Sunday, January 20, 2013

Cockeyed Ghost -- "Ginna Ling" (2001)

Now my heart will burst
If my brain won't first

Songwriters often live their songs in their imaginations.  But sometimes a songwriter literally lives a song before he or she writes it.

I don't write songs, I just write a wildly popular little blog about other people's songs.  Here are my three favorite things about writing 2 or 3 lines

1.  I discover lots of wonderful new songs.  (New to me, at least.)

2.  I make the acquaintance of talented and interesting musicians.

3.  I'm able to give free rein to my narcissistic tendencies and talk about myself to my heart's content.

Today's 2 or 3 lines features a song that I've just discovered, and derives from my recent acquaintance with a very talented and interesting musician, Adam Marsland.  However, it's entirely free of narcissism.  Two out of three ain't bad.  (Don't worry -- I'll make up for the lack of narcissism here in future posts.)

Adam Marsland
Before I tell you the story of "Ginna Ling," here's the story of how I made contact with Adam Marsland, who lived the song before he wrote it.

Last year, the editor of an online music magazine stumbled across 2 and 3 lines, liked it, and invited me to write a column for that magazine.  I struck up an e-mail correspondence with another one of her columnists, and in the course of that correspondence he mentioned that he was friends with the legendary Evie Sands.  

I'm a big fan of the great singles that Evie released in the sixties -- I'll be featuring several of them on 2 or 3 lines in 2013 -- but I had no idea that she was still recording and performing regularly as a member of Adam Marsland's Chaos Band.

Evie Sands and Adam Marsland (2004)
To borrow one of my grandmother's favorite lines, I didn't know Adam Marsland from Adam.  Some quick research revealed that before he put the Chaos Band together in 2004, he had been the leader of Cockeyed Ghost, which recorded four critically acclaimed albums after he formed it in 1994.

By the way, Adam got the name for that band from a 1933 child's book, Trigger Berg and the Cock-Eyed Ghost.  The author of that book, Edward Edson Lee (who used the pen name Leo Edwards) wrote almost 40 children's books between 1922 and 1940.  In addition to the Trigger Berg series (four books), he wrote the Andy Blake series (four books), the Jerry Todd series (16 books), the Poppy Ott series (11 books), and the Tuffy Bean series (four books).

A Leo Edwards book cover
All five series were interrelated.  They have been compared to the Hardy Boys books, but with more humor mixed in with the adventure.  Ronald Reagan wrote in his autobiography that his Illinois childhood greatly resembled the Illinois childhood of Jerry Todd.

Adam Marsland has recorded over 100 original songs.  His website has the lyrics to almost all of those songs, plus  explanations of what the songs are about, notes on the musical arrangements, etc.  If more musicians were like Adam, my job would consist of a lot less bloviating and a lot more cutting and pasting.

"Ginna Ling" is from the last of the Cockeyed Ghost albums, Ludlow 6:18, which was released on Marsland's own label, Karma Frog, in 2001.  (The band's first three albums were released on the Big Deal label, but Big Deal went bankrupt in 1999.)

The song begins as a musician's tale of life on the road -- a fairly common theme for rock/pop songs, which tend to picture life on the road as either a never-ending party (e.g., Grand Funk Railroad's "We're An American Band") or a never-ending bummer (e.g., Bob Seger's "Turn the Page.")  

In "Ginna Ling," the singer sees a beautiful woman in the audience at one of his performances, meets her after the show, and falls for her "in a half-heartbeat."  She seems equally smitten with him, and the two correspond as he and his bandmates travel around the country:

I answered the letters on the same day
Asked her if she'd make it to L.A.
And I might be back out her way again in
August or September

He can't help wondering if Ginna Ling might be "The One," and dares to fantasize about their future together:

Thoughts of future tenses and picket fences
Naive and senseless filled the back of my mind

(Yes, ladies -- men do think that way sometimes.  I'd wager that men think that way at least as much as women do.)

The singer knows very little about Ginna's life -- a life that "was far more bleak" than he suspected, and full of "things of which she would not speak."  He receives some shocking news shortly before he is scheduled to return to Ginna's hometown -- Cleveland -- for a return engagement:

[T]hree weeks before I came back to town
This is exactly what went down: 
The things Ginna cared about, was scared about
Closed in on her from within and without
And for reasons I don't fully understand
Ginna Ling died by her own hand

The singer doesn't necessarily want to sing a song about Ginna's death, but he feels compelled to:

Now my heart will burst
If my brain won't first
Because I met someone
Nothing I can do
So I'm telling you
I have to tell someone

Think about "Now my heart will burst/If my brain won't first."  Those words capture the multidimensional nature of the shock that Ginna's suicide has caused.  Something that's very sad may be easy to understand -- if Ginna had a fatal disease and was facing months of suffering before a certain death, her choosing to take her own life would make some sense.  If your intellect can come to grips with a sad event, it's usually easier to put it behind you.

Cockeyed Ghost (1999)
And an event that's confusing and inexplicable isn't necessarily emotionally overwhelming -- you may be frustrated by your inability to figure out why it happened, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it will break your heart.  

