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.