August 16 – Day 229 – Crossroads (Crossroad Blues)

As played by Eric Clapton (g and v) on Wheels of Fire, Polydor-Atco, 1968, with Jack Bruce (b) and Ginger Baker (d)

I had heard Eric Clapton before I’d heard of him. In the early 1960s he would have featured in some recordings by the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s band. But it was in 1967 that he made his name individually, when Ginger Baker invited him to join Cream.

This was the time of Disraeli Gears and “Sunshine of Your Love,” and Cream seemed dangerous. The music was big – glowering, throwing its drug-frenzied weight around. But even then, where Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker often seemed frighteningly dissolute (Baker was notorious as a speed freak, the allegation being heightened by his frenzy at the battery), Clapton was the still the still centre of the hurricane. His interest in Robert Johnson brought about a revival in the bluesman’s music and legend – that Johnson had gone down to the crossroads, where he sold his soul for his signature ability to play blues guitar – and in a great deal of African-American blues generally. And of course, for all his stardom, and his finesse as a guitarist, Clapton always has in fact (to my knowledge) been a gentleman.

“Crossroads” was all the scarier insofar as it was packaged in a silver-foil album called Wheels of Fire, all mirror-gleam and psychedelic hallucination, with aggressively psychedelic lettering. And it was paired on the live portion (recorded at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco) of the two-record set with the mostly psychotic, 17-minute “Spoonful.” But it was a hypnotic, thriller scary: good and angry, just like adolescent males who wrote “Clapton is God” on walls and in toilets, and it was much more sophisticated than the pandering heavy metal that followed. Remember “In a Gadda Da Vida?” It only got more troglodyte from there. Distortion was all the rage, but Cream was distortion with measured intent, played by serious musicians.

It wasn’t obvious to a 17-year-old, but if you listen to Johnson’s recordings of the song now, it’s clear that Clapton’s interpretation is faithful, if taken for a bone-rattling spin in a souped-up Chevy (yes, at last poor Robert “flagged” his ride), and not just to the spirit of the thing. This is even clearer in Clapton’s more recent performances of the song (as on his Crossroads Festival recordings), when he dismounts the muscle car and slows things down.

And then there are those solos. I have listened to them hundreds of times, and nearly five decades later (!) they still give me gooseflesh: yes, it turns out that to appreciate this tune you really don’t need adolescent hormonal overdrive. Although they are frequently nominated as among the “greatest rock guitar solos of all time,” Clapton has been dismissive, explaining that he played mostly on the wrong beat (the “off-beat”) – which clam he humbly attributes to why we think it’s “one of the great landmarks of guitar playing. … No wonder people think it’s so good—because it’s fucking wrong.”

Maybe so, but it’s wrong in the right way – the note choice, the natural feel for electric blues, are remarkable, and proved to be both pioneering and typical. In fact, of Clapton’s recorded music of those years (and probably since, but I am not sufficiently familiar with his later work to say), the only time he comes close is on Billy Myles’s “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” on Layla and Other Assorted Songs. It’s no wonder that nearly every guitarist wants to learn Clapton’s “Crossroads.” (You’ll find lessons here, here (holy moly, there are a lot of good guitar players around these days; play on Chelsea!), and here. And for further proof of Clapton’s improvisational talent, hear his solos on the same tune here (with a pretty hot third solo), around the same time.)

Of course the song wouldn’t be the classic it is without Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. Much of the time Bruce doubles up as lead guitar on his bass, in perfect complement to Clapton’s riffs and solos, and to Baker’s percussion. Listen particularly for Bruce’s walking notes and bends starting at 1:30 on the YouTube presentation of the first solo, and everything from about 2:32 to the second solo’s end. Afterwards, you’ll find yourself humming those chromatic half-scales ascending at the end of solo two, starting at 3:22, that make you want to blow kisses. (I used to think that they were part of Clapton’s solo.)

The assigned date commemorates Robert Johnson’s death in 1938, age 26. The story goes that he was poisoned by a jealous husband. No one knows if the devil made either man do it.


December 21 – Day 357 – The Cherry Tree Carol

As performed by The Pentangle, on their “Solomon’s Seal,” Reprise, 1972, John Renbourn (g+), Bert Jansch (g+), Jacqui McShee (v), Terry Cox (perc.), Danny Thompson (b).

[Note: This is a cross-post on both my music and law blogs, with minor changes mutatis mutandis.]

