Walk On Gilded Splinters

shattered

In 1968 the Broadway musical Hair opened in London’s West End. It caused quite a stir in the British news media. It was praised for its songs and production but there was some vehement criticism, too, mainly for the 20 second scene in which the actors stood naked on the stage.

Hair  was a story about a group of hippies living in New York and their struggle to break free from the stultifying conservative society they were brought up in. The publicity material used colourful, psychedelic images hinting at sex, drugs and debauchery. There was one particularly striking picture of a young Afro-haired black girl on all the posters. That girl was member of the cast, Marsha Hunt. Although Marsha only had two lines of dialogue she became the face (and hair) of the show.

Marsha

Marsha Hunt ca. 1968

In the wake of the musical in 1969 Marsha Hunt released a cover of the Dr. John song I Walk On Guilded Splinters. It’s a menacing song full of mystery and voodoo. Here’s a YouTube clip of the original from the album Gris Gris.

The Dr. John version contains a high proportion of undecipherable lyrics and rolls on for nearly eight minutes. Marsha Hunt’s single has a slightly different title, dropping the ‘I’ and using the more usual spelling of ‘gilded’. It also omits the unintelligible Creole verses and cuts the song to the radio-friendly length of 3:30 without losing any of the spine-tingling sense of dark forces barely under control. Both versions are well worth a listen.

There have been several other covers of Gilded Splinters, too, including ones by Cher, Paul Weller, the Allman Brothers Band, Humble Pie and a guy called Johnny Jenkins. None of those match the power and spookiness of the first two releases from Dr. John and Marsha Hunt.

Come, walk with me back to the sixties, but watch where you’re putting your bare feet – those nasty splinters sparkle and shine but they’ll get under the skin if you don’t tread carefully.

End Notes

  1. Marsha Hunt married Mike Ratledge (of Soft Machine) in 1967. The marriage has never been dissolved but they only spent two months together.
  2. Mick Jagger dated Marsha Hunt for a while and they have a daughter, Karis.
  3. Marsha Hunt’s version of Walk On Gilded Splinters reached number 46 on the UK pop charts in 1969.
  4. Crotchety Man saw Hair for the first and only time during its revival in London; that must have been in 2010. It was a great show. And for a man who doesn’t like musicals that’s a rare compliment.

‘Cause I’m A Man

'Cause I'm A Man - video still

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

John Gray

Sometimes it seems that men and women come from different planets. Men are tough and strong; women are comparatively fragile and weak, both physically and mentally. Men are insensitive; women are warm and caring. When they are angry men are physically aggressive whereas women are devious and unforgiving. These differences are often exaggerated but there is at least a grain of truth in them. The stereotypes are not completely wrong.

Human personality traits are thought to arise from a mixture of genetics and upbringing in proportions that are difficult to pin down. But, whatever the cause, being male makes you manly in a way you can not control. Tame Impala‘s song ‘Cause I’m A Man recognises the failings of the male gender and offers them as part of an apology for unintentionally hurting his girl.

Saying sorry ain’t as good as saying why
. . .
I have a conscience and it’s never fooled
But it’s prone to be overruled
. . .
Cause I’m a man, woman
Don’t always think before I do

The lyrics are unusually clear and penetrating for a pop/rock song but it’s the music that tickles the ears. ‘Cause I’m A Man is a slow electronic dance track with a deep bass and a dreamy vocal line. It’s getting late, the wedding disco DJ has taken the tempo right down, the multi-coloured lights are sweeping lazily across the floor and a few couples are swaying to their own private rhythm, drifting in and out of sync with the music. The effect is quite hypnotic.

'Cause I'm A Man - band

Tame Impala

‘Cause I’m A Man is a single taken from Tame Impala‘s latest album, Currents. Tame Impala is almost synonymous with Kevin Parker, an Australian musician and producer. Although there are five guys in the band it is exclusively a vehicle for presenting Kevin’s compositions in live settings. The studio albums, including Currents, are written, performed and produced by Kevin himself using guitars, synthesisers and drum machines.

