Tombstone hand, graveyard mind
1. “Bo Diddley” Preview/Buy from iTunes
In 1955, a Mississippi-born 28-year-old Chicagoan named Ellas Otha Bates, a part-time guitarist who plays South Side blues clubs when he’s not working odd jobs, lands a contract with Chess Records and records his first single, using the “Hush Little Baby” nursery-rhyme melody to sing about his adapted stage-name. Bates had started out playing classical violin, but he’d switched to guitar after hearing John Lee Hooker. Or maybe he couldn’t play violin anymore because he broke his finger in a Golden Gloves boxing match; it’s not entirely clear. Either way, the beat on “Bo Diddley” doesn’t have a whole lot in common with classical violin or with the blues stomps that his contemporaries were kicking out around the same time. Diddley said in interviews decades later that he couldn’t play that snakey blues stuff because his hands were too big and meaty. And so he came up with a whole new thing, a rumbling scratchy drum-heavy sound that Diddley maybe adapted from the wooden-clack Afro-Cuban clave rhythm and maybe adapted from the old shave-and-a-haircut hambone beat, maybe from both. I could write a million words about the “Bo Diddley” beat and still not adequately describe it, but I’ll try anyway. It’s a shivery echoed-out one-chord pound, at once sidelong and monolithic. The drums tumble all over each other frantically, but at the same time they stretch out into infinity, never altering their basic progression. Jerome Green’s maracas add a sort of otherworldly skeleton-dance thing. Diddley himself plays a reverb-soaked tremolo guitar in quick rhythmic stabs, jumping in and out of the beat, never changing chords or settling into an identifiable riff. That beat ends up being responsible for insane amounts of great music over the next fifty years or so.
A couple of years later, Buddy Holly takes that beat and uses it on “Not Fade Away.” A few years after that, the Rolling Stones cover “Not Fade Away,” amping up the Diddley-beat elements. It becomes first-ever US single. Ten years after “Bo Diddley,” the Strangeloves bite the song wholesale, both riff and melody; if something like that happened today, someone would get sued. They turn it into “I Want Candy,” one of the greatest pop songs of all time. In his book The Accidental Evolution of Rock’N’Roll, Chuck Eddy, the guy who first hired me at the Voice, includes a chapter called “What Bo Knows,” which traces that beat up through surf-guitar, Nuggets-era garage-punk, glam-rock, the Stooges, disco, Adam Ant, and just about everything else awesome that happened afterwards. Here’s what Chuck says: “The beat kind of goes ‘Boom-ChuckaChuckaChucka Chucka-Boom Boom.’ On top, in Bo’s own version anyway, there’s a nasal, raunchy voice, boastful and making fun of you like in rap, and more guitar, noisy like in heavy metal. ‘Who Do You Love,’ where Bo tries to impress some lady by telling her his necktie’s a snake and he walks on concertina wire and builds chimneys from people’s skulls, is nihilist overstatement like in punk rock.” So there you go. Today, both Chuck and Ben Ratliff at the Times have posted lists of songs that use that Diddley beat, and as far as I can tell there’s not a single bad song to be found on either list. This morning, I was listening to Songs in A&E the pretty great new Spiritualized album, and I thought I heard a genteel mutation of the Diddley beat on “Baby I’m Just a Fool,” my favorite song on the album, though it could just be that I’m hearing that beat everywhere today just because.
2. “I’m a Man” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Diddley’s legacy is always going to be that beat, and that beat is more than enough. But here’s compelling evidence that I’d be writing this thing today even if Diddley hadn’t come up with that beat: the B-side to “Bo Diddley.” “I’m a Man” is a honking Chicago-blues shuffle a whole lot more in line with what was happening at the time. But it’s also a totally unhinged growl of pure libido, uber-nasty for 1955: “All you pretty women, stand in line / I can make love to you, baby, in a hour’s time.” Later that year, Muddy Waters basically adapted this song into “Mannish Boy,” which then became the first song every shitty blues-playing bar-band is required to learn.
3. “Who Do You Love” Preview/Buy from iTunes
This is the one with the snake-necktie. Actually, the line goes “got a cobrasnake for a necktie,” and I’m pretty sure that’s where the hipster-chicks-making-out internet haven the Cobrasnake got its name. (Diddley’s first bar-band, meanwhile, was called the Hipsters.) The lyrics on this one are way the hell out there, chilling and mythic and hallucinatory: “A tombstone hand and a graveyard mind / Just twenty-two and I don’t mind dying.” But what’s striking here is just how good-natured Diddley sounds kicking this death-drive game on top the beat he invented. He doesn’t snarl these lyrics, he just states them matter-of-factly, and you can almost hear the smile on his face. In the end, he gets the girl, of course.
