Music

Blues Child: An Interview With Eli Cook

PopMatters talks with 21-year-old bluesman Eli Cook about cranking it up, turning it down, and balancing the expectations of different crowds.


Eli Cook Band

ElectricHolyFireWater

Label: Self-released
US Release Date: 2007-01-08
UK Release Date: Available as import
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You'd probably think the grisly voice belonged to one of the last relics of the old music world -- a battle-scarred old man on a rickety Mississippi porch swing, probably in his 80s, black, and maybe even diabetic, if we're talking about the esteemed B.B. King. Gotcha! The singer is actually alleged blues guitarist Eli Cook, a white kid from rural Virginia who just turned 21. Last year's ElectricHolyFireWater is a totally remarkable effort for someone so young, but the twist is that it's also remarkable for a tradition so old.

Cook isn't really a bluesman, but he plays one in the press releases. Miss Blues'es Child, a collection of early acoustic recordings, was a much more conventional example of a blues albums, and it ignited quite a bit of buzz when the original 2005 release was picked up for national distribution the following year. But all the while, he's been in the back room cooking up something entirely different -- and mostly sacrilegious, at least for the crowd that responded so well to the first album.

Miss Blues'es Child's prodigy was "Don't Ride My Pony", a country-jangle solo blues which, halfway through, trots out the revelation that the pony in question is blind. Why, exactly? It doesn't really advance the storyline or have any bearing on the rest of the song at all, but this is the blues, man, and what could possibly be bluesier than a blind horse? Well, a three legged dog, perhaps, but that's about it.

Operating in a space so dominated by pitchfork-waving traditionalists, then, Cook deserves a nod of respect for trotting out a surprise of his own on the follow-up to Miss Blues'es Child. ElectricHolyFireWater channels Alice in Chains as readily as Muddy Waters, blending the century-old blues that Cook is known for with the '90s grunge he was raised on. It's as though the DeLeo Blues Brothers are lamenting Scott Weiland's hell-bent determination to sink Stone Temple Pilots with his drug habits, or perhaps it was Tom Morello rather than Robert Johnson who made that deal with Satan.

Now, Cook's solo acoustic shows do still lean more toward blues in its conventional form. But not too far -- actually, he prefers early one-chord songs to 12-bar. "Very few people listen to that stuff at all," he says. "You rarely hear it, and that's actually bluesier than anything else. Blues didn't develop its form until the '40s and '50s. It was really such a raw art form."

He also tends to play with a slide, and half the time he ends up running his acoustic guitar through a distortion pedal just to make sure it really hits hard. "I'm almost always fingerpicking, and there's a lot of slide, very little soloing in the traditional Stratocaster sense," he says. "Playing alone, you have to keep the bassline going with your thumb and keep the melody going with the slide. It's a lot of fun because you don't really watch the frets -- you're following the sounds. The more you think about it, usually, the less good it is."

Cook's heart is ultimately in the electric project. "It has been for a while," he says. "I can be a lot more creative." That's probably because it has a stronger identity and is less likely to be washed away by decades of competition. The influence of blues on rock musicians has been analyzed ad nauseam post-Zeppelin, of course, but in Cook's case the sources, and the improbability of their convergence, are clearly delineated rather than slyly co-opted. It's not really a melting pot -- it's more like a jar of Goober Grape.

It's also because Miss Blues'es Child was a more immature effort. "I had just then, in that six months' time, started trying to write songs, which I had never tried to do before," he says. "The very first songs I ever wrote were on Miss Blues'es Child, and they sounded very much like blues." In that case, perhaps the emerging electric sound is just Cook growing into his true artistic voice.

This, of course, creates a bit of a conundrum when he's asked to play for a big house in a blues-happy environment. For jazz festivals, in particular, he'll usually tone down the headbanging. "We'll tweak songs so they're not so heavy," he says. "There's definitely some of that going on live. Some songs are appropriate for certain settings."

That's unfortunate, because Cook doesn't really want to segregate them. "A year ago it was a little more black and white, but since then I've started using more distortion in the acoustic sets and playing more raucous material," he says. "Ideally I'd hope that someone who liked one would appreciate the other." We all know that's a pipe dream when it comes to blues purists.

Thus, Cook ends up wearing hats that he's entirely capable of handling, but somewhat uninspired by. "It's kind of a catch-22," he says. "It gives people a frame of reference -- I guess that's good in a way -- but in another way it's bad, because when people are expecting blues and you're playing hard rock, they throw tomatoes."

There are also, er, demographic considerations. "You don't get enough panties thrown at you with the Delta Blues niche," he adds. "The panties-to-tomatoes ratio is definitely in favor of the hard rock."

Even more confusingly, Cook's listening habits are changing, and elements drawn from Pantera to Funkadelic are now working their way in as well -- his face lights up when he talks about the Meters, for example. We can draw Venn diagrams all day, but wherever you may want to file him, Cook is no doubt a reminder that the blues still has somewhere it can go. If it so much as blinks, he might just shrug and leave it behind, bopping and bouncing off into whatever iteration comes next without a care in the world -- least of all what anybody might expect that to be.

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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