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4 Star 1377; NOVEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

Who among you haven’t at one time or another gotten a phone call out of the blue from somebody you hadn’t even thought of in awhile, let alone talked to in recent memory?

Some long-departed friend, maybe a cousin you haven’t seen in years, or… and this is the one you’re probably most familiar with, though admittedly in our era it’d be a text not a call that would shock you when it came through – an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend looking to reconnect.

Those types of calls rarely amount to anything other than a few minutes of awkward conversation that dances around the topic laying menacingly under the surface, but unless the breakup was particularly acrimonious you probably don’t hang up right away simply because your curiosity outweighs your uneasiness at being contacted by somebody whose desperation has elbowed aside their self-respect.

After all, you say to yourself, you’re in the driver’s seat, THEY called you, not the other way around, and if they want this to go as they dreamed that it might then they’re going to have to actually admit why they called. Once they do then you can shoot their ass down with cool self-assurance, leaving them holding the phone in some far away place with the bitter taste of anger and embarrassment lingering in their mouth.

But in spite of the inevitable regret they cause those calls get made all the same, don’t they? Why just in the time it took you to read this brief intro to a review of a song now seven decades old there have been roughly 7,428 of those calls put through worldwide. (In case you’re wondering where I got those figures, the phone company is very accommodating handing out personal information as long as you say it’s for research purposes)

Why would so many people offer themselves up to be humiliated by having their former partner scoff at the sound of their voice and hang up when the true purpose of the call – a pitiful attempt at reconciliation – is revealed?

Because one time out of those seven thousand four hundred and twenty-eight pathetic attempts made halfway through a bottle of tequila after enduring months of forced celibacy the call will actually pay off in the way they hoped.
 

 
Hello Baby
How are you doin’, Cecil Gant? It’s been awhile since we’ve heard from you! What have you been up to these last seven months, other than drinking too much, passing along venereal disease like you were handing out after dinner mints and probably spending more than a night or two locked up in a holding pen in some small town where nobody there had any idea that you’d once scored a huge hit record and been one of the rising stars on the black music scene.

In fact, though we did catch a glimpse of you last April passing through town, we haven’t seen much of you since rock came along in mid-1947 and gave you yet another musical alternative to earn your living in. Though you’ve had plenty of releases during that time, mostly for small labels without the muscle to get you heard outside of a small radius, you’ve released only three singles that could qualify for rock and those were hardly anything great.

Your skill set which can appear quite impressive at a quick glance – decent piano technique and the uncanny ability to make up songs on demand which somehow seem fairly coherent in the heat of the moment – tends not to wear well over repeated listens when their flaws can be more easily absorbed. It pains us to admit that you’re really not much more than a musical vagabond at this point, still a lingering big name in certain circles that can get you a recording contract or a club date because there’s just enough people who remember you from your brief heyday during the war when you captivated the country with a wistful ballad called I Wonder to make it potentially worthwhile. Before long however you’ll wear out your welcome with your unreliability and your drinking and move on down the line, disappearing as the night evaporates in the next sunrise.

We can’t say however that we’re surprised you’d call. We didn’t expect it would come today or this week, or even this month, but in the back of our minds we knew you’d call eventually (probably collect), casting about for a job, or a place to stay and a warm meal in your belly, but who was to say when that call would come? Just one random Tuesday afternoon or something the phone would ring and you’d be on the other end of the line, your battered voice dripping with as much honey as it could muster, trying to stir the sympathy of those who remember you when you had so much more to offer.

You can sweet talk with the best of them we’ll admit, display fleeting charm and add just enough self-deprecation and self-pity to get an offer out of us to stop by for the evening. But we all know how this is going to end… with you slipping out the back door in the middle of the night having gotten yourself a dinner and perhaps a few bucks in your pockets to tide you over.

Oh, I don’t mean you’d be swiping our silverware when we weren’t looking, or pulling some elaborate scam involving your sickly aunt who needs $17.50 for a heart transplant, but we all are fully aware that at some point during the visit you’ll cast your eyes downward, shuffle your feet, clear your throat and come up with SOME tale of woe that involves a request for whatever we can spare.

The thing is, as you well know, you’re probably going to get it from us. Not because we rock fans are easy marks, lord knows rock ‘n’ rollers tend to be far more cynical than most music fans, but because even though we see through your ploy there’s still something about you that’s mildly endearing. The scores to your past efforts in the rock field don’t show it, but that has less to do with you personally and more to do with your bad habits… things like not quite polishing a good idea into a great song, content to let the original inspiration carry all the weight until it collapses as you sneak out the window with the fee you collected for the session burning a hole in your pocket, already on the lookout for the nearest bar or brothel to blow it in.

Yet we’ll keep giving you more chances each time you return, hat in hand, simply because we know that whatever you come up with will at least be interesting, will at least have some kernel of inspiration buried in it, and will at least give us a good story to tell about you when you’re gone once again.

So let’s cut to the chase, Cecil and just tell us what’s on your mind… and, though we may regret asking this, how can we help?
 


