An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
12 October, 2020

Well here we are at the turning point of another year.  Yes, I know Rosh HaShanah was a couple of weeks ago already.  But it’s this week where we read the last Parsha of the Torah and next week when we start the whole thing all over again.  So let’s take a step back and see where things are at. 

Let’s start with music. More specifically, my own music. Around the middle of September, I took two weeks vacation.  Or rather, staycation.  And more than anything else, I used that time to really dig into starting to record my own tunes.  I’ve already written a little bit about the first song I did, learning to do 50’s doo-wop style harmonies, learning my tech and my software.  But all that was before vacay.  

And already, that recording doesn’t hold up to the standard I’ve since set for myself.  Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot in doing it.  But the end result isn’t on the level with what I’ve done since then.  Before going any further, let me just say, I’m no George Martin.  I’d love nothing more than to come back here in another month or two and talk about how I’ve once again leapfrogged my current level. There’s a long way to go before I’m properly good at this.  But I do think I’m making real and tangible progress here.  

Anyway.  I’ve learned how to program a midi drum track.  Or, at least, to do so on the most basic (albeit passable) of levels.  I’ve learned a bunch about EQ’ing vocals and various instruments.  I’ve leaned more about what my software is capable of and how to get more out of my tech.  And not for nothing, I think I’ve learned something about crafting a decent bass line. And I’m pushing the boundaries of what I can do vocally both in terms of range and with respect to writing harmonies. I’ll walk through some of this, though certainly not all of it.

[Warning: This may not be super interesting to everybody, but I’ve found it useful to sort of document what I’ve been doing and how I’ve been doing it.  If it’s not your cup of tea, feel free to skip this one.]

The first song I decided to tackle was a song called “Going my Way,” which I’d originally written back in the Chinatown days.  And when I say ‘written,’ I mean that I’d written a very basic version consisting of just acoustic guitar and a main vocal line.  So while the skeleton of the song has been in place for years, I now needed to lay down a drum part, write a bass line, come up with all the harmonies. So there’s a process to all this.

And not just a process, but also an order of operations, if I can say that.  And that, I had to work out through trial and error.  For the first song, Going my Way, that meant a lot of deleting and re-recording.  But now I’ve got a system that works for me, though I have no idea really how other people work.  

The first step is to just lay down a skeleton of the song with the acoustic guitar and metronome, perhaps with some humming here and there by way of sign posts for myself. That done, I can put down the drums. With each new song, this bit goes a little faster.  But it can still take me several hours to create the drum track that I want for a three-minute tune.  

Once the drums are done, it’s time to write a bass line.  Since I’ve only just started playing bass, obviously there’s no pre-existing material in this department.  So essentially, I just play the drums and acoustic guitar back on a loop and experiment until I find something I’m happy with.  And then when I do finally have a bass line, I then need to record a good quality version.  This usually requires many takes.  Having not grown up with the instrument, I’m not nearly as precise or accurate as I am on guitar.  I get there, but it’s time consuming.  

Then it’s onto the guitars. I always do two guitar tracks and pan them left and right.  Maybe that’s a holdover from the old band days, where I only ever played in bands with two guitars.  But it yields a sound that I like, so I’m sticking with it.  This is the easiest and fastest part, because I’ve been playing guitar forever and, for the most part, the guitar parts are not particularly complicated.  At least on the songs I’ve done so far.  

But even this requires a bit of reinvention.  Because see, when you’re playing alone, when you’re just singing and jamming out on the acoustic, the guitar is doing double duty.  The chords represent a harmonic element, whereas the strumming has to do the job of percussion.  But once you have a drum track, this kind of strumming is superfluous.  It’s too much, and winds up just being noise.  So I’ve got to find new strumming patterns that allow the song to breathe.  It’s not generally a big deal or terribly difficult, but it is work and it is time. 

Once this is done, I can dispense with the acoustic guitar track, which has now served its purpose. It is in turn replaced with a dummy vocal track.  It doesn’t need to be well sung, but it does need to be in time and on pitch.  Because it’s against this vocal track that I develop the backing harmonies.

