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

Monday, December 10, 2007

Another variant on the genre of songs-about-themselves is the song in which the singer gives audible instructions to the band. The classic instance is when the singer calls for an instrumental solo, such as Ringo calling for the guitar solo in the Beatles’ cover of Carl Perkins’s “Honey Don’t” -- “Aw rock on George, one time for me.” Bob Wills would often identify the soloist on Texas Playboy records, frequently teasing his sidemen like a vaudeville comedian. Louis Armstrong instructing his sidemen to “swing it, boys” is another sonic icon of the type.

James Brown asking his band mate whether he should instruct the band to “take it to the bridge” on “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine” inspired the most imitators. Led Zeppelin parodied it on “The Crunge,” with singer Robert Plant asking, “Where’s that confounded bridge?”

The funniest and most moving parody is on Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s version of his song “Volunteered Slavery” on the posthumously released live album Compliments of the Mysterious Phantom. He implores his bandmate to “help me across that bridge,” repeating the phrase in dialog a la Brown and Plant. Kirk needed help, presumably, because he was blind; his solicitations have an air of urgency. And then he comes out with, “You know, the bridge? The big bridge. The big bridge. The bridge . . . of happiness. Yeah, the bridge.”

When I hear the bridge of happiness, it melts me. Rahsaan embodied surprise. It seems like a parody, when suddenly emerge intimations of happiness, love, utopia.

Brown’s instruction to change key in “Doing it to Death” is more drastic than his request about the bridge:

I feel so down, I need to get down
In order for me to get down
I got to get in D
In order for me to get down, I got to get in D
Need to get in D, dog for D
Down D, funky D, shakin' D, down D
Oh! Huh! Ha ha!
Get on down!

And then the band changes key.

It is amusing to consider an orchestral conductor verbalizing the score as the music unfolds, “Alright, give me some trumpets, I want some trumpets, yeah trumpets, take it trumpets!” Or, “OK, fellas, let’s modulate!”

* * *

Self-referential music-without-words proceeds contextually: by quoting other music, or defying expectations (Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony), or setting up a style clash. Unlike words and images, music is rarely referential: Birdsong in Messiaen, Buddy Holly’s pizzicato raindrops on “Raining in My Heart,” train sounds in numerous jazz and pop tunes as well as Steve Reich’s Different Trains are among rare exceptions. Music can refer to other music, but it cannot refer to itself as music, it cannot sonically represent its own coming-into-being. Painting and drawing can do this in any sort of mood or mode. Words can do this. Music can’t.

Any musical style has its own emotional rhetoric. In its shape, in this way, it parallels language. But rhetoric in language is connotative, not denotative: It communicates emotion, stance, tone. It does not communicate “meaning,” it does not refer or signify. It embodies its burden in culturally agreed upon norms that are impossible to quantify or fix and that are not stable over time. Music, in this sense, is connotation, pure and complicated. It seems to speak to us knowingly, and yet its own unknowability is endless. It’s happened to everybody: You hear something you’ve never heard before and you feel like you’ve heard it all your life, and you want to hear it again.

Of course, the rhetorical burden of any instance of language is equally unknowable. The luggage-set of associations that any verbal example carries for any one person won’t match that of anybody else. Language is labyrinthine.

Bring music and words together in song, and you got something going on, you got potentially blended boundlessnesses that can each speak with bottomless force. Songs about themselves can amplify and underline the mystery. The composers live, even as they roll over in their graves. They lie buried, dead but cognizant, adjacent each other in the sea of music, where Beethoven keeps Tchaikovsky and James Brown up-to-date with the news.

The Artist's Studio, a Real Allegory of a Seven-Year-Long Phase of My Artistic Life
by Gustave Courbet, 1855 (Baudelaire is on the far right).

Photo of James Brown singing stolen from someone who posted it uncredited.
Drawing Hands by M.C. Escher, 1948 (he’s a rockin’ MC).
Triple Self-Portrait by Norman Rockwell, 1960.
Photo of James Brown lying in state by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images, 2006.

[Part 3 of a series. Here are Part 1, Part 2 (the 2nd item of the post), and Part 4.]


Comments: Post a Comment

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