Monday, August 13, 2007

7 Means of Movement: Interlude 4, Subways

Duke Ellington, Take the "A" Train.
The Last Poets, On the Subway.
Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Dorham and Dave Bailey, BMT Express.
New York Dolls, Subway Train.
Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Take the "A" Train.
Melody Masters, Subway Cutie.
Joe Bataan, Subway Joe.
Duke Ellington, Take the "A" Train.
Serge Gainsbourg, Le Poinçonneur des Lilas.
Berlin, The Metro.
The Jam, Down In the Tube Station at Midnight.
James Carter Quartet, Take the "A" Train.

The train shudders and pitches towards Fourteenth Street, stopping twice for breathers in the tunnel. You are reading about Liz Taylor's new boyfriend when a sooty hand taps your shoulder. You don't have to look up to know you are facing a casualty, one of the city's MIAs. You are more than willing to lay some silver on the physically handicapped, but the folks with the long-distance eyes give you the heebie-jeebies.

The second time he taps your shoulder you look up. His clothes and hair are fairly neat, as if he had only recently let go of social convention, but his eyes are out-to-lunch and his mouth is working furiously.

"My birthday," he says, "is January thirteenth. I will be twenty-nine years old." Somehow he makes this sound like a threat to kill you with a blunt object.

"Great," you say, going back to the paper.

When you next look up the man is halfway down the car, staring intently at an ad for a business training institute. As you watch, he sits down in the lap of an old lady.

"Excuse me sir, but you're sitting on me," she says. "Sir, sir. Excuse me." Almost everyone in the car is watching and pretending they're not.

Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City.


Here are a dozen ways to celebrate and chronicle the subway, the essential transport of the urban world--serving as artery, sewer, dream capsule, mobile prison, and as a quick and easy way to take a humanity bath. Most of these songs are about the New York subways, unapologetically--New York is still my town, its trains have the best songs.

First, four ways to take the A train, the mighty Eighth Avenue Express:

"Take the 'A' Train" was written by Billy Strayhorn (the title allegedly came from the directions Duke Ellington gave the young, Pittsburgh-born Strayhorn as to how to get up to Harlem) . The first, classic version of the song was recorded on 15 February 1941 by Ellington's finest orchestra, the "Blanton-Webster" band (Jimmy Blanton on bass, Ben Webster on tenor sax). Available on all sorts of Ellington compilations, such as this.

In 1950, Ellington and Strayhorn recorded a chamber version of "'A' Train," with Strayhorn playing celeste, Oscar Pettiford on cello, Lloyd Trotman on bass and Jo Jones on drums. Recorded 13 September 1950; on Great Times!

Cairo (Andy Willis).

Two years later, Ellington took advantage of the relatively new 33 1/3 LP format to return to some earlier compositions and grant them new, extended lifespans--so this version of "Take the 'A' Train" ran longer than eight minutes, with a bebop-influenced Betty Roche vocal.

The full lineup on this track was: Cat Anderson, Willie Cook, Ray Nance, Clark Terry, t; Quentin Jackson, Britt Woodman, tb; Juan Tizol, vtb; Jimmy Hamilton, cl, ts; Johnny Hodges, Hilton Jefferson, as; Russel Procope, as, cl; Paul Gonsalves, ts; Harry Carney, bs; Ellington, Strayhorn, p; Wendell Marshall, b; Louis Bellson, d. Recorded 30 June 1952; on Ellington Uptown.

Finally, here's James Carter's peacock rendition, featuring an eight-minute solo in which Carter shreds and swaggers through the past thirty years of jazz, stealing tricks from Coltrane, Ayler, Hemphill, Dolphy and others, until finally he lands with a sputter and a squawk. Craig Taborn, on piano, calls Carter's bet and raises him. Recorded in New York on 16-17 April 1994, with Jaribu Shahid (b) and Tani Tabbal (d); on Jurassic Classics.

Porto, Portugal. (Porto Daily Photo.)

The subway has always been a city's racial and class intersection, perhaps the last place on earth where millionaires can sit next to the destitute. "On the Subway" is from the first album by the Last Poets, released in 1970. The Poets were David Nelson, Gylan Kain, and Abiodun Oyewole.

"Intimate Strangers," Seoul.

"BMT Express," for non-New Yorkers, refers to the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit line (which includes today's N, Q, R and J trains).

For such a romping track, it's a bit of a foundling. Originally issued on an LP by the Dave Bailey Quintet in 1961, "BMT Express" later shows up on a Kenny Dorham LP (Osmosis) as well as a Tommy Flanagan Trio/Sextet compilation. Naturally, none of these records are in print today, rendering leadership a bit meaningless, but the track is on Emusic, where Flanagan gets top billing.

Recorded 4 October 1961, with Dorham, trumpet; Frank Haynes, tenor sax; Curtis Fuller, trombone; Flanagan, piano; Ben Tucker, bass; and Bailey, drums.

And the New York Dolls' "Subway Train" is from their debut LP, from 1973.

Tashkent, Uzbekistan. (Joao Leitao.)

Two missed connections:

The Melody Masters' "Subway Cutie" is from 1947, I believe. Other than that, I know absolutely nothing about this group, save that they also recorded a funny track called "Wig Blues," and that they are not to be confused with a gospel group of the same name. Anyone with any information, please let me know. On Hot Harmony Groups.

And Joe Bataan's fantastic boogaloo "Subway Joe" is from 1968. On the nearly-reissued album of the same name. Originally featured on Soul Sides.

New York (jezblog).

Moving away from New York at last, here are three European subway songs:

Serge Gainsbourg's "Le Poinçonneur des Lilas" (The Ticket Puncher) was his first major composition, recorded in 1958. The lyric offers the perspective of an anonymous clerk in a Metro station, standing and punching holes in tickets all day while people stream by him, oblivious to his needs and hates.

J'suis l'poinçonneur des Lilas
Le gars qu'on croise et qu'on n' regarde pas
Y'a pas d'soleil sous la terre
Drôl' de croisière
Pour tuer l'ennui j'ai dans ma veste
Les extraits du Reader Digest...

Full lyrics (w/translation) here. On Initials SG.

(Bored at work? Waste an hour and watch Serge Gainsbourg, a colorful life in video: G. as flustered provincial, as classicist, as cafe habitué, as superhero sidekick, as genius, and more genius; hitting on various French women, breaking the bad news to his harem, hitting on various English women; on honeymoon; driving at night; as walking wounded, as libertine on spacecraft? in abandoned shopping mall?, as dissolute patriot, singing karaoke, as nasty old man at swimsuit competition, macking on American woman, and, finally, as loving dad.)

Mexico City.

Berlin's "The Metro," while not as ridiculous as its sister single "Sex (I'm A...)", shares the sense of being written for an elaborate, unproduced softcore film; it's from 1982's Pleasure Victim.


The Jam's "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight," issued as a single in late 1978 with the just-deceased Keith Moon's face on one side of the sleeve, finds the band at its most tense and most earnest, with Paul Weller's depiction of a Pakistani man getting beaten by right-wing thugs paralleled by Bruce Foxton's jittery muscle of a bassline. On All Mod Cons.


And there you go. Some of this post was recycled from an NYC subway ode that I put up more than two years ago. I needed the break, and assumed 95% of today's readers weren't around in April 2005. Next big entry ought to be up during the week of the 20th.


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