John Larkin? Who? Does this have anything to do with a certain short story?
You probably know him as this guy.
When I was a sophomore at Berry, my roommate and I developed a slightly unhealthy (and mercifully brief) obsession with what were perhaps Larkin’s two best known tunes — to the point where I am pretty sure everyone on seventh Dana thought we were just a tad unhinged (for a couple of weeks) what with all our singing about Scatman’s World and being the Scatman.
For whatever reason I never really sought out any additional music of Larkin’s until earlier this year when the aforementioned roommate stopped by Berry upon his triumphant return to the states from Scotland. Of course there were the obligatory reminiscences of our antics in 2002 and 2003 and of course Scatman John came up in our discussions. Later that day, and quite by accident, I happened upon a couple of audio-only uploads from his eponymous 1986 album whilst scouring YouTube for videos of tunes from his three Eurodance releases.
The best word to describe my reaction was shock. Genuine shock. I’d always assumed his success and notoriety were the result of a clever marketing campaign to take an everyday 50-something guy, slap a hat, suit, tie and not altogether unpleasant mustache on him, have him release an album of scat singing chock-full of idyllic aphorisms about world peace, the value of soul over body and the obsolescence of winning and losing to a European audience, and reap the monetary benefits. Instead, there was a legitimate musician hiding behind all the techno beats and dance hall synth effects.
somebody asked “what’s the meaning of jazz?”
and I said “we’re the misfits
and all I can tell you
is while you’re still sleeping
the saints are still weeping
’cause things you call dead
haven’t yet had the chance to be born”
I have two reasons for citing these particular lyrics: (1) I always felt like a misfit when I was in jazz band in high school (it was apparently a sin to be a bando between the ages of 14 and 18 when my “peers” thought it was best to turn disengagement into an art form) and (2) I discovered that what you might call Larkin’s idealism wasn’t necessarily a product of his mid-90s dance beat stage persona (anyone familiar with “Scatman (Ski Ba Bop Ba Dop Bop)” should be experiencing déjà vu).
The whole story of John Larkin is worth reading if you have some time — his fortune in turning what is usually regarded as a hindrance into a success story is heartwarming (if perhaps too predictable for folks familiar with how things tend to develop in the music industry). Larkin passed away in 1999 — it’s hard to say what he would have done into his 60s and 70s but I maintain the naive hope that he would have revisited his jazz origins in the form of an album of original work. It’s my opinion that his current legacy — though it contains a message of hope to those seeking to turn a disadvantage into an advantage — is incomplete. By offering this tune for your listening pleasure, I feel that I’m helping correct this oversight in some small measure.
Author’s Note: An official Myspace Music page for John Larkin does not currently exist; I hope the Facebook page maintained by his widow will suffice.
- Love the 90′s? You’ll love this Medley! (bloggingaboutsomething.wordpress.com)
- Various Artists: Larkin’s Jazz | Jazz review (guardian.co.uk)
- Philip Larkin, jazz critic (telegraph.co.uk)
So nice to be here
With all you good people
Is anybody listening
To what we’re doing tonight
Could you give us a chance
While you hit the sauce
Might try a little flash up here
Just to get ourselves across
So sings Bruce Hornsby in the opening track of his 1995 album Hot House. The singer and his colleagues have found themselves in a situation dreaded by all entertainers — performing for a bored and disinterested audience.
I first heard this tune in high school. At the time I had only participated in performances where each of the audiences was mostly interested in what we had to share — symphonic band and jazz band concerts for the parents, siblings and friends of my fellow musically inclined students. I won’t pretend that every audience member attending these concerts was just dying to be there but they were courteous enough to listen to what was going on. So while I enjoyed listening to “Spider Fingers” — both for its narrative and its musical quality — I was unable to relate to the story shared by the singer.
That changed in the summer of 2001. Not more than a week after being graduated from Columbus High, my high school band director invited me to play bass as part of a jazz quartet for a wedding reception in Winder, Georgia. I don’t recall my reaction but I suspect that I was both excited and a little nervous. On one hand, the opportunity to play for money and to gain some performance experience in an ”uncontrolled” environment was one I am certain I would have relished at the time. On the other, I suspect I was anxious about playing for an audience that wouldn’t have told me the performance was great even if it were lousy.
Well we better do something
Before they tell us to get lost
Sometimes you’ve just got to repeat yourself
Just to get your point across
We started playing before the majority of the audience arrived — this turned out to be fortuitous because we wouldn’t have played much at all if we had waited. After the last of the guests floated in, we managed to finish our renditions of “Maiden Voyage” and “Song For My Father” before it was clear that we may as well have engaged in Tuvan throat singing for all the attention we were paid. While it’s not clear if the singer in Hornsby’s tune managed eventually to engage the audience (a la Sussudio), our jazz quartet failed abjectly to generate so much as a spark of interest. Oddly enough, I recall not minding so much that the gig terminated rather earlier than expected — in part because I still got paid the full amount promised and in part because it meant I was able to return to Columbus at a more reasonable hour than originally anticipated.
“Spider Fingers” is a song that never leaves my otherwise dynamic “Top Five Favourite Songs List.” It’s a nickname I earned in an online Star Trek group for my quick reflexes at what we called Scrambler (where the goal was to be the fastest to decipher, for example, RMTTTAEIAN TTNMNNOECIA as ANTIMATTER CONTAINMENT). It’s a tune I heard in Safeway in 2009 (much to the consternation of my fellow shoppers when they realized someone in the store was gleefully singing the lyrics to a tune they had probably never heard). It’s a reminder that I will always be on what is generally perceived as the “wrong side” of public opinion regarding what constitutes good music.
That’s just a list of its significances to me. To Hornsby:
It’s just a little hand trick
A little prestidigitation
Better get out your Hanon
Practice and repetition
- Installment #109 – Bruce Hornsby 6/28/96 – Deercreek (boilerinthebasementmusic.wordpress.com)
- New Installment: Bruce Hornsby 6/28/96 – Deercreek (thefurthurproject.wordpress.com)
- Installment #089 – Bruce Hornsby 7/1/01 – The Gathering of the Vibes (boilerinthebasementmusic.wordpress.com)
- Bruce Hornsby | Arcata | Review | Pics (jambase.com)
- Announcing Bruce Hornsby and The Noisemakers at Uptown Theatre Napa on 9/14 (prweb.com)
- New Installment: Bruce Hornsby 7/9/97 – Molson Amphitheater (thefurthurproject.wordpress.com)
- Installment #104 – Bruce Hornsby 7/9/97 – Furthur Festival – Molson Amphitheater (boilerinthebasementmusic.wordpress.com)
- Installment #090 – Bruce Hornsby 716/97 – Riverbend Amphitheater (boilerinthebasementmusic.wordpress.com)
- New Installment: Bruce Hornsby 7/16/97 – Riverbend Amphitheater (thefurthurproject.wordpress.com)