DIARY OF A FADING ROCKSTAR PART V: Teenage vs. Middle-Aged Love Stories

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Written By: Erik Rader

Last week, after more than a quarter century of songwriting, I managed somehow to write a love song. Not a tortured angst-ridden love-in-flames song, not a “Love is a dodgy premise at best if not impossible” song, not a “Why won’t you love me?” song, not a “Why don’t you love me anymore?” song, and not an “OMG WE’RE DOOOMED” song - just a love song, no more, no less. Okay, it’s got maybe a tablespoon of broken glass in it, but rather than shame and misery and self-hatred and bitterness and resentment and whatever else you might imagine, it’s just that little bit of ouch that - guess what? - any of us who have actually really loved somebody already knows all too well. That “real life” stuff. In a rock song, can you believe it??!

My songwriting comes out of an education in the blues, soul, Italian classical music, punk rock, post-punk, dub reggae, metal, grunge, goth, country death, and so on - so I can, and have, written a fair number of tortured angst-ridden love-in-flames type songs, steeped in vitriol and 180 proof disappointment. The first song I ever wrote, words and music, came about this way:

I am invited to a party at the house of my “in” with the punk rock scene, a tough punk rock chick, who happens to think mods are cool. There’s lots of different kinds of kids there of course - most of them too young to know what clique or gang they’re going to end up in. The mix is diverse mainly because of the absence of adults and the promise of beer.

My friend introduces me to a young lady with long brown hair and penetrating eyes, with whom I experience the template of many “dates” or similar interactions with women to come - me jabbering on and on like an idiot, them looking at me with a look of silent amusement. I don’t know what it is I find so compelling about this girl - maybe just that she’s a girl, and she’s at least pretending to listen to me. Underneath the gear I’m still the great big dork writing science fiction novels, imagining himself to be James Bond.

So we work our way through a can of beer together, and maybe it’s more like two or three, I can’t remember very well - for obvious reasons - and then, predictably, I am trying to kiss her, and it is fairly obvious to both of us that I have no idea what I am doing. Maybe she doesn’t either, but then girls don’t have to. I mean come on - they’re girls, they can get away with just being girls, that’s all the magic required. I, on the other hand, am so hopeless I can even screw up something as down-to-earth as kissing a pretty girl.

Just then, up walks a guy who seems as if he’s three feet taller than me, with blond hair and insouciantly handsome looks; a tough bad boy-type who is probably the one that always knows where the good weed is, who’s had twice as much beer as me, and walks as if he’s had half as much, who actually says this: “Here, let me show you how it’s done.” He takes the girl by the hand, curls her in towards him like they’re dancing at a sock hop, and plants one on her like Humphrey Bogart. She appears to melt into him with relief, as if thinking “Thank God someone who knows what they’re doing intervened!” - she’s actually enjoying kissing this guy.

I think it’s possibly one of the top five, maybe even top three most humiliating moments of my entire life. When the friend who brought me on the back of his scooter finally drives off with my dead weight hanging precariously off the back end, I wave blearily to her and cry out like a mournful loon drifting over a desolate lake: “Call me some time!”

Over the next couple of days, I phone her over and over again, trying to find some kind of spark of interest in her voice. Finally, despairing of my not giving it a rest, she doesn’t even hang up, just puts the phone down and waits for me to realize it’s hopeless.

Since there is nothing else constructive to do at this point, I find myself writing a song - my first song, at least in terms of having music and lyrics and not just being a clever sounding song title on an album cover of an imaginary band (a pastime that, I will one day be astonished to learn, I seem to share with Robert Pollard.

It took me about fifteen years to actually sit down with a friend’s reel-to-reel 4 track and commit it to tape, but here it is. And to the girl, who is now a lady and in fact is now a friend of mine on Facebook, I can only say thank you for providing me with more inspiration than I was likely able to provide you. [I can in no way take credit for her cutting her hair short and forming a band with her friends shortly afterwards.]

