Friday, November 2, 2012

The Yardbirds: "Boom Boom"

Or, Notes for a Skeptical Deiography of Eric Clapton (i.e., We Don't Believe He's God, but His Story Is Worth Telling Anyway), #1.2.

We tend to think of Eric Clapton as the original guitar hero, and his first band, the Yardbirds, as the guitar hero band par excellence, unleashing not just EC but Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page on all the foes of guitar heroism.

But that wasn't Clapton's role in the Yardbirds, at least not at first.  For most of Clapton's tenure in the band you can make the case that it was vocalist Keith Relf's outfit, and that Clapton was playing a supporting role.  Not that it was a vocal band:  it was that Relf's harmonica was the featured instrument.

It was that way on their first studio recordings, which come from a demo session at R.G. Jones Studio in 1963 - the date I've seen is December 10, just a couple of days after the show backing Sonny Boy that was later released as an lp.  At first they don't seem to have been deemed worthy of release, but eventually time proved otherwise.  In 1966, two songs from this session, "Boom Boom" and "Honey In Your Hips," were released as a single in Europe, and now they show up on many Yardbirds compilations.  They make perfect sense if heard as an imaginary Yardbirds first single.

"Boom Boom" is, of course, a John Lee Hooker classic.  It was also a favorite among the British r&b groups - it was the Animals who had the hit with it, in 1965.  And, perhaps ironically, the Animals' version has more of a guitar-heavy feel than the Yardbirds'.  The Yardbirds' version is largely a feature for Relf's harmonica.  Like Sonny Boy's on the live set a couple of days prior, Relf's harp is loud and clear, a contrast to the somewhat muffled sound of the guitars.  But it's not just an issue with the recording:  as the Five Live Yardbirds performances attest, Relf's harp work was the focus of the early Yardbirds.  He gets the first solo (although Clapton takes over halfway through the first instrumental break).  And the same thing happens on the second instrumental break, the one that ends the song.  Relf starts it out, and then he tries to step back to let Clapton take over, but Clapton doesn't really step up.

In both cases what Clapton plays is nice enough blues - he's got the chops and the taste - but in a mood and tone that's a bit at odds with what Relf's doing.  Relf's harp work lacks the teeth of Sonny Boy's, so what he plays ends up sounding a little skiffley, but at least he's trying to be loud and aggressive, which of course are the qualities the song demands.  Clapton's tone, meanwhile, is subdued and even a bit jazzy. Nice licks, but cooler than the song leads you to expect.  A bit underwhelming.

It's not a bad record, however.  Overall the impression it gives is a bit tentative, but it shows off the band's capabilities much better than "Take It Easy, Baby" does.  In fact the band is what's remarkable about this:  the two solo voices don't steal the show, but the whole record hangs together nicely because the drumming, the bass, the rhythm guitar all create such a confident (if typically Brit-tight) groove.  The solos work fine as part of a short, snappy pop-blues record.

That may not have been what Clapton aspired too, but it would turn out to be what he was best at.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Sonny Boy Williamson with the Yardbirds: "Take It Easy, Baby"

Or, Notes for a Skeptical Deiography of Eric Clapton (i.e., We Don't Believe He's God, but His Story Is Worth Telling Anyway), #1.1.

Clapton started out with the Yardbirds, and for the longest time, your Yardbirds collection started out with Sonny Boy Williamson.

There were a surprising number of real live American bluesmen kicking around Europe in the mid-'60s, brought over to reward the British blues boom for its devotion.  Sonny Boy was the most important of them.

The standard thing seems to have been to pair the visiting blues god with some of his local acolytes as a backing band.  Thus did Sonny Boy play the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond Surrey, backed by the Yardbirds, on December 8, 1963.  All the songs they did that night, plus a few from the night before and a couple months later, have been released;  the first shot was in 1965 on the lp Sonny Boy Williamson & The Yardbirds.  The Yardbirds' Sonny Boyless six-song warm-up set has also been released, but it's not that great.  This is a better starting point for the story.

Sonny Boy was one of the four or five most important Chess blues guys, but for the record he's nowhere near my favorite:  his songs tend to all sound the same.  He's essential - for any given three minutes of listening he can make you sound like he is the blues, not nobody else - but a little goes a long way.

Still, on these recordings you can hear what must have impressed British listeners, and players, so much.  In unfamiliar and not necessarily comfortable circumstances he still manages to utterly dominate the proceedings, projecting his personality and his musical vision into nearly every corner of the music.  It helps that he's much more heavily amped than the rest of the band.  His voice is huge, and his harmonica gargantuan, and the pale skinny boys in the background are...unobtrusive.

Which is great if you're listening for Sonny Boy, as you probably should be;  not so great if you're interested in what Clapton was doing at the very beginning of his career.  He only gets to solo on a couple of tracks, and even then it's only a few bars.  "Take It Easy, Baby," a long slow blues, is his longest moment in the spotlight, and so it's where we begin.

