Monday, May 14, 2012

Goat Piss Into Gasoline

Mrs. Tarantino: Are you the police?
Elwood: No, ma'am. We're musicians.*

Dunn on stage playing bass guitar wearing a yellow Hawaiin shirtNo, the Obama Administration has not turned to a domesticated member of the Bovidea animal family for its latest green project. It's a memorable line from a movie, one sure way toward immortality. A bass player, talking about the past, said "We had a band powerful enough to turn goat piss into gasoline." Donald "Duck" Dunn…musician, actor, cultural icon…passed away yesterday at seventy.

Music is an emotional medium, ready to make you laugh - cry, dance and a thousand other things – at the drop of a hat. Movie makers use it to reinforce their most poignant scenes, TV producers offer a "theme" sometimes so distinctive that two or three notes brings the listener not to the show, but to the era. Back to who you once were, what you felt. Who you loved, and who loved you back.

The Blues Brothers released in 1980, Dan Aykroyd's homage to the blues. Two brothers, having grown up in a Catholic orphanage under "The Penguin's" tutelage, clad in cheap black suits, skinny ties…. The home is closing due to unpaid back taxes. Jake and Elwood scheme to pay them, at the urging of Cab Calloway and God. "Joliet Jake" has just been released from prison and the boys put the band back together. Do you see the light? The movie is a parade of slapstick, ill-mannered obsession and awesome music. John Candy plays a cop, Henry Gibson a Nazi – Illinois law enforcement receives a whole lot of good-natured ribbing – and in the end, the boys hand Steven Spielberg (playing a clerk) enough money to pay The Penguin's taxes.

Obscured by the car crashes, explosions and a very un-Princess Leia like Carrie Fisher wielding an M-16, is an array of quality musicians playing some of the best rhythm and blues of any era. The Blues brothers are, of course, the front men, but Blue Lou, Matt "Guitar" Murphy, Mr. Fabulous and Steve Cropper turn out a sound so sweet that even Aretha Franklin had to work to keep up. Country music makes a cameo at Bob's Country Bunker where the band plays "Rawhide" (they had started "Gimme Some Lovin' with predictable results) to keep from being killed. In the background, puffing on a pipe, Duck Dunn drove the bass notes home. 

America in 1980 was a place of limitations. Oil prices soared even in the middle of a fill up. Stubborn unemployment seemed to spur, not quiet, rampant inflation. My first house, purchased in 1981, carried ten percent interest on the mortgage and we felt lucky. In Iran, American Marines and embassy employees remained hostage to a renegade, fanatic regime who thumbed their noses at both international law and an impotent USA.

To say The Blue Brothers acted as a counterpoint to the grimness of reality would badly overstate its importance. It was a movie about music, about the power of music to carry on when all around seems pointless. They put the band back together, made some money, wrecked some cop cars, and made music so compelling even an Irishman with two left feet (that's me) got up to dance. That's the power of music.

Grab onto the link here, find the second clip and watch Booker T and the MGs play "Time is Tight" live in 1970. Even if it wasn't your cup of tea back then, or your parents hadn't even met when it was popular, your soul will stir with the beat, with Steve Cropper's lead guitar and the stunning sound of Booker T Jones playing the organ. The bushy-haired guy is Donald Dunn, all of twenty-eight years old, on his way to being (if he wasn't already) one of the best bass guitar players ever. The guys at the edge of the stage watching, smiling, soaking it all in? Tom and John Fogerty, Stu Cook and Doug Clifford – Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Maybe this isn't your brand of whiskey. Maybe, like me, it came to you later, recalling an era, feeling the power of twenty-six again. Duck didn't cure cancer, stop a war, or even find that way to turn goat piss into gasoline. He played a guitar, he was in a movie; he stayed mostly in the background. Smoked his pipe, handled the bass notes and allowed a who's who of the famous to strut their stuff. According to Steve Cropper, he was a best friend and a good man. What else is there, really.

Hold on, Mr. Dunn. Time is tight. We'll be along.

*Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd), The Blues Brothers, 1980.

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