written and performed by John Renbourn, on “The Hermit” (Transatlantic Records (vinyl); Shanachie (CD)).
So here we are knee to knee, literally knocking patellae in a tiny room, a closet that makes the metaphorical sardine can look like the Albert Hall: petite Jackie McShee with her big soprano scrunching shoulders next to bearish John Renbourn of the gentle baritone. Middling Jeffrey Miller (tepid tenor) has taken a chair at ninety-degrees to Big John, the three of us shifting and squirming in this cramped front office at Hugh’s Room in west Toronto, where my interviewees will perform later this September Saturday. John is smiling, almost voluble. Me, I’m giddy, breathless. I don’t know I was born. This is one of the signal moments of my time on the planet: a peak experience.
Renbourn has been a mentor for me – obliviously, until I told him that day, September 18, 2005, embarrassing the good man so that I feel chronically embarrassed now, too – from when I was seventeen, some thirty-seven years earlier. I first heard him when he was about twenty-three and known primarily for his folk-baroque and jazz-blues fusion work in the band Pentangle. And it was already there of a piece, the attentiveness and intelligence he brought to what is generally called “folk” and dance musics, never mind that he has concentrated on traditional repertoire sometimes drawn from classical sources such as William Byrd and Italian or French set-dancing. Renbourn has gone his own way, focussing on the genius in the music (genius in the latinate sense of “spirit”), never on making himself famous or wealthy, demonstrating with his self-effacing, thoughtful aesthetic that the populist, too, can be classic, profound. His natural affinity for the work defines it, breathes life into it: the mannered tasting its own soul.
Renbourn’s major contribution to guitar studies is that he has humanized and broadened classical technique and scholarship into all styles of music. Where classical players show us the bones of the thing, what they’ve flayed from the piece during excruciating hours of practice, Renbourn is generous and compassionate. He offers up a tune’s flesh and corpuscles, its history and meaning. So, when I went through a bad patch in early adulthood, he was also, obliviously, a friend – a drug with no risk.
I dragged my callow self, all nerves and hurt, through those excruciating times listening to my Pentangle albums, Renbourn’s solo recording of the day (“Sir John Alot…” heavily influenced by medieval and Renaissance dance music, a sort of soundtrack for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Morte D’Arthur), and especially the title tunes on which he soloed for Pentangle’s So Clear and Jack Orion. I had discovered “Sir John Alot” as the Tuesday late-night d.j. on the campus radio station at Grinnell College; the show was my surcease if not salvation. A gormless freshman, I had lucked into that tranquilizing gig, a monologue with music in the blind night, a poor man’s psychoanalysis, distracting me from the day’s rabid angst. The first time I played a few cuts of the album, late-night crammers called in, breathlessly: “What is that?” For the first time in my pudge-bucket, self-conscious existence, I was avant garde, of the cogniscenti.
Surprisingly, the modest liberal arts campus in Iowa farm country was musically sophisticated. Mind you, this was completely to the credit of one unusually talented sophomore – a natural ethnomusicologist (surely what he was called to do) whose name I am deeply, profoundly sorry to say I have forgotten (Sir, I am so sorry) – and not evidence of the school’s self-proclaimed membership in the “liberal arts Ivy League” of the Midwest. In the year-and-a-half I was at Grinnell, before the Black Dog chased me back home to Denver, this young guy so viscerally dedicated to the people’s music brought us intimate concerts by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, Big Mama Thornton, Glenn Gould, Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, and the Balfa Brothers … Zawinul and Gould and Hancock electrifying the redolent backwoods of Iowa. I vividly recall my friends laughing as I awoke from a fathomless doze on the floor in the student commons, feet-to-feet (yes, literally metatarsals to metatarsals) with Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter as they played at top volume. Where otherwise my mind at night could discover no rest (except at the radio station on Tuesday nights: “Piblokto Madness,”* I pedantically called my show, after something I’d read in Ferlinghetti), bathed by their warm if jagged vibe I slept like a man who had died after a particularly satisfying fog-bound shag – and woke to my friends’ laughter.
We had a real Italian espresso machine in that room, a ceiling-mounted TV, and bagels imported from Chicago, the hometown of several of my classmates. This was 1969-70 (the Kent State-“Four Dead in Ohio” era, the spring of the first Earth Day, my school thereafter shut down in protest against the war in southeast Asia) in hog country (you smelled it every time you went outdoors, a constant reminder in the dripping air that you were stranger in a strange land), so the neo-Euro-immigrant chic was as hip as anything they might have enjoyed over at Oberlin or Antioch or NYU. I would muse about the shuttling trucks and trains that delivered these urbanite indulgences to the over-indulged “gownie” side of the tracks (yes, rail freight trundled right through the campus), imagining that they also delivered up the dope dealers, entrepreneur-hitchhikers in my musings, their rucksacks stuffed with the baggies of marijuana, hash, psilocybin, and LSD they spilled onto the humid dorm beds.
