PRINT April 1996


Brand New Blues

TRYING TO EXPLAIN WHY the music created at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in the early to mid ’50s became rock ‘n’ roll’s sacred dirt, legendary producer/hillbilly esthete Jim Dickinson once suggested the source was: “A bunch of crazy rednecks playing nigger music.” Bluntly reductive, yeah, but also river deep. By “crazy rednecks,” Dickinson was mimicking the conventional response to those poor, rural, white boys in Memphis who recorded at Sun—they had to be a little touched in the head to transgress the racial tracks, even in the name of a good beat. And by “nigger music,” he was talking the blues, the mojo taboo those white boys identified with and loved and sought to understand. Rock ‘n’ roll as pop phenomenon began with this supposed transgression—whites turning away from the minstrel show’s ritual exorcism and actually acknowledging a twinge of respect for and envy of blacks. Elvis (the “first redneck nigger”) may not have wanted to be black, but he badly desired the inexplicable passage the blues seemed to offer. That white rockers presumed they could access that passage and define themselves by playing the blues cuts to what Ralph Ellison has called “the joke at the center of the American identity.”

What happened in Memphis was a wildly significant moment in the wildly miscegenated history of American pop culture. Its music tells a story that still fascinates new generations. And as Dickinson’s quip attests, it was a moment specific to a time and a place. Uniquely situated at the top of the Mississippi Delta, Memphis was a locus where folks of both races crossed paths on their way up north during the Great Black Migration that was fully underway in the ’40s. The folklore goes that poor whites and blacks (including musicians), who worked and socialized side by side in and around Memphis, exchanged cultural secrets just to pass the day. The racial intimacy was genuine, and it showed in the music. Elvis and Jerry Lee and the Sun posse cranked into hyperdrive a process set in motion by hillbilly troubadour Jimmie Rodgers, whose blues-derived vocals were an influence on numerous blues singers, including Howlin’ Wolf, who also recorded at Sun.

But far from its Memphis origins, after 50,000 Elvis impersonators got it wrong and suburban garages full of Rolling Stones imitators tried every trick in the book to get a girl reaction, the music took on a disconnected life of its own. So perhaps it’s fitting, forty years later, long after punk declared rock ‘n’ roll a spent language, that the “number one blues singer in the country” (self-proclaimed, of course) is a dead-cool-dreamy New Hampshire smart-ass who looks like James Dean as an aging junkie-waif supermodel. Jon Spencer, who now fronts the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, dropped out of Brown University in the early ’80s, formed the band Pussy Galore in 1985, and eventually insinuated himself into the gentrified scuzz of New York City’s East Village. Insisting that rock was a glamorously dirty joke, Pussy Galore released a series of albums and EPs that were death-of-the-text jack moves—noisy guitar assaults that didn’t exist if they didn’t offend. For Spencer, the only way to respect rock tradition was to insult it, in high-low, fuck-you style (the band once “covered” the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street on a limited-edition cassette as a lovingly disrespectful publicity stunt). Pussy Galore took the degenerated nub of the blues-based art still left squirming in punk’s wake and shot it full of pretentious, boyish adrenaline. In a Warhol wink, the East Village was transformed from rock shithole to rock shithole mecca, and noise bands sprouted like stylish dead flowers.

After Pussy Galore broke up in 1990, Spencer got more roots conscious and studious. He became transfixed by the Sun recordings and decided he wanted to be a “fucked-up” blues singer like Elvis and Jerry Lee. Musically, his Blues Explosion trio is a more tightly wound, lo-fi version of Pussy Galore—just two guitars, drums, and a theremin for esoteric effect. But instead of the equal-opportunity, guttural imprecations of his previous band, Spencer drawls back-forty non sequiturs (“Dig that ditch!”) and James Brown–ish commands (“Play the blues, punk!”). He tosses around cryptic titles (“Afro”; “A Reverse Willie Horton”) like smoke bombs, then walks away, narrow hips twitching. Misguidedly trying to decode Memphis’ mixed-race passwords, Spencer comes off like an attenuated Al Jolson.

