Monday 6 July 2009

rhythm (that was then)

Bob Dylan: I've always been real content with the old forms. I know my place by now.
Sam Shepard: So you feel you know who you are?
Bob Dylan: Well, you always know who you are. I just don't know who I'm gonna become.

(Sam Shepard interview with Bob Dylan, in Rolling Thunder Review Logbook, 1987)

A hugely engaging conversation at a conference in Aberystwyth with Andrew Todd - architect, jazz drummer, writer, hilarious raconteur - in part spilling out of Andrew's plans to write a book about rhythm. I tell him about some of my drummer heroes: John Convertino (Calexico), Jaleel Bunton (TV on the Radio) etc. He talks jazzers. A few days later I send him a text by Sam Shepard, pasted below. Very Sam of the early 1970s: a kind of elliptical cartography of a particular 'America'. Sam was the drummer with the Holy Modal Rounders, on tour with Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review. He was also 'writer-in-residence' on that tour, producing the Rolling Thunder Review Logbook. In this book of fragments, Shepard's fascinated by the myth of 'Dylan', his personae:

'Tonight Dylan appears in a rubber Dylan mask he'd picked up on 42nd Street. The crowd is stupefied. A kind of panic-stricken hush falls over the place. "Has he had another accident? Plastic surgery?" Or is this some kind of mammoth hoax? An imposter! The voice sounds the same. If it is a replacement, he's doing a good job. He goes through three or four songs with the thing on, then reaches for the harmonica. He tries to play it through the mask but it won't work, so he rips it off and throws it back into the floodlights. There he is in the flesh and blood! The real thing! A face-lift supreme! It's a frightening act even if it's not calculated for those reasons. The audience is totally bewildered and still wondering if this is actually him or not'.

Anyway, here's Sam Shepard's text about rhythm, the one I sent on to Andrew:

If everything could be sung to the standard rock and roll progression – C, A minor, F, G chords – then everything’d be simple. How many variations on a single theme? The greatest drum solo I ever heard was made by a loose flap of a tarpaulin on top of my car hitting the wind at eighty. The second best is windshield wipers in the rain, but more abstract, less animal. Like the rhythms of a rabbit scratching his chin. Vision rhythms are neat, like hawk scoops and swan dives. Slow motion space rhythms. Digging rhythms like shovels and spades and hoes and rakes and snowplow rhythms. Jack-hammer rhythms make Ginger Baker and Keith Moon look like punk chumps. Oilcan rhythms, ratchet wrench rhythms. Playing cards in bicycle spokes. A string of rapid-fire, firecracker rhythms. Propeller rhythms. Cricket rhythms. Dog claws clicking on hardwood floors. Clocks. Piston rhythms. Dripping faucets. Tin hitting tin in the wind. Water slapping rocks. Flesh slapping flesh. Boxing rhythms. Racing rhythms. Rushing brooks. Radio static buzz in a car when the engine is the dictator. Directional turnsignal blinkers. Off and on neon lights. Blinking yellow arrows. Water pumps. Refrigerator hums. Thermostatic- controlled heating systems. Clicking elevators with the numbers lighting up for each floor. Snakes sliding through grass. At night. Buoy lights. Ship signals. Airplane warnings. Fire alarms. Rhythms in a stuck car horn. Eating rhythms. Chewing rhythms. The cud of a cow. The chomp of a horse. Knives being sharpened. Band saws. Skill saws. Hack saws. Buzz saws. Buck saws. Chain saws. Any saw rhythm. Hammers and nails. Money clanking in a poker game. Cards shuffled. Bus meters. Taxi meters. Boiling water rhythms. Clicking ballpoint pens. Clicking metal frogs. Roulette wheel spinning rhythms. Tire rhythms. Whittling. Stitching. Typing. Clicking knitting needles. Parrots sharpening their beaks on wood. Chickens scratching. Dogs digging for moles. Birds cleaning their feathers. Cocking guns. Spinning guns. Bolt actions. Lever actions. Snapping finger nails. Finger popping. Cracking knuckles. Snapping bones. Farting. Spitting. Shitting. Fucking rhythms. Blinking eyes. Blowing nose. Coughing without control. Candle flicker rhythms. Creaking houses. Thawing ice. And you call yourself a drummer?

(Sam Shepard, ‘Rhythm’ [1973], in Motel Chronicles / Hawk Moon, London: Faber & Faber, 1985, 164-5).

Andrew's email response: 'Given my shoddy performance on Oleo I could add mashing potatoes to Shepard’s pantheon. (Jack de Johnette suggested listening to your boiler room.) Nice text: perhaps a little expansive, but that was then I suppose'.

Photograph: Sam Shepard & Patti Smith performing their play Cowboy Mouth, New York, 1971. Photo by Gerard Malanga

For footage of Sonny Rollins playing Oleo, with Alan Dawson on drums, see here

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