David Means–”The Gulch” (Harper’s, April 2006)

SOUNDTRACK: NELLIE McKAY-Reveals ‘Cavendish’ (Project Song: April 2, 2008).

Project Song was a nifty little show that NPR Music created.  The premise was that NPR would give a musician some prompts and a recording studio.  They then had two days to write and record a song.  I don’t know how much of the process was to be filmed, but presumably most of it. Then it would be edited down to a fifteen minute show.  The results are pretty cool and it’s a shame they only made five of them.

The third one they did was five months after the previous one.  As with the Stephin Merritt project, McKay was solo, but she had a lot of problems and recriminations.

When I invited Nellie McKay to participate in Project Song, I figured she’d write some witty words and hammer something out on the piano. I don’t mean to make it sound so simple, but listen to the music of Nellie McKay, and she’s the one who makes it seem so easy.

McKay came into our studio looking as if she’d just walked off a movie set. In fact, at times in conversation, a young Judy Garland came to mind. She took great care with her curly blonde hair and her beautiful pinstriped suit.

I laid some photographs [all from the Library of Congress] and some words on our makeshift bar for her to consider as jumping-off points for the song she would write over the next few days.

It didn’t take long for McKay to settle on a black-and-white photograph of some men dancing the Charleston out in front of a movie theater. To go with the picture, she chose the word “Bravado.” Those two things would inspire and inform her song.

And then, despite a bit of hemming and hawing, McKay proceeded to sit behind the grand piano and begin drawing musical staff lines on some note paper. She began composing her song.

Although perhaps the consternation and questioning was more of her conscious mind, because it sounds like she was much more confident than she appeared.  “Why couldn’t I have written a song in secret and brought it in and pretended to be confused?”

Here’s what I now know that I didn’t know at the time: In just a few hours of playing at the piano, Nellie McKay wrote her song. I know that now, because I can look at the zoom lens of our video camera and see all the scribbles in her notebook. The words are mostly there, and so is the music.

She pokes out notes on the piano and scribbles in her book.  Then she plays the ukulele (with wah wah).  She hems and haws quite a bit, playing with Bob’s computer to make three distinct drum parts.  She talks with Bob.

“Its hard enough to do a bad pastiche which is what I’m aiming at now.  This is the worst thing, I wrote a complicated bad song.”

She finally asks Bob, the constant cheerleader, “where’s your cynicism, you work for NPR?”

From my perspective in the control room of our studio, what I heard for the better part of our first day was some tinkering, some scribbling, and more tinkering. She’d pick up the ukulele and play more piano, but I couldn’t hear a song emerging.

Then she plays some cello on top.  Then it’s on to some haunting backing vocals.

Bob’s mind is boggled: “to put down the uke part first after what I’ve heard, why not play the piano first?  Her answer: “I’m sick of the piano!”

She says she’s big on secrecy and doesn’t understand how other people did it.  Before revealing that she decides to put down “the thunderclap, perhaps the loon, a little bit of backing vocals, and then I’ll freak out a bit more and then I’ll try to do the main vocals.”

The lyrics, however — and even the title — were a closely kept secret until the final hours of the final day.

Then she reveals the dramatic, multi-faceted, three-part song.  It is stunning that she came up with this.  There’s sound effects, spoken word, Latin rhythms and then a torch song part with horns and falsetto.

And this is it, a song about a London hotel called the Cavendish. A song about some of its guests, like D.H. Lawrence and The Beatles, and of better, simpler times. A wonderful theatrical journey from Nellie McKay — someone who seems connected with the past and unsure of her present.

The Cavendish was a real hotel.  They went through a lot of change.  The hotel has been through two wold wars.  The Latin part is exotic–lovely and yet unsettling.

[READ: January 24, 2018] “The Gulch”

The centerpiece of this story is vile and horrible even to think about.  The story begins with it, it focuses on it but then it also kind of dismisses it at the end.

The story is basically about three juvenile delinquents who have crucified a boy in their class (he did not survive).  It begins with a description of the cross they created with pressure-treated wood and rope from a neighborhood laundry line.

It is written in a kind of casual style from Detective Collard’s point of view.  There’s lots of parenthetical asides “The one who dreamed up the scheme (for lack of a better word).”

One of the boys admitted to digging the hole but then said he wasn’t there in sport or heart.

The boys whose family owned the clothes line admitted his part is gulping sobs.  But he blamed the idea on someone else.  He said the third party was preaching about resurrection and spirituality.

The three boys accused each other in a triangle of blame.

Collard felt it was impossible not to imagine the agony the boy had felt–most people in the courtroom seem to imagine the sheer pain, even if the defense suggested that his endorphins would have kicked in fairly quickly .

The story also talks about professors and teachers getting involved.  I guess if the story made big enough news, but it seems unlikely honestly.   One professor tried to make a connection between the trench shovel and the poetry of the Great War.  Another professor (with shaky logic) tried to make a parallel between the event and a childish desire to speak with the universal.  Students mostly thought that “these fuckups probably stoned out of their minds on crystal meth had [nothing so] grand in mind.”

A final statement came form one of the boys–we just felt like doing it.  But Collard wasn’t convinced of that either.  He feared a dead end to the case.

And as the story ends, Collard imagines himself older, retired and always wondering about this unsatisfying case.

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