November 9, 2007

The Smelly Jelly

By: Erica Beeney

I am about as white as you can get. I’ve got pale, freckly skin that burns easily and a high-pitched tittering laugh. I have been accused of sounding “like a newscaster” when I talk. (I assume this refers to my subject-verb sentence construction and Colorado non-accent.) Why then my obsession with soul music?

Ask the legions of pasty-faced kids in England, dubbed the “Northern Soul” movement, who spend their time digging into dusty record crates and worshiping obscure 45’s. Ask the marquee-name, soul-loving whiteys: Eric Clapton, The Who, and The Rolling Stones.

For me, it started in high school with the “Purple Wonder:” Prince. I came late to musical passion. My childhood home was one of classical music and intellectual jazz: Dave Brubeck and Bill Evans played at dinnertime. Prior to Prince, I listened to and bought whatever I heard in my friends’ cars. But the first time the marrow of my bones tingled with the opening pulses of “Little Red Corvette,” I was flustered and floored. It was possible to have a different relationship with music than just as an aid to digestion. I let my ear guide me: Prince led to Parliament which led to Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder which led to Stax and Gamble & Huff which led further afield — and inevitably to some awkward moments. I remember the early minutes of a party where a friend of mine and I lost ourselves clapping and chanting in time to Donny Hathaway’s “The Ghetto,” while we cut crudités in her Sub Zero-outfitted kitchen — about as far away from the ghetto as you could possibly get.

Here’s my theory: Soul music matters more. Deprived of access to education, black culture, unable to rely on the written word, has long revolved around song. Making literature and fine art requires money and entrée to elite cultural institutions. But songs are free, and can be learned, sung, remembered, and understood by anyone. Later, virtually shut out of film and television, music was the one area of the popular culture where blacks had a presence, if not a dominating one. Whether black people have more rhythm or are just plain “better” at making music, is a dangerous argument, clearly reverse discrimination, and also, well, true. But what is not open to argument is that soul music is often an impassioned socio-political conversation. As the rapper Chuck D. described it, “Hip-Hop is CNN for black people.” I don’t know about you, but this girl who sounds like a newscaster chooses soul music every time. We gotta fight the power, right D.?

There’s a lot of anger and a lot of sorrow in soul music, and for damn good reasons. Who can listen to Sam Cooke’s single, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and not feel the tragic tension of the gifted, clearly brilliant Cooke singing about the reality of discrimination in the Jim Crow South, where he’s told to move along off the public streets? Some people don’t want their music to have a message. What they don’t get is that all music has a message: Choosing not to sing or listen to a song is as much of a choice as choosing to sing or to listen. Motown CEO Barry Gordy didn’t want to release Marvin Gaye’s classic album, “What’s Going On,” because he was worried that it was too political. Gordy’s resistance to the album’s release was a conservative act in the narrowest sense of conservatism: He was standing athwart musical history, yelling “Stop!”

So your annoying po-mo political science professor was right: Every act is a political act.
And for the past thirty years, Jerry Williams, Jr. a.k.a. Swamp Dogg, has made that dictum his creed. Earlier this year he released his latest album, Resurrection, which includes the suggestively titled “They Crowned an Idiot King.” Hmmm…wonder who he might be talking about?

Born in 1942 in Portsmouth, Virginia, Jerry Williams Jr. had early success as a traditional singer and music producer. He sang with Lionel Hampton, and was the first black in-house staff producer for Atlantic records. Among others, he produced Patti LaBelle, Irma Thomas, Solomon Burke, and The Drifters, earning three Grammy nominations along the way. As the first producer of The Commodores, he convinced Lionel Richie to sing. (Without Jerry Williams there would be no Lionel Richie; without Lionel there would be no Nicole; without Nicole there would be no Paris…whoa. Williams might be single-handedly responsible for keeping the tabloid magazine industry in business.)

But even then he was inspired by his out-of-the-mainstream viewpoint, writing a series of songs from the perspective of a gay man (he’s straight), including “The Two of Us,” co-written with Gary “U.S.” Bonds. Think about this for a minute. It was the height of Motown, when blacks weren’t supposed to be “too black,” the dawn of the civil rights era, before Stonewall, and Williams was interested in expressing an even more marginalized point-of-view than his own. Mad crazy. By the late 1960’s, it was time to reveal that side of himself which didn’t fit into the strict structure of the corporate music world — whatever the consequences. It was time for “Little Jerry Williams” to become Swamp Dogg.

His most famous album is also the first Swamp Dogg album, released in 1970, Total Destruction to Your Mind. It is a genre-bending album with folk, funk-rock, and soul influences. Williams points to Sly Stone (of Sly and The Family Stone) as a major inspiration, and you can hear it in the album’s crunchy rock sound, threaded with funk beats. The title song’s jangly guitar and driving drums suggest Ike Turner let loose in a boisterous juke joint, but the trippy lyrics — “Sittin’ on a corn flake, riding in a roller skate” — are more of the Zappa school. At other times the album evokes the bayou rock of Creedence Clearwater Revival or the slippery funk of George Clinton. There are more traditional shades in there, too: the boogie-woogie piano of “Sal-A-Faster,” and the wistful big band horns of “I Was Born Blue.”

The album is experimental in many ways, but don’t think it’s some kind of delirious free-for-all. The disciplined song structures belie Williams’ past as a major record producer. Nor should you get the mistaken impression that he never gets down from his soapbox. Swamp Dogg’s output includes both explicitly political songs (“Resurrection,” “God Bless America For What?”) and straight-up love songs (“Today I Got Married”).

