The Ax

By Greil Marcus

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“There are more Electric Guitars per square inch on this song than in anything in the history of Western civilization,” the producer Sandy Pearlman said one night in 1978 at the Automatt studios in San Francisco. He was there to finish Give ’Em Enough Rope, the second album by the Clash, who were, after the demise of the Sex Pistols, the standard-bearers of punk. Guitarist Mick Jones and singer Joe Strummer were with him. Pearlman turned up “Safe European Home” as high as he could. It sounded, as Phil Spector once said of his production of Ike and Tina Turner’s 1966 “River Deep—Mountain High,” as if “God hit the world and the world hit back.”

But deep in the insides of the electric guitar itself—in its metal, its technological wiring, but also in its brain, in its emotional writing, in the desires, instinctual responses and experimental fascination the instrument seems to draw from those who play it—the sound of God hitting the world and the world hitting back is what the electric guitar has always demanded, never mind that in one moment the sound can feel like God, in the next like the world. It has made that demand on itself, as a piece of machinery endlessly and infinitely tinkered with by musicians as hallowed as Les Paul and Jimi Hendrix and as unknown as the 12-year-old down the block. It has made that demand on whoever has the nerve to play it. It has made that demand on God and the world, which is to say on the civilization that tossed it up and has not contained it: the idea, the feeling Pearlman was groping for, that if you could put enough electric guitars on every square inch of Western civilization, you could drown it out. You could erase it and start all over again—if only in a single heart, for a single moment.

Most experts seem to agree that the electric guitar first emerged in 1931 as a product of the Ro-Pat-In company of Los Angeles—which became the Electro-String company in 1934—as a partnership between the steel-guitar player George Beauchamp and the engineer Adolph Rickenbacker. First there were lap guitars, made of aluminum and designed for Hawaiian music; by 1935, there was the company’s crown jewel, the Bakelite model B Spanish guitar. They opened the door. It was like teaching people to read. With the idea in the world, the technology was easy to grasp. In 1936, the Gibson company of Kalamazoo introduced its ES-150, (ES for “Electric Spanish”). There was a new vividness of tone, a sweetness, a way to make a note hang in the air. But as critic, musician and music historian Robert Palmer wrote in 1995’s “Church of the Sonic Guitar,” “the electric guitar can merely make the instrument’s single-note lines a little louder, so that the musician can solo like a saxophonist or brass player. But once a certain volume threshold has been passed, the electric guitar becomes another instrument entirely. Its tuning flexibility can now be used to set up sympathetic resonances between the strings so that techniques such as open tunings and bar chords can get the entire instrument humming sonorously, sustained by amplification until it becomes a representation in the sound of the wonder of creation itself.”

In other words, the sound of God creating the world and the world creating back. The sound of the electric guitar on—or emerging from—every square inch of the planet. That is the sound the electric guitar itself wants to make, that it calls from the person playing it, if he or she can live up to what the instrument wants, what it wants to say, how it wants to speak—and what follows is nothing more than a few moments when all of that comes true.

*#1: The Wailers, “Shanghaied,” from The Fabulous Wailers *(Golden Crest, 1959). A Washington combo that came out of “battle of the bands” nights at the Spanish Castle, a roadhouse on Highway 99 between Tacoma (the Wailers’ home ground) and Seattle, a spot caught so well in Keith Abbott’s unbearably sexy short story “Spanish Castle,” which actually features a poster: How hard did you have to play to get out of that? This hard—but hardness is only on the surface. Richard Dangel leaps right in, but the feeling is that his guitar is generating this sound itself: The guitarist gets to listen. You can hear how the music resists the players, and how in a stop-time hidden inside what feels like an unstoppable momentum the players resist the music. All at once, it’s the chicken run in Rebel Without a Cause and a whole city rushing off a cliff, running forward and looking back at the same time, a rhythm that seems too tense, too coiled, to be the product of human agency.

Usually in rock and roll the excitement comes from a guitar solo: the breaking away from the literal story the singer is telling and into a realm beyond words (and the signifying that there are truths beyond words is the real motor of the rush you feel). Here Dangel’s solo, in which he sounds like an ordinary human being following a chord progression where it leads, where he’s been before, is the break, the thing in the piece that allows you to relax, to forget that some things in life are too good to bear.

