My Sweet Tooth Says I Wanna, But My Wisdom Tooth Says No

Jamaican reggae musician, singer and producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry performs at Poppodium De Flux, Zaandam, Netherlands, 8th April 2018. (Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns)

Here’s what I’m not going to write about today:

Not about the Murdaughs of Colleton County whose family drama has entered the terrain of Greek tragedy, a once proud House suffering a Faulknerian fall akin to the Compsons’ collapse.

The Murdaugh saga commenced with drunken redheaded USC junior Paul Murdaugh crashing his boat and killing a passenger, followed by his and mother’s murder, their bodies discovered by father/husband Alex at the family hunting lodge. This weekend as Alex changed a tire on a country road, a bullet allegedly fired from a truck grazed his head. On Labor Day, he checked himself into rehab after resigning from his law firm amid accusations of missing millions. We’re talking two mini-series worth of real life Southern gothic mayhem that out-Outer-Banks Outer Banks.

Have at it, Netflix screenwriters. I’ve got better things not to do.

Not about Fletcher Henderson, underappreciated, who transformed Dixieland into Swing, led a big band that employed the likes of Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, a band that provided the soundtracks for the Harlem Renaissance and Terrytoon animated shorts.

Fletcher Henderson

Not about Gandy Goose cartoons, an LSD substitute for tots, Gandy and pal Sour Puss bopping along, the jazz soundscape providing syncopation for the herky jerky action of the animation, often dream sequences with metamorphoses galore. BTW, Gandy Goose and Sour Puss sound as if they could be a Jamaican Dance Hall duo a la Yellowman and Fathead.

Not about Dub Shaman Scratch Perry, Reggae producer extraordinaire, mentor to Bob Marley, Scratch ping-ponging in the studio from synthesizer to guitar to drums in a creative dance that makes music rather than the music making the dance. An incredibly important figure in 20th century music that virtually no one has heard of.

Not about cherubic grandson Julian Levi Moore who just celebrated his two-month birthday.

So, that’s it. What are you not writing about today?

Wesley’s One Hit Hall of Fame

For whatever reason, the ol’ cerebral jukebox this morning had the 1966 novelty hit “Winchester Cathedral” playing in my head. Chances are you’ve never heard this New Vaudeville Band tune even though it won the Grammy for Best Contemporary R and R song that year (despite not being a rock-n-roll song). It features someone named John Carter singing through cupped hands a la Rudy Vallée singing though a megaphone.[1] On December 6th it displaced the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” as the number one song in the US. Believe me, I’d much rather have “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” stuck on replay on the ol’ cerebral jukebox. “Winchester Cathedral” is inane, irritating, obviously catchy, or otherwise it wouldn’t be lying dormant in my unconscious for fifty-five years.

The tune got me thinking about one-hit wonders, those special songs that for whatever reason memed[2] their way into becoming mega hits, songs like “The Monster Mash,” “Snoopy and the Red Baron,” “Loving You Has Made Me Bananas.”[3] However, not all one-hit wonders are novelty songs. In fact, some of my favorite pop songs are one-hit wonders. Here be my top five, not necessarily in order of preference.

“96 Tears” (? and the Mysterians)

 “96 Tears” might be the grandaddy of all garage band hits, and some say (according to Wikipedia) that it played a role in the genesis of punk rock. I don’t know about that, but Springsteen has covered it, which speaks volumes.  It also came out in 1966, and I’ve never gotten tired of it.

“Double Shot of My Baby’s Love” (The Swinging Medallions)

Although written by Don Smith and Cyril Vetter and first recorded by Dick Holler and the Holidays in 1963, it’s the South Carolina Beach Band The Swingin’ Medallions who made it a hit in ­– yes, you’ve guessed it – in 1966.  Damn, what an infectious, party hoot, and ladies and gentlemen, I actually heard Springsteen cover it live in 2008 at the North Charleston Coliseum. In fact, the Boss opened the show with it, hollering something like “How’ bout some Beach Music?”

