The Best Medicine
Of the six musicians who were inducted earlier this month into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, arguably one of contemporary popular music’s highest honours, there’s one that I have a huge liking for. Not that I haven’t enjoyed the work of some of the other inductees this year–Alice Cooper, Neil Diamond or Tom Waits.
Alice Cooper, the original shock-rocker, who changed his name from Vincent Damon Furnier and started dressing weirdly, caught my attention briefly in Class 9 when I heard the rebellious School’s Out at my friend Sujoy’s mezzanine floor den, a venue for many things nefarious and unmentionable. It’s so distant a memory now but I don’t think I would be wrong if I said our momentary fondness for the album may have had something to do with the packaging. The cover of the LP was a close-up of an old wooden school desk with names carved on it and the vinyl album itself came wrapped in a girl’s pair of panties. Alice Cooper was the original shocker, using weird costumes, props like boa constrictors, gallows and fake blood at shows. His music wasn’t something that that could get you instantly bonded to for life but as a newly-minted teenager, the rebellious streak (and, of course, the packaging) struck a chord somewhere. Shortly afterwards, in that same mezzanine den we heard another Alice Cooper album, Billion Dollar Babies, which also we liked.
But that was it. I didn’t really take to Alice Cooper except for some trivia that came my way—such as the story of how rock’s pioneering shocker actually began his career as a part of a band that imitated The Beatles by lip-synching to their songs and of how his first bizarre stage costume was a slip that he’d borrowed from his girlfriend.
Likewise for Neil Diamond. Among the few albums that could be played loud at home were those by him—I was still living with my parents and among the few pop stars my mother appeared to like was Neil Diamond (the other chap was Paul McCartney). So Sweet Caroline and Song Sung Blue and The Jonathan Livingston Seagull (soundtrack) albums were among the staples to play when she was at home. Soon, however, we outgrew Diamond and went on to what we thought was edgier stuff although a few mates of mine retained their Neil Diamond tapes and records for what they called their “chick-catcher” properties (I am not quite sure what that means so I shall not try to elaborate).
Neil Diamond also had a humble beginning—knocking around the streets as a songwriter till he got his break when The Monkees (a made-to-order, custom-designed band from the 1960s) picked up some of his compositions and that pitchforked his career upwards.
Tom Waits I heard much, much later. And instantly fell for his gritty, alcohol-soaked growl and songs dotted with questionable characters and the grit and grime of mean streets. Unlike Diamond and Cooper, Waits I still listen to and most recently I managed to get my hands on a three-disc compilation of old and new songs. It’s called Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards and you won’t do the wrong thing if you add it to your collection. It has 56 songs, including his own compositions as well as tracks of diverse provenance: a song by The Ramones, one from Brecht’s Three-penny Opera, spoken word tracks from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and so on.
But as I said, it wasn’t Waits or Diamond or Cooper among this year’s honorees whose music I like as much as I do that of another Hall of Famer this year, Dr. John. Born Mac Rebbenack, Dr. John was born and raised in New Orleans and his musical style oozes that city’s unique style—think a mix of blues, jazz, funk as well as doses of indigenous Cajun musical style, such as Zydeco. Dr. John, who’s 70 now but still active, began as a guitarist but had to abandon that instrument in his youth when an accidental gunshot severed a finger tip. He settled for the piano and his boogie and blues style has a unique stamp. Many of his songs have references to voodoo, a popular cult in New Orleans, and his endearing growl makes him a great live performer.
It wasn’t easy for Dr. John. Although he’s been active since the 1950s, it took two more decades for him to finally gain recognition. It took just one of his songs for me to get hooked to his music, Such A Night, which I heard on a live recording and would recommend to anyone who hasn’t heard him yet. And, although there are nearly 30 of his albums to choose from (including the endearingly named N’Awlinz: Dis, Dat or D’Udda on which many other musicians, some from New Orleans, join him on duets), I would recommend Dr. John: The Essential Recordings, a compilation of 19 songs that are, incredibly, blues to drive your blues away. I’m really glad that Dr. John got on the Hall of Fame’s list this year.