Otis Taylor: Respect the Dead

Otis Taylor
Respect the Dead
Northern Blues Music

The eerie command to Respect the Dead spelled out in blackmailer’s lettering advises the prospective listener that this record will be a challenge. Otis Taylor has a very individual voice in his writing and playing his compositions. He deals with topics nobody else will touch; his lyrics have been described as mordant and that adjective cannot be improved upon. He was disappointed in his music career in the psychedelic ’60s. Now, he sells his own line of electric banjos and sings the . . . blues (?). For those who might not know, Otis Taylor is currently the critics’ favorite. His music is being picked up for movie soundtracks, so you’ll be hearing a lot more from him, too. After listening to but one song drawn from a previous album, I was willing to listen to some more Otis Taylor. But not any more of this record.

“Ten Million Slaves” starts out Respect the Dead and is genuinely remarkable, every bit as evocative as “My Soul’s in Louisiana” referred to above. The sparse accents of fuzzy crazed electric guitar adds to the aura of rightful confusion of not just being captured, but transported across an ocean by people whose language you don’t understand any more than their ultimate intentions for you. Unfortunately for me, there were 11 other songs, and the remainder of this record doesn’t deliver to me. Altogether, this is such an experimental approach that some portions only reminded me of the heightened sense of amateur drama you might hear when it’s ghost story hour around the campfire. This is Otis Taylor rasping and quivering out “the blues”. And if the blues is a feeling, then these blues are like a depression you can’t understand.

Described as “songs that rip a hole in your soul”, I was made uneasy and frightened, all right, when imagining who would respond deeply to much of this. All I came up with were images of Colorado matrons who temporarily forego the denim for the simplicity of stylish black with the moody accent of silver smithed necklaces, staring out the double-paned thermal insulated picture window at an Arizona Highways panorama suspecting something has gone wrong. Mama, maybe the big blues are coming. Far beyond life’s disappointments when the tennis coach cancels the private lesson or the when the auto detailer leaves buffing swirls on the Navigator’s wax job. Things might get so bad, there’s no complaining any longer about how much you had to pay the IRS in 1997 and how your accountant’s receptionist was a little snippy to you on the phone. These might be the real blues. Maybe like when the tour company just up and folded and your tickets to Tuscany wouldn’t be honored, and while coping with that personal hell you had to compose a letter of complaint to your credit card company. As to even thinking about the problems some other people have had, like slavery, even your antique dealer agrees, “Isn’t that sad?” I can only ask, “Why do you want to hear it from him?”

The Taylor song listed recently as receiving the most play on blues radio station playlists is “Changing Rules”. There’s a reason for that: this is the most recognizable blues-sounding song on the whole record. The story is told by a former sheriff moaning about how it seems to him things are changing. They’ve taken away his cap, they’ve taken away his badge, “but please don’t let them take my gun”. You can easily suspect, can’t you, what he might be planning for himself? In the real world of former sheriffs responding to changing times, the ones I know about sit around under house arrest with a little transmitter chained to a wrist or ankle or just get voted the heck out of office. Those particular situations didn’t make me want to sing the blues.

“Three Stripes on a Cadillac” seemed promising as a bunch more kids were killed recently hereabouts, drag racing their souped up Toyotas on the remote roads edging the growing fields. This song is about a girl killed in the stands in a Mexico racetrack accident and the race car driver who painted a stripe in her honor for his turn around the track. Despite the singer’s histrionics, I got more feeling from the newspaper report and it was genuine.

“Just Live Your Life” is okay, a simple chiming 1950’s rock and roll progression advising you to “just live your life” because it ends in death and then it’s over.

On this disc, the mythology Taylor evokes in his lyrics are lines having to do with black witches, Vikings, Shaker women, and wolves who prefer sleeping out of doors. Taylor had his photo taken in the studio with Ry Cooder way back there in 1985 when his song was used in the ersatz-blues film, Crossroads. It took a few more years, but Taylor began finding success. He’s an invited performer at the Cisco Systems blues festival. He found his way up and out of the Vail ghetto and the Sundance Film Festival. He’s bound for more success but still finds time to volunteer in the now politically correct Blues in Schools program. Watch out, kids, Ab-a-yo-yo might go all dark and scary on you, like an overdone gingerbread man. I only am left wondering what sort of person will likely end up as president of his fan club?

Some of his topics are eerie and scary but I can barely figure out what to say. I don’t doubt that writing this material took a lot of introspection, I just didn’t care for the execution. What I will do is drill a hole in this CD and run a string through it, then hang it on a branch. It’s going to stay there, twisting and turning in the wind, and scare the bejesus out of those birds messing with the fruit on my trees.