Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lord Have Mercy On My Little Tulane! (A Go Head On Rerun!)

This site gets its name from the song “Tulane,” from the album “Back Home.” “Tulane” has always been one of my favorites, and it has become a sort of minor cult classic, often called one of the last great Chuck Berry masterpieces. It was mentioned recently as juke box background music in a New Yorker Talk of the Town piece about Van Morrison. It was recorded a time or two in the 1970s by other artists. There are takes on the song by pub bands on youtube.

“Back Home” was my second Chuck Berry album, after the great original “Golden Decade” double LP. I was lucky to be introduced to Berry with the “Golden Decade,” and not one of the Mercury records that were widely available at the time—especially Mercury’s “Greatest Hits” release. If I'd found that one first I doubt I would have become a Chuck Berry fanatic-- but I found the “Golden Decade” and listened to it hundreds of times in an upstairs room where I kept my battered old drum set. (I was a weak drummer. No way I could keep up with those beats! I played along with slower rock like The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and stuff by The Rolling Stones.) I listened to the Golden Decade so much and so often that when I took a job picking honeydew melons in the hot California sun I sang it to myself, in order, all 24 songs, including scats of all the guitar solos, to pass time I spent squatting and cutting and stooping and cutting those melons. I’d run through all four sides, and sometimes start over.

I once repeated this feat, aloud, in the back of the car while my mother, two sisters and I drove some back roads between Oregon and California. Somewhere between Grants Pass and Crescent City I sang everything on the album from “Maybellene” to “Back in the U.S.A.”  My mother and sisters must have been extremely road weary, or very kind, or perhaps just a little stunned and frightened, because they let me do it for however long it took. (My singing voice is weaker than my drumming.)

I loved everything about that record, and especially the sound, which I used to describe as sounding like it was recorded in a garbage can. I’ve learned since that some of the songs were actually recorded in the bathrooms at Chess just to capture the sound that still kills me.

(I didn’t play the guitar yet, but I made plans to start. I used to go to Uncle Bob’s Music Mart in Orangevale and lust over the old Silvertones. I had a plan to form a band called Fuzzy Martin and the Statics. We’d play Chuck Berry and whatever else we could handle on cheap used amps and guitars from Uncle Bob’s. It’s still a good concept. I had a drum set custom made for the band—a broken down set of Kents that my brother-in-law gave me with a cracked and dented cymbal that sounded like a bullwhip when I hit it.)

But in the midst of this lust for the high energy and low fidelity of those early “Golden Decade” hits comes “Back Home,” my second Chuck Berry record. And “Tulane!”

By the time I buy this record, new, at Tower, I know Chuck Berry’s sound. And here it is again, but renewed, different, matured, with an electric bass instead of a standup acoustic, and with a refined guitar that the fine liner notes by Michael Lydon say has “the bitingly fine quality of etched steel”—a perfect description of Chuck Berry’s best guitar work from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The album begins with “Tulane” and its bookend, “Have Mercy Judge.” If “Tulane” is Chuck Berry’s last masterpiece, (until the new ones come out; that song "Darlin'" sounds like it might be pretty danged good), “Have Mercy Judge” is his second blues masterpiece after “Wee Wee Hours.”   (Or maybe third, after "Deep Feeling.")

“Tulane” tells the story of Tulane and Johnny who run a novelty shop but keep the best stuff under the counter. When the police come:

Johnny jumped the counter but he stumbled and fell
Tulane made it over, Johnny fell to the yell
Go ‘head on, Tulane! He can’t catch up with you!
Go Tulane! He ain’t man enough for you!

Tulane, like Nadine and Maybellene, before her, is a woman on the move, unafraid, always a step ahead. Johnny keeps talking and yelling instructions, but Tulane’s already gone! Next we here from Johnny, he’s in jail—a stony mansion—awaiting trial.

There's no video of "Tulane" (as far as I know he never played it live) but someone was nice enough to put it on youtube. 

And there are plenty of amateur, semi-pro and strange 1970s-1980s versions.  This version isn't strange-- the guy does it alone and gets the intro down cold!

Chuck Berry ignited a minor controversy among his biographers by writing in his own Autobiography that he wrote “Tulane” (along with Nadine and a few other songs) while serving time in the early 1960s. The writers have doubts because the song has a 1960s feel to it, especially if you assume the “cream of the crop” novelties are drugs. The song came out in 1969 or 1970, so the drug theme seems to fit the times.

I have no reason to doubt Berry’s memory. As a musician he was probably living the 60s lifestyle a lot sooner than the rest of the nation-- and who's to say that the cream of the crop constituted drugs?  But it also occurs to me that Berry might have been talking about “Have Mercy Judge,” a great song featuring Tulane that song fit given that Berry was serving time after his third trial for trumped up Mann Act violations. 

Have mercy, I'm in a world of trouble now
I'm being held by the State Patrol
I am charged with traffic of the forbidden
And I almost finished doing my parole
Now, I'm on my way back down town
Somebody help me, have mercy on my soul

I go to court tomorrow morning
And I got the same judge I had before
Lord, I know he won't have no mercy on me
'Cause he told me not to come back no more
He'll send me away to some stoney mansion
In a lonely room and lock the door

Ow! Have mercy on my little Tulane
She's too alive to try to live alone
And I know her needs
And although she loves me
She's gonna try to make it
While the poor boy's gone
Somebody should tell her to live
And I'll understand it
And even love her more
When I come back home

This is a song it would be nice to see Chuck Berry put into his live act, where he routinely plays his own "Wee Wee Hours," but otherwise sings great blues written by others, like "Mean Old World," "It Hurts Me Too," and "Every Day I Have the Blues."  Sing your song, Mr. Berry!  Sing your song!  ("Tulane" would be a good one, too!)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember Bob's Music Mart in O'vale too.