[5 March 2013]
Back in 1967, when Eric Burdon was an elder statesman of rock at age 26, he and the Animals composed “When I Was Young”. The autobiographical tome was a top ten hit, and it told the story of how life had lost its intensity; pain was more painful, laughter much louder, faith much stronger, etc. He was disillusioned with society as well as himself. That was then, this is now. Burdon is now over 70 years old. He’s still penning life stories and social criticisms in song. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and 57th greatest singer of all time, according to Rolling Stone magazine, has recently released ’Til Your River Runs Dry. The unstated premise is that Burdon, like water flowing, still is a natural force to reckon with.
If anything, Burdon sounds more intense than over. He shouts and growls more than sings the lyrics. “Water! Water! Water!” he screams on the opening track, not because he is thirsty but to put out the fire of hopelessness that has overtaken so many people. Water is tears. Water is truth. Water is God. Water is justice. He wants it to rain down on the enemy who does not even recognize who the enemy is. Burdon’s energy overwhelms. He’s a living witness to the fact that times have changed but have not improved. He’s accompanied by a blues rock band whose electric guitars wail, drums pound, bass throbs while a Hammond B3 organ adds a gospel touch to the proceedings. The holy spirit is invoked, but no resolution is reached.
Burdon sings about the “Devil and Jesus”, but they are his personal demons more than the ones from the supernatural world. To a funky swamp beat, Burdon croons in a high pitched voice about the fight for his soul. The cartoon-like imagery is matched by the lightness of tone in this song about the struggle of good and evil. The man who once wrote a memoir entitled “I Used to Be an Animal, But I’m Alright Now understands the two sides of his behavior.
Both as a member of the British Invasion band the Animals and the funk jazz combo War, Burdon was directly involved in creating canonical songs like “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, and “Spill the Wine”. To be honest, there are no masterpieces like that here. But there is a whole lot of damn fine music here. The best, such as the two aforementioned tracks, reveal Burdon’s passion and strength as a singer. He may not have much of a vocal range, but he knows how to express himself forcibly. In many ways, he is like the old American blues masters whose work he used to cover as a younger man.
Burdon performed at the memorial service for Bo Diddley back in 2008. He pays tribute to The Originator (as Diddley was respectfully referred to) here on “Bo Diddley Special”. Burdon begins with a properly disrespectful chant: “Ashes and ashes and dust to dust / If the women don’t get you Bo Diddley must”. It takes three guitarists to capture the Bo Diddley beat correctly here as Burdon details Diddley’s impact on his life and the example he set. Diddley’s spirit lives on, Burdon says, and he does his best to honor it. This means having a good time—we all know what diddley-ing around means—as well as respecting the finality of death.
This is the message Burdon wants us to learn. Life is short, even for those like him that are in his seventh decade of existence. He wants you to have fun but not to burn out like so many others. On “27 Forever” he doesn’t name names, but the association between the Animals and Jimi Hendrix in addition to Burdon’s friendship with Jim Morrison are well-known (not to mention that this is the age when Janis Joplin, Robert Johnson, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse died).
Burdon ends the record on an upbeat note with a Bo Diddley cover, “Before You Accuse Me”. The song is nasty in the best possible way with a thumping piano, sexy horns and an infectiously sung vocal that makes one want to join in and sing along loudly. Burdon does Diddley proud. He doesn’t have to tell anyone that Diddley’s spirit lives on here. He shows you.