Saturday, February 28, 2009

William Empson meets Little Richard -- or, Seven Types of All Rootie

Rhythm allows one, by playing off the possible prose rhythms against the super-imposed verse rhythms, to combine a variety of statements in one order. Its direct effect seems a matter for physiology; in particular, a rhythmic beat taken faster than the pulse seems controllable, exhilarating, and not to demand intimate sympathy; a rhythmic beat almost synchronous with the pulse seems sincere and to demand intimate sympathy; while a rhythmic beat slower than the pulse, like a funeral bell, seems portentous and uncontrollable.

-- William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity

I wonder how this might apply to music. Well, first, I wonder what it means. But I’m taking the pulse to mean the beat that the drummer – or more likely, for a singer, the bass player – lays down, and the rhythmic beat being the beat that the singer creates. And what does it mean to be exhilarating yet controllable, and not demanding of intimate sympathy? That seems a tricky concept – I wonder if Empson knew what it meant.

Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday famously sang behind the beat, and they did pull the listener in emotionally. Nobody created the illusion of a heart out of control better than Lady did, and Sinatra at his best, before the tough veneer enclosed him completely, projected allowed a glimpse into a core of emotional vulnerability. Rock and roll may be the music of orgiastic hedonism, but there’s more emotional nakedness in jazz.

Chuck Berry sang right on the beat, and he placed his lyrics right on the beat. And who sang ahead of the beat? Peter Jones reminds me that if you listen to Little Richard, you hear the great drummer Earl Palmer actually playing behind the beat, so that Richard is singing ahead of it. That’s part of what gives him that frantic urgency.

Does Little Richard demand less intimate sympathy than Chuck Berry? I wonder…but maybe he does. We don’t ever really care what Richard is singing about. Not even that he still loves Lucille, even though she’s run away and married. Not about the girl who says she loves him but she can’t come in. Not about Uncle John’s predicament at almost being caught by Aunt Mary. But exhilarated? Oh, my, yes.

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