What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?
—ROBERT FROST, “DESIGN”
When I wanted to buy music, I trudged a mile along Carter Hill Road from my father’s house to the Montgomery Mall and rooted through the record bins at JC Penney’s because they’d let me return the album if I came back a week later and claimed it was defective. If I didn’t like Badfinger’s Magic Christian Music or Richard Harris’s A Tramp Shining, the record would always be, believe me, scratched. The rule was that you could only exchange for the exact same album unless it was out of stock, so the day before I had to walk to the mall, find all the copies of, oh, Strawberry Alarm Clock’s Incense and Peppermints, and slip them between the copies of Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, the album that proved that it’s possible to replicate in vinyl the sonic equivalent of dental surgery without the benefits. Deep Purple made for another good hidey-hole.
I spent hours meditating on Penney’s scant six rows of record bins, pondering Moby Grape, Ultimate Spinach, the Electric Prunes (“I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night,” if your memory needs jogging), and other cuisine-inspired psychedelia, a list that would include Cream, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and maybe even the Turtles, the Byrds, and Captain Beefheart. Though it has nothing to do with food, I’ll mention Montgomery’s best-known band of the late ‘60s simply because of its name: the Rockin’ Gibraltars.
After one of these excursions, I walked back from the mall through a hammering twilight cloudburst clutching a wet paper bag. As laughing rednecks veered through puddles and blasted arcs of oily water over me, I thought grimly, “This better be worth it.” At home, I peeled the sodden paper off the plastic wrapper of Johnny Winter And: Live, peeled off my wet clothes, and collapsed naked on the bed to listen to the album.
My stereo was a ninety-nine-dollar cheapo system, and even though I was seventeen and paying for it myself, my parents had first debated whether it was even appropriate for a boy to listen to music alone in a room. It probably wasn’t, they’d decided. But with dubiety and a stiff warning that the “record player” could be taken away from me at any time, they let me buy it anyway. How can the heathen in their ignorance say that “liberal Baptist” is a contradiction in terms?
Out of those crappy speakers, I heard for the first time Johnny Winter’s frantic version of “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.” It doesn’t have the lip-smacking lasciviousness, comic in its exaggeration, that Sonny Boy Williamson gives the song he wrote. Instead, Winter’s version is a wrenched-from-the-gut howl of sick and hopeless desire that could be called “The Pedophile Blues.” He wants to slip into the schoolgirl’s room, use her like a three-dollar hooker when he only has a nickel and half a cigarette in his pocket, and then beg her to tell her mother that the six-foot-tall, tattooed, cross-eyed albino heroin addict slipping out her window is a little schoolboy too. It was so terrifying it was funny, and funny, too, because it embodied all the terrifying desire I, a little schoolboy myself, knew not to say. I was afraid I’d start screaming and never stop.
Johnny Winter taught me that I could both scream and stop screaming. Once my parents and my three brothers were out of the house, I cranked the album up so loud the speakers distorted the music. I screamed along with him, flailed the strings of my air guitar, and jerked out a dance of spastic rage and lust. The speakers leapt on the dresser and the needle jumped up and down on the spinning vinyl.
Johnny Winter And: Live was as close as I ever came to hearing Johnny Winter live. In Montgomery, music was the Big Bam show put on at Garrett Coliseum by WBAM, and there I saw Neil Diamond, the Buckinghams, Tommy James and the Shondells. The wildest thing other than the Troggs rocking out to “Wild Thing” and whipping around long dirty hanks of British hair was Lou Christie. Lou Christie was huge in Montgomery. He was the Beatles of the Heart of Dixie, the Tom Jones of the teenybopper set. Teenaged girls would shriek his name. They’d rush the stage and throw their panties at Christie as he sang “Lightin’ Strikes,” his high-pitched, androgynous but smoldering paean to screwing in a car. Some of the panties were removed spontaneously, while others were purchased and smuggled into Garrett Coliseum specifically to be launched, clean, at the singer who was born Lugee Sacco. The girls worked themselves up to ecstatic, sobbing breakdowns like something out of Euripides’s Bacchae. Really. I wish I were making it up. Lou Christie. I seen it with my own eyes.
