Friday, January 13, 2006
When it's done and over, Lord, a man is just a man
Bar 63, eighth-note 347,942
Through the modern miracle of podcasting, for some months now I've had the pleasure of timeshifting the day's Al Franken Show into my evening drive home. My enjoyment of the show is muted, though. Al's not the most acute interviewer in the world of space and time, and all too often he marshals his guests out of their own particular areas of expertise and solicits agreement with his own hobby-horses. Fair enough; he's not a "pro"; and what he lacks in professionalism he by far makes up for by being, you know, funny.
But Al and I are not destined by the stars to grow old together, I can already foretell.
The problem is musical.
Al's chosen a few snips from the Grateful Dead's catalog as bumpers to play segments in and out, and it's these things that will eventually drive me away.
Habitués of the Jingosphere may have already picked up on the free-floating notion that I bear little affection for the Grateful Dead's self-congratulatory elitist cult, or indeed for Hippieism in general -- having taken the Clash seriously in Bobby Lightfoot's 1979 may have had something to do with it.
I hung with lots of Deadheads in the Seventies -- it was mighty hard to be in a Midwestern college village and avoid 'em -- but after school was over I managed to get Jerry and the Boys into the rear-view mirror while I explored what we all should have been listening to in our formative years instead of that drunken mess "Europe '72": Vintage country, bluegrass, jug-band music, Delta blues, the huge universe of jazz -- in fact, all the musical forms that preceded and influenced the Dead and indeed all of rock music.
So not having availed myself of the Dateful Bread for quite a few years it's a bit of a hardship to be exposed rather relentlessly to a few selected ten-second snips of Jerry Garcia's guitar playing. I have loathed "Terrapin Station" since approximately four seconds into the first time I heard it, and as a particularly bombastic passage from it serves as Al's main bumper, the cause is not helped.
But no, mainly it's the Garcia Thing. With a few notable exceptions, Jerry Garcia was a sloppy, lazy, cliché-ridden mess of a guitar player, who interrupted his boring eighth-note scales only to interject cod-country double-stop bends that were trite when Chet Atkins nicked them from Merle Travis in 1947. Seriously, listen to any Garcia solo and concentrate on the rhythms he's choosing -- ninety percent of the time he's playing nothing but eighth notes:
I can't help but wonder, whenever I hear the passage from "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" that Franken plays, why that particular edit? Couldn't Al hear the dope-sick, thoughtless reliance on pure muscle-memory that invariably produces the hackneyed guitar playing of a flogger who's so phoning it in he may as well live at Ma Bell's? Can you hear me now? Good!
On another bumper -- don't know the song, sorry -- it couldn't be plainer to this weekend warrior (who has actually once or twice Walked the Walk) that the guy doesn't know what key he's in or what chord is coming next. He noodles, hoping against hope that Bob-n-Phil will hit that tonic A they're hinting at. Whew, they do, but it was touch-and-go there for a second.
OK, so maybe Al just hit a bad patch in his selections. A storied guitarist with Rock-and-Roll Patriot cred like Jerry couldn't have been that awful, could he? I decided to download Skull and Roses from iTunes, just to test the proposition. A 1971 live album over which the band had absolute creative control, right? They could have chosen from a huge number of performances, even edited some together -- it's been done, believe me -- to come up with the bestest representation of their musicianship they could, 'kay?
So... The first song ("Bertha"), the first guitar solo on the record, three bars into it...
Jerry Clams It
He doesn't just clam it, he clams it hard. He clams it with a clam that would make a second-year Mel Bay student wince. Clam Casino. Clam Royale. Steamed Clam with sauerkraut.
And you hear those eighth notes? He's gonna do those goddamned eighth notes for another 72 bars, man!
Now, please. I love Workingman's Dead. Jerry's pedal-steel playing on "The Wheel" is some of the most innovative ever done, and that song is right up there in the Personal Top Hundred. "Dark Star/St. Stephen" Live/Dead yadda yadda. Dawg Music. No question.