But Ginna's death is both heartbreaking and mind-boggling for the singer of this song -- both his heart and his brain are overwhelmed by her suicide.

The singer realizes that he barely knew Ginna, and that a lot of what he felt for her was based on fantasy.  But you can't deny your feelings -- the brain's influence on the heart is very limited.  (As the philosopher Pascal said, "The heart has its reasons, which reason knows nothing of.")

This is a song for someone I barely knew
Someone I guess it's strange for me to miss or mourn
Like the sister who died before I was born
Her name was Gina, too.

It's far too late to do anything about Ginna Ling's suicide, but knowing that doesn't stop the singer's unconscious mind from expressing a desperate desire to save her life:

But sometimes I have this crazy dream
I break down the door, yank out the keys
Drag her out of the car and scream
"Ginna, someone loves you!"

What makes "Ginna Ling" even more powerful is that the story is true.  

Let me make this perfectly clear.  I'm not saying that this song is "based on" a true story, or "inspired by" a true story.  I'm saying that the lyrics are -- in Adam Marsland words -- "literally true":

Ginna Ling was a woman I met through Rick and Nicole McBrien when we were playing with Rick's band Paranoid Lovesick on the "Scapegoat" tour in 1999.  I really had a thing for her, and was looking forward to seeing her on the next tour when Rick called and let me know what had happened. 
Marsland decided to write the song "as a form of revenge" after finding out why Ginna Ling took her own life -- but also as a memorial to her short, unhappy life.  (She was about 30 when Adam met her.)

The back story -- of an abusive on-off relationship, cultural pressures, and a job where your boss is literally trying to force you into a breakdown so you quit -- angered me so much that I determined to write a song about it as a form of revenge, and I had all the lyrics by the next day.  I wasn't sure about using the real name, but Rick [McBrien] assured me that there wouldn't likely be a problem, and in fact I've periodically run into people on the road who were friends of hers and who told me they appreciated the song.   
It's been said of the real-life Ginna that "she didn't like life very much" but I'm glad, anyway, that she got a little memorial of sorts.  A lot of people in this world are basically screwed, whether by accidents of genetics, geography, chemical imbalances or twists of fate.  We don't think about that enough.
It took a lot of trial and error before Adam was satisfied with the recording of "Ginna Ling":

I was very concerned about striking the right tone, to the point where we recut the suicide line about 15 times so that I didn't overstate it . . . [W]e took a lot of our cues in cutting [the album] from Johnny Cash, not so much in terms of sound but in the idea that a message carries a lot more emotional weight if you just say something bluntly rather than making a big histrionic deal about it. . . . The first take of it was a disaster, and the band had to go home and rehearse for a few more months before we could pull it off properly.

Johnny Cash in 1967
I wasn't surprised to read what Adam wrote next -- I had a similar reaction to hearing "Ginna Ling" the first time:

I don't think I have ever recorded a song that has gotten a stronger response.  I heard stories about the song playing for groups of people and complete silence afterwards.  

Adam is correct when he says that it's Ginna's story more than his telling of that story that makes the song so memorable:

The song was deliberately constructed to sound like a happy-go-lucky pop song -- with a chorus that means something completely different than it first appears to -- so that when the switch comes in the middle of the song, it has more impact.  I had worried that we hadn't quite pulled it off, but apparently we did.  As a songwriter, I was gratified, but at the same time, aware that all I had done was tell the story of a real-life tragedy that many people can relate to.  The impact was derived from that, not from any particular cleverness on my part.

But I think Adam is being too modest here.  He achieved his goal of avoiding overstatement and histrionics, which many songwriters wouldn't have been able to do.

"Ginna Ling" does sound like a happy-go-lucky pop song, which may seem inappropriate given what happened to her.  But I think its emotional tone is exactly right.  The song communicates the singer's grief and indignation, but it primarily communicates what must have been his overwhelming shock and disorientation.   

Ginna's decision to take her own life may have made sense to her, or to those who were intimately familiar with what was going on in her life.  But it was simply incomprehensible to the singer.

Adam says he wrote this song as a form of revenge on those who were responsible for Ginna's death, and also as a memorial to her.  But I have to think he was motivated to write "Ginna Ling" in part by a need to understand her death and come to grips with it.  

Just because Ginna was someone Adam "barely knew" doesn't make his loss any less significant.  In fact, he may have hurt more because he barely knew her.  No matter how satisfying your history with a loved one has been, an imagined future will always be even sweeter and more perfect.  

Anything was possible when it came to Adam's future with Ginna -- the sky was the limit.  He could dream of "future tenses and picket fences" because she had never disappointed him.  Maybe she never would have.  

Click below to listen to "Ginna Ling":

Click below if you'd like to buy the Ludlow 6:18 album from Amazon:

1 comment:

  1. Certainly one of the best songs ever written by Adam Marsland. I was immediately struck by the phrase "Now my heart will burst / If my brain won't first" and how it was initially used to express Adams joy and then later used to express his despair. Brilliant song writing.