Oracle Testimony

Nearly everything known about Patton comes from oral testimony, which is naturally subject to human vulnerability. Besides that, Patton himself undermines the always sorry business of trying to find a portrait of the artist in the work. His tangible anger in combination with his abrasive guttural roar and his variably decipherable pronunciation persuaded certain white listeners that he had climbed out of the ditch to make his recordings. Like a poet, he seems to have sometimes used the first person to relate the experiences of others—"A Spoonful Blues" has a different narrator in every line. Like many male poets he was a tomcat, so that a jealous husband once cut his throat at a party; the fastidious Son House didn't like Patton's free-associative methods nor his acrobatic guitar stunts. And so on. Imagine if Jimi Hendrix's discography consisted only of feeble cassette copies of the first three albums, and his biography was limited to the Monterey guitar-burning incident and the testimony of Cynthia Plaster Caster.

Patton was angry. Patton gargled with lye and gravel. Patton sang about things he saw and felt and also, like many of his contemporaries, threw in verse after verse of free-floating readymade folk-lyric filler. Patton played blues—probably learned blues from the first generation of musicians to employ the 12-bar template—and he also played ballads and rags and white country breakdowns and Tin Pan Alley tunes. He cut and folded songs into other songs, made collages of fragments ("Prayer of Death," for instance, is woven from at least four distinct elements). He made his guitar talk and shout and pray. Greil Marcus's line about Robert Johnson, that his guitar could sound like an entire rock & roll band, is even more true of Patton, who could play lead, rhythm, and bass all at the same time and vary them constantly (I still haven't heard too many bands that sound as full as Patton solo on "Mississippi Boweavil Blues"). He was musically restless, crawling with ideas, profligate with inventions. On the evidence of the unissued takes you strongly suspect that he seldom played a number the same way twice. You figure that in performance he thrived on interruptions and spontaneous dialogue with the audience, so that when he played alone in the studio he needed to supply the voices of imaginary interlocutors.

Like many other artists of his time, from Picasso to Joyce to Buddy Bolden, he was interested in tearing up his material and stitching it back together in unexpected ways, and he also wanted to show things as they looked from the front, back, and sides all at once. He was an all-around entertainer and he was also an oracle. He was haunted. He summoned spirits from the vasty deep. He manages the trick of asserting control while expressing lack of control. His voice can be so threatening it makes that of his disciple Howlin' Wolf sound avuncular by comparison. He has seen devastation, disaster, horror, anguish. He has been buffeted by winds, traveled outside his body, glimpsed heaven for a minute, died many times before his hour came. He conveys all this while getting people up on the floor to dance. Even after you have absorbed every fiber and strand of this enormous collection of particulars you will still not know Patton, but you will have a sense of the number and variety of his contradictions.

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