Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, January 15, 2004


Yesterday I claimed to be a lukewarm-to-lukecool Grateful Dead fan. Then today driving home from work, listening to Seattle’s “Quality Rock” station, KMTT “The Mountain,” I heard “Touch of Gray,” a song of theirs I really really like and liked even before I started graying myself. Jerry Garcia is a warm and appealing singer, and the band grooves attractively and energetically. Before he died, I thought of Jerry as a national treasure, a writer of excellent tunes, a fine bluegrass banjo player, a sweet singer, and one of the few rock guitarists who could have pulled off sitting in with Ornette Coleman and Prime Time without embarrassing himself, as he did on Ornette’s tremendous album “Virgin Beauty.” His guitar sound and melodic improvising style are unique. Apropos also of yesterday’s post, I don’t particularly like his guitar tone, which is a purely personal and inexplicable, indefensible opinion.

Some great lines in “Touch of Gray,” by the Dead’s house lyricist, Robert Hunter.

“Every silver lining has a touch of gray.”

And, climactically, with Jerry pushing his voice harder and subtly varying the melody to excellent dramatic effect: “Oh well a touch of gray / kind of suits you anyway.”

Love! It’s a love song. Full of love for the “you” of the song.

And the dramatic switch at the end, after having sung “I will get by / I will survive” several times, the band sings together, “We will get by / We will survive.”

Love! Inclusive love.

The band’s mythos, the band’s reputation, supports the words of the song. Letting people bootleg their shows freely for decades. Very cool.

Another song came on the goofily sloganed “Quality Rock” station, and I switched to KIXI, Seattle’s AM “Great Songs, Great Memories” station, which plays pre-rock and non-rock pop. And another favorite song had just started! “Trying to get the feeling” by Barry Manilow.

Another time I’ll write more about music I liked before I knew what was supposed to be cool. Barry Manilow was in that category, and by early teen-dom I had figured out that Barry was supposed to suck, and so I despised him. Sometime in my 20s I realized that, no, I really do like a lot of his songs. “Trying to get the feeling” is one of them.

A sad song, sung with a tender sympathetic quality that Barry does so well, with his lovely friendly voice, conventionally prettier than Jerry’s but sharing the elusive tone of friendliness. His arrangements deploy a great sense of dynamics. If he produced that dynamic range with electric guitars, rock-ists would probably be more sympathetic, but he does it the old-fashioned way, paying studio musicians union wages, and getting an orchestral sound that I glory in. Sometimes he undercuts, to my ear, the building drama by throwing in a gratuitous key change near the end, but even THAT I sort of like -- it’s so corny, and it’s SO against the rules of tasteful music making and classical style. The great feminist musicologist Susan McClary has written that classical style condemns as feminine a piece of music that ends in a different key than that with which it begins. An observation which certainly mirrors critical condemnation of Barry.

The rising tension and pressure of Barry’s voice parallels the growing dynamics of the orchestration, and the uplifting, buoyant music pleasingly contradicts the desperate frustration of the song’s words. You will get the feeling again, Barry! The orchestra says so, and the sympathetic smooth background singers say so, and my sympathetically beating heart says so too! And then the song changes, and you say it, Barry, you say it, with some ferocity, "I'm gonna get that feeling / I'm gonna get that feeling." You will get the feeling -- we all will. We will survive.

"Music I love" -- substitute your own if Barry or the Dead aren't IT for you -- "music I love" does that to a body. Rest in peace, Jerry Garcia. You survived for a while, like we all do and will.
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