“A Lighter Shade of Pale” (Procol Harem)

This moody, somewhat surreal, 1967 song provided an apt soundtrack for my doomed infatuation with fellow freshman Francine Light. I can see her now, standing across the cafeteria in her green tartan skirt and matching knee socks. O, woe was me!

Walk Away Renée” (The Left Banke)

When I began this little project, I had no idea that four of these favs were recorded with in a year of each other. This sad love song made it to number 5 on US Billboard Hot 100 chart. Despite its lush orchestration, flute, and harpsichord, I still sort dig it after all these years, not so much for its music but because of the memories it evokes.

“Wipe Out” (The Sufaris)

This is for my money the quintessential surf song, released in 1963 and covered by every garage band in my hometown of Summerville, SC, including The Marijuana Brass, an instrumental brass band modeled on Herb Albert. 

A couple of observations. Three of the five feature organs (a harpsichord doesn’t count) and all were recorded about the same time during my junior high days. Of course, there have been subsequent one-hit wonders I’ve enjoyed like “Play That Funky Music, White Boy.”  Oh, yeah, and “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell and “Sweet Soul Music” by Arthur Conley beat the hell out of my top five, but I don’t care. 

Maybe hormonal imbalance played a role. Anyway, this exercise has effectively effaced “Winchester Cathedral” from its seemingly never-ending loop, and for that I’m very thankful.


[1] Chances are you’ve also never heard of  Rudy Vallée, Chances are, however, you’ve heard of Frank Sinatra, who covered it on his 1966 album That’s Life. Go figure.

[2] Verb, to meme, to catch on culturally, from the noun meme, an element of culture “selected” by the masses because of its contagious appeal. (Forgive me, Richard Hawkins).

[3] “Loving You Has Made Me Bananas begins with these immortal words:

    Your red scarf matches your eyes.

    You closed your cover before striking.

    Father has the shipfitter’s blues.

    Loving you has made me bananas.

The Late Nanci Griffith’s “Other Voices, Other Rooms”

The very best Christmas present I ever received from an in-law is Nanci Griffith’s masterpiece Other Voices, Other Rooms, a collection of covers from songwriters who influenced Griffith’s own music making. My sister-in-law Linda Birdsong gave it to me in 1994, saying she thought I’d enjoy it. Understatement of the century Clinton years.

I ended up purchasing ten or so more CDs to check out the work of some of the featured songwriters, which include Kate Wolf, Vince Bell, Townes Van Zandt, Frank Christian, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Ralph McTell, Tom Paxton, Woody Guthrie, Janis Ian, Gordon Lightfoot, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Malvina Reynolds and Harry Belafonte, just to name fourteen.

The magic begins with a cover of Kate Wolf’s “Across the Great Divide,” an incredibly beautiful composition that embodies concretely the passage of time in both terrestrial and temporal images.

Here are the first three verses, but I encourage to go to YouTube (who won’t allow me to embed a link) and check out a live version:

I’ve been walkin’ in my sleep
Countin’ troubles ‘stead of countin’ sheep
Where the years went I can’t say
I just turned around and they’ve gone away

I’ve been siftin’ through the layers
Of dusty books and faded papers
They tell a story I used to know
And it was one that happened so long ago

Although they’re all excellent, the next song that blows me away is the third cut, Townes Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley,” a duet Nanci performs with the great Arlo Guthrie. 

Other personnel featured on the album include Dylan himself, who plays harmonica on “Boots of Spanish Leather” and Guy Clark on the Woody Guthrie’s “Do-Re-Mi.” Also, Emmylou Harris and Iris Dement are sprinkled about, and the final cut “Wimoweh” features Odetta, the Indigo Girls, John Prine, James Hooker, Holly and Barry Tashian, John Gorka, Dave Mallet, Jim Rooney, and Nanci’s father Marlin Griffith.

Demonstrating just how much of life is fraught with loss and longing, the overall mood is melancholic with “From Clare to Here” (featuring Peter Cummin), Jerry Jeff’s “Morning Song for Sally,” Michael Burton’s “Night Rider’s Lament,” and “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” (featuring John Prine who wrote the song).

Of course, Nanci produced an admirable body of work herself, and she’s certainly going to be missed. From everything I’ve read about her, she was a lovely person, generous, intelligent, somewhat scholarly.

