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

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Probably the 2nd most famous event in Elvis Costello’s life -- more famous than any single song, more famous than his marriage to jazz smoothie Diana Krall, more famous than his glasses or his early twitching stage persona, but not as famous as his cameo in that Austin Powers flick -- is what many people call the Columbus Incident, where Costello, who was touring to promote his 3rd album, “Armed Forces,” called Ray Charles a “blind, ignorant nigger” during a drunken barroom insult-fest with Bonnie Bramlett and other members of Steven Stills’s touring band. It is hard to imagine a more thorough, well-rounded, fair-minded and tough-minded, description of the odious debacle than the one Franklin Bruno provides in his new book on Armed Forces and ancillary Costello subjects.

Two of the more grabbing of the many things I didn’t know about the Incident:

* Bonnie Bramlett may have been the first white Ikette, backing Ike & Tina Turner in tours of the south.

* EC had been active in Rock Against Racism, which got going in response to crypto-fascist flirtations from rock stars David Bowie and Eric Clapton.

Franklin organized his book as an abecedary, with the topics -- including thorough run-throughs of each of the album's songs -- listed alphabetically. It’s a jump-cutty, complex construction that seems suited to EC’s work and, paradoxically, a good dramatic read, as details about the Columbus Incident, in particular, unfold in unpredictable fashion, as Franklin arranges his material in a way that appears to follow his ABC’s.

Franklin knows a lot and, more importantly, *notices* a lot about music as it happens. He gives a great description of typical album closers in rockin’ pop: usually either a rave-up, a big ballad, or a gentle send-off. And: I hadn’t realized that all 3 of EC’s first album begin with his voice jump-starting the songs and the albums.

Franklin dug into the background of the album. He gives lively, interesting snapshots of figures and historical events in British fascism. He got interesting technical information and good anecdotage from an interview with the album’s engineer, Roger Bechirian. He finds a nice quote on obsessive love -- one of the album's central themes -- from French philosopher Roland Barthes’ book “A Lover’s Discourse,” which coincidentally also is arranged alphabetically. In general, a thoughtful, thinkful, lively read.

At points I thought Franklin’s approach to the music relied too much on technical music and prosodic jargon, two jargons I happen to be able to follow but don’t much enjoy reading. He frequently speaks of EC’s “feminine rhymes,” two-syllable rhymes where the 2nd syllable is unstressed. Musicologist Susan McClary has planted prominent red flags around such sexualized technical language: music as well as poetry has “feminine endings,” phrases which end on an offbeat, the equivalent of an unstressed syllable in poetry; music theorists coined the term by equating “unstressed” with “weak” and therefore with “feminine.” Franklin didn’t intend to trigger that chain of connotations, but I asked him about it via email, as well as a number of other questions I had about his book, with the additional question as to whether I could print his answers, if he chose to answer. “Hell, you can think of me as your twig-league Terry Gross,” I wrote to him: “‘Mr. Bruno, when did you become fascinated with the alphabet?’” He declined to answer *that* question, but he answered a bunch of others, and he gave me the OK to print them, and I'm pleased to be able to share them with you.

UT: You mention EC's "Pretensions to sophistication." (I think "sophistication" is the word you used.) "Pretentions" implies that he tries but fails to be sophisticated. Do you intend that implication?

FB: I tried to play this carefully: I said "the album's pretensions to sophistication," which is perhaps to anthropomorphize the record, but was meant to make it sound less like a personal charge. I don't think that "pretension" always implies some failed or unachieved aim, but that is the usual connotation -- surely, at least, AF is self-consciously elaborate next to the first two. One doesn't have to call this a pretension, but I think it's fair, and relates to the points I sometimes make about EC/AF's "ambitions." Probably what saves it is that EC isn't really that musically sophisticated at this point -- we're basically in the realm of very modestly extended pop forms and techniques.

I don't have a strong opinion about whether his turn to "composition" has resulted in worthwhile music, but I don't think he's merely pretentious. Learning to orchestrate and write out one's own scores isn't a weekend's work, or something you do just because you want some mid/high-cult attention.

UT: Regarding the relative harmonic simplicity of "Two Little Hitlers," you say that it signals, if I remember rightly, an exhaustion. Is that how the song struck you immediately, or is it something that you felt only after you played through the song yourself? Or do you hear the chord changes that way on first hearing?

