Giving Us a Hard Time: Little Feat, “Fat Man In The Bathtub” (1973)

Twisted clock

OK, I mean this in a male sexual way: our hero in “Fat Man In The Bathtub,” Spotcheck Billy, is having a HARD TIME getting sex with Juanita. Thus we don’t experience the song as proceeding “in its own good time”; instead, it gives us a kind of hard time.

The hook that interests me is in how Billy’s discourse is arranged in musical time. How do you make the flow of the song frustrating for the audience without denying them the pleasure of rhythm?

We must consider how Little Feat is using their new asset (new on their Dixie Chicken album, heard to advantage on the song “Dixie Chicken” also) of New Orleans or “second-line” time. It’s a marvelously flexible polyrhythmic framework that builds on the two-bar pattern BUMP-bum-bum-BUM-bum-bum-BUM-bum | bum-bum-BUMP  BUMP:

1………..2……….3……….4……….       1………..2……….3………4……..
X…..x…..x…..X…..x…..x…..X…..x…..   x…..x…..X………..X……………….

Using eighth-notes as our units (marked by x), the pattern can be described by the number of eighth-notes between accents: 3-3-2 | 2-2-4.

Since the pattern is overlaid on measures of 4/4 (4 beats, 4 quarter-notes, 8 eighth-notes), we get two different feels in the package. In the first measure, the 3-3-2 is in tension with the 2-2-2-2 of regular four-beat time; in the second measure, the 2-2-4 is in tension with the first measure, from which it differs, and with its own background 2-2-2-2 by its abrupt early ending. Once you get the rhythm going you can invoke any of the reference patterns at any point; it’s easy to keep things interesting.

Now, what does “Fat Man” do? We start off in lucid New Orleans time, and the refrain melody (first heard in a purely instrumental version) fits smoothly.

Here it is with the words.

(Juan – )
X    x    x    X    x    x    X    x    |   x    x    X    x    X    x    x    x    |
i…..-….ta…………………………………………my….sweet…Juan -…..

X    x    x    X    x    x    X    x    |   x    x    X    X    X    x    x    x   |
i……..-…….ta………………………………..what are………..you……..

[note the tussle between “what” and “are” over whether that measure is going to be in the measure 1 or measure 2 mold]

X    x    x    X    x    x    X    x    |   x    x    X    x    X    x    x    x   |
up……..to…………………………………………………..my…..Juan -……

X    x    x    X    x    x    X    x    |   x    x    X    x    X    x    x    x   |
i  –  ta…………………………………………………………………………………

But “Fat Man” wants to tell us that Spotcheck Billy is balked, his time tied up, obstructed, jerked around. Thus when the verse arrives the New Orleans pattern is suddenly shut off and you’re asked to imagine a default 4/4 with emphasis shifting back and forth between where you would expect it (like on the 1 of the second measure of each line–“Bill,” “knees,” “hey,” “right”) and where you wouldn’t (like on the 2 of the first measure and the 3 and 4 of the second). It’s a spastic stones-in-my-passway effect.

Measure 1…………………………………..Measure 2…………………………………
1……………2*…………3…………4…………1*………..2………….3………..4…………..
X……………x…………x…………x…………X…………x…………x…………x…………..
……………Spot – check………………….Bil – ly….got……down……..on his…

X……………x…………x…………x…………X…………x…………X…………X…………..
…………..hands……………..and……….knees………………….he……..said……..

X……………x…………x…………x…………X…………x…………x…………x…………..
………….. “Hey………………….ma-ma, hey……… let me check…..your……

X……………x…………x…………x…………X…………x…………x…………x…………..
……………..oil…………………..all………right?”………………She…….said

X……………x…………x…………x…………X…………x…………x…………x…………..
…………… “No……………………………….no…………………..hon-ey………………..

X……………x…………x…………x…………
……………..not………to…-…night.

Look down the chart and you’ll see there’s always action on 2* in Measure 1 and on 1* and 3 (and usually 4) in Measure 2. (Note that accents do not fall on that 2* and 1* in the New Orleans rhythm.) It’s actually a very regular, shapely flow–in fact, it’s close to a New Orleans phrasing that’s just been shifted over to start on 2, if you look at it like this:

[x   x ]  X    x    x    X    x    x    X    x    x    x    X    x    X    x
……….”Hey………..ma  –  ma, hey…..let me check…your……

Yet that empty space or holdup in Measure 1 and the misfit with the originally set New Orleans time makes it feel chronically interrupted.

After this part the supple New Orleans pattern returns to push Billy forward:

(Come back)
X……x…….x…..X…..x…..x….X….x…|..x….x…..X……x……X……x……
Monday………………………………………………………………..come back

X……x…….x…..X…..x…..x….X….x…|..x….x…..X……x……X……x……
…………….Tues –  …………………………..day……………………………and

X……x…….x…..X…..x…..x….X….x…|..x….x…..X……x……X……x……
then I……………………………might” ……………………………………………….

Compare the profoundly different flow of one of those songs that’s meant as a blast of male sexual confidence, “Hot Blooded” (Foreigner, 1978):

(Well, I’m)
1…………2…………3………….4………….1………….2………….3………….4………….
………….hot……blooded……………check it…and see……………………………
1…………2…………3………….4………….1………….2………….3………….4………….
……I….got…a….fe – ver…of…a….hundred and three………………………..

Rhythmically this is all about stomping in 4/4 and being on the beat as expected, or swaggering over two beats with a strong triplet (“have in mind,” “you ought – a”).

(You don’t have to)
1……………..2…………….3……………..4……………..1……………..2……………..3……………..4……………..
read……….my mind………………………………………………………………….to know……..what I

1……………..2…………….3……………..4……………..1……………..2……………..3……………..4……………..
have…..in……mind……………………………………………………..Hon – ey……you….ought….-a……

1……………..2…………….3……………..4……………..1……………..2……………..3……………..4……………..
know…………………………………………………………………………………………………………..Now you

1……………..2…………….3……………..4……………..1……………..2……………..3……………..4…………….
move……….so………….fine……………………………………………………………………………..let me

1……………..2…………….3……………..4……………..1……………..2……………..3……………..4…………….
lay…..it……on….the…line

True, there is a delay of emphasis with the chorus lines (“hot,” “got”) starting on the 2-beat, which invites comparison with the “Fat Man” lines that start on the 2, but in “Hot Blooded” you wouldn’t call this a balky hesitation; it’s more in the nature of loading up and firing. The male is sure of success. Good for him!

Meanwhile, Spotcheck Billy is clinging to his second-line hope. It sounds like it will keep him going till Monday or Tuesday.

Advertisements

About Steve Smith

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s