Thirteenth Note

By Art Edwards



When I started playing bass guitar at fourteen, I had it in my head to do something revolutionary with the instrument. I’m sure I was like other kids in the eighties who bought axes and imagined they’d summon their inner Eddie Van Halens to become some kind of wunderkind. The path to this land for me was murky, but the end result—being crowned the Undisputed King of the Bass—was clear. I had only one clue to finding this Valhallic destination, and that was the thirteenth note.

We rev up again quickly. “Girls Got Rhythm” follows on the heels of the title track, and in its insistent four-on-the-floor drive and awesome, hip-shaking riff it feels as if the party’s headed in a different, no less risky direction. And it’s still early.

An unbridled riff of a song, “Girls Got Rhythm” is given ballsy swagger by an unhinged yet committed vocal from the helium-voiced Scott, propelled excitedly by the Youngs’ riffing and Williams’ eighth-notes. Two songs in and you can hear the difference that Lange has made: light virtually glints off of the shiny surface of this performance, so tactile is the mid-range, so compactly-made and energetically focused is the performance. An aspect of earlier records that Lange seems to have vetoed is the recording of the room’s atmosphere, studio details such as amp feedback, fingers on live strings, studio count-ins. In doing so he might’ve lost a bit of the band’s immediacy, but he compensated for it with an air-tight but punchy — and radio-ready — album sound. I can never think of “Girls Got Rhythm” without pairing it with the opening track, and when the album was released the two were usually played back-to-back on DC101 where I lived, and on hundreds of FM stations around the country. A perpetual motion machine, “Girls Got Rhythm” was made equally for boom-boxes at the public pool and for pounding systems in the back of cars transporting happily juiced-up guys downtown for a Friday night out.

Lyrically, Scott was mining his favorite source of inspiration. I thought that I knew who these girls with the backseat rhythm were, the ones who looked through me at school, the ones who after three o’clock would shed their regulation plaid skirt, white blouse, and saddle shoes to paint-on their makeup, feather their Sun-In hair and, defying the laws of physics, stuff a hairbrush down the ass pocket of their skin-tight Calvin Kleins to hang out and smoke at the park in Kemp Mill shopping center or the ice skating rink at Wheaton Regional, flirting with guys who were already shaving. Or: those prohibited girls at E. Brook Lee, the public school located over the hill feet away from St. Andrews, but culturally a continent-sized distance. When Scott sings about the girl moving like sin and then letting him in, the colloquialisms worked well enough for us boys, giddily tense as we were with the twin pulls of head-down piety and up-skirt peeking.. “It’s like liquid love,” Bon squeals, barely suppressing the grin that knows just how outrageous the line is.

The band is fantastically loud and tight by the end of the song, Malcolm the foreman steering the smirking riff as Williams and Rudd provide the solid chassis. Rock & roll rhythm! the guys shout seconds from the song’s end, and it’s that moment that I loved when I first heard the tune; these girls don’t just hang out in the back seat, they’re silhouettes for everything that rock & roll promises.

To young guys, at least. Bon Scott’s lyrics catalogue an epic sweep through the triumvirate of men’s needs: pussy; rock & roll; drink. There’s little room in his oeuvre for fealty, or subtlety, or sensitivity to the nuances of the male-female relationship dynamic, or for extended reflection on the tension between desire and conscience, surrender and smarts. There shouldn’t be. He knows what he wants, we know what he wants, she knows what he wants. The music makes it irresistibly so.

