Tag Archives: Jim Gordon

The Heart of Saturday Night – Tom Waits

We’re suffering through a heatwave over much of the UK at the moment. OK, I’m suffering through it. I find genuine heat in the UK tough to take. We’re not set up for it, with our non-air conditioned houses and public transport. In London at least, the heat lingers late into the night. It’s not the daytime temperatures I can’t take; it’s the nights where it never gets below 20 degrees. We’ve now had nearly two months of this and I’m about to turn into Michael Douglas in Falling Down.

But however much I hate it right at this moment, I know it could be worse. It’s not yet at 2003 levels, when we had the hottest temperatures ever recorded in the UK (38.5°C). That summer, having just taken my finals and waiting to graduate and figure out what the hell to do next, I was working as a labourer in the maintenance department of Westminster Cathedral and listening to Tom Waits’s mid- 1970s records. So despite Waits’s music being self-evidently best heard at night, I associate those Waits records with bright sunshine, hot pavements and torrents of sweat running down my back as I weed pavements, move office furniture and scrub bricks.

James McKean had got me into Waits 18 months previously via Small Change, so I was well familiar with that already. The records that really had my attention in the summer of 2003 were The Heart of Saturday Night and the new-to-me Nighthawks at the Diner. Nighthawks I’ve written about before here. It’s spotty, and the more song-based material can feel a little underwritten at times, but at its best it’s tremendous fun, and the looseness of the set gives Waits the opportunity to just explore the furthest reaches of his drunken-beatnik persona. The best tracks, Nighthawk Postcards and Spare Parts I (A Nocturnal Emission) are hilarious, riveting – full of dazzling wordplay, indelible imagery and surreal juxtapositions. Sure, Waits wasn’t inventing anything with this style of music or lyric writing, but he had become an expert practitioner of it, and he’s so charismatic that there’s a lot of joy in just hearing him do his thing. It’s never just about the writing with Waits; it’s just as much about the delivery, and the delivery is brilliant:

Well, it was a nickel after two. Yeah, it was a nickel after two
And in the cobalt steel-blue dream smoke
Why, it was the radio that groaned out the hit parade.
And the chalk squeaked and the floorboards creaked
And an Olympia sign winked through a torn yellow shade.
Old Jack Chance himself leaning up against a Wurlitzer,
Man, he was eyeballing out a five-ball combination shot.
Impossible, you say? Hard to believe?
Perhaps out of the realm of possibility?
Naaaah.

Cause he be stretching out long tawny fingers
Out across a cool green felt in a provocative golden gate,
He got a full-table railshot that’s no sweat.
And I leaned up against my banister,
I wandered over to the Wurlitzer and I punched A2…

The bridge between the rather earnest songs on Closing Time and this cinematic piece of scene setting is of course The Heart of Saturday Night. Waits’s second album saw him partner with Bones Howe for the first time and dive deeply into jazz. Closing Time has its virtues, and its share of strong material, but it didn’t represent Waits in his totality, the Tom Waits who loved Kerouac and Lord Buckley and who’d already debuted Diamonds on My Windshield as a poem was hardly evident at all.

Jerry Yester had produced Closing Time, but David Geffen (owner of Waits’s record label, Asylum) didn’t think Yester was the man to take on the next one, and that Waits needed someone with a deeper grounding in jazz. Geffen was friends with Bones Howe, who’d been making jazz records since the 1950s with the likes of Ornette Coleman, and had even edited recordings of Kerouac reading his poetry.

Howe assembled some heavy-duty players for what would become The Heart of Saturday Night – pianist Mike Melvoin had worked with Sinatra, Peggy Lee and the Beach Boys; tragic drummer Jim Gordon The Byrds, Derek & the Dominoes, Joe Cocker and George Harrison; bassist Jim Hughart played with Joe Pass, Duke Ellington and Chet Baker. Those were just the core players: the sessions also featured Arthur Richards, Tom Scott and Oscar Brashear.

From the off, Saturday Night is a more authentically jazzy record than Closing Time. Opener New Coat of Paint sees Waits finding his way towards the vocal style he’d become known for: more hoarse, and half an octave lower than on his debut, but not quite the full-on Louis Armstrong rasp he’d develop over the next two albums. The song itself has a New Orleansy quality that has as much R&B in it as jazz. Tracks two and four, San Diego Serenade and Shiver Me Timbers, are a slight return to Waits as San Diego folksinger, although his character sketches are more sure-footed than they’d been before.

It’s the third and fifth tracks, though, that really serve notice that The Heart of Saturday Night is an evolution from his debut. Semi Suite, a woozy late-night shuffle with a sleepy horn riff, sees Waits’s delivery get overtly jazz-influenced for the first time on record (check how he plays with the melody during the line “his trou-sers are hang-ing on the chair”), while Diamonds on My Wind is a poem Waits had written a few years earlier recited over a walking bass line from Jim Hughart and an agile, uptempo shuffle from Jim Gordon.

