Monday, June 02, 2008

Sometimes Carrie Brownstein's NPR blog is a little staightlaced for me (her Madonna piece, for example), but I doubt I'm going to see anything more dead-on accurate in music writing this year than this lead: "Bo Diddley, legendary guitar player and predecessor of just about everything exciting in rock music, has died at age 79." If you ever have the chance, screen the great lost 1973 concert doc Let the Good Times Roll and, after being bowled over by surprisingly feisty performances by a bevy of rock and roll performers from before the Beatles/Dylan/Motown divide (the Five Satins in particular just melt, and even Chubby Checker is vital), watch the backstage segment with Diddley. The filmmakers follow him to the grocery store, and then to the area behind the venue where he cooks his food. He's been doing it for 20 years, he tells us, because that was the only way you ate if you were black and on tour in the '50s.

And while he was concocting one of the greatest assortment of recordings of the era. Since getting back to the West Coast on Tuesday (two nights in Portland with my friends Jessi and Eric and then back to Seattle on Thursday), I've been on a very early-morning schedule, waking at 8:30 or so every day, usually asleep by 2 a.m. Not sure how that happened, but today I'm glad it did because it afforded me the chance to play both discs of Bo's Chess Box, something I'm never sorry to do anyhow. "Who Do You Love"--still impossibly huge, scary, riveting. "Bring It to Jerome"--still snaky, still entrancing. "Say Man" and its many sequels--an Ace Records compilation is surely in the works now that the big man died.

Bo was the last of the real '50s R&R biggies I got to know decently. Starting around 19 I went through a fairly intensive phase of trying out all the canon-builders: Berry, Richard, Elvis, Jerry Lee, the Everlys, my sainted "5" Royales, and a couple blues guys too. I won't pretend to any sort of encyclopedic knowledge of that era, but I know it pretty well and like it a lot. Bo Diddley stands out immediately, without hesitation--no one else sounds like him, and no one else would have sounded like him even if he hadn't built his body of work on that amazing rhythm, if he'd just motorvated straight ahead like his labelmate Chuck. His voice and timing and his guitar tone are totally unmistakable, and Jerome Green's overamped maracas just upped both the menace and the goofiness. And his figure is unimpeachable: he combined Berry's guitar-coequal approach with rhythmic innovations of the sort James Brown would take a few more years to begin investigating. He was also one of rock's greatest conveyors of basic salaciousness. And he wrote one of the most chilling lines ever sung in a popular song: "Just 22 and I don't mind dying." R.I.P.