On many occasions during my teens and early twenties, in search of opportunities to improve my limited guitar skills, I’d call a friend up and ask, “Hey, you wanna jam?” That friend would call another friend who knew this guy who was supposed to be a bad-ass guitar player and just happened to be in town staying with this other friend and the next thing you know I’d have ten fucking people in my living room with guitars and tambourines and maybe a bass if I was lucky.
You couldn’t really call these jam sessions. They were more “fuck around” sessions than real jamming. The group would assemble and then stare at each other with guitars in hands until someone suggested a song that everyone probably knew and could follow with relative ease.
“Hey, what about ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger?’” someone might suggest. In the context of a fuck around, there is only one possible response to that offer. “What are the chords?”
“C, G, Am, E7, F, G for the main. Then there’s an F/Fminor kinda thing on the bridge with a D-note on the Fminor.”
“Okay, let’s give it a shot.”
The key interaction here is the response to a song title: “What are the chords?” With very few exceptions, rock music is based on chords, and since the chords to rock music are pretty standard fare (majors, minors, sevenths and an occasional ninth or diminished chord), most rock musicians know them and can follow along without having to look at a chart (which few of them could read anyway). Blues songs are usually three chords, a standard pop-rock song may have five to eight if the bridge is interesting. The Beatles at their peak and some of the more progressive rock groups added a bit more complexity, but the most rock songs are cut from the same simple fiber. The Oasis song mentioned above has seven or eight chords, and all are very familiar to most homegrown musicians.
I often watched these interactions from an anthropological perspective, fascinated by the development of cultural norms and expectations. Being a wicked little bitch, I always had the fantasy that someday it would be my turn to pick a song and I’d say, “How about ‘Giant Steps’ by John Coltrane?”
“What are the chords?”
“Well, the intro is Bmaj7, D7, Gmaj7, Bb7, Ebmaj7, Am9, D7, then Gmaj7, Bb7, Ebmaj7, F#7, Bmaj7, Fm9, Bb7, Ebmaj7, Am9, D7, Gmaj7, C#m9, F#7, Bmaj7, Fm9, Bb7, Ebmaj7, C#m7, F#7. The first section of the solo follows the pattern B, D7, G, Bb7, Eb, Am7, D7, G, Bb7, Eb, Gb7, B, Fm7, Bb7, Eb, Am7, D7, G, C#m7, F#7, B, Fm7, then back to Bb7, Eb, C#m7, F#7. That’s the first thirty seconds or so. I’ll sing scat for the melody, you guys just follow along, and once we get that down, we’ll do the rest of the song. Ready?”
Once the silence died, maybe one person trying to save face might say, “Am7—isn’t that the ‘Rocky Raccoon’ chord?” The rest would sit there frozen for another minute, then the smart-ass in the crowd would call my bluff and say, “Can you show me on your guitar?”
“Fuck, no!” I’d have to admit. That’s because “Giant Steps” is played at 260-300 beats per minute, depending on which take you use as your model. Standard rock hovers around 120 beats per minute; punk ramps it up to a range of 140-200 beats per minute. It would be a YouTube-worthy feat if a rhythm guitar player could play the chord changes of “Giant Steps” at 120 beats per minute; impossible at 300. On a good day, I might get to play those chords in sequence at 40 beats a minute if I had a good night’s sleep and my finger memory was in working order, but I’m someone who thought she was absolute hot shit when she finally played the rapid chord changes to the chorus in Tull’s “Sweet Dreams,” a pattern that consists of a grand total of five familiar chords. To a rock musician, a barrage of chords at that speed is unintelligible, like speaking Farsi to a Finn. There doesn’t even seem to be an intelligible pattern to them, and because many rock musicians don’t know much about music theory, the lack of a detectable pattern is disorienting.
It certainly wasn’t disorienting to Wynton Marsalis when he was asked about Giant Steps in Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary. A pretty exuberant guy, he really lit up when talking about Giant Steps. “When it came out, everybody wanted to play Giant Steps,” he exulted.