 

I’m Gonna Leave You Alone
As stated in the past Gant was somebody who’d amble into a studio, sit at the piano with a bottle of whiskey, tell the engineer to start rolling tapes and then he’d work something up on the spot. Among his more effective techniques was to just start playing as he’d speak extemporaneously about something vaguely relevant to a possible theme and pick up on that plot thread and spin a song out of it as he went along.

This tended to work best as a distinctive lead-in to an instrumental, allowing him to frame the song in a memorable way and make it seem less like he was just screwing around on the keys in hopes of passing the results off as an actual composition. But the technique, while certainly intriguing the first time you’d heard it, was less captivating with each subsequent listen because the more you heard it the more this allowed you to see it for what it really was – a smoke and mirrors tactic – and your patience with him grew thin as a result.

Well on Long Distance he drags much of the same framework out of the closet but with one twist, rather than leading into an instrumental that is essentially interchangeable with all of his other instrumentals, he instead attaches this lengthy spoken lead-in to a remarkably coherent story that shows under all of the flies buzzing around his drunken head Cecil Gant actually still had some musical talent and creative vision.
 

Thought I’d Call And Tell You
Lots of our criticism when it comes to lyrics recently have centered around a similarity in themes, especially guys getting dumped, and how little variance was used to differentiate these tales of loneliness and heartbreak. Let’s face it, there’s not an altogether deep pool of subjects in history when it comes to matters of the heart in song. You either gush about falling IN love, cry about falling OUT of love, get horny about the act of love or get disgruntled over missing out on love altogether.

So it’s never the subject itself that is the make or break factor in a song’s success, but rather the way in which you delve into the subject, either through clever wordplay or a unique and highly personal perspective. Surprisingly Gant manages to connect with Long Distance using the latter approach as he places this “call” (via the spoken lead-in) to an ex-flame in Cleveland.

It’s hokey, but oddly believable. His scarred voice is halting and uncertain as he makes his request to the operator for the number, but he’s fully in character the entire time. It’s really a good acting performance and it only gets better as it goes along when his call gets put through and his ex-girlfriend picks up.

We never hear what she’s saying but we don’t have to because Gant gives us everything we need to know about them in a remarkably efficient way. He delves into their backstory, their tenuous relationship and the surprising revelation that she had in fact written to him, apparently to get back together. This truly comes as a surprise which shows even more creativity on Gant’s part, as he’s not content to simply present the story we expected, but throws in something to catch us off guard and get us to rethink the entire premise and start making guesses as to what his response will be, or even lead us to start contemplating how WE’D respond in a similar situation.

Normally this kind of plot twist would lead to joy and rapture on the guy’s part, vindicating him in some way because her memory of him was strong enough to make her reach out to him after so long, but Gant is suspicious. He surely knows her faults all too well and can sense this is a grab for money or security or whatever it is she’s after. Maybe he knows this because he’s done it himself in the past and now the shoe is on the other foot and he recognizes the traits of the person at the end of their rope reaching out to whomever they think might be enough of a sucker to reel them in.

Gant backs all of this with a stately sort of musical progression, sort of a glorified holding pattern that’s careful not to draw attention away from the mounting tension in the storyline, but subtly adding to the suspense with its choices. What helps most are the accent pieces used to add color, particularly some mystical vibes and an intermittently stinging electric guitar which gets a few spots where it absolutely shines, mesmerizing you and twisting your emotions into knots like a marionette having some sadistic fun by spinning you one way then the other.
 


 
 

I Don’t Believe It’s True
Oftentimes ambitious artists view their songs as theater, with some, like Elvis Costello, taking it to the extreme, always risking losing you with their elaborate presentation. But at its best these kind of songs are simply like one act plays, giving you something basic and direct which then manipulates the listener by tapping into their own experiences to get a response.

Gant does that well throughout Long Distance, but what really makes it work is how fully HE buys into this story. You can actually visualize him on the phone with this girl he once liked, torn between giving in and holding out. He knows she’s got ulterior motives and he’s determined not to fall for it but the fact he called her back let’s us know his decision was far from a sure thing when he started dialing.

When the final plot twist comes – and if you haven’t heard it I’ll let you discover it for yourself – it’s humorous and fitting and entirely satisfactory from both a musical perspective and a literary one as well.

Granted it certainly wasn’t indicative of the direction rock itself was heading in at the time, nor did it have much chance to make an impact commercially. There’s even a good chance that Gant’s raspy voice sounded downright primitive to the ever younger rock listener and to be perfectly honest the song is probably best appreciated the way we’re doing it here, by analyzing each of its components singularly rather than tossing a nickel into the jukebox before we head home for the evening as it’d have been listened to back then.

But that being said it’s hard not to be charmed by it all the same and its creativity alone shows that this artist who seemed predisposed to confound us could in fact still manage to surprise us every so often.

Next time he calls we’ll definitely be picking up rather than let it go to voicemail.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Cecil Gant for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)