Thursday, May 15, 2014

Little Guitars and Hop Alley

By Steve Weddle

One of the greatest things about being me is my forgetfulness.
Sure, we've also got my ginger charm, lactose intolerance, and uncanny ability to fall asleep at the beginning of an NFL halftime and wake with exactly five minutes left in the third, but the forgetting has proven pretty cool.

I was reminded of my forgetfulness when I heard Van Halen's "Little Guitars."

Senorita, I'm in trouble again, and I can't get free.

I'd forgotten what a fun, amazing little tune that is. How technically proficient, how precise and, yet, how sprawling, how inventive.

And, of course, there's the intro that you never heard on the radio.

In fact, the entire "Diver Down" album consists of instrumentals with the boys showing off, interspersed with catchy sing-along tunes, many covers (5 of 12) from your parents' stack of LPs.

"Cathedral" and "Intruder," for example. Those would never get radio play. Yet, they show that technical brilliance that you can't mistake, whatever the instrument. We're talking a fundamental extrapolation of root notes and then an exploration into their relative proximity to familial notes through the various chord structures. I was forcing my teenage daughter to listen to me and my "you kids don't know from music listen to this" chat the other day and found myself preaching from the hilltop about how Van Halen took the concept of rhythm guitar and kicked it right in the nards, letting the bass carry the tune while the guitar solo danced around octaves above and below. I was completely ridiculous about it, though I didn't go off on some made-up nonsense about "familial notes" I just made up a second on. The thing is, what these guys were doing decades ago was just amazing. They were putting out albums with catchy songs and slipping in these little experimenty, weirdly technical riffs between radio songs.

The 31-minute album is by no means perfect. It can be uneven and, I think you could say, somewhat of a mess overall.

But brilliance doesn't come from a constant, bright light. You gotta have sparkle. Shine. You have to have dimensions for a work to be brilliant.

Scott Phillips does this. In Cottonwood and Ice Harvest, for example, you have stories that work so well for radio play, but then rise to a level of technical mastery that, as a writer, is amazing to watch.

Phillips, and other writers of brilliance, generally don't have the luxury of segmenting off the flourishes from the foundation, the sizzle from the steak, as salesfolks say. In Cottonwood especially, Phillips tells a beautiful, gritty, heartbreaking story with so much dimension that I'm amazed anything was left for more books. Each page of the writing, each minute of reading, has to have the technical brilliance mixed in with the solid underpinning of story telling. The best books always do.

And so it is that I am looking forward to Hop Alley, the sequel to Cottonwood.

Van Halen followed "Diver Down" with "1984," which not only had cool "Hot for Teacher" opening, but also sold a gabillion copies.

Here's hoping Hop Alley has matching success. BUY


Dana King said...

I'm a huge Phillips fan, and love both THE CIE HARVEST and COTTONWOOD. Still, I think THE WALKAWAY is his best.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Look at this rare photo of Scott Phillips! I wish Scott would write longer, faster, and more often.