Richard B. Very, Very Bad
LITTLE RICHARD Penniman is the yardstick by which all great rock & roll should be measured. He manages to be shrieking, outrageous, flamboyant and offensive while also being an inspired and singular master of his art. Little Richard's dizzy persona has never been a pose, never been designed merely to grab attention or sell records; he's a bona fide eccentric savant, a lunatic genius so brimming with raw talent and energy that he's simply unable to contain himself or function in a manner resembling anything "normal" or socially gracious. Of the Big Four among rock & roll godfathers, he's my fave by many leagues, with all due respect to Elvis, Chuck and Jerry Lee.
From the throat of this dwarfish, effeminate little man is emitted a howling fanfare that sounds like God and Satan battling for control of the universe. The fact that Li'l Dick has suffered severe religious conflict throughout his life, with the sacred and profane tugging violently at his limbs, attempting to draw and quarter his soul, accounts for much of the astonishing force emanating from his mighty, mighty pipes. And this is without even mentioning that he attacks his piano with all the fervor of Jerry Falwell pummeling an abortionist with a spiked crucifix.
If Elvis wanted to be your Teddy Bear, Little Richard wanted to grease you up real purty and do filthy things to your nearest available orifice. If Jerry Lee had great balls of fire, Little Richard's dumplings were composed of atomic mushroom clouds. If Chuck was Johnny B. Goode, Penniman was Richard B. Very, Very Bad; blatantly craving manflesh, brazenly hedonistic and obviously under the influence of God knows what sort of pernicious fast-forward substances, all at a time when the likes of such relatively tame competitors as Elvis and Buddy Holly were themselves considered trs risqu. Little Richard is rock & roll's first, best and ultimate freak show.
To top off this legacy, Little Richard has wisely elected to rest on his laurels, at least as far as recording goes. He knows he's never gonna top "Long Tall Sally," "Good Golly Miss Molly," "Tutti Frutti" or "Ready Teddy," so he made a conscious decision to let those records speak for themselves rather than continuing to create music that couldn't possibly match the beef of his glory days. Aside from a children's record, he hasn't recorded anything new in nearly three decades.
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"I've been offered record deals, but I'm just not interested," he says. "If it's not broke, don't fix it. I'll let it go out the way it is. If you're not going to outdo what you've already done, just don't do it."
Everyone should now thank Little Richard for sparing us from having to hear him sing Sugar Ray covers with a hip-hop beat. Repeat after me: "Thank you, Little Richard."
None of is this to say that Little Richard has outlived his usefulness. I saw him in concert a couple of years ago, and he was as loud and obnoxious as ever, shouting and preening and pounding and whooping and cooing to the audience about how beautiful he was and yelling, "SHUT UP!" whenever his little black bum was pricked with enthusiasm.
Little Richard plays at the House of Blues on Thursday, Nov. 8. Rather than trying to persuade you to attend on my own, I'll let Mr. Penniman do his own PR work:
"Let everybody know that this show is what you call once-in-a-lifetime! Tell them to come out and see history alive because that's what it is—history alive! Come out and celebrate with Little Richard and REAL rock & roll! Come out and see the living flame! SHUT UP!"
Although nothing gets my tired old blood flowing quite like the unbridled histrionics of a Little Richard, it is also my duty as an Old Fart to occasionally appreciate the laid-back and mellow, as long as the laid-back/mellow in question isn't being provided by, you know, Stevie Nicks or David Wilcox or someone equally terrifying. And truly, I can think of no better laid-back/mellow experience than the one provided by JOHN PRINE.
Prine was perhaps the best of the first wave of "New Dylans" (okay, we'll call it a draw between Prine and Phil Ochs), and in my book, he remains a heckuva lot more useful than the nattily mustachioed Zimmerman himself these days. A singer/songwriter possessed of hollow-ground wit, literary storytelling ability and a persona drier than Jackie Vernon in a sandstorm, Prine's homespun homilies have always been as sagacious as they are lovely.
His laid-back drawl of a voice is perfectly complemented by his affinity for Appalachian folk and hillbilly melody, and he has even been a convincing rockabilly guy when the spirit moved him (such as on Pink Cadillac, recorded in 1979 at Sam Phillips' fabled Sun studio).
All of Prine's albums are reliably superb, his songwriting actually improving with time, as evinced on such excellent recent offerings as In Spite of Ourselves and Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings. Without Prine, the existence of such local heroes as Dave Alvin and Chris Gaffney is nigh unthinkable, as is the thought of life itself without such prime Prinefare as "Sam Stone," "Paradise" and—maybe my favorite song title of all time—"Jesus and the Price of Wood." Check out Lonesome John Friday night at the Sun Theater.
Little Richard performs at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-BLUE. Thurs., Nov. 8, 7:30 p.m. $35. 21+; John Prine plays at the Sun Theater, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 712-2700. Fri., 8:30 p.m. $37.50-$47.50. All ages.
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