Monday, October 17, 2011

Death, Drugs, Devilry, Disfigurement, & Dirty Louie

1) Casey Kasem: Remember him? You'll be withering away somewhere in your forties (at least) if you do. His was the popular nationally syndicated radio show American Top 40 (1970 - 1988; 1998 - 2004) where the masses came to hear their favorite popular songs before they joined the dustbin of future Trivial Pursuit questions. (Another blog's waggish take on the show here.)

I'll admit it, as a kid I'd listen in from time to time. I, like teeming millions of others, was a sucker for the show's shtick, a formula both simple and effective: Countdown each week's Billboard Top 40 backwards while larding up the introductions with teases and juicy nuggets to hang the audience up through commercial breaks. (And as it was AM radio, there were many.) It didn't hurt that these infotainment gumballs were dispensed from the depths of Kasem's unctuous baritone, a sound as smooth as pureed frog. For one particularly memorable edition, in June of 1971, the #1 was Indian Reservation (a take on
Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)) by Paul Revere and the Raiders. In his introduction Kasem served up a story curious enough to hike even the most seasoned eyebrows: The song's composer was taken prisoner by Cherokee Indians and released only after promising to write a song dramatizing their plight. American Top 40, as it turned out, had all the fact checking vigilance of your average reactionary political blog. The story was a ruse and a good one as it went undetected for years; John D. Loudermilk (who also wrote Tobacco Road) made up the tale on the spot in response to being awaken by a late night call from a writer from the show. Writers looking to dig up juicier information might do well to call interviewees in non-prime time hours: This might explain Weekly World News.

2) Legend was that Robert Johnson's prodigiousness on the guitar and a voice capable of such wretched depths of human experience could've only wafted straight up from the smoke of Hell. As a younger man Johnson was reputedly a journeyman blues musician at best. After disappearing for a year or two (to hone his new found Hell-sprung skills) he'd return as the full-fledged King of the Delta Blues Singers that history now remembers. (A schlocky version of the tale was told in the 80s film Crossroads with much added narrative prostheses.) As an original member of the Forever 27 Club Johnson wouldn't have much time for legacy building; what he left behind was a compact canon of 29 songs. The truth is, everything we know about the man and his life is limited to those 29 songs. The rest is, as they say, marketing. 

3) The Paul Is Dead Myth and the birth of backmasking: Surely, everyone is familiar with the manufactured legend of Sir Paul's untimely demise. Though the legend began independently of The Beatles, the Fabs would quickly embrace it for themselves. Their records, beginning with Magical Mystery Tour, would come salted with clues. Besides being the likely progenitor of the many Is he really dead? tabloid myths to follow — Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, Andy Kaufman, Jimmy Hoffa, et's also the starting point for that ne plus ultra of legend-seeding tools, the backwards messaging of backmasking. (An exhaustive list of examples is available here.) 

One example of note would be Judas Priest and their cover of the Gary Wright-penned Spooky Tooth ditty, Better by You, Better than Me (from the 1978 album Stained Glass): The song made national news when the mother of a depressed Priest fan, someone who'd botched his part in a double-suicide attempt, sued the band for claims their music drove her son to do it. Following the successful suicide of his friend from a shotgun blast to the head, 20 year old Reno NV resident James Vance would only discover the further depths of life's tragedy (the results at left). Besides leading the boys into morbid hopelessness, the lawsuit alleged that the band, through one backmasked phrase in particular ("do it, do it"), provided the teens their suicidal tipping point. The story and all its parties were covered in the excellent 1992 documentary The Dream Deceivers: The Story of James Vance vs. Judas Priest. Before the judge ultimately dismissed the case, James Vance would make another suicide attempt: In 1988 he ended his life with an overdose of prescription drugs. (For a more detailed view of this story, check here.)

 4) While on the subject of musical suicide inducers: Long before Judas Priest began darkening young minds, there was the once and still all-time body count champion: The Hungarian Suicide Song, or as it was better known in its English translation, Gloomy Sunday. A song thought to be so crushing in its hopelessness, many feared it could bring the dispirited multitudes into lemming waves of self-annihilation. It was reported that in Hungary alone the song was responsible for 17 deaths (see more on this here), and eventually, 200 worldwide. The song was first recorded in 1933 in its original form, Vége a világnak (End of the World), by Hungarian pianist and composer Rezső Seress, lyrics by László Jávor. As notes in its breakdown of the legend, for many years Hungary had the highest suicide rate of any other country. It may be that this song was just one expression from a grand tradition. At any rate, by the time World War II had spread through Europe, it's likely the tragedies of war would've far overshadowed any such lachrymose song styling. The song would find its greatest popularity in Billy Holiday's 1941 version (English lyric by Sam Lewis). If anything, Holiday's version only deepened the legend and many broadcasters at the time banned the song from the airwaves in the interests of public safety, including the BBC.

One verified suicide of note: Composer Rezső Seress took his own life in 1968.

5) Newsweek magazine ran a cover story in 1964 (as best as I can tell from googling) making claims on the rampant coded drug messaging going on in rock music. Infamously caught up in this generational hysteria was the otherwise contemporary and future children's favorite, Puff the Magic Dragon. Recorded in 1963 by Peter, Paul, and Mary and written by Peter Yarrow (the Peter of PPaM) and Leonard Lipton (based on his 1959 poem written while in college), the song would achieve great success on both sides of the Atlantic (a song still collecting royalties and recently turning up as a children's picture book). Those looking to indite made much hay over the use of words like paper, dragon (draggin'), and puff. Both the group and Yarrow vigorously denied any such intentions. Even 47 years later the association hasn't gone away. It continues to find its way into pop culture like a flashback contact high, including a more recent reference made in an episode Lie to Me).

6) There may be no song that comes more loaded with pop cultural mystique than Louie Louie: Not only the primogenitor of the over-driven three-chord rock roundelay — which, considering the history of rock that followed, is saying a lot — it is one of the most covered songs ever recorded. It has also been reputed to be the filthiest song to ever get mainstream airplay. Originally released in 1955, Louie Louie was "composer" Richard Berry's response to a Cuban Cha-cha he'd heard on the radio, likely stealing its theme from Calypso and more than a healthy wad from Chuck Berry's Havana Moon. Richard Berry's version achieved some modest regional success and gained cred from other musicians who'd added the song to their own stage repertoires. By 1963 at least one of these incarnations had brought the song to the attention of Portland band The Kingsmen. As the legend goes the song was recorded for a $36 studio fee in one extremely fortuitous, unedited take (note the singer's flub after the guitar break). It's inauspicious radio debut would be on a Boston station as "The Worst Record of the Week." Fortunately, listeners of the station didn't agree and the song would ascend all the way to #2 on the Billboard chart (denied its #1 by both the Singing Nun and Bobby Vinton). Even without the prurient legend, The Kingsmen's shambolic, proto-garage rock sound should've been enough to raise their Louie to classic status on its own: A sound as funky and booze-soaked as a bartender's rag. But the song's real kernel of genius came from singer Jack Ely's energetic, slurred, and to the song's great fortune, indecipherable reading. Even still, the song was banned by the governor of Louisiana. When questioned about the song's lyrics the band was instructed by their manager to offer only "no comment." It was that mystery that launched many fan-penned revisions of the song's lyrics based on wishful obscene mishearings. As a result, the song would be subjected to a 31 month long FBI investigation (the grand jury convened for White Water lasted only 30 months). The stain of obscenity would prove to be a stroke of (maybe not so) inadvertent marketing genius. Listen for yourself:

An interesting note: According to Dwight Rounds, author of The Year the Music Died, 1964-1972, the FBI tried to track down Richard Berry, The Kingsmen, and various record company executives in their investigation (it's not clear whether they were successful). But one person they chose not to interview – the most obvious source – was singer Jack Ely. 

Anyone who's been in a band themselves will appreciate this dynamic: Shortly after Louie Louie became a hit, Ely was relieved of his singerly duties. Drummer Lynn Easton's mother had registered the name The Kingsman and as a result owned the band's brand. Easton would use this as leverage to leave his position on the drummer's stool and take on the singer's duties. Ely and the band's bassist quit in protest. Louie Louie was Ely's only lead vocal and contemporary live versions of the song on YouTube feature only Easton's voice. Watch and note that Easton was no Ely: Not even close. Ely for his part would later attempt to capitalize on Louie's success by releasing a series of songs with pandering titles like "Louie Louie 66," "Love that Louie," and "Louie Go Home."

To hear a performance of the smutty version you'll need to check out The Stooges (from Metallic KO).

As for the lyrics themselves, first, the dirty version:

Louie, Louie,
grab her down low.
Louie, Louie,
grab her way down low.

A fine little bitch, she waits for me;
she gets her kicks on top of me.
Each night I take her out all alone;
she ain't the kind I lay at home.

Each night at ten, I lay her again;
I fuck my girl all kinds of ways.
And on that chair, I lay her there;
I felt my boner in her hair.

If she's got a rag on, I'll move above;
It won't be long, she'll slip it off.
I'll take her in my arms again;
tell her I'd rather lay her again.

And this, the actual Jack Ely version:
Louie, Louie,
me gotta go.
Louie, Louie,
me gotta go.

A fine little girl, she wait for me;
me catch a ship across the sea.
I sailed the ship all alone;
I never think I'll make it home,

Three nights and days we sailed the sea;
me think of girl constantly.
On the ship, I dream she there;
I smell the rose in her hair.

Me see Jamaica moon above;
me think of girl constantly.
On the ship, I dream she there;
I smell the rose in her hair.

Me see Jamaica moon above;
It won't be long me see me love.
Me take her in my arms and then
I tell her I never leave again.

And for the sake of completism, here are some antecedent Louie versions The Kingsmen would've no doubt been familiar:
The first video includes three versions performed by these artists, 1) The Richard Berry original; 2) Rockin Robin Roberts and The Fabulous Wailers; 3) Little Bill and the BlueNotes:

And The Kingsmen with spotlight stealer Lynn Eastman frontin':

1 comment:

ink stain inc. said...

That was like reading an obit for innocence, and now the music is now so much more interesting. Well done!