Lately I have been spending a lot of my free time perched in my chair, pouring over old poetry notebooks, tracking down lost songs.
Ever the archivist, when I built my first “artist” website back on Geocities I made it a point to unflinchingly catalog all of my songs – from the very first – noting the birth date of each one. That list eventually became a virtual discography that numbered each song sequentially running through the writing of “Under My Skin” during freshman year at Drexel.
Half a decade of intervening years has erased my memory of all but the “greatest hits” of those early songs. In some cases I can still recall a melody, or a few chords, but in others I’m surprised that I even wrote a song by that name. My longtime undercounting of my catalog at 140 songs was a result of this – fully sixty songs has been discarded or forgotten.
As I build my new MYSQL song database I have been slowly reconstructing and archiving those songs – their lyrics and chords, but also the stories behind them. In some cases its easy. A few days ago I unearthed one forgotten oldie from its original notebook, complete with lyrics, chord diagrams, and even some guitar tab. It held up remarkably well when i played it. Other songs are much more obscure – existing only as scraps of notebook paper – scribbled lyrics littered with strikeouts and arrows. Or, worse, just a single 8-bit recording, my tenative voice floating in from somewhere in the 90s to remind me I wasn’t always this loud.
Of course, even the most well preserved of these songs are still seven or eight years old, and my compositional abilities at seventeen are a strange match for my performance abilities at twenty-five. While some sound miraculously intact, others are fragments of some wholer emotion I couldn’t refine enough at the time.
On Tori Amos’s recent boxed set she reached back to the masters from Little Earthquakes to pluck a song – “Take Me With You” – that was only partially finished out of obscurity. Building from the original piano composition, she reconstructed the lyrics:
The truth is, there was a vocal on the 1990 take, and the lyrics to the chorus are the same. I’ve retained the chorus and parts of the bridge and used it as a skeleton. Then I worked around what was just humming in the verses. But the bridge was close to being there and the choruses were intact, so I haven’t changed a word. – Record Collector, Nov 2006
Tori’s idea is a seductive one – that of mining old material for new material, subtly updating a fragmented song to make it complete. Should I play the part of Tori to these unrefined tunes, shoring up the tentative framework of existing lyrics or layering in additional passing chords where once they were only implied? What if the identity of those songs is intrinsically linked to their naivite? Says Tori, “First of all you have to be able to think that you can almost channel yourself as you were then, and yet still be you now.” Is it worth it to interfere?
Just as alluring, there are two songs that seem to be entirely unfindable, even after pouring through every notebook, every folder of scraps. Interestingly, in both cases I remember exactly what the song was about. In one case I even remember the general shape and sound of the tune, and even the color of ink I wrote it with, but none of the specific lyrics or chords. If I were to reconstruct either of these song would they be something new, even though it uses the original idea as a touchtone? Are they better left lost?
I’m never sure why it’s so important to me to manage my catalog of songs so carefully, never letting one slip into obscurity. It reminds me of my childhood, how i would pour over the liner notes to every new cassette, memorizing credits, sourly disappointed if lyrics weren’t included. Even as I painstakingly transcribed lyrics from faded paper and chords from lo-fi recordings I find myself pausing to examine snippets of songs that were never finished enough to be included on the discography, wondering if they could be refurbished into something new and complete.
I suppose the correct answer is, “Yes, if it makes a good song.” But, I’m not really searching for good songs. I just want my catalog to be entirely performable, and listenable. If that requires some minor reconditioning, so be it. But, if I write in entire new verses by my 2006 self, can I rightfully call the song the same thing I did in 1998?