A WOMP BOMP A LU BOP A LOP BAM BOOM…
“Listen – Nuki Suki MP3″
I hope everyone has had a nice relaxing weekend, filled with west and wewaxation.
Whether you spent a day in your smoking jacket, reclined on the settee with a good book and a snifter of brandy, or the night out, sweating up your best tee-shirt with an icy bottle of beer in your claws, I’m guessing you certainly deserved it – as do we all. This, opposed to the lot of the neckties of the world, who spent their weekend poring over spreadsheets and such, concocting new ways to endear themselves to the uber-bosses by thinking of methods to keep the rest of us down. This I suspect – whether they know it or not – will provide them with a lifetime of regrets, which they will savor in some cold, substandard “care facility” long after their children have forgotten them.
That’s what the weekend is all about. Avoiding that kind of future. The kind where all you have is regrets. I mean, when I’m 65 (or 70, or 90 if I’m really lucky) I’ll have lots of wonderful, non-spreadsheet related memories to keep me warm, as well as my wife, kids and (one hopes someday) grandkids, to whom I will bequeath the contents of my bookshelves and crates, which by that time will be seen by most as little more than arcana and the ephemera of a bygone age.
However, when the vast majority of the teenagers of the future (which by the way would make a wonderful band name and/or title for a 1950’s drive in flick) are doing the NuRobot to the strains of Zontar 2100 (or whatever they’re showing on Venusian MTV), my progeny will be the keepers of a wellspring of valuable cultural knowledge. Whether they use this knowledge for good or evil (I suspect that somewhere in the roots of my family tree yet to be there lurks the leader of some kind of soul 45-based mystery cult) is yet to be revealed. I am however sure of one thing…though they may walk the earth clad in tinfoil suits and six-foot platform boots, they will know who Little Richard was. I’ll make sure of that my friends. Oh yes, I will.
Well I’d hope that if you were a regular visitor to the Funky16Corners blog you’d already know the answer to that particular question, but then again, maybe not.
Maybe you’re one of those people that can’t abide by the sounds of anything before a certain cut-off date and you see Little Richard as little more than a relic of bygone age, or even worse as that comical old queen in the bad wig yelling at Alf on the Hollywood Squares.
If that’s what you’re thinking my friend, well…you have another think coming.
Because…well…pay attention on account of I’m about to start testifying.
The 1950’s were the very heart of the atom age and while that usually brings to mind images of mushroom clouds aglow over the Nevada desert, it reminds me of another explosion entirely, that being the equally jarring arrival of a young Georgia dishwasher named Richard Penniman on the American scene.
I have often (usually every time I see a film clip of Little Richard) given much thought to what it must have been like to see him for the first time. How must it have felt to be a 13-year-old kid in ultra-white bread Republican middle America, the very heart of staid I-Like-Ike-ism, turning on the radio and hearing a record like ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’. A 45 that carried with it (aside from all manner of earth shattering cultural implications) a 50-megaton payload of ear bending, bone rattling, dare I say it LIFE CHANGING music, the likes of which – if not entirely unprecedented – had probably never been heard by most of the growing suburban world.
Imagine the kind of psychological/aesthetic tattoo hammered into countless listeners via the piano keys exploding under the flying fingers of Little Richard.
And then there’s that voice.
The history of rock’n’roll is littered with screamers of all types, but rarely (and I do mean rarely) has anyone taken the power of an honest to god scream, and endowed it with a controlled musicality the way Little Richard did, though I’m certain that the Moms and Dads of America didn’t see it that way. What they saw (when he finally flew into view on some TV variety show or other) was a creature so alien, so seemingly built from a grab bag of offensive elements (running the gamut from his blackness, aggression, sexual thrust and/or orientation, though more likely a combination of all of the above) that he quite literally blew their minds. It was as if some mad scientist had created in his mountaintop lair, with the assistance of lightning and a rogue atom or two – this was after all the 50’s – a monster engineered to cut a wide swath of offense through the white middle class status quo, creating in the process an army of zombie teens, each and every one overflowing with a newly fired libido, a bottle of fortified wine in one hand and a love letter to Chairman Mao in the other.
Popular culture of the 50’s and 60’s is rife with images of adult authority figures, eyes rolling back in their heads as they drop to the floor in a faint at the mere sight, sound or suggestion of rock’n’roll, but the only artist capable of causing those kinds of reactions (until his onetime employee and disciple Jimi Hendrix more than a decade later) was Little Richard.
That these people missed the irony of the situation shouldn’t be surprising. Mid-50’s America was like the idea of the boom-town played out on an unimaginably huge scale. This was a country bursting at the seams with both a surplus of ready cash, and an equally huge stockpile of repressed sexuality (buried under a foul smelling cloak of puritanical hypocrisy and denial that seems to have made an unwelcome return in our own lives and times) both of which they wasted no time in using. This was the age of gigantic, almost-priapic automobiles, and the explosion of Madison Avenue controlled electronic media. Everything in the culture, from the new consumerism right on through to nuclear paranoia was outsized and out of control. How anyone could have been surprised that an age with this much electric current running through it could spawn a being as awe inspiring as Little Richard is a testament to the equally strong current of denial and racial ugliness that existed in the background.
While the American cultural underground was filled to the brim with the products of cutting edge creativity and innovation, the Kerouacs, Coltranes, Monks, Warhols et al, that are often cited as the undercurrent that gave birth to the changes of the 1960’s, the art created by these people, in its time existed largely in the margins, as did those that were aware of these words and sounds.
Little Richard on the other hand was on the radio, TV, and in the movies and he wasn’t pulling any punches. He wasn’t “foreshadowing” anything. He WAS the 1960s ten years ahead of time. He was explosive and flamboyant (in all senses of the word) in a way that was still cutting edge when the 60’s became, in one of the great nostalgic clichés of our age – “a turbulent time”.