4. “Say Man” Preview/Buy from iTunes
This one only barely qualifies as a song. Over some barely-there ragtimey piano, Diddley and maraca-playing sidekick Jerome Green (possibly a precursor of Morris Day’s Jerome) throw barbershop insults back and forth at each other. “I been trying to figure out what you is.” “I already figured out what you is.” “What’s that?” “You that thing I throw peanuts at.” Impossibly, this was the only top-40 hit Diddley ever scored. The “Funk Dat” of its time, I guess. Diddley and Green apparently came up with it just from goofing around in the studio one day, but one of the great things about Diddley is that virtually all his great songs sound like someone goofing around in the studio one day.
5. “The Clock Strikes Twelve” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Case in point. Diddley returns to his original instrument, the violin, and makes it sound just as batshit-weird as he made his guitar sound. It starts out imitating scream-and-moan blues-singer vocals over a minimal shuffle. Then Diddley plucks it like a guitar, keeping it drenched in that same ghostly reverb he always used for his actual guitars. i feel pretty comfortable saying that this was the first ever psychedelic violin-blues instrumental.
6. “Mumblin’ Guitar” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Another instrumental, this time with Diddley back on guitar. Except now he’s just wrestling ungodly noises from that thing: making it sound like a drum or a broken rubber band or an old man yelling at you or maybe all three at once. Behind him, his band plays that beat with unprecedented ferocity. By this time (1960), Diddley was making his own guitars, figuring out ways to coax newer and weirder sounds from the things. In concert, he’d whip all around the stage, at one point somehow injuring his groin with his guitar. And that’s why he came up with his iconic square guitar: so he’d avoid hurting his junk again onstage. It’s a junk-protection machine.
7. “The Story of Bo Diddley” Preview/Buy from iTunes
According to this creation-myth song, Diddley didn’t start playing guitar when he heard John Lee Hooker or when he broke his finger boxing. Instead: “I was born one night about twelve o’clock / I come in this world playing a gold guitar / My papa walk around sticking out his chest / All ‘Mama, this boy, he gonna be a mess.'” And then Diddley makes sure to tell us how right his father was. Eventually, a record company man signs Diddley and puts him on a stage in Chicago, and the rest is history. The British Invasion bands revered Diddley so intensely that the Animals covered this one without even changing the title to “The Story of Eric Burdon” or anything like that.
8. “Road Runner” Preview/Buy from iTunes
So maybe this song is about being a rambling man who moves too fast for any one woman to stick around, not about a Warner Brothers cartoon character. That doesn’t mean Diddley doesn’t find room for beep-beeps, though. We can talk about his rhythmic innovations all day, but Diddley was a really funny guy, and we should probably make sure to mention that, too. Also worth noting: Diddley songs almost never had actual choruses.
9. “Aztec” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Diddley’s was never a mainstream crossover figure, and his star had pretty well dimmed by the time the British Invasion bands got around to discovering him. Throughout the early 60s, Chess sent Diddley chasing trends. Maybe it’s lame that Diddley, someone who I can’t imagine ever searched a day in his life, was recording surf-guitar songs at his label’s behest. But the Dick Dales of the world pretty much got their rumbling beats from Diddley in the first place, and so it wasn’t too much of a stretch for Diddley to twist and distort minor-key Middle Eastern melodies the way he does here. Near the end of the song, Diddley stops paying attention to the melody entirely, just making his guitar burp on-beat instead.
10. “Bo Diddley 1969.” Preview/Buy from iTunes
So this is basically just Diddley and his band playing that classic Diddley-beat, Diddley lyrically riffing over the top about what a badass he is, something they’d done a million times before. Except now it’s 1969, so that means someone throws what sounds like the cast of Hair on top of it, and they ecstatically trill Diddley’s name over and over. It just sounds amazing, but this thing was never going to be a hit. Most of Diddley’s key moments came in the first couple of years of his career. After that, he went into the weird semi-retirement state that fading legends seem to hit so often. Most of the live Diddley YouTube clips floating around today come from the late 60s or 70s, when Diddley would bust out his thunderingly great guitar-theatrics in front of crowds of hippies who apparently still weren’t over that beat, bless them. For a few years in the early 70s, he worked as a cop in New Mexico. The peak-era Clash took him on tour in 1979. He made a Nike commercial with Bo Jackson. One of the most recent Diddley albums on iTunes is a collaborative children’s album he made with someone named Anna Moo. It’s called Moochas Gracias, and I don’t even want to know what that’s all about. I’d like to imagine that he spent most of his time at home, tinkering with cars or guitars, comfortable in the knowledge that he’d changed music for the better.
Diddley died at home in Florida yesterday. I’d been planning on making this Lil Wayne week at Status Ain’t Hood, spending the whole week poring over the Carter III leak. Yesterday, I told someone that the only way I’d interrupt that rhapsody would be if somebody died. Five minutes later, I found out about Diddley. This is probably my fault, huh?