Where sometimes we despair of justice, our culture can provide a magical solution. In my law and literature course we consider supernatural rescue in the work of the French writer Marcel Aymé. His story “Dermuche,” for example, concerns a poor simpleton who murders some pensioners for a recording he covets. On death row he exhibits an obsession for “the baby Jesus” (who to his mind conveniently dislikes pensioners), and on Christmas eve he transmogrifies into an infant himself. The authorities guillotine him anyway on Christmas day – only for his lawyer to discover that the pensioners are back among the living. Everyone except, perhaps, the state is redeemed, never mind that the pensioners suddenly can’t find that recording they used to play every Sunday lunchtime. (Read my translation of this unusual Christmas story here.)

Then, too, we look at Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers, tracing the history of the magical golem as a champion of justice for persecuted Jews, and at traditional British ballads – “The Twa Sisters,” in which the darker, jealous sister drowns the fairer and looks to get away with it until travelling minstrels visit the court with a harp they have made out of the corpse. The harp sings out the details of the crime as the murderer and her family listen. Then again, in “Bruton Town,” brothers murder their sister’s suitor: he is a servant and supposedly beneath her. The suitor’s ghost visits the girl in a dream, to report the crime.

As the winter holidays approach, I have been thinking about another instance of justice as magic, in a lovely traditional carol, an antidote to the commercial pap we’re subjected to each December. Over the years, “The Cherry Tree Carol” (a.k.a. “Child 54,” for its appearance in the second volume of Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads) has enjoyed popular attention, although you don’t hear it these days. Said to have originated in medieval “mysteries,” and based on an apocryphal account of the Virgin Mary’s pregnancy, it has featured on recordings past by Joan Baez, Judy Collins, PPM (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Shirley Collins… . But my personal favourite is this Pentangle version.* (The performances are all on YouTube. As at least token solidarity with the musicians and their copyright, I don’t provide links. Oh, as it’s the holidays, go on then: In fact, another law-and-literature element about this song has lately occurred to me, larger than the magic justice element, or at least more immediately resonant in our times: it gives another archetypal dimension to Mary by making her a disbelieved woman at trial.

Like most modern versions, the Pentangle performance more or less condenses that printed in 1852 in William Sandys’ carol collection. As Child points out, it’s not surprising that this version should be anglicized such that Mary wants a cherry instead of a fig (or a Clementine?). The folk culture adapts material to context. (Other popular versions feature an apple, but the apocrypha give a palm tree.) Apparently heavy with child, she asks Joseph to pluck her a fruit, only to be rebuked, “Let him pluck thee a cherry that brought thee with child.” In the folk tradition, the depiction of Joseph is not without compassion, at least by inference: understandably, he’s an evidence-based guy, a not unreasonable man: even Galileans can be from Missouri. The line resonates as an undertone, a drone note, to the ballad, empathic but also accusatory of Joseph as much as of Mary. He has convicted Mary without a trial. It’s a sort of victim-blaming, if at the most rarified level, and with a more reasonable excuse than we find often in legal history.

In any event, then comes justice as magic: “Oh then bespoke the babe within his mother’s womb:/ Bow down the tallest tree and give my mother some.” And so the defence rests, with a cherry on top.

Of course at this time of light festivals we find that same justice-as-magic element in the Chanukah story: the candle oil miraculously burns for eight days so that the Jews can restore the Temple after a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Greco-Syrians. The light glows even at the solstice. The justice aspect in the carol suggests cultural evolution in itself (which is why I call the treatment of Joseph folk empathy). In the Pseudo-Matthew, Joseph doesn’t use Mary’s craving as an occasion for bitter sarcasm. Rather, he snaps, “The tree’s too high. Anyway, you should be more worried about finding water.”

The evolutionary element should give us hope during this season of light in the dark (all the darker this year, in “light” of socio-political developments in the U.S. and Europe) – that while perfect justice might exceed our grasp in this material world, it is within our reach if only we keep the faith. At least that’s what I tell my students.

I of course have chosen the date for the winter solstice, when we are charged with making the light. As to the performance, while McShee’s singing is folkie-purist almost to a fault, Renbourn and Jansch on guitar deliver appropriately lutelike accompaniment, with a pinch of spice from Cox and Thompson at the battery. The result is the group’s characteristic warm-and-winning “folk-baroque” sound, which is particularly suited to this carol.

* The Pentangle also have produced very nice recordings of “The Twa Sisters” and “Bruton Town” (sure enough, available on YouTube). ). For more detail on justice as magic, see my The Structures of Law and Literature: Duty, Justice, and Evil in the Cultural Imagination.

March 22 – Day 82 – Everyone Says I Love You

by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, as performed by Chico Marx in the film, Horsefeathers. (See all four Marx Brothers perform it individually here.)

In my senior year at university, I ran the Hollywood classics theatre on campus, which was a good fit, or at least my friends Bill and Steve Shpall thought so when they dragooned me into it, given my vocal enthusiasm for Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and the Marx Brothers, and for film studies in general. Music and comedy were my refuges during those emotionally melodramatic days, all the more so when the two cohabited. I memorized this version of the song to sing for my girlfriend, Mic, who crinkled her nose and groaned softly – not because of the bad imitation of Chico’s bad accent, and not because I sang it badly, but because, as Mic put it, “you’re making it harder for me to leave.” If only.

