Back to the States for Day 2 of the Road Trip! Today we’re on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, California, alternating between mind-numbing stop-and-go traffic and hair-raising, bumper-to-bumper driving at 80 miles per hour. You know, just your typical day on the L.A. freeway system.
We’re also reeling a little from a love affair that ended a bit too soon, a condition best addressed with (what else) loud guitars and some reasonably snappy lyrics. Press “play” on the track, and then keep reading to find out about the dead cow...
Click the big orange Play button to get the song rolling, then read on for more about the song, lyrics, and extras...
Like every other songwriter ever, I tend to get more music written when things aren’t going so well. “Picture of You” is the best of a whole batch of songs I wrote after I got seriously dumped for the first time (this was absolutely the best thing in the long run, or even the medium run, but it’s never much fun at the time), leaving me with nothing but pictures of the woman I’d been dating for a couple of years.
We’d been living together in San Francisco, and everywhere I went just reminded me of her to a painful degree. I needed to get out of town, and when my good friend N., who was kind of a minor rock star in the making at the time, invited me to visit him in L.A., I jumped at the chance.
N. lived in Ginger Rogers’ old house, nicknamed “The Castle” - because it looked like a castle - in Beechwood Canyon, off the Sunset Strip and halfway up the hill to the Hollywood sign. It was a fabulous pad, and I was lucky enough to be there for several great Hollywood parties. Which were hilarious. All the musicians tended to gather in the living room for big singalongs with killer vocal harmonies, and all the actors clustered in the kitchen, bitching about their agents. There was one actress in particular who caught my eye at one of the parties, and, well…let’s just say she made it into the second verse…
I was also unlucky enough to be caught on the road in L.A. for many absolutely epic traffic jams as I was attempting to get across town. Traffic’s pretty bad in the Bay Area, too, but nothing like L.A., and I was pretty impressed, in a negative way. On the plus side, I had plenty of time to work on my songwriting, and the first drafts of “Picture of You” were banged out as I inched towards Santa Monica on the freeway. This tune, populated as it is by cars, freeways and actresses, is very much an L.A. song.
Finally, the line in the first verse about a "40 riding shotgun” was inspired by a related experience that I had a little bit later. But first, let me back up a bit; one of my favorite things to do is to grab my guitar and battery-powered keyboard and take a few days to hit the road and head for some of the less-visited parts of the American West. If there’s a big, empty spot on the map somewhere in Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, etc., then I wanna head out there and write some songs.
I’m embarrassed to say that sometimes, when heading out to one of these empty spots, I used to indulge in the occasional beer behind the wheel when I was driving through the middle of nowhere. This was great, until one day, all of a sudden it wasn’t.
I was actually headed back home from Colorado, and was driving through hundred-degree heat in absolutely empty territory in southwestern Utah when I thought it might be a good idea to pop a cold one. I was driving the limit even though there was no one around for miles, since, with my California plates, it didn’t seem like stretching the law would be a good idea (except, you know, for the drinking and driving thing).
I was about halfway through my beer, singing along to the radio and feeling no pain when, out of nowhere, a Utah state trooper materialized on my rear bumper, lights flashing and cop mustache bristling with anticipation. Oh fuck.
What the hell was I going to do? I was nailed, dead to rights, drinking and driving. In small-town Utah. With California plates. I was going to jail for sure. Probably a nice, Mormon jail, where everyone said please and thank you, but still, the lockup. I quickly capped and stashed my beer behind the driver’s seat, sat up straight and prepared to face the music as the trooper got bigger and bigger in my side view mirror.
I took a deep breath, unrolled the window…and WHAM. The smell hit me like a two-by-four to the face, a ghastly, charnel-house reek of excrement and decaying flesh. What the fuck? I looked around wildly for the source of the stench, and just as the trooper came up level with me, spotted the rotting corpse of a dead cow right next to my car on the side of the highway.
The trooper saw it at the same instant, and then the two of us, trying not to puke, embarked on the fastest cop/driver negotiation of all time:
The trooper practically sprinted back to his car and left a big rooster tail of dust in the air as he peeled out and got the hell away from that dead cow and that smell. I poured out the beer, waited there as long as I could stand it and then did the same.
I went cold turkey on the whole drinking and driving thing right then and there. Obviously, I can’t recommend getting pulled over with a 40 in your lap, but if you do, try to make sure you’re within sniffing distance of a very dead animal.
Like the rest of “Interstate Medicine”, “Picture of You” was recorded at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California. A boatload of classic artists have recorded here - a partial list includes: U2, Aretha Franklin, Journey, Metallica, CCR…I felt really lucky to be there as we settled into Studio B and started production on this song.
To me, the heartbeat of this tune is the guitars. The caveman main riff is my black Mexican Telecaster, which I bought for $120 and has no knobs, which means it has only one volume setting: loud. And remember my L.A. buddy, N., from earlier in the story? He lent me his vintage Les Paul, which you can hear on the arpeggios on this song. Both axes are running through a Marshall stack from Fantasy’s sick amp collection. Seriously, it would’ve been easy to waste entire days just testing out gear at that studio…#ummaybeweactuallydidthat
Finally, one of my favorite parts of this track is the drum fill at 2:43. If you listen closely, the fill ends not with a flam, or a cymbal crash, but just the “clink” of drumstick on the hi-hat stand, which I think is hilarious. I had Counting Crows drummer Steve Bowman on the kit for this song, and the whole album (that’s him on the Crows classic “Mr. Jones”, btw), and he also cracked up hearing this fill when I played him the finished song (months after he’d tracked the drums).
black Chrysler '71/slides by on the freeway
suicide doors and a hole in the floor
so you can see if you're enjoying the ride
new twist-off, hand on the wheel
get a jump on the weekend
40 riding shotgun 3-day beard dog tags and a picture of you
picture of you
smiling like you knew what this was what it was coming to
i tried to get through
but you're never home and you're never alone
what can i do
start talking after the tone/no name just a number
television turned up counterfeit C-cups
screenplay work on the side
she's playing for the long goodnight
i'm keeping the engine running
missionary drive-by no alibi
trying to picture anybody but you
Check out the original demo for "Picture of You". Weedy drums and curiously somnolent vocal performance aside, this version is remarkably similar to the final track, except for the guitar solo, which here is more of a gentle ramble through the chords. I like the final version better, but it's fun to hear what's going on here as a glimpse of what could've been.
Anyone want to cop to their own drinking and driving stories? Anything else weird that's happened to you behind the wheel? Drop a comment below!