It never fails to surprise me that certain folks sneer or disparage the
name "Cowboy Bebop." Just looking over the customer reviews at Amazon:
"Sure, the name "Cowboy Bebop" is enough to make anyone not interested in anime
snicker at the name."
"This series(Cowboy Bebop) has a funny name"
"Although the title may mislead you a little. . ."
"The only unfortunate thing about it is its name, and that's only bad because
it might put off potential viewers. . ."
Once you can get by the embarrasing name of the series . . ."
. . . .
Where does such a skewed world view come from? (incidentally, recently I discovered
that my mum thought that "Cowboy Bebop" was the name of the main character. .
. oy. . she seemed to think that Andy was Cowboy Bebop. >_< ) Even before
I had ever seen the series, I was struck by the coolness of the name Cowboy
Bebop. Mind you, one of the things that's always atracted me to jazz itself
are the funky titles that have that cool vibe, but are inexplicable. "Well You
Needn't", "Blues and the Abscessed Tooth", "Sane to You", "Blue in Green", "Short
Ride in a Fast Machine" (OK, that last one isn't a jazz piece, but you get the
idea.) Imagine if an anime was named "Sane To You". . . "Despite the cheesy title,
this anime is really great!" Meanwhile, I'd be reveling in the thing even if
the title had nothing to do with the story. . . and I'd put up with a lot of crap
in an anime if it had a title like "Sane to You." Hell, if I ever have my own
web comic, I'm going to name it by the title of a jazz piece, and I'll have at
least one character named 'Mingus.' Back to the subject, though. . . what's not
to like about 'Cowboy Bebop'? Let's go over the name and its meaning. Cowboy;
Now, I admit that that's something of a cliched term. However, in this case, the
cliche adds to the meaning of the title. I've met real cowboys, and read real
life cowboy accounts. It's a hard, hard life, with little pay and no visible perks.
Still, the idea attracts one. Cowboys from the past have more of a place of respect
in people's eyes. They lived outside the class structure, in a world very conscious
of class. Minorites and the opressed could make a place for themselves as a cowboy,
in a world that didn't even acknowledge minorities. See where I'm going with this?
The disenfranchised and disassociated of our hypothetical future world become.
. . cowboys (future slang for bounty hunter).
OK, so maybe that's a little involved of a description. I think you can understand
the title if you just recall the romance of the cowboy, and how the ideal doesn't
usually match up with reality. Besides, this little essay was really supposed
to be about the bebop part of the title. Bebop; what does that make you think
of? Well, to me the first thing I think of are smokey rooms (that are obviously
old and falling apart) filled with jazz musicians pulling out their instruments
and "cookin'." Just the LP covers of the famous Blue Note jazz label are enough
to conjure the feeling of ultimate cool. That's perhaps the first thing I thought
of when I heard the title of CB; the all encompasing cool of an era of jazz.
So where does the 'bebop' in the title come to play in the series? Is it just
a way to say "we're cool! look at us!" and leave it at that? There's the soundtrack
to CB which you would think would tap into bebop as an inspiration. In reality,
the there are only a few tracks on the score could truly be said to be in the
style of bebop. (Odd Ones, N.Y.
Rush, Gateway, Adieu,
etc.) I came to the discovery, upon watching CB a few times, that the 'bebop'
mentioned in the title really isn't about the music at all . . . it's about the
way the story of CB is presented. Two to five musicians, jamming and improvising
on a particular theme, playing according to the mood of the moment. The stories
in CB are disjunct; I wouldn't go so far as to say 'episodic', but rather a mix
of episodic and continual (because there is a continual theme at the heart of
it). Each individual jam session may have it's own point or punchline, but in
way the entire 'album' has a overriding theme. Especially if the album is done
by a particularly slick group, and the album is a 'farwell' (see: "Cookin' with
the Miles Davis Quintet"). You remember at the end of it what they were, what
they symbolized, and that it was beautiful all the way.
Another big influence of bebop on the show is the art of quoting. When improving,
jazz musicians will often "quote" a famous theme. Either a famous song, or a "lick"
made famous by another jazz musician. Sometimes these quotes will be the kind
that only another musician or a jazz aficionado would recognize, sometimes they
are more obvious. I used to have a clarinet prof. who would quote from our university's
fight song (just to make his fellow musicians mad, usually). Once I went to our
university's jazz concert, to hear the first chair trumpet player quoting the
theme music from "Super Mario Brothers." Cowboy Bebop does this kind of think
in spades. Sometimes it's obvious to the audience - Woody Allen being the bounty
in Heavy Metal Queen, the first episode
being a tribute to Desperado, several episodes that "quote" heavily from John
Woo. Some of it is more subtle, thus making the joke all the more choice.
Probably the most direct bebop-to-Bebop correlation is the historical place of
bebop-ers as outsiders. Bebop came right after the big band era. Big band was
a highly popularized type of music, very fixed. There was little room for improv
or any stepping out of the style. So then Charlie Parker comes along doing this
shiz like nobody's ever heard; and everybody tries to be Charlie, tries
to emulate his wild originality. Bebop was an era when jazz became art music.
It lost favor with the masses. Jazz traditionalists said "There's not melody!"
but there is a melody, they just couldn't understand (hrm, just as some
decry CB has having "no plot!") Bebop was a revolution and the guys that brought
it about didn't get a whole lot in return. They had to live like boheme, they
gathered at their jazz clubs, jamming out with this unbelievable music. So what
does this have to do with Spike, Jet and company? They too are the boheme, doing
their own bad shiz and not asking anything from anyone.
Maybe for most people, this isn't a big, cool idea as it is for me, a musician.
Not everyone can understand, or cares to understand just what bebop is about.
I hope that I've managed to get some of it across, and that instead of being embarassed
or hanging your head in shame about the title "Cowboy Bebop," you'll proudly proclaim
it to all and sundry! "I watch a show called Cowboy Bebop! I WATCH A SHOW CALLED