The ABCs of AC/DC, Pt. 1

The Easybeats

It was big brother George’s band, the Easybeats, who paved the way for AC/DC.

Before AC/DC, there were the Easybeats.  Learn about big brother George Young’s band, who had more than just Friday on their minds, in this episode of NOTES.

The People Vs. Blaring Din

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rise to defend a client some of you may have previously encountered.

Perhaps it was when he pulled up in the turn lane next to you at the stoplight.  Maybe it was an occasion when he zipped by as you walked on the sidewalk.  It is the rare person who hasn’t met the defendant at least once.  We all know him — the fellow who drives around with his windows rolled down and his music blaring.

I ask you to look past his sloping brow, his tiny, darting eyes and his bleeding eardrums. Think of the pain which must pierce my client’s heart every time you’ve muttered, “Inconsiderate dirtbag,” or “infuriating idiot” as the sound of Snoop Dogg or Lynyrd Skynyrd dopplers by and dwindles into the city’s ambience.  I want you to take a close look at this man.  This is not the face of a selfish boor.  This is the face of a hero, a traditionalist, keeping an important musical ritual alive.

You see, as musician David Byrne and others have pointed out, music has undergone a fundamental shift in recent years as its underlying technologies have morphed.  There was a time when listening to music positively required you to share your sounds with anyone in close proximity.  To be sure, we have had stereo headphones for a little more than half a century, since John C. Koss invented the Koss SP-3 and in so doing, midwifed the birth of the audiophile.  But the advent of the MP3 player, particularly, and the earbuds  through which most of us have our tunes relayed past our pinnae and into our ear canals, have transformed the practice of popular music from a social activity to a private one.  We no longer declare our identity by flying the Van Halen banner or the Elvis Costello pennant.  Music has joined the domain of those activities which many — perhaps the majority! — of us practice but which we, as a society, have decided must be kept on the down low, like onanism, talking to ourselves and staring at our pimples in the mirror.

And so, you see, this man sitting before you, with his six eight-inch DC subs and his Cactus 9k blasting at a resonant frequency sufficient to shatter his windshield, is a veritable Don Quixote, tilting at the windmills of modernity, refusing to go gently into that good night of music shame, and loudly declaring: I LISTEN TO KANYE.  THEREFORE, I AM.  He will not bow to our modern culture’s insistence that his music be regulated, restrained and restricted.   He will be heard!  He is exactly like Gandhi — if Gandhi had played Skrillex at cochlea-shattering volume.

So the next time my client whizzes by your house, knocking knick-knacks to the floor and driving your dogs into paroxysms of startled barking with the bass notes of “Fancy” blasting like automatic muzzle flash from his SUV, remember what this man has done for you… how he has fought for your right to party loudly down public streets… how he has kept alive a precious praxis of pop music.  You must return a verdict of “Not Guilty.”  Because, thanks to the opinion established in 1980 by the AC/DC Circuit Court, we know for sure: “Rock n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.”

The defense rests.

Hasil Adkins, Psycho Rocker

Hasil-Adkins

When Hasil Adkins said, “No more hot dogs!” he meant it, boy.

There’s never been another performer like Hasil Adkins, although some have tried to emulate his mad genius. Learn about the man who practically single-handedly invented psychobilly in this episode of NOTES.

Stealing Grandfather’s Clock

I have a cherished memory.  And maybe, just maybe, it’s one you hold dearly yourself.

Be advised — I’m not talking to the youngbloods here.  If you were born later than the 1960s, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to relate to Craven’s nostalgifyin’ today.  Now, you may indeed know the song we’re discussing in the next 524 words, at least if you’re a fan of the Philadelphia vocal group, Boyz II Men (themselves now considered a nostalgia act, or so Craven is told by whippersnappers), seeing as how they recorded a version of the song ten years ago.  

But I daresay if you’re on the south side of 50, your grandmother never sang you to sleep with a song that was already old when she was born.  Craven can still recall the woolen guest blanket he’d be tucked into on nights spent at his grandparents’ house, and how his grandmother would sit to the right of his bed and softly sing the four verses and chorus of “My Grandfather’s Clock.”  He’ll never forget the song’s story about an old longcase clock bought on the day the singer’s grandfather was born.  And Craven will likewise never forget his grandmother’s sweet, trembling soprano keening of the song’s famous chorus:

“Ninety years without slumbering (tick, tock, tick, tock),
His life’s seconds numbering (tick, tock, tick, tock),

It stopped short, never to go again,

When the old man died.”

