PART 4 OF 3 – In the summer of 2009, when The Viper and His Famous Orchestra started playing together again after my return to the Midwest, an innocent self-search on Google turned up the fact that a trad jazz band out of Belgium had posted a cover of “Ich Bin Berlin (The Sundown Song),” a Viper and His Famous Orchestra tune recorded for our Everything for Everyone long-playing CD.
What followed was some frenzied e-mails among the members of the Orchestra, some excited comments to the YouTube video, and a correspondence with the Rambling Boys of Pleasure’s singer/clarinetist/ukulelist, Stijn Debrouwere (including an e-mail interview that you can find here).
Then, one Saturday three years hence, August 18, 2012, we finally got to meet up in person. Stijn travelled to Madison, Wisconsin from Cedar Rapids, Iowa (where he’s been working) and The Viper travelled to Madison, Wisconsin from Milwaukee, Wisconsin (where he hasn’t been working).
After dinner with some friends, we all retired to the Spaight Street home of Orchestra trombonist Rob Henn to make some music: everything from Bob Wills, Roger Miller, and Hank Williams through some Stijn Debrouwere orginals and Viper stand-bys.
Rob documented some of this through his laptop camera/mic and posted the results, with some context, to YouTube, which you can see here.
This is the long awaited international, trans-Atlantic intersection of The Viper and His Famous Orchestra and The Rambling Boys of Pleasure, playing “Ich Bin Berlin (The Sundown Song)” for your orchestrated pleasure.
August 18, 2012 – The Viper (plus Rob Henn) + Stijn Debrouwere
NOTE: Watching this again in 2019, I’ve decided I really like this recording! I’m not wild about the framing, which was dictated, if I remember right, by the length of Rob’s laptop cord and keeps poor Rob out of the frame and doesn’t show much detail. But I like the sound of the concert and the bartione uke together, I’m impressed that we took the time to compose a new little double-uke intro on the spot, and the performances are pretty lively, kicked up a definite notch or two by Stijn’s presence. Nice work, guys who haven’t yet hit their mid-40s!
NOTE ON NOTE: Watching this again in 2022, I am super happy about everything that happens here! Stijn is great, Rob (even off-screen) makes it happen, and — alluded to in the 2019 note — I LOVE LOVE LOVE the little arrangement at the beginning where Stijn plays the scripted Ink Spots opening and I do a little baritone counterpoint. Just a wonderful memory.
PART TWO OF TWO see yesterday’s post for the background on The Viper and His Famous Orchestra’s recording sessions with Jay Bennett for our Everything for Everyone CD. Scroll down to the end of this post to see Edward Burch’s unedited comments.
Before we had a chance to do anything with the tapes from the studio recordings that Jay engineered and produced in 2000, I took a teaching job in Ankara, Turkey. It wasn’t until I was visiting the Midwest on a research trip the following summer that we had a chance to get together again with Jay to mix and pre-master the tracks, this time at the Chicago loft where Jay’s band, Wilco, rehearsed and kept their stuff. You can get a pretty good look at the layout of the place in Sam Jones 2002 documentary about that band, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. It should be noted that the summer of 2001 was a strange time for Wilco.
THE VIPER: So how about the mixing sessions we did with Jay in Chicago. What do you remember about the space?
ROB HENN: At least in my memory, the Wilco loft was this huge place, ragged blonde wooden floors that covered the whole of a rectangular room, and an impossible number of guitars stacked on a giant two-tiered rack that stretched far into the back of the loft.
RILEY BROACH: I remember thinking: Jay has an insane amount of guitars! There were shelves upon shelves upon shelves of guitars. I asked Jay, have you played every single one of these guitars? He responded something to the tune of, “yeah, some of them for only one song.” To which I responded, “why?” And he responded, matter-of-factly, “no other guitar makes that sound.”
