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.