Archive for rhythm

My Way

Posted in Possession with tags , , , , on July 26, 2013 by Richard

Simone_MyWayA brilliance similar to her version of ‘Suzanne‘ can be found in Simone’s reading of ‘My Way’, a song associated with Frank Sinatra. It is worth noting Simone’s and Sinatra’s mutual admiration for each other’s work and the small but significant group of songs that both recorded. Interestingly, each has recorded what might be considered the key signature song of the other. Simone is still widely remembered – outside of her more dedicated fanbase – for ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’, the song that she first recorded in the late 1950s and which has been a notable hit in at least three different eras. Sinatra included a version of the song on his 1969 album Strangers in the Night. ‘My Way’ became Sinatra’s signature song in the later stages of his career and a version by Simone was released in 1971. Other shared repertoire includes Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’ and Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, recorded in French by Simone and in Rod McKuen’s translation as ‘If You Go Away’ by Sinatra. A special group of songs written especially for Sinatra  – ‘For A While’, ‘The Single Man’, ‘Lonesome Cities’, ‘Love’s Been Good To Me’ featured prominently in the later stages of Simone’s career.

Francois‘My Way’ originated as a French chanson entitled ‘Comme d’habitude’ (‘As Usual’). It was first recorded by Claude François, a popular French singer who co-wrote the song with Gilles Thibaut and Jacques Revaux and included it on his self-titled album (1967). Paul Anka “translated” the lyric into English specifically for Sinatra, changing the main sense of the song’s lyrics and its overall message but retaining the melody. Despite numerous other versions, the song became indelibly associated with Sinatra during the 1970s following his return from “retirement”. In a concert recorded for the 1974 album The Main Event, he introduces the song by saying, “We will now do the national anthem but you needn’t rise”. The song is mentioned a number of times in Will Friedwald’s Sinatra! The Song is You. Early in the book he writes:

No popular recording artist has ever been as totally believable so much of the time as Sinatra … The results come through especially clearly in an overtly autobiographical text like ‘My Way.’ Sung by any other interpreter, including the teenage idol Paul Anka (who translated it from the original French), that 1969 hit would sound like an obnoxious joke. In fact it’s a deliberate gag in the messy mitts of Sid Vicious and an unintentional one in the trembling tremolos of Elvis Presley, both of whom recorded it.

Readers of Friedwald’s book will quickly realise that the author has very little time for contemporary (post rock ‘n’ roll) popular music, aligning him, to a certain extent, with Sinatra himself, who made a number of disparaging comments in his time about rock, despite recording a number of rock songs. It may be that Friedwald needs to denigrate other song forms, singers and even nations so that he can build up Sinatra’s role in author(iz)ing the song:

Musically, it’s an underwhelming composition that contains nearly five identical stanzas, each consisting of a string of very monotonous four-note phrases … Yet the way [Sinatra] transforms this unpromising source material takes him beyond alchemy and into the realm of sheer magic. Musically, it has no more content than most rock and roll, yet Sinatra pumps it up with the grandeur of an operatic aria, a five-minute exercise in self-indulgence that starts quietly, even intimately, and ends enormously.

This is a reasonably convincing account of the song but it rather ignores a number of salient points. Firstly, Friedwald considers this a “translation” of the original French song. However, while the melody has been kept, Anka’s words are new ones. To be fair to Friedwald, he does seem to be more interested in the melody and what Sinatra does with it but, as is clear in his references to the “autobiographical” nature of the song, he also realises that the words play a crucial role: this really is Sinatra looking back on his life, a message from him to us. Given the centrality of the words, it seems clear that we cannot make a comparison to the French version without taking account of what the latter is saying. It is a song about routine, about mundanity, in which every negative thing repeats itself “as usual”. This is a radically different message to that of ‘My Way’, a song about escaping the usual and being an individual. Furthermore, there is the issue of agency. ‘Comme d’habitude’ presents us with a narrator completely at the mercy of fate and the will of the other, while ‘My Way’ provides a battler against fate’s whims, someone whom fate has made stronger and who is able to “stand tall” and face society. In this sense, ‘Comme d’habitude’ can be connected to the chanson tradition and to other fatalistic song forms such as fado and country.

