Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Three Greatest Moments in the History of Music

(1,761 words, not counting this parenthetical. Yes, it's a lot. Yes, there is minutiae mixed in there with the surprising insight. But I haven't written much lately and the words just FLOWED. So read every word. Please.)

By "moment" I mean... moment... just a quick flash... lasting about a second, no more than two.

3. The Hold Steady decide that three is better than two (2006)

At the 2:32 mark of Chips Ahoy (or, in this video, the 2:46 mark because of the silent intro), The Hold Steady end an extended instrumental bridge-like interlude by doing something that, to my knowledge, has never been done before. The interlude starts with a surprisingly long sweeping organ jam and then descends into a traditional classic rock guitar upswing that clearly signals that the instrumental section will soon end and the chorus will be repeated. Every other rock band would end the section with a single drumbeat (a cymbal, usually) and a single powerful thrusted guitar note. That would be sufficient. That would ensure a smooth transition. What do The Hold Steady do at the 2:32 mark (2:46 in the video)? They give us the cymbal. They give us the guitar thrust. And right when you think the chorus is coming back, there's a faint (but positively galaxic) EXTRA DRUMBEAT. It's so perfect I get all emotional thinking about it. It lasts less than two seconds. It's the third best moment ever.

2. Liz Phair misses the high note by a million miles but explains the history of music (1994)

Everyone knows that Liz Phair's Whip-Smart is the greatest album ever made, by anyone, in any genre, in any era. I'm not given to hyperbole so you know it has to be good. The final song on the album, May Queen, is very much like most of the other 11 songs: straddling the border of slow and mid-tempo, inscrutable lines turning into scrutable verses, and absolutely stunning choruses which, in many songs (but not May Queen) build a new musical language out of the joy of repetition. But you see, Liz decides to try something on May Queen that she didn't dare (or bother) to try in her other songs: she attempts to push her voice to an upper register so upper that it might as well belong to an entirely different species. It's at the end of the first verse when she sings:

Don't be fooled by him, he's fine
Rock-and-roll Ken doll, he's a national end-all

He's an off and on friend of mine

It's on the word "mine" that she tries to hit this high note. She fails. She spits it out, she screams it, she fucks it up. By any measure of vocal talent, she loses. But as I was listening to this song on my way to work this morning (a listen that inspired me to make this list), I thought about the whole history of music. Humankind has been around for approximately 200,000 years. Humans have had voices, brains, and muscles all this time. Yet, they have only been making good music since 1964. So, for approximately 199,956 years, music was pretty forgettable. That's because too much attention had been paid to the right notes, the perfect tone, the suitable structure, the apt transition, and the seemingly objective melodies and harmonies. Failure (or, to put it correctly, the perception of failure) was dismissed as amateurish. Innovators were misunderstood. Composers of the mid-to-late second-millennium (much like today's film auteurs) were over-praised in relation to their actual contributions. (Note: I have nothing to back up this claim; just accept it please.)

So, in February 1994 in the Bahamas (where part of Whip-Smart was recorded), Liz Phair tried tried tried to reach a musical note she was not capable of reaching and in the joyous hubcap-rolling-away residue of her version of the word "mine," a height much higher than that arbitrary note was scaled by a barely 5-foot-tall genius who, after her first album, rarely wore good clothes. It's a stunning accomplishment of a moment, the second greatest ever in music.. It lasts 1 1/2 seconds. It cannot be found online (just in live versions where the "mine" wasn't quite as transcendent. I'd tell you to buy the album but everyone has it already. Don't you?

1. Ice Cube sums up a song and a genre in one utterly perfectly delivered word (1997)


By the late 90s, Ice Cube's musical peak had, according to popular and cultural belief, faded. He was far busier with his film career. Between 1990 and 1993, he released four albums and an EP. Between 1994 and 1997? Nothing. Just Higher Learning and Friday and Anaconda. He was a movie star, leaving the rap game behind. Even his last pre-hiatus album Lethal Injection was seen by many as his weakest. (Note: it wasn't.)

Then, in '97, Cube released a song called Ghetto Vet as part of some garishly packaged Master P compilation. As I did with every other CD released by anyone between 1995 and 1997, I bought the album. I don't know where it is today. It's out of print. It had a lime green cover. But... Ghetto Vet.

Some of you remember my West Coast Rap phase circa '93-'95. I knew all the best songs - Summertime in the LBC, Getto Jam, Regulate, etc. By '97, the glory days were pretty much over. I wasn't expecting much from this new Ice Cube song. Then I heard it.


