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MODERN 20-654, JANUARY, 1949

 
 

 

One of the most enduring tropes in classic stories is that of the mad scientist – a brilliant but warped mind trying to use their particular brand of demented genius to invent something that would alter humanity’s perceptions as to what is possible in this world.

But though it’s passed off as fiction, let’s be fair here, what were the advances in organ transplants, skin graft technology and blood transfusions that helped millions of people over the past century if not merely offshoots of Dr. Frankenstein’s groundbreaking work in the 1700’s?

One person’s twisted monster is another’s medical savior, it all merely depends on your perspective and the accepted thinking of the day.

In music it’s no different. Artists who seek to push the boundaries when it comes to the prevailing means of expression in song, be it melodically, rhythmically, instrumentally, vocally or lyrically, are often seen as kooks, weirdos and even talentless hacks by those encountering it for the first time. Confused, offended and sometimes frightened by what they hear these critics lash out at the creators of these new and strange sounds, trying to stuff the genie back in the bottle and return to some semblance of normalcy that they’ve become accustomed to in their musical travels.

But once an idea hits the air it becomes viral and while not all viruses spread and infect a wide segment of the population, the chance that it might take hold somewhere down the line makes each experiment, no matter how unusual they seem at the time, something that is hard to turn away from as it comes to life.
 

 

Oh So Tight
Normally this is the segment where we delve into the artists we’re meeting for the first time and give as much background information as we can in a short space and explain how they came to be recording for this company at this time.

We’ll still do that here, albeit hopefully somewhat succinctly, for those involved are merely casual visitors to the land of rock in many ways and this record is an outlier that can’t be easily explained by recounting the artist’s own musical upbringing.

But the facts are as follows: Texas Johnny Brown was a blues guitarist who’d go on to have a very long career. Never a star, nor even widely known, he was nevertheless a fairly steady presence on the blues circuit for decades until his 2013 death at the age of 85.

His biggest claim to fame would be writing Bobby “Blue” Bland’s immortal Two Steps From The Blues which came about because Brown was recording for Peacock Records in Houston whose biggest star was Bland, a blues-rock singer of renown for more than thirty years, churning out more than sixty charted hits, a staggering figure for someone in that field.

Yet Brown himself, though he recorded fairly frequently over the years, never achieved a single hit of his own and in fact his most critically acclaimed work only came in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s after three decades when he worked “regular” jobs and only played music as a sideline.

So you might ask what’s a bluesman doing in a rock overview under a group name that suggests perhaps they’re trying to pique someone’s interests as a possible romantic paramour? Wouldn’t THIS be the kind of record we could mercifully skip over to speed up our endless trip through rock’s back pages and get to something a bit more recognizable a little faster? Does anybody who’s primarily interested in rock ‘n’ roll’s full history really have the need to know about – or the patience to read about – a fairly obscure blues guitarist moonlighting under a group alias on a record we’re already termed “experimental” at best?

Well, yes, or at least you should want to know about it, because while Texas Johnny Brown was indeed a blues artist through and through on his own, when he got in the company of others their influence must’ve rubbed off on him and led him astray. For it was during this time that Brown’s primary gig was as lead guitarist in Amos Milburn’s acclaimed road band, The Chicken Shackers and since Milburn was 100% rock ‘n’ roll that naturally meant Brown would be expected to follow suit when playing – and later recording – with him. In fact, in short order we’ll meet up with both of them under Brown’s name cutting a record in clandestine fashion for someone else.

But what to make of this record? Something cut without Milburn or his band on a totally different label under a completely made-up group name? I mean are we sure it’s even a rock record?

Yeah, it definitely is, but that being said it is also NOT something that would’ve been easily recognized as one when it came out as 1949 began because it sounds virtually nothing like any rock record we’ve heard to date and in fact when you get right down to it, it sounds little like anything we’ll wind up hearing for A Long Time.

(Ahh, sometimes with the song titles we encounter these things just write themselves!)
 

Away From You
Let’s get right to the song since we don’t really know how Brown came to be doing a session for Modern, or how he came to “put together” (or have assembled around him by the label for purposes of this record) the group involved, nor do we know the identity of either of his co-stars, a second guitarist dubbed only “Don Juan” and a woman credited simply as “Virginia” on vocal accompaniment.

Whoever she is I hope that those reading this in 2019 and beyond keep in mind that falling in love with her on the basis of how alluring she sounds on A Long Time might not result in having your dreams about hooking up go quite as you desired.

Let’s do some quick math and say she was no more than 18 at the time, that’d mean she’d be a minimum of eighty-eight years old as of this writing if she’s still with us today. Not impossible certainly and sure, 88 year olds need love too, but maybe it’d be putting too much pressure on her at that age to live up to the sultry image her voice conjures up on this record.

But at the time… oh what a dream she must’ve been to take out if she purred like this in your ear on the first date!

So let’s backtrack just a bit to explain her role in this drama and how her presence on the record is what makes it so avant garde for its time, at least as far as rock productions go.

Starting off with a simple strummed chord by Brown before switching to a slow finger-picking melody that makes you drowsy in a good way, almost as if the buzz is hitting you in real time, his voice kicks things off sounding positively forlorn as he repeats as if in a trance how long it’s been since he been with this beauty who absolutely owns his heart, lock, stock and barrel.

