This is the third and final installment of the Wanderwand series—three essays on my ten favourite guitarists. Read it now before I write three prequels that include a Rasta speaking 'bombad' amphibian that ruins the whole thing for everyone.
Thelonious Monk once said... Sorry... And 'Midichlorians'! Nice one George! Way to stomp all over my childhood dreams with some pseudo-scientific sounding bunch of baloney Batha bullsh*t that runs roughshod over the whole beautiful zen chivalric Jedi thing you... (sigh) I digress.
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
Monk probably said it around the time choreographer Merce Cunningham really was dancing about architecture, and of course nowadays dancers and architects have been 'architecting' about dance and vice versa for a long time. But I agree with Monk that writing about music can be hard—well, at least it is for me.
Being a trained musician—which isn't a grand statement; seals can be trained after all—I’ve done a good job so far avoiding writing about music. With the exception of these three posts on my favourite guitarists. But I’m surprised by how much fun it is. I thought it would be a drag.
So far I've been treating music-writing like wine-tasting. Someone once told me that when tasting wines, your first impressions are the most important. If you smell strawberries, say strawberries. If it tastes like hessian, that's exactly right. It's as simple as that. So, with these entries I've been following whatever impressions come up and seeing where they lead.
And considering I know as much about wine-tasting as I do about music-writing, I present to you in all humbleness my last three selections. Three cheeky numbers that... Yeah, ok. I'm not going to go there.
8/3. Johnny Marr (The Smiths) – “How soon is now?”
To tell the truth, I'm not a big Smiths fan.
I like the idea of liking them. But every time I try, I get bored after three songs and find something else to listen to.
It's the same with opera—at the risk of offending both opera fans and Smiths fans. From my admittedly ill-informed view, what opera and The Smiths have in common is a lot of histrionics which are at odds with the mode of address where they find their expression. I mean, back when I was a young Japanese girl and I tried to ritualistically kill myself after being jilted by my American navy officer lover, the last thing I wanted to do was sing about it. For me, those two things don't logically flow from one to the other—theexperience of something traumatic followed by an immediate impulse to fill my lungs and try to make pretty sounds with the air that comes out.
With The Smiths, Morrissey is always waxing maudlin, but the songs themselves are usually so goddamn unbearably bright and jangly. The effect on me is like that travel sickness 'lurchy' feeling you sometimes get in the car; an effect caused by a mismatch of sensory information—your eyes are telling you you're moving at a certain speed, while your stomach feels like it's lagging behind.
The exception, however, is "How soon is now?". "How soon" tells a very honest tale of unrequited longing, but Johnny Marr's playing on this track is quite different from the rest of the Smith's back catalog. Compared to The Smiths usual melodic chirpiness, this song has so much grittiness, depth and texture. There's the Bo Diddley-inspired rhythm guitar, complimented by that heavy, see-saw tremolo, and of course the tortured, howling slide guitar glissandos. (Glissandos? Glissandi? Those steely, slidy, slippy bits in the chorus.)
As clichéd as it is to say, Marr builds up different layers like a painter. There's a track where he's striking the guitar; another where he's playing lead, and other tracks where he adds little melodies and octaves and whatnot.
I have this feeling that Radiohead wouldn't have quite been Radiohead without this song.
(Also, "This Charming Man" is pretty good.)
9/2. Emily Remler — "Softly as a morning sunrise"
Holy crap there's a woman on this list! Sadly, only one.
It's outrageous to realise that so far Wunderwand has been a complete German sausage-fest. Perhaps it's a reflection of an unconscious bias from when I was young, when most of these early idealisations were formed. But it's also a reflection of the woeful invisibility of women in the music industry.
When I studied music, there were three women instrumentalists in my course of about thirty men, which makes the proportion of their representation here much the same. It probably says something about my generation more than anything else. And then, of course, there's that aspect of the whole guitar hero thing that smacks of cock-rockin' machismo and far greater attention to one's hair than most women give.
Things are changing in how we view and celebrate women's achievements. But the change so far has been glacial.
Anyway, when I was studying jazz we had this class where you had to pick a player who you admired and transcribe a few of their solos. Then you had to give a short presentation in front of the class and play along with their recordings. It sounds a bit naff, but all of us learnt a lot doing it.
For one of these presentations, I picked the American guitarist Emily Remler. No one in the class had heard of her, but afterwards everyone thought she was fantastic.
When I was doing my research on Remler, I was stunned to learn my guitar teacher had played with her one time when she toured Perth. He gave me a copy of the concert on tape as a present. Also that year we had a visiting bassist from Sydney, teaching us for a semester. When I mentioned I was working on some Emily Remler transcriptions he said, "Oh!" and stopped. "I was the last person to see her."
I knew she had died young, but I didn't know the story. Remler had come to Australia in 1990 for her second tour of the country. The bass player I mentioned and his wife picked her up from the airport. On the way back to their house, Remler asked if they could visit King's Cross. Later that night, once they were home, they noticed Remler had been in the bath for an unusually long time, and when they knocked there was no answer.
Emily had struggled with heroin addiction for most of her adult life, and the reason for her visit 'The Cross' was to score. She was 32.
As an artist, she's still little-known and that's sad too. East to Wes is a wonderful album for those who haven't heard her.
Here I've picked "Softly as a morning sunrise." As far as jazz standards go, it's a pretty easy one to play, so nine out of ten players burn all over this tune at breakneck speeds. One of the best things about Remler's playing is her carefully considered arrangements and her beautiful touch on the guitar. Here her arrangement takes its cue from the title of the song. The chords and melody ascend and descend beautifully out of the silence, and then the melody appears giving impressions of the sun's early brilliance.
Sorry, I'm a bit fanatical about her.
Playing the melody using harmonics? Mwah! Magnifique!
I gained a lot from listening to her play, and often sing along to her solos. I learnt to emulate her sound by turning my amp up loud and playing very softly. It gives you a warm tone like she has.
Et maintenant, la pièce de résistance, numéro dix or un or whatever crazy mixed up numbering system I've been using so I can count both up and down simultaneously...
10/1. James Wilsey (Chris Isaak) — "Wicked game"
I had no idea who played that haunting guitar line on "Wicked game" until I wrote this. Yet I have carried James Wilsey's melody with me to every rehearsal andrecording session I've ever been to. To me it's the high watermark of what can be done on the guitar. Simple, elegant, restrained, moody, lost.
Guitar nerd alert: Played on a strat, not a big-body semi-acoustic like we all imagine.
That sound! Those smooth, glassy, unnatural bends. The note starts in one place and then cracks and settles in another. It almost sounds like a 13 year-old boy's voice which is breaking, but slowed down a thousand times. Or a kind of way-super-cool yodel, howling in an empty 'reverbed-out' wilderness.
The less said the better.
Open a red, put your feet up, turn it on.