Friday, November 9, 2012

Twelve Bars

Tired of reading about the shit that our beloved President has to pull together if he wants to avoid being burned at the stake by his own supporters? I fear there is no individual as magnificent, strong, and powerful as one would need to be to digest all the trouble that's been heaped on our unfairly maligned leader's head. I am afraid, my sweet and beautiful friends, that brother Barry is going to get the blues something fierce in the next few months and he too will crave deliverance from the ugly, swirling vortex of pain and confusion known as governance. It's only natural that he's going to entreat the citizens to put on their boy or girl scout uniforms and exercise their great responsibility as free people - after all he can't do this all by himself. But he will need some sort of entertaining distraction; a sweet hard suckie to take his mind off things. Which is exactly why I have sent him my melodic trifle: Hack. It is also why I now offer up something without any redeeming social significance whatsoever: The Twelve Bar Blues.

Surely you've heard it. How many times, we've got to wonder, has this story has been told? You know, the one about the blues musician who chronicles his life according to the twelve most important dives he's played. It's just so plain that you would think there would be an entire wing of the Memphis public library dedicated to the short stories, poems, novels, sonnets, essays, blog post etc. etc about the Twelve Bars.

The analogy is so obvious it's stupid. For the non-musical fungus amungus, let me 'splain: In musical notation, a "bar" (aka "measure") is a unit of music defined by a number of beats between two vertical lines on the staff.  (Figure1) (You can ignore all the other boogers in the picture.)
Figure 1. Several bars, no booze.

Part of the irony is that most blues musicians, I would imagine, wouldn't know the kind of bar pictured here if it came up and bit them in the ass. But they do know that the music they play is based on a 12-bar pattern known as - ta da! - the Twelve Bar Blues. The fact that this music is primarily played in bars (nightclubs, lounges, etc) is a cosmic joy that is without a doubt a gift to us from The Creator. What mortal could have designed such purpose into the existence of these poor, booze-addled blues musicians? Who sat down at the dawn of time and deigned this music centered around twelve bars and 3 chords would be played in bars?

I know somebody here in Limboland will be able to point me to the short story, novel, poem, essay or other work of fine literature that tells the story of the once happy-go-lucky fella that, after he had visited twelve very specific bars - eight in Chicago, two in Memphis, and two in New Orleans -  descended into a depression so deep that he actually did end up drinking muddy water and sleeping in a hollow log. You know the story I'm talking about - "The Twelve Bar Blues".

While there may be twelve bars is this poor sucker's nightmare (or perhaps it's not a nightmare? Perhaps our hero loves the blues) there are only three cities. The ridiculously banal analogy is that each city represents a tonal value, a note or a chord, one of those do re mi thingies, of which there are generally three in a twelve bar blues. Out of the eight tones in the do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do Von Trapp Family Singers group jamboree, it is the do, fa, and so, or the one, four and five tones on the scale that comprise the three primary notes of the twelve bar blues. Painfully elementary and without a doubt a complete waste of my breath and my time, as I should be reading The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne C. Booth, or Madame Bovary, or doing something else for school because between work and school there really isn't time for anything else, especially this type of weak fecal discharge.

Weak fecal discharge though it may be, we must press on because, like Yeung Lap Ming, there is a BIZ to be done here. Quite specifically, it is a Mississippi BIZ, more or less. How does the story go? Our hero Mr. Bluesman (what is his name? Send me his name, will you please? I haven't read this story in a long time) starts with four bars in Chicago. These bars are named after local blues heros, right? So Mr. Bluesman did gigs in Muddy's, Howlin's, Willie's and Koko's, porkin' a different little piglet* in every bar. Or course each of the little chicklets he chows on has a big, ugly, ex-con, drug-dealin' pimp boyfriend and none of these fellers take a liking to Mr. Bluesman boffin' their babes.

So Mr. Bluesman moves on the Memphis and works a couple of bars, then has to go back to Chicago for two more bars because one of the piglets he's porked is pregnant. The pimp boyfriend insists that the baby is his and has decided to snuff our hero who is just a loser guitarist drinking beer, playing 3 chords in a 12-bar pattern for nickels and dimes, and doing every other drug that gets shoved in front of him. But now his worthless life is in danger so he hightails it to New Orleans where he gets gigs in two more bars until he hears that the pimp boyfriend in Chicago has gotten 12 to 20 for having relations with a minor (not a coal miner) and rushes back to his piglet, only to get whacked by the piglet's pappy. Ugh!

There it is, that story we've heard so many times: twelve gigs, twelve girlfriends, twelve bars. Shit if I remember this story correctly I think he might even have twelve drinks a day.

Oh for chrissakes this now reminds me of a variation on this tired and trite theme: The twelve bars on the twelve days of Christmas, and that one horrible night - the tenth night - when our erstwhile bluesman gets his bottom blacked and blued down at Chaps in the Castro with ten lords a leaping.Truly a sad and disgusting ordeal. He would have been better off had he quit on the eighth night and stuck with the maids a milking.

This story is so woven into the toilet paper of American Culture is has become almost archetypal, whether it's the ecumenical version, the Mississippi three-step, the Delta ramble, the Austin boogie...blues blues blues one four five twelve bars and round and round we go. The story of the Twelve Bars, be it Peri's Silver Dollar, The Chatterbox, The Barrel House Saloon, The Starry Plough, Nineteen Broadway, The Buckeye Roadhouse, The Pooper Scooper, The Silver Peso, The Grim Reamer, Ye Rose & Thistle, The Mayflower Pub, or The No Name is a timeless story of debauchery, pedophilia, alcohol abuse, drug addiction and, above all three great chords - the one, the four and the five (with possible substitutions of the six and two minor in the turnaround) that will live long after mankind has been eighty-sixed from the planet once and for all.

Just one thing. Somebody has written the story, right?

I almost forgot the version where twelve different bluesmen spend their lives in an endless round robin through twelve bars on Beale Street. You've heard that one too, I suppose?
Twelve Angry Men?

*I've heard there are GLBT versions of this archetypal story but I have yet to be in the company of those that might be aware of such versions.

1 comment:

  1. Alynn Norton McLeranNovember 12, 2012 at 11:51 AM

    That's quite a cast of characters from all walks of life singin' the blues. Personally, I voted red. Seven years ago I found myself in New Orleans as the medical commander of a 700 man/3 women first responder/rescue unit during Hurricane Katrina. There were lots of blues to be sung, all to the hum of generators from the bayous to Bourbon Street. Even so, there was one bar open, ONE, feeding the displaced and despairing to the tune of a jazz band who played as if nothing had happened. It was creepy, really, since I had just visited New Orleans in it's heyday a year before. Now there were no young busty college coeds taking off their tops in exchange for plastic beads thrown from the balconies by college boys with lust in their eyes (and hearts). There were no drunken revelers drinking hurricanes in plastic cups dancing down the middle of the French quarter. It takes a lot to destroy that kind of 24/7 party hearty spirit, and Katrina almost managed to pull it off. Almost. Now all those college coeds, all those horny college guys, all the EMTs, doctors, nurses and other first responders stand looking to the guy who lives in the White House. Blue states, singin' the blues....and Barry can't read the music.


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