Thursday, November 15, 2007

Lamplighter Music

The Beiderbecke Affair celebrates "music that is dated or otherwise out of place," music, it suggests, that is beautiful and therefore truly useful, and, perhaps the author means, datedness or out-of-placeness is exactly what lets us see how beautiful it is.

It's a sweet list, and it links you to MP3s of the songs chosen. I lack that skill. You'll have to do your own digging. The breadth and depth of his musical explorations will give you vertigo. If you fancy yourself a musical cosmopolitan, this might leave you a tad envious. Tammy Wynette is on it. So is Leonard Cohen. So are the Mills Brothers and Kay Kyser and Palestinian rappers and Björk and Little Feat.

Envious. But I've got to try. Beat it? Never, but maybe I can expand it just a little out of my own head. Some of this I've written before.

John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman: "Lush Life" A little about the song itself here, but this performance is transcendental. Coltrane and his quartet already had taken their tools to tonal music and drilled through it, sawed it open. But here they went back to the studio, with a very conventional crooner, to draw a map for listeners to follow them. A way to move, song by song, in subtle, slow movements, from what was known to what was new. To show how un-strange it really was after all, once you got over it. If you wanted to. If not, you could just love the little album for what it was. A familiar musical landscape littered with signs: "Dig here."

Louis Armstrong had done this sort of thing. Ezra Pound did it in his criticism and prose. Joyce did it in his short stories. He knew where he was going, with other writers who had broken the scales and chords of the art. But he came back or paused long enough to point the way and leave a note.

Sigur Ros: "Flugufrelsarinn" I remember there is a land I always forget. If someone asks me to list the 46, or however many, nations that comprise Europe, I can struggle my way to 45, then I pause forever. Which is odd because I've lived there, in that other one. I worked there a year, when I was young and my career at home stalled and there was an opportunity, or what seemed one.

Now the place returns all in a rush: the smell of the airport; the way the heat hissed in that drab apartment on the hillside in the new quarter of the capital; how to work the clunky phone system. Independence day in September, with fireworks over the crown prince's palace, and then the leaden sky of long, dark winter reflected in pools on a road that never dried.

The language. I understood the shape of it -- I had a job there, after all -- but I never felt the webs and shadows in the words, only felt how thickly they energized that light tongue. Other voices talked. I communicated, like a machine.

And the girl. She was older. Like the job, convenient and temporary, and she seemed to know that, too. Her lace tangling my ankle as I slept. But when I left she took it so hard. Her mouth open in a horrible shape as she sobbed.

It disturbed me deeply to have forgotten something entire. Welcome to middle age. You open the book of your life one day and find a chapter in it you swear you've never read, but it's there. Nothing seemed certain anymore. My God! Who was I?

And when the music ends, I realize that this was after all a dream. I'd awakened from it that morning, then gone back to sleep and forgotten it.

I went to the atlas to be sure. None of it is there. The fat blue republic runs out to the gulf, and nothing wedges between them, not even a river island. The city, the girl, the fireworks, none of it. Anguish that never was, formed in a language no one ever spoke or heard.

Azam Ali: "Aj Ondas" haunting medieval northern Spanish song performed by an Iranian singer raised in India. Europe, Asia, Africa all in one time and place, and again, after six centuries, in one time and place.

In "The Dove's Neck Ring," written early in the 11th century by our reckoning, the great Spanish-Arabic philosopher-poet Ibn Hazm tells of many kinds of love in thirty chapters. In one of them, he writes of the poet Al-Ramadi, who was passing by the Gate of the Perfumers in Cordova one day when he saw a young slave girl and she took possession of his heart. He followed her across a bridge and into a cemetery called Al-Rabad. Then she noticed him, who had left the crowd, and she turned and asked him, "Why are you walking behind me?"

He told her of his great sudden passion. She told him forget it, cast it away, there is no use in hoping for fulfillment. But he asked her name, and she told him: Halwa, that is, "Solitude." And when he asked where he would see her again, she said she would return to the Gate of the Perfumers, which was a gathering-place for women, at the same hour on Friday. Then they parted.

"By God," Al-Ramadi wrote, "I went assiduously to the Perfumers' Gate and Al-Rabad from that time on, but never heard another thing about her. And I do not know whether the heavens consumed her or the earth swallowed her up, but truly there is in my heart, because of her, a burning fiercer than a glowing ember." And she was the Halwa to whom he addressed his love poems.

And those poems crossed the Pyrenees into Aquitaine and there taught the troubadours to sing of amor de lonh -- "love in separation, far-away love, love-longing." Before that, all in northern Europe had been warrior-verse, the dear love of comrades in arms. Now we have what we call "Western literature," via Yeats and Eliot and Billie Holliday, via Dante, via Bernart de Ventadorn, via Al-Ramadi, from Arab slave girl Halwa by the Perfumers' Gate. Otherwise, we'd all still sing "Beowulf."

Hum: Ms Lazarus You play it loud. Hendrix-loud. Feedback is beautiful, feedback is the buzz in the brain you get from a lover's melt, it's the whisper-breath of the old gods our ancestor's stood and listened for in the Ice Age. Remembered passion.

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown: "Okie Dokie Stomp" The original recording. This is a barn-burner. It rocks, it blisters, and it was made in the 1940s. Frank Zappa called Brown his all-time favorite guitarist. I won't argue.

Aubrey Ghent: "Amazing Grace" Back-country Florida preacher plays no-frills pedal steel and makes it sing like a lonesome angel.

Cassandra Wilson: "Last Train to Clarksville" Smouldering jazz discovered beneath chirpy pop; like scraping away a clumsy yard-sale still-life and finding Rembrandt's furious murk. And off to the side, laughing, is a pre-med who got to NYU on a fencing scholarship then dropped out to make music and didn't even have to change his name to become Neil Diamond.

Wilson Pickett: "Hey Jude" Has anyone else ever pwned a Beatles song? Like this? Horns! That wail that kicks in the chorus is all of soul and rock rolled up into one orgasmic moment.

There's a klezmer song I have in mind, but I can never find it online or the proper name of it. Pining for Romania. How ironic and how human to be making it in America and nostalgic for the land of the pogroms. Lost in the hurly-burly of the 20the century, then recovered and reconstructed out of the old bones.

Beiderbecke Affair did steal one of my picks -- Lowell George's "Willin’." That leaves plenty of Feat to choose from, though, like "East to Slip," which could be a bonehead stoner's lament or a Lakotah prayer, and it has one of my favorite guitar chords, G7sus4. Play it and you'll go "ah-ha!" It's the spice in everything from Dylan's "Just Like a Woman" to the "H.R. Pufnstuf" theme song.

He's also got a fado, one of which certainly would make my list, but I can't top his pick for ecclecticism. I'd probably pick something more conventional, like Fado Do Ciume by Amalia.

UPDATE: Songs are here.