Jumping up and down in front of my speakers, shrieking my throat raw to Winter’s “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” I was as frenzied in my aloneness as those girls were in their packs. I didn’t think of it as music, exactly, but cat yowl, goat snort, coyote yodel. I was a teenaged boy, a polite if sullen one, and this was like encountering my unformed id on wax, blasting and crackling out of the paper woofers of my ninety-nine-dollar stereo set that cost me a month’s worth of mopping, grill work, and jerking cokes at ninety cents an hour.
Do all kids think they are freaks? I loved Winter because he both released my inner freak and made me feel normal. To say there was something sinister about Johnny Winter wouldn’t do him justice. He was sinister. From the glimpses I saw on TV and the photos on his albums and in Rolling Stone, I could see there was nothing cute about him. If the Stones were thuggish-looking Beatles, Johnny Winter looked like the picture in Keith Richards’s attic: Freddy Krueger on crystal meth. Jagger sang about Jumpin’ Jack Flash, but Johnny Winter, with his weird, lank, platinum hair, his swirling tats, his weak chin and collapsed mouth, his demonic waistcoat and flaring bell-bottoms, was Jumpin’ and Jack and Flash, each individually and all three together. He was heroin chic without the pretense, the maggot-white length of his body blued as densely with tattoos as a Yakuza gunsel. He was Bacchus on the nod, Dionysus on the needle. A redneck Nosferatu. If it weren’t for his brother Edgar, also an albino, Johnny Winter would surely be the only rock & roll guitarist who had ever sued DC Comics for portraying him as a mutant – half human, half worm.
Winter. It’s the perfect name for one of those weak-voiced, white-boy, Clapton-like bluesmen. But Winter’s voice was, in its weakness, a great rock & roll instrument. He scraped and clawed his way up to adequate, at the cost, I’m betting, of bloody sputum and shredded vocal chords. The strain drives the song harder than the smoother and richer
voices of, say, late Elvis, whom I despised because he cravenly protected his golden Vegas money-maker instead of letting it rip. Winter sang harshly, and I loved him for the pleasure he seemed to derive from doing it, for bringing, if sometimes too obviously, a lifetime of talent, skill, and work to each moment of every song.
Winter is a great cover artist, tearing up terrific songs and then putting them back together. He’s taken on the Stones, Jerry Lee Lewis, the great Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and each cover is a savage homage beating their creations into submission. He’s always on the edge of playing the guitar faster than it can be played and more percussively than seems possible. He pounds songs to pieces and muscles the pieces to the edge of disintegration. And then, at the edge, he gathers the pieces of music, hugs them to his chest, and jumps the fuck off the side before he claws back out of the abyss he’s created, or discovered- who knows which? The great insane comedian Brother Theodore used to say, mocking Nietzsche, “I looked into the abyss. The abyss looked into me. And neither of us liked what we saw.” Johnny Winter sang into the abyss, and the abyss, in his own voice, sang back, Thanatos rocking Eros at the House of Delight.
I played Johnny Winter And: Live till it was nothing but scuffed black plastic. Since it was already almost ruined, I carried it with me when after my freshman year in college I worked as a counselor at a Baptist youth camp in Talladega, Alabama. We played it on the record player in the dining hall on the weekends when the campers and the director were gone. “That’s something else, ain’t it?” said my friend Dan, shaking his head with bemused admiration. He’s a preacher now going on thirty years.
One Sunday morning, at reveille, as I lay in my tent half a mile back in the woods, I heard the tight percussive run of Winter’s “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” crack and crackle from the camp’s loudspeakers. The notes, so sharp and kinetic in a closed room, unfurled almost forlornly across the harsh and crudely green forests, owned as timber by Weyerhaeuser and Georgia-Pacific. The trees absorbed all that wild guitar, trees soon to be framing studs, particle board, gardening mulch, and pulp. This failure of wild music in real nature disappointed and saddened me.
I didn’t listen again to Johnny Winter And: Live till last week, three decades later. It’s still alive. I can still scream with it. But Winter himself left it behind, abandoning rock for the blues, proclaiming on the title of his newest album, I’m a Bluesman. He always was, but he used to be something else, too.
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