Monday, July 18, 2022



Dick Dodd, lead singer for the proto-punk garage band The Standells , passed away in 2013 at age 68. Dodd had a nasal, snotty, irritating way of singing , or rather vocalizing , perfect for a band that was composed of hammering backbeats and barbed wire guitar riffs, and it was a choice component of the band's one big hit, "Dirty Water", a left-handed salute to Boston . Talking about grime and filth of the River Charles and hanging out with "lovers, muggers and thieves", the song was a telling bit of self reflection of a town that was on edge with the collective trauma set upon by The Boston Strangler. Boston at the time was not a happy town , like any number of American cities experiencing the full wrath of the 60s, and Dodd's obnoxious refrain at the chorus "I love that dirty water....ooooooh Boston YOU'RE MY HOME..." was the kind of defensive, fist in the face move a local gives to a hand wringing out-of-towner too busy tsk-tsking over the sad plight of a city to actually understand what was happening in Bean Town. The punk genius of the song, though, was that the Standells weren't from Boston, but from Los Angeles, inveighing on a song written by their manager. Now that's punk.

My thinking has it that "Dirty Water" was the first bit of punk iteration, predating even the hallowed grind and gassy grimace of the Stooges and the MC5 by three years. A blues riff the guitarist was more interested in making irritating than emotionally expressive, a lyric that bad-mouthed the narrator's origins who otherwise thinks it's glorious how grim, grimy and switchbladey his home turf is, a singer determined to brag, mock, leer and sneer in a decidedly juvenile manner--this was the first thing I remember hearing when I started to take rock bands seriously that seemed so sublimely obnoxious and willfully idiotic that it couldn't be anything apart from an authentic expression of some righteously immature attitudes. Even today, the rusty and repetitive riff, the snot swallowing vocal, the unintentionally Kurt Weilish lyrics, sound juvenile, fresh, convincingly hubris tic, countless dropouts owning their limitations and happy that it leaves you irked and uneasy. This project and other efforts of the dozens of one-shot wonders who cascaded during the period--the Barbarians, The Syndicate of Sound, The Music Machine, The Seeds-- had as much to do with the creation of what we'd later term a "Punk" style, with the ratty guitars, the sub-literate lyrics, the construction site style timekeeping of the mostly anonymous rhythm sections as were the deservedly praised and expansively influential works of the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, or the MC5. 

The difference between those last three bands, household names in rock fiefdoms in every cranny of the internet, and the earlier bands emerging  from garages and basements and eventually making their into the studios of local record labels and to appearances at no age limit teen clubs and TV dance shows, was that Velvets, the Stooges and the 5 made a choice to sound and exclaim the way they did; it was a choice backed by   aesthetics and short   order versions of 20th century philosophy, a body of thought heavily seasoned with post WW2 gloom and rootlessness. The other guys just wanted to make noise and meet chicks and expressed a worldview not far advanced than the average teenager's harrowing time of extreme self-consciousness and expressions of that in terms no less over the line and loudly presented. Their lives weren't so far removed from the issues Chuck Berry might have outlined in his classic teen theme masterpieces, but only harder, ruder, with an edge that would only get more cutting with time. 

A little later in the decade, 1967, a band with an equally obnoxiously odd name The Electric Prunes had a hit with a fuzz -tone-y anthem called "I Had Too Much Last Night".  A grating distortion characterizes the ensemble,  guitar tracks played backwards looping throughout the song, melodramatic from major to minor keys, drum beats more remindful of heavy shoes climbing loose-boarded stairways, the song is ridiculous in idea and execution, centering on a young man's long night of the soul as he recalls a strange dream about his girlfriend. This is a garage psychedelia or course, and it's to be expected that the dream is described in words that are overripe and garish, a first timer's first attempt at a serious poem without first having read Wallace Stevens. I  relate to that, as I read rather a lot of gruesome juvenilia myself after my first encounter with 'Desolation Row". Earnest rhymes and images, yes, but still pedestrian and without a credible pulse of wit. 

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