|MICHAEL WHYTE (THE BLIND ROBINS) talks about "The Origin Of The Wasteland"
and "Panorama Valley"
www.theblindrobins.com and www.myspace.com/theblindrobins
THE ORIGIN OF THE WASTELAND (Rolling Blackout Records):
First, let me say that anything I say here is my view of the subject. The other people in the band may have different ideas. I only ever speak for myself.
Both albums were recorded by Bob Vodick in his basement studio. They were not quick and easy to make, since the band members were quite spread out. Bob's in Oak Park, near Chicago. Dave and I are out in Rockford. Adam lived in Madison, Wisconsin. Plus we all had day jobs: Bob was working in I.T. at Osram-Sylvania, Adam was working in a guitar shop as a repairman, I'm a gardener and landscaper, Dave is a full-time dad and was on the board at his kids' Montessori school. It was hard to get together. Recording seemed to take forever. We got Joel Batty to play fiddle on some tracks. Joel had worked with Jay Bennett and Freakwater, among others.
As far as writing goes, I think it's important to have a sense of humor, even if it's very dark humor. I'm always glad when someone talks about how funny the songs are, because it's entirely intentional. I had someone ask me a few weeks ago 'do you write love songs for your wife?' Ah... no. For some reason I often write about pretty bleak scenarios, even though these days I'm a happy person, by and large. Happy songs are hard to write. I envy people who can write a love song and not sound mawkish. The best I can do is try to make some of this stuff funny, even if it's gallows humor.
"That Goddamn Herbert Hoover":
For the record, I'm not personally a Hoover basher. Looking at history, he was evidently a very decent man. Helped feed people in Belgium after the German invasion of 1914, etc. The song is from the point of view of an older gent who lived through the Great Depression and has no good memories of the Hoover administration. It's mostly inspired by my late Uncle George and, to some degree, my dad. They had a rough time on the family farm in Wisconsin during the Depression.
But really, the song is not about Hoover at all, is it?
"Tom Paine's Bones":
Believe it or not, this was originally a song about crazed Dean Martin fans driving to Las Vegas to seek out their hero. At least the music and the opening line are from that song. I wrote it in '92 or thereabouts, put it away, then dug it out and wrote this song instead when we formed The Blind Robins. I found out afterwards that a guy named Graham Moore had written a song with the same title. Dick Gaughan recorded it. Very good song. I thought I'd change the title, then decided 'to hell with it.' In my song,
Osama Bin Laden and George W. have a fistfight in an alley and Tom Paine's bones wind up on Ebay. I also may actually have predicted Hurricane Katrina.
Must've been that trance I was in.
"By the End of the Day":
I was waiting in line at my bank one day, and realized that the TV above my head was always turned to Fox News. It seemed like in the 'Rah! Rah!' early days of the war in Iraq, Fox was on everywhere you went. It was beyond Orwellian. In fact, we passed Orwell doing 90 a ways back down the road!
I started going to the drive-up window.
"The Ruthless Phase":
Everybody has a snapping point. I just thought of the times when I'd felt beyond desperate, beyond angry, an inch away from committing murder, then dumped those feelings into these different characters. I don't know if the song's any good, but its honest, like it or not.
I honestly don't remember writing this. I know I wasn't drunk because I never write when I'm drunk. Lots of references to Burton roles in this.
A friend suggested we cover this. It really fit. I've always loved this song. I like to think Neil Young was being straight with this one: you can be a paranoid, crooked asshole and still love your wife and suffer like any other human being.
"The Origin of the Wasteland":
A confluence of things inspired this song. There was that whole Dixie Chicks flap. Evidently some D.J. gave out the home address of one of the girls, the implication being, I guess, that his listeners go kill her. Now, I'm sure whoever this guy is will deny telling people to kill her. These days everyone clings to semantics to cover their own cowardly asses, but the message is clear: 'Form the mob! Light the torches!' No matter your politics, an act like this is not something a grown man does. Stirring half-wits to consider murder over some words uttered is not a noble goal in life. More importantly, when I wrote the song there was all this horrific imagery everywhere you looked: the beheading of Nicholas Berg and the photos from Abu Ghraib... fascism made manifest. There was the scary hangover from 9/11, "Shock and Awe", suicide bombers...all those things. The world just seemed an insane slaughterhouse. Still does, of course. I also read a newspaper story about a guy who worked at a landfill and talked about
the great number of little American flags that were being dumped there. Things got weird in America after the 9/11 attacks. For about three weeks everyone was really nice to each other. They were friendly and helpful to each other. But it wasn't long until Americans were at each others' throats. It was really dispiriting. People put little American flags on their cars, supposedly as a show of unity, I guess. But it seemed to me they didn't really give a shit about the flag or unity or any of that stuff. The gutters
and landfills were full of little American flags, most of which I'd bet were made in China. And they didn't want unity, because they let radio talk show hosts and other such opportunists drive us apart.
