Tony Joe White

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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Fearflix 6

Trolljegeren (Trollhunter)

Norway 2010

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Back in the dismal seventies the swamp rocker Tony Joe White recorded a song called Even Trolls Love Rock And Roll. He had the belief that rock and roll had the power to heal the rift between humans and trolls. In the song the troll shared guitar riffs rather than rifts.

Like Tony Joe White, the filmmakers who produced Trolljegeren had their tongues in their cheeks. The final credit in Trolljegeren informs the audience that no trolls were harmed in the making of the film. The tongues of Norwegian filmmakers must rest on ice-cold dentures. There is a lot of snow in Trolljegeren, and some fabulous scenery. Most of the humour is deadpan, and will be missed by many not from Norway. Not all of it registered with me but I was able to enjoy watching actors not only explain how they maintain a natural habitat but also describe the behaviour of the trolls that exist in Norway. The country is blessed with performers who know how to underact and portray the dull and responsible. Polite self-effacement defines the Cohen movie Fargo, and Scandinavia is where it originated.

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Despite the difference in cinematic style there are a few nods towards Hollywood Westerns. The action of the hunt, though, is not an end in itself as it is for Western heroes. Hans the troll hunter is not excited by action and discoveries. He is a Civil Servant who complains about the lack of paid overtime and inadequate pension provision. Hans is on the verge of resignation. When he is attacked by a troll, he blames the job rather than the troll. Part of the fun for the audience is watching the Scandinavian equivalent of John Wayne cope with the bureaucracy of a social democracy.

The trolls exist as a metaphor for the plight of indigenous natives. The comparison with Native Americans is not sidestepped. The troll hunter destroys those trolls who leave the reservation and inflict damage on people and property. Pylons are used to provide the borders of the troll reservation. The trolls are a threat to life, livelihood, social order and the tourist myth of the wilderness. Humanity has to defend itself but Hans is haunted by a massacre of trolls. He witnessed and remembers the murder of pregnant females and children.

The trolls are pagans and savages outside Western civilisation. They have a taste for Christian blood. Hans tempts the trolls to follow him by playing a version of What A Friend We Have In Jesus. If the record is a typical example of Norwegian religious music, American gospel has nothing to fear. The Christian cameraman in the film crew that follows Hans is replaced by a Muslim camerawoman. Apart from improving health and safety this permits a subtle effect. The original cameraman knows the rest of the crew, and his camera is steady and focussed. The camerawoman is curious, and her camera roams and discovers.

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Trolljegeren follows the format of the Blair Witch Project, a group of adolescents making a film. Here, though, the adolescents are film students and have half-decent equipment. The eyes of the viewer are not obliged to suffer. The film mixes the chaos with the deliberate, not only fuzzy night scenes but stunning snow vistas that will encourage some viewers to book a holiday in Norway. When the hunted cameraman is obliged to fumble, there is a satisfaction in watching the skilled pretending to be amateurish. As a Jordanaire once said of the Elvis Presley recording of Love Me Tender, ‘the bad notes make it art.’

The film has plenty of style and humour but it is, like most horror movies, thematic. The trolls, troll hunter and film crew are all outsiders. The trolls like to drink Christian blood. For the troll hunter and film crew the Christian is a risk to their security. The troll hunter and film crew deny God and have contempt for Finn the bureaucrat who represents authority and whose objective is to conceal the existence of the trolls from the Norwegians.

‘His job is to manage people,’ says Hans.

Finn has a name that challenges Norwegian authenticity and he uses Polish immigrants to disguise the destruction caused by the trolls. They leave dead bears as fake suspects. These scenes are comic. The Polish workers are insensitive to the pretence of maintaining Scandinavian authenticity. The bear they bring after an incident has dubious antecedence, and the Poles use a van that advertises decorating services. These bureaucrats and hustlers are shabby and unprincipled. Finn is importing East European corruption, maligning the landscape and denying the heroic alternative of the troll hunter.

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Hans cooperates with the film crew despite the warning from Finn that he will lose his job   Hans is disillusioned with the conditions, operational obstacles and the inevitable lack of recognition for his efforts and expertise. In the case of Hans this is more serious than normal because he is not supposed to exist.

The relationship of the hunter to the hunted defines the film. Hans hunts trolls but is hunted by the film crew. Without the hunted the hunter is unable to use his skills and strength, to be a hunter. In the same way the film crew needs Hans to be filmmakers. They do not acquire the skills of Hans but they do become intrepid like him. There is a hint at the end of the film that the members of the crew have lost their adolescence. The final scene has a surprise ending that indicates events that will not be recorded by the film crew.   We do, though, observe the film students walking in a troll inhabited wilderness and being relaxed. They have learnt how to operate their equipment and manage their curiosity in difficult situations.

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The film contains four impressive set pieces. All these encounters with the trolls contain surprises. Each confrontation requires bravery and defiance from Hans but also method and experience.  At the beginning the leader of the film crew is delighted by the discoveries and he sneers at what he sees, the giant syringe and protective uniform used by the troll hunter. In the final confrontation the fairy tale escapism of the troll that nourished the people in the film crew as children has no relevance. The fairy tale exists to give us faith in ourselves. Living without this naive faith requires the crew to exist as modern adults. Taking the director to a hospital away from the wilderness, and surviving a life, is all that is important to them. At the end of the film both the film crew and the troll hunter lose their naivety. There is a price to be paid for realistic understanding.

The beginning of Trolljegeren is dominated by film of the crew hunting Hans. The director talks about Hans as if he is a unique specimen. The crew follow him on to a ferry, and Hans behaves like typical prey, suspicious, withdrawn and then aggressive. The similarities between the troll hunter and the film crew are not just inevitable but stressed. Both Hans and the crew hunt and are hunted, both are outsiders, both are confused by the reality they see, both have jobs that make them nervous and stealthy, both enjoy being at the centre of the drama and both will only survive the trolls if they become intrepid and know how to use their ‘shooting’ equipment. How they will cope with bureaucrats and tourists who want a pristine wilderness that excludes trolls, monsters and hunters is the final challenge. When the film ends, the audience is not hopeful.

The Norwegian landscape dominates the film and is similar to the Highlands of Scotland, mountainous and wet. The requirement for the troll hunter and the film crew to meet the mark, to face a wilderness that is dangerous, is rooted in the values of mountaineers. Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard is also haunted by the same obligation. Knausgaard writes about whether he is a satisfactory husband, father, son, friend, male and lover. And if that is not enough to worry him, he explores his fears in half a dozen novels that in length equal the output of Proust. The task of writing epic prose is another way for Knausgaard to reach the required mark.

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A hostile landscape allows the writers and filmmakers of Norway to insist that the physical environment is important in understanding the scale and scope of humans. This is where we succeed or fail to leave our mark. The landscape, though, also needs to be understood. The film makes fun not only of the bureaucrats who want to remake the wilderness as an acceptable environment but the tourists who forfeit their authenticity through outdoor consumerism and sightseeing. The troll does not exist, of course, but Trolljegeren should convince the viewer that if the wilderness has a landowner, it would be a monster beyond human comprehension. And if belief in monsters is beyond our imagination then Trolljegeren is a reminder that the landscape will never be tamed. We experience its delights and are sometimes surprised by its dangers but there is a lot of wilderness, and our footsteps are more scarce than we realise. Most of it remains secret.

Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.

If you want to read more about his travels click here.