Monday, May 12, 2014

Deep Purple's Deepest Puzzle Solved...Thanks to Judith Owen

Okay, this is a seriously overdue discovery, but you, too, may have been unaware of this: Welsh-born singer-songwriter Judith Owen has righted one of the great wrongs in the history of popular music. Not widely known in pop or rock circles, the velvet-voiced pianist—and wife of humor mainstay Harry Shearer—devotes much of her musical career to jazz and Celtic material that you wouldn’t normally hear in the mainstream…and certainly not on rock stations, despite Owen covering songs by The Kinks, James Taylor, The Police, Mungo Jerry, Shearer’s own Spinal Tap, and Deep Purple.

In 2005, Owen’s Lost and Found album led off with a cover of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” Despite being pretty well versed in contemporary music, I never heard her version—which also served as bumper music for the Coast to Coast AM radio show—until this morning. Owen’s wistful and, yes, smoky rendition of the 1972 hard-rock classic—complete with alluring uh-uh-uhh’s in place of Ritchie Blackmore’s immortal riff—adds an extra word to Ian Gillan’s original lyric.

A word that corrects perhaps the most brazen grammatical neglect since December 7th, 1941—a date that will live in infamy (neglect that, in turn, stood as the most egregious transgression in human communication until the 1976 debut of the sitcom What’s Happening!!—with its two vexing exclamation points yet no trace of a question mark).

Among the first songs I ever knew, even as a five-year-old I was perplexed by “Smoke on the Water”’s Some stupid with a flare gun. Sure, I had yet to embark on the great endeavor of kindergarten, but even though basic grammar, syntax, and parts of speech lay in my future, I recognized—as surely did most adults—something horribly amiss with that line. “What’s a stupid?” I asked myself every time I heard the instantly anthemic tune crackling out of Dad’s car radio. I didn’t yet know what a noun was—but I instinctively knew stupid wasn’t one. In a perversely psychotic twist of poetic license, Ian Gillan, one of the very greatest vocalists in rock music, had forced the square peg into the round hole and sang an adjective as a noun. Somehow, the FCC had done nothing—both it and the BBC couldn’t censor or ban songs containing a drug reference or anything deemed even mildly “subversive” quickly enough in those days, yet they sat on their collective hands as “Smoke on the Water” raced up the charts and addled a generation of preschool minds with grammatical nonsense.
   

Confused and losing alarming amounts of sleep as “Smoke on the Water” saturated the airwaves—and, consequently, my cerebrum—I eventually made excuses for Ian Gillan…

“It was done for meter—following stupid with a noun would have made the couplet too long,” I sometimes placated myself.

Other times—questioning my own rationalism—I fell back to no one in particular on the all-healing mantra, “It’s rock ‘n’ roll, man!”

Yet why didn’t Gillan use a noun in place of stupid? Okay, he might have been lured by the alliteration of some stupid—even at the risk of creating one of the all-time asinine lines—but Gillan still could have achieved this lyrical device by opting for an “s-noun.” Some sod with a flare gun would have worked smashingly. Or if the young bloke from Hounslow had managed in his youth to pick up any Yiddish from the approximately 0.25% of Jewish citizens living in that London suburb (based on 2011 U.K. Census data), even some schmuck with a flare gun.

It might be too cynical to believe that Gillan planned this lyrical faux pas to garner attention—after all, the band self-admittedly operated in a constant whirlwind of sex, booze, and drugs that likely left minds too fogged to know that A is for apple, let alone articulate simple sentence structure. Then again, Deep Purple hadn’t made an impact where the money was—the American singles chart—in nearly four years, when it was essentially an entirely different musical entity. And even though “Smoke on the Water” wasn’t officially released as a single for nearly a year, this signature-tune-in-the-making, with its haunting imagery and relentless crunch, was chiefly responsible for propelling Machine Head into the Top 10 in the United States and breaking Deep Purple as a major force in rock. As far as I was concerned, the song seemed just as provocative because of what was wrong with it as what was right about it. (Not even the hopelessly straight-laced Pat Boone bothered to correct the line in his infamous 1997 lounge-metal cover, probably to augment his pathetically disingenuous attempt at the bad-boy image—so maybe I’m not being too cynical after all.)

Perhaps Ian Gillan’s carelessness even served as the subconscious impetus for me to become an editor all those years later, sowing in my young mind a need to make sense of a bewildering rock ‘n’ roll landscape—a need that I carried into adulthood and from which I have made my living ever since.*

* Not long before “Smoke on the Water”’s release, I had already become well acquainted with another radio hit, America’s “A Horse With No Name,” whose lyrical minefield of a chorus quickly became legend; however, that song lacked the monolithic majesty of Jon Lord’s distorted Hammond C3 organ to produce the same editorial consternation in my young logic center.

Forty-three years later, along comes Judith Owen, like an angel of grammar out of the Welsh mist, to not only cover this most iconic of rock songs, but to fix it, by adding the noun it so dearly missed lo these many years.

Some stupid fool with a flare gun/Burned the place to the ground  

Hallelujah, Judith. After more than four decades, we finally know who was responsible for starting the fire that destroyed Montreux Casino: A fool. A stupid fool. This information likely came too late to amend the fire-insurance claim filed by Groupe Lucien Barrière execs sifting through the cinders of their gutted casino, but it does mercifully provide grammatical closure for Deep Purple fans such as me, disillusioned casualties of the 1970s, and those who value the English language.

Now if Judith Owen only would cover Jimi Hendrix so that castles made of sand can melt and slip into the sea—properly... 

(Image of Ian Gillan copyright Rolling Stone.)

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