“I’m into the idea that rock ‘n’ roll is just crazy, just something that came down from Mars,” Spencer has said, with barely a trace of Jim Dickinson’s awareness. For all his professed love of hillbilly eccentrics, Spencer’s idea of “crazy” now seems to equate strictly with “black” (or at least his limited conception of it). The Blues Explosion undeniably puts on a suggestive show. Live, it’s sheer buzz, a whippet of sexy sweat (especially when Spencer joins his wife Cristina Martinez’ engagingly raunchy band Boss Hog). But on the Blues Explosion’s third album Orange (1994), Spencer’s feverish reassembly of signifiers is slick, voyeuristic shtick—a clever ransacking of black culture for whites’ amusement. His ploys for attention are pointlessly stereotypical. Uneasy with today’s black culture, or even rural white culture, as anything but a pop pose, Spencer relates more comfortably to unthreatening voices of blues past, which he’s consumed as alien exotica.

The “lo-fi” craze of the past few years—using four-track recorders to supposedly recapture an essence lost in modern studios—that Pussy Galore helped usher in and the Blues Explosion mines has devolved into neoconservative nostalgia. Like, back then, music was so much more honest before, well, college-educated white people, like, uh, me, came along with their technology and . . . oh, forget it. But if romanticizing the blues as some crazy, forbidden conjuration is the lo-fi rule, there are a few artists who see the blues as part of an ongoing, folk tradition. Marcellus Hall, singer-guitarist for Railroad Jerk, another punk-damaged, East Village blues band formed in Spencer’s shadow, speaks to this premise on the 1995 album One Track Mind. Over a churning, squawky guitar and skipping drumbeat, Hall observes, “I’m hi-fi and I’m lowbrow/I’m history but you know I’ll make it somehow.” Like Bob Dylan, a fellow Minnesota native who went East, he flashes a mordant wit (“Yeah, it takes a worried man to sing a worried song/And I’m not one of ’em”) and a blues engine hot-wired from all sorts of sources, both past and present—Robert Johnson, Sex Pistols, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message.” This last reference is crucial, even if hip-hop only convinced Hall that Dylan was his favorite rapper and that a turntable was just another harmonica. He’s seriously considering the connections, not just dropping in a sample for disjunctive laughs.

An embrace of hip-hop as the most compelling contribution of the ’80s and ’90s to the folk/blues tradition is what sets 25-year-old blond moppet Beck Hansen above his peers. Paying his dues playing Mississippi John Hurt covers on city buses, he looked out every window for influences. Best known for the cheeky antianthem “Loser,” which hooked an acoustic country blues riff to a mid-tempo breakbeat, Beck is, at heart, a found pop artist. The product of an oddball Los Angeles home (dad was a bluegrass street musician, mom was in the Warhol film Prison with Edie Sedgwick), he spent a good bit of his childhood with his grandparents, one of whom, Al Hansen, was part of the Fluxus art movement. Of his granddad, Beck has said, “His stuff was taking trash and making it art. I guess I try to do that too.” Beck was also a fan of Pussy Galore’s noisemaking and moved to New York’s East Village in 1989, where he fell in with the emerging “antifolk” (proto–lo-fi) scene. Beck’s dumpster-dive esthetic finally came together his 1994 album Mellow Gold and revealed an offhandedly innovative pop form—strummy coffeehouse-folk sentiment, hippie blues-rock bombast, ’70s novelty schlock and punk nihilism, all redeemed by hip-hop chutzpah. His overhaul, with Beastie Boy Mike D (another crucial influence), of “Flavor” on the Blues Explosion’s 1995 Experimental Remixes EP gave the original a refreshing, self-aware groove. And on his most recent songs (scheduled to be on his forthcoming album, jokingly called Odelay to account for its perpetual rescheduling), Beck identifies not only with the blues of the past and the punk and hip-hop of his early years, but with the weird hits and misses in between. He knows that there are new traditions just waiting to be revealed, if you’re only willing to look in the mirror as well as in history books.

Charles Aaron ls senior contributing writer for Spin.