FrankSinatraA comparison of the songs leads us to the representation of mastery and submission. While the narrator of ‘Comme d’habitude’ “plays at pretending” and submits to the domination of the other (“I will wait for you”, he sings), the narrator of ‘My Way’ dominates, looking down on the kind of man “who kneels”. Gender is crucial here. “What is a man?” Sinatra asks. Clearly one who can claim all the acts and the agency that ‘My Way’ boasts, one who can master himself, others and fate itself. For Friedwald, this mastery extends to Sinatra himself, the only man who can take such paltry (feminine?) material and conjure “sheer magic” from it with his massive voice phallus, shatter its “intimacy” with his “enormity”. François, meanwhile, is left whining and weeping into his coffee, not man enough to take control of his life or his woman. We do not know from Friedwald’s account whether he is familiar with the French lyrics but it does not  require too much speculation, given what he does say about “French songs” and “kiddie-pop”, to interpret his account of ‘My Way’ as a masculine response to a feminine problem.

The droning rhythm and repetition of the melody – which Friedwald finds typical of “French songs” – seems entirely suited to the lyrical preoccupations of ‘Comme d’habitude’, and François’s version highlights this by introducing difference at the climax of the song, perhaps signifying anger finally boiling over, an escape from submission, a warning note, the hint of violence (perhaps, in this light, Sinatra merely finishes what François has initiated). What Friedwald does not ask is why Paul Anka kept the melody of the French song and lost the words. Is it possible that Anka wished to transfer the “monotony” of the melody to his account of the winner who rises above the mundane, setting in motion a dialectic between word and melody? In this sense, the song can be read as an escape from d’habitude and the habitus from which it draws its sense of itself and its self-difference: in other words, it comes to be about creativity.

This is the manner in which Nina Simone approaches ‘My Way’, the closing track of Here Comes the Sun.  Her version allows us to play Friedwald at his own game, as Mike Butler seems to do when he offers the following summary of the performance:

Is this the definitive My Way? Nina Simone, an individualist if ever there was one, is free from the self-deception that disqualifies most of the field. Which leaves Frank Sinatra and Sid Vicious. The present version generates excitement from the off: bongos double the tempo as Nina takes her first note; strings swell in rising excitement; harpsichord and harp rip along, adding period charm. Nina is exultant as she swoops and dives over the hypnotic Latin beat. Frank sounds doleful in comparison, as if he can’t wait for the final curtain, and Sid is just plain silly. There’s no competition, really. (Liner notes to Here Comes the Sun CD)

A number of questions immediately arise from this. What does it mean to give a definitive version? What does it mean to say that someone really gets to what the song was about? How might this differ with songs thought of as songs (the products of songwriters) rather than as original performances? In pop, the songwriter and the original performer are sometimes the same: in rock, almost invariably. To say someone has found something fundamental in the song as song is to say they gave a proper interpretation to the piece; to say someone gets to the fundamental in a song that was already a supposedly definitive performance seems less straightforward. This does not, of course, stop music fans – including critics and other musicians – from doing so.

Mike Butler’s question as to whether Nina Simone’s version of ‘My Way’ is the definitive one might seem absurd unless viewed through the fantasy of authenticity. How can a song about doing it my way have a definitive version? And is a “definitive” version the same as an “authoritative” version? These are different words with different meanings and yet they are often used synonymously in qualitative accounts of culture. While a dictionary may list many definitions of a word, we are unlikely to hear someone say that a version of a song is a definitive version (among others); it is invariably the definitive version, making it synonymous with the authoritative version. But isn’t ‘My Way’ precisely about not taking part in something that can be defined, essentialized or authorized? Isn’t it, rather, about individualism and individual perspective? Does ‘My Way’ actually gesture towards a nascent identity politics? We certainly witness such a possibility in the versions by Nina Simone and Sid Vicious. They sing it their way and their way is entirely fitting for them. Only the illusion created by the fantasy of authenticity allows one of them to be definitive. We are talking, then, of an ideological battle for authenticity, authorship and authority rather than a cool judgement on aesthetics and style. And while this may seem to lead us into the quagmire of relativism, the fantasy of authentication tends to stop us long before we sink too far, allowing us, perhaps, to declare a “victor”.

The conversation Nina Simone has with ‘My Way’ is, as Butler intimates, a fascinating one, with the artist in complete control of her material. In addition to the features Butler mentions – harp, harpsichord, “Latin” beat – it is hard not to be surprised by the transition from one stanza to the next. Where Sinatra’s version had finished each section on a decisive note, Simone’s immediately completes the final line (each “my way”) with twelve quick keyboard stabs which work both to emphasize the line and to give a sense of climax to each verse. As a sense of ambiguity descends – will the song end here? – Simone’s right hand picks a bright ascending figure out of each “final” chord and leads us into the next verse. Each verse brings more with it musically – extra percussion, electric bass, strings – leading to a situation where, at each demise and resurrection, there is an overwhelming sense of excess. Indeed, for a song already so steeped in excess in Sinatra’s versions – especially his live performances – it seems as if Simone is trying to deliberately exceed The Voice himself.

