The Sun Came Out: Fugazi, “Floating Boy” (1998) and Laura Nyro, “Mercy On Broadway” (1969)


An awesome hook arrives around 1:18 and then returns massively around 1:55 in Fugazi’s “Floating Boy.”  It’s a kind of event that has impressed me on other occasions—including somewhere in Pavement, and halfway through Beck’s “Novacane”—but I’ve never known what to call its principle.  The event consists of unexpectedly bringing the band’s instrumental voices out of the brush where they’ve been rustling in a dry, relatively nontonal way and into bright harmonic and rhythmic focus for a superripe effect, a first-class rock climax in an unlikely place.  (Here it involves the poignant harmony of the dilated major third[1] in the purple key of D flat.[2])

“Floating Boy”

Sometimes when interpretation stalls I resort to looking up the lyrics.  In this case I discover that moments after the magnificent main appearance of the hook, the floating-boy singer announces:

The sun came up
The sun came out

The sun did us in

Good Lord, it’s program music, as sure as the bird call in Beethoven’s Sixth!  It describes a natural occurrence!

No, natural description isn’t the principle of this hook in general, but “the sun came out” is a wonderful metaphorical description of it.  And what is the sun?  It’s what we really needed, and naggingly felt we needed, without lucidly recognizing we needed it in the mist and overcast of our everyday shlubbing along:  full availability of life-energy, full revelations of color, everyone’s full visibility in an alignment that will last at least a little precious while.

*

There’s an interesting parallel to Fugazi’s sunshine moment in Laura Nyro’s “Mercy On Broadway.” It’s even more remarkable in one way, because instead of bringing a juicy hook up from a relatively dry background, Nyro takes us through a succession of increasingly juicy ideas—it’s like going through her songwriting notebook with her (I imagine The Fifth Dimension sitting in and saying, “Oh yeah! We want to do that! Or hold on: let us do that!”)—and then she overwhelmingly tops them all with the last idea, stated very briefly.

“Mercy On Broadway” first half

And the lyrics, at this midpoint of a moody New York song, are: “Shine everybody.”

___________________________________________________________

[1] The major third, like E in the key of C, makes the friendliest of all harmonies.  If you move the C down an octave or the E up an octave to put distance between the two pitches, you get a dilation but not a diminution of the bond—kind of like matching steps with your best friend walking one or two levels above you in a big atrium.  Some of us may have first discovered this in the piano left hand of the gorgeous slow section of “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue.”

[2] Scriabin thought the color of the key of D flat is violet, apparently because he directly perceived it that way (a synaesthesia effect).  I vaguely agree.

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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 Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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