Friday, April 12, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: St. Elmo's Fire
I don’t know what possessed me to pick up an expensive import copy of Brian Eno’s Music for Films when I ran across it in a small independent record store in Washington D.C. when I was about seventeen. I’d never heard a single second Eno’s work, although I knew him from his collaborations with David Bowie and, to a much lesser extent, Talking Heads.

But buy it I did. And when I got home a few days later, I cranked up the stereo, having not the slightest idea what to expect. I listened. And a bit less than an hour later when I was able to move again, I shut my mouth, picked up my eyeballs from where they’d fallen on the floor and popped them back in. And my life has never been the same since. I’d bought my first ambient record.

Ambient, to me, often sounds like what I’d imagine a long space voyage would sound like if the spaceship were built in the late seventies and the designers were inspired by the sterile beauty of Stanley Kubrick’s films. It’s usually fairly or very slow, although sometimes the beat is so ambiguous as to be almost missing altogether. On most of Eno’s ambient recordings there are rarely any percussion instruments used in the normal way. Things shift in and out of focus, appear and disappear, come and go, as though you’re traveling through a musical fog. Here, listen to this—it's the very first Eno I ever heard:

Right? See what I'm sayin'? Didn't that just totally fill your very soul with a heady and untenable combination of quiet peace and desperate longing? It sounds, to me, like lying back, all alone, staring up at the sky on a beautiful spring day in a verdant, pastoral (is there any other kind?) field which happens to be located on a spaceship bound for a distant galaxy on a decades-long voyage.

This is not music for everybody, I realize. During my college years I played Music for Films several times a week, I’d guess, when I wasn’t playing The Replacements or R.E.M. or Springsteen. It was a sort of aural palate cleanser. The only other Eno I bought back then was Another Green World which is, for my money, his masterpiece. Another Green World is a bridge between Eno’s ambient work and his more traditional pop-related material. In fact, most of the album is actually ambient, something which is easy to overlook, so striking are the numbers with lyrics. Chief among them is the odd piece of pop perfection which is "St. Elmo’s Fire."

I’ve never been entirely sure why this song smacked me over the head as it did the very first time I heard it, but writing the piece just now, I played it a half-dozen times in a row and the thing still does a number on me. It’s superficially a straight-forward pop song, three minutes long, three verses, three choruses, guitar solo, the whole regular schmeer. Yet it’s sort of a really catchy pop song done by an alien who’s really, really familiar with our culture and gets it completely…almost.

It starts off with some knocking, perhaps wood blocks, perhaps not and the sound of something, perhaps a tape, starting up. Then a few notes are repeated over and over on the piano, a driving motion that’ll serve as the pulse of the song. Some clattering percussion, almost devoid of rhythm, enters. Insistent chords bang out on another keyboard instrument, first insistently syncopated but subtly shifting so it’s instead squarely on the first downbeat. And then Eno starts singing.

He’s got a somewhat talky sort of voice but if it’s not necessarily much better than other talkers like Lou Reed (when Reed cares to try) or J Mascis, it’s a bit more accessible and less grating. It may not knock Lennon or McCartney off their perches as amongst the greatest rock voices ever, but it fits the material.

The first verse lets us know what we’re in for:
Brown Eyes and I were tired
We had walked and we had scrambled
Through the moors and through the briars
Through the endless blue meanders
And without a pause we go into the chorus:
In the blue August moon
In the cool August moon
What does any of this mean? What could endless blue meanders be? After listening hundreds of times, I have no idea. Nor could I possibly care less. The words work. The sound of them, the images they convey, the tone they set, are all that matters. They sound good and somehow manage to mean nothing in a rather poetic way without being pretentious at all. They’re almost little more than another instrument, like the piano or the percussion or the guitar solo, yet weighted with some emotional resonance I don’t fully understand. Another verse and another trip through the chorus gives us more of the same:
Over the nights and through the fires
We went surging down the wires
Through the towns and on the highways
Through the storms in all their thundering

In the blue August moon In the cool August moon 
Then the final verse:
Then we rested in a desert
Where the bones were white as teeth, sir
And we saw St. Elmo’s Fire
Splitting ions in the ether
Again, the scene set is beautiful and haunting and if we get no more than stray images and a hint of story supplied mainly by ourselves, it’s no less powerful for that. And then comes what may be the most amazing part of the song: the guitar solo.

As Eno is not one to bow to tradition just for tradition’s sake, there aren’t a lot of solos in his work. Yet here he’s got a guitar solo right smack dab in the standard place. Except that it’s not. For one thing, rather than soloing over the verse chords or the chorus chords once, the guitarist, King Crimson leader and frequent Eno collaborator Robert Fripp, solos over the chorus chords, seems about to wrap things up, and then decides to go over another chorus. What’s more, when the lyrics kick back in for two more choruses, he keeps soloing, albeit more softly. Which means that very nearly one-third of the entire song is the guitar solo—and well over one-half if you include the sections where Eno is also singing over the solo—a ratio wildly out of balance for a pop song. Meanwhile, harmonically, the entire song is remarkably simple, with the verses consisting of nothing more than the I chord, and the chorus just vi-IV-V repeated over and over.

But more than anything it’s the sound and style of the solo itself that’s so stunning. It’s not clear whether Fripp wasn’t sure what to play or whether he was just asking Eno what he was looking for, but Eno later said:
"...on ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ I had this idea and said to Fripp, ‘Do you know what a Wimshurst machine is?’ It’s a device for generating very high voltages which then leap between the two poles, and it has a certain erratic contour, and I said, ‘You have to imagine a guitar line that has that, very fast and unpredictable.’ And he played that part which to me was very Wimshurst indeed."
So if you can just picture those two poles in the background in all the Frankenstein films, with the electricity sparking back and forth between them, you can imagine this solo. It’s a really gorgeous and melodic version of that. And it’s the combination of the anarchic, blistering guitar solo, the odd instrumentation elsewhere in the song, the impressionistic lyrics and the sheer melodic appeal of the tune itself that makes this one of the great, albeit rather obscure, pop songs in history.
In the blue August moon
In the cool August moon
In the blue August moo
In the cool August moon
It was only recently, though, that I realized that Eno's lyrics are essentially a highly intellectualized version of "a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom" or "da-doo-ron-ron-ron" or "sha-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-tee-da" or "de-do-do-do-de-da-da-da" or, for that matter, "hello, hello, hello, how low." There are somethings which regular words are not capable of quite capturing, and sometimes words mean so much more than they seem.

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