Monday, June 13, 2011

Blood, Sweat & Tears- Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie (1st and Second Movements)

Album Year: 1982
Age: 0
Track Number: 2

Note: The above contains the first two movements, as well as "Smiling Phases", which I did not include on the mixtape. However, I could not find any other version on Youtube with just the two movements.

It’s possibly apocryphal, but allegedly Brian Eno’s Discreet Music was used in hospitals as a maternity tool, a sort of Lamaze-lite exercise in controlling one's breathing and body via a very conditionally regimented environment. The first album of Eno’s ambient period, Discreet Music was primarily influenced by Erik Satie’s “furniture music” pieces, the most famous of which being “Gymnopédies”, the basis for this second track on my zero year documentary mixtape.

The three movements of “Gymnopédies” are each variations on a single theme, one that nearly any one could recognize, and they too lend themselves neatly to the labor of delivery. Preceding electronic music, “Gymnopédies” works on a series of looped rhythms, with a kind of respiratory alternation between two chords while simple gradations in melody occur throughout the piece. It’s not beyond reason to think that mothers looking to cool out under the stress of childbirth were administered Satie as a kind of non-narcotic anti-anxiety medication in the early 1980s when I was born.

I can’t say I know for a fact that this was the case with my mother, but she did have the second eponymous album by Blood, Sweat & Tears. It’s one of the few albums I remember seeing in their house when I was young. At this point, my parents had switched from vinyl records to cassettes (with a few 8 tracks left in their collection). Though cassettes first become massively popular in the 1980s with the rise of the portable walkman, my folks were actually ahead of the game in terms of tapes. When I began to transfer their music from tape to CD-R in the early 2000s, some of their cassettes, which preceded my lifeline, were warbled and unspoolable, the effects of age having taken their toll.

Released in 1969, one year before Eno’s band Roxy Music formed, the music of Blood, Sweat & Tears couldn’t be further from any of Eno’s output. Whereas Roxy Music and Eno’s solo work only now sounds as if the future has just now caught up with it, Blood, Sweat & Tears are a relic. What was once an adventurous fusion of jazz, classical, R&B/soul, big band, and rock now bears the bloated weight of the prog inclinations that historically followed. All of this makes a take on Satie a curious choice to bookend their aforementioned self-titled album. A garage band may want to cover Satie simply because of its simplicity and someone like Eno may admire the song for its functional elegance, but Blood, Sweat & Tears were an implicitly tight outfit, comprised mostly of a series of session musicians who mastered jazz and rock simultaneously, and often spontaneously. The band was formed by Al Kooper and Steve Katz, both formerly of the improvisational act The Blues Project, a band whose jams were the envy of The Grateful Dead and whose style was eventually appropriately classified as some of the first strains of blues-based psychedelic rock.

Written in ¾ as if part of some Benzedrine-fueled waltz, Satie’s ”Gymnopédies” has a pretty revolutionary approach to structure, one that essentially radicalized John Cage when he first became familiar with the composer’s work. Satie was largely unsuccessful in his lifetime, only gaining eventual acclaim after being championed by his friend and follower Claude Debussy. Blood, Sweat & Tears, on the other hand were somewhat defiant of traditional rock structure, avoiding conventional time signatures and harmonic infrastructures for the interpretive coordinates of jazz. On an album packed with covers- Laura Nyro, Brenda Holloway, Cream, Billie Holiday, Traffic-the choice of Satie may be the band’s most adventurous.

Played on strummed guitars and flute with twinkling chimes in the backdrop, the take on the first movement is a bit too new age and fairydust for its own good. The shiny brass at the end, with its cartoon Mephistopheles apocalyptic gesturing, is not only horribly dated and overwrought, it also completely realigns the song. One year post Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, everybody was trying their hand at the concept album and Blood, Sweat & Tears here seemed to be turning to classical theater for its instructions here, using Satie as a motif without any causal logic. Nevertheless, the album sold ridiculously well, and even beat out The Beatles at the Grammys (more on that in a future entry).

Nevertheless, even if the version of the song that gave me comfort in the womb and in the ensuing years is a bit inapproachable now, something about the tune itself stuck with me, as “Gymnopédies” easily remains one of the most sublime pieces of music amongst the hundreds of thousands I’ve ever heard. Its lack of flux makes it seem as though every time you put it on is a continuation of the last time you heard it, forever looping in ebb and flow, which must be an existential comfort when you bring something into the world that you know will one day die.

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