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 my thirtieth anniversary of The River? Oh, yeah. Wrote it six months ago!
Thanks for stopping by!