In case that lyric or the title doesn’t ring a bell, here’s the backstory of an American classic… and I’ll warn you: It isn’t altogether pretty.

That “My Grandfather’s Clock” was written in 1876 and was a gargantuan hit in its day is undisputed historical fact.  Long before the recording industry was a thing (in fact, two years before Thomas Edison publicly demonstrated his newfangled phonograph for the first time), “My Grandfather’s Clock” reportedly sold over a million copies of sheet music.  But who wrote it?  Ah, there lies the mystery.

The song has always been credited to Henry Clay Work.  Most of Work’s works (heh!) have been forgotten, and that’s at least partly due to the fact that he wrote so many of them in so-called “slave dialect,” a peculiar American pop culture phenomenon that has rightly been consigned to the trash bins of history along with minstrelry and Uncle Remus.  (But don’t judge Work too harshly on that basis; he was a devout abolitionist, and his family actually sheltered runaway slaves bound for Canada in their Connecticut home.)

Inspired by a story he was told about a clock in the George Hotel in Britain, Work wrote the first lyric and chorus of “My Grandfather’s Clock” — that much is uncontested.  But according to the black performer Sam Lucas, who made the song famous on the vaudeville stage and whose photograph appeared on the first printing of the song’s sheet music, it was actually Lucas who wrote the rest of the song, including its famous earworm melody.  While Lucas was the first to admit he benefited from his association with the song, Work went on to make what would be millions of dollars in today’s currency from the song’s royalties, not a dime of which reached Lucas’ palm.   

That’s a sad story.  But it’s not sad enough to stain the memory of being wafted away to a guileless child’s dreams by the voice of your beloved grandmother, as she ticked, tocked, ticked, tocked in a timeless moment.

Andy Partridge’s Satellite

Andy Partridge

Andy Partridge, years before the seagulls screamed at him to kiss Erica Wexler.

There are romantic breakups… and then there are romantic breakups in which one party writes and releases a song telling the other party to get lost.  This is the story of the latter sort.  It’s the tale of Andy Partridge’s Satellite, on this episode of NOTES.

The Talkbox and the .357

Roger Troutman had lived a favored life.  But on April 25, 1999, he died a premature and unsought death.

As the fourth of ten children growing up in Hamilton, Ohio, near Dayton, Roger’s ebullient humor and charisma marked him as special at an early age.  He started playing guitar before he was ten and showed enough natural prowess playing local dances that his father bundled him off to a music school in Cincinnati, where he expanded his instrumental vocabulary to include bass, keyboards and drums.  He was cutting singles while still in his teens, and by the time he was 29, the band he had formed with several of his brothers (including his eldest brother, Larry, who managed the band) had been signed by George Clinton to his Uncle Jam record label, and newly christened as “Zapp.”

If you’re a fan of funk or hip-hop, there’s a good chance you’ve heard Zapp’s music, whether you recognize the name or not.  The band exploded onto urban music charts in 1980 with their classic slab of heavy funk, “More Bounce to the Ounce,” and continued to rack up huge r&b hits like “Heartbreaker” and “Computer Love” during the next few years.  Zapp’s music was characterized by big fat basslines, contrapuntal funk guitar licks and Roger Troutman’s signature vocals, which were usually delivered through a talkbox — that strange, relatively low-tech cousin to the vocoder that allows a singer to send the output from an amplifier into his mouth, where the sound can be shaped into words, and then back out to a speaker.  Roger sometimes called his talkbox the “Nasty Straw,” because the plastic tube would cause any singer employing it to drool profusely, and it had to be washed constantly or become infectious.  But Roger used the talkbox copiously, probably to help hide the fact that his singing was the weakest of his musical talents.

Still, it was as a singer, not a guitarist, that Troutman scored his biggest commercial success.  After Zapp’s fortunes floundered in the early 1990s, Roger found his career newly ascendant in 1995, thanks to hip-hop artists who had been sampling Zapp songs since the earliest days of the genre.  It was that year that Dr. Dre asked Troutman to sing on a new track he was producing for 2Pac.  Roger was doubtful, but cobbled together some lyrics from a couple of his old songs and went into the studio with Dre, armed with his trusty Electro Harmonix talkbox.