#2: Jimi Hendrix, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” from Electric Ladyland (Reprise, 1968). “Hendrix is the Robert Johnson of the 1960s and really the first cat to ever totally play electric guitar,” the blues harmonica player Tony Glover wrote in a review of this album. Hendrix spent many teenage nights in the Spanish Castle—just as the Wailers’ second album was The Fabulous Wailers at the Castle, Hendrix’s second album featured a tune called “Spanish Castle Magic.” This epochal eruption of fury, rage and vengeance—that’s what it is formally, that is the literal story the guitar tells—is also an embrace, a celebration, a dance of everything the electric guitar can do, a more elegant, a more gigantic version of the Wailers’ “Shanghaied” stomp. The piece is one great riff—a wah-wah bomb without a wah-wah pedal, a door ripped open and a single person, who wants more from you than you’ve ever thought of giving, stepping through it as if blown by wind, or made of it. The words are straight from 19th century tall tales told by the likes of Davy Crockett, the all-American brags who found their way into the earliest blues: “Well, I’m standing next to a mountain?/?Chop it down with the edge of my hand”—but here it’s the guitar, not the words, that makes the player into Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, Mike Fink, Railroad Bill, John Henry, the mountain man who is himself a mountain. Over and over the leaping, thudding chords come, reverberating more loudly, more deeply, more on their own, as if they have escaped from their creator, every time. You can imagine that while the inventor of the electric guitar could never have imagined such a sound, the guitar knew from its first breath, and that made its story a saga, a fairy tale: the long, twisting journey of the young tongue-tied child in search of a wizard who could bestow the power of speech.

#3: Robert Johnson, “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” (1936, first issued on King of the Delta Blues Singers, Columbia, 1961; best heard on The Centennial Collection, Columbia, 2011). Robert Johnson, as has been recently documented in any number of idol-smashing books, was not one of the most commercially successful country blues players of the 1930s—his 78s sold little compared with those of Charley Patton or Kokomo Arnold and nothing at all against the tens if not hundreds of thousands of records Blind Lemon Jefferson sold in the 1920s—but he was the most intense. Johnson did not extend a tradition or an artistic school that had been taking shape since about the turn of the century; instead, as the English musicologist Wilfred Mellers put it in 1964 in Music in a New Found Land, he blew it up. He asked too much of the tradition; he gave the tradition more than it could hold. And while there are stories that, near the end of his life, in 1938, Johnson was fronting a band, perhaps even with an electric pickup on his guitar and a tiny amplifier, such tales have credence mainly because, as he found stories in the strings of his National steel-bodied acoustic guitar that no one had found before, the dynamics that those who came after him would take years to discover were already present. In the subtle “Rollin’ and Tumblin’?” pulse at the beginning of this song, in the increase in pressure as Johnson’s demands on life as a singer are outdistanced by his demands on his guitar, in the way pinching high notes throw the dark rhythm into relief, he is both making and asking for a bigger sound. If the electric guitar had already been technologically invented, here it is poetically invented.

#4: The Rolling Stones, “Gimmie Shelter,” from Let It Bleed (London, 1969). Losing band to have heads shaved onstage? How about losing band to have its heads smashed onstage? That happened at the Rolling Stones’ free concert at the Altamont Speedway in December 1969—which was partly a set for the finale of a film being shot of the group’s fall American tour, partly to make up for what were considered outrageously high ticket prices ($7.50—I accidentally typed $750, but that would not draw gasps today) at the regularly scheduled Oakland shows in November—when Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin spoke out against the Hells Angels, hired by the Rolling Stones to patrol the audience, beating up people in the crowd. Hells Angels knocked Balin unconscious. By the time the Rolling Stones took the stage, hours later, Hells Angels members surrounded them. When guitarist Keith Richards too spoke out, he was threatened. In the crowd, an Angel had already attacked a young black man from Berkeley; when he ran and then pulled a pistol, he was knifed and beaten to death. So the band was playing with death in their faces, and they played to stay alive. “Gimmie Shelter” was one of the last songs they played, or tried to.

I was lying facedown in the dirt as I heard it. I had been trying to get out. I’d tripped in the dark, and as feet trudged by me, I couldn’t move: The sound was too strong, too big, too complete. I felt as if I’d never heard anything so powerful. I have felt the same way now for more than 40 years, because “Gimmie Shelter” (the Rolling Stones couldn’t spell American) as it was recorded that fall has been on the radio ever since. There is no part of the performance that is not magnificent—Mick Jagger’s lead vocal, Merry Clayton’s seizing of the microphone for the second-to-last verse, the last, desperate wisp of a harmonica note disappearing into chaos (the social chaos the song is predicting, not the musical chaos it summons and transcends)—but it is the guitar playing, all parts by Richards, that tells the song’s true story.

The great blues guitarists, like Robert Johnson, could vibrate their acoustic strings in a way that made it seem as if a note could stay in the air even after, during a performance, another note had taken its place; sometimes the player pushed the note or held it up with a vocal sound all but indistinguishable from the sound made on the guitar. But with the electric guitar, the sustain function moves this effect to the center of the language of the instrument, where, in the right hands, it is no longer an effect but a language in and of itself.

