Minor Secrets of the Mr. T Experience Revealed

I recently acquired video of a show my band, the Mr. T Experience, did at Seattle’s (great but now defunct) RCKNDY club in 1998.

Amy Yambor, who worked there at the time, came to one of our recent shows, said she’d stumbled on the tape recently, and handed me a DVD, which was nice of her. But I wasn’t expecting much: most such videos are of pretty terrible quality, hardly worth looking at or listening to. This one, however, was different. Despite a few glitches from the transfer from VHS, it proved to be quite good, an unusually clear and distinct capture of the live set and a kind of snapshot of the band during a period in which many people are rather interested. Nothing fancy, you understand. But this is basically what it was like to see us in that era, except it was way way louder and sweatier than it is on your laptop. (Probably.)

I figured “my people” might like to see a bit of it, so I clipped out a few songs and posted them individually on youtube, adding a bit of commentary on the songs when linking on the various social media platforms. As with other recent bursts of song-commentary, these write-ups were styled “minor secrets of [song] revealed.” In the end I ended up doing this for all of the songs over the last couple of months posting the final song and entire video last week.

Starship crew (Jym, Dr. Frank, Joel) on the road

People seemed to dig the write-ups and I got several requests to collect them in a single place, so that’s what I’m doing now. They are presented in the order in which I posted them, edited a bit for clarity and to eliminate redundancy. A youtube playlist of the individual videos may be found here if you’d like to follow along; I’ll also link at the items and embed the whole set with the final entry below. Enjoy?

1She’s Coming (over Tonight): Silly though it may be, I’ve always considered this to be one of my best, most effective songs. Unlike many of the tunes on the Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You album the recording came out pretty much as intended (though probably a bit too fast.)

An assistant engineer at the session commented that it was the most hard rockin’ Bubblegum she’d ever heard, and while I’ve probably heard Bubblegum that’d have made her head spin I took that as a good sign. It’s how it was meant. And the song does exactly what it’s supposed to do.

The bridge “everyone makes fun of me / they do it right in front of me / they don’t think someone shy like me / could get a girl like that to like a guy like me” is one of my favorite lines I ever came up with. Shy like me / guy like me… I still pat myself on the back for that one every so often.

2"Another Yesterday”: “Okay, I’m gonna make a deal with you: I’m gonna try to sing all the words to every song. Unless you knock the microphone away from me, then I’m not gonna be able to do it. So the choice is yours, you wanna hear all the words or not?” I can’t believe that worked.

“Another Yesterday” was an attempt to rein in my tendency to over-write and do something simpler than usual, as a songwriting exercise basically. I think it’s got quite a lot going for it despite/because of that. I was always pretty dissatisfied with the studio recording: it feels rushed and slapdash. I’d meant it to be darker, more melancholy, and I had a pretty specific production concept in mind, to use a “Help You Ann” type tremolo on a few guitars layered and delayed. I wanted it to sound harsh but beautiful. I didn’t get a chance to try that, though a very slight bit of it is mixed in in the recording (and it does sound pretty cool, just not anywhere near what was imagined.) So this is another one of those “what might have been” songs, a bit bittersweet like those always are.

It has a good energy live though, and it always gratified me how much people responded to it, given that there’s nothing remotely “novelty” about it.

3BBC”: For a brief period we used to close our sets with this Austin Powers / “Ming Tea” song. It was fun, trust me.

4Ready Set Go”: I was quite surprised to see this song in the set. It was not often performed, that I recall, by any line-up. (Maybe it was a request that we tried to “wing” — there’s some chord flubs in the bridge, not that that proves much as there are almost always a few of those.)

Anyway, I do remember having the sense, at the time, that songs such as this from the 1992 Milk Milk Lemonade album were ancient, obscure artifacts that could be excavated from time to time as a kind of stunt. Six years is a long time at any given point, perhaps, but nearly twenty years on from that point it all seems like everything is pretty much of a piece.

As for the song itself, it’s a rather lazy attempt at an extended metaphor (the romantic object as terrarium pet) that goes off not fully “cocked”, so to speak, like many songs of its era. Songwriting negligence of this kind always embarrasses me a little still, even as I recognize that such half-cockedness and the resulting blurred correspondences and off-kilter focus can be the most interesting thing about them, hardly achievable on purpose should that be a thing you’d ever want to do. I know this song is beloved by many, whatever the case. Maybe it’s all in that riff, which, though I say it myself, would rule per se, whatever it was used for or in.

