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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2003/11/28
by Jesse Jarnow

The Long and Winding Road

Since seeing Lost in Translation, like many (maybe?), my interest in
Japanese culture has been reawakened. It’s not like I was ever particularly
obsessed, though. Most of my knowledge of the place has come filtered
through films (particularly American stories set in Japan), as well as a
novel or two and a few albums. Specifically, what has interested me is the
strangely fragmentary, hallucinatory quality that Japanese public life seems
to have — the kind of pop culture (or depiction thereof) captured perfectly
by Lost in Translation and on albums like Cornelius’s Point
and Fantasma: a host of American ideas transformed by, let’s face it,
the mysterious and exotic Orient. It is this transformation that interests
me. How does it work? Is it merely a self-derived cultural myth ascertained
from a couple of works that I’ve enjoyed?
With that in mind, I borrowed a copy of Big Frog’s Live at Yokohama Bay
Hall from a friend. I didn’t know much about ‘em other than that they
were a jamband from Japan. Some friends of mine once wandered, tripping on
acid, into Wetlands while Big Frog were playing. One friend reported feeling
‘really tall’ amidst the crowd comprised mostly of heads who had followed
the group over from Japan, while ‘all these Japanese hippies started trying
to practice their English on me.’ It was, he said, ‘a bad scene.’ And it
piqued my interest. I was curious to hear how a Japanese band filtered
jamband music, a form that I’m pretty familiar with. Would it turn precious
(ala the 5-6-7-8s, as featured in Kill Bill? Or would it be chopped
up and post-modernized (ala Cornelius)?
Neither. Sad to say, or maybe not, that Live at Yokohama Bay Hall
sounds exactly like a post-Garcia jamband would — maybe a little dated, in
that there are no hints of electronic beats or even the dreaded Funk… just
pure, groovy Allman/Dead-influenced guitar spirals and organ jams that ride
on a bed of psychedelic soul. Or, um, something. Parts of it even sound a
little older — like the distorted, demented keyboard that leads off their
rendition of The Beatles’ ‘Drive My Car.’ It’s funny how cover songs can be
revealing, though. Just like I went looking at Big Frog to reveal what it
was about Japanese culture that intrigued me by factoring out what was
familiar to me and examining what was leftover, their cover of ‘Drive My
Car’ serves the same purpose.
The rhythmic drive behind the cover is definitely boogie-oriented, filled
out by Hammond swells, some R & B-style turnarounds, and a heavily danceable
backbeat. The groove sounds a little like something off of the Grateful
Dead’s self-titled 1966 debut — kinda garage-like. For that, there is
something charming, but really no different than the particular hook of any
jamband, like The Disco Biscuits’ ‘trance-fusion,’ The New Deal’s ‘live
progressive breakbeat hoose,’ or Leftover Salmon’s ‘poly-ethnic Cajun
slamgrass.’ What was exotic was subsumed by the idea of jamband music as an
all-inclusive party. Did Japanese pastiche weirdness finally meet its match?
Quite possibly.

