Eyes That Can See in the Dark

a music journal
 

June 30, 2002 (link)

2:54 PM

Phew. At this rate, they'll make a Marxist of me yet.

12:00 AM

"The Rocking Disco Santa Claus", lyrics by William Dibble, performer unknown.

Obviously taking on a song called "The Rocking Disco Santa Claus" is like shooting fish in a barrel, and if I go for the obvious tack -- "a song about a rocking disco Santa Claus??" -- it'll make for pretty boring results. Given that, I wasn't sure whether to do this song, but there's enough weirdness going on here to make it worth a listen.

The intro is quiet and oddly hushed, and features four-on-the-floor bass drum, a quiet string section (likely a Mellotron or Chamberlin), and a fast-moving bass part. The chords go back and forth between E minor and C. Whoever's on the bass is a pretty good player, with a nice touch and lots of ghost notes.

Digression: It could be argued -- pretty plausibly, I think -- that ghost notes are the soul of funk. I don't know if that one word ("funk") is really the right one to describe the quality that ghosting adds to music, but there's something about the half-voiced note that just feels so good to me. If I start making a list, I come up with some of my favorite sounds in music: Eric Taylor's snare drum (Pierre Moerlen's, too). The percussive, almost unpitched quality of a clavinet, especially when it's playing dense, interlocking, two-handed polyrhythmic figures. The way Miles Davis sometimes plays eighth-notes in fast tempos, so that it almost sounds like he's playing every other note by breathing in. The Hammond loop in "So Whatcha Want". In-the-pocket funk guitar -- maybe a little wicky-wicky, or a little tinny, but not overmuch so. And, on bass, the ghost notes of finger-style players like Jaco and James Jamerson, and of slap players like Les Claypool or Victor Wooten. Do you see what I mean, about what good sounds these are? Maybe you don't like all of these sounds, but there's something that all of them have in common -- a kind of calculus of articulation, integrating in-between-nesses in a way that can make everything else seem terribly foursquare. Oddly enough, when I try to analogize this feeling, the two things I come up with both revolve around trumpet and voice -- one being the experience of listening to someone who can really project their sound (i.e. so that it's not just loud, but feels like it's 2 feet in front of you and unbelieveably resonant), and the other, listening to someone with a full, lyrical vibrato. Both are things that I lack in my own playing, and both make me feel, somehow, that what I'm listening to is the "real deal". I've had friends tell me that slap bass (for instance) is mostly just a bunch of tricks, but if anything that epitomizes what I like about this sound: it sounds complex, but effortless -- and sometimes effortlessness is exactly what something needs to feel like it's in the pocket.

After three bars, some congas or bongos enter, and the full band hits, adding piano, funk guitar, and full-on disco drums. It's not the funkiest disco beat ever, but as song-poems go, it's about as good as it gets. (Compare "Joe Goes Disco" or the wretched "Funk With Us" to get an idea of what I mean.) But everything still sounds noticeably distant and muted, as though it were taped from AM radio.

Then, after a few more bars, the singer comes in. She's so clear and upfront by comparison, and the reverb on her voice is different enough from the rest of the mix, that it becomes obvious what's going on: the backing is a pre-recorded tape that's either in rough shape or, perhaps more likely, was mixed much too low. If I'm not mistaken, she's triple-tracked (!), which is probably to compensate for her rather weak voice -- she sounds strained, especially in her upper register, and her entrance is more than a little flat.

There is a change in Christmas this year

Is it just me, or is there something ominous about this line? It makes me expect this to be the kind of song that ends with some rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.

Santa will be doing the rockin' disco

The Unknown Singer botches this line, singing "Santa will be rockin'" in one of her overdubs. The vocal tracks on this song have all the hallmarks of haste and apathy, as you'll see...

As he delivers his presents along the way
To every little girl and boy

The Unknown Singer is about as funky as Shelley Long. For that matter, I tend to think Shelley Long might sound a lot like this, were she to perform "The Rocking Disco Santa Claus". The singer's voice is very pinched and "white" (in the tone-color sense, not in the Caucasian sense).

You can hear him say
Here's a record player for Pat and Jim

We get our first taste of harmony at the word "say", where she splits into three parts for that one note. It sounds quite a bit better that way. Who are Pat and Jim?

When you hear him play
Santa does the rockin' disco once again

On the face of it, those lines seem innocuous, but they make no sense whatsoever. And why is it always the "rockin'" disco? I'm sure that phrase sounded odd in 1980 when this song was recorded, let alone now.