5Tapin’ Up My Heart”: I remember this song being received with skepticism and a decided lack of enthusiasm by band and producer… someone (I can’t remember who) tried to nudge me toward ditching it by saying it resembled something the Mentors might do. If only, and also, yeah, I didn’t get that either and still don’t. Of course, in the circumstances in which they encountered it (tiny practice room, inadequate PA, inept “chops”, and total chaos enveloped by a miasma of defeatism and demoralization) its special un-Mentorsy qualities were no doubt rather hard to spot.

Nevertheless it became one of the more popular tunes and largely set the tone for what was to come in the next few years, song-wise and arguably sound-wise. It’s got some pretty nice lines and it performs what I like best in a song fairly well, the feat of taking a dumb or unlikely conceit and making it work by sheer force. I brought in my old pal Dallas Denery to sing some basic backups for the recording. His verdict on the lyrics: something like “far out, daddy-o.” Well, they are that. And that cat was dynamite.

I was studying Greek at the time I wrote this and the other “…and the Women Who Love Them” songs while hanging out at a Cole Street cafe in between visits to my father in the hospital, scribbling lyrics in the margins of Plato’s Meno and wondering what to do with my life. (The fact that the answer turned out to be “the Mr. T Experience” is as questionable now as it would have been then. What can I say? I wish I had a better life’s work, but you work with what you’ve got and it’s the only one I had.)

6Thank You for Not Being One of Them”: It can take some doing to come up with an undone take on “us against the world” but I think this one does it. It was one of a handful of songs whose sensibility and narrative voice was appropriated for the King Dork books.

If nothing else, its existence is justified by the lines: “you don’t hesitate to exaggerate and say that it’s okay” and “later that night we hold each other tight and plot their destruction”, the latter of which I’ve seen as a tattoo at least once, along with the song title’s acronym. (And yes, it is so an acronym rather than an “initialism”: pronounced “TIFF-un-boot.”)

I often used to remain silent for the stops and let the audience fill in the line endings, which was great when it worked, but a bit embarrassing when it didn’t, and you never know which you were going to get. For whatever reason I didn’t do it this time, but you can hear the crowd joining in anyway (and if you were there, thanks.)

There was originally a third verse that looked toward a future of growing old together and cultivating an insular life of splendid isolation and loving misanthropy. I can no longer remember how it went, though it’s written down somewhere no doubt, but “Population: Us” was in effect an elaboration on it.

7We Are the Future People of Tomorrow”: This was an “orphaned” song from that great big chunk of material that was whittled down into Love Is Dead, released on the Joe Queer-curated More Bounce to the Ounce compilation a few years later.

I’ve always been fond of it, and considering that it’s kind of a one-off throw-away tune it has always seemed to punch a bit above its weight at shows and such.

How anyone can hear it and not grasp that it’s a sort of parody is beyond me, but it regularly happens (though possibly some of these folks are doing it just mess with me.) On the other hand, I do stand for freedom etc. if I stand for anything and I suppose I’m opposed to oppressionism as well, and opium in your masses must suck very much indeed. So maybe… irony-proof people, we are not so very different you and I.

8Love Is Dead”: Why is the song “Love Is Dead” not on the album Love Is Dead? (For those who don’t know or remember, it appeared on the subsequent album Revenge Is Sweet and so Are You.)

The song was already mostly written when we were mapping out the album, but not recorded in those sessions. The album was “officially untitled” during the recording, though the notebook I had all my lyrics in did have “NAME: Dr. Frank / SUBJECT: Love is Dead!” scrawled on the cover (which I discovered and was surprised by a few years ago when I stumbled on it.) I think I probably didn’t want to commit to the title prematurely, just in case something better came along, though obviously it didn’t.

