Soul Type Cast
Issue #46, December 1999
A response to Sideways Soul: In a Dancehall Style, a collaboration between Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Calvin Johnson's Dub Narcotic Sound System put out by K Records.
For white America, a premium alternative has been black. As any accurate history of slavery or minstrelsy reveals, white people have been discovering freedom in black bodies for a long time, though the discoveries black people have made of whites have often been less salutary. Just as my white grandparents thrilled to the "license" of swing, and my white parents turned on to bop with Kerouac's invocation of "dusky" freedom, so I and many of my post-punk peers have found new life in the blues. Norman Mailer hailed the white Negro -- he meant The Beats, conveniently ignoring the Negro Negroes among them -- and the 60s saw a rush of white people proclaiming themselves Niggers of the World. Yet today, for every imperative to "Be Like Mike," there are far more people living in economic conditions that were once described as niggardly.
The question is what makes the new jack blues of the post-punk, albeit post grunge set any different? Specifically, what do post-punks understand the blues to be, and what strategies do they employ to make use of them? Is it a whole self that white blues post punk construct, or do they offer another version of the white Negro, a self made of opposed halves, preoccupied with and constantly fighting for position? Do they keep a place for blackness or do they realize something through it?
Sideways Soul, a new collaboration between K Records chief Calvin Johnson and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion affords us the opportunity to consider these questions. I begin with a survey of "indie blues" through the history of one of its leading proponents, Jon Spencer's band. Along the way, I intend to point out the limitations of binary thinking (white/black, alternative/no alternative) and suggest a critical approach more capable of addressing cross-cultural communication than indie-blues does.
Modern History of the Blues (Explosion)
In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I love Jon Spencer. In fact, I've loved his work for a very long time. When Spencer, formerly of the anti-rock cabaret Pussy Galore, warbled, "Football players do all the things I want to do-oo-oo," I knew exactly what he meant, but felt that he was selling himself short. If I knew I had nine lives, I would like to spend at least one shooting up and lurching my way across the country, to wake up in a beautiful apartment, with a beautiful wife, and know exactly how I got there. Bonus if I can still fit into my jeans, and grease my hair with a dollop of underground funk.
When the Blues Explosion first hit, Jon Spencer took a lot of heat from those who'd fit him for the shoes of Indie Elvis, the next white pimp. Spencer bore this so that a generation of far shittier indie blues bands (I'm thinking of you, Delta 72) didn't have to. The criticism was not so much about the music, the accomplishment of which, after a Crypt Records debut even Spencer disowned, was pretty much recognized. After all, Spencer had proclaimed "I Love Negro Music" as early as "Waxhead" on Pussy Galore's 1989 Dial M (for Motherfucker). He was no trend hopper (or humper) but a johnny-come-before-most, and on albums such as 1993's Extra Width and 1994's Orange, Spencer's band demonstrated a fluency in and respect for blues forms which some descendents summarily lack.
Rather, criticism of Spencer addressed what it meant for a white artist to claim the blues, or to seem to embody them in the name of his band. The Blues Explosion's music was better described (to use the title of a King Curtis cut) as "Memphis soul stew," reflecting that region's unique mixing of classes and races in its music, and its country, rockabilly, and blues traces. Why single out the blues then? Why the explosion?
The tensions of this controversy can be seen on the cover of Dial M, which to my knowledge no one cited, perhaps because the critics were unfamiliar with Spencer's punk incarnation. On Dial M, he appears in Afro wig and cocoa butter tan, about to kick down a door with AK in hand, from a tenement's flight of stairs. Shot through a sepia filter, which yellows the air and everything else bleeds, the picture recalls "buckets of blood" where early jazz was played. Shot a few steps below Spencer, the picture recalls the scene in The Shining where blood overwhelms a closed door (the door behind Spencer), and we are left to watch with mouths agape as blood runs down the hall.
The questions I ask the cover are the same questions later asked of Spencer. Why are you dressed up like that? What are you breaking into (or out of)? Where is all that blood coming from? Does there have to be any? And what is the point of your revolutionary pose: am I coming through the door with you, or watching you waggle your ass? If I remember correctly, the answer of Nelson George, a leading critic, was an equivocal wait and see; time will tell if he's for real.