The result, of course, was “California Love,” a double-platinum hit in 1996.  The song netted Grammy nominations for Troutman (as well as 2Pac and Dr. Dre) and rekindled his career.  But with success came family problems.  By 1999, Roger had decided he wanted to part ways with brother Larry, who was still acting as his manager.  Larry quarreled with his more famous sibling.  

Then, in the early hours of April 25, Larry apparently drove Roger in his black Lincoln sedan to Roger Tee Enterprises, the family’s recording studio named after the younger Troutman.  As Roger got out of the car, Larry pumped four bullets from a .357 Smith & Wesson handgun into the singer’s back and stomach, and peeled away, leaving Roger to die on the curb.  Larry drove a few blocks before putting the gun to his head and pulling the trigger.  He was found dead where the car had plunged into a tree.  It was a senseless crime that ended a career so fortuitous, it rose twice.

The Songs of Saturday Morning, Pt. 5: Bang-Shang-A-Langing with the Archies

Ruff and Reddy

Everything’s Archie!

Perhaps the greatest name in bubblegum was a band invented for a Saturday morning cartoon. Learn more about the story of the Archies in this episode of NOTES.

Let’s Twist Again

They called it “The Twist.” But based on its amazing history, a better title might have been “The Boomerang.”

That’s because Chubby Checker’s version of “The Twist” didn’t just shoot to the top of the charts when it was released in the summer of 1960. No, it performed the unprecedented feat of spending a week at the peak of the Hot 100 — then turned around, went away, and returned even stronger 16 months later, when it became the only single in history to top the charts twice with the same recording.

As you may recall from our previous columns in this space, “The Twist” was originally recorded by rhythm n’ blues great Hank Ballard. Ballard’s version of the song went to #28 on the pop charts, and piqued the interest of the late Dick Clark. Clark was averse to putting Ballard on his show, AMERICAN BANDSTAND, which had become a national program just a couple years earlier, due to Ballard’s reputation, which was deemed too racial and too racy for white teenagers.

But Clark knew the Twist had already become very popular as a dance. In fact, the Twist was in the process of revolutionizing popular dancing, and would quickly supplant the fox trots and lindy hops of previous generations. On the one hand, it was super-simple to perform, with nary a box step to learn or a kick ball change to be taught. It also broke the tyranny of the hold; two kids who barely knew each other could dance the Twist without the awkward and potentially embarrassing puncture of each other’s personal “bubbles.” And with its extreme hip gyrations and back-end protrusions, the Twist was a sexy dance, a terpsichorean act of voyeurism which permitted the dancer to stare at the vaguely suggestive poses adopted by his or her partner for its duration.

It was, by most accounts, Clark’s idea to have Chubby Checker record “The Twist.” Clark had known Checker (then still going by his given name of Ernest Evans) since the latter was a 16-year-old grocery store checkout clerk doing Fats Domino and Elvis Presley impressions in the south Philadelphia projects where he grew up. Clark convinced his friends at the Cameo-Parkway label to let Checker have a go at the single, then proceeded to play the holy heck out of it on BANDSTAND. And that’s how “The Twist” become a hit — the first time.

But the song made its historic return to the top of the charts in 1962, thanks to the combination of a Hollywood actress past her prime… an exiled Russian royal… and a somewhat seedy gay bar in New York. It was that year that Merle Oberon, the actress best known for 1930s films like WUTHERING HEIGHTS and THE DARK ANGEL, was reported to have Twisted the night away with the elderly Russian aristocrat, Prince Serge Obolensky, at the Peppermint Lounge, a bar with a notorious reputation as a place where men could “hook up.” This gossip page item strangely inaugurated a new wave of Twist-mania, and Checker’s single was hastily re-released and once again rocketed to #1.

Thus ends our look back at the twisted history of “The Twist.” But the dance goes on. Because, to paraphrase Chubby Checker’s second Top Ten hit, “Yeah, let’s twist again. Twistin’ time is always here.”

The Songs of Saturday Morning, Pt. 4: The Costume Bands

Ruff and Reddy

HR Pufnstuf was the man! Er… the dragon! (Right? He’s a dragon?)

Find out how puppet T & A played a part in the development of television’s best-known costume bands in this episode of NOTES.

American Twistory

Come on, baby — let’s review “The Twist.”

