Monday, November 22, 2010

Book Of Rules by The Heptones -- Misheard Lyric Or Great Unknown Bob Dylan Song?





  

The Heptones

 
     Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of hearing the great 1973 Heptones song "Book of Rules" is unlikely to forget it. The experience probably came while seeing the movie "Rockers" or possibly listening to the album "Night Food" or hearing the song played on the radio.   Like Desmond Dekker's "Israelites", The Wailers' "Stir It Up" and The Paragons' "The Tide Is High", it occupies a secure, unbreachable place as a song most non-reggae aficionados can identify and identify with.  Without being in the slightest a watered-down version of reggae (like, say, Eric Clapton's terrible, logy version of "I Shot The Sheriff"), it's a brilliant example of a "cross-over" hit from another musical culture.

     For me, because of a possibly mis-heard lyric, I've always thought of "Book of Rules" as a great Bob Dylan song not written by Bob Dylan.  According to some internet websites that collect song lyrics, which are notoriously inaccurate, the song's words, apparently borrowed from an oft-quoted, but historically somewhat obscure short poem by an American poet named R.L. Sharpe (1870-1950), seem to be these:

Book of Rules

Isn't it strange how princesses and kings,
in clown-ragged capers in sawdust rings?
While common people like you and me,
we'll be builders for eternity.
Each is given a bag of tools,
a shapeless mass and a Book of Rules

Each must make his life as flowing in,
stumbling block or a stepping stone.
While common people like you and me,
we'll be builders for eternity.
Each is given a bag of tools,
a shapeless mass and a Book of Rules

Look when the rain has fallen from the sky.
I know the sun will be only missing for a little while.
While common people like you and me,
we'll be builders for eternity.
Each is given a bag of tools,
a shapeless mass and a Book of Rules

     The original Sharpe poem, called "A Bag Of Tools", is a short work that reads:

A Bag Of Tools

Isn't it strange
That princes and kings,
And clowns that caper
In sawdust rings
And common people
Like you and me
Are builders for eternity?

Each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass,
A book of rules;
And each must make --
Ere life is flown --
A stumbling block
Or a steppingstone

     Bizarrely, I think, you can hear Dame Maggie Smith recite the poem in this UBS bank commercial.

     The lyric I "misheard", according to the internet transcriptions I found,  is the last line of each verse.  Instead of "mass", I hear "mask".

    What I hear, and what really hit home with me, goes:

"Each is given a bag of tools, 
A shapeless mask and a Book of Rules."

     Both lyrics fit and "work".  However, for me the word "mask" (which I still heard clearly when I listened to the song on headphones this morning and I actually believe is one of several deliberate, effective alterations the Heptones made to the source material) draws a much subtler, sadder and more accurate picture of the worker's yoke and mantle than the more general, indefinite "mass". The hopelessness of being saddled with "a shapeless mask" contrasts strongly in counterpoint with the redemption the "sufferah" protagonist hopes and seeks to create through his labor and works, i.e., to make stepping stones, not stumbling blocks. Ultimately in the song, redemption is found through the buoyant melody, exceptional musicianship and glorious lead and harmony singing of Leroy Sibbles, Earl Morgan and Barry Llewellyn.

     Listening to "Book of Rules" this morning, I was also struck by a similarity of mood and attitude it shares with another "Dylan-y" song,  Joe South's extraordinary "Games People Play".  They would co-exist very well on an anthology called, say, "Music for the Downbeat and Extremely Thoughtful."

     Misheard, differently interpreted lyrics are a rock and roll tradition and my hearing, at this point, is more degraded than I would like it to be.  Here is "Book of Rules" by the Heptones.  You be the judge and please let me know your thoughts.  And if you like this song, there's a great Heptones world to discover, both through the group's own records and through the inestimable contributions to Jamaican music made by their leader Leroy Sibbles, who played bass guitar (as partner to drummer Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace) and acted as arranger (paired with keyboardist Jackie Mittoo) on most of the classic Studio One recordings that form an important part of reggae music's foundation. 

     My beautiful Russian Blue cat U, a genuine reggae afficionado and connoiseur, was raised on Leroy Sibbles' felt-as-much-as-heard, heart-massaging "riddims".  If you have never seen a cat transported by Jamaican bass sounds (especially via the medium of made-in-JA 12" vinyl recordings), you're really missing something.


Some Books Of Rules:

 




Code of Hammurabi








Moses Carrying The Ten Commandments, Engraving By Gustave Dore






Mons Wheel of the Law, India





Buddhist canonical work








How To Disappear -- Vanishment Made Easy

15 comments:

  1. Curtis,

    These are great, great songs that you recall here.

    The Heptones' Book of Rules was my rulebook, once, for a period of time.

    Joe South's Games People Play always made me wish to be reborn in the guitar part.

    (The Staples version is not half bad either.)

