Books

He's In Search of the Blues, and Lord Does Bill Minutaglio Find Them

This is an emotive, compelling, and enlightening collection of essays thanks as much to Bill Minutaglio's writing as the inherent human interest in the topics he chooses.


In Search of the Blues: A Journey to the Soul of Black Texas

Publisher: University of Texas Press
Length: 192 pages
Author: Bill Minutaglio
Price: $24.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2010-04
Amazon

"They call it Stormy Monday", observed the Texas bluesman T-Bone Walker in one of his signature songs, "But Tuesday's just as bad". It's a claim that finds a number of echoes in this collection of articles by Bill Minutaglio, an Italian-American writer who moved from his native New York to Texas in the '70s and has written extensively about the experiences of black Texans.

In Search of the Blues is not, as one might expect, a book about blues music, a confusion exacerbated by the fact that a book bearing the same title (by Marybeth Hamilton) and another bearing a similar subtitle -- Gayle Wardlow's Chasin' that Devil Music: Searching for the Blues -- undeniably are. T-Bone Walker haunts a few of the book's pages, and there are pieces on African American musicians at the end of the book, including an article about the late "discovery" of Henry Qualls by European blues fans, an account of the church zydeco scene in Texas, and a brief memorial note on Lightnin' Hopkins.

It's the sense of the blues, rather than its musicological representatio,n that lends this book its titular reference. Above all, it's blues fatalism that Minutaglio echoes in his writing, the imprisoning certitude that led Walker to note that "Wednesday's worse, and Thursday's just as sad".

The book is divided into three sections. "Three Generations" comprises profiles of football coach Ray Rhodes, former Black Panther and anti-drugs activist Fred Bell (aka Fahim Minkah), and Texas-born Percy Sutton, former attorney to Malcolm X and proprietor of Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater. The second section, "Community", constitutes the real heart of the collection with its tragically moving tales of life in Congo Street, Joppa, Sand Branch, and the neglected communities of South Dallas. All the chapters in the book have had their original titles adapted to give them a connection to the blues ("Black Panther Blues", "Free Man Blues", etcetera), a connection brought home by the closing section on Texan musicians.

Besides his gift for writing, Minutaglio appears to have a singular ability to get his subjects to accept him and to open up to him. He occasionally expresses surprise at this ("I never understood why they let me into their living room, why they opened the door", he says of an early interview) and he is always careful to make clear the lingering sense of suspicion and distrust emanating from people who have been let down too many time by curious outsiders.

This is an emotive, compelling, and enlightening collection of essays thanks as much to Bill Minutaglio's writing as the inherent human interest in the topics he chooses. Minutaglio is a master of the kind of muscular prose that seems always in search of drama. If the drama is not immediately apparent, Minutaglio seeks its out. The piece on Rhodes is framed with a narrative about a hanging tree where one of the coach's ancestors was murdered, according to local legend.

The performative writing sometimes -- as in the article on Fred Bell -- reads like the narrative of a crime thriller. Minutaglio is aware of the talismanic power of words used by people like Bell and the blues singers, and he uses them himself to give his prose an extra dimension of power. This comes through in his use of syntax, repetition, and the well-deployed phrase.

However, the tour-de-force nature of Minutaglio's style is not without its problems. Any writing that asserts itself in the way his does is bound to have to suffer the negative effects that its prosodic visibility brings about. In Minutaglio's case, this means that the constant affirmation of the plight of his subjects and an equally constant asserting of himself as a chronicler of them necessitate the construction of numerous us-and-them scenarios. Whether engaging in bewilderment at what he could possibly know about his subjects or performing authenticity work to show that he is, after all, an appropriate commentator, he is forced to segregate himself and his subjects from a variety of inauthentic others: sociologists, "earnest white musicologists", writers of "anemic" doctoral dissertations, or "earnest white imitators" of authentic blues singers.

One can understand how these others function not just as foils in Minutaglio's prose, but as the perceived interferers in his subjects' lives. There is a powerful sense that the communities that Minutaglio writes about have felt themselves let down repeatedly by the intentions of outsiders, even when those intentions have been benign. Again and again the refrain is sounded: nothing really changes for those at the bottom of society. This strategy of authenticating by othering, however, becomes an annoying tic in some sections of the book. On the other hand, it's questionable whether a more transparent style would have done much good; perhaps the annoyance needs to be there as a constant poking of the conscience of Minutaglio's readers.

Those readers will often search in vain for glimmers of hope. One of the implicit arguments of the book appears to be that any search for happy endings is merely another way of ignoring what's happening, a way of doing away with the guilt one might otherwise feel. It's a convincing argument, one that carries a hefty history and truth, but it still feels like a stalemate. The question always returns: what is to be done?

One answer seems to be offered in the act of recording itself, of bearing witness. Witnessing is equally about seeing and saying; a witness who has seen but will not say what they have seen is of little use, for example, in a law court. The witness carries something that is wanted by others. Witnesses are activated through the desirability of the information they can provide. Minutaglio's witnesses are desirable to him and, in turn, his own testimony is offered as knowledge that should be desirable to his readers.

Witnessing, in this sense, is about the completion of a task, moving it from a passive to an active role. It is a productive force in that it results in the transference of a thing presented to a thing re-presented. Writing is an example of this transference, even if something is inevitably lost in the process or if the process involves some performative shoving. If there can't be a passing-on, there can be a moving-on, as evidenced by Percy Sutton when he says that bitterness settles on those who can't move beyond their anger.

The power of passing-on seems to be the point of many of these pieces, though Minutaglio doesn't seem so sure in his newly-penned introduction. "For years," he claims, "I blanketed myself in some righteous robes and presumed I was serving some higher goal. That I was doing all this because it was important for everyone else to know these things." The implied self-critique is not elaborated on, except perhaps in his claim that "nothing was really clear except that, really, change was slow."

At the close of the introduction, Minutaglio quotes T-Bone Walker: "Fate's an awful thing". Yes, it is, but could it be that, just as the blues singers seem to escape the fatalism they announce by their very enunciation, writing offers a way out, or at least a call to action?

Even if Minutaglio's new contextualizing commentary -- provided in pre-chapter introductions and post-chapter updates -- suggests that, for many of these communities, nothing much has changed since he first wrote about them, presumably there is still some hope that the reprinting of this emotive work will help to force these issues into the light once more. Otherwise, why bother? Here, then, it is not a case of providing happy endings, but rather on insisting on the dangers of forgetting.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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