Come now, Dancer and Prancer
Let's do the rockin' disco along the way

Mr. Burns: "Bah! Far too much dancing, not nearly enough prancing!" Smithers: "A little mincing would be nice."

You know we have Rudolph to guide our sleigh
To the girls and boys along the way

Her voice sounds a lot more plausible -- or at least less forced -- when she's not trying to sing above a G or so.

The rockin' disco Santa is on his way
With a rockin' disco record and phonograph to play
Now the boys and girls do the rockin' disco
On Christmas Day

This song makes "Left Me Cookie At the Disco" seem like a paragon of authenticity. "Phonograph" and "rockin' disco" in the same sentence? "I got two phonographs and a microphone!"

Now the key changes to G major, and we get our spoken-word interlude. For some reason, the singer's speaking voice almost instantly makes me think that (1) she's from the Midwest, (2) she's a square in her thirties, and (3) she's moderately or severely overweight. I don't know why I flashed on all that, especially the last part, but I can't shake my initial impression. Perhaps she sounds like someone I've known who had those characteristics, but I don't think so. She's got a bit of a lisp, too.

Even Grandpa and Grandma will have -- to say

She butchers this line, stumbling over the words and throwing in a huge pause before "to say", which comes out sounding like "der say". One-take, unrehearsed vocal overdubs -- gotta love 'em!

It's sure been fun doin' the rockin' disco with Santa Claus

She sounds so square on this line that it's hard not to hear it as ironic gosh 'n swell. A girl I knew in college talked a bit like this; I was never sure how much of it was faux-dork affectation, and how much came naturally.

Everyone along the way will say
Wasn't it fun on this Christmas Day
Merry Christmas from rockin' disco Santa Claus this day

This was pretty much before the era of word processors, so Mr. William Dibble had to physically write/type the words "rockin' disco" every time he wanted to use them. Didn't it occur to him even once that he might be overusing the phrase? Apparently not, as our spoken word section ends with a big piano gliss:

Rockin' disco Santa Claus
Rockin', rockin', rockin' disco

The overdubs enter very tentatively and almost trip over each other, one singing "rockin'" while the other sings "disco". What did Mr. Dibble think of all these mistakes? How much disco had he heard before he wrote this song? Any field research at Studio 54, that kind of thing?

Rockin' disco Santa Claus
Rockin' disco Santa Claus

I really hope this is indeed a backing track, because if I were the bassist on this session, using my ghost-note talent for a song about a fucking "rockin' disco Santa Claus", I'd be tempted to make a date for that evening with my car's exhaust pipe. At least if they were hired to lay down the disco equivalent of stock footage (which was, no doubt, used as backing for 300 other "disco" song-poems) they could do it with a relatively clear conscience, knowing that they weren't explicitly sanctioning creations such as this. (Who is this piece's audience? How many people would really want to hear both a disco song, and a song about Santa? I would suspect that a lot of the people who were friendly to the one would have been hostile to the other.)

And so it ends. Maybe it's the fatigue talking, but I'm starting to really detest this song! But be wary: as I've discovered, it's all too easy to get it stuck in your head.

current music: Datacide -- "Good Vibe"

(Comments for June 30, 2002) (1 comment so far)

June 25, 2002 (link)

12:41 PM

To my surprise and (mild) confusion, I am currently the #1 result on Google for the search term "in that it". Do I really use that phrase that often?

(Comments for June 25, 2002)

June 22, 2002 (link)

4:54 PM

It appears that "Frogs Legs", from Volume 1 of Ciphered Mix 5, should be credited to the Columbia Saxophone Sextet, and was recorded in 1920.

current music: Van and Schenck -- "Ain't We Got Fun" (from 78RPM's "seventeenth page" at MP3.com)

4:42 PM

Cripes, look at some of the titles in the discography on this page, about one of the performers of "Two Key Rag", Arthur Collins. As Jeremy would say, "That's out of hand."

4:25 PM

Conversation on the street today, as I walked by a woman in her sixties seated at a bus stop bench:

Her: "Hey, you got a pretty ponytail!"
Me: "...Thanks!"
Her: "I had a pretty ponytail, until I joined the Army. Then they told me I had to cut it off. They told me I had to cut it off and I had to lose some weight."
Me: "I guess it's a good thing I'm not in the Army, then."
Her: "Yeah, if you were in the Army, they'd tell you to cut off your ponytail."
(pause)
Her: "They wouldn't tell you to lose weight, though."
Me (over my shoulder): "Thanks!"