The world was filled with Pat Boone-y types, and here came Little Richard, with his conk piled high, his eyes blazing, teeth flashing, pencil thin moustache in stark contrast to a thick layer of pancake makeup, hammering away at his piano, screeching/preaching about a girl who “sure liked to ball” (how did they miss that???) and slamming up against the inside of Americas TV sets. His image grabbed the parents of the world by the collar and shook them violently, all the while screaming
“Wake the fuck up Momma and Daddy ‘cuz I’m coming for your kids! WAAA-OOOOOOOOOO!!!!!! (Shut up!)”
It pays to stop for a second and take into consideration the jet propulsion that was present on so many of his best records. If you listen to a track like ‘Long Tall Sally’ or ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ it is immediately obvious that these slabs of wax acted as transmitters, taking the energy that Little Richard expended recording them and entering the listeners (not unlike the holy spirit of legend) causing all manner of ecstatic convulsions. They are still capable of doing the same thing 50 years hence.
How many poor kids got grounded and were forbidden to listen to (nay, think about listening to) Little Richard after their unsuspecting parents encountered him on TV? Probably the exact same number who were driven to defy such edicts, raid the liquor cabinet and slip their hands under their best girls sweater (or allow the boundaries of their sweaters to be breached). These were the kids that left home to go to college years later and ended up throwing bricks (real and symbolic) through the windows of the establishment.
Look at a band like the MC5 and it’s not hard to see that there is a direct line running from their sounds back to those of Little Richard despite the differences – real and imagined – between the two, I’m here to tell you that they were most certainly working the same side of the street, selling the same kind of salvation. As many times as I’ve listened to ‘Kick Out the Jams’, I’ve always wanted to believe that Rob Tyner, Brother Wayne Kramer and the rest of the Five were working their Mailer-esque “white negro” schtick (which would not have existed for them without John Sinclair and his White Panther-isms) with wholehearted sincerity, because they transmit an energy on that album that is redolent of a love of real rock’n’roll (especially Little Richard) that is 100% pure. The boys from Michigan may have been serving up their Tutti Frutti with a side of hand grenades and trans-love energy, but maybe that’s what was needed in 1968. I can’t really fault them for taking the implicit politics of the Little Richard sound and translating them into explicit connections to the un-realpolitik of the moment because the end result was so exciting. I’m not sure if Little Richard approved (or even knew who the MC5 were) but I’ve seen film of them on stage and they certainly seemed like his kind of people.
As it is, the spirit of Little Richard, a fiery cornerstone of rock’n’roll, didn’t get a whole lot of play in the days of the MC5, or in any time since.
The tragedy is that Little Richard (the man and the legend) fell victim less to the vagaries of the marketplace than to a veritable tidal wave of religious guilt that alternately fueled and doused his fire through the years. The devil on his left shoulder kept pushing him to break new ground (of all kinds, read his biography) while the tight-assed angel on the right repeatedly dragged him back, forcing him to throw his jewels overboard and thump a bible instead of a piano.
He spent much of the 60’s running back and forth from the sacred to the profane, stopping along the way to create some above average soul 45s (for Okeh, Brunswick and Reprise*) and watching his musical descendants become an unstoppable juggernaut. When you see the man on TV raving about how he “invented the Beatles” it pays to remember that he’s not too far off the mark.
By the early 70’s, the godfathers of rock’n’roll were prowling the stages of the world once again at the behest of their followers. I can hardly think of one of the greats, the Chuck Berrys, Bo Diddleys, Fats Dominos or Little Richards (even cats like Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and John Lee Hooker) , that didn’t make an effort – to wildly varying levels of artistic success – to remain relevant.
Little Richard re-entered the studio in 1972 with a hand-picked crew of his old NOLA compadres (Earl Palmer, Bumps Blackwell, Lee Allen, George Davis) and some newer cats (Bill Hemmons – who wrote ‘Nuki Suki’ – and believe it or not the recently departed Sneaky Pete Kleinow) to make some music. The album that he made, ‘The Second Coming’ may not have been perfect, but it is evidence that Little Richard knew which side his bread was buttered on, and while clearly eager for 1972 style success, he didn’t screw with the basic elements of his sound too much.
That is with the marked exception of the lascivious – and funky – ‘Nuki Suki’. That’s Richard on the clavinet – and the shrieking, moaning and yelping (of course), on a record that in his 1950’s heyday would probably have changed hands only under the counter in a plain brown wrapper. By current standards it couldn’t be more harmless, and even in 1972, as America, in a haze, staggered along in their fringe vests, unaware of how bad a hangover was ahead, it wouldn’t have raised a single eyebrow. And you can be sure, that he meant every word – all five or six of them – with a deep conviction that can only come in the mid-life of the man that Leon Russell once celebrated as the “Undiluted Queen of Rock’n’roll”.
As it is, it’s probably just a footnote in the history of Little Richard, but a funky footnote nonetheless (the kind of footnote we specialize in around here), with no discernable impact in comparison to a monster like ‘Long Tall Sally’, yet strangely reassuring when you see the man, in a star-spangled pant suit yukking it up on a game show panel. Dig it.
* ‘Nuki Suki’ was released as the b-side of a Reprise 45, but I don’t imagine all 5+ minutes made it onto the disc.
PS Another piece of evidence that I’m slowly losing my mind, as I rapped to you at the end of my last post about the Asbury 45 Sessions, I neglected to mention where this event would be held, which is the Asbury Lanes, in Asbury Park NJ, but a stones throw from the boards where Bruce Springsteen once donned the cap and bells (or leather jacket and sneakers) and walked beneath the Proscenium Arch (aka the boardwalk).