Creedence Clearwater Revival

IN MEMORY

TONY JOE WHITE  – 23 7 1943 – 24 10 2018

 

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Tony Joe White died this week. The article below was published in the collection ‘No Money Honey’ in 2013.  It is not a hagiography. All the articles in ‘No Money Honey’ were meant to provide thoughts on the phenomenon of Elvis Presley.  Nevertheless the piece below might help someone to think a little longer about Tony Joe White.

How all this relates I am not sure because Tony Joe White has had a complicated career.  He has managed to combine periodic bouts of obscurity and commercial failure whilst acquiring a solid reputation, interest from big league players like Tina Turner and enough money to purchase a ranch, his own modest Zanudu.  In the beginning of his career, Tony Joe White was heralded as the new Elvis.  This is not bad because the last time I saw him was in a pub in Wolverhampton.  Admittedly, the pub had a concert room but it was a tiny venue.  I doubt if there were a hundred of us sitting there.  I doubt also if anybody else had travelled from Liverpool to Wolverhampton.

‘Is there a football match on?’ said one of the blokes in the toilet.

‘No, I’ve travelled specially,’ I said.

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I thought about when comparisons were made between Tony Joe White and Elvis, and sure enough there were a couple in the audience from the local rock and roll society that wore t-shirts decorated with pictures of the King.  But most in the audience, or at least those in the toilet, talked as if Tony Joe was their main man.  This surprised me.   Tony Joe has appeal but he also has limitations and, inevitably, the early comparisons with Elvis proved premature.  Now they can be understood as an indication of the crude emphasis given to the importance of race in American music and the willingness of many to underestimate Elvis.  Back then, White was far from being the only white man singing the blues but the alternatives consisted of British fantasists and American middle-class imitators.   Tony Joe White, like Elvis, was a Southerner and working class, and that was important because the white American working class were once restricted to singing country or imitating Elvis.  Tony Joe White did neither.  He had authentic roots.  And I suppose there were other reasons we may have been tempted to believe he was our new Elvis.   After all those movies, British fans, who have always leaned more to vintage rock and roll than their American equivalents, were having serious misgivings about Elvis.  They needed rescuing from disappointment, and initially White made promises.  He was only a modest Elvis but he looked a little like him and, really important, he sang the blues.

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At the time of the early comparisons, White had created two decent selling singles.  These were ‘Willie And Laura Jones’ and ‘Polk Salad Annie’.  He also mixed up his material like Elvis.  His debut album was called ‘Black And White’ and it contained Lightning Hopkins guitar licks, Howling Wolf vocal effects and ballads like ‘The Look Of Love’.  There was, though, a slight problem.  Unlike Elvis, Tony Joe was no great singer.  ‘Wichita Lineman’ is one of the best songs of the last fifty years but the version by White is unlistenable.  His guitar playing, although highly appealing and distinctive, also depended on simple techniques.  Inevitably, minimalism beckoned.

And yet, as with Elvis, there are contradictions that have given White staying power.  As his career progressed and sometimes stuttered, he has retreated into what he does best, simple swamp funk and opaque spare ballads that evoke lost dreams and capture the spirit of supping bad beer in empty pubs.   This bleak description should be no surprise to fans.  Without aspiration, pastoral laid-back freedom is possible but on a bad day it can easily tip into nihilistic despair. And yet nobody will ever be tempted to cut his or her throat listening to a Tony Joe White album.  He insists with his music, as indeed he has done with his life, that non-aspirational independence is possible.  His song, ‘Don’t Overdo It’, sums him up quite well.  But the more personal songs, like those on his album, ‘The Shine’, have worrying gaps.  Often the songs have no beginning, middle and end.  Even when he describes the more eccentric aspects of Southern life, his notes are sparse.  He remembers odd characters but rarely provides detailed descriptions.   He only hints at the exotica that he admires.  About himself, he is even more taciturn, avoiding the true implication of profound mystery.  The message from White is that life tells you little.  Intellectuals derive satisfaction from contemplating mysteries and are tempted by analysis.  White merely observes that not much happens in a world when you successfully escape all the rubbish.  His independent redneck stance is important.  Modest lives have drama.  His song ‘Five Summers For Jimmy’ about a dedicated wife is hopelessly romantic but it reveals he understands that all romance is about sacrifice and forfeit.  His song ‘The Daddy’ is sentimental but insists that the rednecks and counterculture can co-exist.  And this also made him important especially in the divided world of the sixties.

