Monday, October 5, 2009

Superfly on Drugs

It should go without saying that Curtis Mayfield's achievement amounts to more than being sampled by Beyonce and writing "People Get Ready." In addition to his early work with the Impressions, he also recorded one of the best film soundtracks ever, 1972's Superfly, the sales of which outgrossed the film it was created for, and in the process forged a much-parodied and taken-for-granted genre, what might be called crime funk, duly parroted by every cop show in the '70s. But the original is a tight-knit work of genius, an entirely free-standing work. Back when I used to listen to albums all the way through, this was a favorite spin.

And I happened to notice something back then about two of the album's signature songs, and ostensibly its two main narrative guideposts (as far as I know--I've never seen the film): the insinuating, repetitive pitch of the "Pusherman," and the inevitable, chilling result of his ministrations, "Freddie's Dead." The sound clips may speak for themselves:

Freddie's Dead

Did you catch the identical three-note figure? It's an unmistakeable internal reference. Written in C, the figure would read like this:

The figure is phrased differently in each: In "Pusherman" it's manic, obsessive, unrelenting, shambling forward to land on either side of the beat.

While in the magisterial "Freddie" it slams down assertively on the downbeat (and yes, Mayfield's vocal adds another note on top):

The effectiveness of repurposing a musical motif this way should be self-evident, thematically and narratively: It links these two songs in our heads, and even points a finger of blame for Freddie's untimely end back to its source.

What I was curious to see, then, is whether or not Mayfield used this figure throughout the Superfly record. Well, that I discovered several examples is hardly slam-dunk evidence that Mayfield did this with any kind of intention, because that figure is a staple of blues, R&B, rock and roll--indeed, it's such an unremarkable series of notes, just a doodle on the pentatonic scale, that you can find it all over all kinds of music from nearly any time or place. Still, I wanted to see how it turned up--and I'm relatively persuaded that its frequent recurrence on the songs of Superfly represents the use of a leitmotif, either conscious or (more likely) unconscious. As most film scores are written in a compressed amount of time between the completion of shooting and the theatrical release date, it's likely that Mayfield simply found himself falling into a musical shorthand that happened to rotate, in part, around this three-note "drug motif."

In fact, it shows up in every song except the film's one love song, "Give Me Your Love," and it only just barely flares by in the guitar part of the bridge of the film's title song, "Superfly":

I would argue that one reason these songs don't use the "drug motif" is that they are the least germane to that subject. Though "Superfly" is a fine movie theme, I don't really feel Mayfield's heart is in this outright celebration of ghetto gangsta-dom; the love song is also fine but somewhat generic.

But it's in a series of moralizing songs about inner-city pressures and lives gone wrong that the three-note "drug motif" so prominent in "Pusherman" and "Freddie's Dead" turns up with a frequency that's hard to ignore.

Consider "Little Child (Runnin' Wild)." The bass line starts with a climbing elaboration of the figure:

And then the chorus hits the figure head-on:

Considerably sunnier is "No Thing On Me (Cocaine Song)," in which Mayfield uses the figure specifically to repudiate drugs, indeed with the words "the man can't put no thing on me":

And here, by using the Pusherman's motif, he makes it clear exactly which "man" he's talking about:

More troubled and hortatory is "Eddie, You Shoulda Known Better." As this is a more subjunctive, less assertive argument than "Freddie's Dead," the three-note figure is accordingly embedded a little more subtly. But it's still evident, and it accents some key lyrics:

The instrumental "Junkie Chase," strangely enough, doesn't seem to include the drug motif. But then there's "Think," arguably the still, quiet heart of Superfly--a mildly anguished yet sun-kissed instrumental ballad with a spindly, fluttery guitar figure that recalls "Little Wing." This, of course, is the piece the aforementioned Ms. Knowles so memorably collaborated with on her "Resentment," a song very far away in intent and tone from the blaxploitation-scape of Superfly--but then, a great instrumental piece is a house with multiple entrances. In its original context, "Think" swims along meditatively, soberly, transcending the struggles of the rest of the record.

