This album took ten years. Maybe longer. For 9.999 of those years, the title was going to be "Songs for Kurt," until someone who didn't believe in the project told me that not only was the project itself a bad idea, the title would make people think I was referring to Kurt Cobain. They were undebatably at least half right. So I titled it with simple punctuation. If you want to say the album title out loud, I guess it’s just called “Asterisk.” But Vonnegut purists will know that a better title would be “a picture of an asshole.” That’s what the asterisk represents in Vonnegut lore.
When I was a teenager, I got a copy of “Cat’s Cradle” as a gift because I’d heard it was good. I read it and fell in love. It wasn’t until a decade or so later that I finally read “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Most people probably do that in the opposite order. So what?
In my early to mid 20s I made it a point to read all of Vonnegut’s work. I completed that, and as a songwriter some lyrics came out of it. I started stashing them away, thinking I’d do an album of lessons learned from reading Vonnegut at the end of whatever year that was. I started working on it and soon decided it was too big a task. I wasn’t ready for it as a writer or player. Some of those early songs found their ways into other things. Some didn’t. Some of those are here now. One of the songs here is an excerpt of a song I released on the “Sorry, I Didn’t Mean to Shout” release in 2017. (You should go download that too, if you haven’t.) I started reading Vonnegut again last year. I’m a better, quicker, smarter songwriter now (it happens) and lyrics came much easier. So did melodies. And here we are.
This album is about forgiveness in the midst of despair. It’s the most human thing you can do and the best thing Vonnegut taught me. The album still works if you don’t know Vonnegut’s stuff. But you should read it anyway.
THE LAST FOLK SINGERS--EXCERPT
There are a couple of things worth mentioning. I'll let you figure out what most of the themes are for yourself, but there's a section before the "You've Got to Laugh" section that seems like it SHOULD be one of the themes from elsewhere on the album, but it isn't. That's because I ended up scrapping the song it was referencing late into the project. I had a song that was just a spoken word essay on Humanism that while it would have been an excellent thematic fit, it didn't work out musically. I already had the song "Now It's the Woman's Turn" (which I liked better) and having two spoken word tracks on the album seemed like overkill. It also just didn't quite work musically...it sounded too much like a Drive-By Truckers spoken-word piece. And while I don't mind wearing my influences on my sleeve, this sounded more like outright theft. So it was out.
However, there's a small Easter Egg in that same segment. The guitar melody there is somewhat close to a phone number familiar to my family. I won't say which one on the Internet. But it doesn't really matter...phone numbers aren't really in 440 tuning anyway, so the closest you can get is an approximation.
Anyway...I had a lot of fun putting this song together and I hope you like it.
One of the more significant themes of Vonnegut's writing was war, particularly WWII. Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden when the city was firebombed into rubble. As you might imagine, it stuck with him. It's the major theme of "Slaughter-House Five" and maybe the major theme of his whole career. I had to represent that somewhere. This is one of the more "Vonnegutty" things on the album, I think.
The line "isn't that how the war began--turning man into superman" is one of the lines I've had sitting for about 10 years. I think it summarizes WWII as well as anything. And I just like it. I've almost used it on a couple of different projects over the years, but thankfully the part of me that knew I'd eventually put out this album held it back. So it's here, where it belongs.
The drone sound you hear throughout was at one time part of a much longer concept. This song, "The Last Folk Singers" and "Tralfamadore" were at one time going to be joined together as one very long piece and that drone would have carried through all three segments with a much longer, noodly guitar solos between them. It was very Pink Floyd-ish. It was a good idea and I think it would've worked as just a one-off on a different record, but on this project I thought it flowed better to make them separate pieces.
This was one of the first songs I wrote for this album 10 or so years ago. It's also the last one I finished mixing. Funny.
YOU'VE GOT TO LAUGH
Vonnegut wrote about the similarity between laughter and tears--that both are perfectly acceptable responses to frustration or exhaustion. He wrote that he preferred to laugh because there was less cleaning up to do afterward. There was a song in there. This song, it turns out.
The novel "Slapstick" is a story about a brother and sister who possess miraculous telepathic power when they're together. But only when they're together. They need each other to be of much use. Otherwise they're at best unremarkable or at worst institutionalized. They live relatively lonely existences when they're apart. And when they're together, their highest goal is to put an end to loneliness for everyone. The alternate title of "Slapstick" is "Lonesome No More!" Vonnegut often has secondary titles on his books. Most of them go unmentioned when people talk about them, but I think they're fascinating. In this case the secondary title formed the basis for the whole song. I even referenced it in the bridge.