“Gimmie Shelter” is one of several records that already had more electric guitars per square inch than the Clash’s “Safe European Home” (the Clash’s “Complete Control,” from 1977, was another). But out of the uncountable guitar parts that make the weather of this chiliastic song, what takes over, like a subconscious speaking in tongues as the orator on the platform keeps waving his arms and pointing his finger as if he hasn’t realized he’s no longer giving the speech he’d planned, are notes sustained for so long, and with such body, that the rest of the performance all but drops away.

The singers are desperate, and they tell you how and why, and why you’d be a fool not to feel the same: It’s a riot, a screaming face. The sustained notes are like Viggo Mortensen’s face in The Road: carrying a sense of seriousness that cannot be put into words because it would be too frightening, and a sense of determination that cannot be put into words because words would render it vain and cheap.

As the song plays—once, or every time—you learn the language the sustained notes are speaking. You wait for them to reappear, to hear them tell the same story, or even a different one. “There must be some way out of here,” Bob Dylan had begun a song almost two years before, speaking quietly, deliberately; out of as big and loud a record the 20th century had produced, this was the sound those words called up.

*#5: Wayne Perkins, “Concrete Jungle,” from the Wailers’ Catch a Fire *(Island, 1973). Before releasing the Jamaican sessions that make up this album, producer and label owner Chris Blackwell had overdubbing done in London. A profound song about slavery—before and after emancipation—was to be put in white hands and made palatable for white consumption. It may be the highest example there is of the way an electric guitarist, working after the fact, hired to sweeten someone else’s song, hears a song behind the song, finds it, makes it public and then disappears. It may be the most visionary moment ever drawn from an instrument that, once it passes Robert Palmer’s threshold, can seem as if it were made to come back from the wilderness with stories that could be told in no other tongue.

In London, John “Rabbit” Bundrick of Texas added organ, and the then little-known and now forgotten Wayne Perkins of Alabama added guitar. The backing vocals were muffled compared with the Jamaican original and somehow given even greater presence. There is a long, slow introduction, Perkins edging his way into the theme like a stranger trying to walk into a bar without anybody noticing, though after one turn into the music he’s got his money out. Aston Barrett’s bass, a counter in Jamaica, is huge here, and it’s this that makes a mood in which you can’t tell curse from judgment, the future from too late. Straight off, the sound puts everything in doubt and everyone on the record in jeopardy.

As the song goes on, the backing singers seem to circle Bob Marley’s lead vocal, as composed as it is soulful, pointing at him, smiling, frowning, offering approval, withholding it. Soon the prosaic has vanished from the performance: The crying chorus is made up of the “many thousands gone” of the Civil War–era folk song “No More Auction Block.” “Where dead voices gather” is a phrase Nick Tosches coined for the title of his book on the 1920s blackface minstrel artist Emmett Miller; this “Concrete Jungle” is one place they gather.

All through the progression of the song, Perkins has been waiting in the shadows, offering up a sign or a riff, a comment or a counterpoint, like the man in the bar looking a split second too long at the guy who seems to own the place, holding his glass in a way not quite the same as anyone else, calling for another drink with words that are English but sound like Spanish. As Marley steps back, then, Perkins steps in. The solo he plays is so restrained in form, and so passionate in tone, it translates the pain of Marley’s story into a dream beyond words or images. It is a dream of flight, of the running man trapped, escaping only to be trapped again, until, in a shocking moment, the solo turns over, and turns back on itself, as if to say this record will end, but the story can’t end. Not well, not even badly. And you can’t wait it out. “Four Hundred Years,” coming two songs later on the album? You thought that meant from then to now, but it means from now to then. And then turned over and run backward.

#6: Neil Young, Dead Man (Vapor, 1996). “Music from and inspired by” Jim Jarmusch’s poker-faced Western set in the Pacific Northwest sometime after the Civil War, four or five decades before the Spanish Castle was built on the same ground. For the little more than an hour the record lasts, Young chases a theme that rises, fades, seems at times almost to mock him and that—because the flurries of sustained, hanging notes are also a fanfare, for a welcome that never takes place—is never resolved. But the strangest, most thrilling element in Young’s long quest is that as he plays, the history of the electric guitar dissolves, as if it had not been invented at all but simply appeared when the time was right. “Rock and roll is reckless abandon,” Young told interviewer Bill Flanagan in 1986, speaking of the sense of “consequences,” or a guilty conscience, that lay at the heart of country and blues. “Rock and roll is the cause of country and blues,” Young went on. “Country and blues came first, but somehow rock and roll’s place in the chain of events is dispersed.” In his music for Dead Man, Young uses the seemingly infinite vocabulary of his instrument to disperse the chain of events. For a movie set more than a century ago, an electric guitar, accompanied by nothing, searching through the sort of modal melody that is at the root of the oldest Anglo-American ballads, sounds older than anything you see on the screen.


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