On my way back, she was still there, and I subsequently received a five-minute monologue, delivered at the top of her lungs, about how much she hated cigarettes.

current music: Arthur Collins and Byron Harlan -- "Two Key Rag" (from 78RPM at MP3.com)

(Comments for June 22, 2002)

June 20, 2002 (link)

11:15 PM

No doubt you've been waiting with bated breath for my Wimbledon picks. This time I waited until the draw came out, so at least I know my choices won't be literally impossible:

Men's semifinalists: Roger Federer, Thomas Johansson, Greg Rusedski, Todd Martin
Winner: Todd Martin
Dark horses: Jonas Bjorkman, Wayne Arthurs

Women's semifinalists: Serena Williams, Jennifer Capriati, Venus Williams, Monica Seles
Winner: Serena Williams
Dark horses: Anastasia Myskina, Eleni Danilidou

I've decided to abandon all pretense at hedging my bets, or avoiding a jinx. (Then again, I'd love it if Max Mirnyi were to win, and I didn't pick him this time...) I want Todd Martin to win, and I know it's unrealistic, but after last year, nearly anything seems possible. As for the women's side, I think Seles will take Henin out if they meet. Everyone's picking Venus Williams, so I'll pick Serena. Perhaps Venus does have the edge, but we'll see what happens! I'm told Myskina has a killer serve, and Danilidou seems like an extremely dangerous player -- again, you never know, right? I'd also like to see Selima Sfar do well.

10:01 PM

For as long as I can remember, I've been a person who enjoys discerning and dissecting the rhythms in the periodic sounds I hear around me. When I walk, I find myself semi-consciously slipping into a pace that intersects with a particular sound, turning my footsteps into a click track or counter-rhythm that brings out its rhythmic profile. If the sound is very regular, like a car alarm, I'll try to set up a polyrhythm -- five against three, seven against two -- and see if I can sustain it without having to fudge any of my steps. On the other hand, if the sound is irregular, I'll walk 4/4 or 3/4 and try to figure out a tempo and meter into which the sound will fit. For instance, there's a church bell in the area that tolls in a perfect 7:9 ratio, a double-dotted half note followed by an eighth tied to a whole note; somehow those numbers surprise me -- I would expect something more straightforward like 1:1 or 3:2. Of course, church bells didn't behave like a true pendulum eight hundred years ago when they were pulled by hand, let alone now (the one I hear is almost definitely rung mechanically or electrically). Still, I wonder why they have that particular rhythm, so persistently and unfailingly...no doubt it's simply a question of gears, but it's still interesting to me.

All this may sound silly, but it's gotten me from where I was in 8th grade, when I literally could not play three against two (and thought it an impossibly tricky thing to do), to the point where I can play quintuplets and moderately difficult polyrhythms with relatively little effort. And that, in turn, probably sounds quixotic at best, and certainly I agree that playing quintuplets as an end in itself is a potentially meaningless exercise. But the flip side is that I've listened back to some of my solos and discovered I was playing quintuplets without being consciously aware of it, in the process of saying what I (apparently) wanted to say. That doesn't mean "See, man, you didn't need to bother doing all that technical stuff, you needed to trust your feelings, man"; it means that I internalized something that, though it wasn't intuitive at first, became intuitive through practice and repetition, and became a permanent addition to my musical vocabulary that would further enable me to say what I wanted to say, when I wanted to say it. Of course I've had moments where I said hey-I'll-play-a-quintuplet-now, and those moments were about as uninteresting as one would expect -- but I've also had the same moments with things like octatonic scales and skipping large intervals, and I certainly wouldn't want to purge those from my repertoire.

(Comments for June 20, 2002)

June 19, 2002 (link)

