Standing Hidden in the Shadows
Standing hidden in the shadows
He's got a long curved Turkish dagger
With a bejewelled handle
Some things run in families. One of the first major things my father did after starting to earn a regular salary was to buy a serious music system. It featured a Garrard turntable, Altec Lansing speakers, a Sony receiver, and this.
I never expected to find a picture of this machine on the web, but what do you know. It's a tape player, playing 8 1/2 inch spool tapes that are available no more ("Sahab, yeh to absolute ho gaya.") My father kept this rig running for almost thirty eventful years, including a move back from the US to India, where there were no professionals, leave alone service centers, to maintain anything like this. Instead, what he had was two hobbyists, laboratory technicians who worked at a government science center nearby, and liked to tinker around with electronics in their spare time. These two gents ~ quickly nicknamed Changu-Mangu by my father's set ~ spent a substantial part of the 80s and 90s ferrying various components of this rig (and other equipment from our house, and similar other houses) to one of their houses and back, patching together by bandaiding over various assorted ailments, keeping the music going. But I digress.
He's tellin' her the world is full of freaks and geeks and simples and he's
Hiding like a leprechaun under stones and in the ripples
In the pool of time she thought she knew it - but someone threw a stone into it
Which breaks up the surface and it's making her nervous and it's true
What can she do --- yes it's true
Changu-Mangu kept the system going, but it was my father's fanaticism that got it started in the first place. He had 52 of those 8 1/2 inch tapes, loaded with music on each side, plus a few hundred LPs. That's what I grew up with. Each tape was wound round one spool. To identify the side ("A" or "B" in cassette terminology), the end of the tape was cut either perpendicular ("straight side"), or slanted. When you wanted to play a tape, you'd load it onto the left reel of the player, and load a blank spool onto the right reel. Then you'd take the end of the tape, from the left reel, between your fingers, and carry it under the playing head and across to the other side, wrap it round the hub of the empty reel on the right a couple of times, and tighten it. Then you'd grip the rewind / play / fast forward knob (just below the right reel in the picture) and turn it clockwise to the right. It was a mechanical system -- a fair amount of force was required. If you didn't twist hard enough, the tape wouldn't start. But if you did, it would go wwwWWWOOAAA as the head caught the sound as it accelerated up to the pace at which it would be recognizable as music. And your heart skipped a little beat when you recognized the piece for all your troubles. It was great.
Even better, as a child, was to watch it fast forward or rewind. I am pretty sure I drove my parents wild with my demands to fast forward or rewind, forget about the music. Because that was a true visual treat. No startup music sound effects, just the sight of a large spool of tape on one side dwindling imperceptibly while on the other side what was nothing gained dramatically in volume with every blink of an eye. Within seconds the two sides were equally matched, the new overtaking the old. Then in an instant the sedate exchange of position was transcended and replaced by a manic acceleration as the old went faster and faster, shredding shredding shredding spinning down to nothingness in a frenzied blur of invisible rotation UNTIL! Phatash! One side was blown off the spool as at the same instant the control knob SNAPPED back to the stop position while the newly filled spool spun round with its momentum slapping the edge of the tape against the various protruding parts. It was an awesome spectacle. I loved it. I called it tashminimini. I could watch that for hours. Tashminimini. Just the memory of that sound brings a thrill to my heart, even today.
But I digress again. The few hundred LPs were mainly Western and Hindustani classical. It was a great collection. Almost everything you could think of was there. (The only systematic omission that I detected later on was Wagner. I wonder why.) The 52 tapes, on the other hand, were a wild, totally eclectic mixture. Some of them had backups of the LPs, especially my parents' favorites (such as a bunch of Bach's solo violin sonatas, performed by Grumiaux. One of the most rewarding things I ever did in my life was last year, when I discovered a DVD of some of these pieces... for my parents to enjoy on their new system -- the one that's replaced the old rig; the one that my mother says is too complicated for her to play.) Some of the other tapes had traces of evidence of my father's fanaticism -- all the Beatles albums, copied from who knows where. (I spent a few hours as a teenager trying to get the right names onto the tracks.) Some of the tapes had copies of FM broadcasts, again, a complete mixture. And there were some traces of random bootlegging. Two songs here, three more there, sometimes as filler, with nary a note to trace.
