Welcome to Banjo Friday, friends, where we look at the banjo in all it’s weird, wonderful & wild manifestations!
Speaking of weird & wild, the banjo doesn’t get much more so, at least in contemporary music, than it does in today’s song, “Gun Street Girl” from Tom Waits’ 1985 masterpiece, Rain Dogs. It’s my idea of a desert island album: diverse, unique, & always sounding “new,” with a high degree of musicality in the compositions & arrangements, & high musicianship in the performances.
To my mind, Waits has always been a “roots” musician, to some degree similar to Dylan, tho I would argue that Waits’ musical foundation is wider than Dylan’s, & his musical palette, at his best, more colorful & more diverse. While Dylan looked back very much to folk tunes, country blues & an old time country sound, Waits has also included more jazz, soul, & Kurt Weill/cabaret elements in his music.
“Gun Street Girl,” however, is about as stark & haunting a piece of post-modern Americana as you are likely to hear. Recorded as a trio with Waits singing & playing banjo, backed by Greg Cohen on upright bass & Michael Blair playing percussion on iron bars, the song moves thru a surreal & disjointed tale of love gone wrong & a man on the lam across a landscape from some Americana nightmare fairy tale peopled by people named Shadow & Slaughterhouse Joe; with bull-whipped dogs & second-hand Novas; where the Burlington Northern is "pulling out of the world." In an otherwise astute song review on Allmusic,Bill Janovitz makes the claim that the man is on the lam “after killing his lover.” I’m not sure I find that explicitly in the lyrics—we do hear that “a Gun Street Girl was the cause of it all,” & “I’ll never kiss a Gun Street Girl again,” & there’s the disturbing & at the same time almost cartoonish Miss Charlotte lyric toward the end, but I’ve always heard the story as more of a “Betty & Dupree” tale (“Betty told Dupree, ‘I want a diamond ring,’”—you know the rest of the story: the hapless Dupree steals it & ultimately goes to jail); in that case, the Gun Street Girl is the motivation for some unspecified spree of crime & madness. But the narrative is deliberately stripped of connective tissue, like a film filled with compelling & disturbing images that suggest more than tell an actual story.
I haven’t checked this for certain, but having looked at the sheet music for Gun Street Girl, I strongly suspect Waits’ banjo is in standard G tuning (tho I also believe it’s not actually tuned to concert pitch.) He’s singing the song in D [music theory alert, folks], & the key of D in the open G tuning is highly modal, both because it’s very simple to play D as a “power chord” in which there’s no third to indicate either a major or minor tonality (tho the banjo itself doesn’t play a D minor chord, Waits frequently sings an F natural, or minor third, in a melodic gesture that's characteristic of both Appalachian tunes & old blues); it also lends itself to a suspended chord where the G is integrated into the D chord. In fact, it is essentially a two chord song—D(omit 3rd) & Dsus4 when the G comes prominently into the harmony. A banjo tab version appears to be available from the Banjo Newsletter, but that is a paid subscription site.
By the way: the song is 4:37—so it ends almost 2 minutes before the video actually stops rolling. Amazing piece of music, & an amazing setting for the banjo!