Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Learning How to Play Common Rotation...from Scratch

I'm not really a musician, but I do play music - specifically, I sing (sort of) and I play the ukulele (sort of). If needed, I can also carry a simple tune on an Irish whistle or Native American flute, but all pretty basic. Mostly, it's three and four chord songs on the uke, and me singing.

I came to music somewhat late in life, relatively - just the last decade. I missed spending teenage summers fiddling around on a cheap guitar; no one ever suggested music to me as something anyone could do - I saw musicians in band at schoool and knew I wasn't one of them, and even though it looked fun, it seemed way outside of my abilities.  So never having gotten the fever and habit when young, I've had to figure out how to fit it in as an adult - squish it in around work and other life demands, such as writing, which is my main creative squeeze.  Because of that, as much as I love music, it's been slow going, and being so late to the party still makes me feel like a poseur. Everyone I know who makes music is way, way better than me.

I give this background because it's relevant to this story; I expect fellow musicians might nod in sympathy while non-musicians might wonder what the hell I am talking about but keep reading anyway.

I went to a music festival over Memorial Day Weekend - it was 25 hours of pure magical delight. Solo camping in up near Auburn, good food and, of course, excellent music - my kind: folky, acoustic-y, bands with names like The Dustbowl Revival and The Mavericks and Big Twang Theory. Headliner Bonnie Raitt was *very * impressive, a real powerhouse energetically and vocally, and she's 65!

I was there to relax, be in nature and enjoy the general relaxed vibe. In terms of music, I was there mostly to see Dan Bern, a perennial favorite. He has played off and on with a band called Common Rotation, an "indie folk band" consisting mostly of three guys, childhood friends who have played together a long time: Eric Kufs (vocal, guitar), Adam Busch (vocals and misc, including harmonica) and Jordan Katz (trumpet and banjo). These days, Dan might bring along just one of them.

At Strawberry, Dan brought Adam, who, this time, was on drums. It was a surprisingly nice combination; I am not usually much of a drums person - if you're going to get rid of one standard band instrument, in my book, drums should be the first to go - but Adam's playing was extremely complementary, as were his vocals - I'm very pro-harmony. So their two shows were damn lovely, memorably beautiful really, in this basically perfect setting of peaceful pines, mellow clouds, fresh air and friendly old hippies.

I've seen CR with Dan a few times, and the first time, I remember thinking, "Who are these guys? They are amazing! Where have they been?" and have been enjoying them ever since. After I got back from the festival, I was very inspired to get back to playing some covers. I'd been working on my own songs, with the idea of perfecting them (as best I can), and then recording them and, you know, releasing them to the world at large - or more likely, releasing them to my family and friends who would probably be the only ones to ever listen to them. I don't have ambitions of fame and fortune, just ambitions of creatively expressing whatever it is I have to express well enough for others to enjoy it - if anyone is ever moved by it, that's guilding the lily.

But for years prior, all I did was covers. From Tom Waits and Tom Jones to Dylan, Zepplin and Floyd, I covered everything from uke standards of the 30's to bad pop from the 80's and 90's - you'd be surprised how good Duran Duran can sound on the ukulele, and "Eye of the Tiger" is always a hit. It was fun. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of songs I loved and wanted to play, and I spent years finding the chords online and learning to play and sing them.

"Three chords and the truth" the saying goes, and it's true - many, many songs are just three chords, or a few more. Even though I'm self-taught and desultory, I got good enough to play most chords, and most songs. Eventually just sheer repetition raised me above the status of total beginner - like my special needs uncle who's got the mental capacity of a nine year old but is nevertheless a good golfer at this point because he's been doing it for 65 years - and I found myself being able to not only play songs but, unexpectedly, write them.

One night after attending a concert at Joe's Pub in NYC, I was walking back to the subway, singing. I sing in public, like a habit. Sometimes I don't even know I'm doing it until someone refers to it. So I'm walking down Lafayette Street, singing, and suddenly it turns into a tune I have never heard and also there seem to be words, so I stop at a corner and write it down in a notebook. I have a chorus. By the time I get to the place I am staying, in SoHo, I have two verses. I grab my uke (portable! good for travel!) and, very quietly, since my friend is asleep in the other room, I figure out the chords to the tune, which I have never done before. After a few random shots in the dark, one chord sounds right and I follow a standard progression (A, D, E7 - hardly a revelation) which seems to work.

The next morning, I wake up and hope it still sounds okay, because I can get into reveries at night where everything seems so important and grand, only to feel very deflated in the morning. But no, it's stood up well overnight, so I write the last verse, and suddenly - with very little seeming effort on my part - I had written my first song.

After the Strawberry Festival, all folked up, I naturally listened to lots of folk for the next couple days, and found myself with Common Rotation's "My Kingdom" stuck in my head. There's a version that Dan and CR do together, which was the one I knew. It was in my head for long enough, I figured I would try learning the song, a remedy that usually cures the earworm (or, occassionally, exacerbates the situation - but why not take the risk).

Then I ran into a familiar snag, which happens all too often - no chords or tab. Typically, some kind and generous musical soul somewhere in the wide world has figured it all out for me and posted the chords somewhere online. Not so in this case. In fact, I couldn't even find the *lyrics* online. What the hell? I'd never been able to NOT find lyrics before, to any recorded song, but no: the band's site did not have them, and Dan's site - wonderfully and almost absurdly extentsive, literally hundreds of songs, lyrics for ALL of them, well indexed - refers one back to CR's site. Hmm. No fans had ever typed up the damn thing and posted it somewhere? What the hell was this internet good for anyway, if it wasn't going to deliver obscure knowlegde to me when I needed it?