RH: I remember seeing that every member of Wilco had a desk. Jeff Tweedy’s desk was notable in particular for the large number of books piled on the wall next to it; they were surprisingly literary and obscure, and for some reason I remember that a number of items were from Grove Press. I particularly remember you looking at this stack and remarking with mock-anxiety, “Oh no! Jeff Tweedy might be even more hip than I am!” You said nothing of the sort when a little while later Tweedy came into the loft briefly and we all met him.
TV: What I remember about the dynamic there was that everyone who used the place (Wilco band members included) was supposed to leave everything looking exactly as it had when they’d come in. In retrospect, that might have been an indication of a band having trouble. But at the time, this very much appealed to the anal retentive side of me, and I thought: hey! great idea.
What do you remember what we did there? I know we did at least of couple of last minute overdubs: some percussion for “Randolph St.,” some marching on a wooden equipment cart for “I Love a Girl in Moscow,” and Jay’s VERY last minute 8 bars of organ on “Pretty Is as Pretty Does.”
RB: I’m not sure who thought of the idea to record the marching Red Army, but I remember searching through that enormous loft for something with a good “marching” sound. We tried out various objects, comparing the resonance, and settled upon the wooden crate/cart. Our process seemed almost scientific. I wonder if people listening to the recording actually think a Red Army is marching. Why did we include the marching in the first place? Why are they marching?
RH: For the organ on “Pretty Is,” I only remember that he did it quite quickly, as a lark almost. It was, I gather, typical Jay: a brilliant improvisation that added a lovely layer to the song, using one of the many instruments he could have chosen from. He remarked that he was drawing upon this particular organ in order to suggest an old time soap-opera sound, one that was perfect for that particular song’s (melo-) drama.
RB: It makes me think, old-timey theater. I know it was said that it sounded like a sappy soap opera theme. I suppose both interpretations capture that drama.
TV: I remember us standing around while he did his organ bit. I’m pretty sure this was literally the last thing we did on the whole record. And I’m still amazed, in retrospect, at the time and effort Jay put into this project. The organ bit is a good example. As quickly as he did it, he actually did about 4 takes where we thought 1 would have been fine, and then he mixed bits and pieces of the 4 takes into 1 on the spot. The rest of us were late for some dinner appointment (maybe even for playing a show that night?) and getting kind of antsy about getting out of there. But he wanted this backing bit for 8 bars of this track buried in the middle of this very local record to sound right!
RH: My chief memory of Jay from mixing was an argument we got into. Oy, it was frustrating! I can’t remember the content of the “dispute” at this late date, but only that I had said some idea about the recording that Jay heard wrong, and thence thought was a stupid idea; I then spent the next five minutes or so trying to clarify what I had said, but Jay was having none of it, and continued to be contemptuous of my supposed idea. He would not brook stupidity in the recording process! We were quite prickly with each other, and Ed made a nervous joke about it. Later in our time at the loft, Jay found his trump card: he heard and then played back, at length, this snippet of my vocal mic in isolation during some backup singing. I clearly couldn’t have heard myself at all in this part of the recording — it was a melody that was too low for me, and hence I was singing softly — and the mic revealed that consequently I was horribly, embarrassingly off-pitch. Jay just kept that part playing for a while, for everyone else in the band to hear and laugh at. Me included, though a bit more nervously than everyone else. Well-played, Jay, well-played.
I had thought that Jay and I had gotten off to a truly bad start, then. But within a year or so (I think), I went to see him and Edward play at a record store in St. Louis when they were just beginning their tour in support of The Palace at 4 a.m. (Part 1). I was standing next to a CD rack in the crowded store, and accidentally jostled a few CDs in those long plastic trays. The CD trays came clattering down in the midst of some of Ed and Jay’s banter between songs. Jay stopped what he was saying and singled me out: “Nice going, ROB!” he said. “Way to ruin the show, man.” Or something to that effect.
