Back in February of 2006, Jefferson Pitcher, J. Matthew Gerken, and I set about writing and recording the original demos for these Presidents songs as part of the February Album Writing Month challenge (www.fawm.org). We wrote and did demo recordings of 42 songs (all but G.W. Bush) in Februrary–28 days and 42 songs. Sheesh.
In any case, as part of that, we wrote little texts to accompany each new song as we got them up on the FAWM website. I like looking through them now as they seem part of a crazy, crazy time.
Burr Settles, a fine songwriter in his own right and the FAWM-lord, was kind enough to get me an html backup of all the original texts we wrote, and it includes the comments other songwriters wrote on the demos as we got them up. I’m including those as well.
18 Grant (Helicopters Above Oakland)
by jeff pitcher — 2006-02-12 @ 07:54pm (EST) — Alt/Indie
friday night my wife and i went to have dinner with some friends who live in oakland. just down the hill from where they live, we could hear the car tires screeching (sideshows) and while we stood outside talking before dinner, the helicopters flew overhead. as it turns out, those helicopters (the enforcers of a “police-state”) are there every weekend night, in my belief essentially a form of organized terror against those living in the inner-cities. there is a great book on the subject by the way, titled “american lockdown,” by christian parenti if you’re interested.
so i wrote this one from grant’s perspective, imagining that in the first half he is speaking to general robert e. lee, as lee surrendered to none other than ulysses s. grant. in the chorus, i jump ahead 150 years or so, as if grant had the prescience to know that although these people would be freed, they would be systematically oppressed for many years to come. thus the line about the helicopters.
the second verse is grant singing (speaking) to lincoln…fairly self-explanatory. if only he knew that the slaves (freed as they may have been) would never receive their 40 acres or their mules or any real rights for some time, and sadly, even now the country is still run by relatively conservative, wealthy, white men. in a sense, i wanted to look at the fact that these men may have been great, and may have done great things, but that the severity of the oppression of black people in this country, has incredibly long lasting and pervasive effects.
heavy no? i wanted to write about the fact that though he was a career soldier, grant disliked guns greatly and hated hunting. he found killing in general to be abhorrent. he might have some words for george w. during his presidency, the transcontinental railroad was finished (what about the oppression of chinese-americans here?) but that didn’t really make it into the song either.
at song six, i found myself writing something painfully simple (chord structure) as my songwriting soul is a bit tired. i’m not in love with the middle section (too busy) but frankly i’m too busy to change it. so there. perhaps i should do something like christian kiefer’s 6th song on my next.
- Ben J. | 2006-02-12 @ 08:34pm (EST)Jeff – one of the things I’ve learnt from you over the past week is a much more narrative song structure – I tend to be really conventionally structured with an obvious flow and rhyme scheme – chained to it in fact.
Now I know the stuff you have been doing is not supposed to be traditional pop songs (which I’m sure you would structure more conventionally) but I find this structure interesting – you definitely get away with it from your vocal delivery, and as I am starting to trust my vocals a little more, I may well for FAWM try and do something much more narrative prose-ish (as I’m trying really hard to bust out of my conventions and not fall back on the verse-bridge-chorus thing).
Anyway, enough of me, back to you 🙂
I like this a lot. I guess the music being simple and more predictable gives the vocal a little more leeway to meander, although I think this is more focused than a few of your previous works. I love the vocal delivery – in fact this is one of my favourites so far. Maybe the performance and the simple language connects more directly with the emotional content.
I love the fact that you aren’t chained to a rhyme scheme. I need to work harder to break out of that too.
One thing I would say, is that in some ways, the music seems to be of lesser importance to the lyric and delivery – it’s like “yeah, the music has to be there as a vehicle to convey the meaning, so lets get on with it”. That’s all well and good, but I’d quite like to hear some musical themes and development rather than “just” a supporting chord structure.
(I know these comments are based on a few listenings of a small subsection of work – I know you do interesting music & film stuff too. It’s sometimes difficult to get a balanced view of a complicated subject from a few comments when you really need to be in a room and get to know someone to understand it fully).
In any case, this wasn’t so steeped in American history and so was more accessible for a non-American, so this gets the thumbs up from me, as it doesn’t rely on associations with names and places from history to get across some of its message.
In short – this works for me! Good stuff.
- xeena | 2006-02-12 @ 08:58pm (EST)i like it. it sounds great, but i think it might sound interesting with a female vocal harmonizing along.
- Christian Kiefer | 2006-02-13 @ 03:22pm (EST)I agree with the female vocal harmony idea. That would be beautiful.
This is one of the most simple and accessible songs you’ve written in a good long while. I think you & I sometimes forget to write songs that are just songs are don’t try to break some new ground (even if that new ground is new only to us). This one is straightforward, gets to the point, and kills. Nice work, my friend.
Last night I read an interview with the authors of, among other standards, the song “Mona Lisa.” They commented that it was groundbreaking at the time because the bridge was 9 bars long rather than 8. Such a small change but the arbiters of culture were up in arms about it. There shouldn’t be any rules and yet there are. It’s been an interesting exercise for me to try to occasionally write within the rules, rather than always trying to write outside of them.
I’m not sure if the above paragraph has any relevance whatsoever but there it is. Great song. Yours, and Nat King Cole’s too.
- Christian Kiefer | 2006-02-13 @ 03:22pm (EST)& come to think of it, Nat King Cole could sing the fuck out of “Helicopters Above Oakland.” Then again, Nat King Cole could sing the fuck out of anything.
- friendof | 2006-02-14 @ 02:19am (EST)hehe, okay, so Taylor is my 12th great grandfather… and Lee is my 4th great uncle. 🙂 So your songs are pretty much all tied to my family tree! 🙂
This song is incredibly moving in its structure and delivery. I really love all your songs so much. I love the guitar solo bits. I love how depressed your voice sounds in this song. It fits the mood so perfectly–this feeling of “we’ve done good, but god it took so much out of us.” The Civil War, after all, was bloody as hell and left nearly everything destroyed. The ultimate bitter-sweet outcome to the North-South divide. Your song really gets at that and is perfect.
Anyway, I am off to your website cause I can’t get enough…
- PlushBaby | 2006-02-14 @ 11:17am (EST)I guess that not knowing much about American history the words don’t really mean as much as they do to others, however they do stand up on their own…Although maybe helicopters sounds as if it has been shoehorned in and goes against the smoothness of the rest of the song…but then helicopters do make a lot of noise!! Cool song