Old Dog, New Tricks, featuring Dick Dale and Jimi Hendrix

Stratocaster

“Don’t know much about history.” Sam Cooke: “(What a) Wonderful World”


This semester I’m teaching my first history course ever, America in the ‘60s, which has been a challenge because (one) I wasn’t even a history minor, much less a major, (two) I’ve never taken a course on the ‘60s [1], and (three) I’m beat (as in Ginsberged/Kerouaced [2]), i.e., beaten down. Like, every glance in the fluorescently brutal faculty restroom mirror finds me staring into the red-rimmed eyes of Charles Bukowski’s doppelgänger, a visage that makes Bill Murray look dewy.[3] It’s not the face of a novice teacher. Or a middle-aged teacher.

Charles Bukowski

And this teaching a new course takes energy. I find myself in a sort of a footrace with my students, maybe half a block ahead, as I learn the material and create content through multimedia lectures. It always feels as if they’re gaining on me.

On the other hand, I have learned a great deal about civil rights and Vietnam. Ask me about the Little Rock Nine, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, or My Lai, and I can name names, Calley and Colburn, for example. In fact, when that trove of Kennedy assassination papers came out last week, I could better appreciate LBJ’s’ theory that JFK’s offing was tit-for-tat revenge after the CIA had sanctioned the assassination of South Vietnam’s sorry-ass Premier Diệm.

Of course, acquiring knowledge is a valuable side benefit of teaching. You reread Emerson and discover you were too young to appreciate him back when it was pimples, not crevices, you saw in the mirror. The Faulkner sentences you couldn’t unravel back then start singing. Hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Those hairs begin to samba.

Anyway, with those students in hot pursuit, I decided to segue from campus protests to the counterculture and the evolution of 60s pop music. I figured with my not inconsiderable knowledge of those areas, [4] I wouldn’t have to prepare as much, which hasn’t been quite true, but getting the scoop on Berry Gordy isn’t as nearly a downer as revisiting the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

I don’t have a text, so, like I said, I’m creating the factual content in Keynote presentations that students download from my website. They’re pretty cool because you can embed videos without jumping off to access YouTube. You can watch Elvis swivel instead of reading descriptions of him swiveling.

I’ve divided the decade into four mini-eras: Early 60s (1960-3)[5], the British Invasion (1964-66), the Summer of Love (1967), and the Late 60s (1968-1970, including Woodstock and Altamont).

Of course, this division is overly simplistic. I’ve put Motown and Stax in the early 60s despite Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Otis Redding’s triumphant, heartbreaking performance at Monterey in ’67.

One of the subdivisions of early 60’s is surf music, which I divide into vocal groups (Jan and Dean, The Beach Boys) and instrumental groups (The Safaris, Dick Dale). What occurs to me after watching some Dick Dale performances and interviews is that he might be one of the most under-appreciated innovators and influences in rock history.

Methamphetic bio: Arab descent, Eastern music scales, California surf breaks, Stratocaster reverb, souped-up riffs.

Dig this from 1963.

 

Hendrix in 1969

 

 

Hendrix famously said, “You’ll never hear surf music again.” Did he mean the Beach Boys? That Hendrix was so good surf guitars wouldn’t hack it?

Here’s what Dale says in an interview with Surfer Magazine:

I read that when Jimi Hendrix said, “You’ll never hear Surf music again,” that was in reference to your battle with cancer. Is that true?

You know what’s so funny? Why didn’t they say the rest of his sentence? Do you know what the rest of the sentence is?

No, I have no idea. What is it?

I had never missed a gig in my life, and I had a temperature of 104, and I couldn’t even talk…and had got hit real bad with rectal cancer. Jimi was recording in the studio and said, “I heard Dale did a no-show. That’s not like him. You know?”

His guitar player said, “No man, he’s dying.”

They had given me three months to live.

Then Jimi said, “You’ll never hear surf music again.” And then he said, “I bet that’s a big lie. Let’s pack up, boys, and go home.”

That was the full f–king sentence.

Gotta go.  I got class tomorrow and the British Invasion to tee up.


[1] I did, though, pay attention while stuff was happening like the assassinations, the fire-hosing, the ’68 convention, etc.

[2] Pronounced Karo-whacked.

[3] The trade off in losing 25 pounds is resulting gaunt face looks older because facial fat has a Botox like effect.

