Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Riff

Back in the late spring of 1980, I was convinced that I had created one of the great riffs of rock and roll. In Chicago at the time, staying at a friend's apartment while he was gone, licking my wounds after a harrowing journey to and from California that ended in a different friend's aborted suicide, there were days when I wasn't good for much more than plucking around on my guitar and occasionally eating something.

It was in that place on N. Fullerton where my wandering, free-associating hands first settled into the pattern of Am-F-C-G. I would sit during the days and play it over and over--Am-F-C-G in 4/4 time, using first position chords. Eventually, a song, or at least a partial song, started to come to me:

I used to walk into doors as clear as glass,
Holding up buildings while I watched you pass.

That was the beginning of one melody. Over those same chords, I had a different melody for the chorus:

We know something that they don't know,
They don't know that I'm with them,
We don't know, that's what you think,
We don't know, that's what you think.

What happened to the song, what it meant, I don't really know. Those snatches are all that I have. It ended up being a lost summer, a summer working a couple of food-service jobs in Chicago, living in my brother's apartment in Hyde Park while he and his wife were in Europe, making sandwiches at one place by day, making sandwiches at another place by night, going out with the other "cooks" after hours, working myself into a sickness that antibiotics would not cure, but still going until my suicidal friend was successful and I crashed completely and went home to Pittsburgh.

But all of that is background. You have to realize that I thought I had created an original riff. Using very unoriginal chords. In 1980, when the New Age and punk were thriving, when the Clash, the Ramones, Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello were riffing all around me.

Of course, I was wrong.

That same year, I don't know now if it was earlier or later, Warren Zevon released Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, a fairly-brilliant record containg snippets of his unfinished symphony as well as classic songs about a relief pitcher, a gorilla who escapes from the zoo and takes the place of a disenchanted yuppie, and, my favorite, "Play It All Night Long," which, in the most satirical terms, captured the essence of "country livin'"--"sweat, piss, jizz, and blood," while drawing sustenance from the song "Sweet Home Alabama." And, of course, a song which used the exact same riff I had invented.

And I hadn't noticed that, two years earlier, Steve Forbert, on his debut album, had used the exact same chords to capture the melancholy of "Tonight I Feel So Far Away From Home."

And since, of course, I've heard the riff all over the place--in Sarah McLauchlan's "Building A Mystery," in songs by The Cure and Lloyd Cole. No doubt, you've heard it in other songs that I'm not thinking of.

But there was that moment in time, I could almost taste it (Little Steven reference, anyone? anyone?) when I thought I had done something original on this overcrowded planet, when Emerson's words, "We recognize in others' genius our own neglected thoughts" rang as true as Johnny B. Goode's guitar. And, nah, I'm not bitter. Whenever I hear that riff, it holds a special place for me, kind of like it's mine.

Zevon's Learning to Flinch, Cole's Love Story, and The Cure's Bloodflowers are all available at Itunes.


goofytakemyhand said...

Only Zevon could use brucellosis effectively in a song.
Warren does a great version of "Play It All Night Long" on the piano at this concert.

goofytakemyhand said...

Goofy screwed up the link:

jed said...

who's doin' sister Sally?

Massimo Z said...

Warren Zevon is an amazing songwriter. I wrote a really interesting blog post about him here too: