Garlanded by the cheers of a loud, appreciative audience, Ike Turner took his place behind the keyboard and immediately began pounding out the same irresistible boogie-woogie that Pinetop Perkins taught him years ago. Breaking into the first of many smiles, he seemed to revel in the adulation of the adoring crowd. The intensity of the crowd’s cheering should not have come as a surprise to me. But it did.
There’s no doubt that Ike Turner is a musical treasure. This performance alone was ample evidence of his deserved place in the pantheon of popular American music. Whether it was jazz (“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”) or old-time Country (“Mama don’t ‘Low”), Blues (“Sweet Black Angel”) or one of his rock ‘n’ soul classics (“Nutbush City Limits”), Ike played the music with a power and feeling that had less to do with skill and much more to do with birthright.
Aside from a 90-minute primer on the greatness of American roots music, Ike and his band remind us that his kind of music was not intended for staid public radio and franchised supper clubs - it was music made to accompany serious pain and ravenous pleasure. When his band hit the groove just right, and they did time and time again, you wanted nothing more than to stomp your heels. And you wanted to stomp them again when Ike played one of his razor-wire guitar solos - the only difference being that this time you wanted to do it into someone’s face instead of onto the dirty ground.
The hyper-masculine aggression of Turner’s music and persona was in itself a fascinating aspect of the performance. With his flashy clothes and glittery jewellery, and his cocksure command of the music, not too mention his personal history of ruthlessly satisfying his desires, he comes across as an almost mythic figure. If it were a 73-year old man who lived down the street happily mimicking the sounds of oral sex at a nearby woman, maybe, just maybe, it could come across as playful lasciviousness. But when Ike Turner makes slurping noises while his Tina look-alike singer feigns orgasm, it’s just disturbing. At least that’s how I felt. The heavily white and middle-aged crowd responded with supportive whistles and shouts.
Maybe for an audience like this, Ike Turner is their gangsta—fulfilling an age-old fantasy of Black masculine power. Ike certainly doesn’t do anything to limit this possibility—nor should he. It’s not his fault that his guitar-style screams “bad motherfucker” (Although to be fair, there was a sense of good-spirit during much of the show. He even went so far as to invite audience members up on stage to jam, and the connection between him and the audience was at various times both warm and playful). And it’s not his fault that the audience treated his appearance as vindication rather than conviction—nor can I begrudge them that. If everyone at every show was thinking like a critic, I’d go to a lot less shows.
The way this crowd supported the man and his music is, generally speaking, creates something of an anomaly. The level of Ike’s public esteem has long ceased being tied to his music alone; it is the other, more sordid aspects of his story that saw to him playing the upstairs room of a dirty old club while the all-ages punk show bounced beneath our feet. A man who’s been fairly or unfairly portrayed by Hollywood as a vicious wife-beater and drug-addled egomaniac just doesn’t get to play the Kennedy Center. But not too many men can make music this deep and rich. I couldn’t help but clap for music, but the notion that perhaps even a little bit of the terror he’s alleged to have caused may have actually occurred made it hard to clap.
Several times during the show, after something particularly tasty happened on stage, Ike would say, “tell the truth and shame the devil!” If only it were that easy. Truth can be a slippery thing, especially to a presence like Ike Turner. But the truth is that on this night, I’d rather I had been able to dismiss any notions of good and bad or right and wrong, and instead let myself do what the music was asking and simply shame the devil.