Something Like Breathing

You're looking at the blog page for markgamon.com. I've dropped in and out of blogging for fifteen-odd years. Just lately I've found it more attractive than Facebook's closed loop or Twitter's transmit-only. Here, there's more room to breathe…

I'm just here to write a few things about songwriting, because that's what interest me most. I was tempted to add posts about the coronavirus, but right now I'm sticking to the stuff I stand a chance of understanding...

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  • Mark Gamon


It’s April 14th. Ruination Day.

I like a bit of mystery in a song. That’s why I go back, over and over again, to Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator). It came out 19 years ago, and it still hits me like Casey Jones’ hammer.

Especially the strange pairing at the heart of the album: April the 14th Part I and Ruination Day Part II. Two separated facets of the same story that connect like a meditation on disaster. A punk band from Idaho, out of gas with a van full of trash. The Titanic, struck by an iceberg. Okies fleeing the Black Sunday dust storm. And the Great Emancipator, taking a bullet in the back of his head.

They don’t immediately join up, these disasters. It’s only when you get to the second of the pair, three tracks later, where the rhythm becomes more ponderous, and everyone involved is five hundred miles from home, that you realise they loop: the first song opens with the same verse that closes the second.

And for a generation of admirers April 14th will always be a harbinger of ruination. It’s funny how a song (or two) can do that…

‘When the iceberg hit Oh, they must have known God moves on the water Like Casey Jones...’

  • Mark Gamon

Updated: Apr 14


Somewhat in praise of television, this. I thought it was glorious, give or take a couple of voices, when it first came out. 1997. Time flies.


It flies even further back to Lou Reed’s original. 1972. What was I doing then? Nothing I can write about here, I suspect. Both versions are perfect, as they should be.


Then, just recently, I had occasion to learn the song. Here are the chords, in concert pitch:


Intro: F Bbm x2

Verse: Bbm Eb Ab C# F# Ebm F x2

Chorus: Bb Eb Dm Eb Eb/D Eb/C Bb F Gm F Eb Gm F Eb

Inst: Gm F Eb

Coda: Dm Ab Eb Bb Dm Ab Eb Bb Dm


I know the jazzers would whizz through that but I get palpitations just thinking about it.


Then I did what any acoustic sensible guitar player does: stick on a capo. Take your pick where, according to desired pitch. Lou’s version (and the BBC one) is Capo 1.


Intro: E Am x2

Verse: Am D G C F Dm E x2

Chorus: A D Cm D A E F#m E D F#m E D

Inst: F#m E D

Coda: C#m G D A C#m G D


And suddenly you’re playing the song using all the usual suspects, give or take. Isn’t that nice?


I’m no virtuoso, but there’s one thing I’ve learnt about playing guitar: find the easy way. Lou did.


Somewhat in praise of capos too, then.

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  • Mark Gamon

Updated: Apr 14


I know exactly where I was when I first heard Tom Waits. It was 1976. I was staying with a band in Boston (the Massachusetts one) and they insisted I listened to Nighthawks at the Diner. Then the very next day they insisted I listen to Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings from Asbury Park. 


Double whammy. I’ve been listening to both ever since. And I probably have more Tom Waits albums that I have Bob Dylan. Or Guy Clark. 


They’re endlessly rewarding. Even the musically antisocial ones. There are plenty of them, but there are an equal number of heartbreakingly tender ballads. And there are at least four incarnations of Tom Waits so you can dip in and out of his albums at will and it’s always something different. 


I read somewhere that at least one critic has pointed out that Waits is more of a performance artist than an honest songwriter. That’s partly true - so many characters, so many voices - but I don’t mind and in any case I don’t buy it. Because for every theatrically contrived Tabletop Joe or in your face Eyeball Kid there’s a song like Kentucky Avenue. 


‘Write what you know’. That’s the standard advice to any writer. And that’s what Kentucky Avenue is: Waits writing what he knows, direct from the deepest wellspring of human experience.


Childhood. 


It’s powerful juju, your earliest past. And there’s no doubt Kentucky Avenue is autobiographical - at least in the sense that it takes us right back to the street where Waits grew up, and the people he knew. But like all the great songs, there’s mystery here. Childhood experience is loving and dark all at the same time, and it seems to me that in Kentucky Avenue all is not what it ought to be. It plays out like a Doctorow novel written on shattered glass: the adults are all strange and threatening violence, and friendship means jumping off the roof, and kids have got switchblades and scabs on their knees and boysenberries smeared on their faces.


The details, you see? It’s detail that makes great songwriting. So by the time Waits promises to take a rusty nail and scratch his friend’s initials in his arm (just as the strings start flowing up from the mix) we’ve got a cinematic kaleidoscope in our mind’s eye. And we’re ready for it to be shattered in an expression of loyalty and impossible dreams that only kids will ever understand.


Yet they stay with us, those dreams. Long after normality has grabbed us by the scruff of the neck and made life grey. Dickens knew this; Tom Waits knows it too.


By the way, if you ever catch anyone telling you he doesn’t have a great voice, unfriend them. They’re way wrong.