Simone makes few changes to the lyric – “shy way” becomes “sly way”, “friend” is changed to “friends”, “spit” corrected to “spat” – and none to the sequence of the song. This is in marked contrast to her version of Dylan’s ‘Just like a Woman’ from the same album, where she places a chorus before the first verse, misses one whole verse out and, crucially, plays around with the problematic personal pronouns of the song. She does, however, add melisma and occasional interjections to the words, giving a sense of control over the material and the groove of the song (a groove her version invents, of course: who could have thought of this as a groovy song before? Certainly not “monotonous” Claude François, nor Sinatra/Friedwald). At the start of the second verse a stretched “ye-es” (0:46-0:47) provides a vocal accompaniment to the keyboard’s lead-in, providing both musical and linguistic transition (“yes, regrets…”: of course I’ve had them but that’s not what’s important now). At the very end of the last verse, the point where Sinatra’s version would be building to its climax (“The record shows/I took the blows/And did it/My/Way”), Simone adds melisma to the final “way”, stretching it to four syllables, then lets it fade into the rising strings which now take over from the vocal – there is no repetition (reassertion) of the final line. We are only 3:26 into the song when Simone’s vocal dies away. But she and the other musicians are not finished; fully aware she has set up an irresistible groove (Butler says “hypnotic”: “infectious” seems nearer the mark ), she lets the orchestra ride the song out for another minute and a half. Strings soar, swoop, hover, dive; a cymbal taps out a jazzy rhythm to add to the melange; Simone indulges herself on the piano as if she has deserved it; the strings grow in crescendo; “soulful” backing vocals join in; and it all fades out far too soon. It is a spectacular way to close an album and it seems no coincidence that it is placed at the end of Here Comes the Sun, just as Sinatra would come to place the song at the climax of his live shows. Indeed, one could argue that Simone has discovered and disseminated the evental possibilities of ‘My Way’ long before we get to hear them on The Main Event. What is the “main event” referred to in the title of that album? Is it to Frank Sinatra as the headline act? In which case, is his finale of ‘My Way’ the main event of this main event? If so, it seems that Nina Simone has beaten him at his own game.

Suzanne

Posted in Possession with tags , on May 20, 2013 by Richard

In discussing Nina Simone’s reading of Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Suzanne’, it is worth briefly situating the artist within a trio of female performers whose work around the late 1960s and early 1970s provides some fascinating parallels and overlaps. The trio comprises Simone herself, Judy Collins and Roberta Flack. All three had shared roots in classical music. Simone was a child prodigy at the piano and received many years of training that was intended (at least by her and those closest to her) to lead to a career as a classical pianist. For reasons that remained traumatic for her, she was not able to follow this path but she nonetheless made an ultimately successful diversion to popular music and attached herself to a cause that offered to fight against the reasons for her expulsion from the classical music world. Judy Collins (b. 1939) had a similar background in classical piano, training that, due to her race and social status, she was in a better position than Simone to pursue. Nevertheless, she experienced a politicization at a fairly young age that brought about a conversion to folk music, to which she diverted her talents wholeheartedly. Arriving in Greenwich Village in 1961, she became part of the folk crowd active there. Roberta Flack (b. 1939) was, like Simone, a youthful black piano prodigy who went into popular music following a certain amount of formal classical training. All three artists performed a combination of material made up of their own songs and those of others, with the greater proportion being taken up by cover versions. All three had eclectic tastes and covered a wide array of musical styles, including folk, art song, jazz, country, blues, soul, rock and pop. Although the amount of material included in these artists’ shared repertoire is small (especially between Collins and Flack) in proportion to their large individual catalogues, it represents an interesting “moment” in popular music history.

