Saturday, March 17, 2012

For a Song: Hey Joe

Ain't no hang-man gonna put a rope around me

It's a myth propagated by Hollywood, played out in countless westerns and horse operas. Long before Taco Bell hijacked the phrase "make a run for the border" it was associated with hope and freedom. Escaping over the border into Mexico was a way out for men facing the hangman or prison. Movie makers would have us believe that Mexico was a lawless land, where authorities were willing to turn a blind eye. There was some truth to the myth, but by the 1880's that was rarely the case.

Whatever tolerance Mexicans may have had for lawbreaking Gringos on the run had worn thin. An American outlaw  fleeing across the border was just as likely to run afoul of Mexican authorities. The Arizona cowboys who tangled with Wyatt Earp (well portrayed in George Cosmatos' 1993 film "Tombstone") were not welcomed in Mexico due to their tendency to rustle Mexican cattle and shoot Mexican citizens. It's highly unlikely that any of them looked to Mexico as a safe haven.

The experience of  Dave Rudabaugh (immortalized by Christian Slater in Young Guns) is a good example of the changing times.  Known as Dirty Dave, for his aversion to soap and water, Rudabaugh played out his rope in the States and fled to Mexico. Unable to lay low and blend in, Dirty Dave soon found himself in a fracas with locals in Parral, Chih. Rudabaugh shot two men dead and wounded another over a card game gone wrong. He then fled the cantina, only to find his horse missing.

With typical dunderhead arrogance he marched back into the establishment to demand his horse back. Rudabaugh was promptly shot dead and decapitated. His head was impaled on a post and displayed for three weeks. Many U.S. outlaws met their end south of the border, waylaided for the boots on their feet or the horses they rode in on. There's no real way of knowing how many outlaws actually found Mexico to be a place where "they could be free"

Country music is brimming with odes to Mexico (Riding my Thumb to Mexico- Johnny Rodgriguez, I Got Mexico- Eddy Raven, Blame it on on Mexico- George Straight, That's Why God Made Mexico- Tim McGraw, Stays in Mexico- Toby Keith, just to name a few) all without exception take a romanticized, simplistic view of life on the other side. There's not as many rock songs that deal with the subject, with the most obvious being "Hey Joe" a song with a back story as seedy as any criminal making tracks for the border.

An unapologetic murder ballad, "Hey Joe" uses a chord progression based on the circle of fifths. Country singer Carl Smith recorded a song called "Hey Joe" in 1953. It's not the same tune, although both songs use a "question & answer" format ( "Hey Joe, what are you gonna do?, Take my pistol, and kill her before I’m through") Billy Roberts' original could have been based on a traditional ballad "Little Sadie" which is about a man who shoots his cheating wife.

It could also be a coincidence that Roberts' girlfriend, a folk singer named Niela Miller recorded "Baby, Please Don’t Go To Town" in 1955, a song that uses the same exact chord progression as "Hey Joe." The similarites between "Baby, Please Don't Go to Town" and "Hey Joe" are such that you can't discount the probability that Roberts nicked the music from Niela. The original lead sheet and lyrics were registered for copyright by Billy Roberts in 1962. To further muddy the water, Scottish folk singer, Len Partridge claimed that he co-wrote the song in 1956, while Billy  was staying in Scotland. It's a dubious claim at best, and Partridge never pursued it in a court of law.

Most versions of "Hey Joe" (including Hendrix's) credit Billy Roberts as the author. The original lyrics don't always match other versions, Roberts' version begins with the line "Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that money in your hand? and then continues with "Chasin’ my woman, she run off with another man, Goin downtown, buy me a Forty Four"  Hendrix on the other hand starts with "Hey Joe, where you goin' with that gun in your hand" that line is repeated, then he answers, "I'm goin' down to shoot my old lady, You know I caught her messin' 'round with another man." 

Chester Powers beget Chet Powers, who beget Jesse Farrow, who beget Dino Valenti.  He was a singer/songwriter who relocated to Los Angeles from Boston just as L.A.'s nascent folk rock scene was starting to coalesce. Valenti had written the ultimate hippie anthem "Get Together", ("Come on people... smile on your brother, everybody get together right now.") However in 1963, flower power was still four years away. The Kingston Trio & We Five both recorded the song, but neither version was a hit. Which brings us back to Billy Roberts and "Hey Joe." As he was prone to do, Valenti found himself in a legal tangle following a drug bust.

As his good friend, Billy was feeling sorry for Dino. With legal fees piling up, Roberts signed over the songwriter credit for "Hey Joe" so that Dino would have some form of income after his release from jail. Some claim that's nonsense and that Dino Valenti simply stole the song from Roberts (who apparently stole it from Niela Miller) Nonetheless, a remorseless Valenti took credit for writing the song and taught it to David Crosby, who taught it to other L.A. musicians including Jim Pons, of  The Leaves and Arthur Lee of Love. (Sonny & Cher even picked up on it, with Cher recording her own version)

As some folks like to say, "don't fuck with karma." Valenti's quintessential Summer of Love anthem, "Get Together" turned out to be a bonanza. First The Jefferson Airplane included it on their debut album and then in 1969, it was a smash hit for The Youngbloods (two years after they had first recorded their version) Not that Valenti saw any money from the song's huge success, having sold off the royalty rights to pay for a lawyer to help get him out of jail. Dino who was now the lead singer for Quicksilver Messenger Service, simply rolled with the flow.