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His engaging personality is a key element.  Elvis offers more glory but White appears to have life sorted which is why he still prevails.  Elvis wasted millions building a ranch and an alternative existence that he failed to sustain.  It says much about Elvis that his ambitions were soon abandoned when the Colonel shouted at him and a lot about White that after only three successful albums of his own he was able to create the ranch and idealistic lifestyle that was beyond Elvis.  Interestingly, when White met Elvis in Vegas he realised that the King was badly wounded.  Like a loyal knight of the round table, Tony Joe suggested that Elvis take a vacation and join him in his castle.  Just imagine, Elvis in a retreat from modern capitalism and exposed to unmitigated common sense.  It never happened.  Elvis mumbled, and the Louisiana minimalist had to accept defeat.

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But although recent albums have been sparse and measured, White cannot be categorised easily as a minimalist.  His early album, ‘Eyes’, has soul styled arrangements.  Amongst the horns and female backing he drifts easily and comfortably into a couple of Barry White impressions that are nowhere near as offensive as they should be.   ‘The Heroines’, released in 2004, received deservedly rave reviews and it does not exist alone.  ‘One Hot Night In July’ is even better, and so is the earlier ‘The Train I’m On’ which has a good range of material and styles.   Some of his efforts have been modest, probably because he was bouncing between labels, but all the albums have tracks that are important.  The compilations of the best of Tony Joe White are always impressive.  Like most fans, I reckon I could compile an excellent double CD of essential recordings which is not bad for a bloke I saw in a pub in Wolverhampton.

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If his voice is only pleasant, it benefits from being very deep and having a strong Louisiana accent.  When I saw him in the middle of an unusually warm British summer, his first words were, ‘Hi there, how y’all doing.  Outside it’s as hot as Louisiana.’  The audience surrendered.  Okay, the British can sometimes be silly but his baritone voice and resonant accent were irresistible.   White is a musical talent but his appeal goes beyond that.  He has always benefited from what the British want the American South to be. We know about the racism but like to imagine a lazy way of living and communities tolerant of independent eccentrics that listen to bayous rather than discuss classical pessimism.

Interestingly, Tony Joe White first appeared in England as a support act for the more famous Creedence Clearwater Revival.  He has outlived that band and taken his music in directions beyond that of Creedence Clearwater Revival although without their commercial success.  Elvis covered three Tony Joe White songs and Tina Turner had a big hit with ‘Steamy Windows’.  Many people have recorded his marvellous song, ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’.  There is enough money to pay for the ranch and quiet days.

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Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

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REAL MEAN CRITTERS

 

AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON

UK/USA

1981

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Nobody who makes a documentary about the great blues man BB King can be without merit. The Blues Brothers celebrated great soul music performers but had a racist edge and too many car crashes and white people.  John Landis atoned. He made BB King Into The Night in 1985. An American Werewolf In London appeared in cinemas in 1981. John Landis has made half a dozen decent and entertaining movies. At his best he had a talent for the comic and was irreverent. He understood how we are kept in our place by establishment baloney. Often, though, he was merely professional. As he aged, his inspiration dissipated.   There were accidents that happened while he was shooting a film. The unfortunate fatalities affected his ambition and purpose.

In An American Werewolf In London the hero and troubled lycanthrope, Dave, wanders across Trafalgar Square and tries to gain the attention of a policeman.  He makes insulting remarks about the Queen, Prince Charles and Winston Churchill. The insults are more like subversive allegations. Two years before An American Werewolf In London was made Margaret Thatcher had been elected Prime Minister.  Nearly forty years later the UK and the USA have a neoliberal hegemony that is cracking but persists. If anything, the remarks made by David to the policeman are more shocking today than they were in the almost social democracy that was being destroyed by Thatcher. Back then we expected the establishment targets would become weaker elements in British memory and imagination. It felt like the rulers were losing their grip. Instead the grip tightened. For some time now moviemakers have kept their heads down when criticising establishment icons. Part of the appeal of watching the John Landis film today is seeing the British experience life as it existed under social democracy.   Today life is harsher in the UK.  An American Werewolf In London records a past Britain when empathy did not need to be filtered through individualist dogma. Back then networking was called creeping. The movie flatters the British or, at least, those that exist today.

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Horror films, especially those that integrate comedy, are obliged to mix various elements. An American Werewolf In London has to cope with this challenge and as a result it is uneven. The good moments, most of which involve the deceased mate of David, are inspired. The weakest elements consist of the investigation by Dr Hirsch. His scenes are flat and mechanical but they are tolerable because they feel like a pastiche of old cheap horror movies. John Woodvine plays Dr Hirsch. His part is unforgiving but the actor does what he can and settles for being a boring professional who has clear diction. The mix of the old-fashioned and the modern, the corny and the hip, is odd. Deliberate or not it echoes the different worlds the two wandering Americans are obliged to explore.

