KILLING ME SOFTLY

 

The songbird knows the
score: snobs and suckers need not apply.

 

BY IVOR HANSON

 

As a former punk rocker, I have a confession to make: last
year while living in the South Pacific, I played in a soft-rock band.

 

Okay, I’ll get specific.

 

I was residing in the far-off, who-would-ever-know Solomon Islands, and the band played Fleetwood
Mac’s “Songbird,” the Jackson
5’s “I’ll Be There,” and, uh, you get the idea. To say the least, our setlist
seriously clashed with my musical past. Long, long ago, I played the drums in
S.O.A. whose claim to fame, you could say, was that its singer, Henry Garfield,
went on to become the punk icon Henry Rollins; Faith was a fave of Nirvana’s
Kurt Cobain; and Embrace, which was one of the first emo bands, had as its
singer, Ian Mackaye, who had previous led Minor Threat and subsequently founded
Fugazi.

 

So, given this, why did I play in that laid-back band? In a
word: curiosity.

 

I wanted to know how the punk rock snob in me would deal
with the “Top Forty” sucker in me.

 

Not surprisingly, part of me revels in distorted guitars,
snarled vocals and charge-ahead drumming, finding the combination exhilarating,
threatening, liberating, cathartic, fun. But a part of me also succumbs to
quiet chords, hushed melodies, and muted rhythms, the kind you find in, yes,
“Songbird” and “I’ll Be There”.

 

Sitting at a drum set for the first time in many, many
years, how would my hands and feet react? After all, while it’s one thing to
come across such guilty pleasures on the radio – catchy songs simply take hold
of me – it’s quite another to take part in them.

 

Well, when I settled in behind the kit for our first rehearsal,
a curious thing happened. With the opening notes of “Songbird,” the musician in
me promptly shoved aside my snob and sucker selves; a visceral need to play the
song well overtook me. Since the original version of “Songbird” is too mellow
to even have a drum part, I threw myself into coming up with a beat – that, and
doing my best not to speed up, or play too loudly, or drop my sticks.

 

Sure, part of it was my simply not wanting to screw up in
front of the band. Joy, Derya, John, Selwyn, and Alex were all talented
professionals who played (or had played) in other groups that performed reggae,
jazz, show tunes, and even hard rock. And I was also thinking ahead to our
eventual first show, and not wanting to make a mistake in front of my friends
who would be attending.

 

Still, something else was driving me to nail “Songbird,”
beyond my musician’s pride.

 

As I eased into Christine McVie’s heartfelt, keyboard-driven
ballad that’s become a wedding staple courtesy of it’s chorus – “And the
songbird keeps singing like it knows the score/ And I love you, I love you, I
love you, like never before” – I began feeling what it’s like to be in a cover
band or a wedding band, the kind of bands I’d never wanted to be in, or,
really, I’d never deigned to be in.

 

A real band creates its own music, it doesn’t recreate
someone else’s; it should make its own mark, not simply be second-hand sound.

 

Similarly, sweaty, darkened nightclubs are the place to
perform, not some country club to please the recently betrothed.

 

So here I was stretching myself as a musician, but feeling a
bit like I was on the rack while doing so. As I veered back to focusing on
getting “Songbird” right in order to ignore the repercussions of getting
“Songbird” right – that I was in a band playing this song for real – I suddenly
found myself focusing on my right foot, my bass drum foot.

 

It wasn’t working.

 

Though my hands were doing just fine as they accented the
cymbals and snare drum with subtle flourishes, my foot couldn’t quite do what I
wanted it to: it wasn’t responding quickly enough. Single hits on the downbeat
– “boom” on the counts of “1” and “3”
– weren’t a problem, but double-hits in the space of one beat – “ba-boom” – were. Heavy and sluggish, my
foot wasn’t tapping, it was thudding.

 

Out of practice, out of shape, and, worse, dragging the
song, I was struggling at something I had been able to do since seventh grade,
since 1977, the year that “Songbird” was a hit; the same year, incidentally,
the Sex Pistols put out “God Save The Queen”.

 

So much for feeling too cool to be in this band. I had to
face a more basic matter – along with a kind of comeuppance.

 

Fortunately, by concentrating on my right foot, my ankle
began to relax, free up, and remember. But it was going to take a good bit of
playing to get back what I’d lost.

 

We ran through “Songbird” a few more times, along with the
other songs on the list.

 

As we did so, I realized that while playing soft-rock
staples was less than wonderful, I preferred playing that genre to the prospect
of performing new wave, punk, indie-, or alternative-rock. That music means too
much to me to touch; it’s simply uncool to play cool bands. Performing songs
by, say, Talking Heads, the Damned, or Arcade Fire, the Ruts, Editors, The The
or the Beatles, would be transparent wish fulfillment, an obvious case of
wanna-be-rock.

 

It was proving, in other words, to be easier to play songs
of bands I’d never wanted to be in.

 

As for the band I was in, it turned out that our first gig –
at a café called The Lime Lounge — became our only gig, since shortly
thereafter, one of the singers decided to return to England and her solo career;
indeed, the group never sorted out a name.

 

As for me, I remain a punk rock snob, albeit a chastened
one.

 

And, yes, I’m still a pop tune fan – but one who’ll stick to
simply listening to the hits.

 

That songbird really did know the score.

 

***

 

Ivor Hanson, a
freelance writer based in Rhode Island, is the author of Life on the Ledge:
Reflections of a New York City
Window Cleaner.

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