Song Sources – “(Can’t Swim in the) Harbor”

This is part of a series I’m doing on the tracks on the new EP, Baltimericana. To read the other parts of this series, simply click on the tag “Song Sources” above.

The song started with a riff that came to me while driving down Calvert Street one morning a few years ago. It got stuck in my head on repeat and eventually the words “Can’t swim in the harbor” came to mind. I think I had read a news story about how for all intents and purposes the Baltimore harbor might never support life during my lifetime due to the pollution levels that have been present for centuries. That or maybe I was just remembering the bilge water and floating trash caught in one of the little nets that run in the miniature canals that abut the streets in Fell’s Point. Sometimes I look at those and think that jumping into the water a mere five feet down is about as dangerous as jumping from the top of the Bromo-Seltzer tower.

I can actually remember the first time I noticed just how polluted the harbor was. I must have been about ten and was coming home with my parents from some function downtown. We were walking near where the Aquarium is and crossed over a small bridge; there was just tons of trash caught in a net there.


When I got home I started listing all the decay and pollution in Baltimore, stuff beyond just environmental issues. (This was before we were named the most hazardous air in the U.S., by the way.) Things like the sewer pipes made out of wood that still haven’t all been repaired and replaced, the horrendous urban “planning” that exists in a city this old, the blocks of abandoned row houses, the murder rate (“Murder Ink” is a column in our city paper that tracks the homicides), the drugs that are everywhere, the flashing blue lights that supposedly tell you when a patrol car is in the area (houses in areas with them are called “blue light specials”). There was a police officer who was pushed off of the Jones Falls Expressway; that story made it in there as a line.

What was the point of all of that? Urban decay is a kind of entropy. There are some cities that have the industry and status to pull themselves up out of the muck. New York is one; that city turned itself around in the 70s and now it’s so posh that people who have been living there for decades say that it doesn’t feel like home. Others go the way of Detroit and Buffalo: there just isn’t anything left and the whole place degrades until the city can’t even afford to demolish its buildings anymore.

You know what the dumbest part of these benches is, more than the absurdity? The lack of foresight because the city was never going to have the money and time to keep all the benches from getting ratty and ugly.

Baltimore is somewhere in the middle, and this city has an amazing level of … erm, let’s just call it what it is, undeserved “ego.” This is after all the place that put “The Greatest City in America” on its benches. You can see one at the left that was left to rot. I guess it’ll get another paint job next time they come up with some doublespeak motto that reflects what they wish was one of our city’s virtues rather than one of our city’s actual virtues. There are bright spots, but a lot of them come simply from proximity to DC and the rather weird aspect of Baltimore that we have an incredibly high density of higher education and medical institutions.

This sort of juxtiposition is almost part of Baltimore’s character: You can walk two blocks and go from one of the most affluent communities in the city to section 8 housing. I put in a little of this in the first verse, where it involves a guy in muddy work boots wearing a $100 shirt for a night on the town. His date pukes on his shirt. You know, instead of his shoes.

The chorus ended up just being that line repeated over and over … you can’t swim in the harbor. You really, really can’t.

My wife thinks it should say, “Aside from being a bad idea to do so, you’re forbidden from swimming in the harbor,” but I found it was too wordy despite the added specificity.


Obviously the riff is the most dominant aspect of the song, appearing at 29 times in the song in one form or another. It’s a simple D minor with the seventh in it, and something like this appears in a lot of folk blues. The chorus is noticeably close to Roadhouse Blues by The Doors. Structurally and chord wise there’s nothing special about the song: It’s just verses and choruses with a noise solo in the middle.

Recording and Gear

The real fun was in the recording process. This was the first song we worked on, so the instrumentation and other aspects of it set the tone for the whole EP recording process. Joe doesn’t have much “real” percussion around. In fact, I think a tambourine is about it as far as actual instruments go. That’s fine. It’s part of why I wanted him to record it with me. So the bass drum is actually a spot on his floor that he found that had just the right tonality.

I put down the guitar parts. Joe added the bass line, which sometimes mirrors the main riff. Then he let me play some lead wankery, almost none of which ended up in the song. But we did get some interesting sounds. Almost all of the extraneous noises in this song that aren’t percussion were created with a guitar. The “moan” sound in the beginning that sounds like a didgeridoo is really just the low E on a guitar. The sound was completely coincidental. The stuttering sounds that come in at the second verse were created with a tremolo pedal called the Stutter Trem, designed by Forrest Whitesides and built by someone I met on The Gear Page, run through one of my fuzz pedals. (I built my own a while later and gave the one I made to Joe, and he’s used the effect on other recordings.) I played that part with a slide, so I guess that’s the first time I’ve ever played slide on a record right there.

I think the only guitar used on this was the Don Quixotecaster, and the only amp used was my modded Hot Rod Deluxe. A couple different compressors were used, but mostly the Hartman. The fuzz is Winnie the Pooh and Some Bees, the modded fuzz face I got from Luck Duck Pedals last year.

There’s a lot of “studio trickery” despite the simple gear setup. The vocals are stacked and looped in places: at least one of the vocals on each chorus is recycled from the previous take, and the last chorus stacks all three takes. I also manually created delay and predelay by staggering copies of the vocals with different effects, EQ, and reverb levels applied. Finally, the first two lines were actually edited to alter the timing after the fact. They slightly lead the beat in places, which gives it a strangely urgent feeling. It just felt too pedestrian when sung straight. One thing I know I need to concentrate on in my vocals overall is thinking more percussively to emphasize the beat in the right way.

Katie and Joe both added harmonies to this; Katie does most of the harmonies on the chorus, and Joe is doing the echo part.

Overall, this ended up being one of the most complicated recordings I’ve ever done. I’m pretty happy with the song (it’s catchy) and the overall disorder conveyed by the music.

Here are the chords and lyrics for anyone who’s interested in playing along. It’s really simple:

Dm        F6            Am7     Dm   <— You can play this as a Dm7 the whole time

John’s gone to town with his shoes caked in dirt
Jane’s made a mess on his hundred dollar shirt
Lit a cigarette and threw it on the starter
Picked himself a fight and made himself a martyr

You can’t swim in the harbor
You can’t swim in the harbor
You can’t swim in the harbor
D | A7

Throw John Trooper from the fallsway
Drown a bottom dredger out on the causeway
Buy yourself a suit, son, get yourself some class
Rent a bluelight special out on the overpass

You can’t swim in the harbor
You can’t swim in the harbor
You can’t swim in the harbor

Bring a Spanish knife down to Alice Anna
Blame the crazy route on a drunken city planner
Write a letter to the mayor in Murder Ink
Break a leaky pipe, boys, get yourselves a drink

You can’t swim in the harbor
You can’t swim in the harbor
You can’t swim in the harbor


One response

  1. chorus vocals is stuck in head . must resist urge to swim in harbor .

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