Spencer, when he chose to acknowledge the controversy, claimed he was being used by others to score preconceived points. In a country that hesitates to discuss race except symbolically, Spencer found himself the grounds for an overdue conversation. Perhaps he anticipated this by titling an early live album A Reverse Willie Horton. Nonetheless, a white band touring with an afroed, full-chested Black woman -- the distaff version of Big Daddy Kane's "Tall, Dark, and Lovely" -- on their T-shirts should have expected political readings.
In a 1995 Rolling Stone article, Spencer noted, "To most people, we have very little or nothing to do with the blues, but I think we are truly a blues band in the sense that what we do is very honest and comes from the heart and is about trying to evoke a feeling."
The Discovery of R.L. Burnside
"Q: Have you seen R.L. live? Is it worth seeing?
A: YES and OH YES! Seeing R.L. live is absolute fun. He tells jokes, sings old blues standbys, and even dances!"
-- From "Frequently Asked Questions" to the Burnsided Web site
For their next album, the Blues Explosion draped themselves in the blues. Actually, they wore gorilla suits with the heads off, to reveal their own. 1996's Now I Got Worry, hailed for its "darker" sound, featured their first recorded collaborations with Black artists. The album's press release noted, in a tangle of generative terms, a cut with Rufus Thomas, who had the first hit on Stax Records; the first hit on Sun Records, the first rock and roll label; who inspired the Rolling Stones, who we all know inspired damn near everyone else (including Pussy Galore, which covered the entirety of Exile on Main Street); and who received a guest spot, for the effort of birthing rock, on the new Blues Explosion album. The neat effect of this syllogism was to position the Blues Explosion beside the Zeus of rock, presumably as the music dropped, fully formed, from his head.
Now I Got Worry also featured a tribute, "R.L.'s Got Soul," to a Black bluesman with whom the band would have a longer-lasting relationship: R.L. Burnside. Burnside would become the first artist to open nationwide for the band and would release his own album that year, with the Blues Explosion backing him. To understand this relationship further, let's return to Now I Got Worry's notes:
"Dog shit. That's what so-called blues bands lack. Honky motherfuckers lock themselves in dorm rooms and while away the hours pretending to be savage Robert Johnson, rehearsing licks 'til they sound like everyone else. Artists that distinguish themselves from the masses remember that Robert Johnson ended his life in a godforsaken country bar, crawling on all fours and barking like a dog, a dog that sounded like no other. And while that knowledge may sharpen a blues blade, only the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion remembers the dog shit. Robert Johnson, exponent of the devil, howling like a bitch in heat. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion cannot be curbed..."
After noting Thomas's contribution, the notes summarize Burnside as:
"a Holly Springs, Mississippi blues man who has several times toured the U.S. with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and taught the band a thing or two; who has wallowed in dog shit all his life; who has recorded five albums for various labels around the world, the latest of which, A Ass Pocket o' Whisky, is a rumble between his bassless trio and the bassless trio of Jon Spencer."
The notes push the animal waste metaphor to its limit, noting the "keyboard dog farting" of Money Mark, before concluding with the invitation, "Dog shit. Wallow proud."
Now these are quotes that merit an essay unto themselves. For the sake of brevity here, let us note, first, that most people value Robert Johnson not for how he expired on the barroom floor, nor for what he found there, but for what he sang before he landed in that position (if this is truly how he died). Plenty of men have slept around, courted death from lovers and husbands, and drunk themselves into the grave; Robert Johnson made a musical sense of this by which we know him. Objectifying this is like saying heroin made Charlie Parker, and a generation of jazzmen had to learn differently.
A mind is one thing R.L. Burnside lacks in the description above. To see his, we must turn to profiles where we learn that Burnside found time, presumably when he was out of his wallow, to study the solo blues while pursuing work out of the cottonfields, towards the industrial magnets of Chicago and Memphis. At the end of the fifties, Burnside decided to return home, raised a family and in turn a family band, while supporting them as an agricultural worker.
