Dragonetti: The Freakin' Creepy Saint Of Bass
Bass players, I know I spend a lot of time making fun of you, though of course you may not realize it because, well, you're bass players and the Internet hasn't evolved to the point where I can easily use puppets to explain my points. All kidding aside, I want you to know that your presence in the world of music is greatly appreciated.
That being said, you owe everything you are to a man named Domenico Dragonetti, who died on this day in 1846 at the age of 83. Dragonetti, in addition to having the most awesome musician name until Mark Slaughter came along, revolutionized the way people treated bass players.
Before him, the double bass was merely seen as a sort of back-up cello suitable only for meatheads who couldn't master more elitist instruments. Hell, most scores didn't even bother to write out a bass part. They just gave the bassist cello parts.
Then along came Dragonetti, a Venice-born son of an amateur musician who started out on guitar but switched to bass. His self-taught skill got him noticed by a local composer, who took the twelve-year-old to the best bassist in Venice for lessons.
It only took 11 of them before Dragonetti had surpassed his teacher. There's an old bass-player joke that applies in this situation...
A man gives his son an electric bass for his 15th birthday, along with a coupon for four bass lessons. When the son returns from his first lesson, the father asks, "So, what did you learn?"
"Well, I learned the first five notes on the E string." Next week, after the second lesson, the father again asks about the progress, and the son replies, "This time I learned the first five notes on the A string."
One week later, the son comes home far later than expected, smelling of cigarettes and beer. So the father asks: "Hey, what happened in today's lesson?" "Dad, I'm sorry I couldn't make it to my lesson; I had a gig!"
That was Dragonetti, except instead of playing in dive bars while singers and guitarist hogged all the groupies and left you with the chubby friend, Dragonetti composed works that made entire orchestras play backup to his bass playing.
He was the world's first lead bass player. He became rich and famous, and was even able to turn down the Tsar of Russia when asked to come work a regular gig. For contrast, imagine Les Claypool telling Vladimir Putin, "No," and that guy's just a president. We're talking about a Tsar, here.
So, Dragonetti was awesome... except for one little, terrifying thing. Namely, he had a harem of RealDolls.
Dragonetti was a collector of a lot of things: Snuff boxes, musical instruments, scores, art... and dolls. OK, that not all that weird. Famous people often have bizarre collections. Paul Rubens collects vintage pornography, his buddy and mine David Arquette collects the oversized shoes that shoe companies use as demos, and Claudia Schiffer collects bugs, of all things. You don't even want to go into what Johnny Depp and John Waters keep in their houses.
Still, Dragonetti went out of his way to up the ick factor. His doll collection included many life-sized models. These he would dress lavishly and position around his salon. When guests would arrive he would invite them to sit next to his dead-eyed mannequins with the assertion that, "This young lady will surely make room for you."
Is that not the freakiest thing you could say to someone? How can you hear that and not think that he meant that you were going to be fed to his immortal, porcelain lover that hungers for the blood of the living?
It gets worse...
Dragonetti would also take his girlfriends on tour with him, arranging them carefully in his carriage and showcasing them at festivals. I'm sorry, that was rude of me. Did I say girlfriend? I meant wife. He had, as contemporaries described it, a negress, that he would introduce to people as his wife.
It's nice he was making strides in the name of interracial marriage, but that accomplishment is somewhat underscored by the fact he was making equal strides in the realm of making acquaintances void explosively into their pantaloons out of sheer terror.
His friend Henry Phillips remarked that Dragonetti liked to dance with his "wife" in front of windows in order to shock passersby. A lot of Dragonetti's eccentricities we know about from Phillips' letters to and from the musician. Here's a direct quote from Dragonetti in one of those letters.
I have seven dolls in my seraglio, two off which are finishing their education among the German literati, who are remarkably clever and experienced in their mode of treating blockheads, for I wish my dollies to have an education of the most polished kind, especially in the smoothness and waxen-brilliancy of their innocent faces, which never degenerates (as sometimes happens with living dolls) into an ill-tempered frown.
The other five dolls are such dolce companions, that they render my home a perfect dulce domum.
Now look, Dragonetti has a little of Oscar Wilde's style in him, and when I mentioned John Waters earlier that was a nod to purposeful, foppish vulgarity. It's perfectly possible that Dragonetti's collection and his little games were just a bit of harmless amusement.
You know, like Michael Jackson's life-sized Boy Scout puppet.
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