THE STORIES BEHIND THE SONGS...
THE LAST SESSION
words by Marie Cain
music by Steve Schalchlin
This was the song that finally stumped me. I knew what I wanted -- a war song. I don't even remember why. Maybe the battle for life was so obvious I didn't even think about needing a "why." Plus, my first attempt was a magnificent failure. It brought me "Being Alive."
I finally broke down and called Marie Cain, my secret weapon.
Let me tell you about Marie: I met her during the years I was working at National Academy of Songwriters. We were part of a rather legendary group of people who participated in a Musical Theatre Workshop I helped organize with the Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop which also included Broadway star and Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell (RAGTIME, KISS ME KATE). Even though she wasn't famous, every songwriter in town admired her.
She writes with precision and craft. She understands scansion and prosody and perfect rhymes. She also has a great mind and a sharp sense of humor. But more than that, she writes with great heart.
Marie and I also share the career background of playing in night clubs and piano bars where the patrons only *sometimes* listened. I knew she would get what I was trying to do.
I believe she had heard me singing in a few places, but on this one day in late November/early December in 1995, I called her out of the clear blue sky, asking her to come over to Stan Freeman's apartment where I was alone with a grand piano.
We talked about the songs I already had. (She told me her two favorite lyrics in TLS were "...they leaned across the table" and "...she was very disappointed in the Lord.")
Then I begged her to help me.
I had a rough draft of a song called "Hills of Pills" but I hated it.
I said to her, "I need a lyric that describes how the medications sometimes feel worse than the disease, I want it to be in wartime and it should be a tap dance!"
I then gave her piles of papers with names of drugs, side effects and stuff but I don't think she needed it. She told me how she had been poisoned once -- food poisoning -- and it made her sick for a couple of years, but all the while the doctors were finding nothing and everyone was telling her she was nuts. Finally someone diagnosed it and she got treatment. But the whole experience was a nightmare she'll never forget.
She helped me realize that my songs were not just about AIDS and they were not just about me even though they were specifically and intentionally personal.
One week later on a Sunday, she called me and said, "I got the title. What do they call it when your own troops shoot you down?"
I said, "Friendly Fire... oh, my gawd, that's a great title."
She said, "Isn't that a funny phrase?"
I've got my own private Armageddon
My personal World War Three
Where there's so many different factions
All taking different action
That sometimes it feels like my soldiers
Are killing me with
What a strange ironic name
But it kills you just the same
Is your death more dignified
When the people you admire
Turn around and shoot you down
with Friendly Fire
I've got a battleground in my body
Where there is no DMZ
Cause I'm so full of medication
I'm like a ravaged nation
That sometimes it feels like my medicine
Is killing me with
Though they don't take deadly aim
But it kills you just the same
Is your life more meaningful
When you're dancing on the wire
And you're always in the line of friendly fire
I don't remember how long it took for her to bring me this lyric. I think it was only a couple of weeks after she called me with the title that she announced she had it done. And nothing makes me salivate like a finished lyric. And since she herself is also a composer she said she had written music to it so that she could keep all the verses on track, but I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound. I piled her lyric in front of me on the piano, hit C minor -- I believe I started it in C minor -- and started wailing away, er, marching away.
Actually, I think it sounds kinda Jewish. But Cole Porter said to always include a Jewish song in your musicals. I also wanted to use the augmented 5th in a very slight salute to Kurt Weill who used augmented 5th chords a lot. We don't really use them in pop music these days much because they're a bit lush.
Anyway, she said, "I see a whole Bob Hope/USO show in this next portion." But first a little wind up. I thought of a tornado and went to the full diminished which I inverted for each successive line
Everyone's flying they're own flag or pennant
Everyone's trying to frag the Lieutenant
She said she looked up the word "frag" in the dictionary and it meant shoot from behind.
The troops will be deployed
With a signed affidavit
THE TOWN MUST BE DESTROYED
IN ORDER TO SAVE IT!
Now the marching section.
You've got an army now
Of doctors who don't know how
To cure your ills
But they've got pills
Enough to choke a cow
Over hills, hills of pills
She remembered my original title of the song!
Pills that give you chills and thrills
But your symptoms keep rolling along
You're gonna pay my boy
You're gonna pay
Not just with money but with
Side effects that aren't so funny
Off we go into the wild blue yonder
Flying high into the sky
Somewhere along the way "the wild blue yonder" got changed to "a drug filled stupor" but I do not remember who suggested it. I think that was a New York change.
From the walls of pharmaceuticals
To the scores of remedies
What we give you in these bottles
Will be worse than your disease
"What we give you in these bottles" is also a New York change. I don't remember the original lyric that went there. But someone -- I think it was Bob Stillman who played Gideon -- said paralleling "bottles" with "battles" from the original march would be clever.
I don't know but I've been told
(I don't know but I've been told)
Kambucha is a magic mold
(Kambucha is a magic mold)
"Kambucha" is one of the California health fad things that I tried once. It's this horrible tea you made from a "mushroom" which is really a mold that supposedly came from "the deepest part of Asia" that, you know, heals everything from cancer to bad skin. You have to grow it yourself in a solution of sugar water and tea, placing it in a big bowl in a warm place. It comes with an instruction sheet that's been photocopied a billion times that tells you to "honor the tea."
It grown wide and flat in the bowl and recreates itself every week. You're not supposed to throw it away or talk loudly around it. But it stinks up the whole house and you're supposed to give each new "kambucha mushroom" away to someone who the has to grow it. I hated the stuff but during my worst sickness I'd try anything.
Two cups (drink up)
Two more (three four)
I feel even worse than before
There's a woman named Louise
(There's a woman named Louise)
Tells me my immunities
(Tells me my immunities)
She can (She can)
Restore (For sure)
She sells t-cells by the SEA SHORE!
Louis Haye is this big "alternative health practitioner" in California who became very big with a line of "heal yourself" books that Jimmy used to read and which I ridiculed mercilessly. For instance, if you had a terrible pain in your neck, you'd look up PAIN IN NECK in her book and it would say, "Someone around you have become a pain in your neck."
Basically, it was a blame the victim kind of thing. If you had AIDS it was because you were thinking the right thoughts or whatever. I hated her. I don't know if Marie had Louise Haye in mind when she wrote this lyric but during the pre-protease inhibitor days of AIDS she was very big among patients looking for self-empowerment.
After AIDS turned out to be caused by a virus, she kinda faded from the scene. Poor Louise.
I've got an endless parade of healers
each one with a remedy
The new age shamans and physicians
prescribe their ammunitions
And sometimes it feels like my doctors
Are killing me with
Does it matter who's to blame
Cuz it kills you just the same
Are the hitmen more humane
When the target is the buyer
And the victim pays the bill
for friendly fire?
I thought that last line was one of the most brilliant lines I'd ever seen in a song anywhere. "Are the hitmen more humane when the target is the buyer and the victim pays the bill for friendly fire." Lyric writing does not get more brilliant than that. Pure Marie Cain. There was one more verse to the song but we cut it because everything that needed to be said was now said. There was also a big middle section that was cut because it ran on too long.
I've got to think of the profit margin
When I question policy
But when I hear some politicians
Defending their positions
Then sometimes it feels like my government
Is killing me...
And so you have it. Friendly Fire.
NEXT: Singer and the Song.
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Friendly Fire copyright 1996 by See No Evil/Lil Shack O Tunes ASCAP