In most retellings, however, Burnside's life is framed by a number of discoveries. The first came in 1967, when blues researcher George Mitchell became the first to record him. "When Mitchell found him, Burnside's electric guitar was broken, and so he recorded playing Mitchell's acoustic guitar. This caused him to be presented outside his community for many years as an old fashioned country blues artist and a solo performer." [http://www.geocities.com/SunsetStrip/Studio/4500/rl.html]
The second discovery came about a decade ago, when according to his biography at allmusic.com, "Burnside was primarily a farmer and fisherman...Although he had done short tours, it wasn't until the late '80s that he was invited to perform at several European blues festivals." This period culminated with Burnside's appearance in the 1992 documentary Deep Blues, for which he was picked by producer Robert Palmer as one of the few men left bearing the legacy of Northern Mississippi country blues.
The third discovery was Spencer's. Spencer first read of Burnside in a New York Times article about the label he was on, Fat Possum. Thanks to Spencer's backing, the past four years have been the most recorded of Burnside's life, with a release every year on a different indie label, culminating in the alt-rock apotheosis: Getting included on a Hollywood soundtrack (a remix of "Rollin' & Tumblin'" by Tom Rothrock, featured in this year's Sandra Bullock vehicle Forces of Nature).
Today, it seems that for every new fan discovering that Burnside's blues are "authentic" and "real" (usually, a synonym for "real baaaaad"), there is a self-described "blues purist," protesting that Burnside left country blues (his country) behind for an army of guitars (on the releases with Spencer) or "pseudotechno drum programs" (on the releases with Rothrock).
The argument over Burnside's authenticity is not only between fans from different musical camps but within blues itself. As the proprietor of the fansite "Goin' Down South" notes, "Compared to the contemporary blues that other, more mainstream labels were releasing, R.L. and the other Fat Possum artists were a revelation. Raw blues straight from hell, it seemed like." These terms, welcoming Burnside to blues in the early 90s, require his expulsion at the end. While indie rockers and blues purists may disagree over Burnside, they share a common language: one places him in dog shit and expects him to wallow; the other, in a hell he should never leave. Both deny his subjectivity -- his ability to interpret and to create -- as an artist. Both deny that the Rothrock-produced Burnside is the "real" one.
Burnside's history may suggest otherwise. During the thirteen year gap between Burnside's first and second records, R.L.'s family grew into a band. For an unspecified period, they played every Sunday, drawing a steadily increasing crowd, including (each article that mentions this is sure to note) white kids. Those who were not there can never know what the band sounded like, though the mixture of gospel, country, jazz, and funk some reports imply certainly intrigues, because they never recorded anything.
This, in turn, returns us to the original discovery in Burnside's story: the moment he realized his electric guitar was broken and used George Mitchell's acoustic instead. What would we have heard if that electric guitar had worked in 1967, or if the family band had recorded any time in the decade to follow? Not having heard a lick of Burnside's music, I cannot speculate on the results, but we would at least have a compound picture of Burnside that would challenge attempts to define him and his music by a point of origin.
A profile last year in Phoenix's New Times shows Burnside enjoying his greater fame. While not a millionaire, he's making money with his music, and the article implies, able to live from the earnings. His blues trio is booked through the end of the year. All his old blues albums were re-issued in 1997, the year after he recorded A Ass Pocket o' Whiskey. In this latest rediscovery, he has yet to record independent of indie producers, which may be aesthetic choice and/or financial reality. As for what his interviewer terms an "unlikely crossover crusade," Burnside says, "I feel good over that, because people just now beginning to realize that the roots is old, and that's the beginning of the music. That's where the music started from."
What saddens me, in retelling this story, is how depressingly familiar its terms are, and how often they fail its subject. From minstrelsy's song, dance, and joke "it," invoked in the epigraph, to the story of the Black musician recorded by a producer (Alan Lomax, John Hammond) who turns individual artistry into regional style, thereupon into an aesthetic code that operates against the musician, it seems we have relived the birth of the blues, with all the inequalities that entails. That Burnside, prior to his discovery by Spencer, recorded six acoustic albums to one electric says much more about the industry than it may about the artist. The unfortunate truth, contrary to Burnside's assertion, is that every generation this century has known the roots are the beginning of the music, and just as easily forgotten it.