Sad, sad, sad.

Back Roads in the Age of the Internet

One of the benefits of retirement is that “dicing time” becomes less thinly sliced, its passage vaguer, elapsing as it did before that infernal invention the clock transliterated the overhead sun into 12:00 P.M.  Because I no longer have workday pressures that dictate how I spend my hours – no essays to grade, no lessons to plan, no report cards to crank out – I can take my own sweet time. 

For example, on road trips, rather than enduring a regimented slab of interstate stretching forth with its green mile markers clicking past tick-tock like, you can opt for the back roads, which, if you’re driving from Athens, Georgia, to Folly Beach, South Carolina, means you motor through mostly farmland – cornfields, peach orchards, but also tiny towns in various stages of civic decay.

Sometimes, if you’re fortunate, you can run across something truly remarkable, as my wife Caroline and I did outside of the tiny town of Wrens, Georgia.

What caught Caroline’s eye

***

We had dropped Brooks off at Camp Illahee[1] and spent a couple of nights outside of Athens with our friends Jim and Laura. Both they and our friend Ballard, whom we met tending bar at Five & Ten, suggested we take the backroads home. 

The route we chose took us through Thomson, Georgia, the birthplace of Blues legend Blind Willie McTell, whom I had discovered on a compilation LP called The Story of the Blues, a gift I received for my nineteenth birthday. So Blind Willie and I go way back.

I mentioned to Caroline that Blind Willie had been born in Thomson, so for a moment she abandoned her post as navigator and googled “Blind Willie.” She reported that there was a statue of Blind Willie in Statesboro but also that he was buried about eight or so miles outside of Thomson in Jones Grove Baptist Church Cemetery. So, as upright Protestants used to say – what the hay – we decided to take a side pilgrimage to pay our respects to Blind Willie. As Bob Dylan put it in one of his greatest compositions: “No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”

***

I’ve visited Oscar Wilde’s and Jim Morrison’s graves at The Père Lachaise in Paris, both graves bedecked with flowers, notes, and in Wilde’s case, lipstick-like kisses imprinted on the stone obelisk that marks his resting place.

Not surprisingly, McTell’s grave is not as rich in gifts bestowed. There were no flowers, only a sprinkling of pocket change that wouldn’t cover the cost of a Coca Cola, a mini bottle, and a guitar pick. 

Rather than backtracking to return to our original route, we improvised, GPS-ing out a more southerly passage. As I was tooling along, Caroline let out a “Whoa, what was that!” 

“We ought to turn around,” she suggested. “We need to check it out.” Which we did.

Now you can check it out. Southern Gothic Deluxe.

After ten or so minutes taking in this remarkable outdoor installation, we continued to Allendale, the county seat of the poorest county in South Carolina. Not to put too fine a point on it, Allendale is the po-dunk equivalent of a Blade Runner hellscape, a stalled freight train of shuttered businesses lining the highway in succession, not to mention human habitations in various stages of collapse.

abandoned motel, image courtesy of ABC news
image courtesy of ABC News

At any rate, we arrived at the kennel to pick up KitKat, who, was beyond ecstatic to see us, and headed back to Folly, which, of course, offers its own offbeat pleasures.

I’ll leave you with a snippet of Dylans'”Blind Willie McTell

Seen them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghost of the slavery ship
I can hear them tribes moaning
Hear the undertakers bell
Nobody can sing the blues like blind Wille McTell


[1] What a gorgeous-sounding word, Cherokee for “heavenly world.”

Sam Cooke, Shreveport, and “A Change Is Gonna Come”

Sam Cooke’s plaintive, moving civil rights ballad “A Change Is Gonna Come” was born in 1963 of discrimination after he and his wife were turned away from a segregated Holiday Inn at Shreveport, Louisiana. Incensed when the desk clerk lied and claimed no vacancies, Sam made a scene in the lobby, vociferously protesting, and while driving off, he and his entourage honked horns and lobbed insults like Molotovs as their taillights disappeared into the night. 

