He placed the shiny disc right in front of my face as I sat on the couch. “Maybe you can write a song?”
It was a freshly burned CD of instrumental versions of songs by one of his old bands. He knew I’d been taking music classes for a while, that I disliked singing only backup vocals in the group we’d just started. It was 2008. The CD glimmered at me.
I did take Mark Zanandrea’s suggestion and write a song. It wasn’t very good. I wrote some better ones, recorded them, and these tracks became The Perambulator. Throughout the seven-year process Mark was my songwriting coach, guitarist, co-producer, and muse.
We met 40 years ago in high school. He had an athletic build but wore glasses and his personality was half poet, half nerd. Just like me! We bonded in that inseparable teenage misfit way, commiserating over acne, wearing glasses, mean parents, and weird classmates while doing bong loads and listening to records in my room for hours and hours. We survived an awkward teenage love affair and stayed close friends. In our 20’s we hit the clubs and crawled around San Francisco’s dark underbelly together. We remained lifelong friends for 2 more decades until some odd twists of fate impelled us to take a second chance on love 10 years ago.
One of the high school classes we had together was Creative Writing. I always wrote in the free verse style popular at the time. Mark, on the other hand, was more experimental, often writing enigmatic content in rhyming couplets. Nobody noticed he was writing song lyrics, which seems very odd to us now.
Mark went on to write dozens of songs in different styles for many bands- The Cat Heads, X-Tal, The Androgynauts, It Thing, to name a few, as well of course to play guitar, sing, and co-produce. When one of my own humble ditties moved into the polishing phase I’d show it to him. And I discovered my dear friend and love was not going to hold my hand. In fact, here came the “Lyric Police” to bust me.
“You can’t say that!”
“It’s bad writing. It’s lazy writing! Find a better word!”
I remember when Mark started learning guitar at 20. He said he would never be any good because he’d started so late. He played in the dark till his fingers bled. He got better. When it came time to play my songs we had a fine time sitting around trying out pedals and tones and riffs. I so appreciated his attention and versatility as a musician. I even let him use an ancient pedal forbidden him by every other band. “It sounds like ass,” had been the consensus forever. Actually it sounds like a keyboard and he used it on the cover of A Certain Guy. We found it delightful.
Those formative years spent listening to music together... Beatles, Velvet Underground, The Band, Hendrix, Pere Ubu, Neil Diamond, Stevie Wonder, Iggy Pop, New York Dolls, Stones, Kinks, Donovan, Melanie, Neil Young, Bowie, etc. gave us a shorthand.
“I can take this guitar in either a Roxy or Stones direction But then there’s this little Bolan thing too...”
“How about you Manzanera the verses and do a Keith Bolan riff on the choruses?” What would make the bridge more Roxy-ish?”
Mark’s co-producing role was to answer that sort of question over and over again for each song and sometimes song sections. Then I would go off, work with people, come back a year later and play him a rough mix. Most of the time he just said, “Good job!”
Eventually we started tinkering with the M-Tron, software dear to Mark’s heart that replicates the Mellotron. We needed it to add orchestral arrangements and flourishes here and there. (The hell with more cowbell, give me vintage violins!) He did a few parts then told me I was on my own for the rest. I was devastated. How could I ever do anything as good as him? I spent hours upon hours struggling away. In the process I named my home studio Thousand Monkeys because all the monkeys were in me and eventually one of them would get something right. I didn't come up with anything brilliant, but I surprised myself with some of my keyboard arrangements and parts. Maybe I did not need my hand held after all.
Dear muse, teacher, co-conspirator... thank you! I’m looking forward to another 40 years!