This song is one of my favorites on the album.
MALFUNCTION (OR "BROKEN ALL ALONG!")
As noted in the write-up of the previous song, I like Vonnegut's secondary titles. I like them so much, I gave this song a secondary title. Good for me.
A major theme in Vonnegut's work is the timeless tale of Man vs. Machine. He seemed to side with one them the other at alternate intervals, but ultimately believed in humans more. He both seemed to adore and abhor the concept of automation. He saw robots as a blessing and a curse. Above all, he believed the human spirit would overcome anything a machine could possibly take away from it, given enough time.
I took that idea and added my own twist--that the damn things are sometimes just broken in the first place.
NOW IT'S THE WOMAN'S TURN
I think this one kind of speaks for itself. Men have fucked up everything. Women are smarter and better than us. We should have elected Hillary. Etc.
The song is named after the final painting of one of Vonnegut's characters in his novel "Bluebeard," considered to be his swan song. Critics of Vonnegut's work rightly question some of how he wrote his female characters. At best, most of them were one-dimensional. At worst, he was often insulting and even bordering on misogynistic. But I don't think that's what was in his heart. I think this is one of those cases where you can say "he was doing the best we could expect for a man of his time." And I support that by asking that you read "Bluebeard" all the way to the end before you fight me on it.
THE WAY THE WORLD WILL END
This is another one I've had sitting around in one form or another for about 10 years. I like this one a lot. It's been stuck in my head all that time, but it so heavily leans on Vonnegut that it wouldn't have worked in most other contexts. It's a big sound and a big lyric. Kinda bleak, in fact.
Toward the end of Vonnegut's career, most of his writing came in the form of essays. George W. Bush was in power and those of us on the left thought things couldn't get any worse--it wasn't like Donald Trump or somebody like that would ever be president for God's sake! This was as bad as it could get! In those years, Vonnegut saw little hope for us, even though he desperately kept looking for it. In one essay he referred to himself as "The Prophet Jeremiah" (known in Christian studies as "The Weeping Prophet") and declared humanity "rolling drunk on petroleum." It was hard to argue either point.
I leaned heavily on that essay and also on the books "Cat's Cradle" and "Galapagos" in this song, both of which have the extinction of Humankind as their central themes. In Cat's Cradle, the Vonnegut semi-Messianic character Bokonon is one of the last humans alive, thumbing his nose at "you-know-who" as he commits suicide. In Galapagos, the ghost of Kilgore Trout is beckoning his son to step into the blue light with him and leave the Earth to continue depleting, the other humans reduced to strange seal-like creatures that barely count as human anymore.
Stir all of that up, and this is the way that the world will end. I guess.
IF IT'S RAINING
This might be the first thing I wrote for the album, way back when. It's wrapped up in Vonnegut's personal life and also in "Cat's Cradle" (which, incidentally, is my favorite Vonnegut book). Kurt's brother Bernard Vonnegut was a scientist--the main character in "Cat's Cradle" was likely somewhat modeled after him. Bernard was chiefly responsible for the scientific discovery of "cloud seeding" which is the process of sprinkling chemicals on clouds to force them to rain. It remains a common practice to this day, having been used prior to outdoor events like the opening ceremonies of the Olympics to ensure clear skies for the global television audiences. The jury has been out for decades as to if we *should* do stuff like that...it's mostly just interesting that we discovered that we *could.* And Bernard Vonnegut was the one who did it.
I also make a somewhat missable reference to Vonnegut's mother, who committed suicide in 1944 over Mother's Day weekend just prior to Kurt shipping off to the war. If the information in that sentence didn't make you pause for a second, re-read it until it does.
The other family and relationship references in the song are "Cat's Cradle" references. The chorus is the main thing. It sounds somewhat celebratory of the fact that we can make it rain, doesn't it? And I also slipped in a few references to Vonnegut's fake religion Bokononism. "Busy, busy, busy" in particular is something that a follower of Bokonon might say when they're overwhelmed by how complicated life can be at times. In a world where we can make it rain, we can manage our calendars. Even I'm writing this just two days before the album is set to release, very late at night, and exhausted after working a very difficult day at my day job. Busy, busy, busy...
This one is pretty much just about Eliot Rosewater, the central character of "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater." He was a wealthy man who gave everything he had to people who needed it. So, of course, he was institutionalized......and a fan of Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut's author-avatar in many of his books.
