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KING 4342; FEBRUARY, 1950

 
 

 

In an ideal world creativity in music should be its own reward… definitive evidence that someone was satisfying their artistic goals rather than merely chasing the commercial golden ring that will determine their success or failure.

But putting aside the fact that this is far from a perfect world and thus artists are largely (though not entirely) judged by their hits and misses in the marketplace, we still would have to contend with the idea that creativity in of itself is not even the final arbiter of artistic success either.

In other words, you can have high aspirations creatively and find that in the end your best intentions still fall a little bit short.
 

 

Go To The Show
As we all know Wynonie Harris was rock ‘n’ roll’s answer to Superman: faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound… and capable of drinking anyone under the table and still up to bedding every girl within a twenty mile radius.

The difference between the Man Of Steel and the man with the steel kidneys however was that Superman occasionally took his cape off and went to work as mild mannered reporter Clark Kent, whereas Harris generally looked for even more remarkable feats to prove his mettle.

In other words Harris’s kryptonite was taking it easy.

But as enjoyable as his many rousing musical odes to his own legend were to hear, the risk always was that he’d become a one-trick pony if he wasn’t careful and the more notches on his gun belt (or his bedpost) that he made, the less reason you’d have to take him seriously.

To his credit Harris himself seemed to recognize this and occasionally made an effort to downplay his feats of derring do and present a more subdued, even introspective side to himself. Every so often one of these paid off, such as with the excellent I Feel That Old Age Coming On, and he could be commended for putting a creative twist on his image.

But the Catch-22 when it comes to characters like Harris (or Superman for that matter) is the audience wants to get what they paid for, which is more heroic adventures where their vulnerability is shelved in order to play up to the crowd.

As we know, nobody ever played to the crowd in rock ‘n’ roll quite as well as Wynonie Harris.

Which is why it’s so commendable to see him stating bluntly, I Can’t Take It No More and then delivering on that promise, offering up a version of himself that doesn’t always get the girl and come out on top in life, but rather feels frustrated and confused and shows genuine hurt when things don’t work out as he’s come to expect.
 


 

Arsenic, Strychnine And Lye
So much of this record is really stellar, from the lyrics to the downbeat accompaniment, that it’s a shame that it couldn’t have been tightened up around the edges to make it nearly flawless in construction. But Harris’s predilection for sloppiness at times in the studio, blowing lines and relying on his ability to plow through unaffected, was well known by now and so I’m sure Henry Glover overseeing the session figured it was just par for the course and let it go at the first decent take without pushing for another.

Then again, Harris’s slight verbal slip-ups aren’t the only flaw in an otherwise pretty picture on I Can’t Take It No More because a few of the lines as written come up short as well… but those which work – including the entire first stanza which sets the story up brilliantly – often make up for the stumbles.

“I’d rather be shot at dawn” Harris opines in the opening line, catching us off guard, not just because he’s admitting his own mortality but because it’s such a blunt introduction to ANY song in 1950 that you’re taken aback by his candor while at the same time drawn in with curiosity as to where he’s leading.

The next lines are no less forceful, saying he’d also choose to be drawn and quartered and poisoned with a variety of substances rather than face more humiliation brought about by his wife or girlfriend’s flagrant cheating.

Wait a minute… Someone’s cheating ON Wynonie Harris?!?! Wow, talk about a surprise… normally there’s a line of happily married women wanting to cheat on their spouses WITH Wynonie Harris, so right away we’re intrigued by this unlikely turn of events.

But as promising as that is we’re already dealing with the first of multiple imperfections that could’ve been cleaned up with a little more care. For starters we have to contend with him getting tongue-tied after the line about drowning in quicksand when he trips over the words “see these same things going on”, with the first four of those words colliding into one another and getting their legs tangled before he recovers and is able to stay upright, although you’re sure that a few of the vowels trade places with the consonants along the way even if you can’t quite make out which ones wind up in the wrong location.

That would’ve been easy enough to fix with another take, but more troubling is the first appearance of the song’s hook which awkwardly adds two words to the title line… “I just can’t take your treatments no more”.

