In his autobiography, RAY CHARLES wrote that the worst thing about being blind was that he couldn't tell if anyone was watching him when he jacked off. Since reading that, I have been haunted by visions and nightmares, as if his irrational phobia had somehow been transferred to my brain—as if he had laid an unholy whack-off-image curse on me. In my mind's eye, whenever I hear his name, I now see "The Genius" squeezing and abusing his giant purple phallus, sweating and panting and moaning mellifluously, making noises similar to the call-and-response sections of "What'd I Say" while he conjures up lewd images of God knows what kind of filth (what does a blind man suppose a naked woman looks like, anyway?). Ray Charles is no longer simply the creator of soul music to me—he's also the supreme chronic masturbator, an unholy icon of hairy palms and spinal curvature. I relate this to you, dear reader, in hopes that the information will somehow purge my soul of this dark whammy. Perhaps if enough of you envision Ray Charles slamming the ham, the burden will be transferred from my shoulders and I can resume a normal life, free of Ray Charles dick visions.
What else can I tell you about Ray Charles? Oh, yeah—he pretty much did live up to all that hype about being "The Genius," an immodest sobriquet if ever there was one, even if he did earn it. Perhaps he should have been known as "The Masturbator" instead; then we would have had great album titles like The Masturbator Hits the Road, The Masturbator After Hours and The Masturbator Sings the Blues. But I digress. Yes, Charles did in fact pretty much create soul music, as billed. The proof is in the boxed set The Birth of Soul, three discs worth of seminal godhead featuring so many classic tunes it would take up most of this column just to print the highlight titles. This was the first time that anyone so brazenly and effectively mixed sanctified gospel with elements of blues and pop, and these songs served as a template for just about everything African-American music would become in the next two decades. That Charles subsequently went on to revolutionize country music, proving that even bluesmen get the whites (or vice versa, or something), and more than hold his own in jazz settings as well was icing on the cake. And guess what? His voice has barely diminished after almost 50 years—it remains an instantly identifiable personification of beauty, class and heartfelt emotion.
That's the good news. The bad news is that Charles really hasn't recorded a wholly satisfactory album in nearly 30 years. After the divine creation of soul music, he's served as a cheese barometer for every stupid musical trend of the last half of the 20th century, from bossa nova to disco to hip-hop (hearing Ray Charles being drowned out by scratchers is a truly disturbing phenomenon). He was a mighty young man when he decided to rest on his laurels.
That aside, I still recommend that you attend the Ray Charles concert Sunday night at the Sun Theatre. It's inevitable that Charles will perform a host of his classics live, and as I said, that voice remains a true font of joy, inspiration and awe. But I dare you not to envision the man with his trousers around his ankles, gleefully working it and pumping away and foaming at the mouth in fevered onanistic ecstasy. The curse has officially been passed. It's yours! Ha!
Speaking of musical dicks, reggae toastmaster supreme YELLOWMAN all but destroyed his career by singing too much about the size of his—a most impressive tool, if he's to be believed—not to mention his frequent and disgraceful sexist/homophobic dub rants. After briefly becoming huge in the early '80s, when dancehall reggae was a fresh sound and Yellowman was the undisputed sovereign of the style, he wore out his welcome in rather swift order—da 'arder dey coom, da 'arder dey fall, mon. But if he's not quite the worldwide sensation he once was, Yellowman never gave up. He toned down his style in content and aggression (and actually seemed to develop some semblance of a social conscience in the process), negotiated a musical truce between hard dancehall and melodic roots-reggae, and has released a series of mostly excellent albums in the past 10 years (the new Negril Chill Challenge is an electrifying concert recorded in 1987). Catch a dose of Yellow Fever on Saturday night at the Coach House.
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I've always disliked MEDESKI, MARTIN & WOOD, even though I wanted desperately to approve. I recognize amazing musicianship when it slaps me across the face (John Medeski is something like the keyboard equivalent of a Jimi Hendrix/John Coltrane morph), but goddamn it, they were so loud and overbearing and trendy and gimmicky and they featured scratchers on their albums (yes, the anti-scratcher stance is something of a crusade with me), so much so that I always found them off-putting. But unlike most practitioners of acid jazz, trip-hop or whatever name-of-the-week jazz form you like, these guys were serious players with often stunningly unique ideas (so rare among young jazz lions), and I couldn't dismiss them with a clear conscience.
Happily, I can now support Medeski, Martin & Wood without reservation—at least for now. Their new album, Tonic, is the group's first acoustic effort, and it's a wholly amazing piece of work. Here, Medeski unleashes stunning piano improvisations atop rock-solid rhythm support without any of the noise and malarkey that marred past releases. Yet the rock & roll energy and audacity remain. On tunes like "Invocation" and "Afrique," the sheer musicality of Medeski's solos are never compromised by his bold atonality—he's like Thelonius Monk pumped up on amphetamines. Medeski, Martin & Wood will play an acoustic show on Thursday, June 8, at the Sun—catch them before they relocate their box of toys and effects pedals.
THE TEMPTATIONS . . . errrr . . . the Temptation appears Friday and Saturday nights at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. See, all those guys are dead now except Otis Williams, who never sang a lead on any of their hit records. But you knew that already—you saw the NBC miniseries and everything, right? The thing about Williams, though, is that he has one fuck of an ear for talent and has been able to replace all his croakin' cronies over the years with singers who don't embarrass themselves when endeavoring to imitate giants like David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams. And the Tempts have kept on recording R&B hits right up to the present day (sure, that miniseries didn't hurt business much, either). I've seen the group several times during different eras, and no matter who's been onstage, it has always sounded lovely. Or was it just my imagination running away with me?
Ray Charles plays at the Sun Theatre, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 712-2700. Sun., 8 p.m. $58.50; Yellowman performs at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930. Sat., 8 p.m. $19.50; Medeski, Martin & Wood play at the Sun Theatre. Thurs., June 8, 9 p.m. $19.50; the Temptations perform at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. $23-$67.