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Thursday, July 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 77.0° F  Mostly Cloudy


My Madison song contest entry: The Untold Story

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Just about everything that could go wrong did. The night before my first-ever recording session, to lay down the vocal track for "Madison the Beautiful," my entry into Madison's sesquicentennial song contest, I practiced for about an hour. On the morning of the day that I drove to coworker Tom Dehlinger's house in the town of Brooklyn, I practiced several more times. It felt as though I had swallowed broken glass.

Singing is not something I do a lot of, and my vocal approach to this particular song is kind of a forced John Prine imitation that actually sounds more like Tom Waits. It's a much lower and grittier octave than what comes natural, befitting my belief that what comes natural is not something anyone would want to hear.

And so when I arrived at Tom's recording studio -- a former sewing room newly outfitted with sound equipment and guitars -- I knew I had at best two versions in me, both of which would require the assistance of a slug of cough syrup.

There were some problems with the recording device, which I gather Tom does not use often enough to, er, know how it works. He had already recorded the music, on three tracks: guitar, bass and dobro. It was impressively good, and greatly enhanced what I thought were our already strong chances of winning the competition. He gave me a cassette tape to use to rip my vocal cords to shreds.

I belted out one version, which was okay, and a second, which was better. Then we tried to record another track that contained some shouted overdubs (represented on the lyrics in parentheses). Here we encountered a problem with memory. Tom's recording device, from an earlier age of electronics during which Tom Edison may have still been alive, was full. In trying unsuccessfully to create more space, he accidentally erased the vocal track.

The third time was not a charm. Toward the end, my eyes were literally filling with tears. It was like being someplace where you're supposed to be somber and quiet, like church or a Democratic Party rally, exercising near-superhuman strength to suppress a violent fit of coughing. (John Lennon, it's said, recorded "Twist and Shout" under similar conditions.) It was not my best effort, but a fourth kick at the cat was not even an option.

Moreover, we still did not have enough memory to record the overdubs. Tom tried to get around this by activating the machine an instant before each addition, then turning it off; at the end of three of the four planned overdubs, the memory was maxed out. To get the three additional seconds needed to record the fourth, we would have had to start from scratch, with fresh instrumental and vocal tracks. Neither or us wanted to win that badly. (I won't reveal the fourth planned overdub, to keep alive the possibility that it would been have regarded as brilliant.)

Tom did an absolutely amazing job of mixing the song, and my lovely wife Linda Falkenstein designed a CD cover. I hand-delivered my entry to the mayor's office on the same day that I presented Mayor Dave with a framed copy of the front cover of our April 7 edition, featuring his excellent article on the future of Madison. (In the interest of historical accuracy, we reproduced the entire cover, including a refer for a campus event called "Slutfest.")

It bears mentioning that my Isthmus colleague Kenneth Burns is among the panel of judges, which also includes Hanah Jon Taylor, Ben Sidran, Gerri DiMaggio, John DeMain, Andrew Sewell, Richard Davis, Kitty Dunn, Jan Wheaton and Mario Mendoza. (Entire constitutions have been written with less input.) At first, I wasn't even going to tell him that Tom and I were submitting a song. I eventually did, stressing that I did not expect any favoritism.

Nor did we receive any. "Madison the Beautiful," I'm told, did not receive a single vote from any committee member. It is not among the four finalists: "Oh, Wonderful Madison" by Lou and Peter Berryman, "My Friend Madison" by Amy Shapiro, "Madison" by the Dane Varese Band, and "Madison" by Douglas Hamilton.

The only notice my song entry received was from Kitty Dunn on her radio show and Doug Moe of the Cap Times, who used his considerable investigative prowess to obtain a copy of the lyrics. These he quoted from briefly before dismissively remarking that at least I'm good at my real job.

Harrumph! Not having heard any of the 21 other entries, let me state unequivocally that my song is almost certainly better than some. I believe it may have been considered too "edgy," particularly the line about football team. It may also be deemed too "political," for its references to Capitol corruption. Certainly, it is not a "safe" choice, nor one that is necessarily "appropriate." It may not be the "best" song, or even an especially "good" one.

But, by golly, it is absolutely the only song I entered and the last shot-voice rendition I gave that day. And having recorded it, I want it to be heard, if not as Madison's official song than perhaps as Madison's unofficial one.

That's why Isthmus is presenting the song here as an mp3 file, suitable for downloading. You can play it over and over, put it on your iPod, share it with neighbors and friends. Radio stations can play it, free of charge. Soon there will be a groundswell of support for my song, as well as demands that each and every member of the song selection committee be replaced. Especially Kenneth.

MadisonTheBeautiful.mp3, 3.09 MB

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