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095: Derek & The Dominos, ‘Little Wing’ (Jimi Hendrix)

Posted by jeff on Aug 23, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week

Derek & The Dominos, ‘Little Wing’:

Jimi Hendrix, ‘Little Wing’:

Off the top of my head, I can think of three cases in which a composer puts out his version of a song, only to have it quickly co-opted by someone else. I’m not talking about Pat Boone’s version of Fats Domino’s ‘Blueberry Hill’ or Bobby Darin’s version of Tim Hardin’s ‘If I Were a Carpenter’. Those are embarrassing covers. I’m also not talking about Rod Stewart’s cover of Tom Waits’ ‘Downtown Train’. There are kazillions of examples of respectable singers making respectable, respectful covers of worthwhile songs.

I’m talking about the rare case where an original version is eclipsed by a cover, where the subsequent version discovered qualities the author himself didn’t grasp.

Burt Bacharach wrote and arranged ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ for his vocal model, Dionne Warwick. Mr Bachrach: Aretha’s “was a better record than the one I produced.”

Jimi Hendrix (1942-70) kidnapped ‘All Along the Watchtower’ from Bob Dylan. Well, most people think so, including Mr Zimmerman himself. Yours truly is, of course, in the minority dissenting opinion. Dylan, on how he felt when first hearing Hendrix’s version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’: “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such a talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”

Clapton (l), Duane Allman (r)

But then Jimi had the tables turned on him with the song ‘Little Wing’, from “Axis: Bold as Love” (1967). Although the album captivated the collective imagination of the entire Freak Nation, ‘Little Wing’ itself went largely unnoticed. In 1970, Eric Clapton recorded it with Derek & the Dominoes (on the same day he recorded ‘Layla’). Hendrix died 9 days later, so we’ll never get to hear his opinion of Clapton’s version. But it was Slowhand’s version that catapaulted the song into the status it now holds, both as a rite-of-passage for wannabe guitarists and as an inspiration for other explorations.

The song itself is a masterpiece of enigma. Here’s Hendrix’ own very elucidating description: “Well, that was one song on there we did a lot of sound on, you know. We put the guitar through the Leslie speaker of an organ, and it sounds like jelly bread, you know….It’s based on a very, very simple American Indian style, you know, very simple. I got the idea like, when we was in Monterey, and I just happened to…just looking at everything around. So I figured that I take everything I see around and put it maybe in the form of a girl maybe, something like that, you know, and call it ‘Little Wing’, in other words, just fly away. Everybody really flying and they’s really in a nice mood, like the police and everybody was really great out there. So I just took all these things an put them in one very, very small little matchbox, you know, into a girl and then do it. It was very simple, you know. That’s one of the very few ones I like.”

Well, okay, Jimi, thanks for that. Jelly bread???

Guitarist (l), Glockenspeil (r)

Hendrix’ recorded version showcases his (right-handed) guitar (flipped over to be played upside down by left-handed Jimi) being run through a Leslie speaker, usually used with Hammond organs, together with a distortion effect giving it a unique tone. Mitch Mitchell’s explosive drums cut the dream with speed; Noel Redding’s bass serves as both a floor and a ceiling, without which they’d probably just float away into the sky; a pinch of glockenspiel provides the celestial. Two and a half minutes. It was one of Hendrix’ performance favorites. I found one collection of 14 bootlegged live performances. Here’s one for you, from the Royal Albert Hall, London, England, February 24, 1969.

Derek & the Dominos’ version is indeed inspired, from the majesty of the very opening guitar riff.  Listen for example to this performance by the Allman Brothers, guest-starring Clapton, 2009. The vocals are fine, Clapton’s guitar is fine, Derek Trucks’ solo is really exciting. But it isn’t in the same stratosphere with the Carl Radle (b)/Jim Gordon (d)/Bobby Whitlock (p) rhythm section, not to mention the second lead guitar of Duane Allman. Or the production of Tom Dowd, who is credited by all involved to have been the key moving force in making the legendary “Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs”.

Dowd’s production is genius, pure genius. I don’t need to walk you through ‘Little Wing’ or ‘Layla’ or ‘I Looked Away’ or ‘Bell Bottom Blues’, you’ve listened to them as often as I have. The expansive tapestry of the two guitars, the organ, the drums, the two voices and the bass (that’s all there is), sounding richer and certainly more complex than Phil Spector’s 27 kettle drums on ‘Da Doo Run Run’. You don’t need me to tell you how thrilling and uplifting this music is.

