“Second Hand Man” (2011)

foto scenery_small“Second Hand Man”
To sketch the “story” behind this song: It’s June 2005, not so far from my birthday. I’m in Cracow with this stunning aspiring actress, Sonia W. We had one argument too many, we just parted ways, and at 4 A.M. I walk into Kefirek (a store near Planty, if I remember well), totally drunk and I hear Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” on the radio. This theatrical coincidence makes me laugh, then cry, then laugh again, hiding tears and grins so that the cashier won’t notice. I buy another bottle of cheap wine and stumble back to Planty where I spend the rest of the night and morning with other drunkards: poets, actors, musicians, discussing everything from used cars to religion and philosophy. In the morning she’s gone for good, but out of the laughter and her “compliments” a song is born early next day. Losers are finally winners, and I’m using her words, this time against her, in the lyrics, almost quoting her in one place. I’ve no idea where she ended up, but I don’t wanna know, as even small doses of fame are deadly. I only hope she won’t be reading this or hearing the album – “White Lady” was also written for her, not the drug, but that’s another boring story.

“Just for Love”
This little song was written as a joke in the summer of 2005 – I wanted it to sound like an archetypal early “rock’n’roll” tune, complete with simple, Buddy Holly-like lyrics and Bo Diddley rhythm. Originally it included a long wah-wah guitar solo between the second and third verse, but this version wasn’t even properly recorded. It’s a shame, since it had more of a psychedelic blues feel (close to the late Bo Diddley albums) instead of the polished pop sound that got released on the album and played on the radio (which put the song closer to Holly aesthetics). The “there’ll be no rain” line is a result of my mistake in the studio – believe it or not, I’ve forgotten the absurdly simple line and sang “rain” instead of “shade” – and, as we all know, in a rock’n’roll tune “made” should definitely rhyme with “shade”, as me and Anka sang correctly in the chorus – but since this first take was perfect except for this one little word, we decided to keep it on the album. For all the rock’n’rollers out there, who still remember Buddy and Bo and other classic rockers and originators.

“There’s a Sign”
This was written quickly in January 2006 – this was also one of the many songs that weren’t demoed for the album in their entirety back in 2009 – I only had a short 47 second snippet of “The Sign” recorded prior to the studio sessions, merely to remember the guitar melody. The album version was originally meant to be recorded in a much slower tempo, but I didn’t even take the idea to the studio. “The Sign” was often performed live and on the streets, and I played it regularly in the January-March 2006 period. Then the song sort of vanished from live rotation, as I was working on many new things, but I decided to use it on “Second Hand Man” for its unique ambiance – I have to admit though, that it took its final shape only during the sessions, when Andrzej tried to give it a “Simon & Garfunkel feel” and I wanted to make it sound like “Golden Brown”. The combination of these approaches gave this tune a sound of its own, recently compared to Legendary Pink Dots, which is kind of funny, since I didn’t know about The Dots’ existence until late 2007. The short “poem” at the end was an improvised “telephone monologue” to the girl I love – it felt so strange recording it after 4 long years and many more girls I loved… it was Andrzej’s idea to leave this “message” on the album. “Taken to the high place of light / And insanity.”

“The Wistful Song”
This is the first song I wrote after first encountering Leonard Cohen’s music in the summer of 2005. I discovered him through two cheap (5 PLN each) worn LPs: “Songs of Leonard Cohen” and “Songs of Love and Hate” – I guess I still own the former LP… I tried to write something similar to his songs, or even imitate him to a certain degree, since I was very young and under a great impression of Mr. Cohen’s songwriting skills (at first I didn’t like his voice…) and I also wanted to impress a girl. Anyway, I sat down to write the music first. I finished in about 20 minutes, maybe less. The lyrics took me equally long, as I simply put the first words that came to mind to the rhythm (first, stream of consciousness) and vocal melody (second, rewrite). In that way, “Wistful Song” was born, and I’m pretty sure it owes a lot to Mr. Cohen’s music, even if he obviously works on his songs for a little longer than I did in 2005. In the studio it got a distinct reggae/club vibe thanks to Andrzej’s arrangement, and I even joked “hey, we might need a Jamaican toaster somewhere in the middle…” when I first heard the results. I liked them though, and I liked them a lot, as they put a Cohen-inspired tune far away from Cohen’s usual aesthetics and gave it a spice of uniqueness, if that is even possible in today’s music / entertainment world.

