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Vol. LXII, No. 24
 
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
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Record Review

Bo Diddley and the Raging Hormones: An Indiana Tale

Stuart Mitchner

Ellas B. McDaniel, who claimed never to answer to that name, died last week, a few months short of 80. After his funeral Saturday, Bo Diddley’s longtime bassist Debby Hastings called him “the rock that roll is built on” and Ben Ratliff’s New York Times obit credited him for creating a beat that became “a stock rhythm” for white rock musicians. For teenagers desperate with boredom in southern Indiana in the days before rock ’n roll, the Bo Diddley slide ’n shuffle and thriller-diller tremolo was beyond stock. It was a living, breathing absolute of infectious and incessant radio energy powered by WLAC’s 50,000 watt monster transmitter all the way from Nashville, Tennessee. The music that we drove into the night to and that some of us got deathly drunk on was made by a man from the South Side of Chicago, which also gave us the Chicago Kid, not to mention, a few decades later, Barack Obama.

On balmy spring and summer nights the Chicago Kid and I would listen to WLAC as we drove ourselves and our raging hormones round and round Bloomington’s courthouse square (later immortalized in the film, Breaking Away). Sometimes it felt like the car was trapped in a pin ball machine called Horny Monotony where you kept bouncing over and over again off the flipper of the square, getting nowhere fast. In “Cyprus Avenue,” Van Morrison sings of being “conquered in a car seat” watching “the little girls come home from school.” We were conquered in the car seat of a fire-engine-red Buick Special convertible looking for girls and adventures that either never happened or ended badly.

Our patron saints were Bo Diddley, who gave us mantras like “The line I shoot will never miss,”and James Dean, whose sudden death haunted and hounded us. These were the days when half the male teenagers in Dean’s home state of Indiana were making laughably studied attempts to copy his moody moves, slumping tragically against trees or doing histrionic versions of the “You’re tearing me apart!” freak-out from Rebel Without a Cause. But it was Bo Diddley who got into our blood, put our already surging hormones over the top, and sent us speeding into the balmy night with WLAC on the car radio, on our way to exotic destinations like Indianapolis or Terre Haute or to that “wide-open town” Henderson, Kentucky, which turned out to be wide-shut.

WLAC was a night world unto itself inhabited by characters with names like Little Walter, Little Milton, and Muddy Waters, and our hero, Mr. Diddley. In the realm of WLAC, dirty-old-men DJs named John R and Gene Noble created a mellow off-color ambiance with the sly innuendoes they gave to ads for products like White Rose petroleum jelly and Royal Crown hair straightener. They would get into riffs as obscenely nutty as the ones performed by the baggy pants clowns and seedy straight men at the Fox Burlesque in Indianapolis. There were great funny songs like “Stranded in the Jungle” by the Cadets with its spoken, chorus-to-chorus transitions, “Meanwhile back in the States,” “Meanwhile back in the jungle” (where “I smelled something cookin’ and I looked to see/And that’s when I found out they was cookin’ me).”

Bo Diddley was the fuel, though, and “Diddley” rhymed with “windy city,” as the Chicago Kid would remind us while the Buick rocked and rolled to the South Side jungle shuffle, with us singing along in the native language of irresistible nonsense, “Diddley-diddley-dum dum-dum da Diddley.” There was talk of driving all the way to Chicago to maybe see the man in person, but a 250-mile drive is out of the question when good bad little boys have to be back home in bed before the birds begin singing the dawn chorus.

The Night Everyone Was There

Bo Diddley presided over the most notorious event of my senior year, one that everyone talked about at the last class reunion. The joke was that most of the people who claimed to have winessed the debacle had never been at the so-called party. I should know because it happened at my house, and “happened” is right. I was an inadvertent host. My father was in New York and my mother was visiting a friend when the Chicago Kid stopped by with the Chess 45 of “I’m a Man” and we put it on the record player upstairs in my room. Far from state-of-the-art though it was, that record player made quite a noise when you turned it up all the way. Bo Diddley’s hymn to manhood took wing and, as if spirited along some ultrasonic breezeway, caught the ear of the California Kid who happened to be the son of my father’s boss at the University and who had just appeared at the back door brandishing a fifth of J.W. Dant bourbon he’d nicked from the old man’s liquor cabinet. He was accompanied by the St. Louis Kid, a master of James Dean moves with a ducktail to die for who had perfected a dance step called the Radison. Meanwhile the record upstairs kept playing, Bo Diddley’s martial anthem to manhood booming forth every time the tone arm swung around and came down with a scratchy hiss for another spin, the drums almost in march-step, boom-boom boom-boom: “Now when I was a little boy” boom-boom boom-boom “at the age of five” boom-boom boom-boom. This was not the shuffle ’n slide rhythm; this was a relentless and irresistible drum beat telling us drink-drink drink-drink as J.W. Dant made the rounds. It took maybe only two times through the record for Chicago and California and St. Louis to put the entire fifth away, to their deep regret. Bo Diddley’s howl, ooowwwwww ahhhhhhh, that followed the chorus “I’m a man, I spell M-A-N “ began to take on a fearsome and ironic significance, as California passed out under the grand piano in the living room and Chicago collapsed against the fireplace, both going from high to low in record time, both flamboyantly ill, while St. Louis, who’d had less to drink, pulled down the Christmas tree and began doing the Radison on the fallen ornaments. As Bo Diddley’s wolfish howls were being woefully echoed in our devastated living room (more like the living and dying room) discretion got the better part of valor, and I called my mother: “Things are getting out of hand here, mom.” I’d only had a slug or two, just enough to have me haplessly parsing the lyrics as panic set in. Like, is what he’s got in his pocket that “keeps a lotta folks alive” what I think it is, or is there a deeper meaning? And who’s the second cousin little John de-what? Conquer-do? And is it “May 21” or “Made 21”? Meanwhile the tone arm kept swinging around and touching down, boom-boom boom-boom, as I put the Christmas tree back on its feet, and half-carried the Chicago Kid upstairs and dumped him, clothes and all, in the bathtub. Bo Diddley was still singing and I was sweeping up the broken ornaments when my mother arrived.

You can hear Bo Diddley singing “I’m a Man” on YouTube and you can see him with his big horn-rimmed glasses doing “Hey Bo Diddley” and “Diddley Daddy” at a 1966 concert full of screaming girls who had perfected their euphoria on the Beatles. The library has Bo Diddley CDs, and there’s a book called Bo Diddley — Living Legend by George White, but it appears to be out of print. Not for long, I bet.

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