2:44 PM

(I'm going to try putting this at the head of my entry for a change:)

current music: Bill Frisell -- Have a Little Faith

It's remarkable to think that this album is over a decade old now (it came out in March 1992, according to CDNow). I started to write something about it being "a great album not in a life-changing sense but rather in how impeccably it accomplishes its goals etc.", but then I realized that wasn't really true, in that I think it did permanently alter my musical perspective when I first heard it shortly after its release. Did I hear Copland's original version of Billy the Kid before, or after hearing Frisell's? I tend to think I heard Frisell first, which would mean that at least one piece I've written was a direct reaction to this album: on the piece in question, "Needs Work", I used dissonant pedal points under a happy melody in the same way that Copland uses them in "Celebration After Billy's Capture", and I tend to think my treatment owed just as much to Kermit Driscoll's five-ton bass (the C-sharp and G-sharp are completely upfront and almost obnoxious, albeit intentionally so -- they sound grotesque and self-indicting) as to Copland's writing. And while I certainly had a preexisting weakness for "unusual-instrumentation-that-somehow-sounds-completely-natural" -- in this case, guitar, bass, drums, clarinet and accordion -- Have a Little Faith definitely helped to cement that both in my overall musical taste and in the specific piece I just mentioned, which I ended up rearranging for E-flat clarinet, vibraphone, marimba and double bass.

I love the way Bill Frisell's guitar sounds on the beginning of the title track -- like sunlight coming through an open window. I don't think I've ever heard the original (by John Hiatt). And I love the way Don Byron's clarinet screams on that high E after he gets done with the melody of McKinley Morganfield's "I Can't Be Satisfied" -- though I've always been disappointed by the way he follows it up, sort of deflatingly: I'd rather he'd held it for a full chorus.

I also love the way that, after six or seven minutes of very tasteful ballad accompaniment on Frisell's cover of "Live to Tell", Joey Baron suddenly starts playing the most pointedly banal Rock Beat #1 you can think of. At first it's completely confusing, but gradually it all makes sense, as though it were first an acknowledgement of the song's roots -- "we've been treating this as a tasteful jazz ballad, but this is where it really comes from" -- and then an apotheosis of them -- "and look where we can take that!" (My only quibble with Frisell's rendition: on the chorus, Frisell goes to the tonic, F major in root position, at the line "tell the secrets" -- whereas I remember the original Madonna version as using a suspension, F major over B-flat, which I like much better. And if the original didn't do that, it should've: going to the tonic sounds clunky by comparison.)

One more great Joey Baron moment: the Gary Glitter-ish drums on the bridge to the B-section of the "Washington Post March". As a drummer would say, "doon-GAT-doo-doon-GAT!" It's funny, the thought of it being ironic doesn't really cross my mind -- or at least not in a way that puts my back up. Perhaps it's because I believe that Baron is capable of, and believes in, serious and beautiful playing. Most of the people who strike me as smugly ironic also strike me as being neither capable of aspiring to that level, nor alive to its nuances.

(Comments for June 19, 2002)

June 15, 2002 (link)

1:26 AM

If you like Asian classical music, go to this excellent site for a ton of good MP3s, some of which I want to talk about at some point (especially the Korean tracks). If you like wax cylinder recordings from the turn of the century and before, go here. A definite must-hear at that site: a lead cylinder that dates back to 1878 (!!) and is the world's oldest known playable recording. Finally, if you're interested in hearing field recordings of "the sounds of Earth's fascinating, naturally-occurring audio-frequency radio signals", go here or here.

12:10 AM

Lately I've been listening to MP3s of A Prae Kraut Pandemonium: Vol. I & II, a 2-LP compilation of 1960s German beat music. For some reason I have a real fondness for German pop music from the late sixties -- indeed, "pre-krautrock". When I bought my copy of Vergißmeinnicht, a compilation LP which I've talked about before, it scarcely left my turntable for at least a couple weeks -- I hardly wanted to listen to anything else! I don't know what it is about the combination that appeals to me so much, though it definitely is a specifically German appeal -- I don't get the same thrill from French or Italian pop music.

With songs by Alexandra, Freddy Quinn, Wencke Myhre and the like, Vergißmeinnicht is almost entirely in German -- there's one track in English, one in Russian, one in Hebrew, and a couple short instrumentals. But the more beat-oriented Prae Kraut Pandemonium is split pretty evenly between German- and English-language songs. I'm finding it nearly as addictive as Vergißmeinnicht, and am having much the same progression from amusement to bemusement to I-can't-get-this-song-out-of-my-head. Some of the songs are forgettable -- the opener by Novak's Kapelle, "Doing That Rhythm Thing", has yet to engage me, and Meta and the Bowling Boys' "Und ich..." sounds like a 14-year-old German Sentridoh playing under a pillow: cute for a few seconds, but not likely to spark repeated listening. But otherwise there's a wealth of memorable material on the album, ranging from the utterly ridiculous to the somewhat less ridiculous. For instance, it's hard to top Kaplan Flury's "Jimi Hendrix", called "one of the most tasteless records ever made" in the liner notes; highlights include a choir of voices singing "Ji-i-i-i-mi! Ji-i-i-i-mi!" and an outro over which, as the music fades, Reverend Kaplan intones "Jimi. Jim-uh Hendrix. Jimi. Jim-uh Hendrix. Jim-uh Hendrix." The lyrics loosely translate as something like "We don't ask you, and you don't tell us, why you've gone..." and later, "Jimi Hendrix -- a light that burned itself out." Then there's one Malepartus II, whose German-language cover of "They're Coming to Take Me Away (Ha, Ha)" is reasonably plausible (and fairly amusing), but who then bizarrely covers "Wild Thing" as "Lisbeth", with an "Achtung!" to seal the deal.

