the big bear
Release Date: 9/04, 3/07, 3/08
Album: YOU DON'T KNOW ME, LONG PROMISED ROAD and DAYLIGHT KISSING NIGHT
Writer: ADAM MARSLAND
Out of breath stumble up the mountain,
nothing left tumble down and
I wanna fall through the snow,
white blanket darker than my skin,
the only race she knows.
Maybe I'll see the big bear,
take me in his arms
and crush the weight out of me.
Angels and vultures flying,
men in trenches killing, dying,
the water fills up the lungs,
up the ladder to an island,
Polynesian ladies smile and sing at the top of the rungs:
"Maybe you'll see the
big bear, take you in his arms
and crush the guilt out of you."
Someone reading the lyrics to this song might well ask, "what the heck is that about?" Usually when I write songs, they are about something pretty specific in my mind, but "The Big Bear" is basically a fever dream of disconnected images. To the extent it's about anything, it's about being so exhausted you want to die. I suppose the big bear is a God figure, but someone not long ago wrote me an e-mail with this amazing thesis about the symbolism of the bear and how it all fit in with the song and my life. But typically, now I can't remember what it was. Anyway, it was really cool, and that was what I meant this song to be about all along. Yeah. Since I originally blogged about this, Teresa opined that the song is about someone dying of hypothermia. And reading through it, that actually fits pretty well. Whatever it is, it's dark, man.
The backstory on "The Big Bear" is that I was on one of my solo tours and had wound up staying at the home of a family with a crying baby kid, so I had not gotten much sleep and had to leave the next day fairly early. This was right after my father had died and not a good time for me to be out alone on the road. Anyway, I only had 70 miles to cover that day and noplace to go, so to kill time I drove into the nearby Catskill Mountains to go hiking. However, it was still winter and basically I walked partway up a hill on a snow-covered trail and was so tired that all I could think about was wanting to just fall down in the snow and never get up. I dragged my ass back down to the car, got in the car, and wrote this song (and "I Can't Do This Anymore" as well).
The coolest thing about recording YOU DON'T KNOW ME was having the opportunity to put my talented friends in different settings than they were used to. I certainly got a perverse kick about having Wondermints sing vocals on a track with such grisly imagery. The vocal session was great -- it came together very quickly. We all knew each other from way back and had the same basis in harmony singing (and we all knew what to avoid) so we came up with an arrangement on the fly around the mic, with Darian taking the lead role in arranging. Probyn and I doubled the falsetto parts in the chorus. Darian actually thought the song was called "the big bad," in yet another Buffy the Vampire Slayer reference (we did actually namecheck Buffy in "Other Than Me.")
It may not be obvious at first blush but this track is heavily influenced by John Cale, particularly in the droning VU-style drum part and the cello hook which I'm sure is ripped off from something or other. Even though it's a pretty track, I was taken by surprise when the song became a favorite a few years later, and is now our premiere track on myspace, with over 30,000 plays despite having been put up fairly recently.
This song is hard to do live, because the up-and-down falsetto vocals on the chorus are so difficult to sync up, and then John and I would invariably mix up the words ("is it grief or weight?" "Grief." "No, weight." "Shit!"), leading to much hilarity. We did manage to do a decent, and somewhat grittier, live version for the LONG PROMISED ROAD album, though. The key finger cymbal part in live shows has shifted over the years from Evie to John to Alan Boyd. It's a surprisingly tricky thing to pull off. It was always fun to get to that point in the song, stop playing, and see if whoever it was that had to do it that night was going to whiff it or not. One of the funniest moments on the Carl and Dennis tour occurred when it got to that point and at the exact moment that Alan failed to hit the cymbal that time 'round, I said "ding!" into the mic. Don't ask me how I knew he was going to whiff, I just knew. I guess you had to be there.
For a long time after John left, we didn't do this song; we thought it would sound too threadbare. Finally, when I started contemplating going on the road again, I bought an acoustic 12-string guitar and worked out an intricate picked arrangement for it to play solo. It worked beautifully -- the first time I'd tried something like that, not having been a good enough guitar player the first go 'round to pull it off -- and I then took that arrangement to the band and we were able then to get a full enough sound as four piece to do it, and it's since become a staple of the live show.
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