Saturday, July 11, 2015

Dirt City Chronicles Rock & Roll pt. 3

 Untamed Youth: Live Fast, Die Young

For a short time rockabilly was king, but by 1958 it had lost all its momentum. The last true hope for the genre was Eddie Cochran, a guitarist and vocalist who also wrote his own songs. Eddie resurrected the tales of teenage angst first popularized by Chuck Berry, injected them with the speed freak energy of the early rockabilly cats to evolve into what can best be described as Post-Rockabilly. Cochran was a good looking though diminutive man, features that he purposely accentuated with jittery mannerisms and an exaggerated slouch. (best exemplified in the motion picture, Untamed Youth in which he starred alongside Mamie Van Doren ) That perception would change as soon as he strapped on his trademark orange Gretsch 6120 and took the stage.

The curtain would rise, Eddie standing center stage, with his back to the audience would let the shrieks grow to a full crescendo before whipping around and jumping straight in to his first number. He held Elvis like command of his audience. Cochran was poised to carry the flame on into the 1960's when sadly he was killed in a car accident while touring in England. Gene Vincent and Eddie's girlfriend, songwriter Sharon Seeley were traveling in the same vehicle, both were seriously injured but survived. Eddie however struck his head on the roof of the car and was flung out of the vehicle as it slammed sideways into a lamp pole at a rate of 60 mph. 

While serving in the US Navy in 1955, Gene Vincent (Vincent Eugene Craddock) had been involved in a motorcycle accident that nearly cost him his leg. He was left with a permanent limp and in constant pain. As a result, Vincent always appeared tortured, but when he sang, an eerie, almost angelic transformation took place. Gene would stare off into the heavens, much like Judy Garland did while singing Over the Rainbow (a minor hit for Vincent as well) His peculiar stage presence and bum leg made him the anti-Elvis or as some put it, the rocker that your parents warned you about.

Following the Cochran accident, Vincent returned to England and would eventually make his home there while touring extensively throughout Europe and the UK. It was during this period that he adopted his iconic black leather gear (the result of an appearance on Jack Good's British television show Boy Meets Girl) Good took it up himself to update Gene's appearance. A move that left poor Gene looking like a refugee from a rough trade shop.... though it endeared him to a new generation of rockers around the world. (A quick note: Jack Good lived in New Mexico for many years, devoting himself to painting. His work was exhibited at Rancho de Chimayo alongside that of Antonio Roybal)

By the late 1960s, the pain killers and alcohol made Sweet Gene Vincent, especially unbearable to the multitude of musicians that he toured with. To quote Goldmine Magazine “He was drunk, profane and reeked of sex and violence to the point of utter chaos and his shows always were filled with sexual innuendo and utter longing”... The high point at this stage of Gene's career was when he attempted to murder vile pedophile Gary Glitter while both were touring in Germany. Vincent emptied his handgun at Glitter, though due to his drunken condition he missed on all counts. Glitter immediately fled Germany, though he later spoke of the incident with sentimental pride. 

Elvis Presley, “The King” rose from the public housing slums of Memphis to become the most recognizable male vocalist of all time. However, it didn't happen by accident. Elvis had talent, he transcended music, he electrified his audience, he re-invented entertainment. Elvis Presley, was rock and roll's alpha male.... a role he wasn't always keen on playing. His tour of West Texas in 1955 would influence two of rock and roll's biggest stars, Buddy Holly (who would open for Presley in Lubbock) Roy Orbison (who caught the show in Odessa) and launch hundreds of imitators. 

Elvis had a nervous energy that he used to stoke up the crowd, but the hip thrusts and leg shaking were just part of it. He had the ability to convey his emotions to the audience, his appeal and charisma were both very natural and his fans (especially the gals) would just eat it up. Nik Cohn got to the root of his appeal: “He's just like a paperback book. Real sexy pictures on the cover, only when you get inside, it's just a good story. He looked dangerous, but ultimately was safe and clean” This love 'em, tease 'em, mistreat 'em strategy worked beyond anyone's wildest imagination.

Within a period of one year Elvis went from making $35 a week, to becoming a $20 million dollar industry (in 1950s dollars at that) In the long run, it would prove to be his undoing as well. The day Elvis signed with RCA records he started down the path to self destruction. The money, movies and fame would turn him into a bloated and self indulgent caricature of the rocker he once was. All that was promised and all that was delivered still pale in comparison to the brilliant flash of talent first witnessed in those early years.

