[1 July 2014]
Chuck E. Weiss was born in 1952, which makes him too young to be one of Norman Mailer’s White Negroes (1957), but old and precocious enough to be imprinted on that era of mostly African American cool culture. It was a time of hep tenor sax jazz, a wild rhythmic lingo and spiel, cynical sentimentalism, and an attitude that acknowledged life in the past was better than the present tense, Cold War-wise that is. In other words, all that metal on your General Motors automobile may not protect you against the atomic bomb, but it sure feels safe to drive that boat of a car down the boulevard.
One could label Weiss’ music, “That Knucklehead Stuff”, as he titles one of his holy holy streetwise riffs on the meaning of life. Weiss grunts and growls over a funky drum and scratchy guitar beat punctuated by horn honks, bass drawls and such. He knows one has to fake it to make it in this world cuz that’s the best one can do. Hey, gimme a sip of that stuff in the brown bag.
Most of the time Weiss’ words don’t mean much more than their rhythmic sound, concrete poetry of the highest nature. This explains the ingratiating liveliness of such tunes as “Oo Poo Pa Do in the Rebop” and “The Hink-A-Dink”. They are cartoonish in nature, like an exploding cigar joke. No matter how smart one thinks he or she is, one always laughs to the groove at the moment of detonation.
Or sometimes it’s the missing bang that makes the biggest sound. On Weiss’ most affecting proclamation, “Bomb the Tracks”, he asks why no one blasted the railroad lines to the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. Apparently, Winston Churchill was in Brazil and “burned his tuches on a Volkswagen grill / Drinking Tokay wine with a girl named Bill.” Joseph Stalin “was drawing futuristic pictures of Huckleberry Hound”. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in Maine “doing the Boogaloo chicken about to go insane”. In other words, they were doing nothing to save the Jews. Weiss doesn’t know who to blame “It’s not much danger / To bomb those chambers”, but comes to the conclusion that “I guess the whole world’s left to blame.” The heaviness of the concern belies the lighthearted melody and tongue by jowl comments. One waits for Weiss to erupt, but he never does.
Speaking of “Waits” as in Tom, Weiss’ gruff voiced chum along with his other pal, actor Johnny Depp, served as executive producers of this disc. Weiss may sing that he’s “friends of those who have no friends”, but Weiss has ‘em and like Waits, Weiss is much more of a raconteur than a singer. That’s cool. The whole disc is cool, as in frozen in time from another era. It captures the mythic America of big cars, small stages, cigar smoke, and cheap whiskey. Weiss even titled one of his compositions “New Old Song” because he knows being alive is just as scary today as yesterday. We live and we die and we still live and we still die. The song remains the same, indeed just as it is always changing. Paradox or dialectic, you toss the coin and decide.