I didn’t learn to play “Bicycle Tune” until 1986, when Rebourn published the chart in a book. It remains my favourite guitar piece to play, a sort of prayer (like another favourite, an actual hymn he transcribed, “Monksgate”), all the more because there inheres in it a neurological – maybe religious – mystery: I find that, even if I play it regularly, after playing it irregularly for three decades, parts will just drop out of my head mid-tune. I think this curiosity is built into what is so attractive about the piece, and about several other of Renbourn’s compositions: there is constant movement, a sort of ecstatic wandering as in a narcotic maze. There’s no clear footpath – no conventional “changes,” no obvious chordal progression. As with any reverie, you can lose the train of thought. My semi-scientific evidence for this is that, if I haven’t rehearsed the tune for awhile, only shards of it are available to my hands. I can put it back together snatch-as-snatch can (casting this bit aside, taking this one up from another segment), gluing the bits from here and there slowly, without looking at the chart, my fingers recalling more and more where the shards fit, pass after fumbling pass, as the motor memory kicks in. I mentioned this to Renbourn at Hugh’s Room, and at first he didn’t even recall writing the tune – until motor memory kicked in. Despite his status as a fingerstyle guitar god, and always musically omnivorous, he has spent a good part of the last couple of decades writing and arranging for a range of instruments and voices – which is to say, he grows mildly impatient if you characterize him as a guitarist, per se. Fair enough: in mid-life he went back to school to get a masters degree in musicology. Anyway, like many of his compositions, “BT” is of sufficient complexity that he doesn’t play it in concert.
The chart: There are several notable features in this ingenious piece of mood-lifting engineering, the mathematical aesthetic made graphic – sort of like a bicycle:
– That flow I mention above (just the fossil-free narcotic for escaping the Black Dog) is built in as a sort of tune Gestalt: the music is bigger than the sum of its parts, specifically three main bits (landscapes, I suppose), and, as with a bicycle trip, you go out over them, then come back in reverse order: A,B,C; C,B,A. (The structure has inspired one of my own tunes, about our late cat Mingus, who followed a similar beatific out-and-back route in our house, several delightful times a day.) The intro-and-closer bit is a repetitive pattern, mimicking the turning of the gears and wheels as you get going; as Renbourn says, it makes for a “perambulation that has no definite ending and may be played over several times in cases of brake failure.” This feeling of steady, inevitable movement is the secret ingredient, I think, of many great tunes, including the Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s “Perpetuum Mobile” and Renbourn’s “Goat Island,” included in the 366 canon. Also of note in the intro, the hammer-on (your finger hammers down onto an open string) is unusually expansive: two whole steps of the scale, again giving the feeling of pushing forward.
– The B and C parts feature some really pretty (and unusual) “pull-offs” (the opposite of hammer-ons), that provide a spritely counterpoint humour. Genius.
– The third or G string is lowered to F#, in a tuning (says Renbourn) “often used by guitar players to simulate lute tuning” and for vihuela music. For reasons not clear to my intellectual (as opposed to motor) understanding, this “gives an added freedom” to playing the tune in E major.
– The (crucial) C part turn-around (bridge?) is based on a huge stretch, from a fourth-register D-sharp to a second-register A, four strings apart, that makes my day when my small hands manage it. The anxiety is amplified by the fact that the mild discord is followed by a tricky slide upward (which is to say downward in terms of pitch) into various pull-off harmony-tangles, breathtaking pauses to admire where you’ve come and where you’re going.
The assigned date: As this is my favourite tune to play on the guitar, I have assigned it the day in 1994 that I took delivery of my favourite, made by William “Grit” Laskin and nicknamed Cookie for Grit’s custom inlay work: a glass of milk and a chocolate chip cookie on the headstock, white chocolate chips as fret markers.
* Wikipedia: “Piblokto is a culture-specific hysterical reaction in Inuit, especially women, who may perform irrational or dangerous acts, followed by amnesia for the event. Piblokto may be linked to repression of the personality of Inuit women. The condition appears most commonly in winter.” I had no idea of this at the time, when everywhere was February.