This may sound like another attempt to embarrass me, and it was, but it was more like razzing from a big brother than anything else. He used my name with an affectionate tone, and was clearly marking me out to the crowd as a friend of the band. It was a gesture of kindness and welcoming at an embarrassing moment. Whatever he had thought of my stupid ideas previously, he now seemed to recognize me as a friendly acquaintance, someone he could kid around with in public. Thereafter, at every show I ever saw him, he would say hi as if we were the oldest of friends.
…AND, THE PHOTO
TV: We all like this picture at the top of this post a lot. Though I have to say that most of our commentary on it over the years has been about “smoldering passion shared by Ryan and Riley” or the two rubber ducks in the upper left corner. But what do you think Jay is thinking about in this picture?
RB: Perhaps, we were listening to an adjustment that Jay had just made and were thinking (in our giddiness of recording with Jay) that it sounded magnificent. You can tell by our perfectly timed smiles which was probably timed with a magical moment in the music. Whoever took that picture has impeccable timing. [That would be Rachel Leibowitz.] Jay, on the other hand, is probably thinking to himself, “ooo, that sounds terrible.” You can see his mouth in the “ooo” shape.
VICTOR CORTEZ: “Needs more toy piano…”
RH: I want to say something clever here, but honestly all I can imagine is the most mundane answer. I suspect it’s true, too: in this photo Jay is passionately, manically [maniacally?] puzzling through some kink in the mixing process, working his craft, trying to perfect even a small detail of sound for a tiny and unknown band from east central Illinois, as if it were as important to him as Summerteeth or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Nothing is stopping his concentration, and he’ll get the result that he wants, the result that is right and necessary for the music. He’s out of focus in this shot. But oh, it’s a picture of him, definitely.
And, as promised, here’s the unedited text of Edward Burch’s comments.
Jay agreed to do our CD because I had dirt on him, so it was a total hush deal. Actually, it was because he found what we were doing (and by “we” I mean you orchestrating the orchestrations of the Orchestra) to be so inspiring that he wanted to do whatever he could to help get the music recorded. It didn’t take much convincing. I thought his production on Everything was very Rubin-like, in the sense that it was an attempt to capture, as unmediated as possible, what the band sounded like in the room. I remember it was Jay’s idea to leave the false starts and tails on some songs, although it could have been Adam [Schmitt] and me who decided during the mastering to leave them in. (Sorry ’bout that.) Those are among the few points on the record that the mode of production draws attention to itself. So, depending on what you consider the role of the producer to be, Jay was doing most of it — got us the room at Private Studios, picked the engineer (that is to say, himself). He couldn’t have picked a better engineer, because Jay’s knowledge of the choice and placement of microphones were, I think, very key to the album sounding as good and as “natural” as it does. For me, it was certainly a treat to work with him on Everything for Everyone in a context where Jay and I were not working on our own material, just to have him guiding the session, such that he was freed from having to be concerned about the recorded output as “his” record (as he often did with Wilco or with Bennett-Burch material), but instead could focus his energies purely on someone else’s work. He often liked to comment to folks with whom he worked, “See, you really could have done this without me.” But truthfully, there’s no way we could have made the album we did without him.
In the year 2000, the Viper and His Famous Orchestra holed up for a couple of days in the smallish “B” room of a studio in Urbana, Illinois to record the tracks that would see light of day in 2002 as Everything for Everyone.
Placing the mics, twiddling the dials, and setting the vibe for the way the session would go — in a word, producing — was Jay Walter Bennett. We knew Jay through our suitcase player, Edward Burch, with whom Jay shared an apartment and with whom Jay would write and play and record a lot of great music (notably in the record they would put out as Jay Bennett & Edward Burch in 2002, The Palace at 4 a.m. (Part 1)).