For most of the song he comps along in a fairly unobtrusive manner, and that's the first thing we might want to notice.  It's not easy, as I say, because Sonny Boy almost immediately swoops in with his vulture-breath harp and Chicago-tough exhortation to "take it easy baby" (and how exotic must that locution have sounded to British boys in 1963?).  But the first lick of the song is Clapton's, and even though he immediately recedes (in the mix, as well as the arrangement), he can still be heard playing nice chords and fills at appropriate moments everywhere.  It's standard-issue blues guitar accompaniment, nothing to steal the spotlight from the main guy, everything to make a bed for what he's laying down.  And that's the point:  EC could do this, from the very beginning, and sound natural.  The rest of the band, essentially drummer Jim McCarty and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, sound understandably nervous and tight - they manage to keep the tempo, and add a few nice rolls here and there, but basically they're stiff.  They don't swing.  But Clapton does.

Sonny Boy takes a solo, half moaning it, and then Eric gets his big moment in the spotlight.  So what does he do?  Plays it like any young man his first time around:  too much, too soon.  It's a 12-bar solo, and for the first six bars he tries to show us everything he can do.  He rushes the beat, he drags the beat, he plays on the off-off-beat, he subdivides the beat, he throws out a blinding series of bends and chirps.  It makes sense if you listen closely, a number of times - it's not chaos - but it's way too fast and energetic for the song.  This goes on for six bars and then, oh yeah, we got six bars to go, and suddenly he slows down, slips into the groove, picks his licks a little more carefully, does a little low trill, and then a quick slicing chord to hand it back to Sonny Boy.  'Cause pale skinny EC is spent.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas (2012)

I haven't read the book.  I would like to read the book, and I think I even intend to, now.  But this review is based on not having read the book.  All the same, it sounds like what bugs me about this film is an artifact of the film, not the book.

Stop.  Go read David Edelstein and Kathryn Schulz's taidan on the film.  I agree with most of it.

Okay, here's where I disagree.  I had a lot more fun with the movie than it sounds like Edelstein did.  In fact, I only got disgusted with it in the last ten minutes or so.  Up to that point I had a great time watching Tom Hanks and Halle Berry have a great time playing goofy genre roles, and also trying to figure out how all the pieces fit together.  So I recommend seeing the movie:  you won't be bored, and there's a lot of wonder in there to savor.

That said, when all the pieces do fit together, you realize that they don't fit together well.  And the overall picture they're creating is much less impressive than the various pieces were promising it would be.  Like, you get to Sonmi's final speech and you're thinking, that's it?  That's all they're trying to say?  Pfft.

So, dig.  This movie is positing reincarnation of a sort (with a birthmark identifier that's, um, imported from Mishima).  And it's preaching some kind of what-goes-around-comes-around morality at the end.  If you've taken Asian Religions 101 this puts you in mind of Buddhism, samsara, and karma. 

The problem is, the filmmakers seem to have skipped most of the lectures in Asian Religions 101 and forgotten to do the reading, because they don't seem to have worked out the karmic cause-and-effect relationships between the various incarnations.  Like, it's fun and instructive and thought-provoking to see Tom Hanks doing this thing in the one storyline and this other thing in the other storyline, and see the birthmark pop up on this person here and that person there, but I don't see any consistent application of karmic logic behind why Tom Hanks (or the reincarnating soul that Tom Hanks represents?) has it good in this incarnation and bad in that one, or why the comet-birthmarked One (yes) is in this situation here and that situation there. 

Folks, Buddhism works because of karma.  You take samsara as a given, then bring in karma to explain how it all fits together, and finally bring in dharma to explain how to cure your karma and escape your samsara.  Take out karma and the dharma makes no sense. 

Without that kind of rigorous working-out of karmic cause and effect, Sonmi's final speech adds up to little more than, "Be nice to each other.  Because it's better that way."

Which isn't to say that the eternal recurrence implications of the body-switching don't have their resonances.  I'm just not sure they're the intended resonances.  Watching Hugo Weaving always end up as the heavy, watching pair of lovers after pair of lovers and master-slave relationship after master-slave relationship, you come away feeling that human beings are doomed to always interact with each other according to a few basic archetypal relationships.  And maybe we are - but "Be nice to each other. Because it's better that way" isn't really going to get us out of that. 

So maybe that is all they intended to say with this film.  We're all doomed to be lovers, or masters and slaves, or exploiters and exploited, and the only real way out is to just try to be nicer to each other.  I certainly can't argue with that as a piece of truth.  But in that case, why do we need the reincarnation business?  Why do we need the madly fractured puzzle structure for the narratives?  I mean, Planet of the Apes did all that with one scene at the end. 

So what I think we're left with here is either a film that's about reincarnation and karma but gets it wrong, or a film that's not about karma that just throws reincarnation in there to fuck with our heads.  Either way, it's a film that gets less satisfying the more you think about it.

And, okay, let's talk about the yellowface.  I actually liked the idea of having the main actors and actresses show up in different "bodies" in the different stories - switching races and genders.  If you're going to talk about reincarnation, this is a pretty good way to do it.  But it's pretty clear that the filmmakers lacked the courage of their convictions. And that's a good thing:  one wishes they'd been a little more cowardly and scrapped the whole idea, because in practice it's lousy.  I mean, you can have Halle Berry play in whiteface and yellowface and maleface, but you can't have anybody playing in blackface - because blackface is offensive.  But actually yellowface is offensive too!  Letting Bae Doona play one scene in whiteface doesn't make up for having Sturgess play a sixth of the movie in yellowface, bro.