The Arrow You Want
Writer: Mark Bittner
Mark Bittner: vocal
Chris Doering: electric rhythm and lead guitars, song arranger
Bruce Gordon: keyboard
John Lee Sanders: alto and tenor saxes, sax arrangement
John Quell: baritone sax
Paul Olguin: bass
John Hanes: drums
If the first song, “Street Song,” is the overture, “The Arrow You Want” is the finale. It wraps up the story that my book tells. I wrote the music a long time ago as an experiment in using extended chords—minor ninths and so on. Recently I realized that the structure was loosely based on “My Funny Valentine,” a song whose chord structure I’d been learning around the same time. They’re even in the same key, C minor, an odd key for a folkie guitar player to be working in. I wrote one verse and it seemed so perfect that I stopped there. I called it “Stabs at the Heart.”
When I decided to record this song I wanted just to sing it. So I turned the guitar part over to a friend Chris Doering, who is an avid jazz player. My version was in the style of the melodic-singer-songwriter-playing-acoustic guitar—sort of like James Taylor. The demo I gave Chris had a hint of blues in it. It was in 12/8 time or a tripleted four. To fill space and keep some momentum going, I’d used a busy acoustic guitar strum, and the accents were placed rather imprecisely. Chris took the project more seriously than I expected. In fact, he came up with two guitar parts: a chop part with accents on the two and the four; and a lead with fills and solos. With Chris’ parts, the song lost its folkie singer-songwriter aspect and sounded to me more like a nightclub blues. But I’m not a blues singer. What was I going to do? Chris had done a beautiful job, so I wasn’t about to ask him to change anything. The only solution was to find a way for me to sing within that kind of a setting. Next we brought in Paul Olguin on bass and John Hanes on drums. When we played the track for Paul and John I told them I wanted an active rhythm, but John explained to me gravely that the song didn’t go like that and started playing a nightclub blues dirge. I said no, that’s not what I want. He looked at me seriously and told me again, “no, the song doesn’t go like that.” It was near the end of the session and I was tired too tired to argue. So now I had this track with what I thought of as a dark blues feel and it was getting farther and farther from anything I knew how to sing. John’s playing was beautiful—precise and steady—as was Paul’s typically lyrical bass playing. They grooved together perfectly. But I felt intimidated by my lack of schooling in the blues. A week or so later, we brought in Bruce Gordon. I’d originally wanted a bouncy piano thing from him, but it was totally inappropriate now, so I asked him to play organ. He deepened the nightclub blues thing. Dark, spooky organ, shades, cigarettes, and whiskey. It was all incredibly gorgeous, but the track sounded like it was 1:45 AM in a bar where there were just three people left in the audience while the band finished up the night with a slow blues. Not my forte.
My original idea had been to sing that one verse, have two instrumental verses, and then sing the verse again before ending the song. That didn’t feel right to me now, but I’d always felt that the one verse said it all, that there was nothing else to say. I decided to try to come up with a second verse, and one popped out fully formed and perfect in about fifteen minutes. I think some part of me had been working on it for 20 years without my knowing. The two verses sum up the entire story in the book with disciplined compression.
At home I was rehearsing with the backing track, trying to find an approach to the vocal. I’m not into imitating other singers, so I had to find my own way. But I wasn’t adjusting well to the 1:45 AM nightclub vibe. So I called on John Lee Sanders. I asked John Lee to create a horn section and he did—a beauty. Two tenors, an alto, and a baritone, along with an additional brief tenor solo. It really brought the track to life. Suddenly it was no longer 1:45 AM. It was more like 11:30 pm and the joint was packed. We made one change to what John Lee sent us. (He was recording remotely, from Alabama.) The baritone part had been a patch, a keyboard part that generated a baritone sax sound, but both Bruce and I wanted a real baritone sax. So I went hunting on the Internet and found John Quell. John Lee sent us the score for the baritone, and John Quell read and played it. He did a great job.
At that point, all that was left was my vocal. I came up with something that seemed okay, but as time passed, I became increasingly dissatisfied. I consulted with a local professional vocalist, Kim Nalley, and asked her for advice. Her response was brilliant. First of all, it was not a night club blues. It was a “film noir microphone song,” which made immediate and total sense to me. She also heard exactly what I was doing with my voice and told me what I needed to learn to make the song work.
“The Arrow You Want” is one of my favorite tracks now. There was an interesting aspect that I discovered recently. After the first verse, Chris Doering takes a solo. It’s at the point in the story where I’m heading out on the road, traveling up and down Highway 1, and his guitar part depicts that beautifully. I see myself wandering the winding, rural highway, traveling the ups and downs of the coastal hills. Chris lives in Gualala, a small town that’s right on that stretch of road, a town that I passed through. It’s ostensibly inadvertent, but sounds like he knew that that’s how it should be. I believe in the collective unconscious, that there’s something that knows what’s happening everywhere, all the time. I’ve seen too many instances of it in the creative work I’ve done not to believe in it.