Modern jazz has been attacked as unintelligible gibberish, but it’s really just music in a different language. Americans have never been comfortable with foreign languages, a phenomenon that may explain why jazz has held its popularity in Europe, where people are used to dealing with different languages, while continuing to decline in popularity in the States. The great innovators of the post-swing era—Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane—were constantly exploring new forms of musical expression because they felt restricted by the limits imposed by the standard structures of popular music. They wanted to push the boundaries of musical language. The problem was that when they removed the dance beat and Charlie and Dizzy started playing odd chords at a blistering pace, Americans started checking out of the jazz scene. For American kids weaned on Glenn Miller, they couldn’t see the point in making music that you couldn’t sing or dance to, so jazz began its inexorable decline into cultural irrelevance in the United States.
Coltrane was part of that movement. Coltrane’s journey through the jazz scene was more introverted, intense, personal and spiritual. He played with many of the great musicians of the period, but while respected by those musicians for his amazingly fluid, high-speed style, he never really came into his own until Giant Steps, the first album consisting entirely of Coltrane compositions. He’d been the leader (or featured soloist) on a few albums but still hadn’t found his voice . . . or as he would have said, he hadn’t solved “the musical problem.” To Coltrane, music was a universe of endless possibilities and mathematical problems awaiting solutions; at the same time, it was also the gateway to the eternal soul. This unusual combination of deep technical study and a lifelong personal Hejira in search of eternal truth (and ten hours of practice a day) makes John Coltrane a somewhat intimidating figure at first. His reputation and ascension into sainthood via the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church only adds to the distance. From the church’s website:
The ascension of St. John Coltrane into one-ness with God is what we refer to as the Risen Trane. In dealing with the Saint, John Coltrane, we are not dealing with St. John the man but St. John the sound and St. John the Evangelist and Sound Baptist, who attained union with God through sound. From the standpoint of the biography of John Coltrane, the Risen Trane is the post 1957 John Coltrane. He who emerged from drug addiction onto a path of spiritual awakening and who gave testimony of the power and empowerment of grace of God in his life and in his Psalm on A Love Supreme, and in his music thereafter. (“At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.”) We, too, having been touched by this anointed sound and being called and chosen by the Holy Ghost, endeavor to carry the holy ambition and mantle of sound baptism of St. John Coltrane.
We are fully aware of the universality of John Coltrane’s music and his philosophy, and that his spirit and legacy does reach and touch the lives of people of many different faiths, creeds, and religions. We, however, in this time and place, are grateful for the opportunity to lift up the Name of Jesus Christ through Saint John Coltrane’s music, knowing from personal experience and testimony, and from a great cloud of witnesses, that the Spirit of the Lord is in this Sound Praise as it is delivered from heaven through John.
I take issue with the dating of his ascension. Yes, he kicked drugs at that time, but he still had to finish his apprenticeship with Miles Davis before he achieved the alleged union with the Almighty. You can hear the difference on Giant Steps, and you’ll be surprised as to what gives it away as his ascension piece.
Coltrane is having one hell of a good time! I’ve always thought that ascension, nirvana, or achievement of the ultimate wisdom will be accompanied by howls of joyous laughter, because I have the feeling that when we get there, we’ll find out how beautifully obvious it was in the first place.
While I love Coltrane’s previous work, on Giant Steps his exuberance, playfulness and sense of humor come to the fore in a joyous celebration of musical freedom. There are parts of Giant Steps that make me laugh out loud when I hear them; the vamps are sometimes unexpected and undeniably witty. As for the technical aspects, you can read good baseline descriptions of “sheets of sound” and “Coltrane Changes” on Wikipedia; if you’re really into the theoretical underpinnings and can read scores, I’d refer you to Lewis Porter’s John Coltrane: His Life in Music. If you’d like to understand the man, Coltrane on Coltrane, a series of interviews covering a good part of his career, is definitely the way to go.