“Me and My Little Mademoiselle”
Origins of this tune date back to 2004 when I wrote all the lyrics for the verses, probably after returning from Berlin, using the notes I took there. It was my second trip to Berlin, and I’ve read some amazing Irish and Canadian poetry while there, since the landlord had such great books in the room where I lived. It was also the first time I’ve read “Finnegans Wake” and I copied favorite fragments into my notebook. The music as we know it (including the “contagious guitar melody” as someone put it, which was originally meant to be whistled) was written after my return from Cracow, back in June 2005, which places the song together with “Second Hand Man”, “Just for Love”, “The Wistful Song”, “White Lady” and “A Lesson in Love” on the album. There used to exist an earlier version of the guitar melody, which unfortunately wasn’t even demoed, and is now lost. On the persistent suggestions of a friend, who thought the song would be too two-dimensional, I’ve added choruses in 2010, trying to write in the mood of my 2005-self, which wasn’t easy, since a lot happened (including lots of poetry chapbooks with my name on them) since I first started working on “Mademoiselle”, and it was hard to keep my vocabulary restrained. It was definitely a long trip to finally “sing the blues for my lady’s pleasure”, and a long return from Rimbaud’s “Season in Hell”.

“Scenery” was written in September 2005. I think it’s the only song I wrote in September that year. The impulse for the “writing process” was a discussion I had with an old actor on a bus stop in Poznan, Poland, waiting for the night bus. We were discussing life, lifestyles, art and people we both met, thinking everything over, sharing a bottle of wine. We had about 30 minutes to finish the discussion, as he was about to take a different bus. But the discussion went on and on, and in the end my partner decided to take my bus instead. He said, “Son, whatever you do, don’t become an actor. Don’t go to Cracow again. They’ll destroy you, like everyone without a background…”. I was taking his drunken advice and thinking about my future as a regular young man, perhaps a teacher. Suddenly the line “The weak have no place of their own” started sounding in my head. It was “instant writing” – the words and the melody came together at once, unexpected, definite and free. I decided to write down the idea as fast as I could, so I opened my notebook and started doing my thing. The old actor (I think Robert was his name) asked “What you’re writing in there?”. “A song”, I said. He laughed, coughed and said “I thought you were a reasonable young man, whose ambitions can be cured. Now I see we’re both insane. You can only write. I can only act. That’s all we ever do. We’re hopeless with people…”

“White Lady”
“White Lady” was written in 2005, demoed many times, but never close to what I actually heard in my head. The final album version was completed in several stages in 2010 and 2011. It was one of the most demanding songs to record and one of the hardest to produce. None other song on “Second Hand Man” took this long to finish. Around the original chord progression and vocal melody we tried different solutions and ideas to make it sound right. One of the baddest ideas (happened just after I tried to record a guitar based rock’n’roll cover of “Birth of Liquid Plejades”) was having me play Fender Jazz Bass on this tune. To my surprise this “charmingly dilettante” bass stayed on the album (originally it was recorded only as guide bass for Andrzej). Other ideas included having reversed guitars in the middle part (finally replaced with sitar+electronics), singing Garcia-like harmony lines in the chorus (finally replaced with distorted acoustic guitar) and having me howl “white lady” (luckily replaced with Anka’s beautiful vocals). I’m not sure how many of those experiments were actually recorded, but I’m glad this innocent love song for Sonia W. appears on the album in this, not any other, finished, imperfect form. There exists a version with alternate sitar, and a different bass mix – perhaps it’ll surface one day, when the time is right.

“A Lesson in Love”
This little tune was almost left off of the album, mainly because Andrzej didn’t like the “dylanesque” vocals I originally performed. I was with him on this decision, since I didn’t like the lyrics at all. This song aged badly as compared to other June 2005 material that found its way onto “Second Hand Man”, but, to be honest, I couldn’t get the melody out of my head. So, on Andrzej’s suggestion I changed my approach to the vocals, and tried to be myself, despite obvious stylizations on the chorus, which were hard to remove from my consciousness. Anyway, this was a simple song I wrote to mix in with “White Lady”, “Mademoiselle” and “Wistful Song”, but not stand out in any way. I guess I have to admit it was filler quality material, even by my 2005 standards. For the album version, I wanted to keep the “innocence” and freshness here, so we haven’t decided to use a complex arrangement. Instead, we focused on acoustic guitar and voice and added some gentle electronics, but nothing to disturb the light, breezy atmosphere. We didn’t want to use drums and bass, since Andrzej wanted to avoid “bar aura”, and I agreed on that. I ended up having a delicate, radiant song on the album, a song sounding completely different than its 2005 predecessor, “A Lesson on Love”.

