Monday, July 29, 2013

The synergy of greatness that is St. Elmo's Fire

Brian Eno in 1974
I knew who Eno was, vaguely. I knew he was part of the whole glam rock thing, and had worked with David Bowie - but since I was never big on glam rock or David Bowie I hadn't paid much attention to Eno.


It turns out that Eno had a hand in two songs that I absolutely love.
Eno, along with Daniel Lanois was the producer of the U2 album Achtung Baby, with a favorite song "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World." When I discovered this I wondered if Eno was involved in another favorite song, Daniel Lanois' "The Maker." And sure enough, Eno played and sang on Lanois' album Acadie.

And then there is the Talking Head's Remain in Light, which, according to Wikipedia:
All songs written and composed by David Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth.

Truly amazing. Brian Eno has had a huge influence on music that I loved my whole life and I had no idea.

What really got me to notice Eno though, was his own album, from 1975, Another Green World, specifically the one song St. Elmo's Fire (nothing to do with the Brat Pack movie from 1985.)

I love St. Elmo's Fire. But why is it so great? Here it is on Youtube. Unfortunately the sound quality doesn't do the song justice.

The reason it's so great is because it's a synergy of separate greatnesses.

The greatness that is easiest to detect is the solo by Robert Fripp, a well-known guitar virtuoso. But it's only a lesser greatness without the synergy. 

There is the electronica setting greatness. The noodling at the beginning that turns into a solid bedrock of sound, with the rhythm piano, and then the rising-falling stair-step electronic sound behind the refrain "the blue August moon, the cool August moon."

The minimalist evocative lyrics greatness:
Brown eyes and I was tired
We had walked and we had scrambled
Through the moors and through the briars
Through the endless blue meanders. 
In the blue august moon
In the cool august moon 
Over the nights and through the fires
We went surging down the wires
Through the towns and on the highways
Through the storms in all their thundering. 
In the blue August moon
In the cool August moon 
Then we rested in a desert
Where the bones were white as teeth sir
And we saw St. Elmo's Fire
Splitting ions in the ether. 
In the blue August moon
In the cool August moon
In the blue August moon
In the cool August moon.
At first the lyrics describe a fairly commonplace journey, with moors, briars and meanders (bends in a river) in the blue, cool August moon. Although being cool in August seems slightly off, but then Eno is British. But then:
Over the nights and through the fires We went surging down the wires Through the towns and on the highways Through the storms in all their thundering.  
Surging down the wires? What's that about? It adds a whole dimension concerning the identities of Brown Eyes and I. And then the last set of lyrics, the crowning moment of greatness:
Then we rested in a desert Where the bones were white as teeth sir And we saw St. Elmo's Fire Splitting ions in the ether.  
And this is where the timing greatness comes in and pulls it altogether. Because the guitar solo, which lasts the entire rest of the song kicks in right before "splitting ions in the ether."

Now I admit I didn't notice a lot of this until after repeated listenings. I must have listened to this song a hundred times by now. In fact, it gets better with repeated listenings because it's too hard to process the synergy of greatnesses in one single listen. Only after a few go-rounds does it really kick in that the epic guitar solo begins right at "...saw St. Elmo's Fire" -with a sustained note that goes from soft to loud and doesn't change until just after the word "ether" and the first bang of the rhythm piano. And then it goes all out. It's a mind-expander.

But what is "St. Elmo's Fire?" Well, I don't think it's necessary to know what it is in order to appreciation the song, but I found that reading this account by James Braid, the primary discoverer of hypnotherapy did add to my appreciation - which I consider one more greatness to add to the mix:
...It was about nine o'clock, P.M. I had no sooner got on horseback than I observed the tips of both the horse's ears to be quite luminous: the edges of my hat had the same appearance. I was soon deprived of these luminaries by a shower of moist snow which immediately began to fall. The horse's ears soon became wet and lost their luminous appearance; but the edges of my hat, being longer of getting wet, continued to give the luminous appearance somewhat longer. I could observe an immense number of minute sparks darting towards the horse's ears and the margin of my hat, which produced a very beautiful appearance, and I was sorry to be so soon deprived of it...
Eno has a web site.