"Come at the king, you best not miss."
I"ve been watching, at long last, Season 4 of The Wire for the last week or so. One episode a night, in a state of sheer bliss. I know I'm a little late to the party, since Season 5 is a few episodes into its run on HBO in the US, but I'll have to wait for that on DVD too, which is fine. All good things....
Anyway, obviously its the greatest television show ever made. Everybody knows this by now, surely? I think its also the greatest work of art, in any medium, of the last decade. That I've encountered, at any rate. So, apart from watching Season 4, I've been reading Rafael Alvarez's "The Wire: Truth Be Told", a companion to the show, which contains some nice insights from David Simon and others involved in the production. And today I bought the long-awaited (by me, at any rate) Soundtrack cd, "The Wire: ...and all the pieces matter..." which contains a stonking 35 tracks of Wire-related stuff.
Some of those tracks are dialogue snippets - "Omar comin, man!" - but there are also tracks by the Pogues, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Lafayette Gilchrist and Bossman. Anybody who watches the Wire will know that there is no score. All the music in the show - and there is a lot of it in the background, on radios, jukeboxes, boomboxes, television sets - is organic, is heard by the characters in the scene. Except for the song which plays over the montage at the end of the final episode of each Season, all five of which are included. Also here is the closing theme, which I've been trying to download for an age, "The Fall" by Blake Leyh.
And four versions of the show's Opening theme, "Way Down In the Hole", written by Tom Waits.
A tiny glimpse of the genius of The Wire is evident in the treatment of this song, and how the different versions from each Season reflects the tone and content of that Season. Season One is The Blind Boys of Alabama's version, a gritty gospel, establishing the shows identity and hinting at the thematic centrality of race. Season Two switches to Waits' original version, much older-sounding, muddier, and more baroque, echoing the switch of focus to the white working class of Baltimore's harbour area. Season Three sees a greater emphasis on the politicians responsible for the policies causing so much damage to the characters from the first two seasons while also returning the focus to the drug war on the corners of the city, so The Neville Brothers version (commissioned specially for the show) is a slick New Orleans funk, which could possibly reflect either side of the flip-sided story. And Season Four's tracing of the lives of four young boys from the corners is perfectly reflected by Domaje's version, a modern R&B take, and easily the most contemporary-sounding version used (Domaje being a teen R&B collective). Season Five's version (which is mysteriously absent from the cd) is performed by Steve Earle, and is a spare acoustic-country take on the song with electric edges. Season Five focuses on the media, and even without seeing it, I can understand the fit.
Then there is the song itself, a twisted little faux-blues gospel. As discussed in one of the three essays included in a nice little booklet that comes with the cd, David Simon refused the opportunity to use Randy Newman's lovely "Baltimore" (and the many cover versions of it) as the opening theme, and instead went for Waits' far more difficult song. How right he was, because its a strangely perfect choice, its mysterious allusions to angels, mighty swords, and its instantly paranoid first line somehow evocative of the show's dangerous streetscapes: "When you walk in the garden/You gotta watch your back."
My favourite version? I really can't decide. No, really. Oh, ok. Season One, I think. It just sets the mood so brilliantly, yo.