Hillbilly Babylon

Rockabilly's southern origins meant that it was a boiling pot of mixed influences. It also meant that some of the early rockabilly records had lyrics that today, would make some folks cringe. A verse from Warren Smith's "Ubangi Stomp" is probably the most infamous "Well, I rocked through Africa and rolled off the ship and seen them niggers doin' an odd lookin' skip" Smith later dropped the n-word, as did others who covered the song including Jerry Lee Lewis, who had a minor hit with his version. The opening verse of Charlie Feather's "Jungle Fever" starts out with "Darkies creeping through the green, Jungle fever got a hold on me." Which was later amended to say “Darkness, creepin' thru the leaves” a change that neither took away from the original nor added to it.

Misogyny was also given the light touch early on. "Honey Hush" has Johnny Burnette telling his girl to "Come on in this house, stop all that yakety yak" reminding her "Don't make me nervous, cause I'm holding a baseball bat.” For some odd reason Big Joe Turner's original didn't sound as menacing "I Had Enough", has Jerry Reed delivering threats of violence to any fellers sniffing around his gal “You're my private property and you ain't for rent” keep in mind, he's singing about his gal not a mule “I think it wise you lay the fellows a hint, to either leave you alone or get their backbone bent” he leaves just enough doubt as to his intentions, to make you fear for her safety as well.

Memphis, Tn. November 23rd. 1976 2:50 a.m.
 (Compiled from online sources, no claim of authorship implied)

Jerry Lee Lewis pulled up to Graceland smashing into its fabled front gates. He was driving a brand new Lincoln Continental, having flipped his brand new Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow the previous morning. The guard on duty, reported that Lewis was armed, angry and obviously inebriated. “He was outta his mind, man... he was screamin', hollerin' and cussin” Lewis held a derringer that had been given to him at Vapors, a Memphis nightclub just hours earlier. “Get on the goddamn phone. I know you got an intercom system. Call up there and tell Elvis I wanna visit with him. Who the hell does he think he is? Tell him the Killer's here to see him” Lewis commanded...

The guard, Harold Lloyd (Elvis' cousin) panicked, “I just put my hands up in the air and said, 'Okay, okay, Jerry, just take it easy” he retreated to the guard booth and picked up the house phone. “One of 'the boys' answered and Lloyd appraised him of the situation” Lloyd was advised to call the cops, and wasted no time in doing so.
Moments later Elvis himself rang down to the guard booth. Lloyd recalls their conversation precisely. 'Elvis was on the line and he said, 'Wh-wh-what' -- see, he used to stutter a lot when he got upset -- 'Wh-wh-what the hell's goin' on down there, Harold?' 'I said, 'Well, Jerry Lee Lewis is sittin' in his car down here outside the gate, wavin' a derringer pistol and raisin' hell', 'Elvis said, 'Wh-wh-what's that goddamn guy want?' [I said] 'He's demanding to come up and see Elvis'. 'He said, 'Oh, I-I-I don't wanna talk to that crazy sonofabitch. Hell no, I don't wanna talk to him. I'll come down there and kill him! You call the cops, Harold', 'I told him I already did and he said, 'Good. When they get there tell 'em to lock his ass up and throw the goddamn key away. Okay? Thank you, Harold', (Elvis is said to have watched the 'whole drama on his closed-circuit monitors').

The Memphis police arrived, found the gun in the car and put Jerry Lee in handcuffs. Before taking him away they called up to the main house and asked Elvis what they should do with him “Lock him up” was the King's response. “That hurt my feelings. To be scared of me – knowin' me the way he did – was ridiculous." Lewis would later reflect in an interview. He was arrested and charged with carrying a pistol and public drunkenness.

Roll over Beethoven- Chuck Berry
When I Found You- Jerry Reed
Oh! Boy- Buddy Holly
Fast Freight- Arvee Allens aka Ritchie Valens
Big Town- Ronnie Self
Sag Drag Fall- Sid King & the Five Strings
Mystery Train- Jackie Lee Cochran “Jack the Cat”
Money Honey- Elvis Presley
My Baby's Gone- Jimmy Bowen
Whisper Your Love- The Phantom
Blue Moon- Elvis Presley
Blue Days Black Nights- Bob Luman
Blue Days Black Nights- Buddy Holly
When My Baby Left- Sid King & The Five Strings
Johnny B. Goode- Chuck Berry
Bye Bye Johnny- Chuck Berry
Lucille- Little Richard
Red Headed Woman- Sonny Burgess
Uh Huh Honey- Charlie Feathers
Honey Bop- Wanda Jackson
Tongue Tied- Betty McQuade
Baby Please Don't Go- Billy Lee Riley
Caterpillar- Ray Campi
Rockin' Bandit- Ray Smith
Rock It- Thumper Jones
Flying Saucer Rock & Roll- Billy Lee Riley
That Certain Female- Charlie Feathers
Tore Up- Ray Campi
All I Can Do is Cry- Wayne Walker
Teenage Boogie- Webb Pierce
Pink and Black- Sonny Fisher
Rockabilly Boogie- Johnny Burnette Trio
Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight- Sid King & The Five Strings