Friday, February 19, 2016

"Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road"

Back in '71 or '72, when I started being able to get my hands on Creem (at the same place where I used to buy comic books), I read a review of, I think, Brinsley Schwarz's Silver Pistol in which the writer -- it must have been Marsh; I'm FB fwends with John Morthland, and he said it wasn't him -- identified two separate strains of rockaroll tradition. The earthy, song-oriented one he associated with Chuck Berry; the cosmic, jam-oriented one he associated with Little Richard. (The MC5, he wrote, started out Richard-cosmic but wound up Berry-earthy.)

I have to say that when I started listening to, and later playing music, it was the cosmic/jam/Richard impulse that drove me. My favorite records were like sonic baths, and after '73 or so, I paid little or no attention to lyrics. My last roommate in college taught me about musical structure by forcing me to sit with him and play songs (from Freak Out!, Safe As Milk, Axis: Bold As Love, Stand Up, and Ahead Rings Out) from beginning to end, over and over. Before that, I'd mainly focused on stealing licks, and tone (practicing a two-note phrase for hours, trying to get it to flow just right; rolling off the highs on my guitar and trying to strike the string with the pick just right to get that squealing harmonic like Leslie West did). When we started Stoogeaphilia in 2006, learning the forms to all those songs kind of ruined Funhouse as a listening experience for me. Now I think of those songs as playing forms, not a sonic bath like they were before.

In my dotage, I've come to dig songs more than jams, although I still fixate on songs (or parts of songs) that get me off the most. A few weeks ago, I listened over and over again to John Cale's Vintage Violence to hear a bridge that lasts a few seconds. (The last time I played it, the tone arm stayed stuck in the runout groove instead of rejecting for a whole day.) The band Goodwin, who were my favorite band when I was fixated on local stuff while writing for the local giveaway rag a decade or more ago, had a couple of songs that I listened to the same way: the four cymbal hits before the bridge in their song "Airport;" the descending bass line (but not the ascending one) before the chorus in "March."

So recently, I've spent a couple of weeks getting obsessed with Robert Wyatt's song "Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road." It started out when I heard the version on Tin Huey's second album, disinformation, while riding in the car in the wake of the recent Half Cleveland show. Most of the album was recorded by the '81-'82 lineup, in which Ralph Legnini supplanted Chris Butler (who was off Waitressing), and Harvey Gold played bass. But there were a handful of tracks from the '78-'79 lineup that cut Contents Dislodged During Shipping, with Chris in the fold, Harvey on keys, and original bassist Mark Price (RIP) still on board. "Little Red Riding Hood..." is appended to a version of Price's "Robert Takes the Road to Lieber Nawash," a song they first waxed for a local indie before being signed by the major. Harvey sings in a voice brimming with emotion (he says it brought him near tears every time he had to sing it), which befits a song, the lyrics to which seem to have distilled all of the world's remorse and regret into a cocktail of sorrow that inevitably leaves the singer sounding bereft.

Those words are carried by a melodic arc that approximates the actual sound of human lamentation more closely than any Western one I've heard save Ornette's "Lonely Woman," winding its way from desolation to something like hope -- a curious effect. On examining a chord chart of the song, I realized that the B section chord sequence was the A section backwards. Damn clever, Mr. Wyatt!

Ex-Soft Machine drummer-singer Wyatt first recorded the song in 1973 for his Rock Bottom album, recorded upon his release from hospital after falling out a window while drunk and losing the use of his legs. It's a testament to his creative focus that he continued working during his recovery, repurposing material originally intended for his band Matching Mole for himself as a non-instrument-playing singer. On Rock Bottom, the song hits like an emanation from the Sun, its structure obscured by layers of backwards vocals and Mongezi Feza's pocket trumpet. The version I've been listening to at the house (with the chord chart out so I can pick up my beater acoustic guitar and plunk along when the song comes on) is from Henry Cow's Concerts album, documenting a live performance in which Wyatt was backed by those sober socialists and shared the vocal with their singer, Dagmar Krause. It has a plainer, sparser sound that makes it easier to hear what the instruments (particularly Fred Frith's uncharacteristically strummy guitar) are doing.

Sidebar One: The first cut on Tin Huey's major label LP was a cover of the Monkees' hit "I'm A Believer," using the arrangement that Wyatt had released on a UK single, post-Rock Bottom. His record caused a minor furor in the press when BBC managers objected to having Wyatt sing from his wheelchair on Top of the Pops; in the event, the artist prevailed. "I'm A Believer" always reminds me of the insurance salesman who used to hang around the record store where I worked as a teenager. Once after hearing me speak the title in response to a phone query, he asked, "So, Kenny...are  you a believer in life insurance?" This to someone who still thought he was immortal, lived with his parents, and earned $100 a week off the books. That guy probably died hungry.

Sidebar Two: Henry Cow, who dabbled in lefty politics, to paraphrase their drummer Chris Cutler, the way others did in drugs, took their politics seriously enough to make, say, the MC5 look downright reactionary. All band decisions were made by committee, and when they realized they were turning into a rock band (their repertoire was roughly equal parts rigorously through-composed stuff and totally unplanned improv), they split up. In their last touring incarnation, half of the musos onstage were women; even before that, half of their road crew had been. No sewing costumes or washing the floor for those. But enough with the digressions...

Since realizing the mirror-image chord structure of the song's two sections, I've had it pointed out by an occasional musical collaborator of mine, who was once the president of Wyatt's fan club, that the song "Move On" on David Bowie's Lodger album reverses the chords from "All the Young Dudes." And I suggested to another online acquaintance that he reverse the chords from Mingus' "Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat" to write a new tune called..."Hello, Pork Pie Hat."

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