Of the three, it tends to be Collins’s versions of the songs that maintain the closest lyrical fidelity to the source material. This is perhaps not surprising given the fact that she tends to be the first to record the songs. But it is also noticeable in her late reading of ‘Just like a Woman’, which follows Bob Dylan’s words exactly and avoids the lyrical improvisations, or permanent alterations, that Simone, Flack and numerous others have added in the intervening years. However, Collins does provide a number of innovations in the music that accompanies her versions. This was a notable development in the album that contained her version of ‘Suzanne’. In My Life (1966) marked a distinct move from the folk music of her previous five studio albums towards more of an art song approach. This was achieved partly by the inclusion of material such as Richard Peaslee’s ‘Marat/Sade’ and Brecht/Weill’s ‘Pirate Jenny’ (recorded by Nina Simone in 1964), Randy Newman’s ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ (recorded by Simone in 1969), Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’, and an unusual setting of Bob Dylan’s ‘Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ (recorded by Simone in 1969), providing links to music for the theatre and film and to erudite poetry. In addition to this the instrumental backing to the numbers was quite different from that of the folk styles of Collins’s earlier career: her version of Richard Farina’s ‘Hard Lovin’ Loser’ combined harpsichord with electric blues-rock, for example, while flutes, strings and piano were prominent features of other tracks.

Collins provides a faithful version of ‘Suzanne’, enunciating the lyric clearly over a descending acoustic guitar figure similar to the one Cohen himself would use in his recording of 1968.  Taking its place on In My Life between ‘Pirate Jenny’ and Jacques Brel’s ‘La Colombe’, ‘Suzanne’ is an effective slice of erudite song and a notable debut for Cohen’s songwriting skills. It established a performance style – sombre, reflective, slightly monotonous – that would remain fairly constant in numerous future versions of the song. Because the song is “wordy” and yet subtle (there is a constant shifting of personal pronouns that ensures we are never sure who is singing or to whom) there is a tendency in most renditions not to elaborate on the melody or harmony in order to show fidelity to the material. This has often led to a situation in which, paradoxically, in attempting to master the song, singers have often fallen subject to it.

This subjection is evident to a certain extent in a take of the song recorded by Nina Simone in 1969 but rejected in favour of the (presumably later) version used on To Love Somebody.  The unreleased version features Simone on piano, marking a different approach to the song than that so far attempted by other singers. As the track progresses, however, Al Shackman’s electric guitar gradually dominates and Simone does not sound in complete control of the lyric, with its confusing distribution of personal pronouns. The released version is strikingly different, dominated by Simone’s memorable piano arpeggios, a truly innovative addition to the instrumentation of this hitherto exemplary bedsit troubadour anthem.  There is a much brighter tempo and the track seems to make reference to its own recording, sounding like the layered studio construct it no doubt is. In the unreleased version, Simone sounds as if the song is controlling her; here, she has taken complete control. The repetition of certain words, the stretching of notes and use of melisma (the two syllable “mi-ind” from 1:22 to 1:26) all take the song away from its literal meaning. Added interjections (the “yeah” immediately following “mi-ind” at 1:27) suggest that Simone knows she has initiated an irresistible groove and can now add whatever she wishes to it, continue or cease it at whim.

Roberta Flack’s version of ‘Suzanne’ is nearly ten minutes and closes her album Killing Me Softly (1973); at the time this accounted for around a quarter of an album.  Appropriately perhaps, given the album it appears on, there is a softness to Flack’s version. A constant cymbal ride in the background promises an escalation of the beat that never actually occurs, while a sporadically deployed electric bass marks time rather than developing a rhythm. Only the opening and close of the song seem to suggest freedom. A long introduction on piano provides no clues to the (by this time very familiar) song to come. After the last refrain has been sung, the piano springs to life and the drums follow suit. Strings enter, bringing a sense of soaring drama that had hitherto been absent. Flack improvises wordless vocals, exploring with her voice as the strings waver like sirens. But, seemingly unaware of this promise of freedom, Flack ultimately circles back to the start of the song: “Suzanne takes you down to a place by the river”. But it seems as though it is she who has been taken down, imprisoned by the song and unable to escape to the giddy heights discovered by Simone.

The groove that Simone found for the album version of ‘Suzanne’ can be witnessed in a different form in this mesmerising performance from Rome in 1969. Here, Simone foregoes the piano accompaniment for most of the song (save for a few brief, Monk-sharp stabs), opting for a standing performance that allows her to sway and dance to the rhythm maintained by her band. That rhythm is set up by the strummed acoustic guitar and the percussion and underlined by Simone’s body movements and claps. The singer throws unexpected shapes in the middle of lines by swooping down or up with her voice (“takes you down” and “you know she’s half crazy” respectively in the first verse) and changing the rhythm of the words (“you know you wanna travel with him” at the end of each verse). Placing emphasis on rhythm and groove rather than slavish attention to melody and metre allows Simone to take occasional breaks from Cohen’s lyric to dance, pause and reflect; each time she comes back seamlessly into the song’s narrative. Perhaps there’s still a sense of imprisonment – of being locked into a groove that could prove endless – but Simone manages to show the posssessive dialectic that marked her finest performances, the sense of owning and being owned, of leaving her witnesses unsure who or what was in control until, pin-sharp and perfectly poised, she brings the song to its calm resolution.