As I wrote in the post just previous on James Taylor’s “My Travelling Star,” which is meant as a companion piece to this one, from the start of our relationship Mic had warned that she intended to break it off with at graduation, to spend a year or more travelling.

To be fair, one night she started to teach me “Boom, Boom My Honey” but thought better of it when we reached the lines “Got along without ya before I met ya / Gonna get along without you now.” (“Boom, Boom My Honey” will not be appearing as a 366 selection.) She actually looked pained, as though her unconscious had betrayed her – which was sweet of her, and gave me hope. False hope, as it turned out, no matter how many love songs I sang to her. But this time (by which I mean: see this second related post, on James Taylor’s “Copperline”), I was well and truly warned, and I was four years older.

As to the music: obviously, Chico makes this a novelty song, but Zeppo’s version is a straightforward love ballad. Harpo whistles his version to a horse, then snacks with it on a bouquet of flowers. Groucho’s rendering is almost as memorable as Chico’s, given that, reclining in a canoe paddled by Thelma Todd, he warbles a really acerbic version and for the finale pitches his guitar into the lake: “Everyone says I love you / But just what they say it for I never knew / It’s just inviting trouble for the poor sucker who / Says I love you…” So Chico’s version is the cutest, even if his accent is no longer politically correct. And as he and his brothers were well trained as all-around entertainers, he’s really playing the piano, just as Groucho is really playing the guitar.

Here are the lyrics to Chico’s version:

(1) Everyone says I love you, / The great big mosquito when-a he sting you, / The fly when he get stuck on the flypaper too / Says I love you./ (2) Every time the cow says moo / She’s a-makin’ the poultry very happy too, / And the rooster when he holler “Cockledee doodly do,/ Says I love you./ (Bridge:) Christopher Columbo, he write the Queen of Spain a very nice a-little note. / And he’s write “I love you, my dear” and then he get himself a great-a big-a boat. (He’s a wise-a guy!)/ (Verse 3) What you t’ink Columbo do / When he’s a-come here in 1492? / He say to Pocahontas “Ayetcha kayetchie kayetchie koo.” / That means “You little son of a gun, I love you.”

May 11 – Day 143 – My Travelling Star

by James Taylor, as performed by him on his CD/DVD set, “One Man Band,” with Larry Goldings on keyboards and harmonium (recommended version), 2007, Hear Music

And then there was Mic, who turned out to be Bison Barb the Sequel (see the previous post, here), the two of them more or less book-ends to the romantic tragicomedies of my undergraduate years – or, in the words of today’s selection, “Sing me one more highway song.”

I met Mic in a film theory class. We were both seniors and when we first started going out (you didn’t call it dating in 1972), she not unattractively cursed her fate: she wanted to be with me but she didn’t want to be with me because she was about to head for Japan for at least a year. I was as infatuated with her as I had been with Barb, but I figured once burnt, twice immolated, and I moved on.

Then one late winter day Mic saw me with another confused young woman as we held hands on a park bench. Mic decided that maybe she wanted to be with me after all. Sure enough, nothing makes you more attractive to A than when B is attracted to you.

And yes, once burnt, twice running back into the burning building (translation: shame on me). Mic departed for Japan on schedule, thereafter offering me the Barb Hanson, a.k.a. mushroom, treatment.

As with Bison Barb, I had hoped love would stop her going or get her to come back early (and get me back into the more fragrant light), but absence made the resolve grow stronger: Footloose and Fancy Free 2, Feverish Love and Devotion nil.

So it seems appropriate that this memory, too, resonates with and against another lovely James Taylor song,* never mind that it’s the guy who’s the wanderer (Taylor himself, it would seem), which is of course conventional in popular music. Anyway, as the lyrics have it, from the start Mic was “already outta there,” waiting “by the door.” Did she, like Taylor, know she should hang around while she knew she would go? She wavered – Jewishly thoughtful, I suppose, she was more reflective and sympathetic than Barb. My solace is that these travelling star types “hunger for home but they cannot stay.” My pain is that they bloody well could have if they wanted you, er, wanted to. Shame on them “for sure.” Travel and commitment are not mutually exclusive.

I highly recommend the One Man Band version for Golding’s accompaniment on piano and harmonium, and for the supporting choir in which Kim Smedvig, wife of committed but travelling Taylor, sings. The repetitive harmonium lick and the folksy choral punctuation add just the right complement of cozy melancholy. (The version on YouTube is great, but it’s not this one.)

