Book Review: Huế 1968

Mark Bowden

Huế 1968: A Turning Point in the American War for Vietnam

Hardcover, Grove Atlantic, 2017 (37.95 NZD)

Mark Bowden, Hue 1968, Grove-Atlantic Press, 2017

In the early hours of 31 January 1968, the first day of Tet, Vietnam’s national holiday to mark the lunar New Year, PAVN and Vietcong soldiers launched a coordinated assault on the city of Huế. For days, National Liberation Front forces had been massing nearby while operatives infiltrated the civilian population in preparation for the surprise attack.

This strike was one of more than a hundred launched on cities and towns inside South Vietnam as part of a synchronised action known to Vietnamese as the General Offensive and Uprising and to westerners as the Tet Offensive. While shocking and often deadly, most of these attacks were repulsed quickly and failed to engender the popular uprising their advocates expected would tip the conflict irrevocably in the favour of the Hanoi government.

Huế differed crucially from the other Tet assaults on several counts. For a start, the target was no ordinary base or village, but the graceful second city of Vietnam, seat of its Nguyen Dynasty and the national capital from 1802 to 1945. Carried out by relatively small deployments, the attacks elsewhere presented shocks rather than existential threats to allied positions. Their greatest impacts were on morale and international perception. By contrast, an unprecedentedly large occupying force of roughly 10,000 rapidly overwhelmed the scantily defended Huế —a city of 140,000 largely unaffected by the war to date and considered far less likely to be attacked than the American base to the north at Khe Sahn. By 8am, a National Liberation Front flag flew brazenly atop the tower of Huế’s imposing citadel. While a popular uprising also failed to materialise amongst its urbane, largely neutral citizenry, the symbolic victory for the National Liberation Front was enormous.

This seizure of Huế and the ensuing bloody thirteen-day struggle by American and South Vietnamese troops to regain control of the city is the subject of Mark Bowden’s new book Huế 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam. Bowden is a veteran journalist who spent many years at the Philadelphia Inquirer and has written a series of acclaimed and best-selling works of narrative non-fiction. Best regarded amongst these releases is Black Hawk Down (1999), an account of the disastrous 1993 US intervention in Somalia resulting in the Battle of Mogadishu, turned a few years later into a gripping Cinéma vérité-style feature film. Bowden also wrote Killing Pablo, the inspiration for Netflix’s dramatically inert retro drug-trafficking series Narcos. My favourite of Bowden’s books is perhaps his least substantial, Finders Keepers (2002), an urban parable about a Philadelphia ne’er-do-well whose life dramatically unravels after discovering a million dollars in cash dropped by an armoured truck in 1981.

In tone and subject, Bowden’s new work clearly sits alongside Black Hawk Down. That book offered a grim picture of what can happen when the antiseptic, air-power-dominated operating plans of the modern military break down. Huế 1968 demonstrates to an even greater degree the primal horror (as well as the unthinkable courage) endemic to sustained close-quarter combat. Its 500 or so pages consist in large part of an hour-by-hour, street-by-street account of relentless, terrifying, grinding urban warfare as large, closely proximate forces square-off for control of Huế. On one side of the battle were 3 battalions of the US Marine Corps, 4 US Army battalions and 11 ARVN (Army of the Republic of South Vietnam) battalions, on the other 10 National Liberation Front battalionsThe conflagration quickly levelled the beautiful city and caused the deaths of thousands of troops and civilians. Such intense, intimate conflict was a rarity at that point in Vietnam and not had been experienced by American troops since Seoul in 1950.

It’s a testament to Bowden’s powers of pacing and description that the rhythms of battle, painstakingly recounted, never lose their ability to fascinate and shock. One of his narrative’s key accomplishments is the sheer number of individuals—both Vietnamese and American—whose perspectives, gleaned from over a hundred interviews, are woven into the story. This dramatis personae includes lowly teenage infantry soldiers (‘grunts’), their crafty, beleaguered commanding officers, earnest socialist revolutionaries, terrified city dwellers, journalists and political operatives. The breadth of Bowden’s informants is an asset, providing a panorama of the battle, although it means he is only able to furnish minimal detail about each person. Few characters are subsequently fully fleshed out individuals in whose fate the reader is deeply invested. In some ways, this broad scope makes sense—many of the soldiers in particular were young and unformed, with relatively few prior experiences for excavation, while excessive focus on back story would have distracted from the main action on the battlefield.

