In Defense of Good Sax

A writer whom I respect recently made an offhand observation that I’d like to challenge–not because his opinion isn’t valid but rather because it seems representative of a casual and, I’d argue, uninformed impression shared by entirely too many folks.

Let’s name names: in his otherwise thoroughly enjoyable deconstruction of the monster hit “Frankenstein” by everyone’s favorite albino, Edgar Winters, Chuck Klosterman shares his feelings about the saxophone solo. He doesn’t dig it. In fact, he doesn’t dig the saxophone in rock songs. More, he doesn’t particularly dig the saxophone, period. Klosterman states, “I guess I’m just anti-saxophone; I feel like there were better options available. Certain extraneous instruments add more to rock songs than others, most notably the cello and the bagpipes.”

Okay. It’s not an egregious or offensive position to take. Shallow, certainly, but even that is nothing to get worked up about. Rather, it betrays a knee-jerk disdain reflexively offered by your typical 21st century cat who is trying to sound too cool for school. It borders on hipster and therefore must be addressed. These people (and to be clear I’m not accusing Klosterman of being one, I’m lamenting that he merely sounds like one here) are generally easy enough to sniff out, and therefore ignore. Yet, in their way, they are more insufferable (because they should know better) than the wide-eyed outdoor venue enthusiasts who think the Dave Matthews band is incredible because it employs a sax player.

In between these two extremes there is the typical sentiment you see from the sorts of people who write for virtually every mainstream American magazine (music-oriented or otherwise): any instrument with more than two syllables has no place in rock music. The folks who feel that anything capable of being more complicated than the Ramones is pretentious. These are the people who largely determine who gets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (a dubious honor, sure, but still) and own–and love–every album by the Strokes yet have never heard of, say, Secret Chiefs 3. So it goes.

Getting back to the saxophone and its place in rock: first, it’s an altogether unrewarding endeavor to bring our most misunderstood art form, jazz, into the discussion. If you try to encourage the uninitiated to check out John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, or John Zorn, the same sorts of people above presume you have a nostalgic fancy for black berets and clove cigarettes (as if they make berets anymore, or beatniks for that matter). I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested, now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particularly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

Back to Chuckie K: at least he has the good sense to make an exception for the great Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” (Raphael Ravenscroft!). On the other hand, the blanket dismissal of all the other rock songs so indelibly improved by the inclusion of saxophone is impossible to let pass. I could list several dozen songs that would be greatly lessened, if not unthinkable, without their saxophonic embellishment; so could you. In the interest of time and clarity, let’s take three and call it a day.

First, there is “Jungleland” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (recently discussed in detail here), which just happens to be the best rock song of the 1970s. Anyone have a problem with this?

Second, “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones. If Clarence Clemons is not already sufficiently humbling tea, I’ve got two words for Klosterman (and any other haters): Bobby Keys. Yes, he plays the immortal sax solo on the immortal song off the immortal Stones album, but he also plays on the even-more immortal Stones album, Exile on Main St., as well as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Second Helping and too many other amazing albums to list (go look it up). In the meantime, did anyone have any questions about anything?

Finally, let’s celebrate the way our favorite “extraneous instrument” can take a perfect song and elevate it beyond even that. If “Jungleland” is the best song of the decade, Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues” is far and away the coolest. Can you imagine the song without this solo? Can you imagine your life without it? I know I can’t, and I bow down to Pete Christlieb every time I hear it.

This entire argument can be summarized with four lines from the song above: “I’ll learn to work the saxophone / I’ll play just what I feel / Drink Scotch whiskey all night long / And die behind the wheel”. Sounds pretty rock and roll to me. What about you?