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

Tuesday, December 07, 2004


I caught most of the “Concert for George” on PBS the other night. While I enjoyed most of it, I was really struck by the blandness of Sir Paul’s performance. It tickled something I’m having a hard time articulating. Before discussing what it was that nudged me in McCartney’s singing, I wanted to get a few items about the rest of the show out of the way.

Item. Jeff Lynne, with his long frizzy brown hair, big hat, big sunglass, and big brown hair, looks like a muppet. Terrific musician who’s worked with everybody -- did he produce Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem?

Item. Ringo rocks. The only one onstage (besides Michael Palin) who’s an *entertainer* -- comes on waving and smiling, wearing a beautiful flamboyant bright red embroidered jacket. Gave a halting, moving eulogy to George too. And sang the heck out of “Photograph,” the hit he wrote with George, and did a fine rendition of Carl Perkins’s “Honey Don’t,” dancing while he’s singing, putting on a show. I’ve always loved his singing.

Item. Dhani Harrison looks just like his dad, down to the 1965 haircut. (Gosh, three of these items are about how the dudes looked. Must be on my mind. I saw some hot posters of Orlando Bloom at my son’s barber’s shop today -- maybe that explains it.)

Item. I have no idea how they got 3 drummers, a few more percussionists, 8 or 9 guitarists, and several keyboardists to sound good together.

Item. George’s songs suit Eric Clapton’s voice. Or vice versa.

Item. Lots of unusual, pretty melodies. Distinctive.

Item. Not sure about a lot of those words though.

OK. Now I’m not a McCartney basher. I have his 2-CD comp, “Wingspan,” and I love it. A few of his songs are among my fave fave favorites ever. Wonderful bassist, gifted guitarist, gifted and sometimes brilliant singer, and a fount of melody. Uneven but sometimes wonderful lyricist. The standard opinion, more or less.

Paul came on and made a nice speech about how George loved ukuleles and was always playing them in the last several years of his life. Paul said the last time he saw George, shortly before he died, he asked whether he could play George a song on the uke. And then he played it for us -- George’s big Beatle hit “Something.” A lovely arrangement. And a disengaged vocal. Like he wasn’t really paying attention to the words. Nailed the melody, of course.

Emotion works in music and language mysteriously. In speech, a lot of it has to do with tone of voice. We feel this, we know this, and we find it hard to discuss. Singing conveys emotion, with or without words. Words convey emotion, whether sung, spoken, or read silently. Singing and speaking are related, complicatedly.

In college I took two semesters of Music Composition For Non-Music Majors from the highly regarded composer and rippin’ ragtime pianist William Bolcom. One of the only things I remember from the classes: An assignment had us set a poem of our choice to music. We gathered musicians together to perform our pieces in class. One student set an Eliot poem, part of “The Wasteland,” if memory serves. After the first run-through, Bolcom asked the singer to recite the poem aloud without thinking about the music. The ensemble repeated the piece, and this time the singer keyed into the emotions and meanings of the words more effectively.

(Digression: I saw the U.S. premiere of Bolcom’s magnum opus, in 1984, his setting of Blakes “Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” Some of it made my hair stand up, and I’d like to hear it again some day. I also saw him play ragtime and blues piano in a basement bar one night. One of the most amazing sets I’ve seen in my life, brilliant, virtuosic, deeply moving.)

To bring this back to Macca, I really don’t think Sir Paul was keyed into George’s words when he sang “Something.” His delivery lacked the nuanced variety of tone color, phrasing, and pitch shape that conveys emotion in speech and singing. Difficult to pin down the nuances. Paul’s singing can deliver the subtle nuanced goods. When and why and how sometimes and not others? Who knows?

If you’re a George fan, the posthumous concert for him is worth renting.

Enjoy your site. If you want to hear the Bolcolm setting of Songs of Innocence and Experience, Naxos has just released it--two CD's should retail for about $15 total. A good deal. Haven't heard it myself, but have some of his other music and like it. Might pick it up soon.

Keep up the interesting work.

Thanks for the tip and the encouraging words. I'll keep my eye open for the Naxos.
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