Archive for the ‘Stories Behind the Songs’ Category

“The Break” is another short “link song”, and the last song written; it was completed in March 2006. I struggled a lot with the lyrics in trying to convey the information succinctly, and in fact, I was never completely satisfied with the end result. But it does the job. Coming up with a suitable arrangement was also difficult, but I finally arrived at the Edge-like delayed guitar part and three-part vocal harmony.

The Penguin, AKA Oswald CobblepotThe chords and melody for “What’s This Music For?” came along years before the opera, in September-October 2001, in fact. The chorus melody was slightly different, so I altered to fit the words. I remember writing the words while I was at work, and recording a “demo” by whistling while stomping up steps in the stairwell to keep the beat. The “flute” solo at the end was a late contribution by John, as was the percussion in the background. Both enhance the final product immensely.

The title is a bit of an in-joke. When I did desktop computer support a number of years ago, one of our customers was a character we nicknamed “Oswald Cobblepot” because of his resemblance, in body and behavior, to Batman’s nemesis the Penguin. One day he asked me, in all seriousness, “Doc, you’re the expert—you tell me: What is this Microsoft Office for? ‘Cause I don’t have a damn clue!” I thought this was funny, and it came out when naming the song.

“What’s This Music For?” was another of the Transposition songs on the set list when put together a short-lived performing version of Chameleon Red in 2008 and was the only one actually performed in front of an audience. It was also performed live several times by our other band, Mother Zephyr.

Electric Sitar“She’s Changing” was actually called “He’s Changing” until just before the vocals were recorded.  I had a very long and agonized debate with myself on whether or not to use male pronouns when referring to Jack/Jackie.  I knew it was more correct to use feminine pronouns when referring to Jackie, but I thought it would be too confusing to the listener to switch genders back and forth.  But ultimately, that’s what the character does, so I finally decided to flip the pronouns.

I wrote it in November 2005; the working title was “Moonie”, for whatever reason.  I specifically wanted a song sung by the character Lucy.  As such, it’s the only song on the album where my voice doesn’t appear.  Originally, the song was in the key of D, but I changed it to E to accommodate Katie’s vocal range.

I play an electric sitar on this song, which is basically just an electric guitar with a special bridge to make it sound like a sitar.  I actually used this song as an excuse to buy one; I knew I wanted a sitar sound, so when I saw the electric sitar on sale in a catalog, I of course had to get it.


“Could Be Me” was written in August 2005.  I was trying to write an upbeat, happy song; the first try didn’t quite work, so I went back to the drawing board and came up with this one.  It wasn’t until much later, November 2006 to be exact, that I worked out the harmonized guitar line and the chord progression for the end of the song.

I was trying to explicitly create a Beatlesque sound on this song; the arpeggiated rhythm guitar sounds similar to some Abbey Road tracks, and the dual lead guitars in harmony is in homage to “And Your Bird Can Sing”.  The very last chord was an accident; John, thinking there was one more phrase left, played a G and then an A on the bass (instead of going straight to a D), but I liked the sound of it so we kept it in.

AshikoRather late in the writing process, I decided that an explanation of the term “Two-Spirit” was needed, and it was obvious that the opening song should be reprised in some fashion in doing this.  To avoid any copyright infringement, I read a number of original sources on the subject and then, in my own words, wrote the “book quote” that the character Lucy reads to Jackie.

We recorded the instrumental backing long before the vocals were laid down, so we had to guess at how long it would take Katie to read the text.  It turned out that she read it much more quickly than I had expected; this led to a significant elapse of time before Jackie’s response began.  I ended up cutting out several measures of the backing, and I also digitally slowed down/stretched out her speech so that it occupied a little more time.

The drum I play in the background is an African ashiko, which I actually made myself.  Well, sort of.  I attended a drum workshop where we were provided the wooden shell, which was made of several pieces of wood of different shades pasted together.  I sanded down the shell till it was smooth, then painted it with shellac; once that was dry, I sanded it again.  Then I took an African goat skin (also provided), made holes in it, and stretched it across the shell by weaving strong twine around the drum in the traditional way.  It was a lot of work stretching it!  Later I had to shave off the hair on top of the skin—yes, with a razor!  It took two days to finish the thing.  I really like this drum, but I’m not sure if I’d want to go through the ordeal of making one again.

I began writing “Something’s Missing” in August 2005 but didn’t finish it until October.  On recording the demo version I accidentally did a false ending, which John liked and recommended it be duplicated in the finished recording.  The slightly strange echo guitar part appeared out of nowhere when I was trying to come up with a second guitar line.

When it came time for Katie to record her vocals for this song, John had not yet recorded his, so I laid down temporary vocals so she’d have something to sing with.

“Something’s Missing” was another of the Transposition songs on the set list when put together a short-lived performing version of Chameleon Red in 2008.

David Bowie as Ziggy StardustI always knew the closing number in the second act would be a glitter-rock type song in the manner of early 70’s David Bowie, T. Rex, and other proponents of the style.  As John Lennon quipped to Bowie, “It’s just rock and roll with lipstick on, isn’t it?”   The instrumental configuration is much like Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era, with acoustic rhythm guitar and electric lead guitar.  The opening riff is more or less the same as the beginning of “Two-Spirit”, only played in a different rhythm.  In the counter-melody at the end of the guitar solo the “secret sister” phrase makes its first appearance in the opera, but not the first appearance in my writing; I wrote and recorded a song called “Secret Sister” five years before.  I thought it worked in this context, though, so I recycled it.

Transposition Album Cover“Start Again” was written in November-December 2005. Like “Getting Ready”, it’s a link song connecting “We Can Love” with “Lipstick”. For a while I debated dropping it from the running list, but ultimately decided it served a useful purpose. It’s a simple, rather unsubstantial song that is enhanced greatly by the accordion accompaniment.

It took me a while to decide at what point Jack became Jackie full-time. Initially I thought that it would be after the epiphany in “We Can Love”, so “Start Again” would have been the first appearance of the full-time Jackie. Ultimately, though, I decided that the transition would take place between Acts II and III.

UU ChaliceThe entire guitar part for “We Can Love” came to me in August 2004, when writing a rock opera was just an idea I was playing around with.  Despite that, I always thought that it would end up being an opera song.  The words came quite a bit later.   At my request, John wrote the lovely harmonized flute lines, which were subsequently recorded by his future wife Inge in January 2007.

Given that the subject matter stresses the importance of community, especially to outsiders, I have performed this song several times at church.  On a couple of occasions, John, Inge and I performed it together in a rendition close to the recorded version (with rhythmic accompaniment, once by Pen, and once by Anna).

Stories Behind the Songs: “Freak”

Posted by on March 25th, 2013

UU ChaliceThe gospel choir section at the end of “Freak” was written first, in February 2005, and the verse sections followed in April. The “choir” consists of sixteen total voices; John recorded four different harmonies for the men’s section which I then doubled, and Katie recorded four women’s harmonies which Pen doubled. Katie called it “The U.U. Tabernacle Choir” (U.U. being short for Unitarian Universalist, if you didn’t know). That part of the song expresses something of what I personally felt when I found my own “shelter from the storm”.