When Sam and company arrived at the Black hotel downtown, the police were waiting. However, the arrests created abysmal p.r. north of the Mason-Dixon line after the NY Times and UPI caught wind and publicized the discriminatory arrest of an affable fellow (at least he sounded affable on his records) who only wanted a place to sleep after twisting the night away. In 2019, Shreveport’s mayor apologized to the Cooke family and awarded Sam a key to the city – a mere fifty-six years after Cooke’s death at thirty-three. Nothing like a posthumous award to salve the wounds of a no-longer-sentient being.

According to Peter Guralnick’s biography Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” also spurred Sam to compose “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Sam, the story goes, felt chagrined that a White fellow had written such a moving civil rights song. In fact, Sam admired “Blowin’ in the Wind” so much that he included it in his live performances not long after its release. 

Of course, the songs are much different. In “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Dylan asks in third person a series of questions that ponder “how long” it’s going to take to end discrimination. “A Change Is Gonna Come,” on the other hand, is deeply personal, written in first person, and cites incidents of hurtful slights and expresses existential despair. However, despite the dirge-like tone of the song, the narrator feels certain that eventually “a change is gonna come” and justice will prevail, so the overall effect is hopeful rather than depressing.

Well, despite the election of Obama and the proliferation of people of color in national advertising, we’re not quite there yet, and it seems that many in the South have recently become emboldened to unfurl and wave their inner Stars-and-Bars, not to mention Republican-led state legislatures’ ongoing successful attempts to make voting more difficult for African Americans. 

In fact, to me, 2021 feels an awful lot like 1961, though at least now, Sam would have no trouble checking into a Holiday Inn – though he might turn up his nose at one – and Confederate statues are coming down as opposed to being erected. 


Oh, Those Old Southern Barbershops of Yore

Barbershop by Joan Estes

One of my favorite Tom Waits songs is “Barber Shop” from the 1977 album Foreign Affairs. It’s a jazzy, Beat poet-like monologue propelled by stand-up bass and drums. The song condenses a cascade of rhyming cliches into an archetypical visit to a Mid-20th Century barbershop.[1]

He sets the scene with one ass-kicking couplet:

Bay rum lucky tiger butch wax cracker jacks

Shoeshine jawbreaker magazine racks.

Then he treats us to typical idle barbershop chatter:

Morning Mr. Ferguson, what’s the good word with you?

[snip][2]

You lost a little round the middle and you’re looking real good.

[snip]

What’s the low-down Mr. Brown? I heard your boy’s leaving town.

[snip]

Throw me over the sports page, Cincinnati looking good.

[snip]


The hair’s getting longer, you know the skirts are getting shorter,
And don’t you know that you can get a cheaper haircut
If you wanna cross the border.

If your mama saw you smoking, well, she’d kick your ass.
Now you put it out you juvenile and put it out fast.

Well, if I had a million dollars what would I do?
I’d probably be a barber not a bum like you.

Still got your paper route now that’s just fine.
And you can pay me double because you gypped me last ti
me.

In Summerville, South Carolina, my hometown, going to the barbershop was not one of my favorite activities, right up there with visiting the dentist. In pre-adolescence, we patronized Homer’s, which conformed almost perfectly to Waits’s depiction. My father took me in those days because he thought women didn’t belong in barbershops – the way men didn’t belong in “beauty parlors” – because their presence would curtail free expression, whether it be an off-color joke by the males or juicy lady gossip by the females. 

At Homer’s you could get a shoeshine and a shave. I remember watching the barbers sharpen their razors on strops after they’d lathered the reclining recipients with soft-bristled brushes. To me, it looked scary. 

Mr. Homer, as we called him, employed another barber, Ben, a robust, heavy-set Filipino proficient but not fluent in English. Whenever someone came in with flipflops, he’d bellow, “How ‘bout a shoeshine?” and then laugh loudly at his own joke.[3]

At barber colleges, they must have a course in how to engage in small talk. Truth be known, I’ve never enjoyed Q and A small talk from service providers, whether they be barbers, dental hygienists, or the Porter-Gaud dad who peppered me with questions while performing my vasectomy. 

Also, sometimes small talk can seem like lying. 

