Pulphead :: The Last Wailer – Let Him Go

“There’s a sound on that recording, a vocalized So! right between the ninety-ninth and one-hundredth seconds: the Wailers, have just sung, “remember he is young, and he will live long.” And then someone – you can’t tell who – makes this noise. Intones, rather. It doesn’t seem to come from inside the studio – doesn’t belong, that is, to the texture of the session; it emanates from miles away and has arrived through an open window. Somewhere in the interior of Jamaica a goat herder with a staff has leaned back and loosed this sound into a valley, intending it for no ears but Jah’s. Soooo! – the vowel fading quickly without an echo, pure life force. Was that Bunny doing that?”

The above quote is a slightly abridged transcription culled from The Last Wailer, an essay found in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s recent collection, Pulphead. A regular contributor to New York Magazine, the Paris Review, Oxford American (and others), this – his second book – is comprised of 14 re-published pieces Sullivan had penned over the past decade touching on subjects as disparate as Michael Jackson and Axl Rose to Native American cave drawings and the Gulf coast post-Katrina. And while I could get into the merits and witticisms of each, it’s his piece on traveling to Jamaica – on assignment for GQ in search of Bunny Wailer – I want to highlight; specifically as an excuse to touch upon those ineffable moments in song that somehow inadvertently invoke the magic in recordings. And what exactly are these moments? Indefinable really, but in my own experience they have ranged from happy accidents (busted amps/tape hiss) to inspired improvisation and ambient, ‘off screen’ vocals/noises/etc.

It’s a seemingly ‘off screen’ vocal on the Wailers “Let Him Go” that Sullivan addresses, something he finds to be inorganic to the session proper but instead emanating out of the ether from somewhere “else.” Reading this I immediately identified. I was reminded of R.E.M.’s “Perfect Circle” – off the band’s debut, Murmur, an album that’s been in my life for the better part of 23 years (just did the math, wow). As the song begins to fade out at the 3:10 mark and draw its last breaths, I used to swear I heard – ok, still do – what sounded like my mom calling my name (“Justin) as a kid to come in for dinner from playing outside. I’ve since isolated that second-long ghost blip dozens of times on vinyl, cassette, CD and now mp3. Ostensibly random to the track itself (it sounds like the haphazard insertion of an aborted vocal take snippet), it continues to haunt my consumption and interpretation of the song. And that intrigues me – how from the same source material we each adsorb and infer information in our own way. But back to Pulphead

Further along in Sullivan’s piece we learn that upon his playing “Let Him Go” for Bunny that the last Wailer was, indeed, the author of the mysterious “So!”   “Bunny slapped his chest. ‘That’s me, mon!’ As if he were disappointed in me for asking. Pulling back quickly, he pointed his finger in the air–like “Aha!”–and shouted, Sooo!” But I have to wonder, for Sullivan – mystery solved – did this heighten the song’s experience for him, knowing it was in fact Bunny, or did it pull the curtain back too far? When it comes to art, and life, there’s something to be said for a little mystery…a little magic.

Hit us up in the comments with your own ineffable/indefinable ‘moments’ in song.

Related: If you’re feeling irie after reading that, both the Bomboclat! Island Soak :: A Reggae/Dub Mixtape and Bomboclat! Island Soak 2 :: A Rocksteady Mixtape are still live and available for download.

7 thoughts on “Pulphead :: The Last Wailer – Let Him Go

  1. Saw this when it published. Yeah, I love those moments in songs that appear ‘off’ yet end up making the track.

  2. Talking about voices, at 4:10 in Rod Stewart “Every Picture Tells a Story”, as the last verse kicks in, someone in the right channel shouts “AAaaayy!”. Is it Ronnie calling out a chord? Dunno. I’m used to it now but, with headphones on, still get caught off-guard, thinking someone’s trying to get my attention…

    On the more persistent sonic/ instrumental front, I know that Mott the Hoople (sadly) aren’t on everybody’s playlists, but it’s worth checking out the gospel-driven ballad “I Can Feel” off their 2nd, Guy Stevens-produced, album “Mad Shadows”. It’s a great song and a tremendous example of the band’s pre-glam “first act”, and Buffin’s bass drum pedal has the loudest squeak I’ve ever heard on a recording. Still, in the spaces between piano, bass, Hammond and drums and all, it really works as part of the song, and I can see why they left it in. Reminds me of a broken machine spinning to a halt, and nicely echoes the mood of the song.

  3. First thing that comes to mind is PJ Harvey’s ‘The Whores Hustle’ off of Stories From The City… At about 1:15 she yelps out a high pitched squeak and my whole world freezes for a moment. Great post.

  4. At the very beginning of Spoon’s “Don’t You Evah” (between 0:02 and 0:03) there’s a bass note that sounds like it was mis-fretted. It never happens again in the rest of the song. I love it.

  5. Smashing Pumpkins-Starla. I use to listen to this record over and over. A friend bought it for me on tape for my 15th birthday? I listened to this song to the point of breaking the tape.

    The part that gets me every time is the police siren in the background. Just at the height of the song. It’s from an apartment recording, And that makes it so real for me. I can just see the band rocking out.

    around the 5:20 mark.

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