it gets old, and I certainly do not have the voice of Bono. Plus, I didn’t want to be one of those people that broke out the guitar at parties to play covers of tunes that would get the whole party singing along or saying, “Wow, I didn’t know he could play guitar…that’s awesome!” I hated those people.
So, instead of learning new songs, I wrote my own. Don’t expect a long-winded dissertation on my own songs and their flaws. I am mortally embarrassed by the songs that I wrote. Though they were good party anthems and though I managed to write and produce (at least) five albums worth of original material, which I dutifully recorded and released under a different name, these songs are not worthy of being a part of my legacy. Sure, they were funny. But they were horrifying. They were offensive. I have little doubt that there was no stone unturned in my attempt to entertain by being “provocative”. I was young, naive, un-woke, and immature. And thus, I have buried these songs and every trace of their existence as best I could. If you actually have a copy of one of my albums, please don’t link to them or speak the name of my band anywhere, ever again. I’m being completely serious. Let it die.
But after I gave up on my recording career, I spent several years wandering the musical wilderness. I played in a cover band in Ghana. I was the drummer, but I didn’t think I was very good on one particular song, so I gave the drumming on that song over to another teacher. Lo and behold, he ended up drumming the entire time and I lost my job. Of course, they had no bass player, so I ended up playing bass.
Several of my fellow teachers formed a band when we were in Shanghai. It was 2008 and we knew that we wanted to play a bit of music. One day, we decided to get together and see if we were compatible, musically (something I am very wary of). So, during our first time playing music together, there were four of us. But for some, extraordinarily bizarre reason, another teacher at the school told this utter and complete stranger that we were playing music that day. This stranger, whose name was Roberto, showed up to play alongside us. None of us had seen him before. None of us knew him. None of us invited him. And we never saw him again after that day.
And thus, we named the ensuing band Sans Roberto, which has to be one of the coolest band names in history.
We ended up playing music together for the next five years, with various ups and downs in regard to our relationships. Our bassist, my good friend Nick, once said to me, “Being in a band is like having four girlfriends at the same time.” It’s true. Sometimes we couldn’t stand each other. But other times, we had the best nights ever. I played drums and sang. I am neither a good singer or a good drummer. But I am entertaining, so we were an entertaining band.
Every year, our school would do a pub crawl through the streets of Shanghai, and Sans Roberto would always play at the last stop on the crawl. My final performance with the band was in 2013, where we did an epic, six-minute rendition of Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage”. It’s only a three minute song, but as the drummer, I would not let the song end. I just kept playing and restarting, counting off again and again, so that we could keep playing the song until I was satisfied.
I suppose you could look at it symbolically. Maybe I didn’t want the song to end. Maybe I knew that it was my last hurrah as a band member. Maybe I was scared of it all being over, as if I knew that I would never play in a band again, and instead of allowing it to end, I just kept playing…I wanted my band to go on and on…
Nah. I was just being obnoxious.
I only played in a band once after that, here in Abu Dhabi. It was a teacher band, and I played drums (and sang one song).
After that, I was done. No more bands. No more music.
Unless you count that half-album I was making before the pandemic hit. There’s that. Oh, and the music that I’ve made for my movie. There’s that, too. And the song I recorded last night.
Other than that, I’m done!