When asked about A Ass Pocket o' Whiskey, Burnside explained the album was born backstage, drinking and swapping tales with the Blues Explosion while on tour. When Spencer said they should record the material, Burnside said no one would ever put out an album like it. Perhaps both men were right, and the key to this lies in the "dog shit," the "hell" some raise to avoid examining. In the end, the only ones with shit on their faces are those who choose to wear it.
What to make of the Blues Explosion in their gorilla suits? When asked, Spencer laughed, "That's something you do to try to make taking pictures a little more interesting. I don't know. You could just say we're wild. We're the wild animals of alternative rock or whatever the fuck." [Nine Times]
Personally, I'd bet a former semiotics major and a self-described "control freak" over the design and production of his albums puts a little more thought into his photo ops than that. Now this may be the smartest restatement of James Baldwin's analysis of how white shapes black, of how one is borne by his racial other as the other bears him. Or it may be a smirkily self-conscious statement by Manhattan playboys monkeying around in black art. Or it may be that for one day, the boys of the Blues Explosion got to run around in gorilla suits, and who wouldn't want to do that? (But why gorillas? Why not elephants or some very funky chickens?)
Sideways Soul is a collaboration that makes sense, since both Jon Spencer and Dub Narcotic's Calvin Johnson made their punk names out of subverting pop forms. Sideways Soul is interesting, if for no other reason than it was recorded two and a half years ago, between Now I Got Worry and the Blues Explosion's 1998 Acme. Sideways Soul is a midway stop, a rest station on the road from the blues wallow of early albums to a sound that Spencer described as "a little more competitive...a little more mellow, a little more sophisticated, certainly more groove-oriented." [amazon.com] What this means is that the Blues Explosion have become a producer's band, with the band supplying the material for a coterie of producers to "fuck shit up" in grand style. The curious consequence of this is that the albums are sold on the star power of the producers, a who's who list including Johnson, Moby, U.N.K.L.E., Mike D. and Beck, Genius from Wu Tang Clan, Steve Albini, and many, many, many others. This has led, interestingly enough, to an argument similar to the one over Burnside, pitting the blues power of old against the artistic integrity of new.
Sideways Soul offers a window onto this aesthetic in formation. My favorite cuts are those that set Johnson's Johnny Cash-like baritone as a foil for the shake, rattle, and roll around it, as on the cowboy blues "Love Ain't on the Run" and the title cut. "Fudgy the Whale" is the highlight, a ten-minute rumbler with the Blues Explosion layering hook upon hook, changing up and dropping beats, while Johnson runs through "the sixteen dances of Olympia" to issue a style dictionary for the Indie Nation.
Unfortunately, to reach this wheat, you must shuck an awful lot of chaff. "Diamonds" is the best example of the album's limitations. A Lone Star riff fades in, loping atop a neat skiffle beat. When drummer Russell Simins boxes out a straight 4/4, and Johnson drops his heaviest baritone yet, the song kicks. A guitar figure's cut in to punctuate each verse, but by the time we reach the bridge, the song's promise is forsaken. Spencer, blessed with the vocal range of Prince on a good day, chooses to caterwaul in a falsetto that weds orgasmic delight to chimpanzee hoots (literally), while Johnson's innuendoes about his dick swing from inspired to insipid. They wander around looking for a riff to hop and settle for a reprise of the same, which sounds road-worn. Spencer's wails do not undercut Johnson's call but respond to it. Four minutes later, we know which end of the dick we're on. Which might not be such a bad thing, if Johnson & Co. weren't so intent on ramming it down our throats.
What they seem to have missed, for all their insistence that we "do it," is the joy that stems from the transformation of the it, the man, the woman, and everything else in the course of a good blues or gospel. Prince's "It," to take an obvious example, offers a litany of places where the Purple One intends to do it, and an "it" that bumps through different positions in each line, following Prince like a trail of spoor. Part of the fun is the way the it gets passed around until it's everywhere, and we have no choice but to get down and do it ourselves. Which involves much more than singing do it, do it, come on, just do it.