But before you go there, just sit back and enjoy the music. The melodies here are phenomenal, intensely complex but curiously memorable, and the horizontal movement of the melody is endlessly enriched by the nimble vertical movement of all those chords. When I used to drive a car, I loved putting on Giant Steps and using it as the soundtrack for my journeys through urban and suburban America; sometimes the music echoed the hustle and bustle, sometimes the loneliness of it all, and sometimes the sheer beauty of a fleeting moment appearing and disappearing as I sped by.
As intimidating as that barrage of chords listed above may appear, when you listen to “Giant Steps” it sounds as smooth and flowing as a forest stream after the first heavy rain of the season. The dominant motif is quite catchy, a tune you’d hum when you’re feeling on top of your game and all is right with the world. Pianist Tommy Flanagan suggested in the Lewis Porter book that “I don’t think there was any melody, just the chord sequence, which spells out the melody, practically.” The speed of the piece tends to blur the distinctions, though, and Tommy did have a challenging time with the tempo. In discussing his compositions with Ralph Gleason, Coltrane said, “I have yet to write a song that had a melody [laughter]. ‘Syeeda’s Song Flute’ was one of the few, that had a melody. And—well, ‘Naima’ had a melody. That was a ballad, though. But these other things I write, I’ve just been goin’ to the piano, gettin’ chords, and then I’ll take a melody, after a while, somewhere out of the chords, you know?” Personally, I couldn’t care less how Coltrane got there . . . if you define melody as the notes in a horizontal sequence (chords are vertical), then “Giant Steps” has a very memorable melody. The music is upbeat, both in terms of speed and mood, and the patterns Coltrane plays not only knock you out because of the beauty of the movement but because of the superhuman fingering and voicing (modifying the inner mouth and tongue to vary the pitch and the “color” of the sound).
The following video from YouTube consists of animated sheet music of “Giant Steps” synchronized to the original recording. I love reading scores when I listen to music, and this one is not only a hoot but a great visual for people who don’t read music because it captures Coltrane’s speed and sophistication in visual form. Enjoy!
“Cousin Mary” will feel more familiar to most listeners because of the blues structure, but Coltrane had a hard time leaving anything alone, so this isn’t your I-IV-V blues. He spots you the I and the IV, but then all bets are off. I know that when I go into music theory most people tune out, so let me focus on Coltrane’s artistic intent. What he was trying to do is paint a musical picture of a cousin he described as an “earthy, folksy person”. Now, take that brief description and listen to the tune. I don’t know about you, but I can see Mary, with her big hips swinging and her mouth going a mile a minute rattling off gossip and bullshit containing more than a few words that were not intended for polite company. That opening three note motif is her signature move, telling you Mary uses three quick movements to announce herself to the people in the room: one step, two steps, hands on hips. Mary’s a gas! Jazz, especially modern jazz, is primarily instrumental music, so you don’t have spoken language to fall back on as an interpretive tool. Jazz at its best expresses the emotions we can’t put into words, so what I like to do is just let the music fill me with pictures and emotions. While your accuracy will improve if you know the composer’s intent (which is why I advise people new to jazz to start with Sketches of Spain, which is loaded with backstory), if the “meaning” or the “state” or the “feeling” that emerges from the experience gives you a sense of satisfaction, fuck trying to explain it. Enjoy! Before we leave “Cousin Mary,” I have to add that it is quite obvious that the rest of the band is much more comfortable with this piece than they were with “Giant Steps.” Paul Chambers has a fabulous turn on the bass and Tommy Flanagan is more into the groove on this one.
“Countdown,” a variation of a Miles Davis number called “Tune Up” (pun intended, btw), is probably the least accessible piece to the new listener. This is much more of a hard bop piece played at a tempo even faster than “Giant Steps,” well over 300 beats per minute. Art Taylor opens the piece with an energetic drum intro, shifting to an extremely rapid high-hat rhythm once Coltrane takes center stage . . . excuse me . . . once Coltrane is shot out of a cannon to take the lead. Porter calls this a “blistering improvisation,” and I have no better way to describe it. Coltrane’s wondrous abilities aside, I’ve always considered “Countdown” a superb example of jazz collaboration and a reaffirmation of my Count Basie Theory that the little stuff often matters more than the big stuff. A little more than a minute into the song, Tommy Flanagan enters in deep background, comping Coltrane with supporting chords. It’s very subtle, but as his volume increases, the dynamics of the piece completely change, creating a high-speed urban, rush-hour mood that gives Coltrane’s solo a richer context. About thirty seconds before the piece ends, Paul Chambers comes in with the bass, filling in the canvas. What we’re left with is a musical story of self-expression merging into the flow of life. And all this takes place in less than two-and-a-half minutes. If you can force yourself not to let Coltrane’s opening improv befuddle you and accept it as a solo voice in search of a chorus, you’ll deeply appreciate this wonderful slice of music.
