Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Life and Times of Bill Haley

It seems unfathomable now, looking back at the historical record, that rock and roll and rockabilly were invented not by Elvis Presley, but by a plump balding Pennsylvanian with a wandering eye, who wore bow ties and dinner jackets; one who already had put out a long string of failed hillbilly records like "Behind the Eight Ball" and "Yodel Your Blues Away".

I've always been a hardcore Bill Haley devotee, for reasons I'm not even clear on myself. He's one of those performers who, like Prince, just fundamentally doesn't make sense, and makes even less sense the longer you examine him. The more you look, the less you know. Even though his basic shtick involves some of the most silly, head-bopping ditties ever manufactured, there's also a subtle-but-serious dark undercurrent to all his work, and some blistering guitar work to boot.

I think part of what made Bill Haley so fascinating is that he, like Elvis, was too loutish to recognize the boundaries of established genres, and so he was stylistically all over the map. He'd record goofy folk songs and nursery rhymes like "Mulberry Bush", and "Ten Little Indians", imbuing them with genuine majesty and power all the while, and then he'd turn around and record inexplicably spooky numbers like "Rocking Chair on the Moon", "Teenager's Mother", and probably the only atomic-age dystopian science-fiction post-apocalyptic rockabilly tune, "Thirteen Women".

Despite great efforts many have taken to educate the masses, the common man remains blissfully unaware that Elvis Presley's "Blue Suede Shoes" was actually a cover of a Carl Perkins song from 1955. Casual rock critics sometimes think they've made a very clever observation when they talk about how Perkins' genius was for a hick to have butt-welded a Mother Goose nursery rhyme ("One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready") to a rhythm and blues style. But few ever note that Bill Haley already used the "One for the money" routine in his 1953 proto-rock song "Whatcha Gonna Do", well before Perkins wrote "Blue Suede Shoes" in 1955 and Presley had a hit with it in 1956. I doubt this innovation even came from Haley; I'd lay money on there being some prior RnB record that Haley himself was pinching from. And so goes this thing of ours.

As variety-conscious as Haley's Comets were, they steadfastly refused to roll with the punches once rock and roll began to change. Through all the turbulent changes in popular music throughout the 60s and 70s, Bill and the boys continued putting out records that sounded basically like their old ones, and still put on the same kind of show in the same kind of dated outfits. God bless 'em for staying on point. If only other artists (Frank Sinatra comes to mind) had stayed true to their guns rather than trying to grow their hair long and dabble in art-rock and disco.

(Haley did do covers of later songs along the way - like "Me and Bobby McGee" and the brilliant "That's How I Got to Memphis" - but always restamped them into shape to fit the familiar Haley way.)

In the early 1970s, Bill admitted he had a drinking problem but, it being before the age of political correctness, no one intervened. His pals simply said "Hey Bill, cheer up and have another scotch, buddy." And so he did. And so began Bill's conversation between his inner Jack and his inner Lloyd, in the name of science and all its wonders. The Bible tells us, "give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to those who are bitter of heart", and as you must know, Lloyd is a very religious man.

Towards the end of his life, his behavior became erratic. There are stories - possibly apocryphal, possibly not - of him walking the streets of Harlingen, Texas in the middle of the night raving like a madman; of him making manic and surreal rambling phone calls to friends and business associates; of him painting the windows of his house black to keep secret agents from spying; of him developing a disturbing habit of disrobing onstage.

Some say Bill had an inoperable brain tumor in those twilight years, which would explain his behavior. But he also managed to write 100 pages of his autobiography before he died, and he was still performing and recording. And his death certificate listed the cause of death as a heart attack, oddly making no mention of any advanced brain cancer.

I'd like to see Bill Haley-ism become a musical genre all to itself in this new millenium. Let there be scores of "Bill Haley style" bands popping up, emulating the master and doing things up right in his divinely inspired cornball-madman manner. Who's with me?

(A few more magick moments of Haley holiness worth linking to: "Chick Safari", "Green Door", "Crazy Man Crazy", "Forty Cups of Coffee", "Adios Marquita Linda", "Rocket 88", "Straight Jacket", "Where'd You Go Last Night?" and "Hot Dog Buddy Buddy".)

- - JSH

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