Five Hundred Fifty-Five Words on “Penguin in E Minor”

In honor of the 2011 RPM Challenge, Chris is going to be writing an awful lot about music this month, including music he’s made. You have been warned.

“Penguin in E Minor” is not, to the best of my knowledge, written in E minor. I say “to the best of my knowledge” because the truth is that I’m not much of a musician. I took saxophone lessons in elementary school, and piano lessons and an electronic music class in college, but that’s about it.

The song draws its title not from the key it’s written in — I actually have no idea what key it’s in — but instead from the nickname of the guitar player for my old college-era band. Lyrically, “Penguin” was a highly fictionalized account of how that band got together, of how we broke up, and of what the future might look like for us. As with most of my songs, the lyrics came first.

Musically, this was the first song I wrote by myself that was meant to be sung over. I’d created an opus of a song for the aforementioned electronic music class that would eventually have lyrics fitted on top of it, but I’d never written something where the words and music were meant to go together.

Now, whether I actually succeeded in crafting something where the words and music fit together was a bone of contention when I released this on back in the day. Some people dug the abrasive, high-pitched pan flutey thing that I was playing over the top of the verses, but others hated it. For me, though, that was the crux of the song.

What I was trying to do was evoke the sound of my old band’s best tune, “Orange.” I couldn’t play guitar, so I couldn’t do anything to call back to the sound that the Penguin played on that old song, but with my keyboard I could at least pay some tribute. And I really was interested in paying tribute. But I was also out to prove something. And I guess that something was that I could do it on my own.

The chorus sounds so cynical to me now, as I listen to it for the first time in years. “And you can never go back again,” I sing. “No, you can never go back again. They might’ve said they’d stick to the end, but you can never go back again.” Sure, that’s true, and part of what I was trying to do here was convince myself to get over the past and move on, which is never really a bad thing. But “Penguin” is the reaction of an angry young man to being abandoned by the community he’d put all his energy into.  He doesn’t really want to move on, and he doesn’t really want to go it alone, but he’s convinced himself that that’s the only way to do it.

The truth, I’ve learned — though it’s taken me many years (probably too many) — is that, when one community disbands, the answer is not to become a hermit out of spite, but to instead form a new community. 

Of course, the flip side of that is never to wait for someone else to make your dreams a reality, but to remember that you need to be self-reliant and in charge of your own destiny. So, maybe 22 year old Chris knew what he was talking about, after all.

At least a little bit.