SOMETIMES THE DEMO IS BETTER…

BOOMBOX WRITING copy

Sometimes what you write in the first few seconds is the best. But those seconds have a habit of turning into minutes and the minutes turning into hours. The longer your inner editor is whittling away at your initial inspiration, the greater the danger of wandering far, far off from the secret place you were so thrilled to discover. If you are not paying attention (and even if you are) it’s five hours later.  You look up from your typewriter (or keyboard or notebook) and stare at your surroundings. That all too familiar question forms in your mind with striking clarity: Where the hell am I?  And how will I ever find my way home?

This is true with the writing of prose and poetry, and I’ve heard the same thing from friends who are painters. With songwriting, I can tell you, without a doubt: sometimes the original demo is better than the “produced song”. On more than one occasion, being disappointed with the direction of a song I’m working on, I’ve gone on a frantic search expedition, rifling through boxes and cabinets in hope of finding that old cassette tape of “the demo”. It might have been recorded years ago, but now I need to hear what I preserved in a few hasty yet inspired seconds. It was usually done on a cheap boombox and the sound quality was charmingly terrible, full of tape warbles, wobbles and loud rushes of air at the start and stop. But sometimes when I’m lost, I need to get back to the source. I need to remember that simplicity, those heartfelt magical three or four chords with a mumbled melody that appeared in my throat like a sudden giant bird.

Such was the case for the song “Save Your Love For Me”. It was written and recorded in the Summer of 1987, a few months after I got the RCA record deal and moved to New York. I was assembling the material for what would become “Blind To Reason”. Having graduated to the musical major leagues (a miracle to be sure), I was now, at no cost to me, recording my demos in actual recording studios. No more boomboxes. The publishing company I had just signed with wouldn’t hear of it. They had their own studio, and they even threw in my very own recording engineer, an Englishman with the cheerful name of Dave Dale.

A quick bit of background: The publishing company had the not so cheerful name of SBK Entertainment World . The letters stood for Stephen Swid, Martin Bandier and Charles Koppelman. SBK administered the rights to a few things like the entire Lennon-Paul McCartney catalogue of Beatles songs (which was in turn owned by Michael Jackson). Not to mention ”Singin’ in the Rain,” ”Over the Rainbow,” ”New York, New York” and “Try A Little Tenderness”. Now they had Grayson Hugh’s songs. Publishing is a complicated business. I was to find out, in short order, just how complicated – and corrupt. Just two years later, in 1989, SBK sold it’s company to EMI Publishing for the usual gazillions of dollars and I became an EMI-published songwriter for the next ten years. Then I wised up and decided to do it myself.

Meanwhile, while all these big business doings were going on around me, I  was busy thinking about new songs, getting ideas by taking long walks in my new city of Manhattan, staying up late writing in notebooks and just thinking about what kind of record I wanted to make. To replenish my dwindling supply of inspiration from nature, I’d go to Guilford, Connecticut on weekends to visit my cousins at the family cottage. Sunday night I’d return to my studio apartment on E. 82nd street, and get a good night’s sleep before beginning my work week.

I’d report to the studio early each morning, with a briefcase full of notebooks and pencils and pens. I’d also have my thermos of French Roast coffee. This was the pre-Starbucks era. I loved the routine.

The imagery of “Save Your Love For Me” is based on the new city I was in. Manhattan had its own interesting history and its own over-crowded present reality. To me it was surreal. I was a country boy by comparison. Late at night, in my 18th floor apartment, looking out over the city skyline, I’d imagine taking a train out of there down south. Of course it had to be at midnight. I’d be returning to some girlfriend, but in my reverie, I didn’t want her to meet me at the station. For some reason, I wanted her to “meet me on the hill alone when the dawn is breaking.”

It was the feeling I wanted to capture. It’s always all about the feeling. If the sounds and words make you feel a certain way, the song works. And this feeling I wanted to capture had to do with not only returning to a home in the country, it also had to do with the the city, deserted very late at night, in a Summer heat wave, where “city hall looks like a tomb, an ancient monument where ghost of Indians walk the gloom; they’ve come to get the rent”. I could see the weird reddish glow of the pre-dawn hours in Manhattan, and feel the urge to leave, to get out of there. Even though, I had just gotten there, and was glad to be there to record my album and start my career on a bigger scale, there was a part of me that never felt comfortable in that fast-paced town. So this song was an attempt to escape, if only in the alternate reality of a song.

For this song I wanted the feeling of that midnight southern train, so I had the engineer put extra reverb on the snare drum. That effect, combined with my conga playing, gave it the moody driving groove I so loved in Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues”. You might say that “Inner City Blues” is the distant uncle of “Save Your Love For Me”.

Singing and playing all the tracks, I used the very atmospheric synth sound I created which I called “plucked organ”. I also used a fretless bass sound and a high gently whistling synth pad in the background. I wanted the vocal harmonies to be haunting in the chorus line “save your love for me” that repeats. It all happened very quickly, and though it took hours rather than seconds, I managed to capture the feeling I wanted.

Of course it didn’t end up on “Blind To Reason”. Once me and my producers got around to putting that album together, other songs seemed more in keeping with the general theme of that record.

But I got a song that I still love, and still may yet release on a future album. And I have my brother Rob to thank for retrieving the shoebox that contained a bunch of cassette tapes, including one that contained this original demo, from my mom and stepfather’s house in Newton Corner, Massachusetts. I had been looking for it for years. My own publisher didn’t even have a copy.

I remember returning home for Christmas in 1987, and playing this demo for a couple friends. One of them was caretaker for the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut and we listened to it on a boombox in her caretaker’s cabin on a freezing cold night. Later the three of us took a walk in the orchard with the full December moon casting it’s ghostly light on the twisted apple tree branches and frozen snowdrifts. I’ll never forget the tears of my friend as we listened. The song worked.

Well, I’ve come full circle. I still have my boombox, and, oddly enough, it remains my preferred method of preserving my song ideas. Low tech and quick. Production can always happen later.

Give “Save Your Love For Me” a listen. I hope it brings you to a place of your own, like it did for me.

TO LISTEN TO THE ORIGINAL DEMO OF “SAVE YOUR LOVE FOR ME” CLICK HERE.

SAVE YOUR LOVE FOR ME

Tell no one I’m coming home
don’t meet me at the station
meet me on the hill alone
when the dawn is breaking

Leave a letter on your bed
for those you leave behind
perhaps they’ll never understand
perhaps they will in time

And if we wait another day
it’s bound to be too late
that little town will drag you down
and close and lock the gate
save your love for me
save your love for me

I’ve wandered on the streets and seen
the red-eyed tired men
and women dreaming in distress
with hearts that cannot mend

And city hall looks like a tomb
an ancient monument
where ghost of indians walk the gloom
they’ve come to get the rent

The city lights keep me awake
and it’s too hot to rain
I’m leaving now to come get you
on the midnight Southern train
save your love for me
save your love for me

Baby I’ll be there
before the wind has changed to cold
before the blue hills turn gold
and the stars of summer fall down
oh now fall down

The city lights keep me awake
and it’s too hot to rain
I’m leaving now to come get you
save your love for me
save your love for me
save your love for me
save your love for me

© 1987/2014 by Grayson Hugh/Swamp Yankee Music/ASCAP

 

 

 

 

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