Happy Birthday, Garry Tallent

When you play bass, you’re rarely the focus of attention.  The guitar is usually front and center; the drummer gets to smash things, at least by appearances.  Not a lot of bass players get much attention, and when they do it’s usually because they sing lead (Rush’s Geddy Lee, the Grass Roots’ Rob Grill, Chicago’s Peter Cetera), or they’re comically inept (Sid Vicious), or they are standout musicians in bands that rely on the bass to hold the whole mess together (The Who’s late John Entwistle, the Clash’s Paul Simonon).

And the bigger the band, the farther in the background they get pushed – because the bass player’s job, along with the drummer, is to be the bedrock on which the rest of the band’s sound is built, and with big bands there’s a lot riding on that bedrock.  Who was the most unprepossessing member of the Rolling Stones?  Bill Wyman, of course – to the point that many people don’t know he’s gone.  Duff McKagan was the beating heart behind Guns ‘n Roses’ Appetite for Destruction; Leon Wilkerson held Lynyrd Skynyrd together; who knew?

And the most in-the-background bassist from the biggest band of all?

It’s Garry Tallent’s sixtieth birthday today.

And the more you listen for Tallent, the more of him there is to hear.  Tallent, for a bit player in a big, big band, is an extraordinarily fluid, mobile bassist.  In fact, it’s easy to miss how much of the band’s motion he provides.

Think about it.  Max Weinberg, the band’s drummer, is a Charlie Watts-style human metronome; he has to be, to keep the whole nine-piece melange in time.  You can count the times he’s gotten to cut loose in the past 35 years – “Born In The USA”, “Roulette”, “Candy’s Room”, “Jackson Cage” – on a hand, with a finger or so in change.  The other key elements – Roy Bittan, the late Danny Federici (and his replacement, Charles Giordano), and the band’s guitar line, whether the classic Springsteen/Van Zandt pairing or today’s Bruce/Steve/Nils/Patti onslaught – and of course Clarence Clemons and Soozie Tyrell, are all layers piling on top of the whole mass of sound.  Weinberg may as well be playing drums in a symphony orchestra, for the all the room he has to stretch out, beyond the occasional accent here and there.

But Tallent is a sly one, if you pay attention.

Fire“?  Well, that’s a no-brainer.  The verses are pretty much bass solos.

Much more interesting, though, is last series of choruses in “Incident on 57th Street“; as the band builds momentum after the final verse, Tallent starts an increasingly aggressive bass line that sneaks up on you behind the wash of keyboards and backup vocals, until you realize that Tallent’s solo is driving the whole thing.

“Trapped” is even more clever, in its own way.  One of Springsteen’s very few recorded cover songs (until the Seeger sessions, anyway), it’s an almost unrecognizably rock-y remake of a Jimmy Cliff reggae classic.  The rest of the band bashes into it like it’s a Who cover – not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se.  But it’s in Tallent’s bass line that you can hear a faint echo of the song’s roots, just a little zing of caribbean syncopation to counterpoint the rest of the version’s Jersey Shore rock’nroll brawn.

I’ve written about “Backstreets“, of course, over and over again; it’s the best breakup song ever written, it’s one of Danny Federici and Roy Bittan’s best moments together.  But throughout, especially in the song’s choruses, Tallent’s bass line takes what could easily have been a pretty blah mid-tempo ballad, a John Cafferty wham-bam one-to-minor-six etude, and adds an agitated pulse in the middle; it’s disquieting, and carries on the agitated theme that Bittan and Federici set up in the song’s intro.

Could I go on, sure.

But it’d be much better to go turn your internal equalizer way, way down and listen for yourself.

Anyway – happy birthday, Garry Tallent!

UPDATE:  Wow – this is cool!  Welcome, Backstreets readers!  I remember when I was a kid, thinking “how cool would it be to get an article in Backstreets“?  This is just about as fun!  Thanks, all!

And if you like this, I’ll direct you to my tribute to Darkness on the Edge of Town, and my memorial to Danny.

And my thirtieth anniversary of The River?  Oh, yeah.  Wrote it six months ago!

Thanks for stopping by!