FB: I would not say that I could have read off all the underlying harmonies after one listen, but I would say that anyone with some musical training can tell that it's mostly I-IV-V, and depends mostly on repeated two-chord patterns; and anyone whose listened critically to a fair amount of music, whether a music-reader or not, can tell that this is simpler territory (in the relevant respect) than say, "Party Girl." Nothing wrong with that -- it's just another parameter one can attend to track-to-track variations of in listening to an album (or programming one) like guitar tone or tempo.

As to whether this struck me the first time I heard it, at 15 or 16, I can't claim any memory. Since I've owned the record for 20 years or so, and A Singing Dictionary for almost as long, there' s just no getting back to that pre-critical listening stage -- and I try not to pretend to do so in the book. I'm describing the songs from the point of view of someone who has listened to them many times and has at some point picked them apart; I'm not claiming to replicate the aesthetic character of the initial experience, certainly not by miming that experience in prose. Just not my strength as a writer.

UT: How does the "feminine rhyme" work for you as opposed to masculine rhymes? You mention them a lot. I just would have said "2-syllable" rhymes, not having a strong feeling about how unstressed endings strike me as opposed to stressed line endings.

FB: I don't mean to put any significant weight on the gendered terminology, but it is standard vocabulary -- I don't even know how/when they got those names. (Another thing I'm not by training is a literary critic.) I don't have any elaborate theory of how stressed/unstressed rhymes work differently, really, but they can 'feel' a bit different, and I think they're another index of how self-conscious EC is becoming about his lyrics by this point, and of his beginning to connect himself to the Tin Pan/standards tradition, where an interest in those formal qualities was par for the course. I think what' s most telling is the number of times that these "clever"/"sophisticated" (again) rhymes involve the album's "charged language" -- there's definitely a technique that becomes a bit of a trick here.

UT: Have you read "Feminine Endings" by Susan McClary? If so, thoughts?

FB: I've glanced at it, but not for this, and not recently.

UT: I'm assuming the "degree zero" in Barthes' "Writing Degree Zero" and your phrase "songwriting degree zero" is a cartographical metaphor and not a thermometer metaphor -- degree zero, the starting point, not degree zero, the melting/freezing point (in Centigrade, not Farenheit or Kelvin). Is this assumption right? (I haven't read the Barthes, but years ago I glanced at it and remember it as being a response to Sartres' "What Is Literature," parts of which I *think* I've read.)

FB: I believe that's the right way to read it; of course, I'm alluding to the Barthes and connecting up in a glancing way with the use of A Lover's Discourse earlier. (I actually should have brought in that phrase "image-repetoire" somewhere in the "Less Than Zero" entry as well.) But there's also the connotation of "Punk Year Zero," a phrase you sometimes hear (I don't know where it originated). I would have to be around my books, by the way, to give you a better gloss of what Barthes meant.

UT: How come you don't mention anywhere that you're a philosophy teacher? (I think you do mention that you're a musician.)

FB: Just seemed irrelevant, especially as some kind of qualification for writing the book. I think very little philosophy goes on in the book, either in method or content, though of course there is some intellectual history invoked here and there, and the sociopolitical questions touched could be seen as specific instances of larger theoretical ones. But that, you could say about a newspaper.

UT: What's wrong with "face / disgrace"? "Fire / desire" goes back to Henry Purcell, at least! (A song on my upcoming CD has "waste / graced" in one song and "laces / faces" in another. Unused rhymes in English are scarce.)

FB: I think it's a certain way of using the construction x "is (just) a disgrace" that rankles -- it's somewhat uncommon, fairly vague, and very stitled, to hear this usage outside of the context of a song. It's one of those touches that indicates more concern with getting the song done than getting it right. It's not a matter of clever vs. simple, exactly, but the way that certain rhymes overdetermine what's likely to be said, unless they're handled very carefully -- I don't think ultra-simple rhymes like me/be/see or you/do/too are problematic in the same way, because they can be turned to many different ends.

* * *

Franklin Bruno’s “Armed Forces” only costs ten bucks. If you’re interested in Elvis Costello, I recommend it.
Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?