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"Under the Radar": The Artist's Process

Background and Inspiration

Pete Hamill, one of my favorite writers, once said that the act of writing is the act of remembering. It can be a treacherous path. Our memories are chock full of blind alleys and vagaries. Conversely, the tone of the conversations, the kaleidoscopic imagery of people and places in our mind's eye, the shading of a room, the tinge of color in the sky, the brilliance of a full moon, the profound joy or hurt from any number of episodes in our lives, all the intricate details can be as clear and sharp as if they happened a moment ago.

I have kept many journals throughout the years documenting everything from lyrical ideas, to poetry, musical notations, business dealings, and muses on life. I am convinced the singular most important action you can take as a writer is to get the thoughts on paper, the computer, or the back of your hand—whatever it takes while the idea is fresh in your mind. Inspiration is ephemeral, unfortunately. It is a lot like a dream; we wake up and try to remember what it was we dreamt, many times to no avail.

Writing provides a snapshot of our life's development. "Under the Radar" and "Eden's Wall" are what I call bookends. Born at a time when I had teached a plateau in life, they represent discovery, acceptance, reflection, hopes, dreams, and aspirations, leading to the next path. The themes are similar, but arrived at quite differently, and the construction of the two songs also differed dramatically.

"Under the Radar" was written following a period of hardship, and it was written as a song, not a poem. The music actually came first. I'd listened to a relative and friend of mine, Gary Bays, perform many a campfire session on the beach of Lake Superior with family and friends singing along. He has a wonderful voice and guitar style; hearing him play and sing is something I look forward to, and I wanted to write a song I could imagine him singing and playing under the stars at night. I used a sequencer to record my initial musical thoughts using several synthesizers—nothing on tape, everything on the computer. The music conveyed a dreamy mood—similar to his performances—and I took that, initially, as my cue for the lyrics.

The title, "Under the Radar," was another story. I had been using that phrase in interviews to describe Little Feat's career. We were not, and still are not, a band that gets played a lot on radio. Hard core fans know us, but you really have to search to find us; thus, we are below the radar screen for most people. Then the title began to suggest something different to me, and it seemed to overlay perfectly with the music I'd written.

The Composing Process: Lyrics and Music

In writing the lyrics, I came up with several scenes in my head, each at a different time in my life, each with a memory evoking change and growth. The lyrics slowly began to take shape. Listening to the music playing back on the sequencer over and over again put me on an emotional roller coaster. I merely connected the lyrical dots.

Keeping the mood of the musical piece and singing the lyrics, I composed the song's chorus.

Under the radar
A place where all is forgiven
Under the radar
Where love never grows old
It's lying just below the timberline
Where the spirit carries on.

The chorus represents a mythical place, much like Eden's Wall. I had originally wanted to expand the lyrical content in the chorus to include other thematic elements. Example: Under the radar a place where the heart yearns to wander, Under the radar where thunder and rain are on the horizon, etc. I was going to use a laundry list in the last chorus to describe the mythical landscape, which would have also extended the music. I eventually opted for composing additional music at the end of the piece and letting it speak: giving Paul a longer solo and winding up with a B-3 (Hammond organ) solo for myself with additional chord changes. I kept my options open, which is something I try to do in every song I write. In this case I felt I would provide listeners a canvass, by way of an instrumental section, to paint their own thoughts.

I made use of real life situations to write the verse lyric. When I was eighteen or nineteen, I hitchhiked from Ventura, California, to San Antonio, Texas. It wasn't an adventure I would recommend to anyone, but I took my impetus from Jack Kerouac"s On the Road. It wasan eventful week of hot days and cold nights in the desert; an overly friendly senior citizen with his hand on my knee in Palm Springs (yes, I escaped molestation); sleeping underneath the stars and traveling with a group of hippies and their psychedelic painted bus in Arizona and New Mexico; staying in a $5 a night flophouse in El Paso; getting a ride from a friendly trucker (my long hair pulled up under my cowboy hat) through to Odessa,Texas, where I finally said no mas and took a Greyhound bus the rest of the way to a friend's home in San Antonio.

I was standing on a stretch of highway
Going back to see a friend
I thought I'd reached the point of no return
But came back under the radar
I've been there ever since

True, the lyrics don't convey the adventure of the trip or the circumstances in detail; but, nonetheless, the collage of memory and experiences are distilled into the lyrics for the song. Those lyrics reveal what happened to me: I was not the same person after that trip; that somehow, I had changed forever; that life is about the paths we choose or abandon; that the journey and the insight we are provided—understand it or not at the time—is the most important part of our lives.

You can trace your thoughts of darkness
With the movements of the sun
When you see what stands before you
And allow yourself a dream
Though it's not far from sight now
No it's not far from sight
It's just under the radar


Like many Little Feat songs, "Under the Radar" was a collaborative effort; and, like "Eden's Wall," it illuminates the ideal and contract of seeking refuge. "Under the Radar" is the first step to finding myself again, through forgiveness. Writing is the ultimate embrace of our being human, with all its repercussions. But it also allows us to transcend the familiar terrain; investigate worlds, relationships, experiences we can only dream of; and live, though fleetingly, as the gods of our own realm.


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