Hurricane Harvey: When the Levee Breaks

We are releasing a cover of the 1929 song “When the Levee Breaks” to help benefit the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Download it here:

My Hometown

I was born in Houston, Texas, and lived most of my life there until I moved to Los Angeles in my late 20s. I learned how to play music in Houston, my first bands were in Houston (hell, most of my bands were in Houston), my first few years of playing live music in bars and clubs that smelled like cigarettes and old beer were in Houston.

My family is in and around Houston. My friends are there.

Watching the devastation brought on by the flooding from Hurricane Harvey and checking Facebook and email constantly to see if my family and friends were safe (they are), or if my old neighborhoods survived intact (some yes, some no), those cannot compare to the feelings of living through it. But watching from 1800 miles away and feeling helpless, I wanted to do something. The night the rains started, it occurred to me we could do a version of “When the Levee Breaks,” and use it to try to raise money. I had no idea how bad things would get, and how much relief would be needed.

I wrote to our cellist, Jody (originally from Dallas), and told her I wanted to try to do something to help out in Houston. Without even asking what it was, she wrote back, “I’m in.”

Yesterday we were able to get into the studio. And today, here we are.

The Song

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The 1971 Led Zeppelin cover version is certainly the most well-known version of “When the Levee Breaks,” but the song is not original to them. I decided to go back to the original version, which was a Delta Blues song written and recorded in 1929 by Memphis Minnie and her then-husband Kansas Joe McCoy. The song was about the 1927 Mississippi River flood — still the worst river flood in U.S. history. If I wanted — in some small, small way– to express solidarity with the people in Texas dealing with this nightmare, I thought a song that’s 90 years old, commemorating a similar event, had a lot of resonance. Ain’t nobody alone, even if it feels that way.

But I can’t play Delta Blues guitar, so I re-worked the song, moving it from a major to minor key, and slowing it way down.

Thomas

When I lived in the Midtown neighborhood in Houston, I rescued a stray cat that showed up on my porch one day, starving. His ear was docked, meaning he’d been caught, neutered, and released back into the neighborhood. His other ear was cut, like he’d been in a fight. My wife named him Thomas.

Thomas

That was almost 14 years to the day before the rains from Harvey started. That neighborhood flooded. This other cat, which has now gone viral thanks to an indelible picture by an LA Times photographer during Harvey, could have been Thomas:

We lost Thomas earlier this year. He showed up skinny and starving, but made the move across the country with us and he lived out his life for another nearly 13 years, fat and happy, with friends all around our neighborhood in LA. He was the best cat, and so half the money that we raise from this single will go to support the Houston Humane Society, which is working like crazy right now to help animals like Thomas all over Houston.

The other half of the money we raise will go to the Greater Houston Community Foundation Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund. This fund was set up by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, and so donations are going a local organization that will hopefully be able to provide meaningful, dedicated assistance to the people of Houston long after national and international groups have been called away to deal with whatever the next disaster might be. Probably Hurricane Irma, churning its way across the Caribbean toward Florida as I write this.

The band is not recouping recording or publicity costs. Everything Bandcamp pays us for this song from the people who purchase it will go directly to these two groups. I don’t know if we will make a difference, but with your help we can.

If you live in Texas and are suffering from these floods and dig the track, take it. Download it for free. If you want to help those people, and the animals of Houston with them, then please make a donation with your download, and spread the word. This only works if people share it.

Thank you.

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Fun With Word Clouds

As I work on demos for the next album, I’ve been thinking a lot about lyrics, naturally. Then I decided to have a little fun with the lyrics on our releases so far, and make word clouds out of them.

Here’s what happens when you plop all 40 Sci-Fi Romance original songs into a word cloud generator (I used wordclouds.com)

All Lyrics wordcloud

I was a little surprised “Don’t” made such a strong showing, but I realized it shows up in the choruses of at least four songs, so there you go.

Then I broke down each album, and tried to generate clouds in thematically-appropriate shapes. Here’s our latest, Dust Among the Stars.

Dust wordcloud

There’s “Don’t” again. I think it’s mostly from the songs “Autumn Waltz” and “Please Don’t Cry.” Here’s a look at The Ghost of John Henry.

John Henry wordcloud

“Love” feels about right. Finally, the first album, …and surrender my body to the flames.

Surrender wordcloud

Ok, I know I said, “finally”…but, actually finally, I decided to do one more. The EPs don’t really have enough songs on them to have a ton of lyrics, but since the site had this one more particular shape that was perfect, I decided to do our EP October, where all the songs were inspired by classic horror movies.

October wordcloud

There’s “don’t” again, but “Dead” and “Break” seem totally appropriate. I really like these. I’ll probably do one for the new record, and if you make any for your band, or your favorite artists (or authors), link to them in the comments or or Facebook or Twitter. I’d love to see them.

Hollywood vs. Online Dating

This morning, NPR Morning Edition ran a story called, “Why Hasn’t Online Dating Made it Onscreen?” Of course, as the story discusses, online dating has made it onto TV screens, and studios have made tons of tech-that-kills sci-fi and horror movies. But, the story points out, “[T]here’s one movie genre that’s still struggling to incorporate the everyday tech of contemporary life into the stories it tells: the romantic comedy. Which is notable — and very, very odd — because online dating…is, for millions of people, a simple fact of life — the New Normal.”

