Monday, July 7, 2008

Walkin' My Camel Home

Personnel:

Bernie Heveron: Upright bass
Colorblind James: Vibes, vocals
Phillip Marshall: Guitar
James McAvaney: Drums
G. Elwyn Meixner: Guitar

I've got to start off by saying that Walkin' My Camel Home has to be one of the most underrated and overlooked gems in Chuck Cuminale's songbook. While this was always a lot of fun to play, more importantly it really represents the best qualities of the early Rochester line-up.

The instrumental section has G. Elwyn and me talking back and forth with little pseudo-Middle Eastern riffs. It also features great lines from Bernie's upright, tight punchy drumming from Jimmy Mac, and of course Chuck's vibes which cap off each section with a long sustained final note hanging like a star above a midnight desert.

Being one of the few non-two beat songs in Chuck's catalog, up to that point, he really pushed Jimmy Mac to find a rhythm pattern that complemented the main riff, rather than merely keeping time. Also, while many of Chuck's riffs were based around the mixolydian scale (my apologies to Chuck: he would hate that I'm using high falutin' terms like that), WMCH's riff is based around a minor pentatonic scale.

Chuck didn't care much for music theory or any displays on a musician's part to show how much musical 'knowledge' he had. While he occasionaly played 9th chords on his guitar, he didn't show much interest in harmonic embellishments to basic major and minor chords. In typical fashion, after getting worked up about something and hearing me strum a C Major 7 chord, he declared emphatically "That chord is a lie!" It's sole purpose was to make people feel a certain emotion that didn't really exist.

Chuck's harmonic world included major and minor chords, dominant 7th chords, the occasional diminished chord (they seemed to pop up in old jug band songs or Bessie Smith blues numbers) and the ubiquitous major 6th barre-chord. But stating that he had a limited palette of harmonic colors is not a put down. What he may have lacked in harmonic sophistication, he more than made up for in imagination. His story telling continued to develop and expand and the role his musicians played in supplying other colors and other voices was extremely important.

I don't recall ever playing this song in Europe although I'm sure we must have. Somewhere along the line it just seemed to get dropped from the repertoire. Perhaps for that reason, it will remain for me a kind of peak in his post-SF, pre-UK period.

Recorded at Saxon Studios, it's also one of the few Colorblind James Experience recordings that features a fade ending.

Walkin' My Camel Home
Words and music Chuck Cuminale

The sheik's men they snuck up behind me
And stole the air I planned to breath
It left me reelin' 'round light-headed
I knew that it was time to leave
But I felt much better out in the moonlight
Walkin' my camel home

Last time I came out here at night
Well, let's just say it was a big mistake
I got drunk and I knocked a tent down
I almost smothered in my own heartache
But it gave me something to think about while
Walkin' my camel home

Well, I got responsibilities
Lotta things I'm supposed to do
But for me the hardest part
Is to make it look like that's not true
That's how come I wear these shades while
Walkin' my camel home

Well, I was sittin' in my favorite chair
Staring at my favorite floor
When the doorbell rang I said "I'll get it"
40 thieves were at the door
Well, it's true I've made some strange connections
Walkin' my camel home

5 comments:

david d. mcintire said...

Phil, I can echo all of these sentiments. It's a great song, probably under-appreciated because of its proximity to all of the other amazing songs on that album. And I can confirm that we rarely played the song in the post-Elwyn and Bernie band. I do remember learning it, and I liked playing it, but I never felt like I ever really got inside of it, either. Mostly due to not playing it very much, I imagine. I know we played it Rochester occasionally, but I can't recall a single time that we did in Europe. Of course, if we'd ever used set lists like normal bands, we might have been able to confirm that...

And yes, Chuck did have a fierce aversion to any theoretical discussion, which was occasionally tough on me with my newly minted bachelor's degree in theory. But, as you know, I was never really a "chord guy" in any way whatever, and playing the clarinet and sax kept me out of most harmonic discussions anyway. I think that Chuck probably had more impact on me theoretically than the other way 'round, as I cannot stomach the sound of a dominant seventh chord any more either. While my own music bears no resemblance to Chuck's, it is rather "anti-theoretical" in its manner. And ever since my time in the band, "simpler is better" has been my motto, to some of my professors' dismay.

Andy said...

Phil,

Thanks for taking the time to do this. It's interesting to read the stories behind the songs of one of my favorite local bands. Makes me feel like it's 1986 again...

Phillip Marshall said...

Thanks Andy,

Are you Andy from the Fun Factory perhaps (among other great bands)?

Peace,

-PHil

Andy said...

No - I'm not from the Fun Factory. Just a local music geek who got turned on to your music ~ 1987 by John E.

david d. mcintire said...

And I'd better clarify and correct something, just because it will bother me if I don't: Phil was referring to the major-major seventh chord (Cmaj7) which Chuck disliked intensely (a popular "color-chord" in jazz and impressionist music), as opposed to the dominant 7th chord (C7), which is a major-minor sonority (Chuck used plenty of those, and listeners of the podcast will observe that I frequently ended songs on a seventh). I mis-interpreted Phil's chord symbol until after I'd commented and then realized I'd been inaccurate. I'll not try to attempt comment whilst managing twins again, but I guess it reinforces my point about my not being a "chord guy..." My statement still stands though: I don't really like either of them very much.

Phil's observation is a very astute one though, that Chuck rarely used anything in the way of substitutions, chord extensions, or any tricky harmonic feints at all. Yet his music is as cutting edge as it comes, in my opinion. His simple harmonic vocabulary provided him with a means of exploring language in a manner that more complicated harmonies would have obscured. And yes, it created a space that could accommodate musicians as radically different as Phil, Joe "the Bone" and myself all in one group.

Morton Feldman once exhorted a group of students to reflect on the fact that the most radical artists of a particular era are rarely seen as such at the time, that most of what passes for avant-gard art is really faddish and conservative in essence. I always regarded Chuck as a true radical, in this sense.