That's the word: LIFE. All caps because that's how he sang it. Not bold, just caps. The song begins with an ominous slow-yet-strong piano dirge. It's punctuated by Ice Cube's utterance of the word LIFE. Then the piano stops and the story begins. It's a story of a ghetto vet - not killed but fallen, off the battlefield but still on the streets.

(note: when Ghetto Vet appeared, one year later, on an actual Ice Cube album, War and Peace Volume 1: The War Disc, the song was re-edited and now began with a spoken word piece about the aftermath of a tragic street shooting, the event that felled the vet of the song. Then came LIFE and the piano. As with all hip hop spoken word interludes, this interlude can be completely ignored. The song really begins with the piano.)

The event that made the narrator a ghetto vet comes in the second verse of this beautifully wordy song (why "beautifully wordy"? I have reasons but this entry is already 300% too long).
Speaking of length, yes, this is a long pasted verse. Stop complaining. This blog is free. So, the second verse:

My house shoes get wet from the dew on the grass
Up early in the morning, takin' out the trash
Feelin' like a loser, alcohol abuser

Two youngsters roll up on a beach cruiser
One on the peddles the other on the handle bars (what)

Tryin' be ghetto stars they said:

'Are you from the westside is it so?'
I said hell yea and who wanta to know (me)
In slow mo fo' fo' slugs face down in the mud

Puddle full of blood left for dead

The pain starts to spread now
I can't feel my legs

I meet Doctor Who at King Drew medical center

As I enter I.C.U.

He said the bullet hit a nerve that was vital

I said I can't move my legs he said 'don't try to'
Now this ain't the end my friend but you'll probably never walk again
I sit there motionless holdin' this pain inside contemplating suicide

At night I jerk and jerk
But my dick don't work it don't even hurt (damn)

Now who'd ever thought a n-word rude as Ice Cube
Be pissin' through a tube

Fool I'm a vet

Let's be clear: this is the greatest 24-line verse in the history of music-with-lyrics. It completely justifies the LIFE that preceded it and the LIFE that pops up again at the end. Some observations about this verse (seems like I'm straying from the Top 3 Moments theme but I'm not):

1. The parentheticals (sung by other rappers, including Mack 10) are what the British call "spot-on."
2. Ice Cube tosses aside the bravado of most rappers, boasting about accomplishments they probably haven't achieved. Instead, Cube admits that his junk is now ineffective and he needs to use a tube! The "character" he's playing in the song is himself - he even says it in line 22. In other words, he took risks that could have - but didn't - lead to a life in the wheelchair.
3. House shoes!

For the rest of the song, the ghetto vet surveys the scene of his old crimes and others' new ones from his wheelchair.

Same corner same hood, I'm still there
With bandanas tied to my wheelchair

(I've seen banadanas tied to wheelchairs of young men in L.A. It's kind of chilling).

The narrator reports from the street like a wise old newsman. But he's probably not even 25. And for all the intended laughs the song provides, there's this:

There's a lot in my life I regret
Becomin' a ghetto vet

Then the piano comes back, now seeming stilted and funereal but actually it's the same exact track as the more aggressive solemnity in the song's beginning. And you know what else comes back:


And three more times - LIFE.

LIFE bookends the song. What happens in between is, arguably, life. Cynics may think this is oversimplified or unnecessary. Why explain? Why not just show? LIFE may seem hokey and overly self-important, as if the great Reverend Cube wanted to teach the kids a life lesson. But, for me, it's mostly in the delivery of the word LIFE by Cube. It's just so damn perfect. Angry, solemn, resigned, loud, prayerful.

(this next non-parenthesesed paragraph is meant to be humorous, an example of what we statisticians call "temporal association" - i.e., just because things happen at one after the other or at convenient times does not mean there is causation)

(also, I cannot find any data to actually back up what I write in the next paragraph; I think I'm right though)

Gang killings in the U.S. rose every year in the 1990s, until 1997. In 1997, Ghetto Vet was released. For the next four years, gang killings decreased. Coincidence?

Listen to (most of) it here. The piano starts at 0:20. The LIFE moment is at :24. (Note: this number one ranking belongs to the first instance of LIFE, not the other four instances which are pretty damn great as well.)

Finally, another-blogger-to-whom-this-blog-links might remember an incident right before Christmas 1998 involving this song and, more specifically, involving LIFE itself. Does that ring a bell Sharif? A blue cake? A ridiculously dramatic party? Comment?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yer on phire. Great essay. I thought I was the only one who tears up when they hear Ice Cube, but I guess not.