Thursday, September 22, 2005

Reprints: The one about Bo Diddley

Bo Diddley - His Best (The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection) [1955-1966]

Listening to Bo Diddley is like experiencing the construction of a parking garage's very foundation. It’s huge, expansive, like miles of steel supports and concrete slabs. It’s electric, anchoring gigajoules of thunder and lightning, striking at will, completely aware of the destruction it leaves in its wake.

And Bo Diddley does thunder. Growling, he's no Rico Suave, rolling his “r’”s; instead he booms along with these incredible drum beats and rhythms, daring us to challenge him, prowling around the women folk, the alpha-male of rock and roll. You know the Bo Diddley beat: bomp, ba-bomp-bomp, bomp-bomp. Don Swoden calls it “booty rock,” meant to assist in the shaking up one’s hips, not something to listen to during moments of somberness or sobriety. It’s this beat that ushered in the era of rock music, owing to African percussion, by way of New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta. It has those touches of the Bayou and the mighty Mississippi, the bastard child of the Dark Continent, Latin America, and frontier Frenchmen, but anchored in the blues of the city, fuzzy and electric, found upriver in that great midwestern mecca called Chicago. Weirdly enough, Diddley, influenced by the mighty Muddy Waters, found his first B-side, “I’m a Man,” cheekily (and soulfully) ripped off by Waters’ just two months later on Mr. Muddy’s own “Mannish Boy.”

This perhaps, shows the fence Bo Diddley straddled as a musician. With one foot in the blues -- the real blues, not some weirdzo Jonny Lang homage -- and another foot in rock and roll, teetering between the old and new. Diddley exploded, positioning himself far above the chart successes of fellow Chess label mates Waters and John Lee Hooker, but not quite reaching the heights of quintessential teenage rocker Chuck Berry, who also got his start with Chess. But Diddley's riffs are second to none, understated, yet all over the place, drenched in pre-Purple Haze fuzziness and tremolo guitar machine-shop noise. This is the kind of music that could only be invented in the age of the automobile. Not just because of it’s aural connotations, but because of how good it feels playing in the car with the windows down (top back, preferably, if at all possible), making it nearly inconceivable for most of us to even consider long car trips without music as our most faithful companion.

Sadly, Diddley is most known for his Nike commercials with Bo Jackson in the late 80s. But screw that, Bo Diddley played a freaking square guitar, he let his ineffable rhythms power his music to such incredible heights, places where the oxygen thins and the stars burn your eyes, inducing strange epileptic-like dances that could only find their source from black voices prior to Elvis Presley. Speaking of which, perhaps Elvis was the King of Rock and Roll, but Diddley was rock’s much cooler, older uncle, the kind that gives minors their first cans of Bud Light on summer fishing trips. Elvis might have had the voice of a black man and that ready made look for white-bread American television, but Diddley had that other-worldly beat, that fuzzy guitar, that turns average American joes and janes into putty; lifeless and ready to be formed into something new, something like hands in the air, shaking, fingers outstretched or pulled into fists, feet moving like fire, blue with heat and furry.

This is Bo Diddley: The man who launched a thousand rock revolutions, from Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, to the New York Dolls, the Clash and thousands of nameless garage rock gods and goddesses. This wasn’t the blues, wasn’t R&B, and most certainly wasn’t Gospel, though it felt like each one at times. No, this was something new. Something that made preachers rail and politicians quake. This was a voice heavy with contradictions, full of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and dripping with the sweet joys of liquor and fornication. This was rock and roll. And America was about to be turned inside out.

Songs to download: “Bo Diddley”; “Pretty Thing”; "Mona (a/k/a I Need You Baby)"


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