Adam and I killed a bottle of George Dickel and recorded this. This is one take. I had the words, but the song was being written as we played. Bob added bass and Joel Batty added fiddle later.
I was on a bus at age 14, crossing the Mojave desert on the way to L.A.. Sitting across the aisle was a very Faulkner-like southern
gentleman...that is if Faulkner had taken to wearing Brylcream, Aqua Velva and polyester shirts. Anyway, the guy seemed a pretty severe alcoholic. He claimed to be a writer. Evidently he had written a book called Cry Wine. The title stuck with me. I'm not sure how many songs about detoxing there are, but this sticks pretty close to the 'cry-in-your-beer' country tradition. Some Nashville superstar needs to record this. I'm getting old. I need to fund my retirement!!! Kenny? Garth?
I find the word "whorehouse" funny. Don't know why, but it's funny. I tried to write words, but it worked better as a hoedown-style instrumental. Or, as Adam Davis calls it, a "whoredown".
"Buy Sell Pawn":
One of my most depressing dead-end jobs was working in a pawn shop. It wasn't a pawn shop when I started working there, it was a music store, but that's another story. People picture only junkies and alcoholics and thieves frequenting pawn shops, and there's a lot of that going on. But there were also a lot of working families pawning stuff to make ends meet. When they came in to pawn the kids' toys...it was pretty sad.
This is not a song that fetishizes death. That's not really what I was trying to do here. It is more a mood piece, really. My dad and his family were farm people from Wisconsin. In the '70s, when I was in high school, there was a book out called "Wisconsin Death Trip" that catalogued all these morbid press clippings and photos from Wisconsin in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It really struck a chord with me because I understood the "Wisconsin death" mindset totally. My dad was from the Ed Gein area of Wisconsin, just a bit south of Plainfield. I grew up hearing about Gein from the time I was small. Also, many of my great aunts and uncles were still alive when I was young, and they had a particular demeanor that I recognized in the book. For instance, my great grandfather built a house designed 100% after Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables. Eerie stuff. I put some of that attitude into the song. I wrote it about 20 years ago, when I was in a band called The Box Elders. We did the song only a few times. I drug it out for this album. It's essentially intact from earlier versions. I pretentiously reference James Benning's experimental film about Gein in the chorus.
The only thing I have to add is: 'ladies and gentlemen...the great Adam Davis!!!!'
"Matthew Hopkins Blues":
I could easily see Cromwell's man driving around Washington these days. Or Beijing. Or London. Or Teheran. Or Houston.
"Halving the Compass":
A leftover from Pine Cone, my old band with Bob and Dave. All I can say is right after I wrote this, it began coming true in a weird way. Of course the real life story ended in frustration and humiliation. I was always very good at humiliating myself. I can't explain it better than that without getting into a bunch of arcane details that no one would want to hear.
I don't miss the '90s one bit. I should've slept through the entire decade. I'm quite certain I was no picnic for people, either... pretty much a drunken pain in the ass. But you can't go through life always being a trainwreck. These days I'm an old married geezer who wears slippers and does crossword puzzles. Suits me fine. But I still like the song. By the way, it's a crib from William Carlos Williams.
PANORAMA VALLEY (Rolling Blackout Records):
We deliberately took a more country, slightly less aggressive approach to this. It just seemed like an interesting thing to do. I can't ever see having two albums sounding exactly the same. You need to keep it fresh for yourself. I like the feel of the album, but quite frankly, it seems a little unfinished to me. We really needed a few more songs to flesh it out, to give it some balance. It's still a good album, I think, but I don't know why we felt the need to rush this out. That won't happen again.
Adam had left the band and we found guitarist Mike Burns, who I think plays great on this. I also wanted to work with Jessica Billey, whom I had seen many times with the Mekons. I didn't know her. I just found her email address and got in touch. We were looking for someone to play pedal steel with us live, and Jessica put us onto Bud Melvin, who is now her husband. So Bud ended up playing on the album and Jess ended up playing with us live...a very happy turn of events!
Probably the most autobiographical of any of the Blind Robins songs. At some point a few years back, I got sick of writing about myself and my oh-so-precious emotions - that whole coffeehouse confessional/introspection type thing: 'I wrote this song about me when I...' I found it more interesting and fun to express myself through other characters and by creating scenarios, maybe poking around history a bit. But this one is about me. I come from an Irish-Italian family, so I was in for a double dose of Catholicism. It never took. My instincts took over at a very young age, and those instincts told me to run away from religion as fast as I could.
