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Song Sources: “Don Quixote’s Deathbed Conversation with Sancho Panza”

February 12, 2011

This is part of an ongoing series about the recordings on our new album, due out in March 2011. To read more in this series, click on the category “Song Sources: Stories behind the recordings.”

Don Quixote is the first novel, and the greatest. This song was inspired by the second part, which was a much more serious work than the first part (with its windmills and such). Like the second part of the novel, the song delves into the nature of deception and self-deception and foolish ideals. Fittingly for a piece based on a 1000+ page book, this is also the longest and most complicated song on the album.

The Lyrics

Sancho, maybe we were right about my mispent youth
On a terrible horse in some worn out boots
But I’ve still got my armor and I’ve still got my pride
But maybe not so much of either

It turns out we were wrong about doing no harm
Because I rode her to death instead of laying down my arms
But I was too old, maybe you were a fool,
Or maybe we were both just cowards.

Hallelujah, hey what can we do?
Hellelujah, thank god I’ve still got a use

The overriding theme of the book is of course the pursuit of chivalry in a world that is hostile to the ideal. As countless historians will point out, there was never a point where a chivalrous state existed in Europe; for the most part, it was an invention of novelists, and it was carried into the modern world centuries after Cervantes by the Victorians. Chivalrousness, like many ideals like holiness and goodness, is difficult if not impossible to achieve and maintain, and the evidence for Don Quixote’s madness is always his insistence that he live up to this code; and living up to this code is madness because it is so difficult to live up to. Circular reasoning leads everyone to conclude that only a madman would try to live up to such a difficult code, especially when Don Quixote bases his inspiration on the works of fiction in his book collection. Most of the first book is the world beating up Don Quixote but not breaking his will. This song is more concerned about what comes after this.

The second half of the novel is famously a more serious look at the world in which Don Quixote lives, one in which a book about Don Quixote has been published, and the pair are now famous. A nobleman and his wife will spend their extensive leisure time tormenting Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, whom they at one point turn against each other. Some of the torments are particularly wrenching: They give Sancho Panza the “insula” Don Quixote promised him, the previously unattainable prize that Sancho has stuck with the Don in the hopes of gaining. When Sancho Panza turns out to be a good mayor, they stage an invasion to humiliate him, and Sancho Panza does something that he never did when he was with Don Quixote: He gives up. He leaves the “insula” and heads homeward.

I make a mistake in these lines: “I rode her to death” should be “I rode him to death”; it refers to Don Quixote’s horse, Rocinante, and I sang it wrong. I sometimes remember to sing the right words live.

If she were as real as she’s insubstantial
Everything could still go the way I planned it all
And I’d still like to lay her down in my bed
But my body’s too old to hold her

And I wouldn’t have even cared if she didn’t exist
If you hadn’t rolled your eyes or just once raised your fists
And every time I talked about her like she was somewhere
You forgot what it was like to suffer

Dulcinea, hey why won’t you call?
Dulcinea, you hurt the worst of all

Don Quixote in the end is foiled by his own code of chivalry: One of the men from his town defeats him in combat and forces him to give up his arms for a year as the price for his life. The Don returns home and, sick, makes his amends, the main one being that he drops the veil of insanity and reveals that he knew it was all fake: That Dulcinea was made up (a big disappointment to me in the musical was that Dulcinea is real), that he knew all the books were fiction, and that all his works of bravery were just self-deception.

Cervantes’s main point has always been to show just how fucked up the world is for belittling Don Quixote’s intractable goodness as insanity. Once the world breaks Don Quixote, whose story has now consumed probably three thousand hours of your life convincing you that such immense goodness is possible, it’s one of the most heartbreaking moments in literature.

Sancho, hey kid
Maybe it’s for the best
I mean deception isn’t really so much of a crime
So don’t act like you got fed up with all of the lies
And there are worse things in this world than heroes to despise
And we can’t really tell the difference if we’re not infinitely wise
But a certain kind of truth says that no one really dies
And if I’m gonna go now you better start saying your goodbyes
So come on admit that it was worth it
Come on admit that it was worth it
Come on admit that it was worth it
Come on admit that it was worth it

It’s difficult to say whether anything is worth it in the end. Sometimes people are people. The day before I wrote this, protesters in Egypt convinced, with almost no outbreaks of violence, a dictator of 30 years to step down. A year ago, similar protests in Iran were crushed in a bloody nightmare, and Iran has released a statement saying that there are no parallels to the Egyptian peoples’ desires and that of its own people. The United States congress voted not to extend the Patriot Act, but not by an overwhelming margin, and that doesn’t change that we passed it in the first place. The inventor of television thought that if you could see a person in Germany eating breakfast, you could never go to war against him. Ten years later, the Second World War broke out.

And to think that I originally intended to make some piddling remark about whether this was relevant to art, a wholly idealistic enterprise whose worth is difficult if not impossible to see, most especially for the artist.

The Music and Recording

The rhythm in first part has some aspects of a samba, but musically the most identifiably “Spanish” characteristic, the harmonic major chord parallel to a minor, is saved for chorus. (On “Hey, what can we do” and “Hey, why won’t you call.”) The riff was simply what made sense against the simple, repeated chord progression. The pattern is, unusually, 9 bars, mostly to allow some air in.