“Spiral” is probably the song on Giant Steps that gets the least amount of attention. Too bad, because this is cabaret jazz at its best! Kick back, take a sip of your very dry martini, light a smoke and dig the music! I love following Paul Chambers’ bass line on this one, and when he gets to his solo, the voices he creates from bending those big fat strings gives me the shivers. Even when he’s soloing, Chambers never loses the beat, one good reason why Coltrane said he always tried to focus on what the bass was doing to keep him on track.
I mentioned that Giant Steps is full of humor, and I laugh every time I hear Coltrane play the motif of “Syeeda’s Song Flute.” Coltrane wrote this piece with his 10-year old daughter in mind, commenting on the liner notes, “When I ran across it on the piano, it reminded me of her because it sounded like a happy, child’s song.” I didn’t know that back-story when I first heard it sometime in my teens, but that’s exactly the image that came to mind: a child trying to make music. It’s an almost jolly piece, with some of Coltrane’s most relaxed and exuberant playing. It’s also noticeable that the quartet is really into this one, too: they sound crisp and more involved in creating the overall sound. There’s a hint of Thelonious Monk’s playfulness in Tommy Flanagan’s solo, and Chambers nails it once again with confident, marvelously nimble bass work. That moment when Coltrane brings it all back together with a series of single harmonic notes is another brilliantly subtle move.
And then there’s “Naima.” Oh my fucking God, “Naima.” You don’t need to know dick about music theory to appreciate “Naima.” One of the most sensuous pieces of music ever created, “Naima” is a slow-tempo number where Coltrane demonstrates he can express as much inner fire through simple melody and subtle voicing as he does on his improvisational explosions. The perfect way to savor “Naima” is to wrap your lover in your arms and guide him or her through a close, tender slow dance full of the kind of deep kissing where both of you moan in delight. Sometimes I’ll get in a “Naima” mood, leave the whips and chains for another day and simply melt into my lover’s body as we move to the music. Ecstasy!
Coltrane changed the quartet for this piece, going with Jimmy Cobb on drums and Wynton Kelly on piano. Cobb is superb with the brushes, and Wynton Kelly has a certain touch reminiscent of Bill Evans that works beautifully in a sweet number like this. Coltrane considered “Naima” his best composition, and it’s hard to argue with that as long as you consider A Love Supreme a completely different thing altogether.
“Giant Steps” closes with a bang, so if you’ve set up “Naima” as instructed and end the piece on a deep, sensuous kiss, you’ll want to make sure that a.) You have a servant handy who can lift the needle from the turntable or b.) You were smart enough to prepare an iPod playlist that allows you to transition to something a bit less mood-shattering . . . maybe something by Sade or Patti Austin. “Mr P. C.” takes off with the speed of the proverbial bat out of hell, not exactly what you want to hear when you are in a deeply romantic mood. Stunning juxtaposition aside, “Mr P. C.” is great fun, a simple minor blues number that really swings. Mr. P. C. is Paul Chambers, who gives as energetic a performance on that big double bass as Coltrane does on the tenor sax. The motif is another musical fragment that cracks me up; it would make for a fabulous background to a Monty Python secret agent movie. Whatever pictures it brings up in your mind, “Mr. P. C.” is one of the hottest pieces of jazz you’ll ever hear and the perfect way to close a work of joyous liberation.
