There are a lot of things that are difficult to make sense of: the golden ratio, the fact that the United States claims more gun deaths since 1968 than in every American war since America was a nation, Ke$sha. Every week, I fasten my ass to this chair and grasp at commonalities, at threads that might help us rationalize things in some greater context (to that end, I’m currently reading “Snow Crash”), so much so, and so knee-jerkedly so, I tend to forget to let matters germinate, to stew over them. I rail so often against reactionaries, and so often prove myself one.
In which case, I’m going to preemptively take my own advice and shut up, at least for a week. As justification, here are three instances of people much wiser and talented than me doing just that.
1. Van Morrison, “Caravan”
It’s not like this song hasn’t been thoroughly, almost disgustingly lauded. It’s the one song off of the one full Van album that most people have in their collections. These folks, at least, know enough to know that Van Morrison himself hates “Brown Eyed Girl” so much that if he could channel all the rage induced in him by that song into one punch, Baby Boomers would just now be coming out of their comas.
“Caravan” is easily Morrison’s catchiest song, and it’s commendable that he makes stalking gypsies hummable. And certainly, “la la las” in a pop chorus are nothing new. But look at the song structure: each verse is little more than a description of a certain aspect of traveler life, followed by the aforementioned chorus. The narrator, realizing that description is utterly futile in service to delineating the gypsy soul, resorts to a full-throated, joyful caterwaul.
The Message: Sometimes, that which is most primitive makes us human. Sometimes, that which is most primitive is most holy.
2. Between the Buried and Me, “Mordecai”
As my senior year college roommate said, “Why don’t they just call themselves Dirt?” As I said, “There’s already a band called Soil; they’re terrible.” And BTBAM deserve no such comparison.
I reviewed one or two of this band’s albums back when that was my main job at the Metro Spirit, and I’ve always found them to be, legitimately, one of the more exciting outfits out there, if only — I’m looking at you, “Colors” — for their sheer unpredictability. But breakthrough album “The Silent Circus” sees the guys still firmly entrenched in metallic spazz-core, typically only hinting at melody underneath a miasma of lurching time signatures, laser-guided guitar wankery and gravel-gargling free-form poetry.
Except, that is, for “Mordecai.” For much of its nearly six-minute runtime, the song tests your patience and your math skills, spring boarding all over the x/y axis with a broken distortion knob. But about halfway through, the mutation begins: first as a spacey, jazzy, still somewhat sinister stopgap, with singer Tommy Giles Rogers even breaking out the rare clean vocals — in fact, it’s arguable that the song’s true climax comes after the moment I’m concerned with, as Rogers rides a soaring guitar line to mournful, moving notes.
But it’s lead guitarist Paul Waggoner who truly owns the track. Preceding Rogers’ standout performance, Waggoner reaches deep down, past the bag of tricks, and uncorks a plaintive, clean-toned, almost flamenco-tinged solo that holds the listener captive even as it prepares him for what follows. It is masterfully done, a graduate-level demonstration of not only musicianship, but of how to have your moment in the sun without overshadowing those around you.
The Message: We all live in service of something. The sooner you find out what, the better.
3. Blind Willie Johnson, “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground”
If ever there was a martyr, Blind Willie Johnson fit the bill. Allegedly blinded when his stepmother threw lye in his face at age seven, he sang and busked on street corners in various Texas cities throughout his early life until he managed to scrape together enough meager funds and followers to start a church, which he ran until his death in 1945. Sleeping on a wet mattress in the burned ruins of his home in the late summer Texas heat, he contracted malarial fever, and was refused admittance to a hospital due to his blindness, his blackness, or both.
The world gave Blind Willie little, but he gave the world a hell of a lot more. His distinguishable deep, gravelly bass singing voice is spiritual grandfather to Don van Vliet and Tom Waits, but it is his nearly vocal-less performance of ancient hymn “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground” that immortalizes Johnson.
A slide piece in open D tuning — apocrypha states that Johnson utilized a pocket knife — there is no one standout moment; the entirety is haunting, harrowing and heartbreaking. The man may have been singing about Christ’s crucifixion, but the combination of his piercing, droning guitar and trembling tenor speaks to heathen and the faithful alike. “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground” was shot into space on a Voyager project, and it will probably be what saves us from certain annihilation.
The Message: True faith requires no words — only a ready heart, a sensitive ear and a pair of steady hands.