Saturday, April 22, 2017

On seeing Bo Diddley: "The night stopped being pink and became flaming green. Everything was orange."

Jim Dickinson, detail from front cover of I'm Just Dead I'm Not Gone
Early in his evocative, essential memoir I'm Just Dead I'm Not Gone, an eighteen year-old Jim Dickinson, on the cusp of a unique and varied career in music, already mature in band experience (The Regents, others), recreational drug use (beer to grain alcohol to speed to acid), and getting there with girls, gets the chance to open for Bo Diddley at a fraternity-sponsored fall dance at the National Guard Armory in Memphis, in 1959. The night was charged, for rumor had it that Diddley had "caused" a riot the night before in Nashville, when a white girl jumped onstage to dance. Adding to the tension—to the thrills—was Diddley's and his band's very late arrival at the Armory. Dickinson's band is vamping and elongating their thin stage set to compensate. "It got later and later," Dickinson writes. "We stretched out. The audience was getting crazy. Finally, we got word Bo had arrived."
We stopped playing and went out back door. Two Chrysler stations wagons had pulled up and parked on the sidewalk. They were covered with randomly placed pinstriped hot rod decals and a hand-lettered sign that read BO DIDDLEY BAND. Two giant black men in thick fur coats were driving. The three-piece band unloaded their drum kit. Bo argued with the frat-boy promoter. Ricky, Stanley, and I walked up. The frat boy, irate and overly agitated, shook a performance contract and screamed, “It says right here you are playing two hour sets and taking one break.” Bo Diddley slowly reached in his pants pocket and pulled out a wadded up greasy piece of paper and unfolded it. Sure enough, it is the contract.

“Yeah,” he says. “It say that in my contract, too.” He wads it up and puts it back in his pants. He points at me. “He could have been Bo Diddley.” He points at Stanley, who is in true racist near frenzy. “Or he could have been Bo Diddley,” he continued. "But I is Bo Diddley and Bo Diddley is taking three breaks."

That was it. I agreed to play the breaks for an extra $150; the proceedings commenced. The hour struck and the witch man, great raiser of the dead, had arrived with an amplifier that looked like an icebox lying down and an orange guitar shaped like a Ford Fairlane. The trio wore knee-length red coats. Bo turned on the amp and tuned his guitar at full volume. The crowd screamed. Bo laughed and laughed, and kept tuning. Then he started, drums laying a repeated pounding rhythm, maracas filling up the holes. Jungle sound filled the armory. The world stood on its head and screamed. No one was dancing exactly; the crowd moved like one great sheet. On a pedestal ten feet over the crowd's heads, mad men were rain dancing. The night stopped being pink and became flaming green. Everything was orange, like methylate spilled in a bathtub. Football disciples down front had six-pack beer cartons on their heads and whooped the Indian dance, hearing the organ grinder, hearing the mating call.


Watching his hands was a mystery. The chords weren’t recognizable. He seemed to play a pattern, first open and then closing his hand for the four chord. His hand zoomed up the neck, making the low bass string scream and rumble. I looked around. Ricky watched him, too, trying to figure it out. After the dance, I took Vera home and went to Ricky’s. We worked in his music room until dawn, by which time we had figured out "open” D tuning. We broke the code. Bo Diddley’s guitar was tuned to a chord. We were the new white disciples of the black man’s magic powerful technique; it opened a new world of soul funk. Wild-eyed, still possessed by the witch man, I was in bed and away on a gray sleeping cloud.
I never saw Bo play, but after reading this passage I feel a lot closer to what the experience would've felt like: Bo in his prime. We can forgive what in Dickinson's excitable writing and observations might be objected to on racial or essentialist grounds—the "jungle sound," et al—and vibe on the mood of forbidden excitement and sonic (and sartorial) mysteries that pulsed for Dickinson that night, on those strange hands and chords, on the doors that opened, on that horizon rolling back.


Here's Diddley around this time, posing on front of another formidable road machine:
And if you can track down a copy of Spring Weekend 1959, a lo-fi recording of a knocked-out, trance-inducing Bo and his band in front of a sweaty and drunken room of frat boys and their dates, turn it up LOUD and you'll get a good feel for what Dickinson encountered that night.

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