Friday, August 28, 2015

Driver 8

Peter Buck once said,
"I can write that kind of stuff in my sleep. I can write 'Driver 8' every day of the week. We all can."
Peter, my man. I don't know how else to put this, so I'm just going to blunt, something I believe you appreciate.

Go fuck yourself.

In case my meaning isn't obvious, please allow me to elucidate.

One of my favorite quotes about music is in regards to the Miles Davis masterpiece Kind of Blue. Some extremely sagacious soul once wrote that there were hundreds of trumpet players who could have played Miles' solos on that album, and not one other who could have written them.

That's "Driver 8."

I get where you're coming from, man, I do. Your point is that it's a mid-tempo song in a minor key, that it utilizes the E Minor-to-A Minor chord change so beloved by bands and artists such as the Beatles, Elvis Costello and oh yes, R.E.M. It's moody and atmospheric and has a cool riff and moves to the major for the chorus and a different minor for the bridge and ends unresolved and has mysterious unfathomable words and all that. I get it. I do. You spell it out like that and it's clearly so formulaic.

Except one actual listen to the actual song blows that theory to shit. That ringing guitar riff that drives the song? There aren't hundreds, there are thousands, millions of people who could've played that. And there was exactly one person in the world who could've written it and, surprise surprise, he did! And that person—SPOILER!—was you! What are the odds?

Bill Berry's drums are so basic, so straightforward, and as you well know, finding someone with the restraint to play just those quarter notes on the cymbal, just those half notes on the snare, that simple kick drum pattern, when they can play stuff so much more complex...well, that ain't easy. Listen to the way, in the intro, Berry doesn't even play the cymbal on the final beat of the fourth measure, instead moving his right hand to the floor tom. There is no way that tiny little bit wasn't written only after playing the song a few hundred times, honing and honing and honing it down to its purest essence. Easiest thing in the world to play, hardest thing in the world to find someone willing to play.

Or check the bass line. Mike Mills mirrors the guitar lick for the first half of the riff and then—in direct opposition to the way these things usually go—gets busier, doubling his own notes, going almost contrapuntal with his note choices. This is part of the R.E.M. DNA, as Mills, a far superior technician, rumbles below more busily as Buck chimes up above.

Then look at how the bass works with the chords. Take a gander at the chord progression for the verses. Simple as can be: em-am-G. The first two chords held for four beats each, and then they hang on the G for two entire measures. Except that for that second of those G measures, Mike slips from the root of that chord down a step to the F#. It's a little thing, a tiny thing, that change. It's just one little note, but it makes so much difference, by keeping the chord progression/riff from sounding too pat, too resolved, too hackneyed, too ordinary. As my imaginary friend Chris says, "It gives the progression (and song) just enough unsettled darkness and uncertainty to keep propelling it forward, and goddamn if it doesn't makes the song actually sounds like a lonely tired train (conductor) plowing through the darkness." Also note that that F# is a seventh of G, and if that F# had been played an octave higher, it would've sounded like a pretty and mellow and mildly melancholy folk chord. But no...our boy(s) chose to play that note beneath the root (G) in a lower register, where it become the footing of the chord structure but down there it sounds darker, and unsure.

It's a great chord progression: simple, to the point, memorable. But the band must have felt that something else was needed there. Some recurring guitar fill? Nah, too shrill, and distracting, and if it were the same guitar fill all the time it would get annoying, and if it were a different guitar fill every time, it would be annoying and distracting. Drum fill/feature? Same problems. But since Mike's solution was on bass, you feel it as much as you hear it, and it doesn't fight any of the other instruments, either in frequency or rhythm. It's brilliantly contrapuntal is pretty much every single way. Also also also, for an added additional level of so-fucking-awesome, dig how that recurring bass riff works with the vocals. Sometimes the vocals happen over that riff, sometimes not, but whatever the vocal part does, it always always works with that busy bass part.

That's how this little band was.  Those two measure of bass reminds one of the super-filligreed wrought iron work on balconies in New Orleans—super-detailed and dense and twisty, but it's black and dark (aka lower frequency) so it doesn't pop or annoy or distract. Instead, it performs a structural function and, as a nice secondary benefit, is also quietly gorgeous. And, as with lots of bass parts, people might not be able to point to it or hum it, but they would definitely notice if it weren't there—the song would feel wrong and ungrounded and its emotional direction would be less clear.

Hey, you know what band did this before you mooks? Hold on, let me do the math...carry the, wait borrow the one...and...that's right, no one. Oh, sure, there was some slightly similarity in previous power trios—since that's essentially what you guys were—with Cream and the Police sometimes inverting traditional instrumental roles, but no one came up with the solutions you did. Maybe because no one else had Mike Mills and Peter Buck in the band.

And then there are the words. Oh, the words. "She is selling faith on a go-tell crusade." Michael Stipe admitted he didn't know where that came from, but remarked upon how authentically southern it is. Which illustrates exactly where it came from. Because for all R.E.M. was actually made up of transplants—Berry from Minnesota, Buck and Mills from Cali, Stipe a transient military brat—the entire band had by this time soaked up enough southern ambience to [almost] literally be part kudzu, and none more so than the sponge-like Stipe.

"Children look up, all they hear is sky-blue bells ringing." Good Lord.

"Way to put myself, my children to sleep" is so goddamn powerful, so evocative, even as you may not be exactly sure what it means, and what could be more authentically southern than that?

Ultimately, the secret to the song may just be the secret not just this most mysterious of their albums, but to R.E.M.'s entire career and oeuvre: "We can reach our destination...but we're still a ways away." It's the journey that matters, not the actual getting to the actual end.

So. There was one and exactly one band who could have come up with "Driver 8." The best American band in the history of rock and roll.

Oh, also, Peter? As you yourself said, Bill wrote the verses.

so there

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