Jay recorded us pretty straight — all of the performances were done live in one or two takes, in mono, a lot of the sound going through a single room mic, with only a few well placed overdubs recorded later. These included Jay’s organ backgrounds on the middle-eight of our cover of Angie Heaton’s “Pretty Is as Pretty Does.” Have a listen (the organ comes in at 1:44):
As we prepare to play at a memorial show for Jay this weekend in Champaign, Illinois, I thought it would be worthwhile to check in with the other members of the Orchestra to see what they remembered about those sessions, about mixing the tracks with Jay the following year, and about Jay in general. What follows is my e-mail interview with trombonist Rob Henn and bassist Riley Broach, edited for concision, coherence, and effect. Since Edward Burch knew Jay in a way that the rest of us really didn’t, I’m going to append his comments, unedited and untouched, to the end of the second post.
THE VIPER: Hey Rob, Hey Riley. I’m going to put together a post about our time with Jay Bennett and what it was like to record with him. Not overly reverent or sentimental — just kind of a matter of fact account of the kind of guy he was. So let me start out by asking what kind of contact you had with Jay before we recorded with him. For me, it was mostly through Edward [Burch]. And Jay sat in a fair amount with our honky tonk band, the Kennett Brothers — including at least once as the drummer!
RILEY BROACH: I got a call from Ed one day, asking if I could help move a piano up to his loft at 8 1/2 E. Main, which happened to be Jay’s place as well. Jay had just got an inexpensive (perhaps free) piano and needed a bunch of us to haul it 50+ stairs. I can’t remember if Jay or Ed said it but on our way up the stairs we began to falter and one of them said, “flesh heals, wood doesn’t.” I think we all got banged up a little bit hauling that thing and the wood was probably banged up too.
TV: That’s a great story, and words to live by. Though I’m going to point out that their loft was only on the second story. It probably just felt like 50+ stairs.
EDWARD BURCH: I believe the axiom was: “Skin grows back; wood doesn’t.” It was a phrase Jay picked up from the piano player in his country band, Gator Alley, with whom Jay worked briefly years ago as a piano mover. Also, Riley, the piano was on its way down the stairs, not up. We called you when we got to the landing halfway down and realized that with two people we were stuck and the piano was going nowhere. Definitely one of those thankful-for-cellphones moments.
RB: I remember half of the main room at 8 1/2 E. Main having loads of musical gear — all of which, Ed explained, belonged to Jay. Jay wasn’t around much as he was probably on tour with Wilco for many of those years. I didn’t really know much about Wilco, except that they were big. Remember, I was somewhat of a music Nazi back then. If it wasn’t Classical or avant-garde I thought it was crap. However, there were a few times that Jay was around. We (Ed, Jay, & I) probably just hung out eating carry-out, watching [TV?] or listening to some obscure singer-songwriter on record.
TV: Do you recall how we came to record with Jay? I remember it coming up kind of suddenly: the stars aligned and suddenly all the right people (i.e., Jay) and places (i.e. Private Studio) were open.
ROB HENN: Yes, it was a sudden thing: to this day I wish we’d had more time to prepare for it — we hadn’t played together in a few weeks at least, and I was trombonistically out of shape, and then one day it was just, “Come to this tiny garage-like studio in Urbana and record Viper songs for posterity!”
RB: I don’t really remember it being a sudden thing. I probably thought something like: it’s about time! I knew Jay was excited that we were finally recording something as well. He was a great supporter of The Viper & HFO. He didn’t ask for any compensation for his time for all those recordings – did he?
TV: Unbelievably, no. And I think he basically arranged for the studio time at a seriously discounted rate. And the CDs themselves were printed at a discount because of his (and Edward’s) affiliation with Undertow Records. I think the only thing he got out of it, financially, was that he got to keep the master tapes at the end for re-use on other projects. It was a very generous thing he did for us.
What was your impression of Jay as a producer/engineer? And what, if anything, do you remember about how he recorded you?