As I am not particularly fond of religion, she says in the understatement of the century, I can’t really get behind the whole Coltrane-as-saint thing. But I do consider myself a spiritual person, and I can certainly understand the concept of a union with the eternal soul through music. The church calls that eternal soul god; my feeling is that it’s a presence that cannot be explained in language or understood by mortals. Whatever you want to call it, I firmly believe that great music is a path to something greater than ourselves, and that was the path John Coltrane needed to take to achieve his artistic goals. Giant Steps is the exuberant sound of a man who has found the way.
As my readers know, my usual practice is to listen to an album three times without distraction before I touch the keyboard. I have to confess that I have not followed that practice with The Best of Muddy Waters, but I’m still going ahead with my review. Before you accuse me of violating my sacred oath as a music critic who has repeatedly differentiated herself from the pack of lazy, insufferable, assembly-line losers who dominate music criticism today, allow me to explain.
I have been listening to nothing but The Best of Muddy Waters for four days straight. I listened to no other music during that period, though I will admit that I was distracted during some of those plays. Here is the full analysis:
|Activity||# Times Played||# Times Listening While Otherwise Distracted||(B-C) = Total Valid Listening Experiences|
|Making myself look beautiful in the morning (2 hours)||3||2||1|
|Walk/Metro to Work (40 minutes)||1||0||1|
|Decompressing from conversations with assholes from the States during working hours||2||0||2|
|Walk/Metro to apartment (40 minutes)||1||0||1|
|Getting ready to go out to dinner (90 minutes)||2||2||0|
|Dinner (90 minutes)||0||0||0|
|Fucking, two days, two hours per fuck||(6/4) = 1.5||1.5||0|
|Last cigarette, winding down (45 minutes)||1||0||1|
I think listening to the album intently twenty-four times qualifies me to write this review, and I would further argue that listening to this intensely erotic album during sex validates my status as an MWCP (Muddy Waters Certified Practitioner).
After four days, I’m still not tired of it. I’m looking forward to writing the review because I always listen to the music while I write. I can’t wait to hear this album again! I’m in the exact same space inhabited by two young Englishmen fifty-two years ago, as described by Ted Gioia in Delta Blues:
When Keith Richards ran into his childhood pal Mick Jagger on a train in 1961— another one of those legendary encounters discussed above— he was struck forcibly by the Muddy Waters album in his friend’s possession, and they spent most of the rest of that day listening to it in silent rapture.
There are many reasons why The Best of Muddy Waters is so addicting. While Muddy Waters would never rate as a guitar virtuoso in the same vein as histrionic stylists like Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen, I can’t think of many guitarists whose sound possesses (in Gioia’s words) “tremendous vitality . . . he could drive a performance single-handedly.” Muddy’s vocal range is equally limited, but he has one of the most expressive and attention-commanding voices I’ve ever heard. Like Miles Davis, he wasn’t afraid to surround himself with the best musicians in the business, and if you’ve got Little Walter on harmonica, you’ve got the best harp player who ever breathed. The songs themselves are stunningly direct expressions of deep desires and emotions without any intervening bullshit. But more than anything else, Muddy Waters and crew played like they meant it—the music has an authenticity that is becoming increasingly rare in our auto-tuned and patched recording universe. While there are more extensive collections for connoisseurs, The Best of Muddy Waters is not only a solid representation of Muddy Waters’ best work but a fabulous introduction to Chicago blues (and to blues in general).
“I Just Want to Make Love to You”: This song has been covered by music practitioners and pretenders all across the spectrum: Adele (yecch!), Mungo Jerry (wow!), The Righteous Brothers (you’re kidding!), The Stones and, most famously, Foghat. None of these versions come close to capturing the true feel of the song. Written by Willie Dixon, one of the great songwriters of all-time and one of the horniest sons of bitches who ever sported an erection, this song is unique in the annals of romantic overtures because of its absolute commitment to real man-and-woman sex where both parties are equals and cultural roles don’t fucking matter.
