small blue flowers

Wednesday

Blacktop, Pt. 1

One of the things that frequently blows my mind is how the North American continent is set up, road wise. I could literally pick any destination on it, and with the help of an atlas or a few good maps, plan a trip there. Eight lane highways, local streets, dirt paths, interstates, lanes, avenues, cul de sacs - roads take varieties of all kinds, and in my first 3-part series for Bluets, i will be examining some road songs.



Part 1: Midwestern Highways

“You and I/Westward on a highway forever/You and I/Finally alone.”

Route 70 runs across the state of Pennsylvania (my former residence) and connects the southwestern part of the state to the mid-west. When thinking of the Midwest, if Nashville-pop-country music and Republicans don’t come to mind, certainly a slower, more laid-back way of life does. Towns where front porches and rocking chairs are more common than traffic lights and litter-clogged sidewalks.

There is something inherently romantic about the idea of picking up the fast paced life some of us suburbanites and city dwellers live and moving someplace where pedestrians crossing the street are waved and not honked at. This is especially an appealing thought if in a relationship that has a serious future. For kids in love, what could be better than having nothing to do but put on a pot of coffee (or tea), putting on your favorite record and lying in a hammock on a Saturday morning?

Of course, this idea is really a myth – no such place really exists without its negatives. Good bands may never pass through the fictional town I speak of, nor may many people of different races, creeds, and sexual orientations. Who wants to raise their kids someplace where they are shut off to so much of the world?

Part of this is a spoiled east-coaster talking – I grew up a bus ride away from some of the world’s best museums, concert venues, restaurants and theatres. I was in a very multi-cultural school system (mainly white and Asian for the most part, but there were certainly Latinos and a few black kids) where the arts, as well as the mid-western holy ground, the football field, were nourished.

As romantic as a trip across 70 West sounds when sung by Homunculus co-lead singer and fellow East Coast native (and son of my dentist) Kevin Shima, I’ll take my tolerant churches, good live music, and stone’s throw from an Indian restaurant over the idyllic Idaho sunset.

- - - - - - - -

You don’t expect idiosyncratic jazz music with a dry sense of humor from the same region of the country that the film Fargo so perfectly introduced the coats to, do you?

Well, that is just one of the surprises that The Bad Plus brings in tow. Three composers in one band who are skilled enough to disguise their compositions so you don’t know that the drums-heavy piece was actually written by pianist Ethan Iverson, or that the bass heavy song is one of drummer David King’s.

One of King’s finest songs, “Keep the Bugs Off Your Glass and the Bears Off Your Ass,” you would swear was written by bassist Reid Anderson. It begins with a tuneful bass introduction that swings its way into the rest of the tune. A clever piano counter melody comes in on top of a breezy beat that builds up and breaks down, but always comes back to that bass melody.

What does this have to do with a Midwestern highway? Well, “Keep the Bugs Off Your Glass and the Bears Off Your Ass” is a trucker/CB radio term (in fact, it is used in the pantheon of white trash culture, C.W. McCall’s title song for the filmConvoy) and is the title of this composition written by Minnesota native King. In the liner notes to These Are The Vistas, the record this is drawn from, it says of this song "The Bad Plus are from the land of 18-Wheelers, and this one is for truckers everywhere."

At first, second, and perhaps six thousandth listen, the song appears to have nothing to do with trucking. It is perhaps as far from trucking as can be, actually. Quiet jazz with a groove on a record with a robot on the cover and a Blondie cover? Yeah, I’m sure they pipe that through Cracker Barrels and Truck Stops throughout the breadbasket of America.

However, like many great songs, this one’s an onion. You peel off the layers until you find what it is you are looking for (even if it is not what the artist actually had in mind).

See, how I hear the song is that the opening bass figure, that repeats throughout, is like the song’s own personal CB handle. For those unfamiliar with CB radios, if I, Brian, were delivering paper goods to the good people of Topeka, Kansas, and got bored on the road, I would pick up my trusty CB receiver and call out to see if anyone is around to converse. I’m sure its more like talking about traffic and good rest areas to have secret homosexual affairs than like “The Best Little Chat House 2167,” but the way I identify myself among the sea of CB-ers out there would be to start all my transmissions with my handle, a name given to myself in the trucker world. Think of it as a screen-name for the multi-lane blacktop internet.

I think I’d be the Duke of Jersey.

So anyway, back to the song. The bass figure is Anderson calling out to those on the road. The piano and drums are answering him in conversation. Every once and awhile, he has to re-identify himself, so the figure repeats.

Towards the end of the song, there is an elongated bass solo. I like to think of that as a soul-bearing monologue that the driver simultaneously hopes is never heard by anyone and yet screamed into the radio, begging for compassion and understanding. And after it is over, the tears wiped off his face, nose blown into a checkered handkerchief, he simply restates his handle, and continues driving.

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MP3s (PC Users Right-click and Save As, Mac Users Control Click Download Linked FIle):

Homunculus - "70 West"

The Bad Plus - "Keep The Bugs Off The Glass, And The Bears Off Your Ass"

Commerce:

Purchase Homunculus' The Pulse of Directed Devotion and other fine records from the now-defunct group.

Purchase the Bad Plus' debut, These Are The Vistas and their subsequent two studio records, as well as the internet only Live in Tokyo.

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