29 June 2009

Can't You Hear Me Knocking?

I had just finished packing my bags in a tiny room on Charlotte Street when news came through that soul singer Barry White had died. It was a hot day, for London, and there were many people milling about outside, determinedly competing with each other over whose outfit and accessories conveyed the maximum enjoyment of the sun. Lugging my baggage, I steamed into a café for a cooling respite. I was taken aback at the buzz over Barry White’s death, he seemed to be more popular in the UK than in the States – maybe it was the result of an unaccustomed English reaction to summer heat. The television was tuned to an interview of the bass-toned modern-day Lothario.

Naturally, the conversation turned to love, and music. How was he able to make so many women swoon over the years? Where did all that passion come from? How did he know so much about love? “I don’t know of any artist who’s made a record that doesn’t deal with love, in one form or another,” he retorted with an indignation that belied his embarrassment at the ridiculous insinuation that he was the preeminent musical purveyor of love. It got me thinking if I could come up with one. Go ahead and try. Google won’t help here.

The closing moments of that British summer came back to me this past Thursday as the international zeitgeist went ballistic over the King of Pop’s death. I was reminded of Barry White’s challenge, and my mind skipped forward, what inspires great music?

Let me catalog what I have been listening to. What moves me? Which music makes me smile? Lately, practically every time I sidle into my car (where my music-listening is most intense), I instinctively put on The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers (1971). The record splays out the bad boys of rock ‘n roll at their hedonistic zenith, displaying the kind of decadence best indulged in vicariously. This is a record not so much about love as it is about, well, lust – primordial and profound. Listen to ”Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” Mick Taylor’s and Keith Richards’ intertwining guitar riffs alone will do to your libido what the sun does to an orchidaceae bud. And Mick Jagger’s barked pleas hearken back to the coyly veiled naughtiness of Slim Harpo’s “(I’m a) King Bee.”

So I’ll have to challenge Mr. White’s lofty assertion by amending it a little, perhaps sex (wanting it, having it, losing it, wishing you had more of it, being good at it, insecurity over whether you’re good or bad at it, thinking about it) is the more common thread in memorable music, particularly rock n’ roll, than love. Too often, love songs are rooted in too much pain and misery, and quite difficult to pull off with aplomb unless you’re Al Green. No, coitus is a much safer emotional mine. Even the Man himself, Bob Dylan, composed eternal classics about the variety of Persephones he’d shagged (Edie Sedgwick) or tried to (Nico).

At rock’s inception in the 50s, rock ‘n roll god Jerry Lee Lewis’ cousin Jimmy Swaggart famously labeled the new musical art form the “New Pornography.” The Killer just chuckled in his throaty joie de vivre way. To him it was an inadvertently fitting, albeit extreme, compliment.

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