RH: I don’t have much to offer here. I knew nothing about recording, and Jay and Ed and you seemed content to handle it. It wasn’t particularly interesting or fun for me. I was mostly concerned to make sure my out-of-shape lip held up. I recall only that I thought Jay was professional and that this was the real deal. The comparatively loud sound of a trombone was always a problem in recording, and in a previous attempt at making a demo recording in someone’s living room we had to have me turn away from everyone else in the band in order to play into a mattress propped up against the wall — a really awkward way to play songs with an ensemble, you can imagine — but in this new one we just let a room mic take most of the trombone sound, I believe.
RB: What do you mean by how did he record me? Technically, I had a direct input from a contact pick-up, a microphone inches away from the f-hole, and a room microphone picking up my bass playing. As far as how he edited/mixed my sound, I like the deep bass sound created on that album. It was clear he wanted to capture our live sound and antics. He kept the recording rolling to pick up our banter in between takes. If you listen to the full-length album you can hear a lot of this banter in between the tracks. He knew our strength as a band and did a nice job in capturing it. We were all making each other laugh. Jay included.
VICTOR CORTEZ: [Victor along with Kenneth P.W. Rainey added some of the few overdubs on this recording, playing toy piano and lap steel guitar, respectively, on “Winnebago Bay.”] I’d never met Jay before. I was always a fan of T.L.A. [Titanic Love Affair] and Wilco, of course. I showed up at the house with my toy piano. He kinda chuckled at the sight of it when he was mic’ing it up. I remember there was a close mic and a room mic. For what I was playing, he made me do it a couple of times. So thorough.
Come back tomorrow for the second part of the story — things get interesting, tense, and lovely when we go to mix in the Wilco loft in Chicago.
One of the first reactions that we had to this discovery was a sense that we really should get in touch with this band: 1) to let them know how glad we were that they’d taken the trouble to learn and play this song, and 2) to find out how this bit of trans-Atlantic cultural exchange had come about.
Our bass player, Riley Broach, was the first to post a comment to their YouTube video, writing:
“Wow! That’s awesome Rambling Boys! We’re flattered that you covered us. If we are ever in Belgium we’ll have to perform together.?”
To which TheRamblingBoys replied:
“We’d be happy to have you? and Ghent is a lovely place to be. Thanks a lot for the encouragement, didn’t see that one coming :-)”
Then I wrote, then percussionist Victor Cortez wrote, and then even Viper-affiliate Don Gerard wrote (to plug Steve Pride & His Blood Kin). And to all, the Ghent Ramblers replied with good grace and humor.
By this point, I thought it’d be fun to actually interview these rough and rowdy Rambling Boys. And so I tracked down Stijn, the ukulele player, to ask if he was prepared to suffer the indignities of my questions via e-mail. He was, and here’s what transpired. (The following is edited for concision, coherence, jokes, and to throw in some good stuff from communication that took place outside the scope of this e-mail exchange. In other words, this is not journalism even a little).
THE VIPER: First, about you and your band. How long have you and/or The Rambling Boys of Pleasure been playing?
RAMBLING STIJN: We first got together somewhere in November ’08. It took me more than a month to get together a few musicians. First there’s the trouble in finding people who like roots music (that isn’t blues), and secondly there’s the trouble in finding musicians who can play an instrument that’s not a guitar.
TV: Are all of you from Ghent?
RS: We’re all from Ghent, although we used to have a dobro/steel guitar player from Antwerp as well, who needed more time to focus on his kids. We’re still looking for a worthy replacement, although there is some speculation that he’s actually the only dobro player in Belgium.
Really, if you’re looking for a band in Belgium and you don’t want to play speed metal, you’re out of luck.
TV: Though I suppose there are worse things than wanting to play speed metal. In your postings to YouTube, besides our song, you’ve also posted recordings of Al Jolson’s “Back in Your Own Backyard,” Roger Miller’s “England Swings,” Nora Bayes’s “Shine on, Harvest Moon,” and Hank Williams’s “Hey! Good Lookin’.” Have you always played such a range of American pop/folk material?
RS: Can’t speak for the other band members, but I fell in love with country music, and swing after that, by listening to Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, which was pretty much all we listened to at the student newspaper when I worked there during my first year at college.
