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Front man or side man?

If Mike Huckabee wants to be the leader, he's chosen the wrong instrument.

January 13, 2008|Joe Queenan | Joe Queenan is a New York-based writer.

Nothing better captures the oddball quality of Mike Huckabee's campaign than the fact that he plays the bass guitar. When the folksy Arkansan first took the stage with his classic-rock band, Capitol Offense, the public and the press corps were amused by this refreshing zaniness. But now that his quest for the highest office in the land seems less quixotic, the time has come to examine what Huckabee's choice of musical instrument says about the man.

History abounds with political figures given to public displays of their musical gifts, but none of them played the bass. The most famous is the vile Roman emperor, Nero, who supposedly played the fiddle while a huge section of ancient Rome burned to the ground. (One problem: If Nero did wax musical while the Eternal City was going up in flames, it must've been either on the lyre or a prototype of the lute, as the fiddle was not invented until the Renaissance. Still, it would've been much less colorful to say, "Nero plucked the lyre while Rome burned" or "Nero strummed a prototype of the lute -- perhaps the oud -- while Rome burned.")

Nero was not the last potentate with top-shelf musical leanings. Henry VIII is said to have played the harp, the lute, the recorder and the harpsichord, and is thought by some to have written the lovely folk song "Greensleeves." Frederick the Great wrote 121 flute sonatas. Thomas Jefferson did, in fact, play the fiddle, and by all accounts was fairly good at it. Harry Truman was known to pound out a thoroughly credible tune on the old eighty-eights, and Bill Clinton could blow the sax without completely embarrassing himself.

On a side note, Alan Greenspan had a short career as a jazz saxophonist before meeting Ayn Rand and turning to economics. If Charlie Parker or John Coltrane or even Kenny G had made the same choice, and then ended up chairing the Fed, it might have been a great loss for music but could have given the fusty old world of interest-rate calibration the kick in the pants it's been needing for decades. And imagine how much fun it would have been if Rand had reversed course and taken up the baritone sax.

But here's my point. The telling thing about Nero, Frederick the Great, Henry VIII, Jefferson, Truman and Clinton is that they all played high-profile, soloist instruments. Violins, pianos, saxes, harpsichords and even lyres are all instruments played by musicians who have the chops and the chutzpah to demand the spotlight, not to lurk in the shadows the way bass players do.

Yes, the bass is a wonderful instrument that is indispensable in supplying the "bottom" needed to give a piece of music substance. But it is not a glamorous instrument; many nonmusicians cannot even hear what the bassist is playing, confusing the general muddle of the bass with the drums.

Bassists, with few exceptions, are low-profile drones content to toil away in support mode while their more flashy colleagues wow the crowd. Even the exceptions to this rule -- Paul McCartney, Charlie Mingus, Sting -- did their composing on the piano or the guitar, most certainly not on the bass.

The plain truth is, the bass -- stand-up or electric -- is just not a sexy instrument. This is particularly true in the classic-rock genre Huckabee favors. It was never in Bill Wyman's power, much less in his interest, to try upstaging Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. John Entwistle was an affable nonentity as opposed to Pete Townsend, Roger Daltrey and Keith Moon. Teenage boys grow up wanting to sing like Robert Plant and play guitar like Jimmy Page; nobody dreams of being the second coming of John Paul Jones.

I know all this because I too am a bassist. I took up the instrument at 17 because bassists, unlike guitarists, were always in short supply, as nobody really wanted to play the bass. Bass players were well received by other musicians because they were never a threat to get the good-looking girls. Still, the main reason I took up the bass was because I could never camouflage the fact that I was a crummy guitarist, but I could disguise the fact that I was a crummy bassist because none of my bandmates in the Phase Shift Network ever paid any attention to what I was playing.

This is what worries me about Huckabee and the bass guitar. The president of the United States is the most powerful man in the world, just as the conductor is the most important person in the orchestra, just as the lead guitarist is the most important musician in the band. The bass guitarist, I'm afraid, is more like the Commerce secretary or Uncle Fred, a solid, dependable fellow but definitely not the guy you want with his finger on the red button. Bass players are too bland and dull to run a society as classy as this one. And the ones who aren't, the ones like Jaco Pastorius and Jack Bruce and Flea, who try to turn the bass into a solo instrument, simply make a bad situation worse.

Whatever John Q. Public may say on the record, in private everyone hates bass players who forget that they are bass players. It calls to mind the story about the anthropologist who is repeatedly roused from his slumber by tribal drums pounding in the distance. Three times he asks what the beating of the drums signifies; three times the tribe's leader replies: "After drums stop, very, very bad." Exasperated, he finally demands, "OK. Forget what the drums mean. What comes after the drums?" To which the chieftain mournfully replies: "Bass solo." Yup, Mr. Huckabee, that says it all.

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