The Last Pirates

A little over a year ago, an unusual request arrived in the Ben Gunn Society’s mailbox. The BGS is of course the alternative-concept-folk-rock project that Mr. Koz and I have been channeling for the last decade or so. Last September, when I ventured to write about it here for the first time, we were just about to play some shows, record a new album, and do all other kinds of exciting stuff that I would have been blogging about if I weren’t, well, a hermit.

The request came from a guy called Bilgemunky, who is crazy about pirates. He has a blog where he reviews anything having to do with pirates, and even runs a weekly radio show where he plays two hours of mostly non-traditional pirate music. He really liked our first CD, a song cycle inspired by the book Treasure Island, and played it a lot; partly because it is fun, and partly because, although there are more songs about pirates by major acts than you would think, their licensing terms are prohibitive. But in the eight years that have elapsed since then, thanks mostly to Johnny Depp, there has been a boom in bands that play pirate songs.

So Bilgemunky, who reviews a lot of rum, sent out an email to all the acts he regularly plays on his show, asking on bended pegleg if we would all please submit pirate songs “from the future,” to be interpreted as we liked, for a special show he was planning. Mr. Koz, who had already been working on a new song, jumped on it and came up right away with an interesting demo entitled No Stars, inspired by the science fiction show Firefly.

I was intrigued by the task as well, and began to ponder the meaning of those words together, pirates and future. Our future is looking bleaker by the moment, largely due to the fact that the captains of the good ship America have been wantonly pillaging the world for the last couple of hundred years, saving the best of the spoils for themselves and keeping the rest of the crew from turning mutinous by assuring them their share of cheap thrills. Meanwhile, the Jolly Roger, once a fearsome portent of death and destruction, has become a staple theme for children’s parties. Pirates rule an economy that fuels a culture which was built on the backs of slaves and relies on the raping of the Earth to provide raw materials for the junk that the ads say is supposed to make us happy! Deep in thought along these lines, I had a vision. The world’s last survivors crammed into a small, dark, underground cell, some kind of bunker or bomb shelter. Nothing left to plunder, right down to the last breath of air.

The first few lines danced around in my head for weeks, but I wasn’t really getting anywhere with them. Bilgemunky’s show came and went, and Mr. Koz was inspired to write several more songs. Then one morning, I woke up and the rest of the song tumbled out. The date was April 22 – Earth Day. When the Kozlet asked what my song was about, I told him it was the fate of the really greedy pirates who plundered and plundered until there was nothing left. He suggested I call it “The Last Pirates,” and the title stuck.

The problem was, I could hear the music in my head quite clearly as a stark piano arrangement, but as I don’t play piano and am not fluent in notation, I couldn’t think of how to present it. That was when Mr. Koz introduced me to a simple composition program called Cakewalk, where I was able to lay out my melody and then arrange chords around it to my liking, by clicking and dragging notes on a staff, adjusting the sound by ear.

I still needed a solo and perhaps some kind of introduction. The song was a bit dirgelike, yet kind of catchy at the same time. One day, while trying out different melodies, Mr. Koz playfully inserted a phrase from Chopin’s Funeral March, and it worked! The introduction was far more difficult and we tried many different ideas but nothing sounded right. Once again, Mr. Koz had a flash of inspiration. During the Siege of Leningrad in WWII, the ticking sound of a metronome being broadcast over the radio was the only sign that the city had not yet been captured; the “Heartbeat of Leningrad” as it came to be known. He recalled a memorial in St. Petersburg with a room containing nothing but a radio that played a somber poem accompanied by the creepy tick… tick… tick…. It was perfect, and as luck would have it, Glen, our producer, just happened to have an old fashioned metronome lying around.

Our friend Joe is a great improvisational pianist whose band Take With Food plays all around the Stockton area. He played on our last album, and agreed to come down over Labor Day weekend to lay down piano tracks for the new record. The big news story at the time was 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground after a mine shaft collapsed while they were digging for gold. I couldn’t stop thinking about the synchronicity while we were in the studio. It was a terribly hot day, and we had to turn the noisy A/C off during recording. Poor Joe became trapped in a hot, dark, stuffy corner of the studio, where he wrestled for hours with an ancient and cantankerous piano. Every time he emerged to listen to a take he looked sweatier and more exasperated. He was about ready to call it a day when he sat and performed a most haunting and sensitive rendition that perfectly summoned up the feeling I wanted to convey. After that I managed to explain to Glen, an accomplished and versatile musician, exactly how I wanted the guitar to sound, and his solo blended in even better than I had expected.

Earth Day is upon us once again. The past year has been marked by earthquakes, volcanos, tsunamis, and really freaky weather. Wars and political uprisings are erupting all over the place. Mutiny on the horizon. What will happen when there’s nothing left to pillage? The only thing pirates care about is wenches and grog, even when they know that their chosen path may lead straight to the hangman’s noose. The Age of Plunder is coming to an end, whether by choice or by consequence – that’s up to us to decide.

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