But Hank Williams is probably the reason I’m still playing and making music today. A lot of musicians go through a phase where there realize that they – well – suck, and ask themselves “why am I still playing?” Hank had some great melodies and lyrics and worked with great musicians (Don Helms!) but in the end the chords and the lines are dead simple. That was very encouraging for me, and it also made me realize how much music is a social affair and that people don’t care how slick your solos are.
TV: Nothing harder to achieve than simplicity.
RS: Playing country music if you’re not from the States can be a bit weird though. I wrote a song a while ago that started out with “Way down yonder where I was born / Between the fields, the cows, the grasses and the corn” and it’s really hard to sing that with a straight face when you’ve never been near a farm for your entire life. But it’s great fun nonetheless.
TV: Probably the only thing harder to achieve than simplicity is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’re set. So how did you decide which of your songs you would post to YouTube?
RS: I said: “Guys, I’m sorry, but I’m really not going to record more than six. I’m already enough of a recluse as it is, without having to edit and mix a whole batch of songs.”
TV: Let me ask about the instruments. You have a guitarist and ukulele player (Godfried), an upright bass player (David), and yourself on ukulele, guitar, and clarinet. And then there’s a multi-instrumentalist named Clo who plays, variously, a shaker, a tiny xylophone, and, on “Shine on, Harvest Moon,” something that your video information calls an “ovenrooster.”
RS: Yes, the “ovenrooster.” We actually have a washboard around somewhere, but didn’t have it handy when we recorded Harvest Moon, so Clo just decided to get an oven grate from the kitchen and play that instead.
TV: Most people who find our CD online are ukulele players looking for ukulele music. But in one of your YouTube responses, you suggested that you began to play ukulele after you found our Everything for Everyone CD.
RS: I remember thinking, after listening to Everything for Everyone for the first time, “I must have an ukulele.” So I got one. I have an irresistible urge to buy and try to learn every instrument that catches my fancy. Which usually fails horribly, but I guess the ukulele stuck. Currently I’m trying my best to get a few notes out of a clarinet.
TV: When I was trying to figure out what you were saying in the information that appears along with your videos on YouTube, I assumed, from what little I know of Belgium, that the language you were using was Flemish. The closest I could find to an online Flemish-English translator was one that did Dutch to English. And that worked pretty well to translate things like “Nu nog een beetje oefenen op onze stage presence” into “Now we just have to practice our stage presence” (which isn’t true, by the way: you guys look great!)
RS: Flemish is really just the variety of Dutch that is spoken in Belgium, but it’s the same language that’s also spoken in The Netherlands and in Suriname. The difference between Flemish and the Dutch spoken in The Netherlands is somewhat greater than the difference between, say, a Jersey accent and a southern drawl. Maybe the difference between American and Australian English would be a good comparison. Including the fact that hearing Australian English probably makes you cringe.
TV: No! Americans LOVE hearing Australian English! It’s an accent we all like to think we do pretty well, too. So why is your English so much better than my Flemish?
RS: Because people who don’t speak English have a reason to learn it, whereas I would absolutely discourage you from ever trying to learn Dutch. Simple as that. It might surprise Americans, but most of the people I know have read more English literature (in the original language) than they have Dutch. E.g. The Daily Show is very popular over here as well.
TV: In the last blog post I did, I discussed how hard it would be to figure out the lyrics to “Ich Bin Berlin,” for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is the fact that our liner notes for the CD included the lyrics, but after having run them through an online translation engine twice: first English-to-Russian, then that same Russian translated back into English. So how did you do it, especially given how local to Champaign, Illinois our references are?
RS: Google search and google maps were my friends when trying to figure out what on earth this song was about. Which in turn led to a very fruitful afternoon browsing wikipedia-articles about public transportation in Illinois and aquatic life in the Great Lakes. You know how these things go. It’s easy to understand in a superficial way: check if there is a Neil St. in the Champaign-Urbana area and find out where N. Prospect is, check wikipedia to make sure MTD is really the name of public transportation in Illinois and so on.