Here I should mention that I’m quite envious of people who can just know how to do this innately. For me, it’s quite a bit of work. And there’s sort of a three-pronged attack to the process.  Sometimes I’ll just hop on the mic and improv things and see what happens.  Sometimes I find nice lines that way.  Sometimes I’ll sit down with my little notebook, sketch out the chord changes and methodically work out a harmony voicing just based on theory.  Sometimes I’ll sit with my little midi keyboard and play things out against the rhythm tracks.  In the end, it winds up being some combination of the three.  But in the end, I always write out the harmonies in their entirety.  Because I need to have the music in front of me when I go in to record them.

And I’ll say here that this – the harmonies – is probably my favorite part at the moment.  Partly because it’s new.  (And I love doing the bass stuff for the same reason).  But also because the possibilities are basically endless.  And because every new harmony is in its way an experiment for me, a learning experience. For example, how is an “ooh” different from an “ah”?  How is an “ah” different from a “wah”?  How is a sustained “ooh” or “ah” different from a percussive “bop-bop”?  How are nonsense sounds like “ooh-wah” or “bop-bop” different from singing actual lyrics in spots?  Each of these things brings something different to a song, give a different feel.  Some are better in some places than others.  Why?  It’s a real trip, I tellya.  

Once the harmonies are done, then it’s time to go in and record the main vocal track for real. Now it’s about much more than just pitch and rhythm.  There are questions of phrasing, stress, volume.  More abstract things like “softness” or “hardness.”   And here’s the kicker.  Just by doing this, I’m teaching myself how to sing, discovering just how much I can get out of my voice.  Mostly by trial and error.  But also by trying to pay attention to and incorporating technical elements that Justin has taught me, that Felix (Bibi’s vocal teacher) has taught me.  

Which brings us back to the particular song in question, this Going my Way.  Originally, I had written the vocal in a lower register, where I was much more comfortable as an inexperienced singer.  The only problem was, once I got into the booth, with all the other tracks, the lower register had no power to it.  It was getting lost in the mix.  

So?  Fuck it, I says.  Let me try taking this bitch up an octave.  I had no idea what would happen.  The highest note was an F-sharp, I think.  Whatever it was, I’d never sung that high before (that I know of).  And at first, I was having trouble hitting that highest note.  So I just kept experimenting.  What if I breathe this way instead of that?  What if I hold my head this way?  What if I try to make the sound come from here instead of there?

And after quite a bit of this, all of a sudden, I was doing it.  I was hitting that note.  It didn’t hurt or feel like a strain.  I mean, it was a strain in the sense of, this is my (current) limit.  But it felt right.  I felt these vibrations or resonances or whatever is the right word in parts of my skull and face that I’d never felt before.  And here was this note coming out of me, and it sounded good! More on this in the paragraph after next.

So now all the recording was done, I had to mix it.  I won’t get into detail here, but it was more experimentation, more trial and error. With things like reverb, compressors, EQ, panning, volume level and so on.  But in the end, I had a song.  

So I sent it to Justin. And the first thing he says is, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I was not expecting this from you.”  And I’m like, “Oh no, it’s bad.”  And he’s like, “No, it’s good!  That’s what I meant by don’t take it the wrong way.  I didn’t want you to think I was expecting garbage. I just didn’t know you could sing like that!”  And I’m like, “Neither did I, son.  Neither did I.”  

Then I sent it to Jared. And apart from liking the song itself he said, “Your voice is awesome.  You’ve got a little heat on your fastball now.”  Which, I mean, come on, that’s like the best fucking analogy.  

And if it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn, then I apologize.  It’s more just that this is so new.  And at age 39 I’m doing things I would never have believed myself capable of. So I’m just really excited about it. None of this is to say I’m a finished product.  I’ve still got tons to learn, so much to improve on.  And eventually I’ll run up against my limitations.  Like, I ain’t going to Broadway, you know?  But could I eventually effectively sing lead in a not terribly serious rock band?  Yeah, I think so.  And this from a guy who never once dared approach a back-up mic back in The Fury days.