It’s understandable that he’d want to elaborate on the premise before he gets to the reason behind his problems with her which he doesn’t address until the next stanza, but the scansion doesn’t work and even if you could overlook it those words blunt the impact of his admission. Use OTHER words if you want – I can’t take your lying, your cheating or your no good ways, take your pick – use ALL of them in fact, rotating them each time through to add more depth to the story and show… yup… even more creativity, but instead he makes the worst possible choice and the song sounds clunkier as a result.
 

Thought That Would Make You Happy
Harris gets back on track though when he starts telling us all of the men his girl is seeing on the side – and it’s hard to see how she’s got any time to see poor Wynonie because her social calendar is so full that I’m betting she’s got one guy on each side of her at the movies just to be sure to fit them all in her schedule.

The third couplet might be the best of all following the instrumental break, as he complains about her moving in her family to their house and then caps it off by revealing that her sole motivation for showing any tenderness towards him is to get her hands on his paycheck so she can hit the town again. His incredulity at her brassiness is priceless coming from a guy who usually is even more brazen than she is when it comes to propositioning women. But then again they say turnabout is fair play so we’ll just sit back and enjoy the show.

Notice I didn’t say “sit back and enjoy the fireworks” because that’s the other area where I Can’t Take It No More is not all it could be.

Since we’ve been focusing lyrics let’s continue in that vein for a minute longer and report that after all of these grievances he lays out there’s absolutely no resolution to the song or his plight in general. When his exasperation should be reaching its climax, thus earning him the right to vent in one way or another, either by threatening payback, such as trying to hook up with her sister or something, or by giving her a hollow ultimatum, neither of which he’s capable of delivering on (let’s keep him the henpecked husband throughout this rather than let him jump in the phone booth to tear off his suit and start acting like Wynonie Harris again!), they instead just wind it down without so much as having him even mutter helplessly to himself as some type of cathartic coping mechanism.

There’s also not any musical showdown that would at least allow Harris’s character to remain meekly tolerant while the music gets more worked up to better reflect the feelings of torment and rage he’s otherwise suppressing.

That’s easy enough to do, some clattering drums, a strangled guitar line and a wheezy tenor sax acting as sort of a surrogate for the struggle with an adversary, namely his much more in control wife who is putting Wynonie through this ordeal.

Instead we get moaning horns behind him in the bulk of the song, plodding drums, and an elegiac trumpet of all things which winds up getting the solo. Yes, I suppose it matches the misery of Harris, which is surely what they were thinking would best sell this, but no it doesn’t sell it as a record which is still their primary responsibility.

We can debate art vs. commerce all we want when it comes to admirable creativity, but there’s surely a better way to split the difference than this… one that doesn’t betray the overall mindset Harris embodies, but instead compliments it with more complex internal responses to his predicament and elevates the musical kick to suitable levels as an added bonus.
 


 

Working My Fingers To The Bone
So what do you DO with a record like this where an artist who normally has a one-track-mind jumps that track and heads in another direction entirely, something which seems like an admirable move for someone as obstinate as Harris.

The instinct is to encourage this type of experimentation more, to reward him for having the wherewithal to see that another course is worth pursuing every now and then and to praise him for being so fearless as to let his guard down this way and burst his own carefully constructed bubble in the process.

To that end there’s plenty of attributes on I Can’t Take It No More that are worthy of that praise. The majority of the lyrics and the subdued tone of Harris’s vocals are both highlights and can allow us to overlook the melodic similarities to the aforementioned similar change-of-pace, I Feel That Old Age Coming On.

But the shortcomings of this are equally glaring and that all of them were so easily correctable means we can’t let them off the hook entirely without invalidating the very nature of an even-handed approach to reviewing records. Multiple garbled lines, even if they don’t completely upend the performance, and fact that they didn’t fine-tune the lyrics, particularly the main hook, are unforgivable errors in judgement that drag this effort down considerably.

In the end it means that while we’ll give him plenty of credit for his creative instincts we’ll be less generous with his carrying out OF those instincts and since the song doesn’t provide much more than that peak into his more creative side – and certainly doesn’t give us a powerful enough sound to overcome its missteps, this one has no choice but to go down in the books as average for its time even though it’s hardly average for confirming the image of the artist in question.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Wynonie Harris for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)