Featured Column:How I’ve Been Spending My Summer
BRAIN TUBA: How I’ve Been Spending My Summer
I’ve had an interesting summer. It’s a bit gauche, I know (though my friend’s pronunciation with the soft-J helps deflect some of that), but I’ve been jogging. Resultantly, I was reminded of how everything I knew was wrong (or, at least, how much pure chance has to do with liking music). Also, I saw a guy attacking a plaster Elvis bust with a jackhammer through a fence on Bushwick Place. That was pretty rad.
Early, for the days I didn’t go in tandem with the soft-J innovator, I found a version of the Dead’s "Eyes of the World" that I liked to run to: a chipper rendition from Jersey City ’74, the day Nixon resigned. It was just the right length and just the right tempo. Two runs went by effortlessly. Awesome, I thought (I really thought this), now I finally have an excuse to thoughtfully listen to all those great ’73 and ’74 "Eyes" jams. I would achieve next-level "Eyes" knowledge because, well, why not? What else could I be doing productively with those 20 minutes? (I’d probably gain some hit points, too.)
So, I pulled out some Dick’s Picks and dropped a half-dozen versions on my iPod. Next time out, I picked one from Boston Music Hall ’73, and hit the sidewalk. By halfway through, I felt like shit, and the music was boring. How long was the bass solo gonna be, anyhow? Maybe it was just too mellow, I decided. I wondered if they could really be playing it at such different tempos between December and August. The next day, I tried one from June in Louisville that I knew was upbeat, partially because my recording is somehow pitched up slightly (in, coincidentally, exactly the same manner as my old cassette copy), and partially because the recording was super-analog, filled with punchy bass and over-saturated keyboards. Did that do the trick? Hell no, and my shins ached as I climbed the stairs back to my place.
After that, I took some time off from "Eyes." Maybe I was burning myself out on the tune. I found a good 1970 "Dark Star" that floated gently in the Oort cloud during its first half, before picking up into a bright, galloping major key jam during the literal home stretch. Yo La Tengo’s 17-minute "Night Falls on Hoboken," with its heartbeat bassline, worked well: almost anything long and not fast enough to make me want to unduly speed up. After a week, I tried the initial "Eyes" again, afraid my botched experiment might’ve ruined its revivifying properties. Happily, I heard what I’d literally been missing: the recording itself.
I could tell instantly as I made a right out my front door and headed into the sun: the mix was just-so (crystalline, as it were), and Bob Weir’s often elusive rhythm figures were equally present with Jerry Garcia’s twining leads. Musically, though, it was hardly that different from other versions of "Eyes." They were playing at basically the same speed as the other versions, using the same scales, and moving the song forward in almost the same way (give or take a few twitches, like keyboardist Keith Godchaux’s fantastic upper register doublings during the outro from Louisville). It sounded like no other version of "Eyes" through no fault of the Dead. It’s easy, if only marginally pretentious, to compare the nightly changes in improvised music to paintings, and speak of attributes like tonal colors and such. But I think that’s wrong, or — at least — not completely correct.
If music — improvised or otherwise — is a painting, then listening to a recording is akin to looking at a photograph that itself transforms the image. In the way that Polaroids blur colors and cell-phone cams forcibly tear them apart, recordings do the same with the sounds they contain. Where Jersey City sounds filled with sunshine, Boston feels muffled with snow. On studio sessions, musicians have marginally more control over the final sound, but are still mostly subject to the sonic circumstances, both of the moment and the era. I often like to pretend that I know exactly what it is about as song or album or band that makes me want to listen to their music repeatedly. Certainly, I can’t be all wrong about that, though maybe it’s just a defense mechanism. Trying to find music by its sonic qualities seems like an invitation to existential collapse (or, at least, deep frustration), even if it is what I really like. Instead, it’s probably better to leave it up to the same circumstance that made the music sound like that to begin with, and try to get excited about things like bands and genres and songs, even if I’m one jog away from knowing how wrong I am.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com.