So that was Going my Way. And in addition to that, I’ve finished two other songs as well.  And I’ve played them for a few people.  Remember when I said I’d like to be able to produce something that people would enjoy on the merits and not because they’re my friends?  Well I’ve gotten some feedback to that effect.  That they get one of the songs stuck in their heads, that one or two of them are “ear worms.”   So to me, that’s ten thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean; i.e. a good start.  

Funny thing, though. I wonder if I’m getting old. ((Spoiler Alert: I am.))  See, I sent the songs to Charlotte.  Two of them, she’s known forever.  She even has recordings of them on her phone, just me and my acoustic jamming out.  And her reaction was along these lines, “These sound great, and I’m really impressed with everything you’ve done. But honestly, I prefer the originals. They’re raw, they’ve got more energy, you can really shake your ass to them.”  

And the reason this is funny is, because that’s exactly what 20-years-ago Dave would have said.  I remember in High School, I had this cassette of Ella Fitzgerald live.  And it was just her and a jazz trio: piano, drums, guitar.  OK, probably there was a bass too.  The point is, that shit was raw, full of energy and you could really shake your ass to it.  And let me tell you, friends, I played the ever-loving shit outta that tape.  

And then one day I bought a CD with many of those same tracks.  Only, it wasn’t live.  It was a studio recording, with a full orchestra.  And I was just like, “Oh my gods, what is this schmaltzy shit!?”   And now, twenty years later, here I am producing my own schmaltzy shit.  

Or that’s one way to look at it, anyway.  My dad’s reaction was, “This is some proper British Invasion shit!”  Like when the young Beatles were just playing Little Richard and Buddy Holly covers.   And that’s quite a compliment.  Of course, I’ve always preferred Little Richard and Buddy Holly to the Beatles. So maybe I really am getting old. Or maybe I’m just having fun with harmonies.

Not every song I do is going to be like this, mind you.  I’ve got a list of 14 original songs I want to do.  And some of them will be pretty heavy.  Those will not be having three-part doo-wop harmonies.  So I’ll be getting back to my roots at some point. But for the moment, I’m doing all the songs that will be in this style.  Because each one informs the next.  It’s all part of the learning process.  

The last thing I want to mention before moving on, and I touched on this last time, is just how invaluable Justin has been through all of this.  I’m constantly calling and texting him with questions about theory and technique.  I’m constantly sending him mixes for feedback.  And he always has something useful to add.  And so even though this is my music, even though I’m writing everything and playing and singing all the parts, even though every decision is mine in the end (and even though I fully own all of the shortcomings), the end product is very much a result of this working relationship.  There’s no question that, however far I’ve come, I wouldn’t have come this far without his help.

I also want to say something else about the process, about the work, independent of the music itself. I fucking love doing this, and the time really flies.  On a day where I don’t have to teach, I might start in the studio sometime between 11 and 1 and just keep going until dinner.  And I’ll lose all track of time.  I mean, I just get so lost in the work.  Even the language stuff doesn’t engage me on that level.  There, I usually burn out after two hours, three tops.

And it’s much healthier and more sustainable than writing.  Writing stories or blogue posts, I mean.  It’s no secret that when I write, I lean heavily on my pipe or that a blog post will usually start at the top of a bottle of wine and end at the bottom.  That’s not healthy and it’s not sustainable.  I can’t work like that every day. 

But I don’t drink or smoke when I’m working in the studio.  Well, OK, when I have to sing, I usually have a cup of tea on hand, and I may sneak a bit of brandy into it.  But I’m not gonna count that.  So that’s another nice thing about the music.

Now, I love my job. I’ve said it a thousand times. And my reason for saying it again will become clear in a moment.  As I said, I took a two-week staycation in the second half of September.  The first week was mostly just decompressing, although I did quite a bit of work in the studio.  But the second week was amazing.  And here’s why.

Every night I was going to bed sometime between three and five in the morning.  And every day I was waking up sometime between 10:30 and 1:30. And then I’d work all day in the studio. But here’s the thing.  I felt great.  Better that I’d felt in ages.  Even with those weird hours, I was never tired.  I wasn’t taking naps!  Can you believe that?  Dave not taking naps?  But I never felt the need.  I always felt well-rested.  It was incredible.  