“Don’t you think Gone with the Wind is the greatest movie of all time?”

“Uh, maybe.”

Anyway, in adolescence, I ditched Homer’s for a barbershop I think was called Bryant’s, which was owned and operated by African Americans, though think they only cut White people’s hair. It was located a couple of doors down from. Dr. Melfi’s Pharmacy, my go-to source for Mad Magazines

Bryant’s didn’t conform at all to Waits’s Homer’s-like barbershop. It had a New Orleans vibe with ornate shrines set up to honor JFK and MLK, Jr. with other photographs of less famous civil rights icons along with Hubert Horatio Humphry campaign buttons. It also seemed not as glaringly well-lit as Homer’s. On the other hand, I don’t think they offered comic books or magazines to flip through while you waited.

The barbers at Bryant’s weren’t all that big on small talk either, which suited me just fine. I think the last time I had my hair cut there was in August right before my junior year of high school. After that, I started cultivating a “freak flag” do and would get slight trims from girls I knew, just enough snipped so I wouldn’t get thrown out of school. Hair couldn’t touch your collar, and sideburns could only come down halfway down your ear. I had a friend named Gray who actually wore a short-haired wig to school.

The last old-fashioned barbershop I patronized was Gloria’s on Center Street at Folly Beach not long after we moved there in the very late Nineties. Like my ol’ man, I took my boys to the shop to get their hair cut. Gloria’s cat had full range of the joint, and although it didn’t seem all that hygienic, it was picturesque, and she only charged me five bucks because I’m bald. A proud lesbian, her small talk wasn’t all that small.

Now, of course, the building has been converted into a tourist bar. 

Ah, no; the years, the years; 

Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

On a brighter note, I’ll leave you with Waits’s song. Enjoy.


[1] In fact, when I taught the Beats in my American Lit class, I played the song for my students on a Porter-Gaud phonograph, a relic that nevertheless produced high quality sound, albeit not stereophonic.

[2] [snip] designates I’m omitting lines; though, I’ll confess, it’s an onomatopoetic play on the action of the song. 

[3] Interestingly enough, we children called him Ben, not Mr. Ben, the way we called our maids Lucille or Alice while they called us Mr. Rusty or Mr. David. 

Danger, Chaos Ahoy!

Pandora, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

After having read David Sedaris’s current New Yorker essay “Pearl,” I thought it might be fun for me – and to a lesser extent you, invisible reader – to ramble a bit, stagger from topic to topic, to sprinkle and sling rather than weave.

For example, how bout some cool band names for free?

Chutney Grouper and the Crybabies. (blues)

Betty Wont and the Willie Makeits (three-chord rock).

The Narcissistic Namby Pamby Wannabes (emo).

Cry Me a Pipeline (whatever).

Confetti Penises (glam rock).

Of course, having a cool name doesn’t ensure the band is gonna be worth a damn. I think “Blue Oyster Cult” is the coolest of names, but I’d much rather listen to The Animals.[1]

Truth be typed, luddite that I am, I’m not at all into streaming services. I want my music on an LP or CD with the songs arranged carefully with a thematic purpose, like the Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet or Joni Mitchell’s Blue – in other words, tunes woven not slung.[2]

Pandora, for example, is aptly named; tune into the Tom Petty Station and you’re liable to be subjected to Neil Diamond crooning “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” Of course, Pandora’s a low rent platform; with Spotify, Amazon, and Apple, you can fashion your own playlists, but what retired beach-dwelling hedonistic retired English teacher has time for that?

The sad but not-at-all-shocking truth is that at the age of 68, for me, the current music these crazy mixed-up kids and thirty-something coke-sniffers and bling boasters are producing doesn’t, as Judy Birdsong[3] used to say, flip my switch. 

No sir, not indeed!

The indifferent news is that Caroline and I haven’t, despite the pandemic, cashed in our Atlanta 2020 Stones tickets.

So, we’ve got our fingers crossed.


[1] By the way, today – 13 May 2021 – is the great Eric Burdon’s 80th birthday. 

[2] Okay, Boomer.

[3] 1 June 1954 – 14 May 2017.