Side one ends with the title track. It’s sometimes hard to hear The Heart of Saturday Night with fresh ears, so often (and so poorly) has it been covered in the last 15 years or so. It remains a lovely, touchingly optimistic song, though. In his twenties, Waits often appeared to want to be older, so this simple and rather naive exploration of the great American Saturday night (which feels much more like a small-town experience than an LA one) stands out all the more.

Side two is, if anything, even better. Fumbling with the Blues, as Waits biographer Barney Hoskyns points out, sounds like a standard of the St James Infirmary school, but it’s also another piece of Waitsian self-mythology: he’s “a pool-shooting shimmy-shyster”, known by name to all the bartenders. Please Call Me, Baby is the album’s great ballad. While it’s always a risk to read Waits’s lyrics as autobiographical, it does seem to have had as its genesis a row between Waits and a former girlfriend who took an extra shift at work without telling Waits she’d be late home, which led to him waiting up all night worrying. What makes the song great, though, is how Waits takes that feeling and universalises it.

Tom Waits’s 1970s records have a way of taking mundane features of city life and making them sound impossibly cool, bohemian and exciting. Depot, Depot, built on the laziest of shuffle-feel horn riffs, manages to do this even for a bus station. I loved, still love, the playfulness of Waits’ delivery, the pleasure he takes in the sounds of the words. Drunk on the Moon and The Ghosts of Saturday Night are like two sides of the same coin. Drunk on the Moon is a postcard from the middle of a night’s revelries. The moment in the middle of the song when the band just takes off in double time is one of the album’s loveliest passages.

The album ends with The Ghosts of Saturday Night, another spoken-word piece, pointing the way to similar works on Nighthawks at the Diner and Small Change. Like so many of Waits’s mid-1970s songs, it’s set in a late-night eatery. The difference is that this time it’s the one he himself had worked in, Napoleone’s Pizza House in San Diego (Napoleone’s would appear again in I Can’t Wait to Get off Work from Small Change, in which Waits namechecks the owners, Joe Sardo and Sal Crivello). Waits’s eye for detail, and his ability to conjure a living, breathing city from just a few characters, is hugely impressive:

A cab combs the snake, tryin’ to rake in that last night’s fare
And a solitary sailor, who spends the facts of his life like small change on strangers
Paws his inside peacoat pocket for a welcome 25 cents
And the last bent butt from a package of Kents
As he dreams of a waitress with Maxwell House eyes
And marmalade thighs with scrambled yellow hair
Her rhinestone-studded moniker says “Irene”
As she wipes the wisps of dishwater blonde from her eyes.
The Texaco beacon burns on.
The steel-belted attendant with a Ring and Valve Special cryin’
“Fill ‘er up and check that oil.
You know it could be your distributor and it could be your coil.”

It’s easy to look at this song and Diamonds on My Windshield and recognise in them the ideas that Waits would pursue further in the next few years. But The Heart of Saturday Night is more than just a signpost towards achievements to come. Taken on its own terms, it’s one of the strongest collections of songs that Waits ever put out. Perhaps with the exception of Shiver Me Timbers, there’s not a weak song on it. Indeed, there was a time I’d have pointed to it as my favourite album by anyone ever. If you’re a Waits agnostic, it’s definitely a record to check out. It’s great in its own right, and it’s a good way into his mid-seventies work.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

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Give some to the bass player, part 1 – California Dreamin’ by the Mamas & the Papas

For years I disdained straight eights with a convert’s zeal.

I started playing bass at around 14 when it became clear that my high school friends did not want another guitar player in their band but needed someone to play bass. If I wanted to be in a band, and I did, bass it would be.

We played Nirvana covers and our own songs in that style, so the bass lines were very often nothing but straight eights, just the roots. A one-string version of the guitar part, an octave down – the simplest way to play bass. It worked for Krist Novoselic, it worked for Kim Deal. I was familiar with a few bass players who did more (people such as Colin Greenwood, Mike Mills, Leslie Langstone), but it was never really necessary for me to learn how to play like that.

Locking in to the kick and playing with fingers was something I learned later (when I played in a country/folk band called Great Days of Sail with my friend Yo Zushi) and to this day, even though I know I keep better time playing eights with a pick, I always approach a new song without a pick, and start by locking in with the kick and seeing how that sounds.

It’s needless purism. Plenty of truly great bass players have been primarily (or even exclusively) pick players: Carol Kaye, Paul McCartney, Rick Danko and Joe Osborn to name just a very few. Joe Osborn is a studio bassist, one of the so-called Wrecking Crew who played sessions in LA and New York for Phil Spector and artists like the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas, the Carpenters, the Monkees and Simon & Garfunkel. These folks – a loose network rather than a tight and consistent unit – were some of the best in the business: drummers including Earl Palmer, Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon; bassists like Osborn, Carole Kaye and Jimmy Bond; guitarists Glen Campbell, James Burton and Barney Kessel; the list goes on. Heavy-duty players.

