Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Possessed Players!

When it comes to musicians having made a pact with the devil, there are few who believe such stories. But the rumours abound, sometimes based in the debauchery or sinful behaviour of the musicians themselves. Some are based in the wild upswing in popularity of an artist, and some are based on the idea that one person or group of persons had a little too much of an uncanny talent to believe that there was no supernatural involvement. In other words, these players may have been possessed, and owe their 'gifts' to a seemingly otherworldly power.

Robert Johnson: Robert Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, mostly for his influence upon other guitar players. It's obvious that many, if not all of the most famous early Rock and Roll guitarists and musicians took a little bit of this, that and the other idea from Robert Johnson. It's also true that the first Rock and Roll songs were deeply rooted in Black American Music, namely the Blues and Jump-bands or 'Rhythym and Blues' as it was called in New Orleans. Rock & Roll owes a lot to those blues players and certainly Robert Johnson counts as one of those who helped to 'give birth' to what eventually became Rock and Roll.
   But when it comes right down to it, Johnson pre-dated true 'rock & roll'  by almost 20 years. Unlike Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Willie Dixon, Johnson was long dead before Rock & Roll came to prominence in the USA. The height of Johnson's career as a musician was deeply embedded in the depression era in the southern United States. This was not the Chicago-style Blues that Rock and Roll is essentially based on, but the Mississippi Delta Blues in its true inception, and its' expression and artistry were born from the hardest of hard times.
  Listening to Johnson comes with a brooding consequence: everyone knows the story that he sold his soul to the devil. He practically admitted it in the song Crossroads, and many of his songs told terrible, frightening tales of how he had cheated on women, how hell hounds were chasing him, how the devil had entered his mind, and how he would deal with his cheating girlfriend by beating her until he was satisfied.
   But was this all a matter of the heebie jeebies? A few scary songs and suddenly everyone believes that he signed his soul away to Satan? No, it isn't the subject-matter of the songs that convinces people of his pact with the devil... instead it's the sophistication of the playing and lyrics.
    It's well known that Robert Johnson was not a child prodigy on the guitar. Instead, he picked up the instrument later in life. In 1929, Son House, described a younger Robert Johnson as an 'embarrassingly bad' guitarist and an adequate harmonica player. Yet, somehow, Johnson seemed able to learn new songs very quickly. He traveled extensively during his career, either hitch-hiking or touring alongside other musicians which certainly added to his playing experience, but while other musicians largely stayed in the same sort of range of ability, Johnson seemed to pick-up new music with every performance, often learning local songs and crowd-pleasers for specific shows in specific towns. Johnson died in 1938 at the age of 27, and many of his recordings were from his middle-twenties. Assuming he really applied himself to the guitar in his mid-teen years, that would mean that Johnson went from 'embarrassingly bad' to the top of his profession in something less than ten years. All done without formal training, only learning by himself, and from his friends and colleagues. Needless to say, this happened long before the Internet or the widespread proliferation of public-access libraries.
   Robert Johnson was not uneducated for his time, likely receiving what is now about a grade eight or nine level of schooling. But some of his song lyrics suggest true poetry, likely without the benefit of being taught specific poetry techniques. Few can listen to Robert Johnson's rendition of Love in Vain without shedding a tear.
   In several of Robert Johnson's recordings, the playing becomes more impressive. Many young  guitar-players and new listeners to Johnson are very surprised when they hear his songs and the full range of his ability, but especially when they hear the song Kind-Hearted Woman Blues, in which Johnson appears to be playing rhythm guitar and a solo at the same time. Most people, when they first hear the song, assume there is another guitar player. Upon realizing it's Johnson alone, the second guess is that this is some  kind of recording-trick, but in the 1930s they recorded music directly to 78 rpm acetate disks... there was no such thing as erasable or multi-track tape or even stereophonic sound. There are only two 'takes' of the song Kind-hearted Woman Blues, one with the solo and one without. And suddenly one begins to wonder if this man did sell his soul. If not, then where did this ability and sophistication come from? It doesn't seem quite impossible, but it is very surprising.
Led Zeppelin:
Was it because of Jimmy Page's fascination with Alistair Crowley? Was it the wild parties at cheap hotels? Was it backwards lyrics? Was it the drugs and debauchery? Or was it sheer musical skill that suggested that Led Zeppelin had sold their souls to the devil?
 When Jack Black introduced Led Zeppelin to be recognized at the Kennedy Center in 2013, he announced it as a foregone conclusion that they had done it, suggesting to the three remaining members of Led Zeppelin: "While you burn in hell, the human race will cherish your heavenly jams until the end of time."
 Individually, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones were the experienced studio musicians, their names appearing in the credits for many British-based pop hits long before they ever became famous themselves. Page's first foray out of the studio was to join the Yardbirds, but when the Yardbirds disbanded, Page and Jones decided to form a band of their own and went to Birmingham to pick up local talent John Bonham, a drummer who idolized the great jazz-player Gene Krupa, and Robert Plant a blues singer that could slip into the Alto range effortlessly and with power.
  Together, and especially in live performances, however, the four individual players took on a greater collective musical persona. They played at a high level, but there was a looseness and confidence in their playing that surpassed individual skill and moved beyond the written musical notes on any page. It seemed that the four of them could play whatever they wanted onstage and it would sound great.
  Indeed, during the height of their success in the 1970s, Led Zeppelin's concerts were like church masses of improvisation. Each song seemed to take on a life of it's own, filled out and expanded to the live format as if every song was actually bigger in real life than it was on the album. None of their performances was ever completely the same as another. The drum-fills and endings changed, the bass line and even the entire rhythm was adjusted with each performance, the guitar solos were almost entirely off the cuff, even the vocals were sometimes made-up on the spot. And yet somehow, although they never played it the same twice, it only made for a better show. When Zeppelin was playing at their best, it seemed that as much of their show was improvised as was rehearsed. As a result their live shows were sometimes very long. As much as three hours including their four or five song 'acoustic sets' in the middle, the encores and of course, John 'Bonzo' Bonham's drum solo during the song Moby Dick. But this lengthy event was not lacking in excitement or skill or musicianship in any way.
   Many have tried to recreate the sort of feeling that was established by Led Zeppelin during those performances in the seventies, but when others do it, it seems more rehearsed than off the cuff. Other bands use light shows, lengthen their songs without improvisation, and do an acoustic section in the middle, a drum solo, and they even do some songs that are more improv than others, but no one seems to quite pull it off with the same sort of power and skill of Plant, Page, Bonham and Jones. Let's face it, while Led Zeppelin made it look easy, others make it seem very difficult. And that's because it is very difficult.
   Led Zeppelin was legendary for their ability to put on a great live show night after night, despite the complexity and difficulty of the material that they were performing. It was the chemistry between the band members, their friendship blended with their musicianship to create that special chemistry and that special magic. Or perhaps it was black magic?

