There must be a hundred different ways to write a song. Bukka White and his followers just sat there, willing conduits for the "sky songs" they claimed arrived fully formed out of the clear blue yonder. Peter Gabriel, on the other hand, has a craftsman's knack for turning his current reading list into musical notation. And a seemingly endless generation of modern rockers has found that diary entries, two chords and an amplifier are all the inspiration that's needed for a composition.
Chicagoan Jonny Polonsky, whose debut, Hi My Name Is Jonny, was released earlier this month, thinks he has a better set of instructions for building the perfect pop song. In fact, he used them to construct "Evil Scurvy Love," the foundation of which, Polonsky confesses rather easily, "was a Del Fuegos song called 'I Still Want You.'
"I just kind of took the groove they were using and stole the title for my lyric," he says. "And there's a little bit of 'Things We Said Today' by the Beatles in there, and also a Tom Petty song from a few years ago -- 'She's So Fine,' remember that one?"
The 22-year-old multi-instrumentalist used a similar method of theft for "Truly Ugly and Dead Too," stealing the riff from Billy Childish's "You Broke My Very Mind."
"[I] stole the phrasing of the verses and slapped a little Eugenius rip-off chorus on there and it's a song, voilà," he says. "It's pop music; it's been done before."
Journalists get sued for that kind of thing, but then again, it's only rock and roll. And however derivative Polonsky's debut may be, with its echoes of alt-pop forebears such as the Pixies and Jonathan Richman, it's got that undeniable something above and beyond originality -- a cranked-up exuberance, a summertime sound of possibility -- that allows the best pop to transcend its plagiarized sources and stand on its own two feet.
Polonsky will be finding out if his inventions stand, walk or run during the next three months as he tours the nation opening for labelmate and Polonsky champion Frank Black, former leader of the Pixies. It's his first tour, excepting a recent weeklong stint as substitute guitarist with his friends in Trailer Hitch. And he'll be playing with his first band, a rhythm section of two high school buddies recruited to duplicate the sounds Polonsky originally recorded by his lonesome in the bedroom of his mother's house in the Chicago suburb of Willamette.
It's a whole world of firsts for a prodigious Beatles fan who entered public life in the Chicago area with a series of homemade comedy tapes bearing the moniker, "The Amazing Jonny Polonsky."
"You know, I'm putting out records, and I hope people enjoy it, and ideally it'd be nice if tons of people liked it and bought the record," says Polonsky. "Yeah, I mean it'd be great to make butt-loads of cash and be touring the world and be doing the whole nine yards of the famous rock star trip, but I think it's just great that I'm able to record."
For Polonsky, getting to record sounds like a fan's dream come true. "I'd make these homemade tapes and go down to Kinko's and make a cover and send them out to different record companies and use them as an excuse to call up musicians I admired and wanted to talk to," he says. One of the musicians Polonsky cold-called was Reeves Gabriel of Tin Men, who forwarded the tapes to Black, who must have heard something of himself in them, because he promptly set about helping Polonsky find a manager. Black also brought Polonsky's music to the attention of American Records' honcho Rick Rubin.
Polonsky flew to Los Angeles to cut a demo with Black, and on that tape's strength, American signed him. With his advance, Polonsky bought new recording equipment, which he used in the making of Hi My Name is Jonny, a catchy ten-song blast that sounds like Matthew Sweet with Jonathan Richman and George Harrison on guitars, and Polonsky himself -- a crackle-voiced energizer -- on vocals. Clocking in at just under 25 minutes, it's also refreshingly short -- an almost perfect pop document filled with tinkling piano, oddball musical accents and weird lyric excursions such as, "I was mowing the grass when I ran out of gas / I crumpled to the ground in quite a heap / My brother took me in and he called an ambulance / They came in not a Chevy but a Jeep."
"These were the first songs that I wrote that I was pretty much happy with," Polonsky says. "And if I had a plan, it was just to write really short songs. Or not even that, I guess, [but] just to write really good songs all the way through and not have any part of the song be less interesting than any other part."
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It's the kind of music that'll fit nicely into the slot allotted opening acts, and Polonsky says he'll mix tunes from his debut with material he's written for a follow-up he's ready to record later this month. "Some of them," he says of the new songs, "are a little more grand sounding, a little more bombastic. This first batch of songs are my little songs, two-minute pop ditties, and a couple of the newer ones are more luxuriously arranged. So I'm trying some different things."
Trying different things is something Polonsky should be accustomed to. After all, he did drop out of a residency in neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University to follow the rock star path.
"Ever since I was young I've had this twin passion for music and medicine, but I figured fuck it, if I'm gonna do the record I've got to do it now," Polonsky says. "I just bought a pair of vinyl pants. I'm just fucking Cadillacs and driving big women."
Jonny Polonsky opens for Frank Black Saturday, February 24, at the Urban Art Bar, 112 Milam. Tickets are $11 (21 and up) and $13 (18 to 21). Doors open at 8 p.m. For info, call 225-0500.