One such random item was a pair of songs labeled as "Earth Band", the two tracks being called "Martha's Madman" and "Quinn the Eskimo". For once, my father got it almost right. Till date, these remain the only two tracks played by the group that was actually known as "Manfred Mann's Earth Band", that I have heard. The Internet tells me that these two tracks appeared consecutively as the last two tracks on an album released in 1978, which means my father flicked them off someone well after he left America. Back then, I wasn't even sure of the difference between The Earth Band and Rare Earth, another odd entry in their collection. I loved both bands, but seriously, back then I don't think I even made the distinction between the two, because for all you knew they might just be the same band labeled differently, and anyway all that mattered was that I really liked both bands and as for the Earth Band, I liked both tracks. The Mighty Quinn, of course, is a Dylan special so that justified my liking it once I had turned sixteenish. Martha's Madman grew to be one of those childhood memories that I the young adult wasn't ashamed of.
Martha's gettin' nervous as she wanders through his valley
Where the shadows always frightening
And the whispers tell her stories
Check out Rare Earth if you can and if you haven't. Two tracks especially: Ma and Smiling Faces.
All that was, of course, many long years ago. The rig, painstakingly maintained by Changu and Mangu, finally croaked when my parents' house got flooded in 1996. My father kept it around for several years afterwards, (sentimentally? stubbornly?) but today all that remains are the two beautiful speakers, unused. The tapes and LPs also lay around collecting dust -- I'm not sure if we still have them or not. I hadn't heard either of those two tracks in ages (although I had a Rare Earth cassette when I was in Bangalore, wonder what happened to it?) until I read this entirely unexpected op-ed piece in the New York Times earlier this week. It was by this guy Verlyn Klinkenborg, who usually writes these lightweight faff-arounds better-suited to the average populist blog. I usually don't even click on links to his articles. The words "Martha's Madman" must have been in the blurb.
This gent had an entire article written on the song and how he'd loved it. Apparently, it first came out on an album by The Jerry Hahn Brotherhood, the sole published release of that group. I hadn't heard of them until then. Klinkenborg's article talked about his love for that song, and for that album, and about how he suddenly felt the urge to listen to the song one day except he couldn't find his LP, and it had never been released as a CD. Thankfully, someone else had loved the album so much he'd ripped the entire thing and posted it, with commentary, online.
The commentary is pretty good. It's definitely passionate. Here's an extract.
To furthermore explore into the jazz/fusion sound of the album, the Brotherhood tackles an instrumental tune called Ramblin’ by the great Ornette Coleman. Its very interesting how each instrument plays both a part in the rhythm section as well as being very up front in the mix as independent entities. To me, it is pure genius the way this is arranged. I just love the intro section where Jerry and Mike are playing the lead simultaneously and then break down into George’s outstanding drum fills. While George is playing his fills in this section, each of the other band members, most notably Jerry’s guitar, play little incidental notes on their instruments to create a wonderful chaotic effect. When the band slips into the head (or verse) of the tune, it might appear to the casual listener to be playing a free-form non-tempo passage. If you listen to the rhythm section, George Marsh especially, you will hear a distinct tempo. Once you find the tempo, you can easily follow exactly where the song is going. The complex parts played by George on drums and Clyde on bass to keep the tempo steady and driving is stunning. When Mike joins those two to form the rhythm section under Jerry’s guitar solo, the song really comes together well. Also, notice Clyde’s ascending bass line at certain times within this section. After the guitar solo, the band goes into a brief organ-led bridge and then back into a shorter guitar solo. During the re-intro after the bridge, the drum fills are accompanied by some fabulous organ fills instead of mainly guitar fills as before. This is really a tight song which may require a few listens before you actually get it. It reminds me of the album by John Coltrane titled Ascension from 1967. Definitely give that album a spin if you’re interested in this type of music.
The larger point of Klinkenborg's article, this album aside, is a lament about things that get left in the slipstream as technology advances. One may argue about the merits or demerits of CDs versus LPs, or the advantages of MP3 compression versus the loss in sound quality, but it's sad that my kids will encounter the playing of music as a sanitized experience popping in their CDs or what-have-you, never pulling the tape tight across the head, never feeling the thrill of the tashminimini. It's sad that Martha's Madman should have to get left hidden in the shadows.
Play it once and see. If you like it, play the album.
If you really like it, chase down the Earth Band version for me.