*I promise that soon 366 will get back to jazz, classical, trad, world, vocalese, etc. It just seemed that these three posts fit together.

April 23, heading for May – Day 114 – Copperline

by James Taylor, from his “New Moon Shine,” Sony Music, 1991, and performed by him on most of his DVD releases.

I’ve assigned this deceptively simplistic song* to just before prom time. Mind you, I’m not sure exactly when that is, or was, because I never went to school dances. I was fat (I thought) and self-conscious, and I hung with what were called eggheads at the time (long before we were bald). One of those achievers was Barb Hanson, although she didn’t look the part, and didn’t actually “hang with” any group at school: she was a tall, dark-eyed blonde, a Nordic Modigliani, never mind that she called herself, incongruously but with quiet conviction, “Bison Barb,” in tribute to Bison Peak and her hippie-gal hobby of hiking in the Colorado Rockies. And in my senior year of high school, she was my girlfriend, – which is italics for mirabile dictu, which is Latin for I can’t believe it myself, man, and even forty-seven years later shake my bald head, wide-eyed.

April 23 is also the day the world celebrates Shakespeare’s birth and memorializes his death. And it was around that time of year, in 1969, that Barb and I went to see Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

It was the spring of everything for us, a sort of rebirth into adulthood as a “new life,” when you’re still naïve enough to see it as all sunlit vistas. Barb was off to Stanford in the fall, I in the opposite direction to Grinnell in Iowa hog country (see May 16 – Day 138 – “Bicycle Tune”). This velveteen, apparently gentle, modest girl already had shredded my heart and several other vital organs (although I tried not to show it) by insisting that she wanted “to be free to explore new relationships” in California. But something about the film (okay, I don’t need to tell you what it was about the film) impelled her to ardent commitment for at least that evening, and I am not saying we were “intimate.” In those days, THAT was mostly for the kids nobody called eggheads. Still, she had never kissed me like this before. Typically, I suppose, I still attribute it more to the film than to myself. But I naturally felt joyful, tearfully grateful, unworthy, disbelieving, and hopeless all at once. That, I suppose, is what “ecstasy” means. And it wasn’t just hormones rising with the sap. I loved Barb Hanson.

“Copperline” is all about this Nostalgia, with a capital N (as filtered through Taylor’s boyhood in North Carolina), but my particular interest here is that lovely second bridge: “The first kiss ever I took / Stole a page from a romance book. / The sky opened and the earth shook / Down on Copperline. / I took a fall from a windy height, / I only knew how to hold on tight, / And pray for love enough to last all night.” It wasn’t “the first kiss ever I took,” but it was certainly the first really memorable one, the softest, poutiest lips, and did I say she was a great kisser? Also, my God, I’ve never inhaled a more fragrant woman. What I wouldn’t give to identify that bouquet.

Yes, I was stuporously in love with Bison Barb, and maybe for that night the feeling was mutual. It was the lusty Philip Rothian days of the “blonde shiksa,” but for me Barb was a Guinevere who didn’t need rescuing. She was saving me – from loneliness, adolescent self-loathing, panic at the threshold of manhood …

But of course it wasn’t me she was saving: a few months later she didn’t so much “dump” me as turn her back and slough me off, a casual cruelty that shocked as much as it hurt. It turned out that this was an average teenaged girl awakening, as average teenaged girls will do, to the power of her biology; which is to say that this was not the Barb Hanson I had idealized.

As for the song, beyond that bridge, the words are mostly shards of private memory, given depth and coherence by time – commotion recollected in tranquility, to riff off Wordsworth. It invites us, like a Rorschach test, to project our own nostalgia onto a dreamy soundtrack, swaying back and forth hypnotically between the tonic past and subdominant present (always moving), emphasizing the C# there that bridges those chords via (sure enough) the “suspended” fourth A (EG#B – AC#E – EG#B…): brilliantly (although probably unintentionally), the chord structure mimics the past-present vacillation-suspension bridge of the lyrics, rocking us lullaby-style, swaddling us in the joyful melancholy that is the remembrance of pleasant times. Shakespeare was good at this, of course, as with his “darling buds of May” whose “lease hath all too short a date.” So, hail, muse, forever young Bison Barb of my springtime mind’s eye:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st, …

That’s where I’ve “tried to go back as if I could / All spec house and plywood / Tore up, tore up good /” (as Taylor puts it), and I’ll probably stay tore up for a day or two, all these years later, having gone back there on the strength of a bridge in a song set in a faraway state. By the time you understand you’ve made these romantic mistakes, it’s too late.

*Which again graphically demonstrates that a great “tune” is more than the sum of its parts, lyrics, melody, and performance (see July 22 – Day 204 – “The Heart of Saturday Night”) – a fact that does not seem to have occurred to the Nobel literature committee in its recent award to Bob Dylan.

