I brought a bass guitar with me to Madagascar. In part because there is a wanna-be ethnomusicologist inside of me who wants to explore Madagascar’s musical traditions in the baritone, tenor, and alto musical registers. But also because I hoped I might be able to get into a band—as a shortcut to a social life.
I have yet to pick up and play a valiha or a sodina, but I did get scooped up by a band pretty quickly: I am now bass playing with the MADBAND. At least I was as of last weekend.
I’m not sure whether MADBAND is (a) a degraded, casino-playing shadow of its former glory—with barely a shred of its “classic” lineup, or if it is (b) a fluid living organism that is constantly evolving—never looking back. I’ve heard both descriptions.
I’ve more or less decided not to think too deeply about this existential question.
With MADBAND, I just try to be a journeyman bassist for once in my life, rather than my usual role: the prima donna creative director. I show up as prepared as I can be and play what I know, and wing it through the rest—happily playing for free beer.
It’s not quite that simple. In my life as an amateur (and once a barely-pro) musician, I have mostly played and learned music written by myself and/or my fellow band members—as matter of principle.
Bluntly: I’m an “original” snob.
More honestly: I’m a songwriter posing as an adequate bass player.
Brutally honestly: I’m a lazy musician who writes songs.
So this “journeyman bassist” business is a reach for me. I don’t arrive in a cover band preloaded with a catalog of songs in my head and at my fingertips. Nor do I have the musical training to wing my way fearlessly into any song. Fearfully, yes, but not fearlessly.
Learning these cover songs has given me a chance to evaluate them, learn from them, and in some cases appreciate songs to which I never gave much thought—even songs I once actively disliked.
Here is a random sampling of the songs I have learned for MADBAND. There is something valuable in each one.
- Van Morrison—Moondance
I never used to like this song, but I do now. I don’t play it very true to the album recording. I just walk all over that Am chord through the verse. Yes, even I can walk a bass over one chord.
Some of my most fun moments with MADBAND have happened locking with Steve, our Malagasy drummer, on this song.
- Traffic—Dear Mr. Fantasy
What is with this song? It’s inexplicably a classic. It’s been covered by The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, and by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Why? I couldn’t tell you. The lyrics are dumb, the bridge is dumb and comes too early—plus the bass part is sloppy.
Yet my lukewarm feelings toward this song make it more fun. I feel no loyalty to get the bass “right.” Dave Mason didn’t, why should I? I wing this one, and always will.
- Squirrel Nut Zippers—Hell (Video below)
In contrast, this one, with its calypso rhythm, is one I try hard to get right. Fortunately, it’s not hard to do. The bass part is just an eight-bar loop repeated until the song ends. The hardest part is paying attention so I don’t miss the end.
- Atlanta Rhythm Section—Spooky
This song is in a dead heat with Dear Mr. Fantasy for dumbest lyrics. I never liked this one before either—but it’s like a gateway drug to becoming a jazzhole. I’ve dabbled with jazz on and off, and don’t believe I’m at risk of becoming addicted.
We have great soloists in MADBAND, and I play my part pretty straight so I can listen to the rest of the band. That makes the song pretty satisfying.
- Old Crow Medicine Show—Wagon Wheel
Before I actually had to hear this song more than a few times, I somehow managed to learn that it is a cover-band cliché. But I learned nothing more about about it. (I didn’t know, for example, that it’s sort-of co-written by Bob Dylan.) It seemed like a major liability to my original snobbery. The challenge is getting over myself. It’s not that bad. It’s even good. I like the lyrics.
There: I’m over myself.
- Eric Clapton—I’m Tore Down
Two words that have always been my parachute ripcord: blues jam. Where did Ted go? This bass part; the main riff; the only riff is so… Stupid! But don’t I profess to embrace the stupid? And didn’t I just say I’m over myself?
This song, more than any other on this list, requires a particular mindfulness—a Zen Guitar state of mind:
“Play one note on one string and pour in every ounce of your heart and soul. Then repeat.”