[4] Note the arrogant modesty in the double-negative.

[5] I place Motown and Stax in this unit, though, of course, those artists flourished in the mid-to-late 60s as well.

The 5 Greatest Rock-n-Roll Covers of All Time

BigMamaTwoWillie Mae “Big Mama Thornton” by Nick Young

A couple of weeks ago when I was luxuriating in vast open freedom of spring break, the musician Howard Dlugasch and I sat at the bar at the newly opened Jack of Cups Saloon (nee Brew Pub) on Folly discussing the difficulties local musicians face in performing original compositions at bar gigs. “No,” he said, “They don’t want to hear originals. They all want to hear covers. They all want to hear Journey.”

Howard Dlugasch

Howard Dlugasch

Howard’s lament got me thinking about covers themselves, and I began cataloging what I consider the greatest covers of all time, a Herculean task if you stop to think about it.  I immediately jettisoned jazz, decided to limit my purview to rock and folk. After racking my brain, I decided to limit my list to five, and certainly many will disagree with the following choices.

Before I announce my top five, though, I ought to provide the criteria I used in the construction of this pantheon.

1) The original song had to be significant in both its music and content.  By content I mean both the degree of significance of the lyrics’ poetic purpose and the poetic quality of the lyrics themselves.  Alas, this criterion eliminates Hendrix’s great cover of “Wild Thing.”

2)  The cover of the song had to make the song, as Ezra Pound would say, new.

3) The musicianship had to be first class.

Rather than attempting to rank the covers from “grooviest” to least “groovy,”¹ I’ve copped out by presenting the 5 Greatest Covers of all time in chronological order from oldest cover to most recent.

¹I retrieved these vintage terms from the Teen Beat files located in the adolescent wing of my memory museum.

  • Elvis Presley’s cover of Big Mama Thornton’s recording of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Hound Dog”  Thornton’s 1953 recording is killer, backed by badass bass and drumming and some imitative barking.  Hit the arrow for a 20 secondish listen:

elvis-presley-songs-hound-dog

Before Presley, others had recorded the song, and some critics claim that Presley was actually covering a Bob Wills cover or a Freddie Bell and the Bellboys cover. Nevertheless, Presley was aware of and liked the Thornton original, and so I contend he’s covering the original, not a covering a cover.  At any rate, Elvis and his producer Steve Sholes have twanged the tune to rockabilly with some aggressive drum rolling.

  • Next comes the Animals cover of the traditional folk song “Rising Sun Blues,” a song whose roots go to 18th Century England and a popular genre called “the Unfortunate Rake.” Immigrants  transported the song across the Atlantic and transplanted the setting to New Orleans.  Some contend the song’s narrator is a woman turned whore after being abandoned by a rake, which is the scenario Dylan employs in his cover, a recording that precedes the Animals’. The earliest recorded version is by Clarence “Tom” Ashley in 1934, which tells the tale from a male perspective.  Here’s a snippet from an early ’60’s version by Ashley and the great Doc Watson.  Note the featured lyrics are much different from the Animals version.

 the_animals

Ashley/Watson:  

The Animals:

Electric guitarist Hilton Valentine’s minor key arpeggio and Alan Price’s organ transform the song into what the critic Dave Marsh called “the first rock folk hit.”

  • Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 recording of Bob Dylan’s 1967 release “All Along the Watchtower.”

jimi-hendrix

Dylan:

Hendrix: 

Now, that’s what I call making it new.

  • The Doors 1970 live version of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love”  This selection is perhaps the most controversial.  However, I’m going with it.  Listen.

images

Bo Diddley:

The Doors: 

  • Also, perhaps, controversial, I rank Patti Smith’s 2007 cover of Nirvana’s 1991 “Smells like Teen Spirit” in the top five.  Here Smith substitutes banjos and fiddles for electric guitars and replaces Cobain’s solo with a poem that elevates the song from an anthem of teen angst to some sort of post apocalyptic nightmare.

6a0120a7b5f86a970b015437e241f9970c-800wi

Nirvana:  

Patti Smith:  

Well, there you go.  Would love to hear some comments.  Obviously, I also stayed away from soul music because rating covers there would be almost as hard as jazz.  Also, I’ve dissed Janis, whose cover of “Piece of My Heart” should probably bump Morrison and Smith off this list.