Friday, 15 February 2013

The greatest song in the world ever . . . today
Number four: Bloodshot Eyes by Wynonie Harris

As you possibly know, I’m not a big lyrics man. Or rather I am a big lyrics man. So, having grown up on a mix of musical theatre (parental taste) and metaphysical poetry (schooling), I just thought most pop lyrics were just rubbish.

Not the ones that most people think of as rubbish. To me, Little Richard — or at least his writers, notably Dorothy LaBostrie — was true poetry. Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom — even Andrew Marvell or Dorothy Fields would have struggled to find such an evocation of the human soul.

What got me was the stuff people said had good lyrics. Hard as it to imagine now, once upon a time, in the days when Hal David was writing the wondrous I Say A Little Prayer, people, grown-up people with jobs, beards even, would pay serious attention to the lyrics of, say, King Crimson.

Yet here I’ve chosen a song whose true glory is its words. Bloodshot Eyes by Wynonie ‘Mr Blues’ Harris — 1940s R&B star, big influence on Elvis. At one time, he had two Cadillacs all for himself, each with its own chauffeur.

The tune is fine, if hackneyed. The playing is joyous — but you wouldn’t expect anything else of a band put together by Johnny Otis.

But those lyrics. A tight story told over three verses, it’s a startling narrative — a song about alcoholism and para-violence, framed as a comedy. 

It is one of the best pop lyrics ever written. It’s coherent, it develops rather than repeats. Some things to notice along the way . . .

* The beat and mood is established in the first two words, ‘now’ followed by ‘just’. A weak, barely vocalised sound followed by a strong emphasised one which finishes on both a sibilant and a plosive. The set-up of the whole song is there. A light feint then a killer blow. Tragedy as comedy.

The rhymes are mostly masculine ones but nor are they — as is almost invariably the case in rap — so obvious you want to slap them with a ready-floured haddock. They are certain, confident, assertive — and could be heard in the loudest juke joint.

* The use of language is consistent and demotic. A big failing of all kinds of lyrics is that words are chosen to makes rhymes rather than fitting the tone of the song. Even Sondheim makes this mistake. By his own admission, the line ‘It’s alarming how charming I feel’ (in West Side Story’s I Feel Pretty) is quite unlikely to have come from the young and uneducated Maria. (In fact, he wanted to take it out but his collaborators wouldn’t have it. He still blushes when he hears it. He was right, of course. But so were his collaborators. It’s a wonderfully life-affirming line — its buoyancy a warning of the tragedy coming her way.)

* There is only one word that wouldn’t be familiar to contemporary six year old. That is ‘spree’ and, even then, I think context makes its meaning clear. Unless, of course, you mondogreen it and think it is some kind of transport mode. Making things that simple really isn’t simple.

* The metaphors are smart. ‘Two cherries in a glass of buttermilk’: accurate, evocative, suitably revolting and very, very funny. Improved, too, by the fact that the rhyme is with ‘silk’ which as a high-toned partner to ‘buttermilk’, gets a good uptown-downtown thing going.

* It doesn’t read — let alone sound — like poetry. Just like someone with a gift for words, smart-talking his way through the sad realisation that he will never change his girl, that things are over between them, that . . . well . . .

* The final word is ‘death’ — after that there is just a repeat of the chorus. It is rhymed with ‘breath’.

Here you go, all the way, from first to last . . .

Now just because you’re pretty
And you think you’re mighty wise
You told me that you love me
Then you roll those big brown eyes
When I saw you last week
Your eyes were turning black
Go find the guy that beat you up
Ask him to take you back

Don’t roll those bloodshot eyes at me
I can tell you’ve been out on a spree
It’s plain that you’re lyin’
When you say that you’ve been cryin’
Don’t roll those bloodshot eyes at me

Now I used to spend my money
To make you look real sweet
I wanted to be proud of you
When we walk down the street
Now don’t ask me to dress you up
In satin and in silk
Your eyes look like a two cherries
In a glass of buttermilk

Don’t roll those bloodshot eyes at me
I can tell that you been out on a spree
It’s plain that you’re lyin’
When you say that you've been cryin’
Don’t roll those bloodshot eyes at me

Now I guess our little romance
Has finally simmered down
You should join the circus
You’d make a real good clown
Your eyes look like a roadmap
I’m scared to smell your breath
You’d better shut your peepers
Before you bleed to death.

And here is the track . . . I couldn't get it to embed for some reason so here is a link . . . Bloodshot Eyes.


It’s said Wynonie Harris knew whereof he sang here, too, liking to take a glass or two of hot whisky before he stepped onstage. When it came to treating women, though, he was more like the song’s villain than its singer. He told Tan magazine: ‘The women who really know also know part of my secret. We can laugh about it together for they know how women can get stirred up by a man who seems cruel, ornery, vulgar and arrogant. I’ve had them to take enough pills to kill a horse, follow me from town to town in Cadillacs, give me money and fight another like crazy. It’s all because I deal in sex  . . .

‘I like to sing to women with meat on their bones and that long green stuff in their pocketbooks. You find them mostly down south. As a matter of fact, I like all kinds of women, regardless of what colour they are or what size and shape they may have. Just so long as they’re breathing, that’s me.’

Ralph Bass, his A&R man: ‘He always had a broad. Shit, man, he didn’t have any respect. He’d walk up and insult a woman right in front of her man. He’d say: Hey, bitch, what you doin’ here, whore? And call ’em all kindsa names.’

Now, I say it’s a song by Wynonie Harris but that is not quite right. His was the big hit on the US R&B charts (1951) and a top favourite in Jamaica. There’s a bouncy version by Millie, the My Boy Lollipop girl — the gender is switched and so ‘drink’ is rhymed with ‘wink’.

It wasn’t written by Harris, though, but by the man who first recorded it, Hank Penny, a banjo-playing Western Swinger. The piano tinkles and the steel guitar swishes. It’s fun but it’s not Wynonie — of whom his producer Henry Glover said ‘This man was a concept. Hell, he was too much.’

Both Penny and Harris were on the same label, King, based in Cincinnati and James Brown’s long-time home. The idea for Harris to cut it came from King’s foul-mouthed, abusive, near-blind Jewish owner Syd Nathan. He knew, deep in his heart, that everyone had the same problems, that there was no such thing as black or white alcoholism or para-violence. It was all the same thing. Everyone shared the pain. And Syd could make money out of it.

Plus A little something else for you. Here you will a quite fascinating pair of interviews with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. If you don't know who they — or the 2000 year old man — are, you should. And will if you listen to these podcasts.


Lo Jardinier said...

Good choice - I've got it on a French jazz collection called Tant qu'il y aura des hommes - and it's one of the few songs I've played and people have said 'What are you playing that for?' Powerful stuff.
Just found out that Sun Ra played with Harris in 1946, which must've been an odd combination. Ra is on the record 'Dig this boogie/Lightnin' struck the poorhouse'.

Peter Silverton said...

i should also have mentioned that the stories come mostly from nick tosches book unsung heroes of rock and roll - there is also a great story elsewhere about syd nathan finding mr harris in a beat-up hotel in harlem, drunk with three half-naked girls - and signing him to king records that night