A Week of Tastlessness
As a boychile, I settled briefly on EDGAR WINTER as My Favorite Singer. I saw his horn-heavy, funk-blues-rock band White Trash at the New York State Fair in 1971, and my teenage brain cells were completely scrambled by Winter's histrionic, thoroughly tasteless vocal style. The way he bounced notes around to turn a single syllable into a six-note mindfuck; the way he'd go from a rasping growl ( la brother Johnny) into a whooping gospel falsetto; and mostly that transcendental, glass-shattering scream, like Sly Stone sucking helium with his nuts in a blender. All cheesy stuntmongering, to be sure, but they were stunts whose freak-show allure I found irresistible. The fact that Winter was an albino who turned a disturbing shade of purple when he sang added to the undeniable entertainment value. But at the time, of course, I was a mere 13-year-old, and 13-year-olds are wholly receptive to anything tasteless and cheesy—traits Winter exhibited with great pride. It's appropriate that I took in Winter's set between visits to various garishly bannered "Human Oddity" tents ("WILLIAM DURKS, THE MAN WITH TWO FACES—ALIVE!!"), which still proliferated at fairs back in them good ol' pre-P.C. days.
When White Trash's double-live Roadwork album came out in '72, I was thrilled to the tips of my red Converse high-tops. All the absurd, ostentatious vocal acrobatics were on display between Winter and co-vocalist Jerry Lacroix, who sounded like David Clayton-Thomas without the impacted-colon thing going on. He even had onboard rooster-headed proto-metal guitarist Rick Derringer, a man as tasteless on his axe as Winter was with his voice. Best of all was the 17-minute opus take on "Tobacco Road," wherein Winter unleashed an unaccompanied, ball-busting scream that lasted 18 whole seconds, followed by a particularly ridiculous vocal/guitar duel with Derringer that culminated in Winter whooping off into a falsetto freak-out that sounded like a cage full of agitated rhesus monkeys. Godhead!
Me and a buncha Converse-wearin' teenage pals went to see Winter in concert that summer. To our shock and bewilderment, White Trash had been replaced by a small rock & roll combo. No more funk. No more blues. No more horns. No more Lacroix. No more Derringer. But reliable Winter was as vulgar as ever, and his new guitarist, Ronnie Montrose, was perhaps even more preposterous than Derringer, all superspeed note spewage and rawk-star posturing. Best of all was this lengthy, noisy instrumental thing Winter performed behind a large bank of computers, looking like some longhaired, cape-wearing mad scientist, in which he invoked the sounds of galaxies far away at eardrum-torturing decibel levels. "WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT??" I screamed in rapture. "It's a Moog," a wiser-than-I guy in the seat next me replied smugly, as if I were supposed to know what the fuck a Moog was.
The song in question was, of course, Winter's masterwork, "Frankenstein," which I discovered when his album They Only Come out at Night was released at the end of the year and went on to become his best-selling record. Although "Frankenstein" was undeniably the coolest thing Winter had ever recorded and one of the most sublime guilty pleasures of the very guilty '70s, the rest of the album sucked dead donkey dick, as we were wont to say back in the day. "Frankenstein" was surrounded by slick pop-rock crapola on the order of "Hangin' Around," "Alta Mira" and "Free Ride," written and sung by scrubbed-up disco boy Dan Hartman, who definitely deserved a chain whipping real bad. By now, me and da boyz wuz moving into advanced teenage rebellion with groups like Alice Cooper and the MC5, and suddenly corporate Winter seemed like pussy bubble-gum music in the face of such pointed, wonderful evil. The freakish element of Winter's shtick was reduced to mere memory, and our short attention spans turned elsewhere for amusement.
We weren't alone. Following Night's success, Winter was never a major factor again. Good cheese had morphed into cheesedick, and no one was buying. Winter didn't release any albums between 1975 and 1994, turning his attention to scoring films and such. His '90s albums have been—dare it be said?—relatively tasteful and interesting, if minor affairs, seamlessly incorporating blues, jazz, rock and funk. Winter's voice is still an amazing instrument, but the histrionics have been replaced by actual soul. He also plays mean-assed alto sax and keyboards, as always. Edgar Winter, against all odds, has matured into genuine bluesguyhood. He'll be joined Sunday night at the Sun Theatre by fellow geezers Leon Russell, whom I always kinda liked, even though he looks like Wilford Brimley these days, and Dave Mason, who I always thought was a crashing bore following his tenure in Traffic.
PATTI PAGE enjoys the honor and distinction of having had her 1953 megahit "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" used as background music for the scene in which Divine chews up and spits out a piece of dog shit in John Waters' classic gross-out film Pink Flamingos (Divine did not, as is frequently and erroneously reported, actually eat the turd in question). That this song, along with all her many other hits of the era such as "Tennessee Waltz," "All My Love" and "Mockin' Bird Hill," was so sterile and white-bread as to actually terrify only adds to its effectiveness as used in this legendary bit of shock cinema.
For they didn't come any more safely Caucasian than Page, who plays the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Friday and Saturday nights. Her work stands with the creation of Wonder Bread, mayonnaise, golf and the Cleaver family as a high-water mark of White Culture. The Space Age double-tracked vocals, sickly saccharine backing music and pure-as-the-driven-snow Aryan princess vocal timbre consummately define the era that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell would have us return to. The Page formula was to take a country-music tune, bleach all the hillbilly out of it, adorn it with ribbons and a lace doily, and watch all the Protestants blissfully snatch it up like ladyfingers. Purty Patti was among the best-selling and most popular artists of the '50s; she even had a couple of her own TV shows late in the decade. She has remained active in music ever since, but the big hits had dried up by the early '60s.
Patti Page 2000 bears little resemblance to the '50s Queen of Kitsch. Her voice seems to have dropped about five octaves, she's developed a lovely vibrato, and the double-tracked trickery is long gone. She's a proficient if unspectacular singer, still given to flights of rampant corniness (such as combining songs with similar but opposite themes, like "Ain't No Sunshine/ You Are My Sunshine" and "Person Who Used to Be Me/A Brand New Me"). Best of all, you have to wonder if she vicariously tastes dog shit every time a fan yells out a request for "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?"
Edgar Winter, Leon Russell and Dave Mason play at the Sun Theatre, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 712-2700. Sun., 8 p.m. $25-$35; Patti Page performs at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. $23-$67.
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