February 27, 2003

From the Horse's Mouth

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In the last few decades the paths of pop music and theatre merged and remain conjoined today. Nowadays live music is associated with presentation. Theatricality in music ranges from the moronic N’Sync circus, to the ironic spectacle of Marilyn Manson and the rest of the dark squad begging to be taken seriously, all the way to the Byronic — meaningfully melting music and theatre to create modern masterpieces from Bowie’s Ziggy to Tom Waits’ beautiful maladies. The freedom to experiment with presentation had its own toll.

One of the casualties that felt the toll was Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Hawkins’ inability to break the mold set by his one hit, “I Put a Spell on You,” is due to the fact that the audiences of the early fifties were not ready to understand Screamin’ Jay’s theatricality. His shows would begin with a coffin carried onto the stage, from which Jay would burst out to the chords of an organ. Jay’s wild dress code included kaleidoscope suits, wildly colored turbans, and leopard skin shoes. On stage he was accompanied by Henry the skull — his loyal listener and companion, along with scores of snakes crawling around his feet, sent into frenzy by massive amounts of fireworks. Though not scandalous by modern standards, a black Elvis screaming at the top of his lungs while caressing a skull was unacceptable in the ’50s and ’60s and provoked nearly nationwide censorship. If Jay’s appearance was puzzling, many of his earlier records were even more incomprehensible. Steeped in the voodoo mythology of the Deep South, Hawkins’ songs were the musical equivalent of “magic realism.” Jay admitted that he “would deliberately try to concoct lyrics that created weird images for the listener.” In “Alligator Wine” Jay describes drinking a stew made by mixing alligator blood, the left eye of a fish, the skin of a frog. The consequences are no less imaginative. Hawkins’ voodoo tint makes even the love ballad “I Put a Spell on You” smell of sorcery. Unable to find major success with his show, Jay began to compromise his shamanism to gain acceptance. Unsurprisingly, the compromise lead to bland mediocrity. Beyond one hit, Screaming Jay hasn’t found a niche in musical history — perpetually stuck between wild man and tender crooner. It is hard to say whether Hawkins was a great artist. Clearly he had moments of greatness. Yet his shadow continues to play above the heads of today’s performance unaware that the right to “perform” wasn’t always granted on the spot.

Peace, “the dark horse”

Archived article by Maxim Pozdorovkin