A good song has 10 more songs embedded in it
This is a paraphrase of something great Tom Waits says in the middle of the Netflix original rockumentary “Keith Richards: Under the Influence”, which I recommend to anyone who cares about (a) the Rolling Stones, or (b) the blues, or (c) early rock and roll, or (d) music. Hopefully that covers most of us.
Before I transcribe exactly what Tom Waits said, some of the essential, even thrilling scenes from “Under the Influence” show the Rolling Stones in the studio, working on “Sympathy for the Devil”. You see Mick and Keith and Brian Jones sitting in a circle, strumming acoustics like it’s an early Dylan tune, quite slow. And then they decide to kick it up a bit into the conga-driven groove we know and love. These babies don’t come out fully formed, they need care and imagination. Sometimes the first take is perfect, and sometimes it takes 35 takes.
So here’s what Tom Waits says: “Every song has at least 10 songs inside of it that can be released from the song and you can make, you know … You put two songs together in a room, they’ll have offspring, you know? If you want to start writing songs, you have to start thinking like one. You’re trying to break into the ritual of music. It’s kinda like Houdini in reverse, you know. It’s not you’re trying to escape. You’re trying to be let in.
This notion of a song being pliable, not carved in pernambuco but something to be, not just interpreted, but molded and changed and made your own is very important if your path takes you off the page and into rock and roll. It’s something I don’t often see among classically trained musicians. Our world focus is necessarily to revere the great works as great works, not to be fucked around with, but interpreted and only then through the filter of your cello teacher or the recordings of the great cellists. I have respect for this type of music making, but it was never one that would either keep me interested for my career or that I would be especially good at. Lord knows I tried for about 10 years.
Here’s the essence of what I want to say: if you’re playing cello in a band, working on an arrangement of a song, there’s something you and only you can bring. There’s a few notes, or a tone, or a bow phrasing, or a quote from the Bach suites that somehow fits perfectly in a rock context. It’s something that none of the other band members could possibly have dreamed up. And it will turn a mediocre tune into something so cool you’ll be proud to listen to it over and over. You’re the black swan in a world that has only known white ones. Unimagined before, but now suddenly there and real and alive: of course, the tune has a big cello part in it, how else could it ever have been?