Richard Thompson: creativity from resistance

Many years ago now John Updike noted his response to much modern art: “we feel in each act not only a plenitude (ambition, intuition, expertise, delight, etc.) but an absence — a void that belongs to these creative acts: Nothing is preventing them.” Art thrives, Updike believed, on resistance, on something pushing back hard against the artistic impulse. So, for Updike, this is what the city of Dublin as it was in 1904 did for James Joyce: it resisted him, it demanded to be accounted for and respected. And the greatness of Ulysses derives at least in part from Joyce’s willingness to reckon honestly with that resistance.

You can see this principle at work in big ways and small, in famous artists and less-famous ones. I’ve often told the story — for instance, here — about how Miles Davis’s beautiful and influential style of playing the trumpet arose largely from his simple inability to compete with the brilliant virtuosity of Dizzy Gillespie.

But here’s a story I haven’t told before. One of the most sadly neglected of singer-songwriters, I think, is Richard Thompson, who first came to public attention fifty years ago (!) as the leader of Fairport Convention. Thompson has never been a really big name, and whole he has continued performing all these years, he has typically done it as a solo act. And that of course limits the kinds of sounds you can produce — it offers resistance to what you imagine your songs sounding like. Thompson has responded to this challenge by developing one of the most distinctive guitar styles I’ve ever heard, one that couples rhythmic propulsion and a clear bass line with articulate melodies on the high strings. He’s become sort of a one-man band, though not in a flamboyant way (that would obscure the character of his beautifully crafted songs).

There are many examples online — look for performances of “Dimming of the Day” or “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” — but my favorite song of Thompson’s is “Keep Your Distance.” The best version of the song I know is on his new release, Acoustic Classics II, but you can get a close-up look at him at work in this fine performance:

Mermaid Avenue etc.

Mermaid Avenue is a curious and delightful musical collaboration featuring Billy Bragg, Wilco, Natalie Merchant, and others playing the music of Woody Guthrie — well, actually, playing the lyrics of Woody Guthrie, to which they had to write the music. It started out as a single album, then became a documentary film, then added two more albums — you can get a nice overview of the whole project here. I mention it because it has held up extremely well over the years and still bears repeated listening. Wilco used Guthrie’s lyrics basically to write Wilco songs, and some damned fine Wilco songs, for instance “California Stars”:

Bragg made more of an effort to channel Guthrie — his belief that they all ought to be doing that was a point of tension during the sessions — but sometimes he writes Billy Bragg songs, as in the luminous “Birds and Ships,” sung hauntingly by Natalie Merchant:

One of the songs that knocked me out when the record first came out was “Aginst th’ Law,” sung by the young bluesman Corey Harris:

Harris is a major, major talent, and sadly little-known. I love all his stuff, but am especially fond of his early record Fish Ain’t Bitin’, with its delightfully weird instrumentation. Check the title tune, featuring acoustic guitar, two trumpets, and a bass line played on a tuba:

Damn, that’s good stuff. I have a real weakness for oddball combinations of instruments. Here’s one more example — unrelated to the Mermaid Avenue sessions — from my longtime guitar hero Martin Simpson, here playing the banjo, accompanied by slide guitar and bass:

appropriate musical technology

Very soon after Exile, so much technology came in that even the smartest engineer in the world didn’t know what was really going on. How come I could get a drum sound back in Denmark Street with one microphone, and now with fifteen microphones I get a drum sound that’s like someone shitting on a tin roof? Everybody got carried away with technology and slowly they’re swimming back. In classical music, they’re rerecording everything they rerecorded digitally in the ’80s and ’90s because it just doesn’t come up to scratch. I always felt that I was actually fighting technology, that it was no help at all. And that’s why it would take so long to do things. Fraboni has been though all of that, that notion that if you didn’t have fifteen microphones on a drum kit, you didn’t know what you were doing. Then the bass player would be battened off, so they were all in their little pigeonholes and cubicles. And you’re playing this enormous room and not using any of it. This idea of separation is the total antithesis of rock and roll, which is a bunch of guys in a room making a sound and just capturing it. It’s the sound they make together, not separated. This mythical bullshit about stereo and high tech and Dolby, it’s just totally against the whole grain of what music should be.

Nobody had the balls to dismantle it. And I started to think, what was it that turned me on to doing this? It was these guys that made records in one room with three microphones. They weren’t recording every little snitch of the drums or bass. They were recording the room. You can’t get these indefinable things by stripping it apart. The enthusiasm, the spirit, the soul, whatever you want to call it, where’s the microphone for that? The records could have been a lot better in the ’80s if we’d cottoned on to that earlier and not been led by the nose of technology.