The main thing in the novel is when Eliot delivers the address that is one of those quotes that you likely have read even if you haven't read Vonnegut's books. "God damn it, babies--you've got to be kind." That was a no-brainer for a song. And for some reason it came out Irish. I don't have much else to say about this one, other than I'd love to hear Dave King of Flogging Molly sing it someday.
HERE WE GO AGAIN
In my mind, this song is sung by Kilgore Trout. Trout is a character Vonnegut developed that is basically his way of inserting himself into a story. That takes a few forms. Sometimes Trout is clearly meant to represent Vonnegut. Sometimes Vonnegut goes one step further and also inserts a character named Kurt Vonnegut into the story, who inevitably chats with Trout at some point. Vonnegut is the Deus in Trout's Ex Machina.
Trout features prominently in the novel "Timequake," which is essentially a story where every human on earth has to relive a 10 year period, doing exactly the same thing they did the first time, unable to change it, but aware that it was happening. This incident became known as the "Timequake" and the novel takes place after it has ended at a great clambake thrown by Trout who is one of the only people who was basically okay with the whole thing.
I was fascinated with that idea. I wrote this song. And while in my head it's in the character of Kilgore Trout, that's probably somewhat unfair since Trout was upbeat about the whole thing...but it worked for me, anyway.
The whole thing builds to a concept that Vonnegut suggested early in the book, and also elsewhere in his other works. Vonnegut frequently encouraged his readers to try to recognize when they're happy and when they notice it, to take a moment to say or just whisper to themselves the phrase, "If this isn't nice, then I don't know what is." As a person who lives with depression, that thought means a lot to me. I often don't realize that I'm happy until it's in hindsight and then it goes immediately into being sad that it's over. Vonnegut's recommendation is a good one...when you're happy, be happy, and be happy that you're happy. I like that.
GREETINGS FROM FAR AWAY
This is the Rush/Dream Theater song on the album. The recurring chord that you hear throughout in-between the major segments is known to guitarists as the "Alex Lifeson Chord." (Alex Lifeson is the guitarist in Rush.) I'll cop to that.
I like the instrumental sections a lot. It's one of the heavier things I've written. At one point I'd named the individual pieces with references to the above named novels. The sections were called:
I. Midland 1973
It doesn't help to know that. But I did it, dammit!
The title is in reference to the message carried by the alien Salo in the "Sirens of Titan" novel. Salo goes to great trouble, watches wars, loses his grip on who made him who he was...etc... All to carry a single message across the galaxy from his people to the people of Earth. When the message is opened, it's a single dot, which in Salo's language means "Greetings."
The third section means a lot to me. It's once again voiced by Kilgore Trout in my mind. (It's important that for what I'm about to describe you remember that Kilgore Trout is Kurt's author-avatar.) At the end of "Breakfast of Champions" (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT) Kilgore is given sentience by Kurt Vonnegut, who also appears in the book. Mirroring similar events elsewhere in the novel, Kurt tells Trout that he is a character in a book, but he now is able to know that, understand what that means, and live for himself. Kilgore asks--or more like BEGS--Vonnegut, "Make me young, make me young, make me young!" Then the book ends with a full-page drawing of Kurt Vonnegut, crying.
I think that's as close as I can come to explaining this song.
FIGHT FOR PEACE
This is a song that's less based on Vonnegut's books than it is Vonnegut's overall worldviews. As central to his work as war was, peace was always there alongside it, albeit just out of reach. Vonnegut seemed to recognize that peace always had war as a stepping stone in its way, and that ultimately peace was the one thing worth fighting for. Which always sounds stupid. But it's always true.
The song really sprouted out of an article I read that was written by a friend of Vonnegut's. The friend wrote that when he became a Christian, Vonnegut--a Christ-loving Atheist--send him a letter essentially expressing, "Daniel, I hear you have become a Christian. I forgive you." I love him for that.
This song is one of my favorites on the album. It's a very Derek Brink song. The chorus and delay effects. The high notes in the background vocal. This is the type of song I really like writing and I think this one turned out particularly well.
WE ALL JUST GOT HERE
This one's off the rails. It's based on the Vonnegutism that, "We're here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you otherwise!" And there are lots of other Vonnegut-phrases throughout. I finally worked in smoking...I worked in Vonnegut's love of dogs...I worked in his love of Jazz... And so on. This one's a catch-all for anything I hadn't said yet. And it's a damn good one, if I do say so myself.
It was a struggle for me to talk myself into saying, "We're just here to fart about" in the chorus. It just seemed like such a stupid lyric. And it is. But there's really no other way to say that. I never thought I'd say "fart" in a song. But Kurt got me to do exactly that. I think he'd be happy about it.
And that's it.