Regular readers here will know that I’m somewhat a fan of Elliott Smith. I’ve posted various bits and pieces of his before. Equal parts downbeat alt. folk mumbler and upbeat Beatles-obsessed melodic genius, I could listen to Elliott all day. Stuck at the end of the Son Of Sam single (November 2000) was this, the what I assumed to be title track but left of the album of the same name Figure 8. It’s spooky as hell. A simple music box piano plays a spidery, child-like melody in the background while Elliott quietly sings these fantastic lyrics:
Figure 8 is double 4
Figure 4 is half of 8
If you skate, you would be great,
if you could make a figure 8,
that’s a circle that turns round upon itself.
Figure 8 is 2 times 4
4 times 4 is 2 times 8
If you skate upon thin ice,
you’d be wise if you thought twice,
before you made another single move.
Amazingly (to me at least), it turns out that Figure 8 is not an Elliott original. It was written in 1973 by Bob Dorough and recorded by Blossom Dearie. It first came to the public’s attention via US TVs Schoolhouse Rock series of educational programmes – aye, the same series of programmes that brought you Dorough’s own The Magic Number. You know, “3. Is a magic number. Yes it is. It’s a …” Of course you do. Turns out Dorough is a bit of a jazz cat – he worked with Miles Davis and Alan Ginsberg, played ‘tween Lenny Bruce stand-up sets and led the band in boxer Sugar Ray Robinson’s musical revue.
Elliott Smith stays pretty faithful to the first half of Dorough’s/Dearie’s original. But whereas his stops at downbeat and introspective, Blossom Dearie picks herself up halfway through and starts singing the 8 times table, much in the way Bob Dorough does in The Magic Number. It’s a weird, weird record, and given my love for Bob Dorough’s most famous tune, I can’t believe I haven’t picked up on the rest of his Schoolhouse Rock stuff until now. As I have just found out to my pleasant surprise, the Schoolhouse Rocks records take all the best bits of Peanuts, The Muppets and Sesame Street and those ‘Charlie Says..‘ UK public information films and ends up with something that is both extremely twee and/or child-friendly, depending on which side of the fence you’re sitting. I bet Duglas T Stewart has an original 1970s vinyl copy somewhere.