Garage Band Modernism

I’ve never cared for rock songs with lush orchestral arrangements, cellos and violins sugar-coating the three or four chords that make up the melody. Take the Stones’ “As Tears Go By,” for example, overwrought in every way, the lyrics lamenting unspecified dissatisfaction, the strings transporting the speaker’s melancholy to the suburbs of tragedy, Schmaltzville, where eyes mist over at the slightest sentimentality: puppy dogs, Grandmas, Eugene Fields’s bathetic “Little Boy Blue.”[1]

This is what I’m talking about:

snippet from “As Tears Go By”

Hey, crybaby singerboy, take a hint from Frederick Henry, read some Lucretius, grab an umbrella, and head to a pub.[2]

Compare “As Tears Go By” with this ditty from the same album, December’s Children.

snippet of “Get Off My Cloud”

Now, that’s more like it. 

And speaking of the Stones, man oh man, after the psychedelic silliness of Their Satanic Majesties Request, hearing the six successive opening G chords of “Honky Tonk Women” was like welcoming home a long-lost prodigal cousin returning deprogrammed from some sort of Scientology-like hypno-indoctrination. 

beginning of “Honky Tonk Women”

To quote that Big Mama Thornton of Modernist literature, Sweet Molly Bloom, “Yes!”  

Anyway, I really dig garage bands, Sam the Sham, ? & the Mysterians, the Kingsmen, the Human Beinz, etcetera.

Forgive my Western predilection to have to rank things. It’s sort of stupid really, but that said, in my not-all-that humble opinion, the greatest garage album of all time – and this may surprise you – is Patti Smith’s first release, Horses – a masterpiece whose subtitle could be “TS Eliot meets the Troggs.”

For example, here’s a snippet from the first song of the flipside, “Kimberly.”

snippet of Kimberly

You “Waste Land” junkies out there no doubt caught the echoic allusion to bats with baby faces and violet skies.

Horses is Modernist garage band, flashing with fragmented musical and literary allusions that imbue its songs with concentrated meaning and ultimately create a constellation of images revolving around alienation.

In other words, it’s a work of art.

The masterpiece cut of this masterpiece album is the 9:42 penultimate song “Land,” which, to my ear, has the greatest transition in all of rock-n-roll. Check it out. (The transition occurs at 1.11 minutes.)

the beginning of “Land”

The boy was in the hallway drinking a glass of tea
From the other end of the hallway a rhythm was generating
Another boy was sliding up the hallway
He merged perfectly with the hallway,
He merged perfectly, the mirror in the hallway

The boy looked at Johnny, Johnny wanted to run,
but the movie kept moving as planned
The boy took Johnny, he pushed him against the locker,
He drove it in, he drove it home, he drove it deep in Johnny
The boy disappeared, Johnny fell on his knees,
started crashing his head against the locker,
started crashing his head against the locker,
started laughing hysterically

When suddenly Johnny gets the feeling he’s being surrounded by
horses, horses, horses, horses
coming in in all directions
white shining silver studs with their nose in flames,
He saw horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses.
Do you know how to pony like bony maroney
Do you know how to twist, well it goes like this, it goes like this
Baby mash potato, do the alligator, do the alligator

What follows is eight minutes of stream-of-consciousness as Johnny’s brain transitions from sentience to eternal silence.

Now that’s what I call transcending a sub-genre. It’s simultaneously raw and polished, gritty and eloquent, Rimbaud and Wicked Wilson Pickett playing pingpong backstage in a dance hall.


[1] I’m being unfair to the Stones, “As Tears Go By” isn’t nearly as bad as “Little Boy Blue.” 

[2] Here’s Henry describing leaving the corpse of his wife in A Farewell to Arms.

“But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-bye to a statue. After a while, I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”

Pleasure Chest Rocks Chico Feo

What a blast we had digging on Pleasure Chest, an absolutely great show band with an eclectic repertoire of killer covers. We’re talking Booker T, Jimmy Reed, Ray Charles, Erma Thomas, and, drum roll, the Buckinghams. Time won’t let me, no it won’t and by the way, time ain’t on my side, no it ain’t.

Here’s a peek: