Monday, September 12, 2016

Bullfrogs on Their Mind: The Quest for Authentic Pop Music


I have an acquaintance here in England who, if you put a guitar in his hands, will reflexively go all po-faced (that is, affect great seriousness) and perform a very skilful, presumably very faithful-to-the-original version of Muddy Waters’ "I Can’t Be Satisfied". Around 13 bars into it, I will find myself struggling with all my might not to blow raspberries or try to make myself far, loudly. The problem, to paraphrase that beardy Canadian's soft rock classic Sometimes When We Touch, is that the fake honesty’s too much.

I would guess that neither my acquaintance, nor any of the countless hundreds of mostly grey-ponytailed bluesmen who clog the pubs of southwest London, has ever really woken up with bullfrogs on his mind. I find it patently ludicrous when they sing about having decided to dust their brooms, as Brits simply don’t broom-dust. To do so would be to suggest that one is a shameless poseur.

I have always found the blues tiresome. A very large percentage of the time, the second line of a verse is the first line repeated, which smacks of attenuated inspiration. Why, in "Saint Louis Blues", whose first line laments,  “I hate to see the evening sun go down,” did W.C. Handy not expand on the idea of the singer’s desolation, rather than simply repeat it over the four-chord? Why not, for instance, “I hate to see de ev'nin' sun go down / Its slow descent is sure to make me frown?” If U2 can do something a little bit new with the form, as in “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” why can’t the gray-ponytail-and-bald-spot brigade?

Well, I’d bet most would explain, because ‘tain’t authentic.

This just in, though, matey: A white Brit bemoaning the travails of being black in the Mississippi Delta in 1933 isn’t terribly authentic either.

Don’t imagine I don’t know what you’re thinking — that almost every performance of a much-performed song isn’t authentic, in the sense that the singer, on stage in 2016 at the Half Moon in Putney, let’s say, or at the Royal Albert Hall, probably isn’t feeling whatever inspired him or her to compose a particular song in 1983. I pretty nearly burst into tears singing two of my own songs — “Lessons in Cruelty” (about my daughter’s having refused contact with me for 14 years) and “A Ship That’s Sailed” (about an especially excruciating fight with my wife) with the Freudian Sluts — but can easily see how, if I were to have sung them a tenth as many times as Bruce Springsteen has sung “Born to Run,” let’s say, I might very well be feeling nothing but the pleasure of performing. 

Must I then cut the ponytail boys some slack? I recognise that their playing passionate covers of Howlin’ Wolf songs is no more ridiculous than one of my early bands performing the Stones’ "Play With Fire", in which the singer sarcastically bemoans someone ceasing to get her kicks in upscale Knightsbridge, and getting them instead in downmarket Stepney.

I once made an enemy of Atlantic Records co-founder and Aretha Franklin producer Jerry Wexler by suggesting in print that Wilson Pickett’s cover of The Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” was a sort of musical dog and pony show. Yes, he sang it with his usual passion (that is, with “soul”), but didn’t his doing so cheapen the whole notion of soulfulness in general? 

One of course sees an awful lot of this stuff in the American Idol/X Factor era, as little 16-year-old cutie-pies with big voices and even bigger dreams sing John Lennon’s nonsensical "Come Together", for instance, as though its lyrics have deep emotional resonance for them.

Decades ago, an executive at a major, major music publishing company agreed to let me come in and play him some of my songs. He stopped “Where’s My Jayne?” two bars into the first chorus because the chorus begins with the question “Where’s my Jayne and with whom?” I was to understand that listeners would find my use of whom hifalutin and off-putting because…inauthentic. Around the same time, Tom Petty, who may be a no-talent twerp, but almost certainly isn’t the trailer trash he was pretending to be, had a hit record called “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” When I admitted to being flummoxed, my prospective patron sighed censoriously, removed my tape from his tape deck, told me to come back when I’d had a chance to think about his advice, and stopped taking my phone calls.

In the exquisite "Waterloo Sunset", I only recently realised that Ray Davies sings, “I don’t need no friends.” Is his use of the hideous double negative, when “I don’t need a friend” would have worked perfectly, and been more characteristic of his own speech, an homage to Big Bill Broonzy, or something?


Keepin’ it real, y’all.

14 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. I am flattered by your having taken the time to respond so thoughtfully, and at such length. And I disagree with you about just about everything. I think musicians should write and sing about their own experience.

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    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    3. Did you know Ray personally? I did. He never used a double negative in my hearing. His doing so in his beautiful song was a jarring affectation. http://johnmendelssohn.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/stalking-ray-davies.html

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    5. I'm not name-dropping, you querulous twit. I KNEW the man. I knew, from talking to him at length, how he spoke. Your argument that putting that jarring double negative in his song was evocative of London, in which countless millions do NOT speak as though poorly educated (I've lived here seven years) is so foolish as to make me despair of this dialogue being worth the effort. May I suggest that, if you don't like my writing, you not read it?

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  2. As a Londoner, born and bred and often told I speak like a cockney,- particularly by people of other climes,- double negatives and acting thick, still grates. For example, Joe Strummer was embarrassing in this way, but the I can't speak proper like has permeated throughout language everwhere. My bet hate is " that didn't happen, I don't think." (...and variations of this I don't think D.N.) Either it did or it didn't happen - make your mind up. Everyone now, including broadcasters use use this atrocious grammar. About the blues. Yes , it becomes a joke when it ain't authentic, - I don't fink...or rather , I do think. Nice opinions, well written and a subject i feel i have mulled about, on my own for a long time. I say this as an expert 'blues harmonica' player who doesn't play the blues. Perhaps I should... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRvhV7g38fQ

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    1. Thank you, Mick. For the record, I found Mr. Strummer an egregious phony, and couldn't bear his band. The only band that matters? Blimey. I share your dismay at how sounding like an idiot and not pronouncing your t's is thought to make one sound...cool.

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    2. I think you should instantly record a revised version of 'When That Evening Sun Go Down', preferably with bullfrogs on your mind.

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    3. If it please the court, Dr. Hosko, my next blues undertaking will be my own composition, Handyman. Got a handyman comin' over. He's gon' bring his great big tool...

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  4. Anyway, yes, good meeting of minds. Thank heavens to mugatroyd someone else shares my aversion to what a great band the clash were and clash fanatics in general. I would have liked it best if they'd left it at the 1st album which I did like.

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