It was D&tD’s version that has inspired the many and varied covers of ‘Little Wing’. There are oodles of virtuoso guitar homages to Clapton/Allman by the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Steve Vai. There are stripped-down melodic versions by the Irish band The Corrs and Tuck & Patti, a knock-out husband (guitar) and wife (vocals) team who perform it as the second half of a medley with another song from “Axis: Bold as Love”, ‘Castles Made of Sand’. If you don’t know Tuck & Patti, give them a listen. They’re not as well-known as they should be, but they are infallibly musically tasteful and technically impressive.

Sting (l), Gil Evans (r)

One of the great arrangers of the 20th century, Gil Evans (here’s a posting I wrote about his work with Miles Davis) was planning a collaboration with Hendrix before the latter died. The pairing is surprising, seemingly disparate beyond fusion. Evans later recorded with his orchestra a CD of Hendrix music, including a version of ‘Little Wing’. It’s so embarrassingly bad, and I have so much respect for Gil Evans, that I won’t even give you the link to it. But Evans did help out Sting with his version of the song, which has gained a well-deserved stature in its own right. It’s an impressive amalgam of other treatments, incorporating both the melodic and personal side of the song as well as the complex, energetic, symphonic orchestration.

So what are we left with here? I think I usually know what subject I’m addressing–a song, an artist, a song as representing an artist, or an artist as expressing himself in a song. But here it’s an unusual aggregate of a song, various artists, a range of approaches. In the end, I don’t go to Hendrix for songs, but for his disassembly of world order. But he has inspired this one jelly bread of a song, haunting, the rare meeting of psychedelia and reality, a most electric and eclectic homage to the ephemeral bliss of the carnal, Derek & The Dominos’ rapturous recording of ‘Little Wing’.

Well she’s walking through the clouds
With a circus mind that’s running round
Butterflies and zebras
And moonbeams and fairy tales
That’s all she ever thinks about
Riding with the wind.

When I’m sad, she comes to me
With a thousand smiles, she gives to me free
It’s alright she says it’s alright
Take anything you want from me,
Anything.

Fly on little wing,
Yeah yeah, yeah, little wing.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

064: Janis Joplin & Tom Jones, ‘Raise Your Hand’
072: Stephen Stills, ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ (“Just Roll Tape”)
074: Donovan, ‘House of Jansch’

 

 

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261: Kurt Elling/Sting, ‘Practical Arrangement’

Posted by jeff on Apr 28, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Kurt Elling, ‘Practical Arrangement’

Sting, ‘Practical Arrangement’

486226_actualSo I’m listening to Kurt Elling’s newest album (2016), “Upward Spiral”, a collaboration with the quartet of saxophonist Branford Marsalis. And the fourth track there stops me in my tracks. “Practical Arrangement”, a painfully slow, painfully needy, almost spoken monolog by a man proposing to a woman that she marry him, live with him, even though they both know she doesn’t love him. A practical arrangement. Gee, love songs ain’t what they used to be.

The song rivets me. I stop in my tracks and listen to every word, even though it’s so slow that it seems to stand still, just a guy struggling to get out some very difficult words, trying to maintain his poise with the façade of an objectified, logical, contractual proposal; whereas we understand that he’s actually bereft of all dignity, begging, offering her his all in return for virtually nothing.

content_Lucy_and_Ricky_This is new for me. Well, new and familiar. I’m fascinated by the new varieties of couplehood that have been evolving in Western society since I was a kid. I remember when Lucy and Desi slept in separate beds. I remember the first time I heard about a couple living together openly outside the sanctity of marriage. And now I watch a lot of Scandinavian television, where couplehood takes on more fluidity, more new preconceptions and expectations and expressions than dreamt of in my philosophy.

screen-shot-2016-06-24-at-10-00-41-pmBut a man (or woman) openly offering everything in return for nothing? We all know that extreme brand of desperate, unrequited need that trumps all propriety and sends our super-ego negotiating team into a tizzy.

A practical arrangement. A proposition with sex off the table, a proposal with love outside the deal. Wow. That’s new. Let me chew on that.

