Making ROOTS AND BRANCHES: “The Illustrated Man”

“The Illustrated Man” was written across decades. I think I wrote the lyrics in the late 70s. At the time I tried repeatedly to write the music for it but nothing clicked, so I just set it aside, neatly typed, for nearly 30 years. Finally, in the early-aughts, it came to me, powered by the opening pop-rock Strat lick in E. 

I don’t often write a final set of lyrics in advance of the music, but sometimes lines, verses, or even a verse-chorus pairing come to me, sometimes in the middle of the night. I have learned to get those things down on paper or dictated into my phone the instant they arrive because they vanish in a heartbeat. The lyrics to the “The Illustrated Man” arrived fully formed and I don’t think I ever revised it at all. That, I must say, is very rare.

The music, when it finally arrived, came a whole piece as well. Again, vanishingly rare.

The tongue-in-cheek tone of the song springs so obviously from the lyric that there was no question about the fit of the music to the lyric. It springs from the Buddy Holly-Marshall Crenshaw-Warren Zevon school of pop rock. As for its place on Roots and Branches, I thought of it as a mid-album palette cleanser. 

I think the bridge is the pièce de résistance  of the song. I have wondered how tattoos inscribed in early life contort after four or five decades of middle-age spread. As www.romper.com says of tattoos, “they’ll age as you do.” So it just sort of becomes the central image of the song. Don’t get me wrong, I am not personally inveighing against tattoos, it is Lucille who didn’t like ‘em, and she made no bones about where she stood on the subject.

A thought that cracks me up today is the beginning of the second verse, “When he joined the Navy, July of ’62…” That date was only 15 years in the past when I wrote the lyric, but of course by the time I got around to finishing the song it was ancient history and today, well, do the math. But it had to be 1962. It had to refer to what tattoos meant in 1962, which was something I knew a thing or two about as a kid. (“Only sailors get tattoos.”)

Inspired by “Carney?”

I’m not saying this was the absolute inspiration for the song but the September 1976 issue of Playboy included the short story “Carney” by Harry Crews and the story was accompanied by a striking illustration by Kunio Hajio. I had met and studied with Harry Crews at the Breadloaf Writer’s Workshop in 1972, and I loved his work (so I really was reading Playboy for the article!). I know I had that issue laying around and the lyrics to “The Illustrated Man” arrived not that long after so…

For the record, I never envisioned my guy with tattoos on his face, but I did always see him, as I wrote, with “a lotta tattoos” and I did not see them as being in great taste, but did see them as being well-drawn and “colorful” in a manner not unlike the illustration at hand.

The lead vocal is pretty deadpan about the whole affair, the backup vocals by Lenne and Eliza  not so much. We went pretty thick on the “ooh la la la ooh la la la” behind “…he’s gotta lotta color pictures like a fool…” and “mama says you should avoid them as a rule…” on the chorus and the  “oooooh waaaah” line behind “Lucille used to look like…” on the bridge. And they displayed wonderful insouciance on the “…right there on his chest” line to wrap up verse 2. I was kind of  thinking of a 1940’s vibe on those parts.

As with “Life in the Fifties” we broke out the recording of the backup vocals into the “ooh” parts and their lyric lines, recording them in separate multi-track stacks with different board settings and processing in the mix. I double-tracked them, and it’s all harmonized, there’s no unison singing on it (as was common for the entire album).

The spirit of fun was joined in John O’Reilly Jr.’s deliberately cheesy early 60’s kick-snare groove and featured guest Joe Savage’s lighthearted and stellar accompaniment on pedal steel. I think I first heard Joe (www.savagejoe.com) on A Prairie Home Companion. He lives in St. Paul,  and played with a number of bands I knew, so he was local to me—and he’s worked with dozens of great acts. I know he worked with Peter Ostroushko, who supplied the exquisite mandolin part on Lenne’s cover of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” on her album The Heart Is the Hunter

In a very rare move, I pulled out my Fender Telecaster for the solo and riffs, played through a Fender Deluxe and used my trusty Strat  through a Fender Twin for the rhythm parts, both recorded wet with Fender spring reverb for that early 60’s sound. I thought the Tele and the pedal steel played quite nicely with each other.

I guess the moral of “The Illustrated Man” has been eclipsed by fashion over the decades, but you can’t blame Lucille for trying. We don’t know how things finally turned out for the couple, but I have my concerns.

As for the making of the song, I think the byword is “no song before its time.” Enjoy!

(This is the illustration photographed from the notebook I had pasted it in…)

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