But that doesn’t mean that, Catholic-trained, I didn’t raise an eyebrow at some of Scott’s lyrics, even when as a hopeless teenager the language I spoke was equal parts English and Hormone. When Highway to Hell appeared in the summer of 1979 I had sex on the brain. The previous summer, the Rolling Stones had released Some Girls, and “Miss You” was in heavy-rotation on D.C.-area radio stations. Laying out at Wheaton Pool in the radiant, suburban sunshine, off of school for a few months, heady with the thump of “Miss You”’s filthy beat and the surrounding tableau of girls moist with Coppertone, the enduring, insistent tradition of rock & roll and sex was working its lasting way through me, and I was happily helpless in its grip. (That my 16-year old sister was among those innocently posing against the backdrop only complicated the pleasures.) Buzzing in the air the next few summers was the rumor that Joan Jett had gone to Wheaton High School a few years earlier and she comes to the pool sometimes! (She had indeed gone to Wheaton High. I looked eagerly for her bad reputation to strut onto the pool deck area in those years, but she never materialized.) There was sex in the breezes and the shimmering girl-curves, and though I hardly had much of it figured out or even named, the throb of “Miss You” (and of Exile’s “Kiss You All Over” and Nick Gilder’s “Hot Child in the City” and Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded”) pulsed in my chest as a girl walked by me on her way to the snack stand and I rubbed my eyes and rising through the eyespots and glare was the mythic, long-off promise of sex.

Bon Scott was writing out of a tradition that we might charitably call the Penthouse School of Realism, but he was also writing within the time-tested conventions of Dirty Blues (no doubt with autobiographical inspiration — witness “Whole Lotta Rosie,” “She’s Got Balls,” “The Jack,” “Go Down,” et al). He’s hardly the first or the last musician to mine the blues for lyrical tropes as well as for chord changes, but his knowing humor and knack for memorable turns-of-phrase made him one of the best rock & roll lyricists of his era. “People began singing about sex as soon as they began singing,” writes rock & roll historian Jim Marshall. “Dirty ballads, lewd couplets, poems, limericks, rhymes, drinking songs, all ripe with sex, have always been an important if shunned part of western culture, from the first broadside balladeers to the most current heavy metal acts.” He adds, “Blues in general is a lyrically limited form — broads, booze and sex have a virtual stranglehold on the primitive blues singers’ mind, give or take a cameo appearance by the devil himself…and filthy blues records make up a large portion of the recorded body of work. Since that immortal day when Blind Lemon Jefferson beheld his pecker and decided it had the same leathery quality as a black snake, getting the biggest hit record of his career out of it — “Black Snake Moan” (which he recorded several times) — sex on blues discs sold.”

What Marshall calls “the golden age of the double entendre and the crude metaphor” never ended, of course. From obscure 1950s R&B singers to Seventies hard rock to daring New Wave through last month’s R&B and Hip Hop: popular music has always made room for gutter thought, memorably expressed. A sliver of history’s badly behaved: Barrel House Annie’s “If It Don’t Fit (Don’t Force It);” Lil Johnson’s “Sam—The Hot Dog Man;” Art Fowler and his Ukulele’s “No Wonder She’s A Blushing Bride;” Louise Bogan’s infamous “Shave ‘Em Dry;” Bo Diddley’s “Greatest Lover in the World;” the Sonics’ “Dirty Old Man;” the Vandals’ really racy mid-Sixties ode to a one-night stand “I Saw Her In a Mustang;” Grand Funk Railroad’s paean to groupies, “We’re An American Band,” Naughty by Nature’s catchy, acronymic “O.P.P.” Etcetera, etcetera. Guilty even were the tidy Everly Brothers, whose “Wake Up Little Susie,” duly sanitized for Eisenhower’s America, nails the morning-after fears of a teenage couple waking up where they shouldn’t be. Common to these and other grinding songs are reliance on witty metaphors and an understanding that the listener’s in on the (dirty) joke. When Wynonie Harris sings “Keep on churning until the butter comes” or Bon howls about being “up to my neck in you,” you don’t have to have a second pair of eyes in the back of your head to see in two directions at once.

“There were always ways in which popular singers could be suggestive of sexual desire by subtle emphasis or inference,” blues historian Paul Oliver says. In the fall of 1979, as Highway to Hell was laying the foundation for its assault on the charts, the Knack were selling millions of copies of “My Sharona,” and later “Good Girls Don’t,” teaching suburban kids everywhere burdened with teenage madness and in-between sadness the Top 40 code for oral sex. She really got the rhythm.

