DK goes song-by-song thru Madness and Morals: Cigarette

Kind of hard to talk about instrumentals, I guess, but I will try. I know, I know, there is singing at the end of “Cigarette,” but, let’s face it, it’s an instrumental. The singing is a big choral group, an orchestral and hence instrumental sound. “Cigarette” is a two minute oratorio. Early on in the song’s genesis I came up with the chord progression, which is a modification of the old I-VI-II-V, repeating the first half, I-VI, before repeating the second half, II-V. I pretty much simultaneously came up with the melody, which I somewhat later harmonized. It was a good while, several months, before I devised the chorus.First, the verse inspired the lyrics. The melody reminded me of the instrumental theme music from westerns TV shows like Bonanza, with a little bit of spaghetti western movie music thrown in there. The strummy chords reminded me of the theme from The Magnificent Seven, which I first encountered long before I saw that movie when it was used as the music in commercials for Marlboro cigarettes. Here’s where the inspiration comes in: I remembered the television commercials from my childhood—I was alive when they advertised cigarettes on television—but in my adulthood I learned that the actor who had played the Marlboro cowboy died of disease caused by smoking. So I wanted commercial jingle singing that would simultaneously advertise and denounce smoking. So: “You been smoking that cigarette” repeated eleven times. The twelfth iteration ends, “you been.” In these pages I often say, “what I like about this part is . . . ,” and so it is. What I like about these lyrics is that they are at least triply ambiguous: statement of fact, “You been smoking,” question, “You been smoking?” and accusation: “You been smoking, haven’t you.”

No conflict, no drama. The conflict here is the true outlaw tradition in rock and roll. One or more members of LTD do, in fact, smoke cigarettes. I’m certainly not trying to promote vice, but rock and roll comes from the blues of, for example, Robert Johnson, who lived a rough and rowdy—and short—life combined with the Country and Western of, for example, Hank Williams, who also timed untimely and who is also reputed to have hung it out there. One of only two extant photos of Johnson shows him with a king size cigarette dangling insouciantly. So, nobody should smoke, but that really is only the tip of the vice-berg in rock. I’m not saying that I do any of that stuff personally, but the ethos is pervasive in the style. And rock is not a genre, regardless of what critics and historians have claimed. It isn’t even really a style, my previous-less-one sentence notwithstanding. It is a most a manner—an idiom—that flows and disappears like “autumnal leaves that strow the brooks, in Vallombrosa.” For an artistic meditation on the ephemeral quality of rock music, see the lyrics to the old Hophead Treefrog tune “Zombie Rock.”

Why do poets and songwriters and such love ambiguity so much? Well, one reason is that it’s merely an exploitation of a characteristic of language that would interfere with the more normal use of language. Secondly, there’s a kind of poetic efficiency that allows a group of words to mean more than one thing: more meaning per word. Finally, one of the joys of artistic invention is the interplay of freedom and structure—too much of either is harmful to the work. Ambiguity allows both the composer and the artist to have freedom of meaning within the limitations of word choice, sentence structure and rhythm. Song lyrics are especially stimulating in this way. Because they are heard and not read, one is freed from the use of punctuation marks. Let me reiterate that all this emphasis only makes sense within the context of artistic limitations. And one could never even identify all of the limiting factors in artistic creation, much less account for or explain them all. Just for example, you’re playing within western tonal music, which nevertheless has imported African and Asian tonalities and rhythms. You’re playing in a particular key with a particular time signature. You’re playing in a manner generally identified as “rock,” but here there are influences from movie music and commercial jingles. Without these and a zillion other structural limitations, you would be speechless, you wouldn’t be able to say anything, whatever the medium. So, one attempts to strike a balance between limitation and freedom, or what amounts to the same thing, between structure and expression. Limitation—the rules—enable freedom, but freedom brings the rules to life. So the artist doesn’t need to seek out new or arbitrary rules (hear me, Jack White?); he needs merely to focus on expression: the technical means will reveal themselves on their own. On the other hand, expressively oriented artists tend to discount the technical dimension, which is quite ironic considering the immense technical proficiency of “romantic” artists like Percy Shelley and Frederick Chopin.

Which brings me to the chorus, or whatever you want to call it, of “Cigarette.” This section of the song is difficult for me to describe musical-theoretically, the technical means having revealed themselves on their own. The move from IV to III (minor) sounds like diminishment. Some little segments of a cycle of fifths. . . I can’t quite explain it. Anyway, the texture contrasts nicely with that of the verse, but clearly the two sections belong in the same song. Jangly 12-string and strummy acoustic guitar and chunky electric piano and 16th notes on the high hat.

And then the vocal outro. Once again, my teenaged daughter and I performed enough vocal overdubs to sound like, I think, a 12-voice chorus. Kind of cute how the song—which is the last song on Madness and Morals—leaves you hanging on the dominant chord (here, E, the dominant of A minor) instead of returning to the tonic. Five pulses on the E. The CD starts with five pulses on A and D in the song “Suspicions.”

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