— Keith Richards, from Life (I saw a shorter version of the passage in this post by Doug Hill). It’s noteworthy that Keef rails against “technology” but what he’s actually doing is making the case for one kind of technology rather than another. After all, if you’re recording a live performance in a room using three microphones, you’re no less technological than the people with fifteen mikes, Dolby, a giant sound board, etc. The real issue here is appropriate technology. When David Rawlings and company play music before three simple microphones, moving towards and then away from them according to need, they’re using a technology that they think produces a better, cooler sound than multiple mics do. And they have a point:

A Lover’s Question

One of the wonderful things about the music of the late 1950s is the way that it can blend the genres and cultures we’re used to. Elvis’s debt to black music is the most-often-given example, but there’s also Buddy Holly, who famously was thought to “sound black.”

To me, though, the best example of this mixing of genres is one of the very finest songs of the decade, “A Lover’s Question,” written by the great Brook Benton and sung by the equally great Clyde McPhatter:

What is this song? It’s mostly R&B, it’s almost doo-wop, and there are strong elements of country music in it — indeed, with some relatively minor changes in arrangement it could’e been sung by Hank Snow or Ferlin Husky. For people like me who grew up in the deep South, this kind of cultural mixing is deeply meaningful and endlessly fascinating, and our Bible is David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, especially the fourth part.

But hey, even if you don’t care about any of that, “A Lover’s Question” is indubitably a great, great song. You’ll give it a listen if you know what’s good for you.

playing Todd

I think Todd Rundgren is one of the great pop songwriters, and it occurred to me recently that I’d like to learn to play a few of his songs on the guitar. “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference” is one of his loveliest tunes, so I thought I would try that. I did my usual googling for tablature, and (it doesn’t always work out this way) quickly found a very accurate one.

Turns out that to make my way through this one little pop song I have to be able to play seventeen chords. And some of them are kind of peculiar — the sort that sound wrong until you play the next chord and go “Oh right.”

This tells me some things. The first thing it tells me is that the song was almost certainly written on the piano, and indeed it would be much easier to play on a piano, should one actually know how to do that. (Ahem.)

But it also tells me that as a craftsman of songwriting Todd is kind of a freak. My shoulders sagged at the thought of negotiating seventeen different chords in around three minutes, so I went through the song to see if some of them could be simplified or eliminated: sometimes a careful and thorough tablature-writer includes transitional chords that can be left out with little harm to the song’s integrity. But not in this case: every one of those chords was necessary, and changing or eliminating any of them yielded a significant loss of musical nuance and texture.

I think the writing of catchy pop songs — even really complex and musically sophisticated ones — came too easily to Todd. A couple of years after Something/Anything? he wrote a song called “Izzat Love.” Give it a listen. It’s a super-super-catchy little number. But as the song goes along it keeps getting faster, not dramatically but noticeably — and then after less than two minutes you hear a sudden squeal as Todd hits the fast-forward on the tape deck. It’s unsettling, Todd’s contempt for his own facility; as though he’s telling us Do you see how easy this shit is? God, I’m sick of it. It’s time to do something else.

Blackwell explained that the bass drum, sock cymbal, and the snare are on the one and three. He told me to ignore the bass guitar because it was more of a lead instrument. It’s great music, but it’s kinda weird in that everything feels like it’s being played backwards. ‘Concrete Jungle’ was the very first thing that I was handed. That was the most out-of-character bass part I’d ever heard. But because the keyboards and the guitars stay locked together doing what they’re doing all through the song, that was sorta my saving grace. I thought I could follow the song, but I still didn’t know what I was going to do on guitar. So I started doodling on the front of it, and I told the sound engineer to start over about halfway through it. Then I started picking up a little something here and there. I nailed that guitar solo down on the second or third take, I think. It was a gift from God, because I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing. And then Marley came into the recording room. He was cartwheeling, man, he couldn’t get over what had just happened to his song, he was so excited. I couldn’t understand a damn thing he was saying. And he was cramming this huge joint down my throat and wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He got me real, real high.

Wayne Perkins, massively gifted guitarist and my fellow Birminghamian, on how he ended up playing for Bob Marley and the Wailers. (I met Perkins once when I was about seventeen and sneaking illegally into a club called the Lowenbrau Haus.)

peak and career value

I think it was Bill James who introduced into sabermetrics the distinction between peak and career value in baseball players. The distinction can be approached by comparing, say, Pete Reiser, who was truly great but (thanks to injury) for only a brief time, with Billy Williams, who was never more than very good but was very good for a long time.

