Following the lead of the venerable PA (and not shamelessly copying, come on), I’m posting about a music video, this one from Colin Hay, a live video of Goodnight Romeo followed by Prison Time. Way back in the early 80’s, Hay was the frontman for Men at Work, who went really huge for a few years. The band broke up, though, as most bands do, and Hay found his career in shambles and developed addiction problems. He worked his way out of that, and started from square one, playing clubs, touring on his own, and he slowly built up a following, albeit smaller than he had with Men at Work. He’s now in his 60’s, still touring and playing, which reminds me of something Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits once said back in the 80’s, I think. A journalist asked him what he’d do if his music career ever crashed and burned. He said something like “I’ll just find some pub to play at.” That always struck me as a very grounded attitude. It was clear from the context that for Knopfler, it was about playing music, and he’d be just as happy playing at a bar as in an arena. Career failure wouldn’t really mean much, unless it meant he couldn’t play music anymore. He and Dire Straits never really flamed out, they faded away over time, but Hay has lived what Knopfler once said.
While we’re comparing Hay with Knopfler, I’ll note that they’re both conspicuous finger-pickers. Rock and Pop guitarists typically use a flat pick, but for Knopfler his finger-picking style gave him a markedly different sound, especially for a lead guitarist capable of pyrotechnics. Knopfler was phenomenally talented, and, when he wanted to be, flashy as hell. Remember Sultans of Swing? One of the great guitar solos in Rock history. Hay, on the other hand, was never known as a lead guitarist, but as a singer/songwriter, quirky in voice and lyric. That’s on display in Prison Time, but I also want to highlight his guitar work in Goodnight Romeo, which is understated but entrancing, and at times magic.
So take a listen to this video, and afterwards I’ll tell you some of the things that I see and hear, things that you may not have noticed:
First off, for you guitar players, you’ll notice that Hay isn’t in standard E tuning (from highest to lowest EBGDAE). I believe he’s in Open D, in which the 1st string is tuned down to D, the second tuned down to A, the 3rd tuned down to F#, the 4th and 5th strings remain at D and A, and the 6th string is tuned down to D. There isn’t anything remarkable about playing in open tunings, in and of itself, but playing with them you’ll find some very rich sounds. (By the way, I may be wrong about the tuning, in that I’ve never tried to learn this song. There wouldn’t be much of a point. I’m not a finger-picker, I’m a flat-picker, but more importantly I wouldn’t be able to do the song justice. I’m good enough to know when I’m out-classed.) (12/19/18, I now believe he keeps the 3rd string at G)
The 20 second mark, which is the end of the first measure, is where I do find something remarkable. Hay hits a couple of harmonic notes in a way that I’ve never seen before. The easiest way to find harmonic notes on a guitar are to look for the dots inlaid on the fretboard, especially at the 5th, 7th, 9th and 12th frets. You don’t press down on the string to get a harmonic note, you lightly touch the string at the fret, pluck the string with your right hand, and lift off from the string just as it’s plucked. It takes timing, but it can be mastered easily enough with a little practice. Every guitar player I’ve ever seen places the pad of one of his fingers on the string to do this, which means disengaging from any chord or notes that you’re playing. I’ve never seen it done the way Hay does it at this point and elsewhere in the song. He’s not really chording, but he slides up and plays a regular note at the 7th fret on the 3rd string, and uses the tip of his pinkie finger to play the 2 harmonic notes on the 1st and 2nd strings while maintaining the regular note on the 7th fret. This is a delicate, subtle, and extraordinarily difficult maneuver. When I first saw the video and heard this part, I doubted what my eyes saw, because I didn’t see it. I thought “how the hell did he hit harmonics there?” I had to rewind and watch close to see how he did it. Again, I’ve never seen it done that way. Magic.
Another remarkable yet subtle maneuver is found at the 43 second mark, just before the beginning of the 2nd verse. You’ll hear the same notes as in the 1st verse, just an octave lower. Up to this point Hay is finger-picking, but notice his right hand just before he starts the 2nd. Almost like a magician, he flicks his wrist and out slides a flatpick, which he then uses for much of this verse. At 0:53 he slides the pick back into his palm, at 0:58 he slides it to his thumb and forefinger again, and then at 1:08 he slides it back one last time into his palm. Like with the way he hits the harmonic notes, this is delicate, subtle and extraordinarily difficult.
As for the song as a whole, Goodnight Romeo is haunting, sad, and vaguely Celtic. Hay is originally from Scotland. At 14 his family moved to Australia, and after Men at Work hit it big he moved to Los Angeles, where he’s lived ever since. Whether it’s some deep recollection from his childhood memories welling up into song, or whether it’s simply his Scottish blood, or both, I can only imagine Hay shaping the complexities of this piece unconsciously and unbidden, flowing out of his hands like bagpipes.
I won’t go into much detail over Prison Time, except to note a few observations. Musically, it dovetails seamlessly into the ending of Goodnight Romeo, which causes the first song to take the shape of an extended intro without diminishing it’s power. Lyrically, it’s in keeping with Hay’s best works, a playful lyricism that disarms deep sadness. For example, in the last verse he sings:
Nothing’s black, and nothing’s white / I hear the echo of your footsteps in the dead of night.
There’s a kind of skipping rhythm to his phrasing that contrasts the expression of loss. As I’ve read at Le Chateau, Contrast is King.
Final note, I’ve downloaded some of his songs, and I’ve checked out a lot of his videos, and I find that Hay at his most powerful is always when he’s playing solo, just him and his guitar. When he’s playing with a band, somehow he seems diminished compared to when he’s by himself. Solo, there’s an undeniable gravity and a presence, whether on video or audio. If I could, I’d tell him to forget playing with a band. For Hay, less is much, much more.
If I ever do this kind of thing again, it’ll most likely be about someone, like Colin Hay, who should be a helluva lot more famous, or rich, or both. I’m talking about Scott Miller.