Anyway, the title had clearly been kicking around in my head, and when that happens a song often results. Leaving the “title track” of the previous album for the following record is a fun gimmick to connect the two that some of my idols have done (Robyn Hitchcock, Elvis Costello) and when it did come to organizing what came to be Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You including “Love Is Dead” on it was like joining a kind of tradition. But at the time it was really just random, the result of everything being tentative and chaotic. Such was the case with the song containing the line that named that album — “I Was Losing You All Along” — which wasn’t on its album because we didn’t finish recording it; and so as well with the song from whose lyrics Yesterday Rules was drawn, which may well be on the next MTX album, should there be one. These things happen.

For what it’s worth, I do think this song would have weakened the Love Is Dead album by being too prominent as a “title track.” It’s better that the theme is danced around, so to speak, and not literally spelled out, and that’s the case with lots of things. Which certainly makes it easier on those of us who aren’t all that good at spelling things out. I’ve been asked about this a lot and I usually say something like “it’s just one of those things,” which is true as well.

As for the song itself, it’s a pretty good essay at that Tin Pan Alley approach to lyrics and structure that I’ve sometimes stabbed at. The bridge is particularly ridiculous (meaning good), illustrating the initial vague notion of “emotional vertigo” with subsequent climbing of what turns out to be a tree, one of the limbs of which the narrator is “out on” etc. I love it when you can take things too far, to the point of stupidity, and somehow it simulates brilliance as long as your words are nice. Or so I like to think.

9I’m Like Yeah but She’s all No”: “And these are ships that I can’t board…”

If I am remembering correctly, this was one of two Love Is Dead tracks that we more or less threw together while mixing at Hyde Street, because we’d run out of time during the tracking at Bay Records. (The other was “That Prozac Moment”, and I think you can hear the slap-dash-ness in both, though it suits TPM a bit more than ILYBSAN, I’d say.) For what it’s worth, that “I’m Like Yeah…” recording is way too fast. We were in a rush, I guess, and I’m sure we saved a few minutes of mixing time thereby.

That opening arpeggio guitar figure owes a bit to “A Quick One…” by way of “Mirror Star,” I suppose. The song is solid, and certainly one of the most popular of my songs. One thing I like about it is that it takes that “like” / “all” / “going” conceit, which could easily have descended into lazy ridicule, and uses it in aid of “characterization” instead. I love it when that happens, and it turns out it works in narrative fiction as well.

10More than Toast”: “When you make a sacrifice you’re supposed to get a wish…”

The kernel of this song was just the idea of playing around with metaphors for love and loss and such, and it evolved into an unstated hypothesis that you can plug just about anything (e.g. “staplegun”) into these kinds of statements with no erosion of emotional meaning for all their absurdity. Eh, it’s hard to explain. It’s never a good idea to try to explain a song: just listen to it (if you want.)

The other element was the old Les Paul Jr. and Marshall half stack I’d lately acquired, which stimulated a nice run of pretty good songwriting. “More than Toast” and “Swallow Everything” (another metaphor deconstruction song, in a way, I guess) were the first songs I wrote using this machinery. More on that general situation here.

Anyway, while “More than Toast” is by no means perfect as a song, it does do pretty much everything it’s supposed to do without going too far off the rails, rare for me at the time and harder to achieve than you’d think.

The dating in the lyrics is accurate: the spirit of ’91 indeed. Because of that metaphor stuff, I’ve always thought of “She’s Not a Flower” as a kind sequel to it. But I guess everything’s a sequel to everything else in a sort of way but not really.

This is one of the most popular tunes in the songbook, #1 in fact by a wide margin if you go by an informal poll conducted on my blog quite some time ago in response to a query about what should be on an MTX best of comp. (The compilation never did come together, though it may yet in future, and we’ll probably do another kind of poll for that.) The song was featured on the soundtrack of the NCAA 06 Football video game, and many people I’ve spoken to have said they became fans after hearing us for the first time in that format. That is indeed probably the furthest “reach” any of my tunes has had. Whatever works, ya know?

11Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba”: Signature tune, I suppose, and all that that entails. The amp going out in the middle of the song was a fairly typical mid-tour event.

Those amplifiers, God love ’em, were exceedingly fragile and not necessarily soldered together all that robustly in the factory… who could have foreseen they’d rattle around in the backs of vans for hours every day for eight weeks at a time several times a year and run at full heat every single night? I can still hear the “tic tic tic tic” sound of the (never-used) reverb doo-dad as the background soundtrack on the road, till it finally rattled itself loose and went silent. It usually wasn’t too long thereafter that other things rattled themselves off as well. Eventually a Fonz-like punch in the face wasn’t enough to make them behave when they gave out during a set. After which, we’d just stop at a local music store, buy a new used one, and carry the dead one around, sometimes bringing it out to stack up and look cool on stage. That’s how KISS started out I think. (The going rate for those JCM 800s back then was $400 each.) Anyway, that’s why I have so many of them now.

Maybe that’s what we did on the way from Seattle to wherever after this show, but I’m not sure; it looks like that one had a few good punches left in it.

Anyway, in this case the punch worked and the crowd luckily was able to fill in for the missing sound by screaming away. A better showman might have stuck around to milk the join-together-with-the-band drama instead of scurrying away to attend to the amp punching, but you know, there were lots of songs left and we weren’t getting any younger. As for the song itself, I’ve written a bit about it recently when posting other vids of it, here and here.

In “primordial” form this one pre-dates most of the Love Is Dead songs. It was not-yet-finished but buzzing in my head during the lengthy, procrastinatory lag between the recording and release of …and the Women Who Love Them. I’d considered trying to throw together a quickie acoustic version to stick on one of the formats as a hidden track in fact (because it seemed likely that that release was to be the MTX’s last hurrah: and it would have been fitting.) In the event it was saved for the band’s subsequent incarnation. I’m not sure it was ever really “finished.” People who have followed some of my recent and not so recent complaints about rhymes and such will notice that this breaks most of my dumb little rules repeatedly and flagrantly. I was only just realizing I had an effective lyric-writing rulebook, but it wasn’t like I was unaware of it at the time either. Maybe I could have done it better, but it just seemed okay the way it was somehow. And it is, after all, a slightly rueful celebration of imperfection so…

12…and I Will Be with You”: I already did a “minor secrets of” write-up about “… and I Will Be with You” when I recently posted the music video and I don’t have much to add in the way of minor secrets, except: this was one of the few songs from that era that came “music first,” that is, we had the basic guitar figure and structure and were fooling around with it for a stretch before I decided it what it was going to be about and stuck in lyrics to that effect. Usually I come up with the song (and the music and lyrics develop together “organically” on the couch) and present it to the band, saying, okay guys, do your worst. Before the lyric-sticking happened, we had been playing it at sound checks, and the title we knew it by was “A Rat on a Bun” — sung like a-rat, a-on, a bun — because the T shirt I was wearing when I introduced it had that phrase and a picture of a girl with a rat in a hot dog bun. (Don’t ask, no idea.) The name stuck. So that’s why the set lists of that era always list the song as “RAT.” If you were wondering about that, now you know.

When Chris Appelgren and I did the layout of the lyric sheet for Revenge Is Sweet, we did it in prose form rather than as verse, as though each song were a chapter of a little novel that happened to rhyme and scan, and I always got a kick of how that looked with the bridge here:

Going all the way, kid. No need to fake it. Half-drunk. Half-naked. Half-awake’ll make it all right.

And you know, this album is a bit novel-y as much as it’s anything. Eat your heart out, Mr. Bukowski.

13You’re the Only One” / “I Fell for You”: Are they really shouting “oi” during “You’re the Only One”? It sounds like it.

Though it’s meant to be an acoustic song, dragging out an acoustic guitar is often impractical and I used to do it this way, turning the volume on the guitar to around 4 till the heavy rock kicks in. (I still do it this way.)

In my experience, the crowd response to such quiet interludes (and to any kind of dynamic pacing, really) can go either way, that is, they dig it for its own sake or they’re put off by any hint of “diversity”. Slow, acoustic, quiet, etc: not “punk”. And ya gotta be: “punk.” Maybe the punk can be restored by chanting “oi oi oi” during it, which is always worth a try. (And, as I’ve said before, the first solo acoustic tunes to appear on an MTX record — “Even Hitler…” and “Will You Still Love Me?” — were greeted with shock, horror, and cries of “sell out” in some quarters: “like Dylan goes electric in reverse,” as one pretty famous guy once put it.) Among those not super concerned with punk policing, though, this song has always been rather beloved, often requested, quoted in yearbooks, etc.

There was one show (at Coney Island High in New York, I think, ‘96-ish) where this great big fat drunk galunk in the crowd had been throwing his weight around, so to speak, for most of the set, knocking over the littler people and just basically being an obnoxious jerk while stopping just short of doing anything so particularly egregious as to get himself kicked out. This was a common thing at such shows and still can be even now that everyone’s all old. By the time it came to “You’re the Only One”, though, he finally went too far and trampled his way to the front of the stage, knocking over the mic and interrupting the song. Well, it’s a short song, and it didn’t seem worth resuming it, so I said something like “well, anyway..” and got ready to move on to the next one. Then I got to see a 280 pound guy beat up and stomped into the ground by around a dozen little girls, who then insisted the song be played from the beginning. Now that’s my kinda security detail. I love my people: you can only push them so far.

About “I Fell for You,” I’ve recently revealed minor secrets in a previous post.

14Here She Comes”: “We blew all our money on dope, guns, and beanie babies…”

Behold my mesmerizing stage presence, ladies and gentleman. And I’ve learned nothing in 20 years, clearly.

“Here She Comes” is one of those songs where the Tin Pan Alley / Noel Coward approach to the lyrics actually clicks; the preposterous, yet (or hence) excellent, rhymes work almost in spite of themselves. Plus, I’ll always love “je ne sais quoi like you wouldn’t believe.” And that ayes/eyes nos/nose stuff… well, ya gotta amuse yourself first and foremost, if you wanna dance alone. Maybe folks don’t dig it because of that stuff, maybe it’s just because it’s “peppy” or whatever, but they do seem to dig it.

This was slated as the lead-off track for Revenge Is Sweet… from the beginning, and though my original plan to give it a “new wave” Attractions-ish tinge with a subtle Farfisa stab and drone on the 7th during the intro parts and bridge never materialized it came out pretty much as intended otherwise. (The CD version was way over-compressed, though, something I’d really like to change if a re-issue ever materializes.)

But production and technical details that you fret about so much in the moment tend to fall away over time (unless they’re notably great or memorably terrible) leaving only the song, somehow, in the end. A solid song can transcend just about any error of judgment, or lousy drum track, or sacrifice of dynamics for loudness, or terrible vocalist.

You just gotta give it twenty years or so. This, at least, I have learned.

15I Just Wanna Do It with You”: The remaining song is the set opener, and since the tape starts somewhere during the front bit of it, I used the occasion to post it with the whole set rather than extract the partial song. Most of it’s there. Enough so you get the idea anyhow.

This is another one of those “beloved songs,” a simple, arch love song that somehow punches above its weight. So many of my lyrics read like dyspeptic greetings cards, but maybe especially these. “You’re the one I want to waste the rest of my whole life with…” “It’s not just the Prozac talking…” (Hallmark, if you ever want to get dark, drop me a line.) The thing is, though, who hasn’t felt that way? You’re wasting your life anyway, why not do it with someone you love and drag each other down?

Many people have been confused by the BART reference. A folk tradition even arose positing a son of mine by that name, who for some reason could not be taken to the residence of the person to whom the song is addressed. This is not true. BART is not a person, but rather an extremely smelly form of public transportation.

I think as originally conceived in my bedroom this song was meant to echo the Beach Boys’ “Do It Again” and I had imagined a more measured tempo and a groovier “swingier” feel, maybe some multi-part harmonies, maybe some droning e-bows and a piano doing single eighth notes on the C, maybe even a didgeridoo… Things can get pretty grandiose in my bedroom, then as now.

But of course, for better or worse, I didn’t happen to have a didgeridoo, nor did I have a band that did measured tempos and groovy swingy feels and multi-part harmonies; but I did have a band that could do this. And, in fact, this has a lot going for it. The energy is great and apt. And pointing at the audience at the appropriate time (or should that be “inappropriate”?) was fun and people seemed to dig it.

Anyway, there you have it. Minor secrets of IJWDIWY revealed, and a good, unusually clear snapshot of the state of the MTX Starship ca. 1998. That really is pretty much what it looked and sounded like, if not exactly what it felt like. For that, you had to be there, as the saying goes.

Like what you read? Give Frank Portman a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.