On the more straightforward side of things, there's plenty of stuff with a heavy Beatles influence, most of which makes for pretty pleasant listening. Dave Gordon's "Call Me" sounds a bit like a slower version of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand", and "You Missed By a Mile" by the Prophets is compared to the Rutles in the liner notes -- not unjustly, I think, though early Spinal Tap also comes to mind. "Cry For Love" by the Rags may well be the best song on the album, with sweet backing vocals and doubled John-and-Paul soundalikes on lead vocals. I don't think it'd be at all out of place on a Beatles album circa 1964, and the unintentionally-funny quotient is about as low as it gets on this LP. On the other hand, the sax solo on "Ever" by Rene and the Ten Less Five has got to be one of the shakiest pieces of saxophonery ever committed to vinyl, with the kind of bleating you don't normally hear outside of goat country. Add to that the thickly-accented cough-syrup backing vocals, and you've got magic.

And then there's the Dragons' "Heart Transplantation". It opens with a steady heartbeat (three, four years before Dark Side of the Moon!), and then the vocalist solemnly pronounces, in Dieter-esque tones, "Now we'll tell the story of the first two heart transplantations in nineteen sixty-EIGHT!" The band kicks in with Steppenwolf organ and yakety sax -- a nice little groove, actually; the sax player sounds a little like Didier Malherbe -- and the vocalist comes back:

I wanna tell you about a heart transplantation
It was Dr. Barnard who started first operation
The first man died, but he didn't stop
He saw a nurse and said, "She's OK"

It only gets better after that. ("And in the year 1969, the second patient died too. Of course it will not be the last -- HEART TRANSPLANTATION!") The Shaggys out-Quaalude Rene and the Ten Less Five with their tracks, especially "I Need You So", which I'm pretty sure is in English but which is barely comprehensible -- I don't think I could sing that incoherently if I tried: did someone inject the singer's tongue with muscle relaxants before the session? And there's "Leave This Lesbian World" by Improved Sound Ltd., a perky little number with boogaloo organ, backwards drums, and lyrics which could be paraphrased as "Baby, you've gotta forget about the sexual assault you suffered so that you can stop being a lesbian and get with me." I'm sure Lavendar Jane is just dying to cover that one. Oh, and I can't forget the massive reverb on the vocals, used only on the last word of each line: "I want to end your si-IGHHHHHHH / Tell me, girl, how should I tr-y-Y-Y-Y-Y-Y-Y?" Finally, Andy Nevison's "Indiano", which steals the bass line from "Peter Gunn" and rocks harder than anything else on the album -- which makes sense, since it was apparently a top-20 hit in Germany. "Indiano! Indiano!"

current music: 5uu's -- Hunger's Teeth (Paging Jon Anderson...)

(Comments for June 15, 2002)

June 9, 2002 (link)

12:26 AM

But why the sus4 chord? Is it really as simple as it seems -- i.e. that the chord is unresolved without being dissonant, so that it projects a certain amount of tension but doesn't sound menacing or sinister? After all, that's the thing about a sus chord -- it could go major, could go minor. CNN's famous O.J. theme used minor chords in the Dorian mode, but that was a tragedy and a fait accompli. I wonder who the first person was to use suspended 4th chords for a news broadcast? The answer's probably in a newsreel somewhere, though most of the newsreel footage I've seen gravitates towards rum-pum-pum music -- brass bands, the title music for 20th Century Fox, that kind of thing.