I don’t want you to wash my clothes
I don’t want you to keep our home
I don’t want your money too
I just want to make love to you
There’s no game playing here and none of the silly, cutesy-wootsy courting rituals classically associated with seduction. The man doesn’t demand fidelity (“I don’t want you to be true”) and he doesn’t use the woman because he’s on the rebound or because he’s had a bad day (“I don’t want you ’cause I’m sad and blue”). Unlike most guys, he’s not trying to prove what a stud he is, bragging about his alleged prowess. The message is, “Let’s fuck, baby!” sung in a tone of pure, uncontaminated desire. I’ve had a lot of guys mouth the message, only to find out when the prick hits the pussy that they’re self-conscious poseurs. Muddy’s approach is pristine, sublime lust, and you just know he’s going to deliver the goods. The supporting players are simply outstanding right from the get-go, with Otis Spann’s piano forming a call-and-response with Little Walter on the harmonica over the throbbing bass of Willie Dixon, the rhythm guitar of Jimmy Rogers and the subtle drumming of Fred Below. When Little Walter hits his solo, he begins with a long blast on the harp that sounds like he’s holding that first deep thrust for a few seconds before he makes his moves. Adele? She can go fuck herself. This is the real deal. Cigarette!
“Long Distance Call”: I melt at the introduction to this song, a little duet with Muddy and Little Walter that intertwines elegance and soul. I don’t think Muddy hits a single note on the scale; it’s all sweet blue notes and bent chords that simmer with emotion. The interplay between harp and guitar continues throughout the song, with neither party taking the lead but both giving each other plenty of room to maneuver. If you want to hear what it’s like when two musicians are on the same wavelength, this is it.
“Louisiana Blues”: Opening with an equally fabulous guitar-harp duet, this number captures more of the Delta feel than your typical Chicago blues number. One of Muddy’s compositions, he sings here about unnamed troubles that are pushing him to New Orleans to “get me a mojo hand” (a hoodoo amulet containing a spell or prayer to ward off the troubles). While he’s in The Big Easy he’s going to take advantage of the opportunity and get himself a little poontang: “I’m ‘gon show all you good lookin’ women/Yes, how to treat your love.” When Muddy calls out, “Let’s get back to New Orleans, boys,” the instrumental passage that follows calls up an image of a rickety porch where the farmhands are relaxing with some music after a long, grueling week in the fields. Muddy was the key link between the Delta blues and the Chicago blues, and “Louisiana Blues” is a good example of how that played out. Once again, the interaction between Muddy and Little Walter is simply breathtaking. Damn, I love it when musicians really connect!
“Honey Bee”: Ted Gioia notes that “Eric Clapton studied Waters’s recordings, and felt that a major breakthrough in his guitar playing came when he could imitate part of the bluesman’s ‘Honey Bee.'” Muddy is a difficult guitarist to emulate, in part because blue notes are challenging all by themselves, and in part because of his unusual attack: playing mostly single notes using open tuning with a slide on his pinky finger. To further complicate matters, his fills are often achieved with a Delta finger-picking style rather than a guitar pick. He was also blessed with unusual dexterity that enabled him to snap off notes with precision. Now, take all of that and add his intuitive-emotional feel for the blues and it’s no wonder Clapton must have felt his entire soul light up when he managed to copy a small passage from “Honey Bee.” The buzzing on single notes and the vibrato pièce de resistance are absolutely stunning displays of guitar magic. Since I couldn’t emulate Muddy in my wildest dreams, my attention tends to turn to the lyrics, where once again he sings of sexual mores that defy the rules of the game:
I hear a lotta buzzing, sound like my little honey bee
She been all around the world making honey
But now she is coming back home to me
While most male songwriters of the era (and beyond) would have implied (because of censorship) that women like Honey Bee are trampy, no-good sluts, Muddy doesn’t say a word about revenge or putting her in her place for spreading her sweet nectar all over the world. He accepts that she had to sow her oats, too. “I don’t mind you sailing, but please don’t sail so long,” is an honest expression of his desire to be with her and an astonishingly generous and forgiving remark.
