Saturday, October 30, 2010

From the "Where Would We Be Without Them?" Dept.

"Your reasonableness is poisoning my fear."
                        -- Stephen Colbert

          What a great message by the sanity advocates today.  It looked like a nice cross-section of Americans there on the Mall.  Cheryl Crow and Kid Rock playing with The Roots??  What more could you ask for?  Such scenes always remind me of a very cool song about a coast to coast adventure based on hope.  (If Elvis covered it, it must be good, right?) I think it was in the Ken Burns' PBS documentary about the history of the blues in which
they accused the guitar player who sings the song of lightening up Blues and Rock and Roll, making them more palatable for a white audience.  Maybe it was Scorsese's.  I don't recall.  Though Muddy Waters was right when he said the Blues had a baby and named it Rock and Roll, I have to disagree with the experts cited in that documentary and I'll add that it was this guy more than any other who with his infectious, driving shuffles injected urgency into the genre.  I'm quite happy that I got to see him perform live at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame kick-off show.  He tore it up.
          I once knew a guy who was a big fan of Chuck Berry, but for some reason denounced said fandom a few years ago; almost seemed scared to claim himself a fan.  His unusually apathetic reaction to Berry's appearance on TV that day caught me off guard.  It was a bit perplexing to turn the knob and all-of-the-sudden observe a spigot that had gushed for a lifetime remain bone-dry.  "Since when are you not a Chuck Berry fan?," I asked after a pause.  He took a breath and tried to answer, but was unable to conjure a proper response, his lips pursed, his face clearly betraying a state of confoundment.  All previous appearances by Berry on the this guy's god-box elicited a different reaction.  He would spring from a slouching position in his lazy boy knock-off, lean forward, and literally hang on the edge of his seat, able to contain neither the smile on face nor the tear in his eye as he simultaneously tapped his foot and bobbed his head in agreement, saying the same thing every time: "Ya hear that beat?  That's rock and roll."  (The term, "rock and roll," by the way, was originally a black euphemism for sex.)   His point was, in part, that the AC/DC blasting through my bedroom door which had prompted repeated threats to "cut the god-damn cord" wasn't really rock and roll.  Who or what could possibly turn this guy around?  One might call him a sellout.  Spineless, even.  It was disappointing and sad in many ways.  Though it's impossible to avoid losing a certain amount of respect after such a blatant surrender, I can't blame it all on him--I mean, he was, after all, in his seventies at the time.  I suspect evil, monstrous forces at work there.  Whoever it was couldn't pull that shit on me.

          I once attended a Zeppelin laser show at the Museum of Natural History in New York.  The planetarium was being renovated, so the show was held in the theater.  It was by far the best of the two or three such shows I've seen.  The guys conducting the show sat in the balcony and made it a point to remind the audience not to wear the 3-D glasses while driving home.  The show opened with The Song Remains the Same.  The intro sequence was, appropriately, electric.  In front of a swirling ectoplasmic fog matching that song's album's fluorescent color scheme, one after another and each in its turn the four symbols rose from the bottom of the screen, slowly ascending through the center before disappearing at the top, Page's icon finally emerging from the depths as his intro solo began.  It was a well-conceived production.  They used one element exclusively for Rock and Roll.  You couldn't see the actual mechanisms.  They were on the floor near the stage, one in each isle on either side of the room, obscured by seats and the sparse crowd.  I think it was a motorized spinning disc with 2 or 3 normal, very bright white lights positioned equidistantly from each other on the circle and pointing out directly from center on radius lines.  The wheels must have been slightly angled so as to project the lights on the wall in long, wide-barreled baseball bat-shaped projections reaching the ceiling, diffused at the edges, and at their ends, gradually dissolving to darkness.   As you focused on the lasers playing on the screen, you sat between two giant wheels churning rapidly in your peripheral vision, carrying your forward.
          When Chuck motions briefly with both arms early in this performance, he is mimicking the mechanism that drives the wheels of a locomotive.

That's a nice warm grindy sound he's got comin' out of that ES-335, i'nt it?
          An interesting nugget about Berry is that he didn't tour with a band, opting instead to hire local musicians in whatever town he happened to be playing.  I suspect that in towns where he played most often, he'd hire the same guys regularly, thus establishing some familiarity, but it's an interesting practice nonetheless. 
          In the above live recording, Berry omitted the last verse of the song.  It's interesting that the line it ends on works just as well as does the last line from the original studio recording, thus giving him the option of deleting that last verse from a live performance without being concerned about not ending on a final line that wraps up the journey quite poetically.  I don't know if Berry wrote his own stuff or not, but it's quite possible that it was planned that way.  Writers are smart like that.  Also, as exciting as that oh-so pleasingly loose and swingin' live performance is, the urgency and drive come through a little more strongly in the studio cut.  The video sits on the photo of the artist you're looking at now.  Look at the train while you listen.

Writing Notes
The final edit came a little less than 30 hours after the first word.  Originally it was just going to be a brief blurb about Berry following the opening quote and with the first video.  Then it grew and grew some more.  Everything worked well, so I went with it.  The only element that changed places in the structure was Hall of Fame reference.  Otherwise, I did no shuffling.  Instead, I spent a lot of time on wording.  There are 2 or 3 sentences that might still be a touch awkward, but I had to step away from it.  I love the way it runs.  You have to pay attention to add it all up and everything ties together quite nicely, I think.

Yes--the ES-335 line was a late addition.



  1. I assume that your reaction to Ken Burns and your Chuck Berry ex-fan friend is based upon the bewilderment, that I share, when reading the pompous evaluations of rock "critics" who think that the rougher or the more raunchy sounds that may make up a piece of rhythm-and-blues-derived music are automatically the more "authentic", the more "black." This of course has always not only been pure bullshit, but even racist. One hears such same nonsense when evaluating the music of Motown; the music of the Motor City was "diluted soul"; it was "watered down to be made more palatable for white audiences." And all those African-Americans who too bought all those records by The Supremes? I suppose they were just self-hating Negroes, right? What about the polished sounds of Philadelphia International? Some of their output makes Barry Manilow sound like Hazel Adkins!

  2. Well--I love the early raunchy blues stuff, but, yes, I agree that it is unfair to disqualify rock and roll and Motown because they had less of that quality. The Temptations, for one, did some work that was quite incendiary in its own right. "I--can turn the gray sky blue."?? Are you kidding? That song kicks ass. I'm not familiar with Philadelphia International. All I know is that Chuck Berry was a bad ass. I think the backlash does, to a degree, stem from the fact that he attained big time commercial success. It's like criticizing Stephen Spielberg because his movies are successful at the box office. It's ludicrous. If you're producing quality art AND attain big commercial success, stuck-up critics are going to automatically make comments degrading the value of the art. I hear people rip on Jurassic Park all the time. I think it's one of Spielberg's very best with by far his most profound message that has obviously been lost on many. It's about human drive for advancement and technology run amok. It's a perfect allegory for the 20th century and the basic plight of the human race summed up in one line by Jeff Goldblum:
    "Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should"