Sunday, November 29, 2009

Shook Up

“Don’t Be Cruel, to a heart that’s true.”
Otis Blackwell
In 1985 I was living in a closed-up storefront in Brooklyn I called: “The Bunker;” an idea stolen from Williams S. Burroughs and songwriter Pat Garvey. I thought I was living in a bohemian garret – Paris in the 30’s and all that. The rent was $150 a month and the landlord was an old Italian lady named Vera who made rot gut, bathtub wine. She bottled it in plastic half-gallon coca cola containers. I’m still picking the grape skins out of my teeth. She sat on the sidewalk in the late afternoons, reading Botticelli from an old beat-up paperback; when she finished a page she tore it out and let the wind carry it into the gutter. “You shoulda’ try an read this, Mr. Rosseli,” she laughed. “It’s feelthy stuff. Ha ha!” Her teeth were purple from the homemade wine. Her cackle of a laugh was charmingly evil. Before Vera died (and all of it died)…before the new money moved in, and the Italians moved out…Otis Blackwell showed up one day at my Bunker. He was half-blind from working years as a dry cleaner, and the toxic solutions had destroyed his eyes. His wife led him around. Otis, you might know, wrote “All Shook Up,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Return to Sender,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Fever,” and dozens of other rock classics. The early book of rock n roll. The Old Testament. (Dylan wrote the New Testament.) Otis was born in East New York, a section they call Bedford Stuyvesant. The Badlands. There’s a street there named Malcolm X Boulevard, and all retail business in Bed-Stuy is conducted through bullet-proof Plexiglas. As a young kid, Otis went to the Saturday afternoon Cowboy matinees at the local theater; he was always first in line so he could get a free cowboy plate. The first 20 kids inside got gifts. His favorite actor-singer was Tex Ritter. “Man I loved that cat’s voice,” Otis said, “so dark and groovy.”
(The shadow of Tex Ritter is very long. I later met a Japanese Countess in the Alps of Switzerland whose favorite singer was Tex Ritter. She was the widow of the painter Count Balthus.) Back to Brooklyn…Otis began to form his early songs from comic books and cartoons and “those weird little funny things I saw at the cowboy matinees.” Otis, like Leiber and Stoller, worked that cartoon-cowboy-street-lingo styled humor into early rock and roll history. Otis graduated to the Brill Building, helping to create the foundations of Tin Pan Alley rock. One day a record producer came into Otis’s cubicle and shook up a bottle of Coca Cola, which sprayed all over the wall. He challenged Otis to write a song about that in ten minutes….Otis wrote “All Shook Up.”Elvis Presley heard the demo and recorded it. Elvis not only copped half the song publishing, he copped Otis’s burping-chugging vocal style. Trust me. Otis was not offended; he was honored. When Elvis died, Otis gave me an LP Called “Otis Blackwell Sings His Hits”….he took a marking pen off my desk and re-titled if “The King Is Not Dead!” and signed it to me. “I was too shy to ever meet Elvis, “he told me, “I had the chance in Vegas once, but I was too shy. “
And there you have it; a little touch of rock n roll history from my bunker days.
“I wrote my songs, I got my money, and I boogied.” Otis Blackwell

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Acrawl With Nerves

I have a police mug shot of Johnny Cash being busted, near here, for crossing the Juarez bridge into the U.S. with a thousand uppers and downers. Pills. His mug is lean and haunted; “acrawl with nerves.” I feel close to the man in that photo. I’ve crossed that bridge one hundred times. Wired and lost, thinking of Johnny Cash. In the late ‘50’s my brother had that first Sun L.P. record: “The Hot and Blue Guitars of Johnny Cash,” and to me that was, and still is, IT. As punk as it is folk; savage blue country; gut-level Southern soul. American music. An Arkansas cotton farmer’s heart, pounding to Luther Perkins’ ragged, comb-toothed, boom-chick-a bass line. Thunder road music.
A decade later I snuck backstage at the Hollywood bowl and stood beside Cash as he waited for Bob Dylan to finish “Desolation Row,” that incredible beast of a song unfolding for the first time on stage. Cash and Dylan were defining nova-beat American folk music. Spin around a few more years and I was onstage singing with Johnny Cash in Switzerland; he whispered the lyrics to “Peace in the Valley” into my ear in front of 10,000 people… Christ, those Old Testament words about the “lion lying down with the lamb.” Chilling. Life changing. I’d had breakfast with him that morning and he promised me he would record my songs “Veteran’s Day,” and “Blue Wing.” He kept his promise.
“Blue Wing,” is still in the archives of those Rick Rubins' sessions, and it was those Rubin sessions which later brought Cash back to a younger, “alternative-country” audience, after Nashville had turned him out. How important is Johnny Cash to our culture? His face should be carved in granite next to Mount Rushmore, along with Hank Williams and Crazy Horse. He is our Black Moses. His voice defines an honesty which cuts to the heart of how human beings love and hate and hurt. That voice was not so much “beautiful,” as it was raw and truth-filled and in your face, with real poetic news that needed to be heard, swallowed, spit out and heard again.
I am honored to have known him, if just in a few passing hours on a two or three far distant stages. I still think of him when I cross that bridge, from Juarez to El Paso; walking that line between hell and heaven; dancing across the that tightrope between truth and oblivion –high above a river gone up in flames. Acrawl with nerves.