As such, it wouldn't be surprising if the three-note drug motif was missing. But in fact, though it's subtle, it's definitely there, and as a penultimate cadence, like the comma before an amen:

You can find clusters of notes in common among infinite numbers of songs if you look and listen, and it usually doesn't mean a thing (if it ain't got that swing). But it's clear to me that the three-note drug motif, this resilient strand of the blues scale, went viral in the bloodstream of Superfly, and it's at least one reason the album is a natural high.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Fractured "Jawbone"

"What do you think of the beginning of 'Jawbone'"? a friend wrote me after seeing this blog. I have to confess I'd never really taken note of the song, a track on the The Band's seminal self-titled 1970 album (record company must have loved taking that to market). Now that I have digested the motley moritat that is "Jawbone," my initial response would be: Beginning? What about the rest of it? It's nuts, and I mean that in a good way.

I've probably taken The Band for granted. When I saw The Last Waltz years ago, I was checking it out for all the guests--Dylan, Joni, Emmylou, Muddy Waters--more than for the furry Canucks who were the ostensible subject of the concert film. On the advice of several musician friends, I've schooled myself a little in the group's essentials ("The Weight," "The Shape I'm In," the problematic "Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"), and even discovered an unlikely favorite, the disturbing childhood reverie "Moon Struck One."

But one reason it's easy to under-rate The Band is that their songs, like many of Hoagy Carmichael's or John Fogerty's, just sound like they've always been around, or as Ralph Gleason said of "Dixie," "the rhythmic structure, the voice of Levon and the bass line with the drum accents and then the heavy close harmony of Levon, Richard and Rick in the theme, make it seem impossible that this isn't some traditional material handed down from father to son straight from that winter of 1865 to today. It has that ring of truth and the whole aura of authenticity." Their songs' terrain feels familiar, even well-worn; you feel like you know exactly where you are all the time, and where you're going.

But from the first notes of "Jawbone," with the piano meandering and eerie harmony vocals slipping and sliding in weightless free time on the words "Old jawbone/Where did you first go wrong?", you have no idea where you are, what's happening, what's going to happen next. And when the beat kicks in (at :25), you start knowing even less. For a song that's resolutely major-key, and not even particularly bluesy, it remains deeply disorienting pretty much throughout.

I'm not sure I know how to count 3/2, but the three-beat bars of the verse here ("Three-time loser/You'll never learn") certainly don't feel like 3/4 or 6/8. There are eight of these, plus an extra beat, and then comes the song's catchiest hook, its reason for being--and strikingly, its only switch of perspective, as the narrator who spends most of the song ragging Jawbone for his unlawful ways hands the mike to the subject, who wails unapologetically, "I'm a thief, and I dig it" (:42) over a four-beat bar, followed by an inspired jig of 6 beats, as if Jawbone is kicking up his heels in defiance. There are three of these, and then we slide into a gently chastened 6/8-feel boogie version of the "Old jawbone" chorus (1:02) for eight bars.

After another verse (with the priceless lyric about Jawbone lamenting the small print of his post-office wanted poster) and another "I'm a thief" jig break, the 6/8 chorus returns, but with a discombobulated waltz feel (2:00) this time, and an odd five-then-four-bar shape. Another verse and jig break, only this time the third 6-beat jig is lopped off at four beats--you can almost hear the band rearing up in resistance (2:46) to the fancy meter and ready to rock on straight 4. Which they do for a generous solo section, followed by another verse and jig break.

I'm not sure how often I'll be spinning this odd track in future, but I doubt I'll ever dismiss The Band as derivative roots-rockers again. Clearly all that musty Americana artfully disguises their true art-rock ambitions.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Not Alone

Some years ago I saw Elvis Costello give a great show at UCLA's Royce Hall, just him and Steve Nieve. And one of his 10 encores was an extremely unlikely cover: the Rodgers & Hammerstein anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone." I scratched my head, filed it in the Costello-will-try-any-style-once file, and moved on.

