In the film The Big Lebowski, John Turturro plays a character named Jesus Quintana. Jesus is a competitive bowler, and a pederast, and he has no problem whatsoever with his self-esteem. It’s impossible for me to think of this movie without thinking of this character.

The irony of this is that “The Jesus” is only in the movie for a few minutes. He’s in a scene early on, and a scene towards the end, and that’s about it. Yet he steals the show.

A bit player steals the movie. That’s something any bass player can appreciate.

Bass players are, by and large, bit players in the movie of rock. They play an important role, albeit a support one. The notes they play are often barely noticeable, so far down in pitch that they can often only be heard when the rest of the players quiet down, or stop entirely. This can be embarrassing, like a being a kid on training wheels in a BMX race, the others politely waiting for you to catch up so you can all finish together.

Still, every once in a while a bass player shows up the rest of the band, takes the music hostage, makes the song his own. Below are my five favorite instances of bass players doing their best “Jesus” imitations.

The Who-“The Real Me”-Some consider this the greatest bass line in rock history. I consider it the greatest passive-aggressive moment in rock history. The only possible explanation for this kind of explosion of finger work on such a basic chord progression is that bassist John Entwistle is furious with guitarist-songwriter Pete Townshend. I imagine Townshend ate one too many sandwiches from the snack tray, or finished off the last of the Jameson, or helped himself to Entwistle’s eight-ball when the man wasn’t looking, and Entwistle decided to screw up whatever Townshend song was on the docket that day. Boris the Spider is out and in full force on this track, and the message is clear: “Touch my shit again, and I’ll make your life really hard.”

Sloan-“The Good in Everyone” (This is the “full version” of the video, which I love, but if you want to go right to the song, start at 2:15)-Every once in a while, the bass fairy comes down and grants someone the power to make the listener levitate with his fretwork. Sloan bassist Chris Murphy was the lucky recipient in this instance. Listen–especially after the first chorus–as this near perfect Beatlesque romp becomes a pop bass masterwork. Thank you, Canada, for universal health care and for Sloan.

The Beatles-“Something”-Let’s say you’re George Harrison. You’ve ridden shotgun for ten or so years to a Lennon/McCartney juggernaut that pretty much defines the gold standard for pop songwriting for the 20th–or any other–century. Finally, you write a song that will make people remember you actually exist not only as a Beatle, but as a songwriter in the Beatles. So, what does bassist Paul McCartney do? He manages to show you up by playing the only bass line in the history of the world that could make a lumberjack weep. “Blimey, Paul. Would you mind being less talented than me for one bloody song?” Back to the sitar, George.

XTC-“The Mayor of Simpleton”-How many times in your life do you find the perfect song by the perfect band with the perfectly bass line to go with it? It kind of like winning the triple crown, and XTC hit that touchstone for me with this unyielding three-minute masterpiece. Colin Moulding’s complicated yet tasty bass line plays the perfect counterpoint to singer-songwriter Andy Partridge’s ode to simplicity.

Stevie Wonder-“I Wish”-Okay, wonderful song, wonderful bass line–try not shaking your ass to this one–but would someone please tell me what happens at 1:03 on this track? Then again at 2:53, and 3:20, and 3:29, and 3:38? What puckish spirit invaded bassist Nathan Watts and allowed him to produce this zesty wigglestick of a lick? Watts takes the prize for having the guts to go rogue on what would become an R&B hit for the ages.

Honorable mentions: “Rock Steady”-Aretha Franklin, “South Central Rain”-REM, “The Lemon Song”-Led Zeppelin, “Lovesong”-The Cure, “Sweet Baggy Days”-the Pillows.

P.S. If you’re interested writing about the music you love, check out my brand new online course “Rock and Roll Writing” at the Basement Writing Workshop, which starts in early October.

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ART EDWARDS's third novel, Badge (2014), was named a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association's Literary Contest for 2011. His second novel, Ghost Notes, released on his own imprint Defunct Press in 2008, won the 2009 PODBRAM Award for best work of contemporary fiction. His first novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, has been made into a feature film. His writing has or will appear in The Writer, Writers' Journal and Pear Noir!, and online at Salon, The Los Angeles Review, Word Riot, The Collagist, PANK, JMWW, Bartleby Snopes, The Rumpus and The Weeklings. In the 1990s he was co-founder, co-songwriter and bass player with the Refreshments.