TV: My previous blog post commented on how close you really were on most of it.
RS: I’m surprised my transcript is that accurate 🙂 I heard “The tide and the shore if” as “and the timing assures it” though. And I’m sitting on the sofa, sipping some gin, whereas the rest of the band would rather sit there with Cindy and Jean.
TV: Ah! When I was writing that part of the song (it was written in pieces, years apart), a show called Melrose Place was on TV on Sunday nights [correction: Monday nights] between 7 and 8 p.m. Two of the characters were sisters named Sydney and Jane, and I was especially fond of Sydney’s character. So I’m “there on my sofa with Sydney and Jane / They won’t make me happy, but I won’t complain.”
RS: Melrose Place, would’ve never guessed that reference.
TV: However, I also like the way you heard it as “sipping some gin,” which is actually also historically accurate to my Melrose Place routine at the time! (And it reminds of the Kinks song “sipping on my soda / sitting on my sofa.”) And “the timing assures it” is actually a very nice variation: “My Sundays are yours if the timing assures it.”
How hard was it to convince the rest of your band to learn this impossible song? And what kind of reaction, if any, have your fans had to it?
RS: It’s a favorite. We like it, and people who hear it like it. It feels incredible to hear three wholly independent verses at a time, and it’s fun to do as well. It took us quite a few rehearsals to get it right without getting distracted by what everyone else was playing and singing, but it was very much worth the practice.
TV: That’s all I’ve got. Thank you for playing our song. We’ve really enjoyed your version and the sense of living in a time when bands across the world from one another can find ways to make connections. If you are ever in the States and in the Midwest, please let us know.
RS: Thanks for the very warm response, it really means a lot. I’ve passed it on to the rest of the band.
As reported in the previous post, we discovered last week that The Viper and His Famous Orchestra had been covered and the result posted to YouTube by a trad jazz band out of Ghent, Belgium operating under the name of the Rambling Boys of Pleasure. I described our amazement that, as our trombonist Rob Henn put it, “a group in Belgium covered a song by an obscure niche band from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.” O! brave new online world, that has such covers in it.
In this post, I want to talk about how the particular song choice is even more bewitching and bewildering. And we want especially to commend the Rambling Boys–who I hope to interview for my final post on the subject–on both their ambition and accomplishment in troubling themselves to cover the song known as”Ich Bin Eine Berlin” (or, alternately, as “Ich Bin Berlin (The Sundown Song)”). Of all the Viper songs you might attempt to learn and sing, this is the one for which we’ve strewn the most obstacles in your path.
Here, for reference, is The Viper and His Famous Orchestra recording of “Ich Bin Berlin” from our studio recording Everything For Everyone:
The problem isn’t the chord progression. It’s a fairly common set of changes for early jazz style tunes (I think I took it most directly from the George Formby song “My Ukulele”) ((2022 edit: I don’t know that that’s true!!!)). And the song just runs through these changes four times, with one 4-measure break in the middle and a pretty standard turnaround at the end.
But those lyrics. Oy! Let me count the ways.
First, you basically have to learn three separate songs. The “Berlin” of the title refers, not to the German city, but to songwriter Irving Berlin. And Berlin pioneered the Tin Pan Alley gimmick of fitting two distinct melodies/lyrics to the same set of chord changes–usually one long and langourous, and one chopped and raggy–first sung separately, and then contrapuntally layered over one another. You’ll hear this in “You’re Not Sick (You’re Just in Love)” or “Play a Simple Melody” or “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil.” (If you’re not familiar with Berlin’s stuff, think “I’ve Got a Feeling” by the Beatles.) But that wasn’t complicated enough. So we went Berlin one better and devised THREE separate melodies/lyrics: one fast, one mid-tempo, one slow-and-low-that-is-the-tempo–and all of them going on at once and on top of one another.