This song—it’s hardly a song. It has less forward movement than a Gregorian chant. There’s almost no melody, little more than the rise and fall of the spoken word. The word choice is NON-poeticBinding-Financial-Agreement (Am I asking for the moon? Is it really so implausible?/That you and I could soon come to some kind of arrangement?/I’m not asking for the moon, I’ve always been a realist,/When it’s really nothing more than a simple rearrangement.)

Who wrote this calculated, conversational negotiation?

Gulp. Sting. On that 2013 album of songs he wrote for a musical, “The Last Ship”.

Like many others, I stopped following closely Sting’s uneven, late career a long time ago. His previous album of original material was in 2003. “I thought: Maybe I’ve lost my mojo to write. There’s a lot of self-obsession involved in being a singer-songwriter. I’d gotten sick of navel-gazing. I’d gotten sick of putting myself on the couch.”

camerasAfter a hiatus of ten years, Sting rediscovered his mojo, writing a series of sea shanties in a Newcastle accent, vignettes of a gallery of local Northern characters in the small shipbuilding town where he was raised (‘The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance’). “Once I came up with these characters, the songs began to pour out. It was such a relief not to write about myself. I had to get myself out of the way.”

The songs are impressively crafted, I said after one listening, knowing I’d probably never go back to listen again.

It’s not happenstance that I’ve never written about Sting. I’d hardly know what to say. One moment you feel like he’s standing between Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon as one of the most talented musicians of our generation; the next, you’re just a little embarrassed by his self-conscious displays of earnestness, the pretence outweighing the presence (the presents?). You know he knows exactly where the cameras are positioned.

beg2I read that ‘Practical Arrangement’ is an outtake from the musical, appearing on the album but not on stage. Okay. Maybe that’s a good sign?

I have a bias, acquired during my formative years from Andrew Sarris’s introduction to his book “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968 (1968)”, an adherence to his ‘auteur’ theory, derived from the French Nouvelle Vague film critics and directors. It refers to the artist who controls all aspects of a collaborative creative work.  In film, it can be a star (if the movie is a vehicle), the head of the studio (if it’s an industry-generated flick), or a writer (if it’s a faithful adaptation of a play or novel). But if it’s true cinema, the auteur, the real creative mind, is the director. Film is a director’s medium. Think Alfred Hitchcock.

The term has gained a lot of currency in a wide range of fields. In music, it has been used to refer to a producer (think Phil Spector or Berry Gordy). I’m told that it can even refer to video games today, such as Hideo Kojima, the creator of the “Metal Gear” series. I’m hoping that you understand that that particular insight is based on hearsay.

sting-2013-650-430In music, this leads me to think a lot about the composer/performer dichotomy. Who is the creative artist here? In classical music, you gotta go for the composer, no matter what. Even if it’s Leonard Bernstein conducting Isaac Stern soloing with the New York Philharmonic in Beethoven’s “Violin Concerto in D Major op 61”– it’s Ludwig’s gig.

Frank Zappa’s ‘Louie, Louie’ notwithstanding, I adhere to that auteur business pretty stringently. My gut always tells me that by default, the writer is the creator. The performer is a tool.

So when it comes to Kurt Elling singing a song written and originally performed by Sting, I’m a bit befuddled. Even his harshest critics have to admit that Sting ain’t Richard Berry. Let’s give a listen. First, the original:

Yeah, it’s interesting. New, surprising. All those nice things I said above. But there’s also something cloying in the self-conscious earnestness of the presentation.

Then you listen to Kurt Elling’s version:

What’s the difference? Same melody, very minor (but crucial) changes in the lyrics, same harmonics, same key (Bm). Same story. But it isn’t.

6a011570bcfeed970b0128756b45b0970cKurt’s last ‘but I think you could learn to love me given time’ (the ‘I think’ is Kurt’s interpolation; his insecurity is so much more convincing than Sting’s self-confidence) – is he just walking through the song, saying to himself, “Ok, here comes the last line, let’s really milk it” while in the back of his mind all he’s really thinking about is the pepperoni pizza with extra cheese waiting for him in the dressing room?

Or is he living the moment, animating in his mind (and in ours) the loneliness in the narrator’s life, the desperation in his need to try to cajole her to begrudge him the merest modicum of warmth?

I can hear one lobe of Kurt’s brain saying, “You can’t perform it that slowly, man. The audience will either fall asleep or walk out.” But thankfully, that other lobe holds sway: “If I sing it with utter conviction, they’ll listen.”

