Thursday, March 6, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 65):"THE NARROW WAY" (1969) Pink Floyd

We haven’t been back to the Sixties in a while, so let’s pull up one by today’s birthday boy, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, 68 today, who was instrumental in getting a record contract for the young Kate Bush by the way. Today’s song is from the David Gilmour half of a side of the studio album of the Floyd’s Ummagumma. As you may recall, that album features a great live disc of the band working through four of their more distinctive epic tracks, and then a studio album upon which each individual band member gets to contribute half a side. “The Narrow Way” is all Gilmour and for that reason is a good example, and because his is the best of the four solo segments.

What’s more this song has long been for me a touchstone in this period of Pink Floyd. It’s got the tripartite division we already saw in Syd Barrett’s “Jugband Blues,” though here two of the three sections are instrumental, creating the kinds of segues that would become commonplace in some of the more grandly worked up numbers still to come, such as “Echoes” and the “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond” parts of Wish You Were Here. All of which owe not a little to Mr. Gilmour.

Here the first part is Gilmour playing multi-tracked guitars, creating rich textures that sound almost like the plash and flash of aquatic fowl in a wetlands preserve. It’s not quite idyllic because there are weird effects that might be sprites coming and going or maybe they’re signals from extraterrestrials. In any case, the segment is lively, drenched with the dense lyricism of Gilmour’s fluid guitar, with occasional boomeranging voices, and I really like when it speeds up the high-pitched effects.

Part Two is more foreboding. A kind of rhythmic march that simply rolls along like some kind of armed force invading the preserve—or maybe a flashback to a darker time before the settlement of what we might imagine as hobbit-like or Avatar-like people. If we’re not in a physical setting but rather the psyche, then we might say that the daily activity of our waking life has given way to the misgivings of fitful dreams. And that leads into the kind of spacey aether the Floyd are fond of inhabiting as the rhythm track fades out and on comes that interstellar space they evoke so well.

The tune emerging from the drone is both creepy and sublime. Gilmour’s lyrics are vague and there are, on the internet, various attempts to transcribe what he actually sings. The vocals are so closely aligned with the music, deliberately, that the words, in his overlapping of high register and lower, tend to get lost. Which makes the effort to parse them all the more elusive. The only site that gets them right, as far as I can tell is this one.  It’s appropriate, the uncertainty, because the lyrics include: “You hear the night birds calling you / But you can’t catch the words they say.” And that’s what Gilmour’s vocal mimics, almost maddeningly.

I love how the drums come in the second time he gets to “And if you want to stay for a little bit / Rest your aching limbs for a little bit.” And the final long phase out with Gilmour bashing away at the drums is one of my favorite passages in all of Floyd. And he finally comes forward with his more distorted guitar as we fade.

I’ve always liked Gilmour’s vocals. He has a thick voice, I don’t know how else to describe it; and there’s lots of unnerving bits in the lyrics of the song, like: “Mists are swirling, creatures crawling / Hear the roar get louder in your ears / You know the folly was your own / But the force behind can’t conquer all your fears.”  The way he emphasizes “your ears” and “your fears” has a bit of needling in it. As opposed to the more angelic overtones of “rest your aching limbs,” etc. Then there’s that really characteristic but somewhat obscure part: “Throw your thoughts back many years to the time when there was life in every morning.” That part was one thing I was pretty much sure of all along, but the next line—the site renders it as “Perhaps the day will come when the light will be as clear as on that morning.” There are other contenders.  I think the site I picked is right except I don’t hear “light” I hear “words”; to my mind, what might be clear some morning is the words you can’t catch, fittingly enough.

The song, to me, was all about losing one’s way and trying to find it. “Close your aching eyes . . . aging eyes . . . be on your way.”  Into the dreamland state, I suppose. Which is what the Floyd were great at evoking: the waking dream, the reverie. A lot of the music of the Seventies is coke music, let’s face it, but the Floyd, to me, provided the music for hallucinogens, even just really good weed. And that great opening line: “following the path as it leads toward the darkness in the north.” I still remember driving back from Florida in ’77 in the van with my friend Paul M. and ahead of us was a canopy of storm clouds and this song was on and forever that’s the image of the opening of Part III for me.

I don’t re-listen to Pink Floyd all that often these days. They were major figures all through my listening till the Seventies ended and I can still recall the excitement of attending their live shows on four different occasions. I’ve also regretted that I didn’t see their live shows before Dark Side broke them into the world of legions of fans. But that’s just the way it goes. Pink Floyd has to be both Waters and Gilmour, for me, so I haven’t heard the LPs after the split. When my daughter was in high school in the Nineties, her classmates were listening to Dark Side just like my classmates were, after it had just come out. So I guess the album has achieved “Catcher in the Rye status” as a perennial for teens in all eras.

For a time, 1975 to 1978, say, all their music existed more or less simultaneously for me, from the first LP up through Animals; only Piper, the first one, really felt “early,” and only Animals felt like it belonged to the contemporary moment. Otherwise, Pink Floyd, like Zeppelin, were simply the grandest holdovers from the sounds of the late Sixties. “Close your aging eyes, be on your way. . . .” 

Nick Mason, David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Rick Wright

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