I hadn’t thought much about Eddie Van Halen since 1984, an album that was all over American radio the year I turned 12. But since his death earlier this month I’ve been thinking about him a lot, thanks to Greg Tate, the cultural critic and a co-founder, in the 1980s, of the Black Rock Coalition. ‘The Rolling Stone obit doesn’t even mention Eddie Van Halen’s Indonesian mother,’ Tate wrote on Facebook. ‘One very very baad baad man on the axe, no doubt, needless to say, but you know we couldn’t resist pointing out the de-bi-racialization of the Van Halen brothers by the white rock coalition media.’
The lack of specific dates speaks to the poverty that Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert was born into in May Pen, in south-central Jamaica, some time in 1942. He was the youngest of 14 children, or seven. Both his parents were preachers in what Hibbert sometimes called ‘a sort of clapping’ church. But when he was eight or thereabouts (these numbers vary too), Hibbert lost his mother, and a few years later his father. By 13, or 15 or 16, he was in Trench Town, working as a barber, boxing as an amateur, and singing. He must have cut hair for several years. Most interviews and articles you’ll find skip forward to 1961 or 1962, when, together with Nathaniel ‘Jerry’ Matthius and Henry ‘Raleigh’ Gordon, Hibbert formed the Maytals.
‘I fell in love with Neil’s pain,’ Carrie Snodgress said, recalling her life with Neil Young. Apparently, she meant physical pain: Young had back injuries from polio contracted at the age of six or seven, type 1 diabetes and epilepsy. But no matter how chronic, pain does not make for a solid foundation. The marriage ended. Young made an album about it, then shelved it. ‘It was a little too personal,’ he told Cameron Crowe in 1975. ‘It scared me.’
I never met Little Richard, but I did spend some time with Dewey Terry, who played in his band. We sat in front of Dewey’s bungalow on Johnny Otis’s estate in Pasadena, drinking Mickey’s Malt Liquor while Dewey played guitar and talked about studio sessions and orgies. At some point, he picked up the phone and said: ‘Let’s go see Richard!’ I was young – 26, 27 years old – but I knew who Little Richard was and what he meant to the world, and was relieved when no one answered the phone. Why would you want to meet Little Richard? What would you say?
Chicago’s Black Monument Ensemble started to form in summer 2014, after Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Damon Locks was teaching art at a prison in Illinois, and feeling less than hopeful, when he heard the Pointer Sisters’ cover of Lee Dorsey’s ‘Yes We Can Can’ come over the radio. Locks had trained as a visual artist in Manhattan and Chicago and performed, for much of the 1990s, as the singer in a post-punk band called Trenchmouth. But the music that he began making now sounded nothing like punk. Inspired by Public Enemy, by that Pointer Sisters recording, by Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues, Phil Cohran’s Artistic Heritage Ensemble, Eddie Gale’s Black Rhythm Happening, and by a performance the Voices of East Harlem gave at Sing Sing in 1972, Locks started to layer beats over snippets of Civil Rights era speeches.
Jerry Williams Jr released his first album as Swamp Dogg, Total Destruction to Your Mind, in 1970. Before that he worked as a straight-up songwriter and producer – at Atlantic Records, among other places – cutting singles for Wilson Pickett, Patti LaBelle, Gary U.S. Bonds, Gene Pitney, and Inez and Charlie Foxx, as well as himself. He had got his start in 1954, the year that Elvis Presley made his first commercial recordings. Like Presley, Williams was living with his mother back then, though you wouldn’t have guessed it from the song he recorded: ‘Now, I know I take my whiskey/and sometimes get carried away,’ Williams sang. ‘I’m over 21 years old/so you ain’t got a darned thing to say.’
Harold Eugene Clark and Ingram Cecil Connor III – who grew up to be Gram Parsons – were both Southern boys, born a few years apart. Parsons was wealthy; Gene Clark was working-class. But both of them picked up guitars early on, moving with the times from rock and roll combos to folk groups before making their way to Los Angeles, where they ended up playing with the same musicians and, occasionally, with each other. Both of them passed through the Byrds: Clark formed the band with Jim (later Roger) McGuinn; Parsons was one of his eventual replacements. Both went on to make albums (The Gilded Palace of Sin; The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark) that are cornerstones of country-rock – what Parsons called 'Cosmic American Music'.
Tuli Kupferberg and Ed Sanders met in New York City in 1962, in front of the Charles Theater, two blocks north of Tompkins Square Park. Kupferberg was selling issues of Birth, a mimeographed publication he'd started in the 1950s. Sanders, who'd just launched his own mimeographed magazine, knew a few things about him. 'I'd seen his picture in a number of books,' Sanders later recalled. 'I learned a little bit later that he was the guy "who'd jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge", as described in Howl. (Actually it was the Manhattan Bridge.) I later asked him why. He replied, "I wasn't being loved enough."’
'The music came across the airwaves and suddenly it felt as if the world was actually changing,' Keith Richards said in 2003. 'Things went from black and white or grey to full Technicolor: no army, there's rock'n'roll music and as long as you've got a bit of bread you can buy anything, you don't need to queue. All of these things combined created a very strong thing in England for our generation. It was a breath of fresh air and a promise of real possibilities, instead of the prospect of simply following in our fathers' footsteps, which was pretty gloomy.'
Every year, at around this time, the radio station WFMU hosts a fundraising marathon. The highlight is usually Yo La Tengo's marathon-within-a-marathon covers session, which lasts for three hours or so. Callers who pledge a hundred dollars get to request a song – any song. YLT do their best to play it. Most of the time, there are too many songs to get to, and so, as the mini-marathon draws to its close, the band does an extended medley. On Saturday, YLT set that medley to the tune of the Velvet Underground's 'Sister Ray'. Midway through, they sang a good portion of Chuck Berry's mysterious 'Memphis, Tennessee'. Weirdly, the words fit the tune perfectly. But then I was reminded of Berry's response, in 1980, to recordings by Wire, Joy Division and the Sex Pistols. 'So this is the so-called new stuff,' Berry said. 'It’s nothing I ain’t heard before. It sounds like an old blues jam that BB and Muddy would carry on backstage at the old amphitheatre in Chicago. The instruments may be different but the experiment’s the same.' An hour later, a friend called to tell me that Berry was dead.