Tuesday, May 06, 2008
Authentic Frontier Gibberish
[Title ref: not that you need it]. The frontier in this case is the 1960s, which was a motherfucker of a decade that knew where it was at. Or so I hear. Continuing the haphazard process of transferring my numerous CDs to jpg format so as to bung them on my MP3 player, I unearthed Vintage: the Very Best of Moby Grape, which I hadn’t listened to for ages. Now it goes without saying that Moby Grape were excellent. They were simply excellent. But one of the nice things about the Vintage best-of is the way it includes not just variants and demos and things, but snippets of in-studio conversation. For example, here is producer David Rubinson speaking to drummer Don Stevenson by way of asking him to have another go at ‘Fall on You’ (from the band’s superb 1967 debut album);
Don would you do me one favour, just for me? Play that rhythm that you play in the bridge all the way through the tune. Dum tackum, coomcoom tackum, coomcoom tack--Just try that. Right? You know what I mean? Try driving from the top to the bottom man. Just make the cuts. Alright? Because it lifts right off the ground in the bridge, man, and there’s a reason for it. You get into a groove and it drives like a motherfucker and that’s where it’s at ... Alright! From the top! Ba-pa-ba-pa-ba-pa that’s where it’s at!
I suppose it’s the sense that we’ve eavesdropping on actual unguarded 1960s-chatter that makes me like this so much. They really spoke like that. If I wrote a character from the 60s who said something like ‘you get into a groove and it drives like a motherfucker and that’s where it’s at’ I’d be ridiculed. Yet it turns out that that truly was where their groove was at. Vintage indeed.
Anytime musicians try to verbalize musical ideas they sound weird to non-musicians. Whether they succeed in communicating with each other that way, I don’t know. I’ve read a transcript of Jerry Lee Lewis at work with his (somewhat green) band and he had very definite musical ideas (within a basic rockabilly form) that he was trying to get over verbally, more or less unsuccessfully, I think. What Bob Dylan’s said in his autobiography about his songwriting method was completely unintelligible to me, but he could have been bullshitting. Elsewhere I’ve heard verbalizations of what gives reggae or the Beatles their special sound, and they were almost intelligible, but not quite.
I was going to say that standard music theory isn’t much help. You can have 10 different 2/4, key of E, three chord, 16 bar songs with completely different sounds, even with the same instruments.
Try driving from the top to the bottom man.
Sounds good to me.
"If I wrote a character from the 60s who said something like ‘you get into a groove and it drives like a motherfucker and that’s where it’s at’ I’d be ridiculed.”
Well, this is a producer talking to a drummer in a certain context. If anyone was ever going to talk like that, it would be those people. But you’re right, it would be pretty much impossible to do that in fiction, even in context, without it sounding like a Spinal Tap self-parody. In an ironic age, there are certain kinds of attempts to straightforwardly reduplicate unusual speech that become flat-out impossible.
Taking up Rich’s point, this does feel a lot like the anthropologist’s dream scenario: to be able to observe the object of their study without the process of observation corrupting the data, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of field work. This kind of recording feels like a “natural” moment, when the native has let his guard down, is dictating for the historical record un-self-consciously. So let me wield my own native informant at you, though mine is a dim recollection from a live album, I think. Someone in the audience at a Mothers of Invention show was shouting about men in uniform being the crowd or something, and Frank stopped the band so he could call the guy out, saying: “Everyone in this room is wearing a uniform, so don’t kid yourself”
Rich notes that “usual speech” becomes “impossible” in a “postmodern age” but it seems to me that the postmodern critique is to question whether it ever *was* possible, and to imply (as did Zappa) that people just kid themselves into thinking it was. And while it used to be much more common to mistake people’s uniforms for their “real” self, things like Spinal Tap have trained us to sniff them out as uniforms (without, of course, losing our nostalgia for the real). But do you think there were contexts, even back then, that such a producer talking in such a way would be seen as affecting a particular way of talking and called out on it?
I mean, “ironic” age. Can’t even quote correctly. Unless I was being all postmodern and referential? Yeah, that’s the ticket…
Aaron, that’s a good point, but the reason this comes up in the context of the 60s is because the 60s is the historical moment at which people generally seem to feel that the transition between unselfconscious and selfconscious speech occurred. A youth movement, however defined, is naturally going to adopt a somewhat artificial form of speech to distinguish itself. Generalizing to whether it was ever possible is difficult under those circumstances.
I wouldn’t call it an anthropologist’s dream scenario, though. The producer probably knew that he was being taped, and may have hammed it up to produce a quote that would match his image of what people would expect him to say.
I like pegging it to a “youth movement” more than to the sixties, per se; after all, weren’t the beats, too, a youth movement? And well before the sixties. And the affect necessary to show that one belongs in particular sectors of society well into the nineteenth century springs to mind. Or code-switching pegged to race. Or the kind of affected speech in a John Steinbeck novel, that people like Steinbeck were affecting as they tried to be one with “the people.”
Plus, every generation thinks it invented sex.
As for the anthropologist’s dream scenario, I’m not sure such a thing *ever* exists, actually. Anthropologists often like to imagine they’re receiving unmediated data, but the subject didn’t know he was being taped, so to speak, he wouldn’t be talking at all.
It seems to me that this stuff about the 60s and irony and postmodern criticality is distracting. Adam is quoting shop talk.
I have no idea how David Rubinson talked to his lawyer, his mother, his girl friend, a cop who pulled him over for speeding, to his second grade teacher, etc. But the words Adam transcribed ring true as a producer trying to get a certain performance from a drummer; I doubt that he’d use similar language with his tax accountant. He wasn’t born speaking like that, it’s not natural, but he would have learned to speak like that as he moved into the world of rock musicians. That’s how musicians talked shop and still do.
The italicized syllables are vocables and, obviously, are used to convey certain rhythms. Vocables are absolutely standard for that purpose; some vocables are standardized to a given tradition while others would be specific to an individual or perhaps even to an occasion. Other terms - “drive,” “groove,” “motherfucker,” “top” - are authentic (or “authentic” if it makes you more comfortable). And then there’s “bridge,” which must go back to the early 20th century.
Back in the 50s Life or Look ran an article on bebop that included a glossary of authentic certified bebop terms and photographs of real bebop musicians (Dizzy Gillespie was one of them) giving the bebop handshake. Much of it was a put-on, though most of the readers wouldn’t have known that. But that doesn’t mean that those musicians didn’t really have their own lingo, some of which would have been black urban slang and some of which would have been specific to the musicians.
Then there’s the 1985 recording sessions in which Leonard Bernstein directed a performance of West Side Story. The sessions were documented and a film made of them (and now available on DVD). There are a lot of snippits of Bernstein giving instructions to the musicians, some of which would read just as strange as Rubinson’s words if transcribed. Not only the words, but Bernstein’s gestures and body language, all of which communicated what he wanted from his musicians. Was Bernstein playing to the cameras, doing something he wouldn’t do under ordinary circumstances? Perhaps. But I doubt it. Why should he? Conveying what he wants is difficult enough; no reason to muck it up with mugging just because there’s a camera running.
I like Tenacious D’s “Wonder Boy”: “Rigga-goo-goo-RIG-a-goo-goo.” That’s driving from top to bottom while swaying from left to right, man.
Some of that talk has been standardized for teaching purposes. It’s very specific technical language. Here’s drumming:
This piece is full of dynamic interest, and contains the following rudiments: flams, flamacues, flam-taps, flam accents, flam paradiddles, ratamacues, ....
The piece contains the drag, drag paradiddle, five and nine stroke rolls, single and double strokes, and lesson 25.....
Rudiments include flams, flam-taps, flam accents, lesson 25, nine stroke rolls, double paradiddles, drags, with single and double strokes.
As Bill says, “the bridge” is a formal term for part of a piece. When James Brown says “Take me to the bridge” he’s giving instructions to the musicians. When Led Zeppelin says “I can’t find the bridge” they’re presumably joking.
Besides musical language, hip language includes the language of petty crime. “Cool” originally meant “A criminal who doesn’t draw the attention of the police”. “Uncool” is someone who acts out in a way to bring trouble on himself, from the police or from law-abiding citizens.
Just out of curiousity, is there anyone who doesn’t know what “the bridge” means?
Fo shizzle Bo Benzoll.
Apologies: that should be ‘fo shizzle bo bizzoll’.
Hmm. At the risk of overanalysis: seems to me the gibberish here is in the redundancy. We assume Don has been playing standard 4/4 drums through song, except in the bridge when he plays Dum tackum, coomcoom tackum, coomcoom tackum. The producer likes this. After a standard ‘politeness’ opening gambit (’would you do me one favour, just for me?’), he makes a simple request in simple language: ‘Play that rhythm that you play in the bridge all the way through the tune.’ Everything else he says is essentially a phatic amplification of his request, amounting to nothing more than ‘...because I like the way the bridge sounds.’ Does this count as teaching, or even shop talk? Isn’t it peacock-tail display talk?
Teaching, no. Shop talk, I think so.
There is that bit about making the cuts. Do you know if, at any point in the session, they’d cut certain sections from the arrangement? That would be the most obvious meaning. So, use the same rhythm from top to bottom (beginning to end), but still make the cuts we’d made earlier. But it might also meant to lay out for a few beats at certain points while still using the same rhythm throughout.
And then, “Because it lifts right off the ground in the bridge . . . “ I’m not quite sure what that’s about, but it sounds like justification for the request.
I have no idea what kind of relationship Rubinson had with the musicians, either contractual, or informally. But this sounds like he’s trying to be collaborative rather than simply ordering them around.
For some reason, this conversation reminded me of the Great Grunge Hoax. Apparently, the very idea that each new youth subculture must develop its own unique lexicon became a perfect target for parody.
The lamestains were a little slow in figuring out they had been had.
Raymond Chandler made up all the gangster lingo in his stories. He said that using the actual words would have come across as flat. I think, however, that his choice in this comes out of what he wanted his dialogue to do, maybe something like the key light in film noir cinematography.
Apparently David Milch did something similar in Deadwood. Apparently period swearing was religiously oriented, but not so much scatology and sex. Milch figured that a heavy regime of “damnation” etc. wouldn’t carry conviction with a contemporary audience.
Good ol’ Grungean—“harsh realm” can still be heard among my acquaintances. Just as feral pop songs may end up being captured by folklorists, made-up slang sometimes crosses over into more general use. (Well, of course all slang was made up by somebody sometime, but it’s rare to catch it at the start....)
Perhaps uniquely, Dashiell Hammett’s mischievously ambiguous deployment of “gunsel” effectively shifted the definition of an existing slang word. And waddya know—a “Deadwood” writer was one of the many who took the bait.
"Gunsel” was current in prison around 1970. It seemed to mean an aggressive career-criminal homosexual prisoner, active or passive or both. ("Gay" would not really be the right term at all).
John ... were you in prison in 1970?
IIRC, the producer was trying to browbeat the guy here. Remember that Rubinson actually came from an earlier era… the 50s. (He’d been in a doo-wop group, and his vocal talents were later employed by the Grape on the faux doo-wop bits in their tune, “Ooh Mama Ohh” from “Moby Grape ‘69.
Regarding the language, as the great theorist Little Richard once explained: “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-whop-bam-boom!”