Thomas Wictor

The Carmen Suite

The Carmen Suite

I found a YouTube video I’d seen in 2007, the URL of which I saved. That was three computers and two hard-drive crashes ago. The URL vanished somewhere among my many desktop files, and I could never find the video again. Though I tried every possible search term, I came up empty. Then one day I suddenly remembered the title word for word, seven years after I’d last seen it. I plugged it into the YouTube search engine, and up popped the video.

Before I get to it, here are several songs that Carmen introduced to me. I owe much of my musical education to her. Since she was classically trained, she was able to explain what was going on in terms of melodies, rhythms, and so on. Once I understood how everything worked, I was finally able to produce my own material, something I’d always wanted to do.

3 Mustaphas 3, “Bukë e Kripë Në Vater Tonë” and “Kalaxhojnë.”

The vocals are in Bulgarian. This was what got me hooked on Bulgarian wedding music, especially the album Orpheus Ascending, by Ivo Papasov and His Bulgarian Wedding Band. It took weeks to perfect the bass line to “Kalaxhojnë.” Great exercise for speed and accuracy.

Fishbone, “When Problems Arise.”

Easily one of the hardest bass lines ever created. I never even came close to mastering it. Carmen did, though. We loved the Dadaist ethos of the video, and the line, “What you are, no one seems to care” is insurmountable genius. Also, bassist Norwood Fisher was twenty-two at the time, but he shaved his hairline back so he’d look middle aged. Brilliant.

Level 42, “Good Man in a Storm.”

I got this bass line down. The inexplicable poignancy of the song was what drew me to it. I couldn’t explain why I felt that it represented terrible loss, something I could never handle. Mark King conveys sorrow better than any other vocalist. The lyric “Trying hard since I was born to be a good man in a storm” was my story, but I knew I had nothing to worry about anymore. I’d found my safe haven. There’d be no more storms.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood, “Welcome to the Pleasure Dome.”

It took months to conquer this diabolically tough bass line; copying the great Mark O’Toole honed to perfection my ability to use a pick. I’d always felt I was a long way from home. The song made me nervous because it brought back the years of aimless wandering. But the bass line! How could I not love this tune?

The Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

Fantastic bass tone and very danceable arrangement. Extremely fun to play. Neither of us were Dylan fans, so we liked this total deconstruction of his work. It inspired us to try our own inside-out renditions of songs that didn’t appeal to us. This taught me a lot about interpretation.

King Crimson, “The Howler.”

Carmen loved odd time signatures, Adrien Belew’s voice, surreal lyrics, and of course Tony Levin. I’ve decided to not publish how she described him. He’d probably be insulted, even though she meant it as a compliment, in her very earthy way.

Sergei Prokofiev, “Dance of the Knights.”

While we were together, Carmen played and sang this constantly. It’s from the ballet Romeo and Juliet. I’d never heard of Prokofiev until I met Carmen. He was her hero because he was a rebel, an iconoclast, and a weirdo who didn’t give a damn about how others saw him. I’d say he was Carmen’s greatest inspiration when I knew her.

Art of Noise, “Close to the Edit.”

Carmen’s all-time favorite song. The original bass line was played on a sequencer. We tried and tried but could never manage it; our conclusion was that it was impossible to play it on a bass guitar. I found this video of Trevor Horn’s flawless rendition and sent the link to Carmen in 2010. You can read her reaction on pages 211 and 212 of Ghosts and Ballyhoo. It wasn’t what I expected.

The reason I wrote about the Carmen Suite was because of the YouTube video I’d first seen in 2007 and then lost until only a few weeks ago.

It’s quite eerie because the newscaster not only bears a close physical resemblance to Carmen, her laugh is identical. The first time I heard that laugh, it was so unexpected that I flinched. She’d been coolly ironic and very ladylike up to that point. As she confessed later, she was on her best behavior. I haven’t experienced the laugh in over twenty years now, but it seems like only yesterday that I was saying things to unleash it.

Tim kept tapes of Mom and Dad’s voices that they left on his answering machine, and now I have the Carmen laugh. It’s nice to hear it again after such a long time.