“Rollin’ Stone”: The real source of the band’s name, this is a traditional number that Muddy made his own with a few lyrical additions and his inimitable style. “Rollin’ Stone” was Muddy’s first Chess record, and the hiss on the track gives it a delicious time machine feel. The track features only Muddy and his guitar, and that simplicity reveals the strong core of his musical personality. Man, this fucker had power and presence! Throughout most of the song he stays firmly planted in the key of E, but both his guitar and vocal explore the entire scale rather than sticking to the notes dictated by the chord. This is the essence of the modal approach that I’ve talked about in my jazz reviews, so if you’re uncomfortable with all that music theory gibberish and you want to understand what I mean by “modal,” just listen to this song and how Muddy uses most of the notes between the root and the top of the scale. Back to our story . . . the absence of drums and bass is a huge plus in this piece, because it allows Muddy to play the song the way it feels rather than have his emotions forced into measures. Sometimes his notes and chords are suspended in defiance of the march of time, and those are beautiful moments.
“Rollin’ Stone” is a song about allowing one’s sexual drive to serve in place of traditional ambition:
Well, I wish, I was a catfish
Swimmin’ in a oh, deep blue sea
I would have all you good lookin’ women
Fishin’, fishin’ after me
Sure ‘nough, after me
Muddy is now in the Honey Bee role, wandering down the road, stopping to satisfy a married woman before letting his libido carry him to the next liaison. One of Muddy’s themes is that his essence was foreshadowed prior to birth by gypsies and old women; here he winds up a “rollin’ stone,” and like Honey Bee, he’s going to share his love with the world. The predestination in this case has nothing do with being trapped as in a caste system, instead the message is “there’s a part of me that just is what it is, like it or not.”
“I’m Ready”: I believe that the entire sorry history of the human race revolves around two words: male testosterone. When male testosterone levels rise to the point where they overtake logic and reason, men respond in two ways: they make love or they make war. I firmly believe that if Ms. Stick-Up-Her-Ass Condi Rice had crawled under the cabinet table and given Bush, Cheney and the boys blow jobs, there never would have been wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She probably would have blown all the fuses in Dick Cheney’s bionic heart, and today he’d be remembered as a man who gave his life for peace instead of one of the biggest assholes in American history.
Willie Dixon understood this, and he wrote about it in “I’m Ready.” Muddy’s testosterone levels are off the charts as he struts around like a cock (rooster) in this number. He knows his existential choices are sex or violence:
I got an axe handle pistol on a graveyard frame
That shoot tombstone bullets, wearin’ balls and chain
I’m drinkin’ TNT, I’m smokin’ dynamite
I hope some screwball start a fight
‘Cause I’m ready, ready as anybody can be
I’m ready for you, I hope you’re ready for me
All you pretty little chicks with your curly hair
I know you feels like I ain’t nowhere
But stop what your doin’ baby come over here
I’ll prove to you baby, that I ain’t no square
Because I’m ready, ready as anybody can be
Now I’m ready for you, I hope you’re ready for me
When Muddy sings “I hope some screwball start a fight,” he nails the essence of a man whose hormones are boiling and he’s got to either kick some ass or get some ass. The crucial line for me is when Muddy sings to the pretty little chicks, “I know you feels like I ain’t nowhere,” a very perceptive line. I know very few women who are dumb enough to be attracted to male swagger; most of us think it’s cute, a term that encompasses the underlying meanings of “laughable” and “Come back when you grow up, sonny boy.” We know that guys with that attitude will lose it in about thirty seconds; the stance is pure bluff. When that same man chooses to kick some ass, he becomes even more of a pathetic joke. Give it up, guys! You’ll be much more content in a social structure based on female domination!
The music is smoky-bar-perfect, a sexy swing with a groove that makes you smile. When Little Walter takes center stage, I imagine him playing a harmonica that’s six feet long, because there’s no way you can get a sound that big out of such a compact instrument. Jimmy Rogers does some very nifty work on second guitar as Muddy puts most of his testosterone into the vocal.
