Graded on a Curve:
R.L. Burnside,
A Ass Pocket of Whiskey

Lookee here: This is not a review, but a tale told by an idiot, the idiot in question being yours truly. To wit: My brother, who has spent his whole life listening to the unlistenable in the form of avant-garde jazz skronk, has been recommending albums to me for years. But it was upon his imprimatur that I bought German free jazz saxophonist Peter Brötzmann’s 1996 LP Saxophone and Bleating Goat: Live at the Harrisburg Farm Show Arena. It’s a terrible album, although the goat has his moments, and it got a pretty good write-up in the pages of Goat Farmer Monthly, so maybe it’s me. Regardless, I vowed never to take jazzbro’s advice again.

And so it went with bluesman R.L. Burnside (1926-2005), the Holly Springs, Mississippi singer and guitarist who played a form of the blues so raw, groove-driven, and just plain weird he attracted the attention of Jon Spencer, who took his Blues Explosion down Muzzippi way in February 1996 to collaborate with Burnside on an LP full of sound and fury in the form of some rumbling, fuzzy, and feral blues. My brother kept telling me I had to hear it, but Saxophone and Bleating Goat was never far from my mind, and besides, as I’ve said on numerous occasions, I’ve never much cared for the blues, period. B.B. King bores me; his guitar Lucille bores me; and the blues in general bore me, although I’ve always made an exception for Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson, because the legends surrounding their lives and their singing and playing transcend not just the blues, but music in general.

Your average Delta blues musician always seemed to me to be playing by pure formula, and a staid formula at that, when what I was looking for was something weird and wild, with that element of the uncanny that makes Johnson so great. And I discovered it in Muddy Waters’ 1968 LP Electric Mud, on which the guitarists from Rotary Connection play some far-out shit that takes you a long way from what I consider your academic blues. In Burnside’s case, what makes his music unique was his trademark drone, which was more characteristic of the North Mississippi Hill Country blues than the better-known Delta blues. He also played it fast and loose with traditional 12- or 16-bar blues patterns, although I can’t really tell you, musical dunce that I am, what that even means.

What I can tell you is that Burnside’s blues sound nothing like the polite, formulaic, and predictable blues played by most of America’s lionized blues purveyors, who deserve the applause (and the money—they’ve been ripped over by everybody over the years) but have never gotten a rise out of me. Burnside was a rebellious and ornery bastard, and played what I imagined to be real juke joint music, not made for concert stages but perfect for getting into a drunken fight over a woman and winning the fight only to have her turn around and stab you in the leg.

1996’s A Ass Pocket of Whiskey is Burnside’s best-known recording, thanks to the presence of Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion. Also present at the sessions, which from what I’ve gathered were wild and whiskey-soaked affairs, was Burnside’s “adopted son,” the white slide guitarist and Burnside protégé Kenny Brown. The often frenzied and always swaggering results may have appalled blues purists, who see Spencer as a white punk mocking a sacred cow, but they delighted lovers of raunch, noise, and ferocity, and Burnside went on to put out more albums designed to appeal to his new audience.

A Ass Pocket of Whiskey opens on an explosive note—although to be literal about it, the tune actually opens with Burnside squawking like a bird—but once he’s finished squawking the band launches into “Goin’ Down South” with some muted drums and the fuzziest fuzz guitar I think I’ve ever heard. Goddamn thing needs a good vacuuming. And said fucked-up fuzz guitar slides into a pounding, bad-ass drone until Burnside serves up a guitar solo that is to your traditional blues solo what a souped-up funny car is to a Model T. Burnside’s vocals tend towards a drone themselves, with lots of repeated phrases like “I’d rather be dead,” that’s when he isn’t shouting “What?!” What?!” or “Hey!” or “Look out, Jon!” which I think is his invitation to Spencer to take a solo. Brown takes a cool slide guitar solo too, and there you have it—one song, less than five minutes long, that has changed my way of thinking about the blues forever.

“Boogie Chillen” isn’t as over-the-top wild, although it opens with a wild cry and a guitar attack that reminds me a bit of ZZ Top at their wildest and best. Burnside and Company make quite the racket, shouting, whistling, crying, “Ooooh, shit!” and engaging in some raucous call and response accompanied by handclaps. “Poor Boy” opens with great drums and Burnside singing, “Poor boy’s a long way from home” over and over with that drone behind him, until a great guitar solo comes along and interrupts him. The drumming is rudimentary but great, the guitars slip and slide around one another, and then comes another fuzz-drenched axe solo that takes the poor boy home. “2 Brothers” is a piece of storytelling set to a basic drum shuffle and the occasional slide guitar riff. Burnside opens it by announcing he just got out of bed, then says, “Give me a little time to think/While you fix me another motherfucking drink.” Then he tells a story about twin brothers with a bottle, and the brother with the bottle falls climbing over a fence, takes a couple of steps, then says he feels something running down his leg, to which his brother responds, “I hope that’s blood. I hope you ain’t broke that bottle of gin.” Having lived the liquored life to the hilt, I can totally relate. A bad cut ain’t nothing, but a busted bottle? That’s a bigger disaster than Pearl Harbor and having your lover leave you at the same damn time.