On the other hand, there was a Baptist church close to where I lived for a long time on the west side of Rockford, Illinois. In the summertime I used to like to drive by, or even pull my car into the parking lot during services and listen to the music - mostly singing - that was coming from inside the church. Really beautiful, passionate music. So it's weird...being moved by music that is inspired by something you can't and don't believe in. I think it has more to do with basic humanity than anything else...but that's
just my way of looking at it. Is that condescending? I don't know.
"William Jennings Bryan":
They were again having "monkey trials" in America. I thought it would be fun to write a song about the Scopes trial. Again, I'm really not trying to bash Bryan here. In fact, Bryan's impetus in getting involved with the Scopes trial was to try to refute the idea of "Social Darwinism" as it was being wielded by the robber barons of the industrial revolution. "Social Darwinism" is a concept that I find as odious as fundamentalist religion. Bryan's intentions were good, but he was, in fact, disputing the science of evolution... obviously the wrong side of the argument. Unless, of course, you live in Kansas in the 21st century.
"Miss Limestone County":
Just came across the title in a newspaper clipping. Miss Limestone County is a real pageant someplace in America, maybe South Dakota. I can't remember.
When I was attending the local community college in the late '70s, I had a knack for dating girls who suddenly became "born again." I blame myself.
This isn't specifically about that, but it sure was frustrating to a young, vigorous man! I have no idea why The Eagles are in this song, except that they always seemed like horny bastards, too! Mike Burns tears it up on this.
I read a piece in an online magazine which talked about how that fountain of moral superiority, Bill O'Reilly, had a porno star on his show and berated her as a "whore" for an hour. Don't know if its true, I don't watch Bill O'Reilly. But it sure rings true. I wanted to write a song that didn't make such moral judgments. There's usually a human story beneath the lurid surface, isn't there?
I wanted it to sound like a band from the Civil War...if they'd had pedal steel guitars in the Civil War. I believe they had Bud Melvins in the Civil War.
"Cash and the Carters":
I felt I'd been dealing pretty harshly with religion and faith on this album, so I wanted a song that showed the comfort that faith can bring.
Of course, the conduit is music. I wish there were more songs like this on the album, frankly. It would have given the album a little more depth.
When I was a kid, Rockford, Illinois was a massively segregated, systemically racist city. That is just a fact... look it up. I had to
live on the totally white east side for a few years while my parents were split up, and I couldn't believe the blatant racism I observed. Not from everyone, of course, but from a lot of people. Really virulent stuff from mostly very privileged people. As kids, it really disturbed me and my brother. This is just a song about those sort of feelings and the attitudes I remember. It's not autobiographical at all. Panorama Valley was a subdivision where my mom nearly moved us. It's nothing like the gated community in the song.
It's far more working class. I just liked the name.
Jessica is great on this. She nailed the harmony in one take. I think our voices suit each other.
I liked the band Green On Red. We recorded some songs for a CD that was supposed to be only for European D.J.s, a sort of "thank you" for getting behind us. We recorded this, a Townes Van Zandt song, some live versions of our stuff. The "thank you" CD we wanted to do never came together because we were dealing with "Panorama Valley". This made it on just because we thought it was fun and sounded good. Green On Red has made exactly $96.00 by us recording this!
"Two Good Eyes":
The character this song is being directed at is a composite of a few people I have encountered in Rockford. It's this sort of attitude of 'I'm born again, therefore I can do anything to my fellow man and be forgiven and still go to heaven' that I find utterly repugnant. Some may say it's one of my typical "finger pointing", class conscious, anti-Christian rants, but it's based on real people and their actions... actions I have observed up close. I can drive you to their houses. We can knock on their doors.
"You Want It, You Get It":
A troublesome song. I wrote it the day after the 2004 election. I was stunned that people would use the rationale of moral superiority to empower utterly, transparently immoral people. Despite my reputation as a bit of a curmudgeon, I actually quite like people as individuals. It's when 'group-think' takes over that the trouble starts. I don't wake up in the morning thinking 'Damn...I'm so much smarter than that guy over there, he's such a dunce.' You want to like your neighbor, or at least I do. It was a very disturbing day to me, and it came out in sarcasm, which I seem to have a knack for. It's a mean song. I guess the truth is I have a bit of a
mean streak sometimes.
Paradoxically, its also really fun to play. Go figure!