What’s great about Osborn’s bass line is the way he swaps between locking with the kick in the verses and a more propulsive straight-eights part in the chorus and under the flute solo. It’s perfectly judged, musically astute and surprisingly tough-sounding. However pretty the melody and vocal harmonies are, California Dreamin’ is a song with iron in its heart, and Joe Osborn knew it.

Joe-Osborn-studio

Mamas

top: Joe Osborn, 1967; bottom: the Mamas & the Papas

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved, Part 3

6) Beware of Darkness – George Harrison

There are still people in this world – people without functioning ears, I assume – who labour under the misapprehension that Ringo Starr wasn’t a good drummer. Lennon’s joke in an interview that Ringo wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles hasn’t helped his reputation amongst non-musicians (and people who don’t understand irony), but even though Lennon’s humour could be cruel, this wasn’t what he intended when he made the crack, I’m sure – after all, who is the drummer on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band?

The former Beatles were prize catches for any session player in the early 1970s and as much as Lennon obviously respected and trusted Ringo’s musicianship, it was only natural that after 10 years with the same guys, the ex-Beatles would look to cast their nets a little wider when making their own albums, play with other people, see what others could contribute to their songs. Such was their colossal reputations, to get a nod from a Beatle and get to play on a song would establish the musician’s own rep among his peers. Alan White was not a ‘name’ when he played on Instant Karma but, impressed by him, soon Lennon introduced him to George Harrison and so White was added to the pool of drummers who appear on All Things Must Pass, along with Jim Gordon, former Delaney & Bonnie sideman, and a member of the nascent Derek & the Dominoes at the time of the All Things Must Pass sessions.

Added to this short and august list is Ringo Starr. Playing Guess the Drummer is one of the greatest pleasures of Harrison’s solo debut. You often need acute ears to tell the three apart, which speaks to the adaptability of the trio, their ability to inhabit the music, to put themselves at the music’s service.

At a brisker tempo (say, on Wah-Wah), Ringo’s playing starts to feel more identifiably Ringo-esque, but on Beware of Darkness, you could be listening to Jim Keltner, to Russ Kunkel, or to anyone else who built their career in the seventies on being able to play slow four-four grooves that swing rather than plod. There is so much more to Ringo Starr than splashy open hi-hats and backwards fills. Listen to Beware of Darkness. Listen to Ringo’s groove, the spaces he leaves for the music to breathe, listen to fills he plays, the emotional responses he’s having to the song when he plays them. You’re listening to the most important drummer in popular music.

Ringo

7) Careless Whisper – George Michael

Those who know me best know I’m not averse to a little bit of cheese in a good ballad. For many people, Careless Whisper goes too far. Maybe it’s the lyrics, maybe the saxophone riff, maybe George’s Princess Diana hair in the video, but it’s too much for them.

For me, though, it’s fine. More than fine. It’s one of the best records of its type. A key reason why is the drum track, played by Trevor Morrell, who was one of George Michael’s go-to guys in the Wham! days. Morrell is a very steady timekeeper with a good feel and who (according to the Posies Ken Stringfellow, who a few years ago chanced upon him while producing a record in Spain and ended up bringing him into the session) gives the drums a surprisingly hard battering.

There’s a lot to learn about the success of Careless Whisper as a recording by listening to the Jerry Wexler-produced version, which was shelved by an unhappy Michael but eventually released as a B-side. Jerry Wexler producing a soulful ballad by a great singer in Muscle Shoals – this had been a recipe for success for 30 years before Careless Whisper, yet when you listen to the two versions, it’s clear why Michael nixed the first one and chose to start again, producing it himself.

The rhythm track is a key difference. It just doesn’t feel very good. In the key early bars, the bassist is ahead of the kick drum, and while they feel their way into it by the first chorus, I’m surprised the take was judged to pass muster without editing in a new first verse. But even if they had been super-tight, the drum track would still have been inferior to the Michael-produced version. Wexler’s version has the kick drum and bassist playing this:

beats    1     &     2     &     3     &     4     &

kick       x                     x      x

bass     x                      x     x

Whereas the Careless Whisper we know and love is this:

beats    1     &     2     &     3     &     4     &

kick       x                         x  x

bass     x                      x     x

Small difference in terms of what is played, huge difference in terms of how it feels.

Another simple decision, to have 16th notes on the hi-hat rather than 8th, thus giving the song a greater sense of internal propulsion, was the other factor that made the drum track, and hence made the record. I’m not sure whether they were doubled on a drum machine for the second version, as a hi-hat pulse is present under the opening fill (which would require more hands I imagine Morrell has), but the difference the double-time hats make is plain. Morrell pushes Careless Whisper along while never forcing things, never stepping on Michael’s turf (or the saxophonist’s). Some of his fills, too, are inspired – I really like the big floor tom-and-snare build-up Morrell plays at around 4.35 as he goes out of the tricksy groove with displaced snare strokes back to the main groove. My guess is that he was having a bit of fun, assuming the track (or at least the radio mix) would have faded out already but his off-the-cuff fills felt so good that Michael decided to keep the whole thing for the unedited version. Good decision, George.