We don’t know why he hasn’t seen her in so long, but the possibilities are endless. It could be anything from him doing a hitch in the armed service or in jail. It’s entirely possible that one of them, if not both of them, were married to someone else when they met and had their first tryst and they had to distance themselves from one another before it tore apart their marriages. We even have to ask if she might’ve died tragically young and he’s speaking to her while sitting at her graveside, contemplating suicide to be with her once more. That’s not out of the realm of possibility here.

Then again it just might be that he’s a member in good-standing of the lonely hearts club who merely won a date with her in a raffle and that one night of dinner, dancing and a kiss on her doorstep when he dropped her off quickly became the highlight of his entire existence and he hasn’t been able to stop thinking of her since.

You can call me a cynic but I’m picking the last option, not because I’m cruel and heartless and want to mock for Johnny for his lackluster social life, but rather it’s due to her own detached presence on this record which takes on the aural equivalent of the tried and true dream sequence shown in a thousand and one movie and television scenes over the years. As he pines away, lost in a romantic haze, he’s envisioning her responses – all positive of course, which is the tip-off that this exchange is taking place entirely in his head.

But here’s the thing… it works BETTER this way!
 

Tears Are Taunting Me
This is not a record as much as it is a soliloquy, albeit with an “imaginary” response weaved in. As such we have to look at it differently than were it merely a typical rock song treading on familiar ground.

Now it’s certainly not entirely devoid of the normal musical touchstones that we’ve come to associate with rock ‘n’ roll, giving us something to at least focus on besides the just the vocal interplay. Though the arrangement is as sparse as almost anything we’ve heard to date, featuring only two guitars (or is that Brown overdubbed, credited as Don Juan himself?) and neither playing above a slow crawl with one handling the crudely modest rhythmic chording while Brown slowly spins the bare melodic accompaniment, the tune takes on an even more addictive quality because of it.

You let your guard down listening to it lazily unwind, lulling you into a trance. There are times during his brief soloing where the tone almost sounds as if it were a zither rather than a guitar in the way it holds onto its shimmering notes until they faintly echo in your ears and you lose touch with conscious thought altogether.

All of this gives it an ethereal quality. It’s the late stages of the REM dream cycle right before you wake, where dreams are vivid but becoming distant as you transition out of it. As you shift back to non-REM sleep and your pulse rate goes down and your breathing slows the memories of that dream start to fade.

That’s the precise moment when they recorded A Long Time… not literally of course, but atmospherically at least, giving you something that is designed to remain tangible but fleeting.

Yet what gives the song its power, its presence, its identity is that vocal give and take. Virginia’s cooing responses to Johnny’s wistful remembrances and longing are a siren’s song, beckoning him with their hollow promises of true love everlasting. If some aspiring film major had spun a short one-reeler out of this in which he was being coaxed by a demonic presence into giving up his life for this quixotic vision, plunging over the falls on a raft or something, we wouldn’t be at all surprised.

We also might just be inclined to join him.

That’s because Virginia, whoever she is (maybe she’s not meant to be a real person at all, but rather a manifestation of the male libido which explains why she doesn’t have a last name) is enchanting throughout this. Her voice is shaded with a faint echo, breathlessly saying what everybody at one time or another in life hopes to hear coming from somebody we’ve given our heart to, all of which she offers in a languid delivery that remains just a half step behind the expected pace, until she’s gotten you, me and Texas Johnny all wrapped around her finger.
 

You Know I’ve Been True
Like a lot of mad scientists however, unless the monster you create runs wild and wreaks havoc on the villagers – or establishes a new stylistic wrinkle in music that others quickly pick up on and popularize – then you probably won’t get your name in the history books for your creation.

But on these pages you will even if we don’t know who specifically was most responsible for throwing the switch that got the electricity flowing through the inert body laying on the slab. So instead we’ll spread an ample amount of credit around to Modern Records, Brown himself and/or whoever concocted this cinematic production for their inspired vision.

Though sometimes new innovations are merely happy accidents, here we can state unequivocally that this record was seen by all of them as a way to be noticed. Not necessarily accepted and praised, but even were they dismissed or mocked for their pretensions it had a much better chance of being talked about than the type of straight-forward journeyman blues efforts Brown was bound to come up with on his own, as the flip-side, a moody instrumental called Two Guitar Blues, clearly attests.

It’s not that something along those lines was unworthy of anyone’s attention, it too is very well played and considering the guitar was Brown’s main occupational talent it undoubtedly made for a better form of advertising for who and what he was, but songs like that were bound to be lost in the shuffle.

By contrast, though not with much chance of being a major hit, songs such as A Long Time would at the very least make a vivid impression on the listener’s senses.

This type of experiment was no more commercial down the road but others would pursue similar paths in due course. What it showed each time something like this was tried was that artists who by definition were being expected to show creativity in their work would occasionally grow tired of having that creativity fall into already established boundaries which put a limit to just how far they were able to take things if they still wanted to garner sales and airplay.

When those artists got tired of playing that game, even if only for a short time, then they too would explore the outer regions of their imagination and plumb their dreams for songs that might not make much literal sense but which had the potential to offer something far more vivid than reality generally allowed.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of The Don Juan Trio for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)