During my recent visit to New York, I had the chance to explore some of the city’s wonderful music stores, and even though my travel budget was severely limited, it felt wrong to leave without making at least a small purchase; a souvenir of sorts. While accompanying my friend Agustin to buy a guitar, I made my way to the hard-stringed instruments and picked up a cheap little entry-level soprano ukulele, effectively joining the ever-growing army of uke-wielding hipsters performing covers of TLC’s “Waterfalls” on Youtube.
Last year, when the famously tortured and angst-ridden lead singer of Pearl Jam released his collection of uke-based tunes, it seemed like a work of post-modern comedy genius to anybody who hadn’t been paying close attention to Vedder’s musical history. I had been, and I had grown annoyed by his descent (as I saw it) into the lightweight MOR radio rootsiness his buddies Ben Harper and Jack Johnson had long settled into. I derided the instrument as tinny, one-dimensional and lacking in dynamics; certainly not a sound that could sustain interest through a full-length album. Upon actually listening to it, I found out I was wrong. Sure, there’s not much range to the instrument, and sure, it can get a little grating after a dozen or so tracks, but there’s more to it than plucky faux-Hawaiian folksiness. I found that the very thin and tinny sound I scoffed at actually injected a certain naivete and breezy charm to Vedder’s maudlin tunes. The melodic range of the instrument as a songwriting tool was certainly wider than its four strings would point to. And the covers, which I found to be the best tracks on the album — songs not written on the uke, but adapted to uke accompaniment– surprisingly retained the stately elegance of their original incarnations, despite being played on this little toy guitar.
So not only was I already intrigued by the instrument, but I was also hit by the realization that this was Navin Johnson’s instrument in “The Jerk”. If you’ve had the misfortune of hearing me ramble on about this wonderful gem of a movie, you’re probably well aware of its enormous influence on my life and overall shaping as a human being. This is comedy genius Steve Martin– long before he settled into a life of horrible family films– running wild with a truly epic, freewheeling ‘road movie’. And amidst all the silliness and slapstick and over-the-top ridiculousness, there’s one of my all-time favorite musical scenes in any film. A tender little love scene featuring Martin and Bernadette Peters duetting on “Tonight You Belong To Me”, a sweet uke-based lullaby, which, coincidentally, also appears on Vedder’s uke album.
I’m enjoying getting to know the ukulele. I’ve done astonishingly little with it, but I’m slowly learning, and find myself straying further and further away from the chord chart. I’ve even started playing around with alternate tunings, to varying degrees of success. Still, it feels very much like an adventure to go against every harmonic tendency I’ve developed over the years. I favor the low end, both as a listener and as a player– I’m drawn to the cello, the contrabass, the rich deepness of the baritone sax– so plucking away at this sunny little instrument is a bit of a departure, but it’s been fun.
Tom Waits once said, about the increasingly esoteric collection of instruments that started populating his albums in the mid-80s: “Your hands are like dogs, going to the same places they’ve been. You have to be careful when playing is no longer in the mind but in the fingers, going to happy places. You have to break them of their habits or you don’t explore”. And while picking away at the uke is a far cry from banging on a Quadrangularis Reversum or mastering old damaged harmoniums, it’s been fun breaking these dogs’ habits.