Later songs of mine would deal with the predictable punk rock issues of war, terrorism, revolution, pollution, racism, sexism, shoplifting, running from cops, suicide, etc. But the subject of mere love as a songwriting topic was elusive at best, a nightmare at worst. The closest I was able to come to writing something resembling a love song is a harrowing depiction of a shotgun wedding over a blistering 12-bar R & B riff that the lead guitar player brought to rehearsal one afternoon - among other things, it contains the dubious and reprehensible admission on the part of the protagonist that his primary motive is “an ambition to get your daughter in the sack”. You can see a performance of this song here.

Our contempt for the typical love song reflected our contempt for the typical anything. Our soundtrack was “Hate and War” (as opposed to Peace and Love) by the Clash; “(Love Will Get You Like A Case of) Anthrax” by Gang of Four; “Stupid Marriage” by the Specials; and “Into You Like A Train” by the Psychedelic Furs, which featured the raggedly charismatic Richard Butler yowling “No kind of love”. One of our songs even contained the lyric “Touch the issue, hands get dirty/Play love songs until you’re thirty”, and as every rebellious youth knows, one should never trust anyone over thirty (Paul Weller claimed once not to trust anyone over 25). It’s probably the reason why, at 43, I frequently have trouble trusting even myself.

People think that being in a band is a ticket to Chick City (or Dude City if that’s what you prefer). Some people even manage to work that angle for themselves. It’s a lot like going out and getting a dog, hoping that it’s a chick magnet. But then you bring the dog home with you at the end of the day, and it looks up at you as if to say “What’s for dinner?” Now you’ve got something that needs taking care of, that actually requires effort. Seeing as how the only reason we wanted to form a band was because we really wanted to form a band, we didn’t mind the effort so much. But it’s hard work coming up with things to write about if your intention is to always break new ground, to avoid treading familiar pathways. If we’d opened up to writing actual love songs, maybe we would have had a larger palette to work with. After all, the driving forces for our creativity were rage, adversity, angst, anxiety and suffering; and if you can’t find at least two of those elements in any relationship, it’s probably not a relationship worth remembering.

Some time after leaving the band I wrote a love song of sorts that was so vague and poetic I had to carefully explain all the references in detail to the person it was about (the woman who would one day become my wife). I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I believe it was to ask what the point of a love song was if the person it was written to couldn’t even recognize it as such. There you have it in a nutshell - what it’s like being married to a poet.

When I went through my period of de-emphasizing music in favor of developing my craft as a poet, I wrote a lot of surreal, purposefully obtuse poems. I rebelled against the idea of poems or songs being “about” something obvious. A lot of my poems, when read aloud, got laughs or cheers for some of the images, but the overall response was one of puzzlement. Then, I read a poem that was essentially about missing someone and hoping they come back; it brought down the house. I resisted the lesson, though, and went back to my paeans to plastic garbage bags stuck in trees and things of that nature.

Lather, rinse, repeat for about fifteen more years.

I can’t really explain in a dramatic or even interesting way how I finally came around to working out a love song, a way that ties the whole story together and makes a complete and intelligible (much less interesting) narrative. As I may have mentioned before, I started taking responsibility for my own health to a degree I never had before, and this included (perhaps above all else) my mental health; and I stopped trying to exorcise demons of the past, and instead tried to domesticate or at least taxidermy them. One of the things that this helped me do was to pick up where I had left off developing as a songwriter. Instead of trying really hard to say something relevant and original, I just tried to speak from the heart without too much forethought. I tried to be honest, to tell the truth, admit my mistakes without self-pity, and through it all stay optimistic and keep my sense of humor. What I ended up with remained true to some of the dark, ironic essence of my past writing (the song does include references to human sacrifice, gambling, alienation, and the all-time favorite, disappointment). It also had major chords, sweet harmonies, and the word “Love” in it.
Here’s the song:

Madly (Sha La Lo) © 2009 by Erik Rader, all rights reserved.


Toni Hook on September 18, 2009 at 7:03 PM said...

I like this Erik, I'm going to have to go back and read all the each Diary. Hat's off!!

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