So yeah, I love my job. But man, did I not miss it.  Like, one bit.  I found myself feeling like, why can’t I have thislife?  But oh well. Vacation is over and now it’s back to the grind, and with it, feeling tired, and daily naps.  C’est la vie.

I was in Köpenick on Friday, to see Lucie and Marco.  I had asked Marco, the erstwhile carpenter, if he could cut a piece of wood for me to expand my studio desk; he was happy to do so.  First of all, it was just great to see them.  After that bit of carpentry, we just hung out and ate pizza and had a good old time.  And here’s the thing with those two.  In a world desperately short on human decency, they are two of the most honest-to-gods decent people you’ll ever meet in your life.  Just a pair of wonderful, good hearts.  As happy as I am to have my own place, I’m just as happy that they’re still in my life.  

Funny side-story.  As Marco was working the…oh god, what’s it called in English?  It’s a handheld reciprocating saw.  But not a sawsall.  I used to build scenery in the theatre, what’s happened to me?  Anyway, while he’s working the saw, I’m sort of following behind him with the vacuum.  This was in my old bedroom, btw, which Marco has since turned into his office/shop. And as I’m vacuuming at the end, I’m like, “Shit, man, I thought my days of vacuuming this floor were behind me!” And then like, two seconds later, Lucie walks by, and she’s like, “Dave, when you’re done in there, you can do the kitchen!”  Well, funny-ish, anyway.

The end of this month will mark one year since I moved out.  One year since I lived in Köpenick.  And yet, being there, walking those streets that I walked every day for three years, it felt like I left yesterday.  Or perhaps, as though I’d never left at all.  It still feels like home.  Kind of a gut-punch of nostalgia, if you will.  Because I really do miss that place.  It still feels more like home than Pankow does.  And that was bittersweet.  

But I don’t miss the travel. I don’t miss how woefully undeserved that place is by mass transit.  And as much as I miss L&M, I don’t miss living with other people.  So all’s well that ends well.  Or you can’t have you cake and eat it too.  Or something.

One thing I love about New York, it is first and foremost a baseball town.  I want you to think about how big a deal football is in America.  I want you to remember that the Willie Mays Giants moved to California for the 1958 season.  And still, in 2020, people refer to Big Blue as the “New York Football Giants.”  Because the “New York Giants” are a baseball team, be they gone some 60 years.

I mention this because the great Whitey Ford died a few days ago.  Whitey Ford, The Chairman of the Board, Yankee ace pitcher in the 50’s and early 60’s.  From the days of Mantle and Yogi and The Scooter and Maris and Stengel.  A legend.  And since Yogi died, Greatest Living Yankee.  And now he’s gone.  It really marks the end of an era.  The era of World Series games in the afternoon, the era of Willie, Mickey and the Duke.  The era when New York was the center of the baseball universe.  The past recedes a little further and the men our fathers knew are become memories.  

My father texted me when Whitey died.  My father is not, nor ever has been, much a fan of baseball.   My father also taught me to throw a baseball, played catch with me when I was little, took me to batting cages and was there on the sidelines when I played T-Ball.  I never really got beyond T-Ball.  Soon, hockey would become my world.  

But I was on the phone with my folks the other night.  And Whitey came up.  My dad said something like, “I was never really into baseball, but that was a name I knew.  That was a name that was always in the news when I was growing up.”  Yeah, I agreed.  Him and Mantle and Yogi.  And my mom, also no baseball fan, chimed in, “Oh yeah, everybody knew those guys.”  

Because New York is a baseball town.  Because baseball connects people.  Because when Whitey died, I got an email from Phil, my Greek prof, with stories of seeing Whitey pitch in spring training, of he and his schoolmates listening to game 7 of the 1960 World Series on hidden transistor radios in class, of the whole class groaning when Pittsburgh’s Bill Mazeroski hit the Series winning homer, of the teacher stopping not to chastise, but merely to surmise, “So the Yankees lost?”  So when you lose one of the greats, one of the legends, your family reaches out. Sometimes because they love the game. And even when they don’t, because a thread in the shared fabric of the lives of all New Yorkers has been cut.  Baseball has the power to bind us.  And New York is baseball town.  Always has been.  And may it ever be so.

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