Friday, August 31, 2007
I've accomplished a few of the things on the List of Things I Want to Do Before I Die.
I realized earlier this summer that I didn't want to be the guy who, on his deathbed, deeply regrets that he never owned a truly bitchen motorbike. Managed to check that one off the list. I'm a passable guitar player. I've smoked dope on the sacrificial altar at Pisac, outside Cuzco in Peru. I've been paid to write something.
But so far I've never owned a pedal steel guitar.
Dear god, I love that instrument. The way a good player can make it just weep and swoop and wail and cry and boogie and rip your still-beating heart out and show it to you before you die. Jesus Christ, what a marvelously expressive instrument! Desperately difficult to play, quirky as hell (I've been given to understand that the wiring between the pedals and the string-bending mechanism can, in a bind, be replaced with a goddamned bicycle spoke, for all love!), yet its sound is so goddamned archetypically American. It's been wholly appropriated by the Nashville-corporate country hell I think of as "some cunt in a cowboy hat," but it was not always so.
Back in the early Seventies, the immortal Clarence White (of whom a whole adulatory blog-post needs desperately to be scribed) began to show how the "regular" electric guitar could emulate a pedal steel. He and Gene Parsons of the Byrds (not Gram, but Gene, the drummer) cobbled together a bizarre aftermarket mod for a Telecaster called the "B-bender," which allows the player to pull the B string sharp by pushing down on the part of the guitar held by the forward strap. Like all lovable and cranky human inventions, it's weird and beautiful, and in the hands of a master player, it gives some great pedal-steel effects. (You can hear it at work in the live parts of "Byrds (Untitled)," one of my favorite albums in all of time and space.)
The emotional effect of the pedal steel -- the whole "weeping" effect -- is accomplished by bending some strings upward or downward while others remain stationary. What this achieves is the sound of movement within a chord without a change in the chord's tonality. (To be pedantic, it also allows you to change, say, a IV chord to a I chord by simply stretching a string.) You can do this to a limited extent on a standard guitar by pulling some strings sharp while leaving others unbent -- what we guitar-floggers call a "double-stop bend."
And sweet Jesus on a stick do I love doing double-stop bends. It makes me one with my idols.
Here I've put on my Nudie Suit and taken on one of the great Kozmik-Kountry anthems of all time, the Flying Burrito Brothers' "Sin City." As far as the original is concerned, it's probably the "Purple Haze" of pedal-steel culture, with Sneaky Pete Kleinow just shredding the conventions of the genre. My version, while rather less radical, shows how the standard guitar can at least vaguely emulate the pedal steel's immense tonal palette.
So, without further academic ado,
Sin City (pops)
As you listen, you might want to consider how utterly amazingly this anthem, written for the Nixon years, applies to our Present Circumstances...