July 22 – Day 204 – “The Heart of Saturday Night”

by Tom Waits, as performed by him on the album of the same name, with Jim Hughart on bass, 1974, Asylum Records.

Here is the example, ne plus ultra, of a popular song that transcends the populist, in the tradition of the best folk ballads, Shakespeare, Dickens, Stevie Wonder, Nat King Cole … Everything about it – the lyrics, the bass, Waits’s gravelly and somnolent delivery – all of it is packed up in a mood that delivers viscerally what the title promises. This, especially when you’re young, this is the heart of Saturday night. What Waits accomplishes musically here I call in literature “Logos writing” – the capturing in words of more than a description or narrative; rather, the recreation of the essence of what is described. For me this distinguishes literature from writing, song artistry – the perfect marriage of tune, lyric, and performance – from garden-variety “singer-song writing.”

I have assigned “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night” (the song’s full name) to my first cousin Lou’s birthday, Lou being more likely to check in with me when we were young than any disinterested second cousin –Is it the crack of the pool balls, neon buzzin’?/ Telephone’s ringin’, it’s your second cousin. Right there, by the way, is Logos moment in this song, where the visceral intersects with the intellectual: this Saturday night anticipation and experience, what are they? Why is this night different from all others, the night we try to wipe out every trace / Of all the other days in the week? The freedom of the road next to a “sex symbol” (You’ve gassed her up, you’re behind the wheel/ With your arms around your sweet one in your Oldsmobile), the fact that you feel your pockets a-jinglin’ with Friday’s pay, the pool balls are cracking as the tavern lights flicker and buzz? Yeah, okay, but it’s more than that, something ineffable that every one-damn-thing-after-another day keeps “you stumblin’” out of, into Saturday night, where everything and anything redemptive are possible.

Every time I hear or sing the cousin line I think of our more or less idiotic youth, Lou’s and mine together, and what a decompressing blast we had together during what were more than usually stressed-out adolescences for each of us. I already have dedicated to Lou my second Amicus novel, Murder’s Out of Tune (about a Paul Desmondish musician accused of murdering his Dave Brubeckish employer): “To my cousin, Lou Chapman, for a childhood generosity I can never altogether repay – trusting me, alone at Gramma’s house, with his red-hot Gibson SG and his pawnshop tube amp.”

The details there are that, on the Saturdays that Lou couldn’t hang out with me at our maternal grandmother’s house on the West Side of Denver, damnit if he didn’t pack up his precious gear in my Aunt Barbara’s station wagon for me, so I wouldn’t miss the chance to play that sizzling SG. This didn’t altogether make up for not getting to hang with my cousin of a Saturday, but it remains one of the most decent, thoughtful things anyone has done for me in my six-and-a-half decades on the planet. Unforgettable.

I was about fourteen, maybe, at the time, Lou maybe twelve. A couple of years earlier, I had been dragooned by a desperate teacher into playing stand-up bass in the school orchestra (she said she didn’t need piano, at which I had some rudimentary ability), but, Saturdays at Gramma’s, Lou got me started concurrently on guitar, patiently showing me what he learned in private lessons. Schlepping that damn bass around wasn’t pointlessly embarrassing after all: insofar as I had become used to fumbling with its E,A,D,G string layout, which mirrors how you pitch the bottom four strings on a guitar in “Spanish” tuning, I enjoyed a bit of a conceptual jump-start. Now I could play chords and sing (this was decades before Esperanza Spalding, and Mingus didn’t sing much), maybe even impress girls instead of hear them laugh at me and my hypertrophic fiddle. Also, the guitar was not only more portable, it had the distinct advantage of fret markers, where I had been obliged to stick “paper assholes” (reinforcements for the holes in three-ring binder paper) on the bass.

This cousinly correspondence between bass and guitar leads me to the more, uh, technical, in the context of today’s “tune”:

Guitarists’ workshop: If you drop string six to D, it’s possible to play “Saturday Night” with the bass accompaniment, more or less, rolling (in D major, down the boulevard) between F# and E on the third string, (between D and D9), then moving down to the low G on string six for the same sort of rolling between G and F# before you “walk” down (up the string) to low E (G, F#, E = Gmaj7, D9, E), then back up (down the string) E-F-G-A with A7 chord ). In other words you “walk down” (before the slide back up) fret the upper strings in a partial D chord counterpoint, then fret a D (third fret) on string 2 and an open G (string 3) to counterpoint the low bits (an inverted G moving toward a Gmaj7). The chord changes are dead simple, never mind the complexity of feeling (a secret of great modern song writing), from the tonic (here, the D and any variations you find that work) and dominant (A and ditto). Yes, basically this heartbreakingly lovely piece of art is a two-chord song. (True, there’s the subdominant G in there, but, as is typical with today’s pop, it’s just part of the movement from the tonic to the dominant.)