Of course, there are certain recurring themes. Williams may sing about everything from the cultural obsession with money (“Mighty Mighty Dollar Bill”) to anti-war songs (He protested the Vietnam War, and spent time on Nixon’s “Enemy of the State” list.) to being a father, but a major thread in all his music is his belief in personal responsibility. Lyrics like “Do you believe if you’re gonna succeed, you got to believe in you?” and “Try for the opportunity to help myself” run through the songs.

There’s a lot to complain about in American culture, and Williams covers many of the bases. But he never sets them up as excuses, a refreshing change from the often tiresome, solipsistic whining of most politically-tinged music. Indeed, Williams’ championing of the individual brings into sharper relief the curious tension present in all protest music. Once you’ve expressed your anger about the state of society, how do you advocate change? If the problem is someone else’s fault (the government, white folk, the establishment), is it their problem to fix, or do you locate power in the individual?

His personal writings further explore his libertarian leanings. Williams is well-versed in his own down-home brand of free-market capitalism. He dismisses complaints about the Japanese takeover of American record labels with a pun on the Japanese currency. “If you have the yen for it and the yen to do it,” he writes on his personal Web site, “the rules of the game change in your favor and everyone else either gets in, gets out, or gets run over.” He insists that the laws of supply and demand apply to the music business: “Turning our backs on sales…refusing to accept that disco was selling and would continue to sell, based on the belief that ‘it’s just for gays,’ put the majors in the shit house. We must acknowledge sales, regardless of the source, if we plan to remain a record business. That’s one of the rudiments of economics.” He opposes the drug war, and believes that the best way to address the problem is not to make drugs illegal, but to change the behavior of those using them. “You don’t have to do nothing about it, just leave it the hell alone and it will go away/If a product is not being consumed the supplier will soon move on to other things,” he raps on the title song of Resurrection.

There are no “Age of Aquarius” style musings about people coming together or ending war or protecting the environment in Swamp Dogg’s music. He is decidedly un-P.C. After receiving complaints about the profanity on his site, an unrepentant Dogg blasted his detractors: “To those whom I’ve offended, I say f— you!” He denounces the welfare state and exhorts blacks to take responsibility for the violence and family breakdown of the inner-city. “I think black people are their own worst enemy,” he fumes in an interview with the Web site Blues Critic. “I don’t think it’s no longer the white man or any other color man. I think it’s us and we have to get our sh– together.” He opposes the “War on Terror,” but only because he thinks it isn’t tough enough: “I’m thinking of people like Roosevelt, who would’ve gotten bin Laden by now ’cuz he would’ve warned everybody in that area to get out and he would’ve sent bombers over there and when he finished bin Laden would be somewhere in millions of pieces…If you’re gonna fight a war, fight a war! No in-between.” No bleeding-heart liberalism here — this quote would be at home on The O’Reilly Factor.

Iconoclastic though he may be, Williams is following in a strong tradition of advocacy for the individual in soul music, from the exhilarating paranoia of Sly Stone to the anti-government nostalgia rhythms of Sharon Jones (whose band, The Dap Kings, played on Amy Winehouse’s album, in case you wondered where a little white girl like Amy got those beats). Kenneth Gamble, of the famous Philadelphia producing duo Gamble & Huff, went on to become a pillar of the black community, helping to re-develop South Philadelphia by encouraging independent education through charter schools and entrepreneurial programs looking to effect social change through free-market economics.

So if Williams’ philosophy is not as obscure as it first seems, why has his work been consigned to beloved cult obscurity? The production value of his albums leaves something to be desired at times. I love the murky, ambient sound quality of the recordings, as if they were sweated out in someone’s basement, but it’s not for everyone. Still it’s nothing that a few thousand dollars and a re-mix couldn’t fix, and with a more polished finish, many of his songs could go toe-to-toe with bigger name acts.

My guess is the answer lies less in the message and more in the musical method. The lyrics are the least transgressive part of Williams’ music. Proof of his devotion to individual expression can be found in his mash-up of styles that defy categorization — too country for soul, too rock for R&B. He’s recorded a country album and a calypso album, and had guest spots with Kid Rock and 50 Cent. Looking at this range, the name Swamp Dogg takes on a deeper meaning: Neither wholly water nor clearly dry land, the swamp is the place where the two things meet and become neither.

If there is a unifying element in all his music, it is the intimacy of Williams’ voice. At times he has been compared to Van Morrison (the comparison feels more apt on the folk-flavored “Dust Your Head Color Red,” a pro-drug song, and the post-apocalyptic protest song, “World Beyond.”), and at others, to the early R&B singer Jackie Wilson. But Williams’ slightly strained voice has its own particular raw urgency. It is not the confident crooning of Al Green. On the love song “Everything You’ll Ever Need,” Williams’ voice cracks when he sings about “try[ing] to be everything you’ll ever need.” He makes no promises beyond effort, and what more could you ask from a lover? Sadly, in the world of music, like that of politics, the easy sound bite is often appreciated over the more complex, but ultimately more honest, story.

Maybe his rawness is an acquired taste. It’s easy to label something “funky,” but the origins of the word are often forgotten. Something funky is something that has a nasty odor, a bite. Something funky is something raunchy or dirty, something left too long in a dark, wet closet. It’s a smell that curls your toes and makes you shake your head. Michael Jackson’s term for the funk puts a finer point on the substance of the sound: He called it “the smelly jelly.” Beneath the politics, beyond the sincerity of Williams’ voice, Swamp Dogg is really about the power of those certain beats that make you feel thrillingly alive: the smelly jelly.

Erica Beeney lives in Los Angeles. She’s written screenplays for Miramax, Sony, and New Line, and is currently writing a pilot for the Lifetime network.

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