If ever there was a surprising story from the annals of American popular culture, it’s the tale of the cultural craze that revolutionized both popular music and recreational dancing half a century ago. To get the full story of the Twist, we’ll have to travel back to the days when slaves were being hauled from the Congo to the American south… rub shoulders with successful white businessmen looking for the “next big thing”… examine the oeuvre of a veteran black performer infamous for his risque lyrics… be introduced to a squeaky clean teen singer brand new to showbiz… learn about a pair of gospel singers inflamed after a night of sin… and visit an early gay bar known for its “rough trade.” It’s a story through which traipse minstrels in black face, celebrated authors and princes in exile.

Last week in this space, we learned how Dick Clark, according to some sources, retained a silent interest in the Cameo-Parkway record label after divesting himself of his public record industry holdings in 1960. That same year, Hank Ballard (who had achieved notoriety starting seven years earlier when he released a string of racy singles like “Get It,” “Sexy Ways” and “Work With Me, Annie”) released a b-side called “The Twist.”

In later years, Ballard told interviewers he got the idea for the song from watching his backup band dance. On other occasions, he said he was inspired by kids gyrating on Baltimore’s BUDDY DEANE SHOW. But he also claimed on more than one occasion that he had been approached with a germ of an idea for the song by a member of the gospel group, the Sensational Nightingales. Apparently, two members of the Nightingales, Bill Woodruff and JoJo Wallace, had spent a steamy night dancing with some very earthly ladies in New Jersey, when they came up with a few lines describing the specific motions of their newfound dance partners. They knew they couldn’t record a song like that as members of a respected gospel group, so they passed the idea on to a cousin in the Royals, Ballard’s band at the time.

Whatever led Ballard to write “The Twist,” the dance had been around for a lot longer than most people realize. The basic moves of the Twist are believed to have traveled to the U.S. with slaves from the Congo, and a white minstrel performer named Joel Sweeney had a hit with the “Vine Shaquille Twist” as long ago as the mid-1800s.

When Dick Clark came across Ballard’s “Twist” in 1960, he heard hit potential in the song. But Clark disdained Ballard for his sexy reputation, and instructed his friends at Cameo-Parkway to find someone less offensive to record a new version. That person was 19-year-old Ernest Evans. At one of his first recording sessions, Dick Clark’s wife gave Evans his more famous moniker, Chubby Checker, as a play on the name of then popular singer Fats Domino.

Next week, we’ll find out how Checker’s version of “The Twist” helped draw celebrities and royalty to a disreputable gay bar in New York, and learn that there were still more twists ahead in the story of the Twist.

The Songs of Saturday Morning, Pt. 3: Hoyt Curtin and Hanna-Barbera

Ruff and Reddy

Ruff and Ready were the first cartoon characters to benefit from the music of Hoyt Curtin.

Hoyt Curtin was the man who provided music for most of Hanna-Barbera’s characters, from Ruff and Reddy to Jonny Quest. Learn more about Curtin in this episode of NOTES.

Death of a Salesman

The news of Dick Clark’s death in April, 2012 was met by a great gushing of sentiment by many, and it’s no wonder — for folks of my generation or younger, Clark was a frequent, avuncular presence on TV, sort of an uncle you were never especially close to, but whose ubiquitous presence at family gatherings bred its own sweet (if shallow) sense of goodwill. By all accounts, Clark was a thorough professional, and Craven was not immune to the man’s easygoing broadcast-friendly charms, especially in his roles as host of AMERICAN BANDSTAND and emcee of THE $10,000 PYRAMID. But Dick Clark was a complicated guy who actually held little interest in pop music and teen culture except insofar as it could make him money. Because far from being “America’s Oldest Teenager,” as he was dubbed long ago, Dick Clark was actually “America’s Grooviest Salesman.” And it was in that role that the man whose high school class had voted him “Most Likely to Sell the Brooklyn Bridge” helped elicit one of America’s greatest pop culture crazes of the 20th century.

Today, few folks remember that Clark’s career almost came to a premature halt in 1960, when he was called to testify before Congress regarding the practice of what some called “pay for play” or “the $50 handshake,” but which became better known as “payola.” Most people know payola as the then frequent practice wherein record labels paid radio deejays to play certain songs, but there were other, more subtle forms as well… and among these more nuanced variations, there wasn’t a form of payola that Dick Clark didn’t have his fingers in. For instance, it was common for Clark to agree to play a song on BANDSTAND in exchange for a writing credit — meaning he would draw royalties on every single sold, despite the fact that he had nothing to do with the actual crafting of the songs. By the time he testified in 1960, Clark held over 150 copyrights! He also had money in record labels, distribution centers, pressing plants, etc., all of which saw profit based upon the programming decisions he made on his TV show.