62 responses to “By the Power of Entwistle: When the Bass Player Steals the Song”

  1. dwoz says:

    oh, ART.

    Can I have your babies?

    (in a manly way, of course)

    You bring me back to the old days, when men were men, (who didn’t have each other’s babies), and BASS WAS BUSY.

    Something terrible happened to the world when the ’80s hit and MIDI came onto the stage. Bassists had to actually start listening to the rest of the band when they said “shut the fuck up and play 8th note roots.” Midi broke through the invincible shield, and made us vulnerable.

    and the music suffered.

    Why did I love The RHCP and HATE G&R? because flea is a madman, and duff is a potted plant.

    You’re my hero-of-the-day, Art. You just bumped Rebecca off the dais.

    • Art Edwards says:

      dwoz,

      Yes, please take my babies!

      Flea probably belongs on the list somewhere. “Give it away”? True men don’t kill Coyotes”? “Freaky Styley”?

      My next planned post is a refutation of the current trend in rock lit to choose Axl over Kurt. It should play right into your G&R hatred.

      And thanks!

      Art

  2. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    Ooh, I agree w/ dwoz — Flea is a madman in all the best ways. I had a debate w/ someone once on the subject of bass players in which I offered Flea and Cliff Burton to refute the claim, “There are no memorable bass players. It’s all about the guitar.” And now I’m glad to be reminded of your Jesus examples as well.

    Btw, every time I see Jesus polishing his bowling ball I laugh until I cry. “It don’t matter to Jesus!”

    • Art Edwards says:

      “It don’t matter to Jesus!”

      I love the Chilis, but they always remind me of a trip I took to the Hard Rock Casino in Vegas in 1996. The Hard Rock’s chips were all printed with the logos of great rock bands, so your chips would have “Jimi Hendrix” or “Led Zeppelin” or whatever on them. The only problem was that by the time of my visit, the chips had all been pilfered, so there were only two kinds of chips left: Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bob Seger.

      Ever since then, I’ve thought of the Red Hot Chili Peppers as alternative music’s Bob Seger. Entirely unfair, I know.

      Art

  3. Becky says:

    I once had aspirations of becoming a bassist. Mostly as a high school identity crisis related to idolization of D’Arcy and that wild-haired chick from White Zombie.

    But I do love most of these songs, “Something” and “Love Song,” especially.

    One teeny tiny thing I do not love.

    It’s “Townshend.” With an /h/.

    • Gloria says:

      My favorite bassist of all time: Flea. That dude is frickin’ awesome. He’s off the hook. And I read Anthony Kiedis’s massive, messy autobiography Scar Tissue and he pretty much confirms that Flea is a good dude.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Argh. You’re so right, Becky. Editing…Thank goodness I spelled “Entwistle” correctly.

      Wild-haired bass players can make us do strange things. It’s their special power.

      Art

    • dwoz says:

      You do know, don’t you….that girl/women bassists are the sexiest creatures on the planet?

      A female bass player encapsulates just about every male fantasy, except perhaps foot fetishes.

  4. Art Edwards says:

    You’re right about Flea. He’s so good I forgot about him.

    Consider “Give it Away” as the alternate fan choice to the list.

  5. Joe Daly says:

    Art-

    Love the topic- bass players are fun to mock, but so often they have the whole song on their back. Entwistle was always my favorite as well- completely non-traditional style for the time. With his rocker sensibilities, encamped in a band of three mods, his style couldn’t help but stand out. And “Boris the Spider” was such a great FO to the great “Townshend Songwriting Experiment,” and the fact that it earned the attention it did made it all even funnier.

    No surprise that everyone is talking about Flea. Before getting to the comments, I immediately thought of the RHCP song “My Lovely Man,” which has tremendous bass action.

    Other notable bass performances that overtake a song- Joe Perry on bass in “Back in the Saddle,” Cliff Burton in “(Anesthesia) – Pulling Teeth,” and Bootsy Coolins in “One Nation Under a Groove.”

  6. dwoz says:

    The problem with this is, that as fun as Flea is, he’s gotta be at least 75 places down the list of truly jaw-droppingly good bassists. Unless you want to go slicing and dicing categories.