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  2. VERY nice to know. It is a magnificent record, both as a single, on Night Food and as part of the remarkable collection of songs on the Rockers soundtrack. Watching the various musician/actors in Rockers (including, of course, Leroy Sibbles' rhythm partner, Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace) is fascinating. Jamaicans seem to have a natural flair for drama. (I'm thinking also of Jimmy Cliff, great in The Harder They Come, but also in that silly, but amusing Harold Ramis film Club Paradise, where he has that scene with Brian Doyle-Murray where the latter says that Cliff's band is "too hip" for the hotel guests and Jimmy replies potently "You can't be too hip, Mr. Zerbe.") I share your feelings about Joe South's guitar part. He's quite something. I'll check out the Staples version of the song and can recommend to you Gene Clark's version of Don't It Make You Want To Go Home, which is also included on his wonderful record with Carla Olson, So Rebellious A Lover. We hope you all have a very good Thanksgiving. We've been kindly invited to dine at the home of an old schoolmate of Jane's and, if last year's holiday is a reliable guide, the food and company should both be very good and a wonderful contrast from yesterday's events, which included a sort of job interview in NYC disguised as a drive-by shooting. Weirdest, most unpleasant thing I've experienced since being abducted in Mexico City. And all I could do was sit there and smile. Curtis

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  3. Oh Lord, Curtis, that sounds pretty bad.

    Any prospective job that would come with that kind of up-front ordeal would anyway very likely be one you would soon enough wish to see the back of -- or so I reckon, from this (great, great) distance.

    But then it's questionable how much trust you would wish to place in the advice of someone who has gone three years (and counting) sans employment.

    Glad your Thanksgiving was good. It was freezing here, Angelica ventured out a bit, I never left the house, and the cats spent the entire day angling to find an opening to park themselves upon us. That's what no heat and 32 degrees F. will do to furry logic -- i.e. sharpen it to a fine point.

    At dawn we had our communal experience, which consisted of the five us huddled on a down quilt watching fitful bursts of Ghost Writer... the dvd player is giving up the ghost, but the ghost of the movie seemed to have anyway died long before, and the writer, perhaps, not yet been born.

    The more that movies become filled with pseudo-expositional scenes delivered via cell phone conversation, text messages, google searches, etc., etc., the less interested I am in ever seeing another movie.

    Angelica has also braved the Facebook pic, and, knowing me as she (alas all too well) does, the caveats runneth over, on that one.

    Still I was going to give it a peek, but with no sleep, and numb thumbs, and the player in the death throes, I believe I am able to distinguish the better part of valour hoving into view...

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  4. Hi and my apologies for the delay in responding. Regarding the pseudo-expositional scenes, I think "the" cinema leitmotif of our era, which began cropping up in movies in the early 1990s and still persists, is the person tapping on the computer keyboard and staring intently into the monitor, "acting" some emotion or other. I suppose people do that a lot, but it no longer seems new or naturalistic, just annoying in the same way depictions of the act of eating in movies are generally inaccurate (and often disgusting). I'm also less and less interested in seeing anything new and yesterday's viewing of the Harry Potter movie, where I joined Jane, really reinforced that. It's many ways terrible. I've really been out of commission since Wednesday as a result of that dreadful job-related encounter, which I wrote something (watered down) about, half as therapy and half to make a contemporaneous written record. I have suspicions about what was going on and I need to begin to address the matter further tomorrow. I intend this also to be therapeutic. Caroline (who was as badly affected as I) said today that she supposed that one day we'd laugh about it, but I think that day is fairly far off. Curtis

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  5. Yes, "mask," always. The right word, the ONLY right word, as Leroy deduced.

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    1. David: Thanks so much for noticing this now-quite-ancient post, liking it, and agreeing with me. In view of the song and recording's utter greatness, you'd think there would be a television investigation of this subject by now (they've covered everything else) or (even better) a major motion picture. I'm glad you found the ACravan blog and hope you'll visit and write again. Greetings on a chilly morning in a suburb near Philadelphia where my daughter is in mid-midterm examination mode and I'm currently resisting cleaning my office.

      Curtis

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  6. It was one of the group's few songs not sung by Sibbles. Check the facts - its always a must.

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    1. Lucy, thank you for writing. Re-reading, I don't believe I said that Sibbles sang lead on this. I suppose I could have been clearer. I hope you visit again. Curtis

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  7. Awesome post! When I first heard the song, it almost sounded like Dylan to me as well.

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    1. Thank you very much. Of all my posts (I will try to recommence posting regularly over the summer), this one means a lot to me. Please visit again. Curtis

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    2. By the way, I am also a sandwich enthusiast.

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  8. My mother had a record called 'This is Reggae Music' which includes Book of Rules, and which I somehow acquired when I left home. After listening to it for over 40 years I finally decided to try to track down the lyrics and found your post. Thanks, I enjoyed reading your take on it, as well as finding out where the lyrics originated.

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    1. Jennifer, Hi and thanks for writing. I'm really glad you enjoyed this one. It's a magnificent song, performance, and recording. Hope all is well with you in London. Have been reading about your mayoral elections on the web. Curtis

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  9. Book of Rules is one of my all time favourite songs. I found several sites with what seemed like incorrect lyrics posted so I'm glad to have found your post. The whole spirit of the song comes through regardless of the accuracy of the lyrics. Thank you though. :)

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    1. You're welcome and thank you very much for writing. I feel very close to this post. Curtis

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