Unlike some of his peers (such as the hugely influential radio disc jockey, Alan Freed, whose career crumbled following the payola hearings), Clark managed to save his own bacon by wisely divesting himself of the companies and properties he directly owned which might have been seen as conflicts of interest. But according to some, Clark continued to be a silent partner in certain record labels, including a new Philadelphia-based rock n’ roll label called Cameo-Parkway, which had been formed a few years earlier by a couple of Clark’s friends, pianist Bernie Lowe and a former comedy writer who had been born Kalman Cohen but who had adopted the professional name of Kal Mann. Clark had known Lowe since his early days in the broadcasting business, when the former was the announcer and the latter was the orchestra conductor for a show called THE PAUL WHITEMAN TV TEEN CLUB.

In September, 1960, less than a year after he had testified before Congress, Dick Clark joined with his buddies at Cameo-Parkway to forge one of the greatest pop crazes of the era. Meet me here next week in this space as we learn about the secret origins of… the Twist!

The Songs of Saturday Morning, Pt. 2: Ross Bagdasarian and the Chipmunks

Alvin and the Chipmunks

Dave Seville may have hated their racket, but America loved the Chipmunks.

One of the most successful recording acts of the 1950s and ’60s was a band of cartoon chipmunks. Learn more about the surprising career of their creator in this episode of NOTES.

The Terrible Shame of Spade Cooley

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. So it would take an encyclopedia to define the music of Spade Cooley. Because swing Cooley’s music surely did, loud and loose and lively.

A little man with a flattened face and a broad, amiable grin, the Oklahoma-born Cooley was one of the earliest stars of western swing. In fact, it was to describe Spade’s music that BILLBOARD invented the phrase in 1944, when the energetic fiddler was at the height of his fame and shooting to the top of the charts with singles like “Shame on You.”

So popular was the Spade Cooley Orchestra during the late ‘40s that, eventually, there was more than one — Cooley would open a show in one southern California neighborhood, play a few numbers, then taxi to another club and join a different “Spade Cooley Orchestra” show already in progress! Although married and a father, Spade had a wandering eye, and was known to be kanoodlin’ when he might oughtta be toodlin’. He also had a black temper, which flared up with his band members frequently. He fired musicians at the drop of a note. And Lord, he drank something fierce.

In 1945, he hired a gorgeous 21-year-old blond named Ella Mae Evans. His band knew the new girl couldn’t sing her way out of a paper bag, but Cooley was smitten. Within a year, Spade had divorced his first wife and married Ella Mae.

But the gravy was dribbling to an end. By 1950, Cooley had amassed a fortune of more than $15 million… but in the wake of rock n’ roll, the music industry was closing its doors to him. Meanwhile, he had become ferociously jealous of his young wife (despite his own ongoing adulteries). He was convinced she had slept with Roy Rogers. He obsessed over his notion that she was going to join a free sex cult with some of his business associates. By 1961, his marriage in tatters, Cooley was popping pills and washing ‘em down with copious gulps of whiskey.

The story of Spade Cooley screeched to a horrifying crescendo on the night of April 3. Cooley was drunk when he pulled up to the Willow Springs home where his wife and daughter lived. In the purple heat of a jealous rage, he proceeded to beat, kick and strangle Ella Mae. When their 14-year-old daughter, Melody, arrived at the house at 6:20 pm, Cooley dragged the girl into the bathroom, where her mother lay slumped in the shower. He forced his daughter to watch as he continued his assault, beating, kicking and burning her mother with cigarettes. He told his daughter she would have to watch while he killed Ella Mae — but according to the coroner, later, the deed had probably already been done. Authorities estimated the woman had been dead for several hours by the time Cooley finally called for an ambulance around 11.

Cooley spent the next eight years in prison, until the state granted him parole, which was to begin on his 60th birthday, in February, 1970. But four months before that, after being allowed to play a concert for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, he was felled by a massive heart attack.

Spade Cooley was dead. His music and his shame live on.

The Songs of Saturday Morning, Pt. 1: The Cartoon Beatles

The Cartoon Beatles

John, Paul, George and Ringo were played by Lance Percival and Paul Frees.