Derk Richardson of the San Francisco Chronicle has described the band’s sound as “the heavy sadness of Townes Van Zandt, the light pop concision of Buddy Holly, the tuneful jangle of the Beatles, [and] the raw energy of the Ramones.” Hailing from Concord, North Carolina, the Avett Brothers have burst onto the music scene with the release of their acclaimed 2009 album, I and Love and You, and there’s no looking back.

I had the fortunate opportunity to speak with Seth Avett of the band to discuss—among other things—this very album, their recent rise in popularity, and whether or not beard envy was involved when working with the man himself: Rick Rubin. Enjoy.

*”Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”- A quip about music journalism variously attributed to Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson, Steve Martin, and Elvis Costello.

Think of the sections at your local bookstore: romance, history, science fiction, fantasy, western, chick lit, erotica. How big are these sections? Where are they located in the store?

And how does the section on rock literature compare?

Steve Almond’s latest book of non-fiction, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, is written for “Drooling Fanatics,” people, like Almond himself, whose fixations with music take on an almost religious fervor. Almond’s past works include story collections My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow, the novel Which Brings Me to You (with Julianna Baggott), and the non-fiction books Candyfreak and (Not That You Asked). He is also a TNB contributor, and his submissions have ranged from a self-interview to a criticism of fellow contributor Joe Daley’s “Five Bands I Should Like, but I Don’t. At All.” The latter ruffled some feathers at TNB, and Steve accepted my offer to talk about the dust-up, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, and the larger concerns of his work.

Last week, I went to my first reading in a while. It was Steve Almond, at Powell’s, with the candlestick.

(Wait. Scratch the candlestick part. It was just Steve Almond at Powell’s.)

I enjoyed myself. Steve was charming and funny and irreverent. Particularly heartening was seeing probably 100 people show up for a reading by an author who was promoting something that could be described as rock lit. As a fellow tribesman of that woefully underpopulated genre, I can now fantasize that someday 100 people might show up to Powell’s to watch me goof off for an hour.

1) Show up to your first rehearsal with the cheapest, ugliest, most elaborately decorated guitar you can find. When asked about it say, “Ten bucks at a pawn shop!”

2) Stop rehearsal every time your cell phone vibrates.

3) At the announcement of a new gig, no matter the city or venue, make an exasperated noise, kick the ground and say, “Not that fucking place again.”

4) During a concert, yell “I got it” when the band slides into its first solo break. Do the same for every subsequent song.

Since I was a lad I’ve admired beat literature and its developers. My young mind was taken with the romantic image of Kerouac roaming the interior of the body politic, a mad sweating virus on the loose in the highway vein of Amerika, Ginsberg holy maniac,chanting, praying, exorcising a generation ruined by madness, Burroughs and Gysin, pushing the envelope, rubbing out the word, and di Prima, conjuring, straddling the magick/dream line, throwing us bits of tasty metamorsels and sumptuous subconscious feasts from the other side.

This is Rock ‘n’ Roll, but not rock ‘n’ roll music. This is some heroin addict losing a thumbnail on a G string, Al Green on his knees, Sleepy John Estes alone beneath a streetlight screaming, “Aaahh’m just a pris’ner!” into a Coors Light bottleneck. This is Mick Jagger finally castrated and Marianne Faithfull juggling his balls and a chainsaw. And this is accordion. Just accordion played by a Zapotec girl in a night alley that has no business being this orange.

You should know this: My wife is asleep in a Oaxaca motel named for the swallows who shit there, and I have what looks like blood on my hands; that the motel has no A/C, and a hot plate where we cooked our dinner, and the blood on my hands is just chioggia beet and not blood. This is nothing like the church group accordion that the upper middle class men played (in lederhosen) when I was a child at Strawberry Fest in Long Grove, Illinois, when polka was still as exotic as whiskey. This is accordion that virtuoso Guy Klucevsek can only swallow with an avant garde sleeping pill and a Transylvanian whore.

I am in Oaxaca City and I have to take a picture of this girl and her accordion, and the red cup that has only one peso in it, and the kids up the street destroying a piñata and eating its sweet organs, the simple pleasures of balloon and lightsticks occupying the children in the Zócalo before they take their shifts behind tarps, bearing clay burros, and yellow scarves, and wool carpets for sale to the tourists.

