Sunday, April 23, 2017
So sometimes you just write the perfect song, with the perfect music to go with it. And you need, sometimes, to be far far away.
This song would not work, would not be the thing it was, exploding into everyone's head and heart, taking everyone by storm, if the voice hadn't been English, talking about a mystery American band, The Sultans of Swing, that played so the song says, "creole," so the band's from "way down south," and the band is the romantic idea, they just go out on Friday nights to someplace local, they have regular jobs (Dire Straits wrote about this again, this regular job thing: "he might get a blister on his thumb...", meanwhile, "we got to move these refrigerators, got to move these color tvs"...) So the Sultans are great, but nobody outside of town knows them.
The song isn't "creole." It's sort of country in a way, particularly the little phrase that ends each part, which you can hear in a million country and bluegrass songs, a kind of tag. And the song tells this great story, with many of the Sultans being particularized, verse by verse and told by this tired, sort of cynical voice. But what caps it all off, what blew my mind the first time I heard it on the radio, the original single back when they did that, which is really so perfect, better than this fine live version from a year after the hit, on German tv, which is it's own delight because you can see the band, still young and on top of their game, is the guitar solos. My gawd!
There's a Gary Snyder poem about this moment where something you don't expect smacks you in the face, but in a good, even transcendent way. I think it's called For the Boy Who Was Dodger Point Lookout Fifteen Years Ago. Towards the end Snyder writes:
I don’t know where she is now;
I never asked your name.
In this burning, muddy, lying,
that quiet meeting in the mountains
cool and gentle as the muzzles of
three elk, helps keep me sane.
Sultans is like this. It's a moment that transcends. It says it's not all lost in this Trump world of pretty much pure shit. Just like when Snyder was writing, which was I think 1951, so that's the Korean War now isn't it. If you look some things can still keep you sane. Stuff from out beyond the edge, away from the campfire.
Trump labors with a tragic disability. It comes up all the time, if you look. He wants to blame the past for everything. He says, pretty much constantly, "the world is a mess." In the case of Korea, he picks Bill Clinton as somehow the culprit, even though Bill Clinton tried to negotiate with the grandfather of Mr. Un, the current ruler. But why in the world stop there, if you want to blame someone for the world being in a current mess? Korea is a partitioned nightmare because General McArthur went against President Truman's orders and got up too close to the Chinese border, which drew the Chinese Army into the war. After that the United States finally had to find a compromise, and the compromise was a partitioned Korea, with the two antagonists forever locked in combat. Or, if you like, why not go back to the Japanese, who occupied Korea before the civil war started.
How sad. But it's a pretty, rainy day here. The rain is knocking the forest fire hazard back to zero around here. It's chilly enough that we might need a fire in the stove too! Click Sultans on repeat up there at the top. Be uplifted.
Update: This post is really about my first few experiences of the song Sultans of Swing. Here's a lot more objective information about the song: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sultans_of_Swing As you can see, the band depicted in the song is playing way "down south" in south London. Who knew? Probably everybody but me. But it doesn't much matter. The experience I had was much like Snyder's experience in his poem. That's the point. There's one other thing. The band I was in was on the road a lot in '79, when Sultans was on the radio. We heard it riding through the night. And I think that the first thing that hit us was a line deep in the song: "don't give a damn about no trumpet-playing band, it's not what they call rock and roll..." Hey. We were a "trumpet-playing band," and in the middle of '79 I think it was, someone up in Wise, VA at a hard-core bluegrass festival hit the trumpet-player in the thigh with a purple sno-cone flung from somewhere deep in the audience, while he was doing a trumpet break. And there's still another thing about Sultans. There ain't nothing more kick-ass than a change from minor to major in the middle of a melody. That, too, is transcendent. You can't do it every song, but put a song like that in the heart of a set and you will own the crowd. I guarantee it.