The Beatles mastered everything they touched — even Saturday morning cartoons! Find out more in this episode of NOTES

The Early Days of Blue

To hear some folks tell it, you’d think sexy songs are a strictly modern phenomenon. Do a Google search for “sexually explicit culture” and you’ll get more than 3,000 hits — most of them coming from religious and conservative commentators lamenting what they seem to see as a regrettable change from days gone by.

While certain areas of American popular culture have unquestionably relaxed with regard to some sexual mores, the difference between “then” and “now” is sometimes overstated. And that is certainly the case with music. While I suspect people have been singing about sex for as long as people have been singing, proving that assertion is no easy matter. But one thing’s certain — however long folks have been singing naughty songs, they’ve been recording them since the earliest days of the recording industry.

As a matter of fact, it’s likely that a common profanity was among the first words ever recorded! Oberlin Smith, the Cincinnati engineer who patented the earliest version of magnetic recording, claimed in 1911 that Thomas Edison told him one of the first phrases he and his assistants recorded to their prototypical tinfoil cylinder recording apparatus was “mad dog,” which they would then run backwards to produce said profanity. Which just goes to show that a century before they hit MTV, there was a little Beavis and Butthead in the Wizard of Menlo Park.

By the 1890s, actually pornographic wax cylinders were being produced by vaudeville comics like Cal Stewart and Russell Hunting. Stewart was among the most popular of the early recording artists on the merit of squeaky clean recorded monologues in the guise of Uncle Josh Weathersby, but he had a dirty side too, as reflected in recordings like “Learning a City Gal How to Milk.” And Hunting was a comedian who specialized in so-called “Irish acts,” performing low comedy with a thick Gaelic brogue, who eventually went to jail for crafting records like “The Whore’s Union” and “Slim Hadley on a Racket.”

As would be the case for decades to follow, these recordings weren’t intended for record shops and music stores, but were instead sold in bars and tobacconist shops, surreptitiously and with caution, as these records were often seen to be violations of the Comstock Act, which made it illegal for lascivious products to be distributed by mail.

So-called “party records” continued to be big business all during the 78rpm era, with artists like Cliff Edwards, Dwight Fiske and many others selling sometimes hundreds of thousands of copies of records that would still be considered risque today. Even Jimmie Davis — who would eventually go on to write the family-friendly chestnut, “You Are My Sunshine,” and who would be twice elected governor of Louisiana as a Republican (in 1944 and again in 1960) — got his start cutting records like “Sewing Machine Blues” and “High Behind Blues,” with lyrics such as:

“It ain’t your fancy walk, gal, it ain’t your vampin’ ways,
It’s the way you do just before the break of day…”

Rihanna, eat your heart out.

Amos Milburn’s Bad, Bad Whiskey

Amos Milburn

Amos Milburn was made famous — and done in — by his love for “Bad, Bad Whiskey.”

Amos Milburn spent a good part of his career singing the praises of liquor, but it was liquor which destroyed that career, as we’ll find out in this episode of NOTES.

Strummer’s Soul

Can you measure a soul?

Douglas Hofstadter thinks you can. In the 2007 summation of his life’s work, I AM A STRANGE LOOP, the Pulitzer Prize-winning mathematician/physicist argues (non-religiously) for the existence of a “spirit” or a state of consciousness that he calls a “soul” — and further asserts it can be quantified. On Hofstadter’s scale, Mother Theresa’s soul was bigger than, say, Charles Manson’s. By his definition, animals could be said to have souls too, although a dog’s soul will by necessity be smaller than a typical human’s, and a goldfish’s smaller yet.

You may scoff, but Craven finds a lot of merit in Hofstadter’s theories. And amongst the many arguments to support those theories, there looms the original White Man in Hammersmith Palais: Joe Strummer.

Joe Strummer was a man with a lot of soul. I’m not speaking here in the sense of “soul music,” but in the sense that Hofstadter uses the word. Strummer (who is known best to the hoi polloi as the lead singer of the 1980s punk band, the Clash, and who died more than 14 years ago from a previously undetected congenital heart defect) was larger-than-life, cared deeply for people and the planet, and many were changed in the turbulent wake of his affect.

Even in the late ’70s and early ’80s heyday of punk rock, Strummer stood out. Older than his peers, Strummer had been playing with his second band, the pub rock outfit called the 101’ers, for a couple years already before the night in April, 1976, when one of their gigs was opened by a new and startling combo called the Sex Pistols. Strummer, who had been driven toward left-wing politics following the suicide of his neo-Nazi brother David several years earlier, saw revolutionary potential in the new genre of punk rock. When he was approached by guitarist Mick Jones and punk impresario Bernie Rhodes shortly thereafter to join the new band they were forming, he jumped at the opportunity.