27 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Garry Tallent

  1. No Tony Levin and Chris Squire in your list of luminary bass players? I know you can’t name them all, but these two deserve an honorable mention.

  2. I now have Sirius radio. The all Bruce channel is pretty good. I’m only a moderate fan of the guy, but like his type of music. The live shows are pretty good. The other night, they played a radio performance from 1973.

  3. Tallent is a great bassist — I’d add his work on the early Springsteen track “Kitty’s Back” and one of his superior performances. He keeps that very complicated number moving and gives Bruce and David Sancious room to operate.

    I’d also like to suggest that any list of great bassists needs to include Larry Graham, Bootsy Collins and the late great Bernard Edwards.

  4. Love the bass work at the emotional conclusion and the outro of Backstreets.

    Bass players get little to no respect, and that starts with Danny Partridge, and ends with Sid Viscous. Back in the 80s Jack Blades (all five foot of him) was a dynamo frontman and whirling dervish. How he kept his parts so tight while spinning all over a stage, I’ll never know.

  5. Comment caught in moderation for 2 hours now. To summarize:

    Tallent: great
    Additional great Tallent performance: Kitty’s Back
    Other great bassists worth noting: L. Graham, B. Collins, B. Edwards

    Betting that B. Collins’s name is what has things stuck in moderation.

  6. “biggest band of all”? Seriously? By what measure?

    It’s a ten piece band! Drums and bass under four guitars, two keyboards, sax and violin!

    That is BIG!

  7. Clarence could also play a mean tamborine.

    It’s became an eleven piece band once Patti joined and started playing the skin flute

  8. Don’t know. Can’t say I worry much about it. After the 120,000 spam I got (literally) between 2004 and 2006, I don’t mind a little filtering.

  9. Q. What do you call a bass player on the front porch?
    A. The pizza delivery guy

    Q. How do you get a bass player to turn down?
    A. Put some sheet music in front of him.

    Q. What do you call a bass player without a girlfriend?
    A. Homeless.

    Q. What’s the difference between a bass player and a pizza?
    A. A pizza can feed a family of four.

  10. Q: What is the definition of “irrational optimism?”
    A: A trombone player with a pager.

  11. Interesting article, good points. But I *think* you are referring to “Tallent” as “Bittan” in several places….

  12. By my count, you refer to Gary Tallent as “Bittan” 3 times in this blog entry.

    1.) “But Bittan is a sly one if you pay attention”
    2.)”But it’s in Bittan’s bass line that you can hear a faint echo of the song’s roots”
    3.)”But throughout, especially in the song’s choruses, Bittan’s bass line takes what could easily have been a pretty blah mid-tempo ballad…”

    I don’t think you were refering to Roy Bittan in these sentences.

  13. Mitch, I don’t see this pointed out in any of these comments, but you refer to Garry Tallent numerous times in your article as Bittan. You might want to edit. Best, Ed

  14. One of Springsteen’s very few recorded cover songs (until the Woodie Guthrie sessions, anyway

    I am going to guess you are referring to the Seeger Sessions. Guthrie had nothing to do with it. Unless you are speaking about This land is your land, covered by Springsteen in concert in the ’80’s but not recorded on any studio album.

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  16. All copy-editors:

    Thanks for stopping by! Have I mentioned I wrote this piece in about twenty minutes, about half an hour before I got my first cup of coffee of the morning? 🙂

    I’ve fixed the various flubs you noted, at any rate. Thanks!

  17. Pingback: Happy birthday, Garry Tallent ! « Le blog Bruce Springsteen de Laurent Samuel

  18. Mitch, nice article. Many many hard core fans of Bruce have had a chance to read your work, myself included. Be easy on the “copy-editors”: for a hastily written article, grammatical errors would have been much more easily forgiven. We are interested in seeing as many people as possible read this article and we want everything about it to be accurate. Again, nice article!

  19. Mike,

    Thanks – and I understand. Bear in mind, I used to work in newspapers, so “copy editor” is a vocational description, not an insult.

    And thank you for stopping by! I’ve updated (or, heh, corrected) things as they came to my attention…

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  21. Pingback: Shot in the Dark » Blog Archive » Happy Birthday, Max Weinberg!

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