“Nocturnal Graffiti”
This song was originally a part of an album project of the same name. Out of this project two songs were chosen for “Second Hand Man”: the title track and “The Night Has Come”. I’ll surely make use of the remaining 10 songs later on. “Nocturnal Graffiti” originally had a completely different feel and vibe – slower, and much closer to The Cure (emphasized by characteristic guitar melodies), as heard on the first demo I cut in 2009. Even if just before the sessions I wanted to go for a “Boys Don’t Cry” vibe, in the studio we decided to give this song a traditional “50’s rock’n’roll” feel, since Andrzej probably perceived the chord progression as “classic” – I only thought it was “cliche” and tried to “punk things up”. After all I agreed with Andrzej, since he has great taste in music, so we removed the complex bass line, got rid of the guitar melodies and tried to get as close to “Diana” as possible. It wasn’t hard to forget my punk roots for this number and mess around with the idea, as it was a nice experience trying to get into another role – the role of a crooner. In the end, the crooning vocals turned out to be a deceptive addition, as they put the track dangerously close to the “parody” line, and I didn’t want to cross it. So, in the end, I managed to preserve the “Cure feel” in the vocals and I’m thankful I was allowed to do it. “Nocturnal Graffiti” and “The Claw” are probably the best examples of compromising youthful force with veteran experience on the entire “Second Hand Man”.

“The Night Has Come”
Another (and the last) track from the never recorded “Nocturnal Graffiti” album that found its place on “Second Hand Man”. “The Night Has Come” tells a tale of Jeżyce (one of Poznan’s districts) in the first seconds of night. Though the lyrics might misguide the listener, the tale is actually told, or rather painted, with music, and the words are treated more like sounds, sounds that fit in well with the music and carry a brief, bleak message of loneliness in the city. A story of friends who didn’t make it, who didn’t survive the metaphoric night, or those who were lucky, but returned changed, no longer accustomed to daylight: “Some of us return no more / To the day’s bright galore”. In the studio we decided on sparse arrangements including ominous Hammond, Moog and “orchestral drums” in addition to my “heavy” bass part, acoustic guitars and vocals. Anka Hołowiecka sung the choruses beautifully with me, and her voice adds depth to the whole track. I think the sound can be easily compared to some of the tracks on “The Above Ground Sound of Jake Holmes”. It’s a similar electro-acoustic ambiance, with psychedelic undertones and blues feel with thoughtful electronics in just the right places. This is definitely a track I’m proud of, my favorite from this album, and I wouldn’t change a thing in this version. I remember the initial idea to put “aggressive” vocals through a ring modulator, and I even experimented at home with this technique, but in the end Andrzej convinced me to sing “conventionally”, to simply “tell my tale”. I’m glad I listened to his advice. Andrzej definitely knew how to squeeze creative juices out of me, but keep the outcome reasonable and acceptable for average listeners.

“The Claw”
This was the first song recorded for “Second Hand Man”, my first job with Andrzej in his A.Mix Studio, on April 22 2010. I wrote the words and music in February 2006, but Andrzej’s input in 2010 was large enough to co-credit him for writing music. It was his idea to turn a conventional folk song into an electronic number, his arrangement and his mind-blowing solo that made the song what it is today. I remember we originally aimed for a Cohen feel and sound (from “Various Positions” onward), but in the process I mentioned Kraftwerk, and so the story began… The lyrics are both introverted and psychedelic, they have references to sex, roses and sharp things, and one day I’d like to hear some psychoanalyst’s opinion on their substance – I’m sure it would be both interesting and hilarious. Originally the song featured acoustic guitar underneath the synths, but we removed it since it didn’t fit in with the “dehumanized” sound – sure, the track is “warm”, but it also features a cold undercurrent which I wanted to preserve – live guitar added too much warmth and “folksiness” and so it had to go. The vocals were recorded quickly and rather painlessly, even if it was the first time I sang in a professional studio. What you hear on the album is essentially the first take and various overdubs. I believe they were all cut on one day. I have a dream to record the “original” acoustic version of “The Claw” (two guitars/bass/vocals). Perhaps I’ll even do it in between “Gypsy” sessions, if time and budget allows.

“Curtain Song”
This tune was written in December 2005, but I’ve added synthesized piano (that later served as the basis for Andrzej’s arrangement) in late 2009 when I was demoing stuff for “Second Hand Man”. “Curtain Song” is awfully simple, but I believe the most sophisticated complexity hides in basic melodies and emotions. This is a song about the end of a relationship, but also hope, urban collapse, reincarnation and the acting scene in Cracow – the hopelessness that waits in the wings, when the show is over and void starts showing from behind the clowns’ predictable masks. In November 2005 I was first introduced to the work of Antonin Artaud and I tried (in a then-teenage way) to incorporate his thought and aesthetics into a folk / pop song. The sound of “Curtain Song” should, in theory, provide the listeners with visions of shady Polish streets through which equally shady individuals: actors, singers, hookers, pass slowly, half-anonymously, interacting with each other only on a basic, vulgar level (“The actors are drinking and Marie wants to fuck”). I guess the message this song carries shows most in the last line which reads “We’re all too young for these cool sleepy hours / Craved [sic] in dark stone and written on sand”. We’re not carved in stone. We’re not made of clay. We are free, “with brains like a rainbow”, free to live the only life we have. The way we want to.