During the next decade, Strummer and the Clash fundamentally changed the face of rock n’ roll. They transformed punk from a nihilistic, fashion-oriented fad into a movement infused with a political awareness and sense of purpose absent from the music industry for several years. They also mined varied influences that widened the musical scope of punk. (Their cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” and their original “[White Man in] Hammersmith Palais” are considered the first punk-reggae songs, and they introduced a brand new audience to the nascent genre of hip-hop when they enlisted Grandmaster Flash to open for their legendary 1981 Times Square concerts.)

In the years since Strummer’s passing, his legend lives on. In 2006, New Orleans rockers Cowboy Mouth sang about breaking up with a girlfriend:

“She had to go
Simply because
And I let her go
Like she never was
‘Cuz I didn’t know
And I don’t care what she does
She had to go ‘cuz she didn’t know
who Joe Strummer was.”

Strummer was never comfortable with his status as a rock god. He was a man, and as such, the victim of personal foibles, some of which contributed to the breakup of the Clash in 1985. But for the better part of 30 years, he lived by his values honestly and with compassion.

One might even say: With soul.

Alessandro Moreschi, the Last Castrato

Alessandro Moreschi

Alessandro Moreschi was the last of his kind.

Discover the legacy and lonely life of Professor Alessandro Moreschi in this episode of NOTES.

Revenge Among the Tikis

Listen, pal. They say, “The best revenge is a life well-lived,” and — sitting here in 1959, in Don the Beachcomber’s Dagger Bar, one of Hawaii’s best-known Tiki lounges, sipping Mai Tais from ceramic moai mugs — who are we to question such wisdom?

Revenge. It drives a lot of people into lives well-lived and otherwise, even here in Waikiki. That’s right, even here, in as close to an island paradise as you or I will ever see, bad blood can flow like the Mai Tai you almost spilled ogling that hula dancer a few minutes ago. You don’t believe me? If you’ll unwrap your lips from your umbrella straw long enough to look up at the man behind the piano over there, you’ll see the poor schmo who was backstabbed by a billionaire.

That’s Martin Denny, the pianist who coined the musical genre of “exotica” — and here on the brink of the 1960s, he’s busy living his life very well indeed… to retaliate against Henry J. Kaiser, the filthy rich industrialist who tried to take Denny down a couple years ago.

Y’see, back then, Denny was a prime attraction at Kaiser’s Shell Bar in his Hawaiian Village Resort near here. Denny had put together a crackerjack jazz ensemble that included percussionist Augie Colon (whose bird calls and frog croaks, you’ll undoubtedly recall, helped propel Denny’s cover of Les Baxter’s “Quiet Village” to the top of the pop charts this year), and a prodigious, young vibist named Arthur Lyman, who Denny had discovered working as a desk clerk at the Halekulani Hotel. Backed by talents like these, Denny was the toast of Oahu. By 1957, he was courting invitations to play the Mainland and had landed a recording contract from Liberty Records.

But Kaiser (who had himself poached Denny’s band from Don the Beachcomber in ’56) didn’t take kindly to the notion of his star crossing the ocean. When blustery browbeating failed to intimidate the pianist, Kaiser got dirty. Before Denny had even booked his passage to the States, Kaiser engaged Arthur Lyman in negotiations sub rosa, offering Denny’s young vibist his departing bandleader’s spot at the Shell Bar. When Lyman left Denny’s group in 1957, he took bass player John Kramer and drummer Harold Chang with him, leaving Denny to scramble for replacements.

Luckily enough, he drew a pair of aces in jazz drummer Roy “the Kidd” Harte and, especially, Julius Wechter, who replaced Lyman on the mallets. Wechter would contribute much to Denny’s subsequent recordings, before moving on to a career that included stints in Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass (for whom he wrote “The Spanish Flea”) and the Baja Marimba Band.

We’ll discuss the Denny-Lyman imbroglio — as well as other blood feuds of exotica — in this space in future weeks. Join us then as we learn more about America’s passion for all things Polynesian at the midpoint of the 20th century. Now, please pass the pupu platter, pal. Because unlike revenge, pupus are not best served cold.