Crotchety Man has always liked Tame Impala tracks when they come on the radio but, strangely, I find their songs soon grow stale when I listen to an album. Perhaps the radio picked the best bits. Or perhaps Tame Impala needs to be taken in small doses. I don’t know. In any case, with that caveat, I am happy to make ‘Cause I’m A Man my latest Track of the Week.

I’d Rather Go Blind

I'd rather go blind - blindfold

Sometimes there’s a moment when everything falls into place. You’ve been searching high and low for the beautiful lady you danced with yesterday. Hundreds of women have tried on the glass slipper but it fits none of them. Then, just when you think you will never find her, a grubby servant girl in ragged clothes slips her foot into the slipper and it fits perfectly. As she stands and turns around you recognise her delicate face and, under the dirt and the rags, you see before you the princess you fell in love with last night.

I’d Rather Go Blind describes a moment like that. It’s an R&B song originally recorded by Etta James in 1967. But, for Etta, it’s a cruel parody of the Cinderella story; she hasn’t found her Prince Charming, she is about to lose him.

Something told me it was over
When I saw you and her talkin’.
Something deep down in my soul said, ‘Cry, girl’
When I saw you and that girl walkin’.

I’d Rather Go Blind was the B-side of Etta James‘ single Tell Mama, which reached number 10 in the Billboard R&B charts and 23 in the pop charts in 1968. That version didn’t chart here in the UK but a cover by the blues band Chicken Shack peaked at 14 in 1969 and stayed in the top 100 for 13 weeks. There have also been versions by Rod StewartMick Hucknall, Paul Weller, Beyoncé Knowles (playing Etta James in the film Cadillac Records) and about a dozen other artists.

I'd rather go blind - chicken shack

Chicken Shack

All the artists I’ve listened to have done straightforward renditions of the song so there’s not a lot to choose between them but, for me, the Chicken Shack version is still the definitive one. It has a slow, bluesy feel supplied by a twangy, early sixties guitar over an organ, bass and drums rhythm section. This is a song for a late night in a sleepy bar, a time and a place to ponder our own personal triumphs and tragedies. Here we can escape from the pestering buzz of the real world and let ourselves be soothed by a smooth malt and soft music.

The singer’s words shake you out of your reverie. Christine Perfect (as she then was) delivers the lyrics with such pathos that you can’t help but feel for her. A horn section hidden in the shadows at the back of the stage wail with her. Whatever troubles you may have this girl’s woes are far greater.

I would rather, I would rather go blind, boy
Than to see you walk away from me
.

“Yes”, you think to yourself, “I remember a time like that”. And, as the song fades away, you slip back into your memories.

I'd rather go blind - christine perfect

Christine Perfect

Christine Perfect married John McVie, the bassist with Fleetwood Mac, the same year that I’d Rather Go Blind was released and not long after that she left Chicken Shack to join her husband’s band. As a member of Fleetwood Mac she contributed vocals, keyboards and song writing for some of the band’s most successful albums and as an artist in her own right she received the British Academy’s Ivor Novello Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Crotchety Man is a fan of Fleetwood Mac from the Peter Green era, before Christine McVie was with them. Although there are some great tracks on Rumours those songs, several written by Ms. McVie, seem just a little bit too easy on the ear. I like them a lot but it’s a slightly guilty pleasure. I can’t help feeling that it was when she recorded I’d Rather Go Blind that Christine was, like Cinderella, just about Perfect.

Take Me To Church

HozierYou know a song has caught the imagination of the general public when it’s played to accompany the trailer for a popular TV program. I realised just the other day that Hozier’s Take Me To Church has achieved that ultimate honour, and it’s a really good tune, so I’ve chosen it as my Track of the Week. Needless to say the song is much more interesting than the TV program, which I’ve completely forgotten now.

Take Me To Church was released as a single in 2013. It sounds like a slow, religious anthem – the studio version of a piano piece written for an evangelical church service. The singer longs for the passion and the ecstasy at the climax of a religious ritual. “Take me to church” he pleads, but he is not asking to be saved and he’s not seeking forgiveness. It’s not God he’s worshipping, it’s his lover; he is borrowing the language of the Christian church to express his feelings of love and erotic desire. For him God is love, the raw, earthly, human love he has for his significant other.