Obeah Woman

Posted in Possession with tags , , , on May 14, 2013 by Richard

‘Obeah Woman’, a song recorded in concert in 1973 and released the following year on the live album It Is Finished, was one of three tracks recorded by Nina Simone based on originals by Exuma (the other two being ‘Dambala’ and ’22nd Century’). Born Tony McKay, Exuma was a Bahamian artist active in the Greenwich Village scene in the 1960s and who later released a series of albums in which he presented himself as a singer-priest known as “the Obeah man”, referring to the Caribbean magical practices of the same name.

The best of Exuma’s work can be found on the albums he released at the start of the 1970s. The first three albums (Exuma and Exuma II, both from 1970, and Do Wah Nanny, from 1971) contain songs that combine social commentary on contemporary urban conditions with invocations of characters and practices associated with Obeah They feature Exuma’s husky vocals and hyper-driven acoustic guitar accompanied by ankle bells, cowbells, sacred foot drums, cabasa, congas, background vocals, shouts and whistles. An obvious point of reference is the contemporaneous work of Dr. John, though Exuma’s particular brand of conjure was less well-known than the Night Tripper’s and its creator was also destined for a more obscure fate. There was also something more cosmic about Exuma’s work, the landscapes of which are as frequently posthuman as they are primordial. The first album’s cover bore a poem by the artist that described Exuma as a character “beyond the universe / a star that once lit Mars” and bore the message “the future is freedom, the past a chain / the present anybody’s game”.

It is not clear where Nina Simone encountered Exuma’s work (they would have been Greenwich Village contemporaries in the 60s) but she clearly found something in it that would allow her to play with notions of possession, ritual and altered states of consciousness. Converting Exuma’s ‘Obeah Man’ into ‘Obeah Woman’ allowed Simone to take on the role of priestess, a role she for which she was eminently suited. The performance that appears on It Is Finished opens with polyrhythmic percussion from the Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji and Simone asserting that she wishes to take her time “gettin’ this one together”.  As the groove establishes itself, Simone tells her audience that she has “gotta go home”, asking them, “Do you know ’bout the Holy Roller Church? Ain’t that where I started?” To enthusiastic audience response, she claims “I’ve outgrown it now … I’m so proud that I did it … that I came through.” The references are ones she would later elaborate on in her autobiography. Although her mother had been a Methodist minister, Simone had favoured the music of the Holiness church (the “Holy-Rollers”) because “their prayer meetings were one great commotion, with people testifying and shouting all night. The music that went along with it had incredible rhythm, it sounded like it came straight out of Africa”. “Home”, then, would seem to possess at least a double meaning for Simone when she came to perform ‘Obeah Woman’, referring to both her childhood home of Tryon and the imagined and longed-for home of Africa (not long after this performance was recorded, Simone would move to Liberia).

As she eases into the song, she seems keen to educate her audience: “do you know what an Obeah woman is?” To affirmative response she launches her version of Exuma’s lines: “I’m the Obeah woman, from beneath the sea / To get to Satan, you gotta pass through me”. The crowd roar their approval and clap along to the hypnotic beat. Simone continues, interweaving Exuma’s mythic lines with asides that clearly refer to her own life experience: “they call me Nina, and Pisces too / There ain’t nothin’ that I can’t do”, the latter appended with the ambiguous agency of “If I choose to … If you let me”. Indeed, ‘Obeah Woman’ plays out as a classic example of the double nature of possession; to possess something (forexample, to take ownership of a song through performance) and to be possessed by something (music, the act of musicking). In order to offer the illusion of power, control and affective dominance, Simone needs to give herself over to the driving, possessive force of what John Mowitt calls the “percussive field” and, even more, to the audience’s approval (signalled by shouted responses, handclaps and, presumably, body language), effectively making herself a vehicle through which the spirit of the performance, its Obeah, can be channelled. “I didn’t put that name on myself”, Simone confides after six minutes of possessed performance, “and I don’t like it sometimes”. As if realizing the façade could easily crumble, she suddenly commands her musicians to finish. The abruptness of the ending serves as indication of the fragility and liminality of the songspace. Just as the Obeah woman is a gatekeeper between the world above and that below, so she guards the sacred space opened up by the groove of ‘Obeah Woman’. When the song is “open” it can act as conduit for a crossing over, coming through or loss of self; when closed it remains only as memory of an epiphany.