“Notes like rain outpouring” is one of the 50 50-word poems collected in Half Cocks. Like a number of other other poems in that series it’s a tribute to a deceased person, in this case the guitarist Shawn Lane.
Lane played fast – ear-bendingly fast. There’s a common saying that praising a guitarist for how fast they can play is like praising a writer for how fast they can type. This is bollocks. Lane used speed in much the same way as John Mclaughlin uses speed, to do something musically that cannot be done by playing the same phrases at a slower tempo. At a certain speed things start to become a blur. You hear the shape of phrases, their outlines, rather than taking them in entire. If the phrases are dull – straight scale runs, or repeated 4-note semiquaver or 6-note semiquaver-triplet note groupings for instance – then this doesn’t add much. I spent a lot of time in my teens going “diddle-dee diddle-dee diddle-dee diddle-dee” over and over again on an electric guitar, trying to build up speed playing common blues and metal licks. Lane’s fast playing, mercifully, doesn’t sound at all like that. He’s playing odd-numbered groupings, moving things around, chucking in all kinds of outside notes, and generally creating patterns in the flurry. What you hear is the patterns.
Here he is explaining how this works:
Towards the end he mentions that he drew inspiration for his own use of syncopation in fast playing from Charlie Parker and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. Jazz musicians understand that there can be musicality in speed, that tempo is a significant aspect of how music is performed and experienced. It’s kind of weird that people think that guitarists playing fast are just showing off, although I suppose if you’d had to sit through two hours of straight of me-aged-15 going “diddle-dee diddle-dee diddle-dee diddle-dee” you might feel the same way.
So the opening phrase of the poem, “notes like rain outpouring from overwhelmed / guttering during a deluge” is meant to capture some of the rhythmic qualities of Lane’s playing: “NOTES like RAIN outPOURing from OVerwhelmed” is two trochees followed by two dactyls, and creates an immediate effect of speeding-up, moving from two-syllable to three-syllable metric feet. “GUTtering DURing a DELuge” is then two more dactyls followed by a trochee, with the “-ing” sound moving from the end of the first dactyl to the middle of the second, so that there’s a kind of permutative effect thrown in there as well. (Obviously this wasn’t by design, as such, but that phrasing pleased me and seemed apt – here I’m just explaining why that might have been). If you want to hear what notes like rain outpouring from overwhelmed guttering during a deluge might sound like, try the first minute of this:
I’ve explained what’s meant by “‘transcendental technique’ / now taught in magazines” in a previous post; all I’d add here is that this “transcendental” is also down-to-earth, a kind of earthing of energy. I’m imagining Lane here as bringing fire from the gods, and the writers of columns in “Guitar Techniques” magazine explaining how he did it as keepers and transmitters of the flame.
One anecdote about Lane (in the Requiem for a Master interview with Jonas Hellborg and Barry Bays) has him piling up books about butterflies for private study – he was an omnivorous learner. My impression is that his brain must have been quite unusual, possibly in the kinds of ways that nowadays get you diagnosed with ADHD. The second stanza’s just about that, really, with a reference to the film Papillon thrown in for good measure. I like the pun about “the mind’s uncageable Papillon / fluttering through the fingers”, which plays on the common image of a butterfly slipping between the fingers of someone trying to catch it, but then identifies the butterfly’s motion with the incredibly rapid movement of Lane’s own fingers, expressing the restless agility of his own mind.
The final stanza draws again on the “Requiem for a master” interview – “some kind of spirit” is a direct quotation from Barry Bays: “there was some kind of spirit coming from him that you could feel all around you”. I imagine this as “convected warmth”, like being in a warm room, warmed by air currents convecting heat from some glowing source; but then switch metaphors to link up again with the “rain outpouring” metaphor at the start of the poem. “As torrents remotely / seeded” is a reference both to the bittorrent protocol, which enables rapid transmission of data across the internet, and a section from Longfellow’s “The Musician’s Tale”, which I know from a setting by Edward Elgar that I used to sing at school:
As torrents in summer,
Half dried in their channels,
Suddenly rise, though the
Sky is still cloudless,
For rain has been falling
Far off at their fountains;
So hearts that are fainting
Grow full to o’erflowing,
And they that behold it
Marvel, and know not
That God at their fountains
Far off has been raining!
“Propagating to the last breath” refers both to the fact that “spirit” is literally pneuma, or breath-of-God, and to the fact that Lane died young, of respiratory failure. His spirit propagated widely, prodigiously, seeming to (over-)flow through him as if it came from somewhere else; but his own breath and time as a human being was limited. What I wanted to say was that he seemed to have lived that time absolutely, relentlessly to the full.