Battery Acid Blues: Writing Wretched Breakup Songs

Keir DuBois might be famous. (Originally published in the Artsweek section of the UCSB Daily Nexus on 5/8/97).

The Clap is usually a very prolific bunch of players in the studio. We bust out tunes from our little four-track like there’s no tomorrow. Our recording session the night after the U2 show was no exception; we got eight full songs out of those three hours, and now the only hard part will be deciding which ones to put on the demo that we have to circulate and revive our career.

Most of the songs are group efforts, and the best ones, like “Long Black Leather Boots” and “FM Blues,” came in only a few takes. Our frontmanly guitarist/vocalist Adam and I hashed together a messy but fun cover of Tom Petty’s “Zero From Outer Space,” and that took up probably two-thirds of the time spent on everything else.

Another thing that took longer than we’d expected was finishing some lyrics I wanted to set to a great tune my brother Bryn had written a few weeks ago. I wanted to see if I could write a good pop breakup song. Since there are so many out there I knew this one would have to be good to compete with, er, radio darlings like Jewel. Then again, maybe I didn’t have to try that hard after all.

I got my initial inspiration from a bummer of a story e-mailed to me by Jacob Zachary, a friend of mine who works in the lower echelons of A&R at Capitol Records, the celebrated label initially reponsible for unleashing the Clap on the world. They’d dropped us after our original lead singer hacked and sputtered his way to an embarassing, decadent death in the middle of a high-profile press conference. Jake had argued passionately against our expulsion from Paradise, and paid for his loyalty with a demotion and slashed salary. Now, on top of all that, he’d been brutally dumped by his longtime girlfriend.

It was a twisted, pathetic tale, and it had everything- lust, betrayal, superficiality, cheap controlled substances, dumb jealousy, vindictive manipulation- the works. It had threatened to suck everyone within a 200-foot radius into its putrid, festering maw, what with the rending of garments, pulling of hair, and throwing of previously cherished possessions off fifth-story balconies. Jake had even called me up a few times amidst the concurrent saga of The Clap’s crumbling record deal, simply to blubber and moan about how unfair it all was, and he was so consistently unintelligible that I couldn’t tell if he was talking about the band’s rejection or his blasted relationship. Ultimately, I guess it didn’t matter; he ended up in therapy, his ex was confined to rehab, and we came in a distant and hapless third. I pretended to care, but secretly I cursed the whole awful situation for alienating other labels, whose erstwhile interest in The Clap might have precipitated conspicuous and flashy bidding wars.

That’s a cruel thing to say, but the whole thing was just too ridiculous for me by that point. As everyone knows, I refuse to overanalyze things like this, so most of the time while I was reading his letter, I was either laughing or gagging. Still, I thought to myself that this might make great fuel for a pop song since those things are inherently melodramatic and self-obsessed, and that’s why radio stations play them and people buy those singles like there’s no tomorrow, even though they can hear the ditty on the radio and see the video on MTV in heavy rotation.

I fought with this concept for hours, and I couldn’t compromise it with the premise that I was essentially creating a very stupid, trashy, throwaway thing that might nevertheless sell umpteen million copies and might even make me famous.

Adam tried to help by repeatedly strumming some really cheesy chords he’d lifted from an awful Richard Marx song. After about eight bars of this crap I had to severely restrain myself so as to not replay John Belushi’s guitar-smashing scene from “Animal House.” Adam got the point; seeing that his new $800 Gibson might have a very short life, he did a complete 180 and instead played a really nasty E-minor blues progression. Bryn soon followed with his own axe, answering Adam phrase for phrase.

This was perfect, I thought. If I could make a cloying, selfish lyric to go with this… now that would be a great song. I jumped in on bass, and we slowed the tempo down to a crawl so the music sounded like a lumbering dinosaur. Nope, we decided, too Zeppelin, too obviously derivative. It needed grace, so Bryn switched to piano and bingo- we had our tune. We recorded this thing for ten minutes, with induldent solos all around.

As the others started editing, whittling the track down to size, I took all the sappiness of my poor friend’s story and melded it with what we’d recorded and presto- three verses of a blues song emerged from my brain in as many minutes. I called it “The Worst Way,” as in “leaving someone in…” and then Adam overdubbed a vocal on top of our music tack and that was that. This session wasn’t going to get any better, so we stopped there with some very, very good songs under our belts.

Look out America- here comes The Clap… again.