And this knowledge shouldn't even be obscure. Common Rotation isn't some garage band of my cousin - they have, you know, multiple albums on iTunes and a Wikipedia page. The hallmark in our modern society of whether you are above or below the obscure line is: do you have a Wikipedia page? I do not. Dan, Adam and Common Rotation all do - which made me wonder how it was possible to have this song be represented online solely by a few downloads and videos?

On occassion, I have been forced to try to figure out chords to a song, which I find devilishly impossible and which I have only done once, even close to successfully. Since playing by ear is out, my method is to watch the guitarist. If there is a video with a clear shot, I can make out chord shapes, and I know enough guitar to recognize about five chords on sight. Pretty limited, but hey, indie folk is rarely more than five chords so this was about my speed.

In this case, I had to piece together the lyrics too, which proved tougher than expected. You know how sometimes you think you know the words to a song, and then you read them, and it's like, what are these? I don't remember hearing this part! It was like that - I felt I knew the song, but once I started to really listen, I discovered I did not know most of the lyrics. Plus, the recording I had featured Eric singing, who has a dreamy, buttery 70's voice but he mumbles; half the words were obscured. Dan sings one short verse, and he usually annunciates incredibly well (lyrics are a big part of his stuff) but even *his* vocals weren't totally clear. Finally, I started just writing down what I heard:

The tinnering has rung...
Depends the shadows are sold...
Her sutter slowly enfolds....
Is a lone (something) in his path...

None of it made much sense. There were horses, and a canyon, and a valley and birds, but it wasn't coming together. The chorus was clear, I got that, but the verses were inscrutable. Oddly, when searching for alternate versions on YouTube, in hopes that a different vocal take might be clearer, I found one with great visuals that made it easy to figure out the typically hard part - the chords! A long close up on Eric's hand seemed practically engineered just for the purpose of future musicians that can't learn by ear - though even with that boon, I'm still fuzzy on one chord, oh well.

But the words remained challenging. I complained to my partner, J - I'm having trouble with this song. He said, didn't you just meet one of the guys in the band? (Adam, yes, I had). Why don't you ask him? He should know. But that seemed a little silly - I never want to bug anyone.  "Bug them?" J said, "But don't musicians LIKE when you cover their stuff? Isn't that a hallmark of success? Wouldn't he *want* to help?"  He made a good point, though I really have no idea how musicians feel when someone covers their songs, and anyway, I was in this thing deep now, I was going to figure it out, dammit!

I slept on it, tried again the next day, a different video. As I worked, it was interesting how certain phrases became more clear, based on context.  "Lone ___ in its path" turned out to be lone wolf (should have figured that out sooner), and it was, logically, the *dinner bell* that rang. It began to make some sense - though lyrics are poetic, word choices can be surprising, and hopefully original, so I wasn't able to nail everything down. I still don't know if the horses are all set or the horses are all sad, but I'm pretty sure there are horses doing something that starts with an S. And did you know that "beckon" and "back in" sound alike and can be used interchangeably in certain circumstances?

I didn't say I got it perfect - but I got close enough. Close enough that when I sat down and played the thing, it made me feel really, really happy. I checked my version against the recording - same key, whew - and hey! It was okay! Suddenly it was like playing with CR. And, as a bonus, these vocals seemed to be right in my range. This song felt so comfortable, it was like being wrapped in a fleece blanket in front of a fire - I relaxed right into it and it felt splendid.

I'm not sure exactly from what this euphoric effect arose: the satisfaction of finally doing this not-very-hard thing that had always eluded me before, or just the beauty of the song, or the surprise that my version was maybe not so bad because it felt so good. Who knows? Music is magical and it brings joy, so I'll leave it at that.

And, since the responsibility seems to have fallen on me, out of billions of people, to be the one to provide this information, here it is, as best as I could do. Never let it be said I did not do my part to keep the internet useful for generations to come!

My friend Z tells me (and I'm paraphrasing here) that greatness lies not in the success but in the full attempt made in earnest.... Even so, apologies to CR for any errors, and thanks, boys, for the journey.

My Kingdom (lyrics / chords)

The horses are all sad, ashes in a canyon (G D C D)
When the birds scare the daylight back into the fold 

There’s no peace in the valley for the life that is ending
For the warmth on the ridges deep in the shadows is old

The easy chairs have rocked me (GD)
Easier times have come (Em C)
Nothing could ever stop me now (GD)
I know my kingdom will come (Em D G)

The cowboy soprano is a lone wolf in his path
His tomb was taken from him while his body lay intact

The dinner bell has rung, and all has reacted
At the pace of their own heart to the stories they’ve been told

But the wind shakes the shutter and the shelter for the fold
And the warmth of a supper slowly getting cold

Here's what it sounds like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4SMLQrgGxw
And the easy-to-see version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwvrQ9m5uic

A few months later, I met Eric after a show and asked him directly about the lyrics. He generously corrected them for me, so here are the RIGHT lyrics - just the parts I got wrong:

  • Winter birds scare...
  • And the warmth on the ridges deep in the shadows is sold
  • His tune was taken from him... (and the whole song makes a lot more sense!)
  • But the wind shakes the shutter and the shelter for the folk


  1. I enjoyed reading about your evolution and persistence. I think you got it.

  2. Thanks for this, been looking around for the chords to this great song.