For some reason, whenever I try to think of other sus4 examples, my mind keeps coming back to the weekday morning PBS shows they used to run in the mid-'80s, most of which sounded like the kind of stuff from which Boards of Canada drew their inspiration -- lots and lots of analog synths and warbling soundtracks. (Many of them were Canadian imports, at that.) Actually, though, the show I'm thinking of was more recent -- a "fake" news program, set in the Middle Ages, which had updates about things like the Black Plague and the signing of the Magna Carta. It was a fairly appealing idea, and I think I remember wishing it were on all the time. Strange that I'm seizing on that show, though, as I'd imagine it was probably more recorders and shawms than analog synths. There was, however, another show -- a news broadcast for kids, I think, which among other things had word puzzles with current events: if they had a story about Afghanistan, they might challenge you to unscramble FGNIAHNTSAA by the next episode. Or is that, too, a false memory? Maybe the puzzles were more straightforward, true-or-false "the Secretary of State is Alexander Haig" sorts of things.

12:05 AM

Someday future historians studying our era will compile a list of signs and signifiers in world media, widely used and universally recognized. When they do, I hope they include the following entry:

"Symbol: A suspended 4th chord, arpeggiated in sixteenth notes by an analog synth. Description: Commonly used audio symbol for 'the news', played at the beginning and end of a broadcast and, less often, in between stories. Use: North America, Europe, et al...anecdotal reports include Tunisia."

Kind of funny that a country with such a distinct and venerable musical tradition would use such a Western signifier for its news reports -- but it does make you think "news"! And the cycling sixteenth notes do conjure the image of a typewriter (or a busy newsroom) so reliably. Maybe the zukrah player couldn't quite pull it off, so they went with the ARP 2600...

current music: Radio Tunis

(Comments for June 9, 2002)

June 8, 2002 (link)

11:58 PM

Words I've recognized in the last few seconds: "aleikoum", possibly "American", and possibly "Morocco" (or "Maroc").

11:44 PM

Though some of the links are out of date, Radio-Locator has links to radio stations in places like Benin and Turkmenistan, and listening to them (the ones that webcast, anyway) can be a lot of fun. Right now I'm listening to Radio Tunis, which is totally fascinating. Initially, the first ten minutes or so were, I think, a religious piece sung a cappella by four or five male voices in unison. Now I'm listening to some sort of radio play, performed by several actors (in Arabic, I'm assuming) and one actress who spent most of her role in tears, with accompaniment on a synthesizer/electric organ that sounds fantastic -- like Casio meets the Conet Project. I can't tell what the subject of the play is, though I've heard several references to Mohammed so perhaps it's at least peripherally religious. And now the play is over, and a man is speaking in Arabic: a Muslim cleric? I have no idea, though it sounds far more likely to be a sermon than a news report. The sound quality is far from crystalline -- it sounds like the webcast is being made from a signal taken over-the-air by an AM radio or shortwave receiver, and there's a consistent hum at about 1000 Hz -- but that only makes it seem all the more elusive.

current music: Radio Tunis

(Comments for June 8, 2002)

June 5, 2002 (link)

12:03 AM

"Doing The Wagon-Na-Gal", lyrics by V. C. Childs, sung by Gene Marshall.

About one in every twenty song-poems (yes, I'm pulling that figure out of my ass) seems to be, as Absintheur mentioned, some sort of idea for a new dance craze. Thus "Doing The Wagon-Na-Gal", the title of which raises the question before we've even heard a note: what the hell is a Wagon-Na-Gal?

A single note from the bass and we're in. The vinyl's not in the best condition, which suffuses the female backup singers with a halo of distortion as they sweetly sing: "Doin' the Wagon-Na-Gaa-aal, doin' the Wagon-Na-Ga-aa-aal!" Meanwhile the peppy G major groove takes shape, as the bass is joined by drums, piano, and guitar -- the last of which starts busily wanking away at half-heard blues licks, literally from the first note of the song.

Gene Marshall enters, his voice earnest and very slightly reminiscent of Elvis:

You can't call it a swing or a waltz
You can't call it the chip, or fall in the fall

Okay, that first line is reasonable enough, but that second line is a real E-Lentil. Can that really be right? Perhaps the author is referring to some obscure dance I've never heard of.

It can make you feel like climbin' a wall
Just doin' the Wagon-Na-Gal

Here we find out that the "Gal" in "Wagon-Na-Gal" is in fact not pronounced like the colloquial term for a woman, but rather is somewhere between "Wagon-Na-Gahl" and "Wagon-Na-Gull". It's almost European, really. ("Waggin' a Gaul"?)

