Friday, 1 January 2010

Doo Wop Dialog[ue]: 61

pismotality
(42/M/London, England)


Clarke,

A fuller reply. As ever, all sorts of resonances as I reread your messages with the above title. Yes, I'm sure that doowp has the power to enrich our lives. You mention harmony, with its associations of being able to embrace all aspects of oneself and others. Yes. And for me it's very much about the possibility of contact with others opened up by doowop. I talked at the end of the ITSOTN sequence about three listeners being linked through the act of listening, being - appropriate for the radio analogy - receptive.

But as you say it's also about those five singers' (or four, as Bruce has just informed us) own ability to connect on some deep level that sets the ball rolling: they have to sublimate their egos to produce a song which will be an experience, not aural wallpaper; they must each be willing to become part of a magically bigger whole, one that will expand and expand as the recording becomes disseminated but for the moment is them standing - maybe sharing a single microphone? - in that basement.

So doowop is first of all about their contact, their ability to blend and become this new shade, bigger than the sum of their parts. And finding, in doing so, a better self, a nobler identity, than any one competing ego. The song (and delivery) is trite enough, but the sentiments are precisely right: "We were rough and ready guys, But oh, how we could harmonise..." In a play briefly on in London which explored the Everly Brothers’ split imaginatively (ie no pretence at documentary truth) the writer had Don and Phil reluctantly confessing to the truth that when their voices blend together they become something neither can be alone.

In my own play I wrote of the protagonist's encounter with the doowop group, borrowing a phrase from the Dells: "Stone hooligans but angels." Ben E King rhapsodises about his street corner days; I used his words more or less verbatim, and another singer's (quoted in Barney Hoskyns' The Popular Voice) to describe the process of bringing a song into being (my fictional take on the creation of Golden Teardrops). Leaning over the stairwell where they first sang, the singer tells his friends to go with him; he hums a few bars, and:

We got together on a key and just ... floated. Those guys knew when you were gonna breathe. One big heartbeat.

(continued)

Barney Hoskyns' book is actually entitled From a Whisper to a Scream: Great Voices of Popular Music. I don't have it to hand, so may expand this note later, but it's a very readable short book, relatively hard to obtain these days, in which Hoskyns, citing Roland Barthes' phrase "the 'grain' of the voice," groups together and analyses some of the most distinctive voices of jazz, pop, soul, gospel, doo wop etc.


Ever keen to expand my knowledge, I looked up Barthes' phrase just now on the net but quickly realised this might involve rather more time and effort than a brief note here would justify, although I may return to this subject on the blog proper. But as Hoskyns' Barthes-inspired book is so good, and as even my dim understanding tells me that Barthes' ideas may have some bearing on our discussions on that now-vanished messageboard, I'll give the gist of a definition, heavily abridged, from what appears to be an anonymous academic essay. The writer begins by quoting Barthes himself:

"The 'grain' of the voice is beyond (or before) the meaning of the words, their form and even the style of execution: something which is directly from the singer’s body”.

There is an important distinction between ‘grain’, in Barthes’s sense [the writer continues], and ‘graininess’, which might be understood as a primarily timbral quality at the other end of a spectrum of vocality to so-called vocal ‘purity’.

Barthes makes clear "the grain of the voice is not or is not merely – its timbre”. He describes it instead as the “friction between the music and something else, which something else is the particular language (and nowise the message).”

When I clicked on the essay title in Wikipedia's Roland Barthes bibliography I was told: "The Grain of the Voice page does not exist."

That Everly Brothers play, entitled Gone, Gone, Gone, has been haunting me since I saw it. Yet all trace of it seems to have ... exactly. It originated, I think, in the National Theatre Studio (a place for workshopping plays) and was performed, probably late 80s/early 90s, at the Lyric Studio at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith - ie it was a smallscale production which may only have been on for a few days - but all my attempts to find out more have failed.

The actors didn't play or sing onstage, as far as I remember - it wasn't a glorified tribute show - although selections from the Everlys' Roots album, which included snippets of the Everly Family show ("Mom, Dad, Don and Baby Boy Phil") were used between scenes. The only other thing I can remember is a programme note in which the playwright, I think female, said that her inspiration had been the mythology surrounding twins rather than the wish to tell all about the real Don and Phil. Anyone know anything else?
And in case you were wondering, the image above is indeed only Don.

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