He Made Us Walk

Big Jay McNeely's back in town

BIG JAY MCNEELY's back in town, honking, squealing, screaming, bleating, braying, blowing his sax like a one-man herd of gaseous cattle chewing up the bean fields—and that's a good thing.

Of all the lunatic tenormen to come to the fore during the dawn of the rhythm & blues era (among them Joe Houston, Willis "Gator Tail" Jackson, Sam "The Man" Taylor and Red Prysock), McNeely is the best-known and the most quintessentially demented. His biggest hit was the chart-topping "Deacon's Hop" in 1949. That tune, however, was a relatively tame stroll beat that only hinted at the jaw-dropping frenzy to come. During the '50s, McNeely (with his brother Bob blowing unison lines on the bari) wreaked havoc with songs like "Nervous Man Nervous," "Real Crazy Cool," "Texas Turkey" and the incandescent "3-D," two and a half of the rawest, most energetic, mean-ass minutes of power ever laid down in a studio. The tempos were faster and more frenetic than anything previously imagined; the blowing was so tastelessly uncontrolled that McNeely's sax seemed to originate from pernicious galaxies unknown. 'Tweren't jazz, 'tweren't blues—'twas something new and fierce and dangerous and volatile and scary. Sometimes the songs started out with shouted exhortations like "ATTACK OF THE RHYTHM SECTION! DROP TORPEDOES! DIG THAT CAT!"—fair warning that this onslaught was as much militaristic as musical.

Meanwhile, McNeely was doing things in concert that were not at all proper in those days of Mamie Eisenhower's flower-print gramma panties. McNeely would play on his back, on his knees, on the bar, in the middle of the crowd, running out into the street and being wheeled around on a cart as he poured sweat and sex and grease and booze and stink, all bug-eyed maniacal-man might with a giant purple boner tenting his trousers, corrupting youth, healing the sick, raising the dead, walking on wine, foaming at the yap, making middle-aged white people tremble in wrath and fear—proof positive that those crazed, savage cullids were under direct control of the Kremlin.

It should, however, be noted that this was half a century ago. Big Jay McNeely is now 72 years old, an age where perhaps his cranky colon and creaking joints make ruder noises than his horn. That should not stop you from going to the Abilene Rose on Saturday night and screaming for him to bust an artery in an endeavor to transport you back to a time when discourteous music was a source of rare enlightenment rather than fashion de rigeur.

As far as I'm concerned, every younghatboy act in country music ought to be greased up with hot saddle oil and forced to roll around nekkid in the crevices of GEORGE JONES' face before being allowed anywhere near a stage or studio. George defines what country has been, remains and ever should be: sweet 'n' sour, hick-wise 'n' chicken-eyed, raw 'n' purty, untamed 'n' down-home. Jones is a man whose personal history is as sordid as his best music—or his impossibly hideous mug, which looks like a Rod Serling nightmare of dissipation. Jones is famous for drinking hooch, snorting blow, traumatizing myriad spouses, blowing off concert dates, getting arrested and playing demolition derby on America's highways. Just last year, at age 68, the supposedly reformed old duff damn near kilt hisself again, drunkenly driving into a bridge on a Nashville road. But like some immortal backwoods god, the too-tough-to-die Jones rose from the ashes once more and will most likely appear as scheduled Monday night at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. If he damn well feels like it.

Jones has had more lives than a whole litter of feral cats. Just about everything he's ever recorded (and we're talking hundreds upon hundreds of songs) has been worth more than a passing listen, but his earliest records—'50s honky-tonk/rockabilly hybrids that twang with all the authority of Hank Williams' sinus cavities—will always be particularly precious treasures. Songs like "Why Baby Why," "White Lightning," "Who Shot Sam" and "Revenuer Man" are what Snuffy Smith or Li'l Abner might have sounded like were they country singers rather than hillbilly cartoon characters. Jones musically mellowed with time and became the most soulful and sophisticated of country-ballad crooners, a singer whose voice is as smooth as 12-year-old whiskey, with a kick to match. Has he also been the most commercially viable country artist in history? Jones continued to wax hit singles from the mid-'50s right up through the late '80s, when his cover of Johnny Horton's "One Woman Man" went Top 10 in 1988. Then, of course, came the banishment of all veterans of substance from country radio and, with that apocalypse, the end of Jones' amazing run on the charts. That hasn't stopped him from continuing to release fine albums that purr, punch and growl with as much authority as ever—in between car wrecks and jail sentences. God bless and keep Mr. Jones: the world would be a much less interesting and mellifluous place without him.

I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but I'veplayed GEORGE THOROGOOD's new live CD three times and unduly enjoyed it. This despite the fact that the man is a mediocre guitarist at best; every song he's ever "written" was stolen from Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley; his affected snarl of a vocal style is among the most ridiculous in all of rock & roll (which is saying much, indeed); and he rhymes the word "else" with "myself." You don't buy your Thorogood CDs at a record store; you pick 'em up at Kmart. But the pure, honest joy he brings to his brand of Camaro Z28 blues is contagious and undeniable. Thorogood will always be a lowbrow, middleweight kind of guy, but he's a guilty pleasure of the highest order. Get stoopid with Gnarly George on Monday and Tuesday nights at the Coach House. This bit of priceless wisdom from sagacious SUGAR RAY singer Mark McGrath, as quoted in the Feb. 11 issue of Entertainment Weekly: "You know who got a bad knock? Nixon. That Watergate thing was a real black eye, but the U.S. is still benefiting from the good international relations he fostered." HAW! HAW! Holy shit! Don't you just love it when some double-digit-IQ pretty-boy rock star determines to grace us with deep political insight? Suggestion: when Sugar Ray plays the Galaxy Concert Theatre on Sunday night, everyone show up costumed as poor, misunderstood Dick Nixon with a black eye. Or, better yet, as a disemboweled Vietnamese baby. What better way to pay tribute to those good international relations? Big Jay McNeely plays at the Abilene Rose, 10830 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley, (714) 963-1700. Sat., 9 p.m. $5; George Jones performs at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Dr., Cerritos, (562) 916-8510. Mon., 8 p.m. $47-$57; George Thorogood plays with Monkey Beat at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8927. Mon.-Tues., 8 p.m. $32.50; Sugar Ray perform at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600. Sun., 8 p.m. $25.
 
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