"It's easier to bone the President's wife than to get a movie made." Ray Charles.

How a cult music book became a cult music documentary, and it only took ten years.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Some thoughts on Charlie Feathers.

I like ‘Kill Bill’ well enough, the second part less so, but better than either is the knowledge that – via the OST CD – millions of unsuspecting normals now have a couple of Charlie Feathers songs in their record collections. Those songs may well sit there unlistened to for years, but someday, some teenager looking for a new kind of kick will slip the dusty old disc into the grime-encrusted and practically unusable CD player, and that high yodelling noise that a friend of mine once characterised as ‘Charlie Feathers’ sex noise’ will come keening out of the speakers. And some rough beast, its hour come round, will slouch towards Bubbadom to be reborn.
There is very little in all of music like the sound that Mr Feathers made, and with good reason – I don’t think there are many actual people like him around. I was introduced to his music, as to so many other things, by the covers performed by the Cramps. Lux Interior’s wild hiccupping vocal on ‘I Can’t Hardly Stand It’ isn’t actually too much of an exaggeration of the original’s weirdness, and in fact by overstating it he slightly muffles the effect. The repertoire of yodels, croaks, baby-talk, whines and downright unnameable, Lovecraftian weirdness that seemed to effortlessly shake from Charlie Feathers’ voicebox has never been explained, let alone equalled.
Don’t believe me? Go and listen. My special favourite starting place for you would be ‘Honky Tonk Man’, which I first heard in Robert Gordon’s company. It’s the 1988 Feathers CD where he tried with tremendous confidence to place himself squarely in the mainstream of popular culture. Scorning ‘cult status’ as the pointless shill it is, he took some of the best-loved songs from country, rock’n’roll and parlour singing, and decided to show that Charlie Feathers could be as big as, say, Anne Murray. Of course, he succeeded in something quite different – he annexed the 20th century and its music as part of his own back yard.
F’rinstance – listen to his version of the old chestnut, beloved of Irish politicians and wedding singers, ‘He’ll Have to Go’ – you know the one, Gentleman Jim Reeves crooning “Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone”.
This is two minutes and fifty-three minutes of sheer sonic menace. Starting with a crushing but somehow insouciant bass and guitar riff lifted bodily from the Rolling Stones ‘Miss You’, we hear Charlie enter lightly with an ‘Awwwww-right...’ he does the first verse with little indication of what’s to follow. The key thing is this, though – where the original was set up as Jim’s sweet nothings to a woman alone with another suitor, Charlie’s vacillates between this and another reading of the situation where the woman is in a crowd of orgiastic couples and – at Charlie’s bidding – she is to “tell everybody they gotta-gotta go”. And he’s not asking – he’s telling. If ‘King of New York’-era Christopher Walken could ever be embodied in an elderly redneck’s form, this could be the song that he would give voice to. If he could sing like a murderer who enjoys doing ickle baby-voices. Elsewhere he turns ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ into something Lux Interior described as “so full of menacing weirdness, it sounds like a song you never heard before”. The way Charlie pronounces Tchaikovsky alone is enough to put the wind up me.
And don’t even start me on ‘Jungle Fever’; a song so wrong it’s gotta be right.
Robert told me at one point that after years of going to edgy clubs in out-of-the-way places all over the South’s backwoods, the only time he’d felt genuinely at risk was in redneck bars he went to with Charlie and Bubba Feathers. Given that the elder Feathers was worshipped like a deity in those selfsame bars, that will give you an idea of his constituency, the soil he came from. Actually, all you need to do is listen to his voice and you’ll know that.
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