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.