Notes regarding the songs on, and the recording of “Highway 13” by Piet Botha

Jack Hammer: Highway 13

Jack Hammer: Highway 13

The title track was written last April [2007] when somehow the theme first realised itself. Somehow the songs were going in the same direction. They were all about retrospection, realisation and what lies ahead …. the road … highway 13 … behind us and ahead of us.

The first songs written for the album were “Stay at the wheel”, “This song is old now” and “Pharaoh’s Blues” (previously titled “The Devil’s House”). “Broken Promises” had also been lying around for a while as well as “Jozi Town”. With “Jozi” I always wanted to use Tidal Waves in the studio as we did on the previous album ”The Pilgrim”.

Well, five songs were not enough, but it was a start. Something new was developing. New songs were coming out “off the bat”, making up the lyrics and the music in one go, or at least the bulk of it. No pen to paper. No lyrics being made to fit the music.

It was something that had happened before, but not too often. “Highway 13” was written in half an hour, intro and verse. At first I thought it would be a long guitar-solo driven tune but another verse came to light and at the demo stage a chorus came knocking on the door.

From then on the title of the album was set. So far the songs had a recurring theme i.e. The Road, a musician’s friend and also his Nemesis. But this time there is no romanticism and expectation, this time the road has been travelled and the mistakes have been made.

Slowly the songs started getting a vibe, but by November [2007] things really started happening. We started rehearsing the new material at Duke’s new pad, recording every rehearsal, listening and going back and doing it all over again. And suddenly the songs came out of nowhere: “Mr. Midnight”, “Rear View Mirror”, “Don’t Let Your Love Fade Away”, “Eden’s Lost” all came to life in December and January.

Carmelita: Sometime last year I heard a song playing on the TV as the credits were rolling after a movie, but I did not know who it was, all I recall was a beautiful sad song and some lyrics. After some research on the Net I found this incredible song “Carmelita”, written by Warren Zevon, no less. I was well aware of his amazing songwriting ,as Brian Finch and Kenny Henson had covered “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” for quite a few years, back in the 80’s. “Werewolves of London” was another famous Zevon song. Anyway I practised the song for a month, trying to find a key that was comfortable, but although the song only has 3 chords it is a difficult piece to perform. But I wanted desperately to put this song on the album.

By end of January I met with Lanie van der Walt, our producer of many years and we scheduled to start recording during the last week in March. I already had a green light from our executive producers at Playdough, Mike Joubert and Alistair King.

I was very fortunate to spend the first two weeks in March with our dear friends Barry and Jackie Frey in the city of Dubai in the U.A.E. We saw some amazing things there and it changed a lot of preconceptions I had regarding the Middle East. When one travels to new places there is always something that comes out in the music.

On the Sunday before we went into studio I was alone at home, playing guitar, jamming bits and pieces when I came upon a new song “The Haunting”, out of the blue, less than half an hour later it was alive, words and all. I am very excited about this song as it really seemed to arrive by itself.

Highway 13: No mystery here, the song tells a story that has been told many times before. The character looks back upon his life and realises that the road has become his home. But he resigns himself to this without remorse, even offering advice to fellow journeymen. The chorus part: “If I am the river…” just arrived by itself, I have no idea what the deeper meaning is.

The Haunting: A haunted house, a murder, retribution, lost souls that cannot cross to the other side. Lighthearted stuff.

Stay at the Wheel: A variation of the “crossroads” legend. The character wants to change the previous arrangement: “I come here to make a new deal, the wind says no…” Out on highway 13 he is told by the wind that his fate would be to “stay at the wheel”…

Rear view Mirror: Social commentary in the verses i.e. no passport needed … the brevity of life … environmental issues … the cycle of life … The driver keeps looking back, memories haunt him but he cannot stop … searching for someone or something that he might never find … the recurring line “one day at a time” is for everyone who has been there…

Eden’s Lost: Probably qualifies as a protest song. All about the demise of Mother Earth at the hands of the Giant Corporation…

Jozi Town: The plight of refugees in the place of gold, in this case the tale of two brothers Virtue and Honest (honesty is a virtue) from Zimbabwe who cannot resist the call of Johannesburg, as so many from different countries do. Some get lucky but for others it’s a nightmare, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Don’t let your love fade away: Another song that arrived by itself early one morning. I was fooling around with the idea of an “island” rhythm. The character is working class, plays in a travelling band and is very naïve and optimistic.

This song is old now: This story is old, but it must be passed on to a younger generation. Proverbs and morality checks. Very old school.

Mr Midnight: Fooling around with drum tracks and an electric guitar. The boogie just happened but it was never going to be another fast 12 bar, so the keychange from E min to Amaj takes us somewhere else and before it goes pop guitar solos bring it back.

Pharaoh’s Blues: The Devil’s House is the casino… Madame Rosa is another well known figure in folklore. The Pharaoh is who we think he is, or rather they are who we think they are.

Broken Promises: A tune based around the “clawhammer” guitar-picking style. The bass alternates every beat (thumb) and the three fingers play a 2/3, 4/2/3 pattern. I hoped that it would turn out as a country song. The ingredients are there, lost love, loneliness, bad luck. Much respect and thanks to Johnny Cash for the beautiful music over the years.

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