Nonetheless, a few individuals burn themselves onto the reader’s memory. Particularly vivid are Alfredo Cantu “Freddy” Gonzales, a young Chicano soldier from Texas whose composure under fire is staggering; Jim Coolican, a resourceful officer assigned to an elite unit of the unfairly maligned ARVN, swaggering Marine field commander Ernie Cheatham, Nguyen Dac Xuan, a buddhist poet-turned-zealot and Front enforcer and Steve ‘Storyteller’ Bernston, a Marine corps PR-journalist doing double duty as a frontline soldier. Bowden must also be commended for the incorporation of information from Vietnamese civilians and former Liberation Front members, having spent time in the country working with fixers and interpreters to gain their stories. If the Vietnamese characterisations are in general shallower than those of US military personnel, its understandable given lingering political sensitivities of researching the war there.  This trickiness probably accounts for fewer former ARVN personnel, long  marginalised within Socialist Republic of Vietnam, appearing as informants.

A lack of political and strategic context is another aspect of the book that seems both a strength and a weakness. Bowden’s tight focus on the battle means the life and death momentum rarely dips and he commendably avoids editorialising and digression. His single-minded attention to detail, however, allows for very little analysis of the circumstances and evolution of the conflict itself or of wider operational strategy, save for somewhat repetitive criticisms of General William Westmoreland and President Lyndon Johnson. While I am far from a military historian, the absence of a strong overview appears to account for some distortions, in particular overstated claims Bowden makes for the overall importance of the Battle of Huế  as a single event in what was  extremely complex, long-running and varied war. Any historian who has employed case studies understands the pressure to ascribe particular external significance to discreet events they are concentrating on for purposes of narrative compression. While horrific, Huế is correctly not widely regarded as a pivotal battle in the de-centred, sprawling conflict and Bowden’s book, contrary to his assertions, will likely fail to change its status among those with strong knowledge of the war.

When analysis finally does appear, in the form of a ponderous epilogue, it feels shallow and unearned. We receive little more than the orthodox liberal repudiation of the geo-politics of the war and rote hand-wringing over its mismanagement. Short shrift is given to the sincere, if possibly incorrect, belief of some veterans that victory was eminently possible, as well as their touching bitterness regarding the loss of domestic political nerve which resulted in ultimate abandonment of erstwhile South Vietnamese allies to a vengeful police state. What’s more absorbing is a truncated run of pages at the end dealing with societal re-integration and the long-term impacts of the war on some of the many individuals mentioned in the book. The life-trajectories Bowdon is able to follow-up are fascinating and sometimes sad and deserve further elaboration, although would warrant another book altogether.

While flawed in the respects mentioned, Huế 1968’s few shortcomings are outweighed by the vivid, once-in-a-generation depiction of war it provides. The book isn’t for the faint hearted, but I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

A Record Fit For a Queen

For decades an aura of mystery surrounded Duke Ellington’s largely unheard composition The Queen’s Suite (1959). Ellington had been moved to create this ‘private’ recording following a 1958 meeting with Queen Elizabeth II, gifting a single copy of the completed project to Buckingham Palace the following year. Sequestered thereafter as a chattel of the Windsors, the album would be commercially unavailable until 1976, two years after Ellington’s death.

The famously opaque Elizabeth has not publicly commented on having inspired one of the musical masters of the twentieth century, and now at age 91, it seems unlikely she will. While the Queen’s feelings on the meeting and the resulting music are unknown, what is certain is that at the time he crossed paths with Britain’s royals, Ellington was himself an aristocrat, albeit of a different kind. For more than three decades, he had sat at the zenith of the music industry, a position owed not to the caprice of a noble birth but to unsurpassable talent and drive.

