"Big Black Car" and the "Unanswered Question"

Posted by on February 28th, 2010 with 0 Comments

Trying to reverse-engineer the arrangements of the songs in order to make valid concert versions has brought up some tricky questions. I feel a new respect for the much-maligned musicologist! I know Alex always liked first takes and didn’t mind if things occasionally went awry. In fact, I was talking to NYC-based tech-guru Jon Klett the other day, who helped engineer the sessions Alex did for Elektra Records’ Karin Berg when we were playing together. Jon remembers Alex coming back into the control room to listen to a take and saying, “If there are mistakes, that’s cool.” In the days when machines were first taking over music production, this was a shocking statement I guess. I know that sometimes Alex would ride a fader to make a clam more obvious in a mix. Once, in Conn. recording a never-released (and now purloined?) “single” for Ork Records of the old classic “I’m Your Handyman,” Alex was tracking some background vocal parts that bent precariously on their way up to pitch. I must have looked askance at Fran Kowalski (our keys player, who had [and of course still has] perfect pitch), because he leaned over and said, “It’s not what I was expecting. But you can’t tell a painter how to paint his painting.” And of course he was right. (PS: We worked all night on “Handyman,” and drove back in the wee hours, proud of a job well done . . . . only to hear on the radio, as we neared NYC, James Taylor’s brand-new, hot-off-the-press (yet lukewarm) single of the same song! Which popped the balloon and killed the release, just like that.)

So–back to the present day. We (at this rehearsal, “we” includes Mitch Easter, Jeff Crawford, Charles Cleaver, and Matt McMichaels) are listening to and learning “Big Black Car.” On the second prechorus, the acoustic guitar (presumably played by Alex) gets ahead of the progression by a bar, and lands on the D minor while the rest of the instruments are on the D major–then the acoustic seemingly rectifies this “mistake” by glancing off the side of an F# note and joining everyone on the next bar on the D minor. Now, this was before cut-and-paste computer flub-fixing, but Ardent, a top-notch facility, had ways and means to correct things like this, yet it stayed that way. Now, a “major/minor” (aug. 9) chord wasn’t unheard of in the jazz vocabulary of Alex’s childhood home. And the vocal melody also adapts to this major-minor mishmash.

Yet the first prechorus stays on track: A, A7, D maj, D min. And the demo (from the boxed set) has two matched prechoruses.

But the flavor of this “nothing can hurt me” moment has always seemed right, somehow; I’d never questioned it before.

So I think we are going to play the “mistake” (acoustic on Dm and piano and electric guitar on D major). Or maybe we’ll mix it up, alternating nights. Not sure yet. Better yet, maybe we’ll make our own mistakes, in just the right–or wrong–places.

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