“I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man”: A hoochie coochie man is one with a track record with the ladies, and Willie Dixon reveals the secret behind studliness in this classic number. Before the pharma companies hooked men into buying Viagra, there were good old-fashioned hoodoo remedies like a black cat bone and a mojo and herbal remedies like “Johnny Concheroo,” a root. Most guys don’t advertise the fact they may be using Viagra, so it’s really generous for Willie to let the guys in on the secret! The classic stop-time blues structure is perfect for an expressive singer like Muddy, and the drama it creates really adds fire to the piece.
“She Moves Me”: Muddy falls under the spell of an aggressive, dominating woman who gets drunk, calls him a dumbbell and tells him he’s a square, but to him she’s pure magic. I love the way he can’t explain her power, because if power can be explained, it isn’t very powerful, is it? The refrain, “She moves me man, honey and I don’t see how it’s done” is a sublime expression of how a great woman can melt a man’s heart and stiffen his penis by taking detours around his logical brain. His opening lick of very blue notes is played almost submissively; he’s past the bravado of “I’m Ready” and is ready to serve! My kind of man!
“I Want You to Love Me”: Opening like a slow tempo version of The Yardbirds’ “I’m a Man,” this is one of my favorite expressions of the philosophy of true love: it’s not about manipulation, playing games and trying to entrap someone, it’s about choosing: “I want you to love me, baby/Love with your own free will.” It’s also about giving it all and not holding back because of insecurity or self-consciousness, “I want you to love me baby/’Til I drop dead from your love.” I’m cool with that, as long as you’re on the bottom, dude! Backup harp player Walter “Shakey” Horton does a damn fine job on this track.
“Standin’ Around Cryin'”: This is another call-and-response with Little Walter, who uses that harp to express the inexpressible emotion that the lyrics can’t possibly capture: those deep feelings that hit you in the gut and make you feel a bit dizzy, as if the world around you has shifted in a heartbeat. This and “Still a Fool” are the bluesiest numbers on the album, in the down sense of the word.
“Still a Fool”: Definitely more Delta than Chicago despite the electric guitar, there’s a point where I think Robert Johnson’s ghost has slipped into Muddy’s body. What makes it Delta is the tendency to use the root chord to explore the mode and the imagery of trains and crossroads. Muddy gives one of his most intense vocals on the album, as if he’s in a deep trance as he feels his way through his troubles and the image of the long, tall, willowy and unfortunately married woman at the source. A bravado performance.
“I Can’t Be Satisfied”: This is the most primitive recording of the lot, originally a song that was part of the Library of Congress recordings made when Muddy was first discovered in the Delta. I’m in total agreement with Ted Gioia’s description of this song as a pivotal moment in blues:
And if his previous country blues had looked back to Son House and Robert Johnson, this passionate performance anticipates the future of the blues, with its sassier, more independent attitudes, its celebration of raw appetite, not softened by metaphor or coy allusions as in so many earlier blues songs, but presented with unprecedented starkness. Even Muddy’s own later move to Chicago is hinted at in its opening phrases. “Well, if I feel tomorrow like I feel today/I’m gonna pack my suitcase/And make my getaway . . . This is no lament over bein’ mistreated, but something far more carnal in its origins. “I never been satisfied,” Waters proclaims, his bottleneck drawing out wavering moans from the guitar behind his vocal.
His riffs also communicate that sense of restless confidence, as he moves over a large piece of the fretboard with sprightliness. He leaves the melody for spoken voice on the “I could never be satisfied” lines, a technique that was very common with the Delta crowd and makes it feel like you’re sitting right there on the porch with the guy. It’s a toe-tappin’, head-shakin’ kick, just Muddy and the guitar, and a blessed artifact of musical history.
When I start listening to blues this intently, it usually means that I’ve entered my annual blues jag. I don’t think that’s going to happen, for the mood that sparks that jag is contemplative and introverted, and I’m not feeling that way at all. In fact, I’m feeling pretty sprightly these days! I think that what drove me to Muddy Waters was a deep yearning for authenticity, for the sound of musicians making a full commitment to the art and for a few moments of genuine human communication in a world that’s drowning in bullshit. The fact that Muddy is one of the great erotic artists in any genre made the experience that much sweeter.
I think I’ll play it just one more time.