Edward Kennedy Ellington (he was nicknamed ‘Duke’ during childhood for his courtly manner) was born in Washington D.C. in 1899. In the early 1920s, he moved to New York, settling in Harlem and becoming prominent later in the decade as the leader of the orchestra at the now-legendary nightspot The Cotton Club. For nearly 50 years, Ellington  toured the world with his orchestra, while writing and recording prolifically.  Although Ellington’s claim to fathering jazz as a popular art form is strong as any, he was known to chafe at the creative ghettoization implied by the genre label, preferring the more encompassing ‘American music’ to describe his oeuvre. Working frequently with songwriting partner Billy Strayhorn, Ellington is credited with over 1000 songs, many of which have become standards. In 1958, he was sixty years old and enjoying an extended phase of late-career approbation. Two years earlier, he had appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Duke Ellington, b. 1899 d. 1973. Image: Wikipedia Commons

The circumstance of Ellington’s meeting with The Queen was relatively unexceptional. Two scheduled performances at the Leeds Music Festival had brought Ellington’s orchestra to the Northern English industrial city in the early winter of 1958. To celebrate the centennial of the music festival, the Lord Mayor of Leeds, Mary Pearce, had organised a gala reception at the Town Hall on the evening of October 18, the event’s last day, inviting the 32 year-old Queen Elizabeth and her handsome former naval commander husband, Philip, to be the Guests of Honour. The royal couple, in particular Philip, were Ellington fans, as was Elizabeth’s father George VI. Earlier that day, the Duke of Edinburgh had attended one of his performances with composer Benjamin Britten.

It is not surprising then that Ellington was among the performers from the festival invited to meet the royals at the reception. This encounter took place quite late in the evening, following their final performance. Wearing a tailcoat  and white silk shirt, Ellington was at the end of a long line of musicians waiting for an audience with Elizabeth. As a result, he enjoyed a longer conservation with her than the others.

In his memoir, Music is my Mistress (1973), Ellington remembered being initially nervous in the presence of The Queen, who was calm and dignified. But when asked the innocuous, if banal, question of whether this was his first time in England, Ellington recalled ribbing Elizabeth flirtatiously that “my first time in England was in 1933, way before you were born. She gave me a real American look; very cool man, which I thought was too much.”

So apparently impressed was Ellington by the young  Queen’s poise (and, it seems, her beauty) during their brief exchange that the jazz master told her that he was sure “something musical would come out of it. She said she would be listening … so I wrote an album for her.” Finished the following year, that album is a suite of 6 themes, each inspired by a marvel Ellington had witnessed during his life and extensive travels.

Now is a good time to admit that as a whole I’m not overly laudatory or even familiar with the Queen’s Suite , which has a reputation as middling among Ellington’s output. I’ve never owned the record. But the album contains what is easily one of my favourite compositions for jazz piano, the three and a half-minute-long ‘Sunset and the Mockingbird’. In Music is my Mistress, Ellington expanded on the beatific experience behind this tune, which occurred while he was on tour in Florida:

“One evening we were a little late leaving Tampa en route to West Palm Beach to make a gig. The weather was wonderful and it was just about sunset when, halfway across Florida, we passed a bird. We didn’t see it, but we heard its beautiful call. I asked Harry (Carney) if he heard it and he said, “Yeah.” We were a little too pushed for time, and going too fast to stop or go back and thank the bird, so I pulled out my pencil and paper and wrote that lovely phrase down. I spent the next two or three days whistling it to the natives, and inquiring what kind of bird it could have been that sang such a beautiful melody. Finally, I was convinced it had to be a mockingbird. I made an orchestration around that melody, titled it “Sunset And The Mocking Bird” and included it in the Queen’s Suite as one of the “beauty” experiences of my life.”

Like any jazz tune worth its salt, ‘Sunset and the Mockingbird’ has been covered by several artists over the years. These are my three favourite recordings of the song:

1. Duke Ellington, ‘Sunset and the Mockingbird’, The Queen’s Suite (1959).

The original and arguably the most swinging version. I’ve always found Ellington’s piano something of a paradox in that it seems simplistic and heavy-fingered, yet stirring. The snaky clarinet gives the track an almost eastern sound.