- AC/DC—Highway to Hell
I have learned this song, but the opportunity to play it hasn’t yet presented itself. What I appreciate about it is how the brothers Young tightly arranged this song. It’s highly controlled, but the effect is uncontrolled. It’s a minimalist masterpiece.
When the time comes to play this, I won’t improvise a single note.
- Steppenwolf—Born to Be Wild
Talk about your cover band clichés. But when I put on the headphones and started to learn this one, I found a kindred spirit in the late bassist Rushton Moreve, who lays down a four-measure bass phrase under a two-measure guitar phrase—exactly the kind of thing that I like to do.
- Lou Reed—Walk On The Wild Side
This song draws attention to my fretless bass. It’s dead simple to play. A million years ago I took a bass lesson from Felix Sainz—one lesson. I was 18 or 19 years old, still living at home, and I couldn’t afford lessons, so I didn’t call Felix back.
But Felix taught me to play double stop elevenths on the bass, and I’ve never lost my fascination with playing them.
This bass part is all about two double stop elevenths, played over and over again.
There are actually two bass parts on the recording. Both parts are played by Herbie Flowers, who came up with two bass parts so he could get double paid for the recording session.
- The Commitments—Take Me To The River
This is not the first time I’ve been in a cover band. A long time ago I was briefly in three cover bands at once. It was the last time I felt in demand as a bass player. In these three bands, everyone but I was a grad student at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona. One band called itself “The 59th Street All Stars.” This band was basically inspired by the movie, The Commitments. That was when I first learned the bass part for this song as best I could. The bass player on this whole album is pretty phenomenal.
- Little Feat—Dixie Chicken
Not much to this one, other than the quirky and deceptive chord progression. The lyrics are much more clever than I ever would have considered them to be.
- The Rolling Stones—Sympathy For The Devil
This is a very active bass part. Thank you, Bill Wyman.
Even for an original snob, I’ve learned surprisingly few songs by The Rolling Stones. (This and Jumpin’ Jack Flash are the only ones I can think of.)
What surprised me most about this song is the lyrics. They aren’t quite about what I always thought they were. For a song about the devil, the lyrics are quite humanistic—rejecting the idea of pure evil.
- Nancy Sinatra—These Boots Are Made For Walking
What producer let through that cheesy descending bass gimmick? This campy three-chord song has no right to be as good as it is. I don’t need babyfaced Nick Cave to tell me this song is cool.
Playing this song is a guilty pleasure, performed in public.
- Santana (featuring Maná)—Corazon Espinado (Video below)
I first learned about Maná from the contractor who renovated my kitchen, almost a decade ago. But I never knew about this mega-hit, Latin-Grammy-award-winning collaboration with Santana.
This song just kicks ass.
Am I cured of being an original snob? No, no, no…
But this is fun—lots of fun. I don’t have to teach anyone their part, or arrange any music. I just show up with my bass, as ready as I can be.
Chuck CheesmanNovember 19, 2014 at 4:45 am
"The challenge is getting over myself."
Man, you got into a band in Madagascar than me in the promised land. Plus, I've already had to learn twice as many covers as you (plus all the words) just to get gigs as a one-man-band.
By the way, the guy that recorded my latest Youtube video not only played "Born to Be Wild" but actually toured as part of Steppenwolf for a while!
Keep the posts coming! Sounds like quite an adventure over there.
Now I need to prove I'm not a robot.
Ted JohnsonNovember 19, 2014 at 5:41 am
You'll get more gigs if you stop expecting to be paid.
The reality is that MADBAND does get paid for it's gigs — but all of the money goes to the Malagasy musicians in the band, plus the "roadies" who haul the gear and help set it up. That's right: We have roadies.
That's just another factor that makes this a very low-impact/high-reward activity for me.
That's cool about your Steppenwolf connection.
Is this the video?