Conclusion: Mr. Ellington was right, of course. It makes no difference whether you consider a song like this pop, jazz, adult contemporary, folk, blues, nor does it make any never-mind what “kind” of music you like. The only thing that matters is whether it’s good.

May 30 – Day 154 – “Wendy” (A-Musing, Part I)

on “The Paul Desmond Quartet Live,”1975, A&M Records (also available on CD); personnel (“The Canadian Group”): Desmond, alto sax; Ed Bickert, guitar; Don Thompson, bass; Jerry Fuller, drums

Three of the most beautiful tunes I know bear the names of women: John Coltrane’s “Naima” (April 17, Day 100), Paul Desmond’s “Wendy,” and “Nancy (With the Laughing Face)” (June 8, Day 164), with music by Jimmy Van Heusen (comedian Phil Silvers wrote the words). But the stories go that Wendy and Nancy are “the other women” – they are not, that is, the muses of the titles, or at least at composition they weren’t. The stories go (and there is always a story or six in jazz) that the tunes were written for somebodies else.

It’s probably safe to say that, insofar as their performances on this album convey infatuation, reverie, being sick with love, these tunes are, finally, about nobody in particular; rather, they capture “a-musing” in general, the broody way of all flesh. As James Taylor suggests (making our eyes roll just a little), he might have sung “I feel fine any time she’s around me now” for a girlfriend forty-odd years ago, but only now does he realize that he wrote “Something in the Way She Moves” for his current wife, Kim.

Nancy’s turn comes in ten days, on Nancy Sinatra’s birthday. Today is Wendy’s, and “her” tune is my favourite in Paul Desmond’s oeuvre. It is said to be his most popular composition after “Take Five,” but I suspect that, sadly, it’s a very distant second. In any event, his rendering of it on this live album manages to feel both electric and palliative.

Of the many Desmond recordings I own, I listen to these live performances at George’s Bourbon Street in Toronto most often, never mind that Thompson captured them catch-as-catch-could as he served double duty on bass and tape machine. (Clearly he was not too distracted to play superbly.) I trust it’s not protesting too much to add that, while the album was made in the city I have called home for more than two-thirds of my life, in a restaurant I frequented at the time, my enthusiasm is for the music, pure and simple.

Which is to say that Desmond with Brubeck was rarely this compelling. A fair bit of it recalls Eddie Condon’s jibe that his sound puts you in mind of “a female alcoholic.” (This was the nineteen-fifties and -sixties, remember, when Condon ran his Manhattan nightclub. The crack always makes me think of Billie Holiday, and of Charles Lloyd’s slurry tenor-sax tribute to her, “Lady Day.”) Then again, Desmond had set himself up for the shot by claiming that he wanted to sound like a dry martini, a remark quoted so often, he says in the liner notes here, that “I’m beginning to be sorry I ever brought the whole thing up.” Typically of how he angled self-deprecation as charm, he adds that this album includes moments “which could justifiably be said to sound more like three dry martinis.”

Well, now and then, maybe, as with the perhaps coy oriental flight-of-fancy in the improvisations on “Take Five.” But clearly, in taking flight from Brubeck (who, it must be said, kept him in very lucrative work for a very long time, enduring all the hassles of leadership), Desmond has inspired the members of his so-called Canadian Group to play at the top of their chops. While for my money Bickert is the most intelligent, elegant, and inventive jazz guitarist in the known universe (if he’d been an American, the great Jim Hall would have stood in his shadow), I don’t know that he’s ever played more tastefully and imaginatively.

Desmond – boulevardier, ladies’ man, brilliantly self-effacing musician, possibly the coolest white man of our times – has featured in my writing, the playboy as father figure. In parody, he is the model for Des Cheshire, the alto saxophonist in Murder’s Out of Tune accused of murdering his quartet leader. I listened to this album day after day as I wrote the novel. Considering that Desmond indulged extravagantly in the intellectual chic of the era (ah, the good ol’ days when a Jewish bookworm was sexy), I was able to cadge a few of his jokes, including the ones that were true. See my “lyric” to “Wendy” (another of my IPod Poems), here, on my website.

As to the tune’s name, according to Rob McConnell (the big-band leader and trombonist) and Jenna Cox Whidden, one of Desmond’s many girlfriends, originally it was called “Jenna.” However (says McConnell), at some point Desmond jocularly (or not) renamed it “Pittsburgh.” Thompson told Desmond biographer Doug Ramsey that, then again, sometimes the tune was “Pittsburgh,” sometimes it was “Wendy.” One night when Thompson and Desmond were playing together in San Francisco, Desmond introduced “this young girl with dark hair”: “Don, I want you to meet Pittsburgh” – a.k.a. Wendy, the daughter, apparently, of another of Desmond’s girlfriends. Ramsey could not discover Wendy’s surname, and her relationship with Desmond “appears to have been short and intense during the period that Desmond had the Canadian Group.”