My wife and I are in Oaxaca trying to find our place in the world again, aged after a year of dealing with our sick parents. We force ourselves to shed hesitancy and over-protectiveness, and all manner of adult things behind food carts steaming with pigs’ heads, girls’ fingers dancing over keys that were never mother-of-pearl. My wife sleeps and I walk, stop for this girl—motherless, pearl-less—and it’s all I can do to pull out my camera.

I’m hungry. For dinner tonight: only two passion fruits and a cherimoya, a sautéed beet, the chile relleno with salsa roja my wife and I split at the Mercado Benito Juarez, passing so many stalls where intestines hang like ribbons. We’ve slept little, listened to so much music. But nothing like this. This tiny voice perched as if on a water-lily, driven by some failing engine—a horsefly with too-wet wings, food for some larger animal with a poisonous tongue. This asthmatic accordion scoring its attempts to fly, right itself; the instrument itself failing, played-out after one too many cigarettes—dirty and ugly and struggling and beautiful. There’s a reason why Tom Waits has a pathos Celine Dion never will. That reason is this girl’s accordion and its emphysema.

It’s all I can do to say, “Foto?” and I feel immediately blasphemous for doing so. You should know this: my wife is asleep and she cried before sleeping. Something to do with the bald old woman selling green maracas. Something to do with her knowing, in likely dream, that her husband is interrupting a nightsong.

She doesn’t stop playing, but nods, her little sister running out of frame, standing beside me hugging my leg and the flash explodes. Only a few months earlier, this street saw the local teachers’ strike lead to violent protests, riots, cars set aflame, rocks hurled, barking guns, military intervention. I wonder where she played then. Now, only the firing of my camera, her little sister hanging on my forearm, reaching to see the photo, her feet off the ground. I’m glad it’s blurry.

On the outskirts of town the streets turn to dirt, three-wheeler moto-taxis, stray dogs and squatter camps in the valley before the mountains. The buildings here spew their exposed steel cables like industrial squid, the cisterns slanted on the roofs, holding, for now, their collected water. I begin to wonder when dark becomes too dark; what the accordion player’s name is. Because I’ll never know, I give her the name I’ve always wanted to give a daughter. This is the word I will wake my wife with.

Returning to town, the bustle has become a chug. The push-carts of ice cream and mezcal and flan in plastic cups return home, their bells feebly ringing. At the cathedral-tops, bells more obese announce the crooked arrival of something holy: music or midnight.

She is gone, but something of her endures—something beyond music and the instrument that acts as intermediary, beyond buttons and bellows and small fingers that can only press. In this accordion is translation. A language that can stave off, just as it ignites. In it is all music—the stuff my wife snores, the shitty Laura Branigan cassettes my mom kept in her car when she was well enough to drive, when Branigan was alive and sexy and rife with the lovely strength required to belt-out crappy songs.

I head for Hotel Las Golondrinas, something of clove and orange peel in the air. Tomorrow, we are going to Santa Maria del Tule, to the church grounds there to see the Montezuma Cypress whose trunk has the greatest circumference of any tree in the world.

My wife is sleeping, so I am quiet when I enter the room. I take a long pull from the ass-pocket of mezcal on my nightstand; the ass-pocket we bought at a market on the grounds of a different church. I need a sink, and its cold water. In the bathroom, I wash the beet from my hands, wonder what the accordion girl will have for breakfast tomorrow. I’m pulling for bananas and cream. I have no idea where she sleeps tonight, or where—if—she wakes up. Because I know there will be a fence around the trunk of that giant tree, because I’ll never know, I knife her name into the bathroom door.

A main character in my upcoming novel* has feeble short-term memory. His pockets spill over with scraps of paper covered in scribbled notes like tattoos on the leathery arms of an aging biker. A minor character fills her study with bound books chock-a-block with the lists of her daily life.

I’m not a list person, although I often write notes to myself. In the car. In the bathroom. But in a way maybe these notes are lists — things to remember, events by which to gauge time, yet not in list form.

My book deals with memory, history, and the chronology of a life whose gaps are filled by the most unlikely sources.