Smoking: Cactus, “Parchman Farm” (1970)

Popocatepetl

iuhqui in popōcatica tetl,
“it is as if the rock is emitting smoke . . .”
Introduction to Classical Nahuatl[1]

There’s a rock maximum called “smoking.”  It requires a striking loudness, rawness, speed, and tight restraint all at the same time.  It isn’t Dionysiac reveling or venting.  It’s like a counter-inebriant—in fact, it’s like smoking a cigarette while drinking beer, a feeling I remember well from unhealthier days.

The royal road to smoking is the boogie beat, which establishes a baseline tension with its upstriking chords or bass notes on the -ands, thus:

Boom…bap……………bap…………….bap………………ba –
….1…..and……2…….and…….3…….and…….4…….and

If you go “bapping” at those -and beats hard, insistently—rubbing on the boogie hook as though you were rubbing two sticks together till they start smoking—and then superimpose an emphasis on the downbeats after all, as in John Lee Hooker’s famous “Boom, boom, boom” on 2, 3, 4 (or ZZ Top’s “Haw, haw, haw” in “La Grange”), then you double the tension and enter a supercharged state where the simultaneously pressing claims of the 1, 2, 3, 4 and the -and, -and, -and, -and can snap you into either pattern at any instant, booming or bapping, like an electron jumping back and forth between orbits in an unstable atom.

Nothing smokes like “Parchman Farm” by Cactus.[2] It goes as hard and fast as 1980s speed metal, 240 beats per minute, almost but not quite too fast to sustain the complexity of the boogie tension.  It’s so fast that it creates a real puzzle about the singer’s perspective on Parchman Farm:  surely a man locked up for life in Parchman wouldn’t be in a mood to scream everything in one blazing burst like this?  Maybe he’s at a supercharged midpoint between two perspectives, that of the free man contemplating the horror of losing his freedom and that of the imprisoned man who can still scream inside as his act of resistance.  At any rate, the singer’s notes are pretty evenly divided between booming and bapping (the bapping creating the boogie feeling), as we see in the first line:

“Parchman Farm” 1

I’m a sit – …tin’…….a – ..way………….on…….a……Parch –
……….1……..and…….2…….and……3……and……4……and

…………………………..man…………………..Farm
……….1……..and…….2……and……3……and……4……and

Notice that “Farm” could equally well come on 3-and or 4.  The singer is charged up to strike at either point like lightning.  You can smell the ozone.

A later verse starts each line with emphasis on the downbeats and then varies the pattern in what follows:

“Parchman Farm” 2

Put…..me…..down………there…..in……a…….ball
1……..and…….2……and……3……and……4……and

……….and…………..chain
1……..and…….2……and……3……and……4……and

Put…..me…..down………there…..in……a…….ball
1……..and…….2……and……3……and……4……and

………………….and………………….chain
1……..and…….2……and……3……and……4……and

Put…..me…..down………there…..in……a…….ball
1……..and…….2……and……3……and……4……and

……….and…………..chain, ………………….Oh
1……..and…….2……and……3……and……4……and

Then the verse finishes by jumping into a vertiginous new pattern of two notes for every three steps of the boogie (you could call this an upside-down triplet because it groups the eighth-note boogie steps, our reference beats, as threes under twos) that will dump us back into the boogie:

“Parchman Farm” 3

Lord………that………like……….to……….drive………my
1……..and…….2……and……3……and……4……and

……….mind……….in – ……..sane
1……..and…….2……and……3……and……4……and

At least that’s what I think happens.  I’m dizzy at this point and can’t really tell you where “insane” comes down.

The great part of “Parchman Farm” is now over, at 1:38.  It’s great in this one very specific way:  there is hardly anything to it other than its smoking.  It just burns me up and leaves a pile of ash.


[1] J. Richard Andrew, Introduction to Classical Nahuatl, rev. ed. (Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2003), p. 597.

[2] I refer to the studio version, though there are reasons to prefer the slower-starting live version (also included on Cactology).

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Time and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Smoking: Cactus, “Parchman Farm” (1970)

  1. Pingback: Killer Tempo, Fast (Not Quite Too Too Fast): The Replacements, “Kids Don’t Follow” (1982) « Hooks

  2. Rockpport says:

    I’ll tell you what makes this song rock. It’s those three really high notes that Tim Bogart plays (I believe it is a triplet) just before the end!
    “Parchman Farm” bass dididit

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