Nicolo Paganini:
Nicolo Paganini, unlike Robert Johnson was indeed a prodigious child. His father supplemented their living by playing the mandolin, but young Nicolo, however, mastered the violin at a very young age and went on to become proficient as a guitarist as well.
However, he was believed to be able to play a little too well. Some of his techniques were beyond the comprehension of the audience of his time and thus there was a cloud of mystery and suspicion surrounding the violin virtuoso.
 When he died in 1840, Paganini was actually refused a catholic burial for his alleged connection with the devil. For four years, his dead body was refused by the church in his home town. Eventually he was laid to rest in Parma in 1876, a full 36 years after his death. This was how far people believed that Paganini had associated himself with dark forces.
   Of course, even without a pact with the devil, he could've been rejected by the Catholic Church because he was a womanizer, a gambler and had a child out of wedlock.
  The truth is that Paganini seemed to have a small scandal of one type or another follow him wherever he went, and he may have 'played-up' his supposed supernatural ability by writing music to suit his rather unique set of violin techniques. Paganini wrote most of his 24 Caprices for the expression of his own playing ability and his 13th Caprices was named the 'Devil's Laugh' for it's imitation of a laugh at the very beginning while a portion of his 4th Concerto was conveniently titled 'La Streghe' (the Witch). It was only after Paganini retired from 'touring' that he began teaching his techniques, and only after he died that he allowed the publication of his compositions, thus creating more mystery about himself.
   Some of the more modern mysteries of Paganini suggest that he may have had something called Marfan's disease, such as was suffered by Abraham Lincoln, which causes lengthening and enlarging of the hands due to a looseness and flexibility in the joints. However, while there is evidence, there isn't any proof that Paganini had this disease, nor that it would be an advantage in performing.
   In technical ability, however, Paganini was a true virtuoso. He could perform complex runs across and through multiple octaves at a speed that only the very best could match. In his day, however, Paganini was far ahead of his peers in many techniques that were either new or unestablished. He was a master of the use of complex harmonics, left-hand pizzicato, and what's known as ricochet-bowing in a time when few others could truly duplicate these techniques at any level of proficiency. It is not unreasonable to assume that in 1804, when Paganini wrote his famous 24th Caprice that he may have been the only one skilled enough to be capable of playing it at the time, and those in the audience at the first performances of Paganini's works would and should have been astonished at some of the things they'd seen and heard.