The Metronome Diary

Like any good epiphany, the gaffer song has to be a slow-dawning thing

I have a problem with New Year’s resolutions. My problem is this: I always forget them. So this year I wrote them out. And not on the usual envelope-backs and newspaper margins either. Nope, I reserved a whole page in my journal for them. That way they would be both easily referenced and legally binding. Unfortunately, the short list of resolutions I could muster–pay bills on time, eat more vegetables–looked really paltry against the backdrop of that vast page. So I cavalierly added Finish novel to the list in big block letters. That looked good. Below it, I tentatively wrote Finish second novel. I laughed nervously and added Write third novel to the list. Why not? Before I knew it, Record a CD and Make a movie had been added to my 2001 to-do list.

At that point, I became crazed with self-improvement lust and ended up drafting a ten-page makeover of my entire personality. But here’s the weird thing about humans: Give them something easy to do and the task will languish undone for eons. Ask for the moon on a silver platter, though, you get the moon on a silver platter, usually within ten working days. I don’t claim to understand the mechanism behind it, but there you go.

I write all this in an attempt to make sense of the fact that I haven’t paid any of the year’s bills on time, but I have somehow managed to finish my first novel, chart out my third, and book recording time in May for the Great American Album. And, by the time you read this, I will have made my movie.

The movie–or video, more accurately–is the tale of a Scotsman caught between the dictates of his faith and his dreams of being a professional baseball player in Japan. I kept costs low by filming only the final three minutes of the movie. The rest of the saga unfolds through lengthy (and cost-effective) textual epilogues.

Working on the video has been fun, but the more I work on it, the more I realize I’m only doing it to be able to work on the soundtrack. And not even the whole soundtrack. Just one song. The gaffer song.

The gaffer song–named for the film industry job that shows up in credits without anyone in the audience knowing what a gaffer actually does–is that lynchpin song that you hear in the final moments of a movie. It’s the hardest working song in show biz, because it has to amplify the mood of the most crucial scene in the movie without being obvious or intrusive. Like any good epiphany, gaffer has to be a slow-dawning thing; it needs to start slow enough to give the actors time to say their last lines before it starts the all-important build. It should evoke adversity, then overcome it. It should make the last scene feel fifty times more important than it really is. And if the music consultant did his or her job right, you will hear this song and immediately want to cry, hug your seatmate, and buy the soundtrack all at the same time.

Good gaffer can be harsh (Yo La Tengo‘s “Five Cornered Drone”) or mellifluous (Tom Waits‘ “Downtown Train”), remorseful (Elliott Smith‘s “The Biggest Lie”) or ecstatic (Stevie Wonder‘s “For Once in My Life”). By the time I started working on my movie this month, I had narrowed the soundtrack choice to one of the above classics. But when the time came to actually pick one, I opted instead for something I happened to pick up randomly at South by Southwest.

The song is by a band called Clem Snide. It plays classy hipster folk music–warm songs about Nick Drake sung by a guy who sounds like a nerdier Adam Duritz. But the song I’m using, “Moment in the Sun,” is more bluesy than classy, a faux-epic masterpiece that could have been lifted from the Rolling StonesExile on Main Street. It’s redolent with hope and desperation and a graceful, powerful yearning for impossible things.

I could tell it had potential the first time I heard it, but the real test was in the editing room, where it transformed crappy video footage of my friend Benj swinging a baseball bat in a downtown Oakland park into something else. Something magical and far less crappy. Something about Scotland and Japan, and a young man willing to risk everything for his dreams of the major leagues.

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