The other five songs are botched experiments. "Banana Meltdown" recycles the riff from "Banana Version" without realizing anything new in it, while "Frosty Junction" and "Chicken Legs" exist only so that Johnson can try a neat-o part -- a melodica solo, vocals on stuttering delay -- cut obstrusively into the song, to hold our attention above the morass of noodling that constitutes the rest of it. By the time we reach the closer, "Calvin's On a Bummer," he's not the only one. In response to its repeated assertions to "murder rock; kill it," I want to assure him: he killed it. It's dead.
This is easiest to demonstrate in the lyrics. Johnson, who handles most of the singing, offers two things: compendiums of indie style and sexual innuendos. All these have blues roots, but what separates Johnson's "Fudgy the Whale" from "Dancing in the Streets" or the catalogs of soul to be found in James Brown, is what separates Johnson's dick fixation from Big Bill Broonzy's. The latter artists, in addition to detailing a life, tell theirs, in stories, with characters and consequences, if not lessons. This narrative voice is conspicuously absent in Johnson; his blues are strung together by non sequitur, by phrases repeated with an intensity that is presumed to give them meaning but often fails. As on "Diamonds," Johnson mistakes repetition itself for transformation.
Spencer, for his part, usually adds commands, like "Go!" or "Dance!" These are percussive figures that depend upon the space around them to work; otherwise, there is no place to go, nowhere to dance. On earlier Blues Explosion albums, Spencer seemed to understand this and used them sparingly: when he barked, you moved. As this becomes a mannerism, the figures lose their power. "Go!" on this album is a tic with which Spencer fills space, and there is nothing worse than being told to do something you don't feel.
This leads to what is most disturbing about the album: the extent to which it uses its own medium as an excuse. The blues becomes an excuse to jam, to not write songs, while dub, in the post-rock universe, becomes an excuse to turn three-minute pop songs into ten minute DIY recordings, which then becomes an excuse for established stars to hawk material that mostly should have remained in the basement.
Perhaps the one-night-only phrasing of the album title is meant to excuse these experiments. The fact of the matter is that if the musicians really took these songs out one night to a dance hall and played them, they'd be bathed in beer, which should not be taken as a badge of artistic merit. Sixty years ago, when big bands strung one-nighters across the continent, it was understood: you jumped (swung) or you died, and the death was on more levels than any but the strongest could handle. On Sideways Soul, the band jumps in and fucks off, and expects you to like it.
There is something distasteful about the album title's use of four different kinds of music. It's as if the musicians are attempting to invoke their power, to fuel listless music. If next year brings The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion Dropping Phat Beats in the Acid Jazz Millennium on K-Tel, we will know the truth.
Prior to the release of Acme, Spencer said, "People criticize us for playing music that's influenced by blues, by rap. I find it very upsetting, someone thinking we're doing something as a joke or saying what we're doing is inauthentic or that we have no right to be doing it. I don't agree. For Chrissake, we are Americans -- that is our music. No, we're not from the South, and we're not poor, and we're not black, but that's our culture -- that's what we grew up with. It's probably the only American thing that there is. But the Blues Explosion has many influences;...they all filter through us." [amazon.com]
Spencer is right to criticize those who would fault him for being influenced by black music. He's also right to suggest a common culture: trace most forms of black music back -- soul to Memphis, gospel to spirituals, jazz to the marching bands -- and you will find them at the point where black culture meets and makes its own use of European materials. To study music seriously is to study cultural hybridity and sometimes, even fellowship.
I think Spencer's mistake is that he doesn't take his influences seriously enough, nor recognize that there are some best filtered out. While he's demonstrated his literacy and assembled a killer assortment of hooks, he seems to have missed the root of their power: the expressiveness of the voice, and the way musical forms can be used to shape it. In all that "shit" Jon Spencer remembers, he seems to have forgotten the people.
On "Waxhead," Pussy Galore traded choruses of "I Like Negro Music" with "I Don't Like Negro Music," then trailed a long list of signifiers, the only one of which I could decipher through the feedback was: "I like fast cars." In 1989, the ludicrousness of the song seemed to invite derision or laughter at the concept of a music represented by its symbols. The seriousness of the songs Jon Spencer now sings suggest he has not thought that far ahead.
Aaron Shuman puts the free in freelance.