It may take you apart when you start
And it may make you feel like a Bonaparte

So on the one hand, dismemberment, and on the other, feeling like an megalomaniac in exile, possessed of shrunken genitals and a wife notorious for her affairs? That doesn't sound pleasant at all! "Able was I ere I did the Wagon-Na-Gal." Under this unappetizing offer, the backup singers give us "Yeah-yeah, yeah-yeah" and "Ahhhh, ahhhh, ahhhh".

It is so different than walking apart
Just doin' the Wagon-Na-Gal

That next-to-last line ("SO diff'-RENT") is not going to win a national prosody award, I can tell you that much. And yes, one would hope that dancing wouldn't be like walking apart -- though is it like "dancing apart to the beat"? (Paging Chubby Checker.)

And now the backup singers drop out, as the secret of the Wagon-Na-Gal is finally revealed to us:

Slowly raise your arms to the skies
Raise your head and blink both your eyes
Turn around and wiggle your thigh
Do the Wagon-Na-Gal

This is the fabled Wagon-Na-Gal? I do that every day when I get out of bed in the morning. Maybe I need to go to more sock hops, but most of the dances I know don't involve blinking. (Is it still the Wagon-Na-Gal if I don't blink? Would anyone notice? What if I only blink one eye? Would that be winking?) Maybe I should do the Wagon-Na-Gal at the next party I go to. But wait, there's more!

Oh, the Wagon-Na-Gal is a beat
Because you don't use your feet

Again I find myself wondering, is there something I don't know? How is it that not using your feet makes something "a beat"? And what kind of dance is it, anyway, if you don't use your feet? How are you supposed to turn around and wiggle your thigh without moving your feet? (And why does this make me even more tempted to do the Wagon-Na-Gal at a party?)

It pretties you up and makes you sweet
Doin' the Wagon-Na-Gal

That's a pretty ambitious claim, particularly when you consider the mechanics of the Wagon-Na-Gal. Seriously, take a moment to visualize what the Wagon-Na-Gal consists of: putting your hands up, blinking, turning around, and wiggling your thigh. That doesn't make me think of being prettied up and sweet, it makes me think of getting arrested.

No spoken-word interlude for this one: instead we get an eight-measure instrumental interlude, with no particular differentiation from the rest of the song except for the absence of the vocals. For a moment it sounds like we're going to get a clavinet breakdown, but alas, the keyboard player for this session wasn't very superstitious (sad is his song). We get a different kind of breakdown, though, as the bass and keyboards seem to disagree on a couple chords. Considering my own, very limited experiences doing sessions, it's surprising to me that song-poem musicians almost never seem to really show off -- no solos, no hidden gems or little surprises, nothing. Maybe they're just not good enough, or (more likely) maybe they're just so worn down by the grind that they don't even bother throwing in any pearls anymore. Kind of a sad thought, really.

Oh, the Wagon-Na-Gal is a beat
Because you don't use your feet
It pretties you up and makes you sweet
Doin' the Wagon-Na-Gal
Ye-e-eah, doin' the Wagon-Na-Gal

Gene Marshall starts to let loose here, sounding more animated than he has anywhere else in the song. Though he's tried his best, his style isn't really ideal for a song like this, but it starts to be a little more fun when he shoots for those high notes. Alas, the song has already started to fade when he gives us even more:

When you're doin' the Wagon-Na-Gal
Whe-e-e-e-e-n you're doin' the Wagon-Na-Gal...

Why did you wait so long, Gene? We could have used your bluff country passion earlier in the song. The fade-out seems like kind of a strange place to shoot for a high note -- wouldn't you want to try for one earlier in the song, so that if you missed it, you wouldn't ruin the whole take? Then again, maybe that's why the song cuts out well shy of the two-minute mark.

current music: Myself, I'm doing the Wagon-Na-Gal.

(Comments for June 5, 2002) (2 comments so far)

June 4, 2002 (link)

10:20 PM

I wrote this today in a thread on ILM about Coltrane and Giant Steps, in response to a comment given in italics below:

I'm still not sure I understand what "playing the changes" really means.

When you solo in straight-ahead jazz, the notes you play will generally reflect the harmonic structure of the song -- i.e. the chords. In tonal songs that are harmonically simple, the palette of "key notes" you have to choose from remains largely the same from chord to chord, so that at any given moment there are particular pitches that you can use as touchstones or "common tones", feeling pretty sure they won't dissonate. (For instance, if you're playing a very basic B-flat blues, the notes B-flat, C, E-flat, F, and G are all "safe" in that they're present in the scales that underlie all of the chords in a B-flat blues -- B-flat 7, E-flat 7, and F7. However, a solo made up of only those notes will likely be terrible, not least because it excludes "chord-defining" pitches and can't convey any sense of harmonic motion.)