And sing it with breathtaking passion and conviction, Kurt does. Because even though he’s just a singer, he’s a consummate artist. An auteur.

 

Am I asking for the moon? Is it really so implausible?
That you and I could soon come to some kind of arrangement?
I’m not asking for the moon, I’ve always been a realist,
When it’s really nothing more than a simple rearrangement.
With one roof above our heads, a warm house to return to,
We could start with separate beds, I could sleep alone – or learn to.
I’m not suggesting that we’d find some earthly paradise forever,
I mean how often does that happen now? The answer’s probably never.
But we could come to an arrangement, a practical arrangement,
And [perhaps] you could learn to love me given time.

I’m not promising the moon, I’m not promising a rainbow,
Just a practical solution to a solitary life.
I’d be a father to your boy, a shoulder you could lean on,
How bad could it be, to be my wife?
With one roof above our heads, a warm house to return to,
You wouldn’t have to cook for me, you wouldn’t have to learn to,
I’m not suggesting that this proposition here could last forever,
I’ve no intention of deceiving you, you’re far too clever.
But we could come to an arrangement, a practical arrangement,
And perhaps you’d [you could] learn to love me given time.
It may not be the romance that you had in mind,
But [I think] you could learn to love me given time.

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011: The Idea of North, ‘Fragile’ (Sting)

Posted by jeff on Dec 26, 2009 in A Cappella, Rock, Song Of the week

“Art is a matter of taste.” No one has the right to say what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’. Everyone’s entitled to his/her/its opinion.

Well, I guess I begrudgingly go along with the idea that everyone is entitled to vote. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that everyone has a right to an opinion about music.

A goodly number of years ago I had an ongoing informal teaching relationship with a young man, let’s call him Ohad. He was about 16 when we started, a bona fide musical genius, composer/keyboardist. I taught him everything I know about rock music. I mean, everything. The kid was a veritable sponge. We developed a private language, one which I think no one on the face of the globe could have followed. We later employed that empathy in developing music for a number of plays I wrote and directed.

He was no pushover in the opinion department, but we pretty much agreed on everything. I gave him album X, and he came back saying songs 2, 7 and 11 get a 9. The rest 7 and below. And he was right on. Precisely, Watson. Maybe we would quibble about half a point. But on the fundamental perception of the album, we were in violent agreement. That doesn’t mean we shared the same opinions, the same likes and dislikes. One could have more affection for a certain artist, the other less, but we could always get what the other was hooking onto.

Why, you may ask yourself, is that so? I’ll tell you why I think it’s so. Because some musical works are empirically better than others. How do we empirically evaluate that? I have no idea, I just like using the word. Back in the very early 1960s, I was one of the very few people who bought LPs. Everyone was buying the hit 45s. But I achieved compulsion at a young age, and I wanted to make sure that ‘Mr Blue’ and ‘Come Softly to Me’ weren’t the Fleetwoods’ only gems, that God forbid I wasn’t missing anything. And so often, those albums contained that one hit and 11 attendant 2’20” nonentities. Empirically.

How does that happen? What separates the wheat from the chaff? I dunno. I do know. You do. Heaven does. Newton, Einstein. It’s just the way it is, don’t blame me.

The one case where Ohad and I disagreed was Sting. I had nothing against him, especially “Dream of the Blue Turtles”. But Ohad just cringed. What can I say? Ohad, if you’re out there, I love you, but this song ain’t for you.

It is for everyone else, though. It’s by a great Australian a cappella quartet, The Idea of North. Listen to what four unembellished voices can do. I challenge anyone out there (except Ohad) to say that this ain’t a really fine piece of music.

In case you were wondering, the group took their name from a concept coined by Canadian pianist and wacko Glenn Gould for an autobiographical film of that name, maintaining that ‘North’ is an idea as much as it is a physical region, that things can be mapped and measured for ‘nordicity’. What a word, right? Well, TION (as the quartet nickname themselves) are from Australia, which is north of, um, of, um… They have some very lovely videos, in which they sing songs and for which the costume designers should be given a generous cash prize and a place in heaven.

‘Fragile’, like so many of Sting’s songs, displays self-righteous bleeding-heart, we-are-the-world, brainless-pacifist sentiments and a very lovely melody. And TION’s rendition is—well, you just listen and judge for yourself.

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