The chart: “Wendy” follows the changes to “For All We Know” (music by J. Fred Cools). Hear Nat King Cole singing a beautiful, pared-down version of the latter: Click

The assigned date: This recording was made one-and-a-half years before Desmond died on May 30, 1977, at 52.

May 17 – Day 139 – “Sail Away”

By Randy Newman, as performed by him on the album of the same name, 1972, Reprise Records.

I had planned to nominate this song to the list – Newman’s scalding indictment of slave trading in the 19th century – in the back-draft of the serial police killings of unarmed African-Americans in the U.S. Now, it seems particularly timely, and obviously not just for its reference to Charleston Bay (near where one of the deaths occurred) as a destination port. I considered January 1 as an appropriate day, the date of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, but that is reserved for “Song of Hope,” from Joe Sealy’s Africville Suite. James Taylor’s “Shed a Little Light” is pencilled in for Martin Luther King Day. So I have chosen another hopeful beacon, the day (in 1954) that the U.S. Supreme Court released its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, ending the “separate but equal” regime in American public schools.

So: what a perplexity is the United States of 2016 – a country built significantly by slave labour that eight years ago elected an African-American president, only to hobble him with systemic, fearful tribalism.

The chart: The orchestration to this otherwise simple, scarifying narrative lends it a soundtrack quality, at once ominous, momentous, and ironic. (Of course Newman regularly writes music for films.) In slashing satire, the gentle, seemingly compassionate inducement to come along quietly (apparently addressed to a boy or a young man) contrasts with the horrific, unstated consequence of surrender. The repetitive piano refrain promotes a sense of inevitability, of sad, vertiginous fate, as with the rocking of a boat – here, the slave ship, in the middle of the ocean, as the truth dawns. Newman’s deviated-septum singing (celebrated in other pop singers for no apparent reason beyond puerile – bourgeois, actually – pseudo-rebellion; talk about champagne – make that cocaine – socialism!), seems apt here in its homey artlessness. It matches those qualities in the lyrics, their simplistic seduction, the friendly lie in its grandiose symphonic setting, as in Satan’s speeches (particularly to Eve) in Paradise Lost. “You just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day. It’s great to be an American.”

In the tradition of socio-political satire in song, I have posted, on the Words and Music page of my website, a rough-and-ready recording of my own tune, “Cold Camembert and Broken Crackers.” It riffs on the Senate spending scandal in Canada (upon being challenged about buying breakfast on the taxpayer when the meal had been served on airplanes en route, one Senator scoffed, “Ice cold camembert and broken crackers, who wants to eat that?”), obviously a much less tragic but still serious subject-matter, part of the saga of deteriorating democracy in the West. Scroll down on that page to hear the song (in the Music section) and read more information about it, including the lyrics with chords.

October 10 – Day 285 – “Well You Needn’t” (The “Dischords” of Tragicomedy)

by Thelonious Monk (born Oct. 10, 1917); on (e.g.) “Monk’s Music”; Monk, piano; Ray Copeland, trumpet; Gigi Gryce, alto sax; Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane, tenor sax; Wilbur Ware, bass; Art Blakey, drums. Riverside, 1957, remastered for CD, 1993.

You have a curious relationship with Thelonious Monk. You dig him (natty but conceptually dishevelled genius, wise fool) and his music (dishevelled genius, wise foolishness) – dig, which is to say: more than fond of: touched, moved, admiring, a little scared. Like several of his colleagues in the “be-bop” era, Monk (everybody calls him Monk, even you, though you hate it when people call Miles Miles) has an evocative back-story – fathering be-bop, losing his cabaret card after the cops jump him in a car with someone else’s drugs (Bud Powell’s?); signing on as a jazz educator, then showing up at a university, offering careful attention as the band plays, and “after much beard-stroking and musing,”* advising: “Keep on tryin’!” “Whiplash” on quaaludes.

You see Monk as the perfect modern hero, which is to say an ironic hero – a role model by default, a deliberate parody of a B-movie cliché: fiercely true to himself and his art despite poverty and prejudice and ecstatic-hubristic self-consciousness – the eiron, the fool who sees better than Lear. You love the way he hesitates over which note to hit but still plays in time, his time, the way his music is deliberately out of tune with perfect pitch. Dig those crazy chords! Trinkle Trinkle. Weapons of mass construction. Above all, you love the Gestalt of this, Monk’s punk wit, gassing off from the gelignite of his personality, nuclear fusion at the brink of out-of-control, the volatile wisdom that funny is as serious as it gets – a central thread in your own way of being, critique and solace all at once: the “dischords” of tragicomedy, of life lived mindfully if perplexed.