The bass track here is probably the height of laziness on my part. It’s just straight duh-duh-duh-duh eighth notes throughout with no variation, which creates kind of a metronome and wall of thud in the background.

The instrumental section at the end of the first part ends with one of my favorite pieces of percussion on the album. We needed a gong sound, or an explosion, which sent us around the studio looking for the biggest noise we could make. Eventually we settled on the piano. All of it. Ben Folds picks up his stool and slams it onto the bass end of the piano for a similar effect. We just mashed every key on the thing at once, then added some cavernous reverb. (This was during the same session as our creation of Tim’s “peas in a can” shaker for “Fairest of Them All.”)

Jen wasn’t in the studio at the time and was a little freaked out when she heard it finally.

A very simple chord pattern, based partly on the first and second verses, backs up the lyrics in the second part, and for the third part of the song (the long instrumental at the end), the same chord progression is used, but the chords are played for twice as long as in the previous section.

We worked for several practice sessions nailing down the flow of the final instrumental. Some parts are improvised, but much of it, including my guitar solo, is actually composed. There are a total of six guitars and multiple pianos and keyboards (kudos to Chris for separating them so well in the mixing), including a few different settings on my telecaster and Chris’s Guild (the really distorted guitar at the very end). The lead guitar is a cut up job because the really fast part in the middle of the solo—the diddly bits that sounds like they were ripped right out of Sultans of Swing (more on this in a moment)—sounded too muddy with the level of distortion present elsewhere. The only other notable thing is the reprise of the “1962” bass line near the end of the song. I don’t even know if anyone can hear it, to be honest.

Speaking of those diddly parts, because they’re the section that really seems to impress people in this song: Although the picking technique is taken from Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing,” that was not the origin of this section. The inspiration was, of all things for a prog rock song with some Spanish flavor, Scottish reels, and most probably “The Winging,” a piece written by John Hardy of Old Blind Dogs (overall my favorite Scottish folk band, though I think they need a new permanent lead singer on par with Jim Malcolm) for use in their brilliant version of McPherson’s Rant:

Since we end our concerts with this song, it was natural to put it at the very end of the album.

I have to express a few regrets, though. This is almost certainly the weakest recording on the album, and is the one point at which budget constraints really became a concern. If I’d had the time and money, I would have tried recording another version of this at a slightly faster tempo, and we would have worked harder getting Tim’s drum part in the verses perfect. Chris had also suggested that playing it live in the studio would have suited the song better, although I am not convinced of that. One of the main issues was simply that my scratch track (the demo I recorded alone so everyone had a reference) did not have perfect timing, and this in turn affected Tim’s drum part, which in turn affected mine and Jen’s playing. I had to live with it, so Chris and I spent some more time polishing it during the mixing process.

Here, as usual, is the lyrics and chords in case someone, somewhere, wants to play it:

Verse pattern: D / Bm / D / A Bm || D / Bm / D G / A / A7

Sancho, maybe we were right about my mispent youth
On a terrible horse in some worn out boots
But I’ve still got my armor and I’ve still got my pride
But maybe not so much of either

It turns out we were wrong about doing no harm
Because I rode her to death instead of laying down my arms
But I was too old, maybe you were a fool,
Or maybe we were both just cowards.

G            A     Bm                     F#
Hallelujah, hey what can we do?
G           A      D                           A                 D
Hellelujah, thank god I’ve still got a use

If she were as real as she’s insubstantial
Everything could still go the way I planned it all
And I’d still like to lay her down in my bed
But my body’s too old to hold her

And I wouldn’t have even cared if she didn’t exist
If you hadn’t rolled your eyes or just once raised your fists
And every time I talked about her like she was somewhere
You forgot what it was like to suffer

Dulcinea, hey why won’t you call?
Dulcinea, you hurt the worst of all

Bridge pattern: D / A / Bm / …

Sancho, hey kid
Maybe it’s for the best
I mean deception isn’t really so much of a crime
So don’t act like you got fed up with all of the lies
And there are worse things in this world than heroes to despise
And we can’t really tell the difference if we’re not infinitely wise
But a certain kind of truth says that no one really dies
And if I’m gonna go now you better start saying your goodbyes
So come on admit that it was worth it
Come on admit that it was worth it
Come on admit that it was worth it
Come on admit that it was worth it

Outro pattern: D /  … / A / … / Bm / … / … / … (20 times, I believe)

Ending (in guitar tablature) is:

————————————————–
—7—5—3——7–5–3—-7–5–3—10–
—7—6—4——7–6–4—-7–6–4—11–
————————————————–
————————————————–
————————————————–

To do the diddly parts, on the D chord, fret the top two notes of the D and pull off from the high E string on the fifth fret  . . .  wait, here’s a better idea. An instructional video!

In a stroke of pure appropriateness, it turns out that the instructional video for a 30-second portion of our longest song is too long for YouTube. I’ll be rerecording it and post it separately.

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