And then I read about Clive Owen's love for soccer in the New Yorker this week:
[Owen] was surrounded by about fifty boozy soccer fans, who stood beneath flat-screen TVs showing the Leeds United vs. Liverpool game, singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the Liverpool anthem.

Looks like we can thank Costello's fellow Liverpudlians, Gerry and the Pacemakers, for popularizing a showtune with football supporters.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Interval Memes

For a wobbly-relative-pitch person like myself, here are a few shorthand tricks I use for remembering these (please contribute your own, if you are so moved):

Minor second: "Jaws"; "Misirlou"; in reverse, "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" (I am six-teen), "Fur Elise"

Second: "Hello My Baby!" (Hel-lo my ba-by), "I Would Die 4 U" (I would die 4...), "The Man I Love" (Some-day he'll come...)

Minor third: "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" (She's not...), "The Man I Love" (Some-day he'll come a-long)

Fourth: Wedding march, "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," "I've Never Been in Love Before" (I've nev-er been...)

Flat fifth (tritone): "Maria" (Ma-ri...); in reverse, "Heart-Shaped Box" (I got a new complaint), "YYZ"

Fifth: Take the A Train, Chim Chim Cheree (Chim chim-in-y), "Moon River" (Moon riv...)

Minor/flat sixth: (in reverse) "Love Story" (Where do I begin)

Sixth: "My Way" (And now...), Taps (first and third note)

Dominant seventh: "Somewhere" (There's a...)

Major seventh: "Johanna" (I feel you)

Octave: "Johanna" (I feel...), "My Sharona"

Beach Boys, Down and Up

It wasn't just in the Pet Sounds/Smile era that the Beach Boys were harmonic innovators. Two of their earlier signature songs have well-placed chord twists that give them their distinct emotional color: one blue, the other sunny.

The first is the unutterably sad "In My Room," which we may hear now in hindsight as Brian Wilson's depressive mission statement but which still packs a melancholic punch without any knowledge of its author's psychological profile (listen to the Langley Schools version, for instance). The harmony seems bone simple and the melody plain, but I'd point to two quirks that make this gently rocking 6/8 lullaby ache the way it does. The song is the key of B, and there aren't a lot of chords here, but the second one we get is wholly counter-intuitive and pretty haunting. The melody starts out by clinging, childlike, to notes of the major triad, B, D#, and F#:

Thoughout all this the harmony thrums brightly on the B chord, except for two beats in measure 3, when it moves not to E, as it "should," but to an A--a downward move that beautifully conveys the singer's wallflower reticence, not to mention creates an attenuated major-seventh harmony:

This I-VII progression soon becomes the song's ambling vamp. The other note I'd make here is that the way "in my room" is phrased from the start is exceedingly shy and retiring--"in my" are pickup notes, "room" is on the downbeat over a C# minor...and there's no more new information, except a lovely VII-V turnaround in the underlying chords, for about two bars. That's a pretty gaping emptiness at the heart of this heartbreaker.

The other song, in a totally different color, is one that's always unaccountably moved me, "Don't Worry, Baby." No, it's not because I've since learned that drag racing, or even "chicken," is apparently the song's dramatic backdrop; I thought it was probably just my weakness for yearny vocal harmonies (blame the Stand by Me soundtrack, but this is one of my favorite songs and I can't be talked out of it). Upon examination, though, what makes "Don't Worry, Baby" pop is another good old-fashioned chorus lift. We're resolutely in the key of E for the verse; then at ii-V turnaround, we lift subtly into the iii-VI, and the sudden A# note in the melody cues us that we're sliding into a new key:

The only quibble I have with the craft here is that the songwriters (Wilson and Roger Christian) haven't figured out a graceful way to get back to the home key, so we get this little bit of harmonic housekeeping tucked in there:

That's easy to forgive, though, when the overall effect is so transporting.