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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 1998/11/15
by David Steinberg

Oh! Sweet Nuthin’

[Author’s Note: Originally this column was to be about defending the anal retentive music fan with a little bit at the end about the controversial Phish shows. Well, the little bit at the end spiraled out of control so I decided to shelve the original column until next month. Loaded is an important album to me; I hope this explains why.]

I’m sure this has been mentioned elsewhere on this site a million times but on Halloween, Phish covered the Velvet Underground album Loaded. Two nights later, in the middle of what seemed to be an ordinary set, they covered Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Lots of people were upset by this turn of events; to me that was like complaining that the New Kids on the Block played in Salt Lake City and you were stuck seeing the Grateful Dead. Ok before you send off those nasty emails, keep reading. I might not convert you to the cause of Loaded but at least I hope to explain why the cover was an amazing moment of live music. If nothing else, perhaps people will feel somewhat better about what they saw versus what they missed.

For those of you who don’t know, the Velvet Underground was one of the first, if not the first, jamband. Even if they were not the first, they were in a rather unique position for a North American jamband as they were not influenced by the Grateful Dead. The VU thought of themselves as being the antithesis of the hippie movement. It’s doubtful that they ever listened to anything coming out of San Francisco, and even less likely that they would have confessed to liking it. However, listen to “The Ocean” off of Live 69 and then listen to the 5/2/70 “Viola Lee Blues” and the similarity to what the bands were trying to do will jump out at you.

While many of the Underground’s albums contained songs that were designed solely to shock (e.g. “The Gift”, “Venus in Furs”, and of course “Heroin”), Loaded avoids that trap. Instead, the overriding theme is one of the most important – transcendence. While “Rock and Roll” is the most blatant example – “Her life was saved by Rock and Roll” is something anyone reading this site can relate to – many of the other songs mirror that. “New Age” starts out being about people who have waited too long to actually live their lives but ends on the repeated singing of the anthemic, “It’s the beginning of the new age.” While happiness is not promised, the potential for it is there. That’s a lot more than the characters could really have hoped for at the start of the song.

Perhaps the most stunning example of transcendence on the album is the closing, “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’”. It starts out, with, well nothing… singing the stories of Jimmy Brown, Polly May, and my favorite, Joanna Love. Her tragedy is somehow the most heartbreaking, “‘Cause everyday she falls in love/And every night she falls when she does.” Even in the telling of the story though, you see the chance for redemption. She might be falling in love trivially and shallowly, she might be losing everything because of this, but at least she’s taking the risk. Like the sailor in “Terrapin Station”, sometimes you have to take even stupid chances – there is such a thing as being “much too wise” – and risking everything on the chance of hitting the jackpot can be better than being responsible, refusing to play, and waking up to find yourself in the plot of “New Age.”

The ending of “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” is one of most impressive pieces of studio music rock and roll has ever produced. It starts out with the chorus, “Oh! Sweet nuthin’/She ain’t got nothing at all.” and then builds into this jam. Drums are pounding, guitars are wailing, an incredible peak is reached and extended. And extended. And extended. And… sudden drop off to, “She ain’t got nothing at all.” It’s the koan come to life. First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is a mountain again. We’re returned to our starting point but everything has changed because of the journey.

How can you create something out of nothing? If you’re a mathematician, you might think about the famous series:

1 – 1 + 1 – 1 + 1 – 1 + 1 – 1….

Arrange that as (1 – 1) + (1 – 1) + (1 – 1)... and you have 0, arrange it as 1 + (-1 + 1) + (-1 + 1)... and you have 1. If you’re a preacher, you might quote Genesis as your example. If you’re a musician though, you might point to “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” Somehow they created a space where the line, “She ain’t got nuthin’ at all,” is a line of hope. That feat alone makes this an amazing album.

In many ways, Dark Side of the Moon is the anti-_Loaded_. While the Velvet Underground were a jam band who would rather die than be called that, Pink Floyd kept their reputation of being a jam band long after they abandoned that approach to music. My strongest memory of Roger Waters comes from listening to the Wall concert when the Berlin Wall was torn down. At one point the concert was stopped for a few minutes. Why? Was the sound not working? Were the fans being unruly? Did the performers need a break? Nope. The concert was stopped because the videos were out of sync with the music. Making a concert into an event that’s about music and costumes and movies and laser effects and other things certainly is a valid approach; it just isn’t the approach that I prefer. Similarly, Loaded is an album that is about nothing – songs are about breakups, listening to the radio, and the down and out – that has insights about everything. Dark Side of the Moon has lyrics about much more important subjects, but for me, it doesn’t hold the same emotional intensity. “Rock and Roll” was written about what Lou Reed felt to be the most important event of his life. Bits of DSotM are interesting, bits are well written, but nothing really comes across as being about a major event in Waters’ life.

While reports from Salt Lake said that the Dark Side set was pretty much a note for note cover, Phish extended the Loaded songs to great effect. Most of the songs were significantly longer, the extreme examples were “Rock and Roll” which was nearly 9 minutes longer than the VU version and “Lonesome Cowboy Bill”, which more than tripled the studio length. It wasn’t just about making the songs longer, it was about making them better. The “Rock and Roll” jam was just stunning. It was a cover in the best sense of the word – Phish playing in the style of the Velvet Underground. Sometimes the jam sounded like pure Phish (at one point they were almost playing the jam from the amazing Great Went “Bathtub Gin”), sometimes Trey’s playing sounded like something off of Live 69, most frequently it sounded like both at the same time. Throughout the set songs were Phishified, but never was there a moment in which I felt that this was something that the Underground just would not have played. Phish were discovering a new style of playing that I expect to affect their playing in their future in the same way that the funk came out of Remain in Light.

Loaded is a rare album. It manages to acknowledge that the world is bleak but doesn’t get trapped by the bleakness. Both musically and lyrically it presents ways out of the darkness. Phish’s version, despite taking the songs and making them their own with long wonderful jams, was true to the spirit of the album, true to the spirit of saving our lives through rock and roll.

“Say a word for Polly May
She can’t tell the night from the day
They threw her out in the street
But just like a cat she landed on her feet
And say a word for Joanna Love
She ain’t got nothing at all
‘Cause everyday she falls in love
And every night she falls when she does

She said
Oh sweet nuthin’
You know she ain’t got nothing at all
Oh sweet nutin’
She ain’t got nothing at all”

-Lou Reed

_David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1993. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html

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