Second, if you’re living in Ghent, Belgium, I can’t imagine how you’d make sense of these lyrics, even if you managed to hear them apart from one another. I wrote this song in the late 1990s at a moment when many of my daily activities as a graduate student living in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois–grocery shopping, going to a movie–were taking me farther and farther to the sprawling edges of town as developers bought up one-time cornfields on the cheap and turned them into grocery megastores and cinema multiplexes. I’d never needed a car to get around before then. And the first part of the lyrics registers how weird I felt when I realized that I was on an MTD bus headed up North Prospect into a silent sea of parking lots just to purchase the staples of my existence at the new Meijer’s. The rest of the the lyrics are filled with equally exotic local references: chomping on Sno-caps at the Savoy 14 theater on South Neil St., watching sisters Jane Mancini and Sydney Andrews having it out every Monday night on Melrose Place when I couldn’t be bothered to leave the apartment, etc.
Third, if your first language was Flemish and you went out and bought the CD on which we included “Ich Bin Berlin,” Everything for Everyone, because you thought the liner notes would help you figure out the lyrics, we’d have to offer you our sincerest apologies. Because you’d be out of luck. We had, in fact, included the lyrics to all of our songs. But in our bid to be ever more inscrutable, we’d used an online translation engine to first convert everything from English to Russian, and then re-convert everything from the Russian translation back into now-fractured English. So, for example, a line like…
I’m putting on my Sunday best / I’m putting it to the test
I must drape my form in best garment which I possess, garment which I usually reserve for church on Sunday. I test them.
With all of this stacked against them, we can only commend the Rambling Boys of Pleasure on what seems to be a flawless rendering of the song as we composed it, right down to the opening cough. I think there’s maybe an “if you’d only calm down” where an “if you’d only come down” is intended. And Stijn, the Rambling ukulelist, has informed me that the line about “Sydney and Jane” has remained an obscure object of desire. (He’s elected to sing about sitting on the sofa “sipping some gin,” while others in the band “would rather sit there with Cindy and Jean.”) But those are very, very minor differences. Indeed, they may even be improvements, in a Peter Stampfel kind of way.
So let’s hear it for the Rambling Boys of Pleasure! Let’s hear it for Ghent! And let’s hear it for North Prospect, South Neil, and REO Speedwagon Way!
P.S. Here, for anyone else who’d like to take a crack at this song, are the actual English language lyrics and the basic chord changes.
When the sun goes down on North Prospect far from the old downtown. I’ll be sittin’ pretty on a bus that’s Prospect bound. If you call my name you’ll get no answer where parking’s the only sound. But I’ll be there you’ll see on the MTD just a-hopin’ the sun’ll stay down.
My Sundays are yours if you’d only come down My Fridays and evenings — negotiable My phone number’s listed / I go to bed late You know where to find me / On Monday nights between 7 and 8 I’m there on my sofa with Sydney and Jane They won’t make me happy / But I won’t complain My Sundays are yours if / The tide and the shores if My Sundays are yours if you’d only come down
2nd part (alt.)
My Sundays are yours if you’d only come down My Fridays and evenings — negotiable My phone number’s listed / My machine’s always on I’m even on e-mail / It’s firstname.lastname@example.org* I’m at the same address that you used to write I’m home every morning / And most every night My Sundays are yours if / The tide and the shores if My Sundays are yours if you’d only come down
I’m putting on my Sunday best I’m putting it to the test This town ain’t — no town ain’t — like heading for the Neil St. side of town I’m Savoy bound I’ll be stomping I’ll be Sno-cap chomping Don’t bother to call or write I’m stepping out Tuesday night Far be it / From me, it Seems a shame to say it See you [C-U] on the weekend Then’s / When / Friends can Stop and set it down
* It’s not actually email@example.com. Try firstname.lastname@example.org or our actual band e-mail email@example.com.