“Snake Drive” marks a return to the wild-ass, hard-driving tempo and fuzzed-out glory of “Goin’ Down South,” with the song bouncing along like an old moonshiner’s beat-to-shit rustbucket of a truck making hell for leather along a narrow dirt track to a likker still down the holler. Nobody has, can, or ever will shout “Hey!” like Burnside, or come along with a jauntier, more propulsive beat, over which Burnside sings about how “Love be the Devil but it won’t get me” while guitars jump in and out. There’s one great guitar solo from Mars, or Muzzippi, depends on who you ask, and Burnside repeats “Gonna let my baby ride” like 52 times, and then Spencer comes in shouting, “Snake drive! Snake drive! Snake drive!” before screaming “SNAKE DRIVE!” at the top of his lungs.

On the Bukka White tune “Shake Em On Down,” Burnside and band establish a herky-jerky groove, with Judah Bauer’s harmonica receiving top billing. The guitar work is great, and if it’s hard to understand a word Burnside’s saying who cares, because the song pushes you along like a dairy cow caught in a flood. This one would have fit right alongside “Turd on the Run” on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, and ends in a fuzzy cacophony, with that guitar riding atop it. “Criminal Inside Me” is one of the weirder tunes I’ve ever heard, with Burnside opening it by crying like a baby, “Mama, mama, I want some milk,” then following that with a “Yeah!” as the band falls into a slow, grinding groove, over which Burnside tells a truly bizarre tale about a monkey who didn’t get invited to a party. So the monkey picks up his .44 and heads to the party and pounds on the door, and says, “I got an ass pocket of whiskey and a front pocket of gin/If you don’t open this door I’ll kick the motherfucker in.” And then things get truly weird, but I don’t have time to tell you what happens; suffice it to say the song stops and somebody (Spencer, I assume) asks Burnside for 40 nickels for a bag of potato chips, to which Burnside replies “If you don’t get out of my face quick I’m gonna kick yo ass you son of a bitch,” after which the band kicks in again and takes the song out.

Son House’s “Walkin’ Blues” opens with some slow interaction between a guitar or two and Bauer’s Casio SK-1, on which he produces a truly primitive sound. This one just sorta ambles along, like a dead man who doesn’t know he’s dead down a country road, with guitars here and there and everywhere and Bauer’s screeching Casio really weirding things out. Burnside throws in on some vocals, and then shouts, “Hey!” and that’s it. But if you think “Walkin’ Blues” is strange, its nothing compared to “Tojo Told Hitler,” a “toast” or African American narrative folk poem like “Signifying Monkey.” This one is starts with Burnside imagining a phone conversation between Adolf Hitler and Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo after Pearl Harbor. In historical terms the toast makes no sense, and it wanders off into some gibberish, with Tojo telling Hitler: “If I get to your god damn house I’d kick your god damn ass myself/I was in the back then, you know, with my head in a paper sack/But I was steady telling Nellie to kept her belly close to mine, you know.” I have no idea what the fuck he’s talking about or why he has his head in a paper sack, but I like the way he ends the song by basically calling the story of Adam and Eve bunk in very blasphemous terms: “Too many different nations of people in the world/I don’t care what the people said/Somebody else gettin’ in-between Eve’s legs.”

The LP closes with the great “Have You Ever Been Lonely,” a chaotic noise-fest—which features some spooky theremin by Spencer—that periodically dissolves into chaos. The song veers back and forth between total musical anarchy and sections where the flood tide of noise subsides and Spencer and Burnside engage in some vocal call and response, during which Spencer asks, “R.L. Burnside, have you ever been… lonely?” to which Burnside responds, “Lotta times, you know,” and so forth. After that Spencer barks out questions to which Burnside responds, “Yeah!” until they’re just shouting back and forth, at which point the band kicks back into what I imagine the Apocalypse will sound like. And on it goes, until R.L decides to define the blues: “When you really got the blues/You start coming home, late that night/You meet your cat coming out of the drive way and the first thing you meet/The first thing he say to ya, “She ain’t here, she ain’t here, she ain’t here”/You know then you got the blues man.” The way he sings “She ain’t here” is spooky indeed; he sounds just the way a talking cat might sound, and not long after that the song again explodes, with Burnside shouting “Hey!” over and over while Spencer screams before the song subsides, like the water after a great levee-breaching flood, into silence.

Like Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud, R.L. Burnside’s A Ass Pocket of Whiskey has forced me to reevaluate my attitude towards the blues. I’ve always thought of them as formulaic and predictable, institutionalized even. There were blues people, and I most definitely not one of them. Now I can hardly wait to check out the musicians who influenced Burnside, and who knows: within a year or so I could be one of those blues people, like it or not. One thing I do know: from here on in I plan to pay more heed to my brother’s advice. Who knows; I may even give Saxophone and Bleating Goat: Live at the Harrisburg Farm Show Arena another listen. I’m telling you, that goat really has it goin’ on.


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