The Leaves, a Los Angeles garage punk band recorded the first rock version of "Hey Joe" in 1965. They gave the songwriting credit to Dino Valenti. Their first version was poorly recorded and ended up sounding like a demo, it flopped. They went back to the studio and recorded a cleaner version, this one hit.  In 1967, The Music Machine deconstructed the song, turning it into a psychedelic sludge fest. Sean Bonniwell brazenly mixed original lyrics with improvisations like "I guess I'll take my life down in Mexico" or "Hey Joe you can't die until you talk" and my favorite "I see that death is the glove that fits the hand of time" (all the band members wore a single black glove, a quirk made famous by Bobby Jameson and of course Michael Jackson )

When The Leaves broke the song on the national scene, David Crosby was so excited about the part he had played in its success, that he insisted that The Byrds also record it with himself on vocals. This version admirably sticks to Roberts' original, even if the tempo was too fast and Crosby's vocals were totally inadequate. The Leaves' version hit the charts in 1966, the same year Hendrix started playing it and also when Chas Chandler (ex-bassist for the Animals, turned manager & talent scout) turned up in New York City.

There's also a question whether folk singer Tim Rose stole the song or not. Rose started playing the song in 1966 at Club Wha?  Which was fine, except he claimed that it was an arrangement of a traditional song he had heard while growing up in Florida, and gave himself the songwriting credit. Rose would go so far as to record the song under a different title (Blue Steel .44) and throughout his lifetime steadfastly refused to relinquish his claim on the song. (He also stole "Morning Dew" but that's a different story)

Chas Chandler caught Rose's act at Club Wha? and set out to find someone to record a rock version for release in the U.K. It just so happened that Jimmy James & The Blue Flames (Jimi Hendrix) were booked at Club Wha? the next night. To Chandler's amazement, Hendrix was already playing his own version of "Hey Joe" Chas swept up Jimi and took him to London where they recorded a single (Hey Joe / Stone Free) he took it to Decca's Dick Rowe, who naturally passed on it  ("not very impressive is it?") Eventually he signed Hendrix to Reprise and the rest is history.

"Hey Joe" was the only cover song included on Hendrix's debut album "Are you Experienced?" On the album sleeve, "Hey Joe" is described as ""A blues arrangement of an old cowboy song that's about 100 years old." This and Tim Rose's claim that it was a traditional song led to much confusion in the U.K. (traditional songs can't be copyrighted, so anyone is free to play or record them without a fee) Jimi Hendrix gave Billy Roberts credit in the U.S., but took the credit for himself in the U.K.  In order to tailor the song to the times, Hendrix had taken a few liberties with the original lyrics, he felt this justified a song writing credit.

British mod band, Marmalade in need of a cheap B-side, recorded "Hey Joe" because they assumed it was a traditional song. The song became a moderate hit in England, but then as one band member stated: "The bloke who wrote the bloody song, came out of the woodwork and demanded his money" It doesn't say who that "bloke" was, but I get a feeling it was Tim Rose. The cover versions kept coming, The Shadows of Knight (killer) Wilson Pickett (awkward) Patti Smith (strange) Roy Buchanan (excellent) Cher (dog poo) Music Machine (wickedly good) The Byrds (stiff) Love (Arthur Lee could sing from a phone book and sound good)

Deep Purple stretched the song out to almost eight minutes and then gave themselves songwriting credit. Frank Zappa's parody of "Hey Joe" titled "Flower Punk" (from the album "We're only in it for the Money") captures the essence of the song in all it's sleazy glory "Hey punk where you goin' with that flower in your hand?" "I'm goin' up to Frisco to join a psychedelic band" it rips the hippie movement "Hey Punk, where you goin' with those beads around your neck?", "I'm goin' to the shrink so he can help me be a nervous wreck" Zappa totally kills it, even Tim Rose didn't have the nerve to claim this version as his.

The romantic notion of Mexico as a place to escape from the law has been replaced over the years by a more jaded view. "Let's drive that old Chrysler down to Mexico, boy!"  ZZ Top's "Mexican Blackbird" is about the pursuit of tequila and brown cooter, rather than freedom. "If you're down in Acuna and you ain't up to being alone" Generations of young Texan males motored down to the border towns looking for some tush "They all call her puta 'cause no one really knows her name" just go first, you don't want ZZ Top's sloppy seconds. "The wings of the blackbird will spread like an eagle for you."

By the 1980's Texans heading for the border had pharmaceuticals in mind "Take me, Mexican Caravan, south of, south of the Rio Grande" The Butthole Surfer's "Mexican Caravan" spoke for a new generation of border hoppers "Take me to that Miguel town, where I can score some of that heroin brown" the outlaw mystique was shot to hell "Push me into the garbage can, teach this white boy to be Mexican" with that I say, Adios Cabrones! "Push me into the Rio Grande, give this white boy the big suntan" but, I leave secure in the knowledge that I answered the age old question: "Hey Joe... where you gonna go?"