Ever since James made me aware of this distinction, decades ago now, I have found it extremely useful not just for thinking about baseball players but for thinking about many other kinds of achievement as well. For instance, I tend to think of Johann Sebastian Bach as the Hank Aaron of composers: truly great and freakishly consistent for a very long time. Whereas Keats might be the Herb Score of poets, Rimbaud the Mark Fidrych; and, at the other end, Czeslaw Milosz is Walter Johnson: dominant for an exceptionally long period. You get the idea.

But I think the peak/career distinction is exceptionally helpful in the notoriously fraught task of evaluating rock-and-roll bands. To wit:

  • The Clash is the Pete Reiser of bands: meteoric, brilliant, brief. Peak value off the charts; career value much less.

  • The Beatles: Sandy Koufax. Transcendently great over a significant but too-short period of time.

  • Nickelback: Juan Pierre. Ineffectual but strangely long-lived.

  • The Who: Dwight Gooden. Truly great for a short period, then hung on for a surprisingly long (but not especially effective) afterlife.

  • U2: Greg Maddux. Highly professional, amazingly consistent, remarkably long-lived, but always thought of (perhaps wrongly) as just below the very highest level of brilliance.

  • Nirvana: Smoky Joe Wood. Totally dominant early on, then limited and eventually broken by bad health.

  • The Rolling Stones: Fernando Valenzuela. A relatively brief period of true greatness followed by an remarkably long period of being unproductive but still active. A lot like The Who, except great for slightly longer and professionally functional for much longer. (This one is the least-good fit: it would be perfect if Fernando had pitched for 25 years at below replacement level.)

Please feel free to pick up where I’ve left off.

I am not saying that children should stop learning stuff outside of school (although some days, when I see how overscheduled some children are, that’s precisely what I want to say). We just need to sign them up for classes that make more sense, given that it’s 2013, not 1860, and that I don’t need a violin-playing daughter to cement my class status. Look, I love the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, but one could make the argument that Rebekah would be better off learning to play the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” on guitar. That skill would certainly be more of an asset at summer camp.

We can probably all agree that it’s worthwhile for children (as well as their parents) to try new activities, and that there is virtue in mastering difficult disciplines. So what challenges should we be tackling, if not ballet and classical music? How about auto repair? At least one Oppenheimer should be able to change the oil, and it isn’t me. It may as well be one of my daughters. Sewing would be good. And if it has to be an instrument, I’d say bass or guitar. The adults I know who can play guitar can actually be seen playing their guitars. And as any rock guitarist will tell you, there is a shortage of bassists.

I feel that it’s necessary for me to request that my nomination for best male artist be withdrawn and furthermore any awards or nominations for such awards that may arise in later years be presented to those who feel more comfortable with the competitive nature of these award ceremonies. I myself, do not. I have always been of the opinion that my music is unique and individual and exists beyond the realms inhabited by those who would reduce things to mere measuring. I am in competition with no-one.

My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature. She comes to me with the gift of song and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves — in this case this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgement and competition. My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel — this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes. My muse may spook! May bolt! May abandon me completely!

So once again, to the people at MTV, I appreciate the zeal and energy that was put behind my last record, I truly do and say thank you and again I say thank you but no…no thank you.

Yours sincerely,

Nick Cave

Letters of Note: My muse is not a horse. I had seen but completely forgotten about this magnificent letter until someone started passing it around on Twitter. Apologies for not being able to track down who it was.

When I think about songs that have made an actual difference to me — not really what I mean when I speak of “favorite” songs, necessarily, or the songs I think are the best, even, though there’s some of both here, but the ones that had an effect, that changed how I thought or acted — this one may be at the top of the list. At a time, about fifteen years ago, when I was confused and uncertain about my path, when I lacked confidence to move forward to write about things I believed in, this song reached me and gave me the impetus I needed. It will always have a very distinctive and important place in my heart. “And you know you come with empty hands / Or you don’t come at all….”

So thanks, Bill Mallonee, I owe you one. Thanks so much.

What is music about? What, as Plato would say, does it imitate? Our experience of Time in its twofold aspect, natural or organic repetition, and historical novelty created by choice. And the full development of music as an art depends upon a recognition that these two aspects are different and that choice, being an experience confined to man, is more significant than repetition. A succession of two musical notes is an act of choice; the first causes the second, not in the scientific sense of making it occur necessarily, but in the historical sense of provoking it, of providing it with a motive for occurring. A successful melody is a self-determined history; it is freely what it intends to be, yet is a meaningful whole, not an arbitrary succession of notes.

— W. H. Auden, from The Dyer’s Hand

© 2017 Snakes and Ladders

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