TNAG Notes #15 By Stephen Bennett
While the multi-award-winning, 1990 John Guare play, “Six Degrees of Separation” may well remain completely unknown to an entire generation, the speculation-game it triggered (unwontedly, via the actor Kevin Bacon) is, these days, familiar to just about everyone. The concept – the existential premise that every person in the world is connected to everybody else by no more than six linked acquaintances - was first promoted in the late 1920s by the Hungarian polymath, Frigyes Karinthy (of course). Ninety years later, in an age of global mass travel and communication, it’s doubtful we’d even need six.
For example, when a friend of this column – who is still alive – worked with Alfred Hitchcock in Hollywood, he lived in a house in Santa Monica with the composer, Kurt Weil, and Jean Renoir, the film-director son of the great Impressionist painter, Auguste. He was probably six degrees of separation from the entire cultural history of the 19thand 20thcenturies.
These stories often start small before suddenly exploding into giant super-novas of possibility. So with all that in mind, here’s one of them from last week and – by way of a change for TNAG – it’s strung with nylon instead of steel.
Jacques Vincenti is a luthier from Geneva. His dad played football for Fiorentina in the 1940s but that’s only taking the Six Degrees in the other direction – we’re sticking with the guitars. Over a bottle of Chianti in a tiny mountain village in Italy, Jacques was celebrating his recent retirement and showing us a few guitar-related photos from his collection, one of which is a famous, posed image of the legendary French guitarist, Ida Presti. She’s on the net, should you care to Google the name.
Presti was thought by many to be the greatest classical player of the 20thcentury and you can hear something of what made her special even on the scratchy, converted 78 recordings that survive. There’s a subtlety and wit to her playing that brings renewed sparkle to some of the classical repertoire’s dustiest corners; a kind of dancing delicacy of touch married to absolute precision and effortless dynamic control. Trouble is, she never really got the global recognition her talents deserved, partly because – quelle surprise! – she was a woman and, significantly, because Segovia just wasn’t having it. There can be only one etc. and old Andrés had the pull, the presence and, well…the penis. He could also, of course, play a bit. Anyway…the photograph. The cropped version on the ‘net shows a cool-looking, though fully-focussed Ida, surrounded by admiring (patronising) men as she demonstrates a near impossible left-hand spread that takes in four separately fretted E notes. Try it sometime. It hurts. That reach is amazing enough but it’s the guitar that tells the bigger story. It looks a bit battered, even back then, though still way short of the full Willie Nelson, ‘Trigger’ status. It got worse. The reason being that Ida’s boyfriend, at the time of the photo, was one Django Reinhardt. He liked playing the guitar – maybe more than he liked Ida, as their relationship didn’t last – but insisted, in his macho Manouche madness, on hammering away at it with a heavy plectrum. That left its mark and may even be why Ida dumped him. But we digress.
The guitar was built in 1906 by the ex-Ramirez apprentice, Enrique Garcia, the founder of the acclaimed ‘Barcelona School’ that specialised in Catalan-style instruments (stiffer soundboards, extra fan-frets etc.). He built it for the composer, Francisco Tárrega, who was then inspired to develop a piece on it that he’d had lying around for a few years, entitled ‘Recuerdos de la Alhambra’. That fully-formed, dazzling tremolo-showcase is now, arguably, the most famous and ubiquitous single work in the entire classical canon.
Gently plied with further vino rosso, Jacques then casually reveals that he keeps the guitar in his workshop-cum-studio in Geneva and, to cap the whole story off, points us towards a YouTube clip from last October, featuring the brilliant Korean classical guitarist, Kyuhee Park, playing the instantly familiar Tárrega masterpiece that was first magically conjured out of it a hundred years earlier.
The guitar, all its original parts still in place, looks completely knackered. It sounds sublime.
All of which goes to show that, should you find yourself drinking cheap wine in an Italian village, striking up a conversation with a random Swiss bloke, you might just find yourself only six degrees of separation from at least three legends of 20thcentury guitar. And a bit drunk.
Boxing guitarists, anyone? Or guitar-playing boxers, come to that?
Surely not. First thought being, it can’t be too good for the hands. However, this not untypically bizarre, left-field Notes-notion was prompted by a bit of Fab Five research (see below) that uncovered a few likely – and unlikely – lads who came to realise that playing the guitar in front of an adoring musical audience was probably preferable to getting punched in the face in front of a baying and bloodthirsty one.
Manny Pacquiao is a decent guitarist, would you believe, though he probably wouldn’t have made quite so much money out of it as he has from thumping people. And you’d think that’s about it until you ‘discover’ an entire band (almost) – a great one, at that – made up of champion Golden Gloves boxers. Such was the seminal rockabilly outfit, The Johnny Burnette Trio, purveyors of teen-tantalising, twangin’ gems like ‘Honey Hush’, ‘Tear It Up’ and the prime suspect in our heavyweight line-up below, ‘Train Kept a-Rollin’. How’s that for a mixed metaphor?