I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies

Good God, let me give you my life.

Hozier - Take Me To ChurchUntil recently I had assumed that “Hozier” was the name of an indie band but actually it’s the performance name of Andrew Hozier-Byrne, an Irish singer/songwriter/guitarist. There’s a distinct flavour of Van Morrison in his voice and, like The Van, many of his recordings get the benefit of a full RnB production. Many, but not all. On the 2014 Hozier album there’s also a nice, simple, acoustic guitar song (Cherry Wine) and some bluesy material as well as the piano, bass and ecclesiastical choir of Take Me To Church. There’s one song in a 5 time, too (From Eden).

This year Take Me To Church was nominated for a Grammy and won the Billboard Music award for best rock song. Hozier also won the Billboard award for best rock artist and his first full album (Hozier) won the European Border Breakers¹ album of the year award. Those awards were richly deserved, I think. You probably have your own opinion.

Notes:

  1. “What’s that?”, I hear you ask. Well, I did look it up, but it really isn’t terribly interesting. Masochists and music industry information junkies can read about it here.

Born Under A Bad Sign

There was a documentary about Ginger Baker on the TV a few days ago. The programme is part of the BBC’s Imagine series and it’s available on BBC iPlayer until 7th August if you want to watch it. (I don’t think the iPlayer service is available outside the UK, though.)

Ginger Baker will be 76 next month. The wild ginger hair of his days with Cream is shorter now and silver. The long sunken face has become rounder and puffier. The mischievous grin has gone and the eyes don’t sparkle much any more. He suffers from COPD. Mr. Baker loves his horses; he hasn’t much time for people, though, if the documentary paints an accurate picture of the man as he was in 2012.

I learnt two things about Ginger Baker from that film: he started as a jazz drummer and he’s a prickly, irascible, cantankerous old man. I understand, at last, why he was (and still is) such a great drummer and why Jack Bruce found him so impossible. They say there’s a fine line between genius and madness and it’s easy to see that when you look at Peter Edward (“Ginger”) Baker.

A music blog is no place to criticise people for their failings, not even the failings of musicians, so I won’t. Instead, I want to celebrate Ginger Baker’s talent. I’ve chosen Born Under A Bad Sign from Cream’s Wheel’s of Fire album as my Track Of The Week because I think it demonstrates the flair and originality that Ginger brought to the world of rock music.

Born Under - Zodiac SignsBorn Under A Bad Sign was written by William Bell, an R&B singer, and Booker T. Jones, the bandleader. It was recorded by the blues singer and guitarist, Albert King, in 1967. Cream’s version was released in 1968. Many other artists recorded it, too, including Jimi Hendrix and Homer Simpson (according to Wikipedia).

It’s basically an R&B song. The sentiment is pure blues; the hook is the swaggering rhythm of the bass part; Eric Clapton’s guitar wails pitifully. And the drums sound like the steps of a down-and-out as he trudges through life, moving on, always moving on. With every step the cymbals tang, tang, tang like the sting of insults from hard-hearted passers by, people with homes, families and friends.

Ginger Baker may have started as a jazz drummer but he made his name as a rock musician and he’s perfectly at home here in this R&B piece. That’s a measure of the man’s versatility and exceptional talent. He has worked with quite a few bands in his 60 year career to date, as well as running his own fusion and jazz bands: Ginger Baker’s Airforce and The Ginger Baker Trio.

None of his collaborations lasted for very long. In the case of Cream, the band disintegrated because Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker couldn’t get along. I suspect Ginger’s coarse and uncompromising personality was a factor in some of the other break-ups, too. For every silver lining there must be a cloud, I suppose.

Ginger keeps several dogs on his gated property in South Africa. They are pets rather than guard dogs but there’s a warning sign at the gate: it says, simply, Beware of Mr. Baker.

Ginger Baker - Beware