Sunday, February 15, 2009

pat mAcdonald

In 1987, Timbuk3 appeared on Saturday Night Live. They played two songs and I was hooked.

Timbuk3 didn’t play their Top 20 mega-hit, “Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” on SNL that night, but it was being heard just about everywhere else--on the radio, on compilation albums, on movie soundtracks. The song had a brilliant hook and clever lyrics and quickly became (it seemed) an anthem for frat boys and future hedge fund managers who were incapable of perceiving the ironic commentary lurking under its veneer of optimism. For a song about the threat of nuclear annihilation, it's quite upbeat.

I got a job waiting for my graduation
Fifty thou' a year will buy a lot of beer
Things are going great and they’re only getting better
I'm doing all right, getting good grades
The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades

Timbuk3 was a duo--a married couple, Pat MacDonald and Barbara Kooyman. Both sang and played guitar with backup and drum tracks played on a boombox—a trick developed while playing on the streets of Madison WI, and then Austin TX. Pat was the principal songwriter, but Barbara K. contributed some well-written lyrics as well.

The band's biggest album,"Greetings from Timbuk3," was full of musical hooks and catchy word play and textual rhythms, as well as the right touch of political overtones and social commentary. "Life is Hard" is one of my favorites from that album, with lyrics that are worth paying attention to and that have been lodged in my brain for the past twenty or so years: "You can't get to heaven on roller skates. You can't catch a taxicab to Timbuku." (I apologize for the poor video quality).

Timbuk3 put out six or seven studio albums, eventually growing to be a four piece band. They never regained the chart success of "Future's So Bright." The story is that Bausch and Lomb tried to secure the rights to the hit tune to promote Ray Ban sunglasses. Clairol allegedly offered big bucks for another song, "Haircuts and Attitudes" (excerpt of lyrics below). Pat MacDonald turned down all of the offers, standing on principle and artistic integrity. McDonalds (the fast food folks) purportedly offered a million dollars for the rights "Future's So Bright," but MacDonald (the songwriter) wasn't interested in that either.

Timbuk3 eventually broke up, destined to be a one-hit wonder. Pat and Barbara K. divorced in 1996 and MacDonald released a few critically acclaimed solo albums with limited sales. Somewhere along the line, he started writing his name as pat mAcdonald -- apparently because he got tired of journalists dropping the "a". He kept writing prolifically, including tunes for, or in collaboration with such improbable people as Cher, Aerosmith, Keith Urban and others. Somewhere along the line, mAcdonald recorded a collection of Depeche Mode covers, "Strange Love: PM does DM."

You can get more info on Wikipedia or by visiting mAcdonald's website. What I wanted to show was mAcdonald's more recent stripped down, raw and very compelling work. I'm particularly taken by the tunes on his album "In the Red Room." These are simply mAcdonald alone with his guitar and a homemade stompbox to amplify the rhythmic beat of his foot. Think about what The Black Keys do with just guitar and drums, then take away the drums. mAcdonald described the project this way:

"The Red Room is a corner bar in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Harley Junior was kind enough to open it on a Sunday and give us the run of the place, so we moved aside the pool table, set up a P.A. and invited a few friends to drop by later that night. Everything on this disk was played and recorded that day, February 1st, 2004, between 6 pm and 2 am closing time - just me, my guitar, my foot and harmonica, live with no overdubs ... The production cost was about $200, including 3 rooms at the Holiday Motel and a $50 bar tab."

What I like is the low register, the drone-quality and the John Lee Hooker-esque driving rhythm--it's about as stripped down as you can get. The "Red Room" album also has one of my favorite interpretations of the Johnny Cash tune, "Ring of Fire" (which I unfortunately can't find on YouTube). Here's another tune, this time with mAcdonald playing slide on a cigarbox guitar.

I'll close with a verse from the Timbuk3 tune, "Haircuts and Attitudes."

Razor cut, laser cut, chopped and channeled
Curled up, slicked back, hanging in the eyes
Parted left, parted right, straight down the middle
Scientists say your hair never lies.
I've done lots of research, it may be just hype,
But the latest findings cause me to tremble
Categorize us into three basic types
According to which of the Three Stooges you most closely resemble.

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