Perhaps it was a result of being hit on the head so often that the Trio thought it was okay to have four members – its various drummers, clearly in defiance of time-honoured band convention, staying well clear of any pugilistic distraction in favour of, well, beating the hell out of things inanimate, instead.
Johnny himself, his bassist brother, Dorsey, and their lead-playing friend, Paul Burlison, all spent time battering the Be-Jesus out of rival skiffle and doo-wop groups throughout the 50s. Actually, that may not be entirely accurate (or even partly! - TNAG lawyers) but still…all three were more than useful in the ring and surviving concert-video evidence reveals that they all had the noses to prove it. Rock’n’Roll, indeed.
Would you Adam an’ Eve it…?
More Eve than Adam in this instance but the esteemed US publication ‘Acoustic Guitar’ has just released an online article featuring four prominent and/or upcoming female luthiers. It’s a good one, too. This is, of course, excellent news all round and yet another sign that, as they used to say about all things Manchester - back when the UK had something called ‘industry’ - what TNAG does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow. Just thought we’d mention it. Humbly. And yes, with that, it’s time for…
This Fortnight’s (definitely not nylon-string) Fab Five!
Is it just me or does that hoary old ‘origin of heavy-metal’ tag get shifted from one early 1960s British blues-rock track to the next with far too much regularity for anyone to have a clue what they’re actually on about? There seem to be more entries in that vague contest than there are for the London Marathon. So, with that in mind – and knowing how, while others merely bandy opinions, TNAG confidently disseminates only the rock-solid (!) facts – we present our five leading contenders. And in the healthy spirit of downright cheating, we’re leaning more towards heavy rock than heavy metal so those expecting a paean to the unarguably-mighty Black Sabbath, Steppenwolf or MC5, look away now.
- Okay, so it’s an obvious one but The Kinks 1964 classic, ‘You Really Got Me’ still springs a few surprises. For example, how can so riotously heavy a noise be so dependent on a tambourine? Give it another listen and, while it’s fun to revel in the storied anarchy of all that studio speaker-slashing sonic mayhem, what comes across most now is just how much Dave Davies had this snarling little beast so tightly under control.
- Most things in rock come back around to The Beatles at some point and with ‘Helter Skelter’ in 1968 - Paul McCartney’s response to Pete Townsend’s efforts to make ‘I Can See For Miles’ the loudest, roughest-edged and most raucous racket in rock history – they kicked-started a whole barbarian invasion of decibel derangement, not least via the likes of Mötley Crüe, Aerosmith and more oddly, perhaps, Siouxsie and The Banshees.
When asked what motivated the launch of this very un-McCartney-like musical hand-grenade, its composer responded with his trademark economy, “’cos I like noise”. Fab!
- Delving a little deeper, there’s a Pretty Things track from the cult, 1968 concept album, ‘S.F. Sorrow’ called ‘Old Man Going’. It’s a surging, psychedelic swamp-thing of dark distortion wherein anything that canbe fuzz-boxed-up is– thus ‘benefiting from’ the full grunge treatment and then some. Possibly more Hawkwind than Sabbath it nonetheless remains a pulsating touchstone for a thousand clanging, kerranging (and often lesser) imitators.
- We could’ve opted for Bitter Creek’s sludge-tastic ‘Plastic Thunder’ from the same year but, while it may not be their song – though surely Eddie Cochran would’ve been well up for it – Blue Cheer’s 1967 take on “Summertime Blues” boasts all the requisite fuzz and thud necessary for a strong claim to some serious proto-metal flag-planting. Yes, they were a bit rubbish but since when did that stop the Monolithic March of Metal. And we felt a certain grudging obligation to get at least one American band onto the list. Sorry, Donald.
- And the TNAG Award for Questionable Noise Inspiration goes to…controversial, this…the late-stage Yardbirds for ‘Train Kept a’Rollin’ from 1968. Current YouTube footage features a suitably Swinging London, dandified Jimmy Page, warming up via the screaming mid-point guitar break, for the somewhat meatier indulgences to come only a few months later in the almost-legendary, ‘New Yardbirds’. It’s a long way from Tiny Bradshaw’s Louis Jordan-esque, 1951 original and, as with The Kinks’ tambourine, is er…heavy on the slightly incongruous harmonica but still, this seems very much like the crucible from which metal was forged.
Yes, another dodgy metaphor, there, so it’s clearly time to say… ‘see you next time’!
by Stephen Bennett