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In 1981 the comic scenes had an element of surprise. This made them appear funnier then than they do today. The transformation of David from likeable young man to savage werewolf, though, still impresses. It has enough body distortion to satisfy even David Cronenberg.  And the special effects and performance by David Naughton capture the pain that can be inflicted by a rebellious physical form that has different needs from its owner.

The movie begins with two young Americans wandering the Yorkshire Dales. The scenes were filmed in Wales but somebody was sharp enough to pick a landscape that had long hills with broad plateaux. The scenery convinces and looks like enhanced Yorkshire Dales. The mist and rain add to what is already atmospheric. While they trudge through the rain the two young men talk about sex, bodies rather than people. They yearn for when they will move to Italy and sunshine.  They imagine being able to seduce girls. There is no suggestion that the young men are virgins but it is obvious they are sexually inexperienced.  Masculine sexuality is not the only theme explored by An American Werewolf In London but it dominates the film. The nurses in the hospital notice the circumcised penis of David. Later he watches a spiced up TV advertisement for the News Of The World.  His final meeting with the living dead takes place in a cinema that shows pornographic films. Before that he consummates a brief relationship with Jenny Agutter. David is both a werewolf and a human. Infected and divided he wants both promiscuous sex and romantic love. He is both a glutinous werewolf and an empathetic human.

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The final scene in the film makes many titter but the declaration of love from the nurse to the monster is important. The scene suggests that there is an emotional incompatibility between men and women. After the savage animal is destroyed the film finishes with an idealised image of David. His physical appetites have been destroyed, and David looks virtuous and spiritual. In the film the men who are opposed to the werewolf are all asexual. The drinkers in the village pub who live in fear of werewolves are men managed by a female harridan. Dr Hirsch and the investigating detectives are awkward men without passion.

The final scene between David and Alex also implies there is an unspoken secret between the genders. Jenny Agutter plays the nurse Alex Price who takes David to bed. Agutter is perfect as the polite and seductive English rose. The name Alex suggests a woman who will also have masculine sensibilities. When Alex takes David home to her one-bedroomed flat, she tells him that she has had seven lovers including three one night stands.  ‘I don’t know why I said that,’ she tells David. We do. She is telling the audience that we need to know Alex may be a refined model of English reserve but, like David, she is also a sexual predator. Alex nurses a small boy in hospital. The boy only ever says no to Alex. This is a light-hearted reference to the Little Red Riding Hood myth.  Both Alex and the wolf in the fairytale wear a disguise and they both need others to submit to their will. The surname of Price makes us understand that romantic love is available to men but not if they want to continue as rampaging males. There is a price to pay for kinship and domestic security. Yet the love that exists between men and women is only possible because they both have predatory natures. They just hunt different game.

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We are more, though, than a complicated mix of the animal and the sentimental. The characters in the film have different nationalities, and all the social classes are represented, tramps, the affluent, those in authority, the young and the old. We all may have primal elements but we are also defined by the society that has emerged around us. Already complex we are also inconsistent. We are obliged to inhabit different worlds including those we do not understand. The werewolf alternates between raw nature and modern urban life. Others travel across countries and societies, and the victims of the werewolf live in a world inhabited by the living dead. We are all affected by place and circumstance. Men who trudge through rain soaked wilderness are testing themselves. In Italy and under the sunshine they will be relaxed and feel different. The two young Americans experience Europe but also know and remember their more comfortable American homeland. The ravenous werewolf has American freedom but he will be tamed by European restraint. Britain is more varied than the two Americans understand. Village life in Yorkshire is presented as an extreme alternative to life in London.

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Memory also adds to the peculiarity of existence. Today the film feels nostalgic but in 1981 Landis was keen to remember the past and emphasise how our memories influence identity. The music on the soundtrack is nostalgic. A restrained Elmer Bernstein wrote the musical score. Bernstein produced his first film score in 1951. The award-winning composer belonged to another era. Prior to the transformations of David into the werewolf we hear Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival. The great American band specialised in rockabilly and vintage rock and roll. The past is as important as location. Whether we like it or not we are obliged to adapt and absorb and to accept that our identity is never intact.

The film benefits from the presence of working class actor and man of the people Brian Glover. He would have struggled as Hamlet but he was important to the work of British left wing directors like Ken Loach and screenwriters like Alan Plater. He helped them argue that the Northern working class had an articulate voice that could shape British life into something different, a voice that was ready to defy its patrician class. Well that did not last long.   The Britain we see in An American Werewolf In London soon disappeared. The performance of Glover, though, can be cherished. He manages to combine bullish aggression and vulnerability and he even makes a second rate joke imported by Landis from the USA sound comical.

 

 

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 Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.