But his music wears you out. It demands so much, sometimes too much. The anxiety in those polyhedral rhythms, his furious squint over the keyboard, the inebriate chords, the tension of gut-wrenching sad against gut-thrumming hilarious, the historic tragedy enlivening, perversely, the absurdity. The deadliness, the goofiness – the brain-strain of hanging out with a natural-born eccentric. It’s all that, and probably more that you can’t grasp, or won’t. Some say Monk was bipolar, but of course he is multipolar, essential-primordial, like just before the Big Bang: like all geniuses, he’s scary, maybe dangerous. Maybe that’s the essence – Thelonious Sphere Monk is a jazz cliché while paradoxically the model for it, its shining creator and essence, bristling shambolic godhead, not some shop-worn iteration. …

… For whatever reason, you rarely cue him up these days. But once heard, this tune, and “Blue Monk,” and “Straight, No Chaser,” and “Off Minor,” and “Ruby My Dear,” are in your blood, constituent.** I’ve selected this band arrangement because of its collegial swing, with some celebrated players. Then again, the trio versions (piano and battery) are in many ways more in the spirit of the piece: spare, alone, iconoclastic.***

*The description is that of bass-player Bill Crow, in Jazz Anecdotes (Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 45.

** I could as easily have chosen any of these tunes for this day, and still might assign one or some or all of them to other days.

*** Hear, e.g., “Genius of Modern Music,” Blue Note 1947, remastered 2001.

November 12 – Day 317 – “Arthur McBride”

As performed by Paul Brady on “Andy Irvine, Paul Brady,” Mulligan Music, 1976 (and CD); similarly on Paul Brady, “The Missing Liberty Tapes,” Compass, 2004. Chosen here for The Day After (November 11, Remembrance Day).

Traditional music persistently reminds us that, too often, war is waged for elitist political economy. The folk are cannon fodder in a cause not their own. Irish traditional music provides especially graphic examples, and this violent, violently sarcastic attack on institutionalized violence might just be the best of the lot. This “Arthur McBride” is a true morality play, fleshing out all the contradictions of tribal bloodlust – its potential to bring human nobility to light in the darkness of reflexive, ethnocentric materialism.

In expressing those tribalist contradictions, folk tradition tends to celebrate ideological violence, as here, where the potential recruits are Irishmen, the recruiters Englishmen seeking fodder for foreign wars. Arthur and his cousin are no pacifists. You might call them conscientious objectors, but their disobedience is altogether uncivil. Where the young woman in “My Love Has Listed” (a.k.a. “The White [Blue, Black…] Cockade”; see November 11) strikes at the recruiter with poisonous words, this superb version of “Arthur” (apparently learned by Brady in the U.S., as compared to the sparer, probably older, more conventional version Irvine et. al. perform on “Planxty,” 1973) is all sticks and stones – or at least shillelagh and fists.

The narrative is beautifully structured to build toward explosion, mined with the bitterest sarcasm and ironies of ethnic conflict. It’s Christmas morning, for God’s sake! Arthur and his cousin are out for a quiet holiday walk on the beach. All is calm, all is bright – until the recruiters happen along and offer them ten guineas, a crown signing-bonus, a chick-magnet wardrobe, and a salary (compare the quick pint and shilling of “Listed”) for the chance that they might be flogged into conformity and sent to France, “where we could get shot without warning.”

The tension simmers to that point, from outrage to argument to fisticuffs, in language altogether suited to the blackening mood. You can hear the shouting and panting and groaning as overtone. The potential recruits answer the offer as in a duel (the retort courteous, as Shakespeare puts it): they have no money, so they “fee’d them up in cracks” – paid the recruiters by thumping them, with a walking-stick and fists. They seize the recruiters’ “rusty rapiers” and, to “temper their edge,” throw them into the sea. They rifle the drummer’s wallet (his “pow” or “pouch”) and use his drum as a football, then make it jetsam, too, and “bid it a tedious returning.” Then there’s that last verse, which is particularly effective if sung quietly, and slightly out of puff, after the clamour of the fracas:

And so to conclude and to finish disputes
We obligingly asked if they wanted recruits.
For we were the lads who would give them hard clouts,
And bid them look sharp in the morning.

Superb interpreter that he is of the Irish (Republican) tradition, Brady keeps things simple here, letting the song do its work, making it about the story, not his performance, his reedy voice simply narrating over his spare guitar accompaniment – only four or five chords, but adapted melodically as befits the thrilling story line.