Turns out, I’ve got a little insight into this, since I actually wrote an online dating script almost a decade ago, and it got *this close* to finding a happy home at one of a number of production companies, before simply disappearing into the ether.

NPR spoke with film producer Christine Vachon, who said that the problem was visual, since it’s cinematically boring to watch people swipe right and swipe left, etc. That’s probably true, but it’s also not what generates the drama in a story, so hopefully nobody would be spending a ton of screen time on swiping left and right.

The NPR story also spoke to TV writer Guy Branum,  who I think is closer to the problem when he says any script you write has to get past studio execs to greenlight it. NPR reporter Glen Weldon said, “Let’s say some future screenwriter…”

And that’s when I decided to write this post. Because I was that screenwriter in…like, 2007?…and I guarantee that there have been more like me and, frankly, who are better than me, that have come up with compelling scripts, but they’ve not been made.

BackwardsCompatible.Illustration

Here’s what happened with mine:

In 2007, I wrote a script called Backwards Compatible about a data guy who is engaged to an artist, and has to sign up for a profile on an online dating service that is a client. It’s assigned work research, but among his matches he finds “the one that got away” — the girl he had a crush on growing up but always seemed unattainable. He gets some questionable advice and decides to try to meet this woman.

On the surface, the guy and his fiancee don’t have that much in common, but they bring out the best in each other. They’re not the couple you’d expect, but they make a good team. But this other woman represents the “what if…?” in life. His meeting with her, which he at first refuses to call a date, goes really well and they see each other more. He starts asking himself about all the other roads he never traveled, all the things he was too scared to try to do, and he winds up getting way into the weeds and kind of losing any real sense of himself. Meanwhile, he’s trying to keep his engagement on the rails, and all this other stuff secret…you get it.

The script got me a manager and a bunch of meetings. I’m not going to mention any names in this account, but I had the head of development at a very active company belonging to an A-list romcom kind of actress tell me that they’d been trying to crack the nut of an online dating script for over a year, and my script was the best take they’d seen. Backwards got set up at a different company, though — a big, Academy Award-nominated producer’s company, where they had one woman in charge of comedy in an otherwise all-male development office focusing mainly on action movies. I went to that exec’s birthday party, and had *another* exec from another company, also a woman, come up out of the blue and tell me that Backwards Compatible was her favorite romcom script she’d read since she’d been in development.

Then the writer’s strike happened. When the dust settled, my exec had been moved over to TV, and the management company I’d been with went kaput. Nevertheless, Backwards Compatible found a new home at a different company. I did a few more drafts, and finally it went up out of the hands of a female development exec to her boss, and he killed it. Said he, “didn’t get it.” There was also a potential actor attachment, but that guy burned some bridges and hasn’t been heard of much since then. Nevertheless, another producing team got a hold of the script, and we started developing it as a TV movie for a cable channel that wanted the location changed from Los Angeles to Nashville, so I did that. That was in 2011 or 2012. I’d been working on the script, not exclusively, but actively, for four years, and I was just done with it after the network finally passed. You can read that final version here, if you want.  There are things I’d do differently today, but that’s where it was left.*

Here are some factors to which I attribute the slow demise of perhaps my most-loved original screenplay:

  • Like Guy Branum said in the NPR piece, to get a script through the studio system and greenlit, you have to get it past guys in their fifties who have never had to deal with online dating. That’s true, but those guys also…
  • Probably don’t give a shit about romantic comedies, nor are they…
  • Often willing to take the advice of women who work with or for them.
  • The demise of the “$30 million-dollar movie” hit the romantic comedy harder than possibly any other genre
  • A bunch of shitty romantic comedies (many with one particularly unlikable actress) got made and didn’t do much at the box office, so it scared execs away

So in the end, I don’t think a studio’s going to make a great romantic comedy about online dating because there’s no incentive for them to do it. In fact, they’ve been actively dis-incentivized against making romantic comedies at all. Even if a lot of the real-world stuff you can point to might undermine that argument, I know the word in town at the time got to be that romantic comedies were unwelcome as development properties.

By now, since online dating has become such a staple of everyday life, the novelty has worn off, and there’s no reason to make an online dating romantic comedy, to tell the truth. The thing I liked about my script wasn’t the online dating aspect — that was only used as a vehicle to get to the “what if/grass is always greener” struggle. That’s something that I think is universal to the human experience, and worth making a movie about. If you try to make a movie based on any technology, that technology’s going to become obsolete, and quite possibly, your movie will be dated by the time it comes out.

I don’t think you need a new visual language for “some future screenwriter” to figure out, you just have to figure out a compelling human story to tell that the technology helps you unlock. TV’s already doing that, so this feels like a puzzle no studio is interested in solving.

*I don’t want this to come across only as “my script should’ve gotten made!” lament. I’d have liked that, sure, but there are issues with the script, and I understand that. This is about the larger point of why this topic is a particular challenge for movies, written based on personal experience, rather than academic conjecture. That’s all.