Saturday, March 4, 2017

Gloriously Baffling: The Real Story Behind "Sonny the Monster" (Part 2)

This is the second of three posts telling my story behind the making of my cover of "Sonny the Monster," which became part of the Guided by Voices canon when it was released on the compilation Suitcase 3: Up We Go Now. If you haven't read the first part yet, I would suggest starting there. 

Choosing “Sonny”

During the late 1980s, I was trying to make something happen with music again. I had gone to college and then graduate school. For a year, I actually worked on a Ph. D. in finance at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Unfortunately, I was homesick (I had met my future wife, who was back in Dayton at that point), and I found I just didn't have the chops for the advanced math involved. I dropped out of the doctoral program and came back to Dayton, was married and worked at Wright State for a year as an adjunct finance instructor. In the spring of 1987, the university fell on hard times and my contract was not renewed.

During the period between jobs that followed, I got intensely into doing music. Although I played drums and some guitar, I also identified very heavily with piano and keyboards. I greatly admired virtuoso players from the prog rock realm, like Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson. I also really dug jazz and fusion players like Chick Corea. The only problem was, I stank as a keyboard player. I had taken a piano course in college and barely passed. By the 80s, though, I was helped by a new technological development: the sequencer.

Several years before, the chief builders of synthesizers had gotten together and created a standard to allow their various instruments and gear to communicate back and forth. The standard was called Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI. A sequencer was a box that you could hook up to MIDI instruments to make them play whatever you wanted. This allowed me to overcome my fat, uncoordinated fingers. With a sequencer, I could record complex passages very slowly and then speed them up. With the fullness of time, I did develop some rudimentary skill, but sequencing sped up my creative process greatly.

I was doing a lot of writing in 1986-88 (not a Bob Pollard lot, but a lot for me). Most of it was a cross between what would now be called smooth jazz and New Age (which at that time was still actually, well, new). I also tried my hand from time to time at pop, country, love songs to my wife, and some occasional rock. I was talking back and forth at one point with an aspiring filmmaker in the area about potentially scoring an independent film he was trying to produce, but that never panned out. To be honest, neither did anything else, really. It was during a period some time in 1988, while I was in a dry spell trying to come up with ideas, that I remembered "Sonny the Monster."

Anacrusis was mainly a cover band at the beginning, but the band had developed at least six originals I can remember. "Daddy's in the State Pen" was a straightforward rocker about a wife beater whose son (the singer) has to grow up fast. "Somewhere Sometime" was a wistful ballad. "Fame and Fortune" was the band's signature song, a power ballad that Bob sang at times as though channeling Paul Rodgers. Recordings of those three were made and released and in the various Suitcases. You can find them on YouTube, although they're hardly the best versions. Another original was "Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia," which was later borrowed as the title for the GbV record on which I played. I found that song interesting because it had a slow verse that went double time in the chorus. (I can still hear the repeating "I'm goin' back/I'm goin' back."). "Status Symbol" was another rocker I’d forgotten about; thanks to Tony for jogging my memory. (Somebody once mispronounced it as “Status Stymbol” and that became its unofficial title.)

Then there was "Sonny the Monster." The narrator is a sad sack who's run up huge gambling debts that he cannot repay, and he now must face the wrath of the local crime boss, the title character. Sonny was based on a stereotypical local figure the likes of which you find in every town in the world of any size. One of Dayton’s most notorious at the time was a fellow named Bill Stepp. Tony Conley reminded me.

Bill Stepp was the godfather of the organized crime in the Miami Valley [Dayton area] from the 1960's through the 1990's. He was involved in extortion, racketeering, dog fighting, prostitution, loan sharking, and anything else illegal. He was an extremely talented street fighter and had a violent streak a mile wide. He was a true gentleman to those who didn't cross him and managed to avoid prison time all his adult life. He was the guy that put Larry Flynt into business and had some of the most dangerous men in the nation working for him that were scared of him. Some of which are now in prison.

In my choice to cover, "Sonny" I seized on one distinct advantage it had over the other Anacrusis songs: I thought I remembered all the words. The song was what I would consider a midtempo heavy rocker that made extensive use of power chords. So extensive, in fact, as to be harshly dissonant to my ear. I think several people tried to get Bob to change the chords, but he would have none of it. It was still a rocking song, but given my resources and the times, I decided to recast it as a contemporary, if quirky, pop song.

Next: Anatomy of a weird cover song

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