The thing that makes the title track of Giant Steps so unusual is that the chords are changing very rapidly, and each chord is fairly remote from the previous one, so those touchstones are quite few. On top of that, the song is so fast that any given common tone is fleeting -- if you play a particular pitch for longer than a measure or so, the odds are that it will clash with a chord that's changing underneath you. So basically, the experience of improvising over "Giant Steps" can feel a little like trying to play catch in one of those gyroscopic whirlythings in which they train astronauts -- your frame of reference is constantly changing, and you have to think ahead at high speed in order to make sure that each of your choices will connect with where you're going to be in two seconds.

Given all that, the fact that Coltrane was able to play melodic and memorable solos in such a context is really remarkable, let alone the fact that he played them with total mastery. He didn't just plow his way through the chords, he weaved them into the fabric of his improvisation in such a way that, while they were integral to his solo and completely implicit in it (i.e. you can reconstruct the chord changes from his unaccompanied solo), he wasn't at all governed by them: he wasn't just running down the changes, he was using them as one would use a blues or "I Got Rhythm" changes or any other ground. In other words, he made the seemingly unnatural sound natural, even effortless, and in doing so he normalized a new part of human musical experience. It would've been incredibly easy to make "Giant Steps" sound like a gimmick, but Coltrane's sheer mastery made it seem instead like an open door, full of possibilities for new harmonic approaches that both he and others -- and anyone willing to listen and work hard -- could explore.

If I were to re-edit this post, I'd probably change a couple things, but I'm still happy with how this came out. It's tough to talk about this kind of thing without becoming preachy, and to integrate a technical element to the discussion without excluding anyone by doing so.

At work today I listened to Satie's "Vexations" on repeat. The manuscript of this piece includes an aside -- almost certainly intended in jest -- that if one were to wish to perform this piece 840 times in succession, one ought to prepare onself thoroughly beforehand (or something to that effect). As a result, people have tried to do just that, the most famous performance being an 18-hour marathon in 1963 by John Cage and a team of ten pianists which, as I recall, made it into the Guinness Book of World Records. (I seem to remember a solo attempt -- by Cage, or someone else? -- that was abandoned when the performer began to hallucinate.) Despite being a huge Satie fan I'd never managed to hear this piece until a few days ago, and only played it once or twice before putting it on repeat today. It's a cryptic little thing -- not even a minute long -- and is pretty much exactly as it was described when I first read about it, with a seemingly aimless, fragmentary, highly chromatic melody which, in the second half of the piece, becomes a series of unresolved, dissonant chords: in short, it's a piece ideally suited for its own myth. (I can't imagine any of the Embryons desséchés, with their broad parody and general peppiness, having the same mystique were they to have the same performance "instructions".)

Listening to it today, one of the things I noticed was how easily it lent itself to repeat play -- indeed, at first I couldn't tell where the piece ended or began without looking at the timer. Since the piece never resolves or sounds "done", going from the end to the beginning doesn't feel unexpected or repetitious at all, despite the change back from chords to a single melody line. After twenty listens or so, it began to take on a quality that I'm tempted to liken to Jandek (though that isn't quite right) -- a sort of bleak, claustrophobic feeling, tinged with a sense of foreboding. It's also a remarkably unmemorable piece; I'm not sure how many times I ended up listening to it -- forty? fifty? -- but I can only remember the first four notes, and those only because they form a miniature sequence (C, A, D-flat, B-flat).

When it comes to inducing hallucinations I'd imagine "Vexations" can do quite a credible job of it, though I wonder if one of Satie's more dynamic pieces might not be nearly as effective simply by dint of sheer repetition. I have to admit to almost being tempted to try my own marathon performance of it someday, but unfortunately, most of my friends are too smart to endorse anything as silly as that. Still, perhaps sometime I'll try listening to it a few hundred times in succession, though I suspect I'm less optimistic that the process will give me any new insights than I might have been, say, five years ago.

Next: a song-poem review!

(P.S. The actual Satie quote turns out to be "In order to play this motif 840 times to yourself, it will be useful to prepare yourself beforehand, in great silence and serious immobility.")

current music: Alban Berg -- 4 Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, op. 5

(Comments for June 4, 2002)

 

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