‘Kay, did anybody else notice that the same week that The
Beatles announced they were re-releasing Let It Be (now titled
Let It Be… Naked) with Phil Spector’s orchestral additions removed
was the same week that Spector himself was arrested on murder charges? And did anybody else notice that the same week that Let It Be… Naked
was actually released was the same week that Spector was arraigned on those murder changes? McCartney’s behind it, I tells ya.
Well, the re-release, anyway, despite whatever he might be claiming.
Famously, in early 1969, The Beatles tried to record the follow-up to the
White Album, tentatively titled Get Back in the form of a
back-to-the-roots live-in-the-studio approach. The sessions degenerated into
bickering,, during which the band intermittently turned in some great
performances that didn’t exactly sound like the band in their skiffle days,
but didn’t sound like much else. After they’d gone on to work on Abbey
Road, the tapes were delivered to Spector to fix up for release. Spector
added his studio arrangements to the songs, famously filling out McCartney
schmaltz epics ‘Let It Be’ and ‘The Long and Winding Road’ with orchestras.
Though the accepted story goes that The Beatles knew they were done for by
the time they passed the tapes along to Spector, the liner notes told a
different story. My parents’ vinyl copy of the album promises on the sleeve
that contained within was a ‘new phase’ Beatles album. Over the years, The
Beatles themselves disavowed it. Now, just in time for the Christmas
shopping season comes Let It Be… Naked, as well as a publicity
campaign that serves to sufficiently smear Spector’s work on the original.
The lamely titled Naked maybe should have been titled Get
Back, as it comes a lot closer to what the band wanted to present at the
What Spector submitted in 1970 is almost certainly not how the band
wanted themselves presented. Until their acrimonious split, The Beatles’
public face was a happy-go-lucky one, never revealing the bickering that
went on behind the scenes. With an uncanny ear, Spector produced possibly
the most vulnerable-sounding work in The Beatles’ mighty catalogue. Indeed,
the band was often a picture of awesome composure as they rode the crest of
the ’60s. Through his production techniques, Spector hung The Beatles’
weaknesses on their sleeves for them.
The original release of Let It Be was punctuated by the band goofing
around in the studio. But where, in A Hard Day’s Night, the band’s
humor was exuberantly good-natured, by the time of Let It Be, it had
taken on a biting quality, as bandmembers attempted to alleviate the tension
that had built up during the sessions (which, at various points, involved
George Harrison quitting the band, and McCartney suggesting – not to her
face – that the omnipresent Yoko Ono be put in a cage). On album, these
asides revealed a nervous crink in the band’s poker-face, a comical
counterpoint to the disagreements tearing the band apart. They sound
nervous. Thus, it’s possible to hear that even in the band’s glibness. So,
all of those jokes have been cut, as well as the band’s ragged take on
‘Maggie May,’ and the stoned Lennon rap ‘Dig It.’
Musically speaking, ‘The Long and Winding Road’ does sound much nicer
without the orchestra. It’s even bearable, sounding closer to ‘Something’
than to the sap it usually evokes. Still, one can’t entirely blame Spector
for what he did. Listening to the fills McCartney inserts between the two
verses, one can’t help but hear them as sketches that might imply an
orchestral arrangement. McCartney never did it, probably playing those fills
unintentionally. Spector, meanwhile, magnified them to bombastic
proportions, like McCartney’s worst insecurities writ large.

‘The public persona of me is as this really happy guy,’ Phish guitarist Trey
Anastasio says in the new Relix, sounding more than a bit like John
Lennon in post-Beatles demystification mode, ‘but somehow I ended up fucking
miserable and just soldering on.’ It’s not quite a tell-all interview, but
it tells enough, and – whether he is or not – Anastasio sure sounds
like a man in rehab. ‘We’d play the last note,’ he explains later, ‘and when
the note was over, I’d think ‘Now, I’m walking.’ ‘Now, I’m in the car.’
‘Now, I’m eating.’‘ One show at a time, one show at a time.
In light of his public confessional, it’s interesting to listen to Phish’s
take on Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show’s ‘Cover of the Rolling Stone,’ which
they played at their winter tour opener on February 14th, around the time of
actually appearing the cover of Rolling Stone. ‘We got all the
friends that money can buy, so we never have to be alone,’ they sing. ‘And
we keep getting richer, and we finally got our picture on the cover of the
Rolling Stone.’ They laugh their way through it, and one is left
wondering how much of that laughing is because of how applicable the lyrics
actually are.
But then the song is over and they’re playing ‘Chalkdust Torture,’ that
great ode to irresponsibility. ‘Can’t I live while I’m young?’ All of a
sudden it’s hard to tell if playing ‘Cover of the Rolling Stone’ is funny or
sad, just as it’s hard to tell just what Big Frog are accomplishing by
providing their Japanese take on a jamband: the medium has subsumed the

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