Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Rosanna, or How I Discovered Something Worth Knowing

How do you learn things you're glad to know? For me it usually happens elliptically. Through weird coincidences. Yes, I do have an example, glad you asked.

Years ago, a friend recommended that I listen to a cover of Toto's "Africa" recorded by a Slovenian a capella group, Perpetuum Jazzile. I loved it, so I surfed on and listened to them doing "Rosanna," even though "Rosanna" was never a favorite song of mine. It was too bouncy, maybe a minute too long, with a silly synth bridge and a loud and unnecessary brass line. One of those songs that I heard enough times on my parents' adult contemporary FM station in the car on the way to the grocery store that I never felt the need to listen to it in my adult life.

Until I heard Perpetuum Jazzile do "Rosanna."

Then the song took on something new, a charm it hadn't had before. It felt like an interesting assemblage of elements instead of a mere lump of semiprecious material. After a few listens to the cover, I decided to listen to the real thing, for the first time in years, so I YouTubed actual Toto doing "Rosanna." The first comment under the video (at the time) was something like "Ah, Rosanna. Making drummers cry like children since 1982."

Wow, what?

I had no idea what that was about, and wanted to know, so I looked it up. Turns out that Toto's drummer, Jeff Porcaro, was quite possibly the best pop-music drummer of the 20th century. He was a studio musician on many, many, many recordings, a lot of them very famous indeed, and his playing was effortless, innovative, and precise. He died at 38, weirdly, while mowing his lawn, possibly after taking a leetle too much cocaine, but maybe from something else.

For "Rosanna," Jeff Porcaro wrote what is now known as the Rosanna shuffle (!), and after that my research turned into areas of music knowledge that I could no longer follow - ghost notes and other stuff about drumming that I don't understand. But this shuffle is famously hard. (There's video of Porcaro himself breaking it down. I suspect it resembles Michael Jordan teaching how to dunk.) Tons of videos exist of amateur drummers playing along with the song, concentration and pride sharing facial space. For "Rosanna"! A song that I considered one of the least interesting hits of the 80s until Perpetuum Jazzile came into my life.

I consider this information about Jeff Porcaro and the Rosanna shuffle to be ephemera well worth knowing, whether I ever find practical use for it or not. You never know what's going to be of use inside your head, though. Hell, maybe I'll be across beers from a drummer one day and this will be the only thing I have to say to him. And let's not leave aside the fact that today I got an entire blog post out of it.

In any event, I'm really glad I know this, but the way I got to it is so knotted and forked that it's a wonder I learned it at all. From a friend pointing me to a cover of a song I love, to a cover of a song I was once kind of eh about, to the song itself, to a comment on YouTube (which I suggest has the worst comment threads in the entire universe), to Wikipedia, and thence to new knowledge.


I seriously doubt I would've had occasion to learn Jeff Porcaro's name any other way. This Escheresque path to knowledge is the way I learn lots of things worth knowing, and incidentally, it's also the way I pick up little details that make writing more fun and interesting than it would otherwise be. I like finding a place in story, in character, to put the random stuff I learn. I haven't found a place for "Rosanna" yet, but I suspect I will.

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