music

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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BLAST FROM THE PAST – PAUSE FOR ARGENTINA

ELVIS AND MARILYN MONROE

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Marilyn always attracted intellectuals.  Elvis had his working class fans, the people he called ‘my crowd’.   Both were instinctive performers whose popular appeal depended on glamour rather than cerebral analysis.   Predictably, their lives ended prematurely.   Marilyn has been exalted by Gloria Steinem and others.  Lisa Appignanesi is extremely clever and level headed but the tone of her marvellous book on psychiatry and women, ‘Mad, Bad and Sad’, changes when she writes about Monroe.  We all know that Elvis and Monroe were flawed, vulnerable at best.  But the fans find sympathy for them irresistible.   The difference with Monroe is that intellectuals have been willing to share these emotions about her celebrity.     True, they often pretend that they are being analytical but not always.  They will talk about a special quality that simply touches them.

I have mixed feelings about ‘Some Like It Hot’.  It is a great movie with sharp lines and inspired performances.   Sometimes the film appears to be perfect.  Others, I think the humour against Monroe is offensive.   It can depend on mood.  ’Bus Stop’ is underrated but it works for me because it is the appropriate fantasy for a vulnerable voluptuous waif that I have always wanted to protect.   The man who takes her away from the real world is strong but stupid.  Only the idiot cowboy, Don Murray, will be able to provide a life of respect without molesting her unique female innocence.   ‘The Misfits’ is different.  It is overrated and plodding but it nags.   Even its opening scenes, where a stunning Monroe heads for the divorce court, convince us that she is simply too beautiful for any kind of life that makes sense.  Howard Hawks had his own view of the world and, although cynical, he could be described as an optimist.  His adaptation of ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ is very different from the book by Anita Loos and nowhere near as witty but he accepts that the dumb blonde can triumph just like the male heroes of his action films.   All it requires is a world of stupid rich boys.  Hawkes makes sure that there are plenty in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.   Maybe the film should be dedicated to George Osborne and David Cameron.  Now there is a thought.

 

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The rise of feminism in the late 60s is a handy explanation for the appeal of Monroe to intellectuals but inadequate.  Norman Mailer was the first to insist Monroe had significance for human understanding.   Mailer has had his moments and even when being absurd he is readable.  Norman Mailer, though, is no feminist although he was desperate to deify Monroe as a remote existential goddess.  Mailer was obsessed with the unique meaning of America, his troubled homeland, and he sought clues in the lives and appeal of Monroe and Mohammed Ali.   Considering the extent of his epic curiosity it is significant and sad that this literary giant never wrote a word about Elvis.

Monroe married an intellectual and she read James Joyce which must have helped.  She was always curious about intellectuals.  Not that Arthur Miller was any better than the rest.  Supposedly her relationship with the playwright began to perish after she discovered that Miller had written that he would only ever love his daughter.   By the time he was into his next relationship the words were in the public domain.  That relationship prevailed until his death and long after Monroe had self-destructed.  Men like her acting coach, Lee Strasburg, and her psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson, rearranged their professional lives so that they could devote themselves to the icon.  Elvis had similar relationships with hairdressers, jewellers and, most famously, his doctor.  Hollywood money played a part but so did the presence of fame and the promise of consequence.   But, unlike Monroe, the intellectuals have mainly scorned Elvis.

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Both Presley and Monroe had to make difficult choices that invariably sacrificed integrity and growth for success and money.   Monroe complained more than Presley.   She described the Western ‘River Of No Return’, which is actually not that bad, as unworthy of her.  She called it a ‘Z grade movie’.   Elvis said nothing about his troubles.  Monroe became difficult on the set and Elvis mumbled and froze.  In Hollywood, the two vomited frequently.   The pills contributed.  But despite the similarities, one still has a sense of woman being comprehensively used by men.  It is possible that Monroe had men on an assembly line ready to exploit sexually but nobody really believes that.  We imagine her being lied to and we sympathise with her misplaced dependency on her lovers who, as Miller later admitted, were simply overcome by lust.    The more powerful the men, the less they worried about their lust and her dependency.   Her treatment by the Kennedys is not important because it is exceptional.   It is more of the same deceit, just more extreme.   And Mailer is right.   There is something America defining about Monroe singing ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ at the birthday gala of JFK.   This is the evening when the arrogant and the powerful willingly shared the stage with a vulgarly dressed, drugged, overweight woman whose sacrifice would concern none of them providing that their secrets and impulses were kept hidden.   And, no, that sentence does not imply that her death was the consequence of conspiracy and murderous intent.   Neither was it accidental.  Marilyn committed suicide.  The sheer scale of the overdose is the ultimate evidence of her angry insistence on oblivion.  The coroner recorded that her dead body had forty to fifty capsules of the barbiturate Nembutal.  A murderer would have been more subtle.

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The death of Elvis was like his career.  Without adequate support from others he failed to nurture himself and his talent.  He lost his grip on his life.   Perhaps there was no final self-destructive act but like Marilyn he was impatient for resolution.   The drugs escalated out of control, and the result was waste, as it was with Marilyn.  Both could be stupid and brilliant.  Nobody who takes movies or music seriously would argue that either of them can be ignored.   Monroe is memorable in a film which is so brilliant that she could be excused for being anonymous.  As the girlfriend of Louis Calhern in’The Asphalt Jungle’ she steals scenes but more than that she defines perfectly not only the weakness at the heart of her sugar daddy but also what makes him sympathetic.   This was a difficult task but Monroe coped so well the world became instantly excited.  In the Henry Hathaway movie ‘Niagara’ her sexiness is overplayed and absurd, and she weakens the film.  There is one scene where the camera follows her walking away into the distance.  The actress, Constance Bennett, said, ‘There is a girl with her whole future behind her.’   Elvis provided the same uncomfortable mix.  Only a bigot, though, would ignore the classic records because of the existence of the dross.

But somehow the sympathy that is automatic for Monroe is withheld for Elvis.  Gender is important.   Most of the women Elvis slept with would have understood his intentions but he would not have had to taste condescension from his lovers.  That only came from the people who owned him.   He may have thought he was making music for his fans but really he was like Marilyn, singing for his supper at the dinner tables of the powerful.    The contempt Monroe experienced riddled her whole identity.  Elvis had more freedom but he still experienced the same contempt.  These two victims had to feed on it throughout their terrible lives.

As Howard Jackson is touring Argentina at the moment, a few blogs from the past will be remembered.

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.