    Two that come to mind are Vic Wooten, who actually crowded Jaco Pastorius off my “unencroachable greatness” list, and an up-and-comer, Tal Wilkenfeld, who’s this cute little blond girl that makes you think she’s been playing for longer than she’s been alive.

  7. Jeffrey Pillow says:

    Bass player here.

    How about the following:

    – Maxwell Murder by Rancid
    – We’re Back, We’re Pissed by Rich Kids on LSD
    – Right Brigade by Bad Brains
    – Axiom by Rancid
    – Clean Sheets by Descendents
    – And pretty much any song by the Minutemen
    – Pretty much anything by Vic Wooten, Jaco Pastorius, Primus

    The bassist is the backbone of the band. Lead singers are pussies.

    • dwoz says:

      you got that straight.

      It’s possible to live life without vagina. Sad, drab, but possible. Without a backbone, however…

    • Art Edwards says:

      Yes, lead singers are pussies! Well said.

      I think writers have a natural inclination toward bass. It’s subversive, lurking around down there, waiting for its chance…

      I clicked all the way through Double-Nickel but couldn’t find a song by the Minutemen in which “the bass takes over the song.” With Watt, God love him, the bass pretty much is the song.

  8. Nice topic and research, Art. I would have to say Larry Graham (Sly+Family Stone, Graham Central Station) gets my vote for ALWAYS owning every song he played on, even more than Jaco and Bootsie. Also, James Jamerson (pretty much everything ever recorded on Tamla, and scores of Motown hits) is unbelievable. Actually, the dude from Morphine might be the most distinctive in his own way of recent decades. For one thing, he played some piece of shit with only the E and A strings, made it a lead instrument, and got a ton out of it….

  9. Dana says:

    ooh Morphine! I concur Sean. Also, love Flea and Watt and Entwistle and Ament (wait, no one mentioned Ament…). To be honest I don’t know who plays bass for Ani DiFranco, in fact I think there probably have been several, but I’ve loved a lot of the bass on her songs. God I haven’t listened to Ani in forever.

    Also, this piece just made me laugh because on Monday morning my husband was walking around the house, whistling.

    D: Are you whistling DEVO?

    B: HA! Yes. But which song? It’s an easy one!

    D: Are We Not Men?

    B: YES!!! (He’s very excited at my meager accomplishments.)

    D: So WHY are you whistling Are We Not Men?

    B: I just always loved that opening bass line. 🙂

    Nicely done Art — I’ll check out the links after work!

  10. sheree says:

    Great post. Geezer Butler’s bass lines on “Fairies Wear Boots” freaks me the hell out.

  11. Art Edwards says:

    Geezer Butler needs to be mentioned more in this, and every, conversation.

    Art

  12. This is cool. I was thinking about this exact thing a while back.

    A good friend of mine plays bass in a death metal band. Seems to be dead end for the bass.

    Honorable bass-mentions:

    “Rooster”
    “Walk on the Wild Side”
    “Army”
    “Sabotage”
    “Driven to Tears”
    “Dancing in the Moonlight”
    “Last Train to London”

  13. Art Edwards says:

    “Driven to Tears.” So lovely. I was trying to get Sting in there, but I didn’t hear his lines as “taking over the song” like some of the others. He wrote the songs, for the most part, so was careful not to take them over.

    And the bass line for “Walk on the Wild Side,” while wonderful, *is* the song in a way that seems antithetical to a takeover.

    I guess I was shooting for something very specific: bass players kind of getting out of line, risking everything by pissing the lead singer off, and in turn creating something far more thrilling than a typical rock song.

    But whatever. All those bass lines rule.

    Art

  14. Don Mitchell says:

    I know a jazz drummer who got a new bassist.

    He said to me, Man! If [the bassist] was a woman, we’d be fucking all night.

  15. Rachel Pollon says:

    Okay, funny because I brought up The Who in my comment area this morning so I guess we’re meant to be friends. 🙂 Also, I love Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” — hooey! I was thinking Led Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times” might also be a contender… but it might be the guitar that I love.

    OH, and good God/The Jesus, I love The Big Lebowski. We played that and Annie Hall in the background during the party at our wedding.

  16. Art Edwards says:

    The Zeppelin choice was a hard one for me. I wanted a line that “took over” the song, which isn’t really how John Paul Jones plays, but I love him so much I had to find an excuse to get him in there.

    Happy Friday!

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