2. Tommy  Flanagan ‘Sunset and the Mockingbird’ Sunset and the Mockingbird (1997)

Tommy Flanagan’s interpretation of ‘Sunset and the Mockingbird’ is the title track of the Harlem pianist’s 1997 set at New York’s famous Village Vanguard jazz club. The relatively unsung Flanagan is an immaculate pianist and his interpretation adds complexity and nuance to the tune.

3. Wynton Marsalis, ‘Sunset and the Mockingbird’, Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra Live in Cuba (2015)

Multiple Grammy winner Wynton Marsalis is the Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Centre—arguably the finest orchestra working today. On this version from the recording of a concert they gave in Havana in 2010, its thrilling to hear the beautiful refrain played on Marsalis’ controlled trumpet.

Saxophone Dreams

On a hot day in West Palm Beach, Florida, in June 2011, 69-year old Clarence Clemons succumbed to complications from a stroke he had suffered 8 days earlier. Although far from a household name, the six-foot, five-inch tall ex-football player was an icon to legions of Bruce Springsteen fans as The E Street Band’s indomitable saxophonist. In the following weeks, he would be mourned widely as one of the most distinctive instrumentalists of the ‘classic rock’ era.

Clemons had joined The E Street Band as its sole African-American member in 1971, following a fateful meeting at a Jersey Shore club, a seminal event in the band’s mythology immortalised in ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’, a live favourite from the Born to Run album (1975). The addition of Clemons’ alternatively bombastic and mournful saxophone fleshed out and helped define what became the quintessential ‘electric’ Springsteen sound: lush, self-consciously vintage, bordering on mannered, yet earnest and emotive in pointed contrast to the spiky irony of the contemporary glam, punk and new wave scenes.

Clarence Clemons performing. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

In the months surrounding Clemons’ death, the saxophone, the instrument that he more than anyone had been responsible for returning to rock’s mainstream three decades earlier, appeared to be having an unexpected moment. In May, art-pop provocateur Lady Gaga had released ‘The Edge of Glory’, the third single from her album Born this Way, a piece of classic rock-inflected synth-pop utilising the 4-4 Euro-disco beat that dominated the charts that year. In June, Katie Perry’s ‘Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F)’ entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 67. The song is a featherweight, summery ode to debauchery, its cheerfully inane video channelling John Hughes’ teen movies of the 80s.

To varying degrees, both singles were hits. ‘The Edge of Glory’ charted strongly in multiple markets, peaking at number three in the US. ‘Last Friday Night’ was a bone fide smash. The song, produced by Swedish pop Svengalis Dr Luke and Max Martin, quickly dominated US radio, hovering in the top five for several weeks before eventually becoming the fifth single from Perry’s Teenage Dream (2010) to reach the number one spot, where it stayed for a fortnight.

In 2011, Perry and Gaga’s hits were notably incongruous for prominently featuring saxophone, which at that point had been rarely heard on the pop charts and ‘adult contemporary’ albums for nearly twenty years. ‘The Edge of Glory’ features a gorgeous, pulsating solo, played by Clemons himself in one of his last appearances on record. Entering at the song’s three quarter mark, Clemons’ sax builds and ebbs in lockstep with synths and buzzing electric guitar, driving the song to a satisfying crescendo.

The sax break in ‘Last Friday Night’ is more concise and arguably more memorable—an incendiary 20-second burst that violently interrupts the song’s chanted breakdown and dissolves shortly thereafter in a mess of looping squeals. It’s an unexpected moment of goofy, undeniable fun. Although not on the recording, Kenny G makes a cameo to mime this bizarre saxophone interjection with self-mocking aplomb in the video.

The self-consciousness that pervades the sax’s presence in both songs is a reference to the fruitful yet complicated relationship the instrument has had with rock and roll, stretching back more than sixty years to the genre’s very beginnings. While it isn’t possible to do justice to this long history in the space available, I’d like to share five of my favourite saxophone moments in rock and roll history:

1. Jackie Brenston/Ike Turner, ‘Rocket 88’ (1951)

Widely acknowledged as the first rock and roll song, Rocket 88 features the Kings of Rhythm, the backing band led by Ike Turner, who produced the record. The song, covered by Bill Haley later that year, features a rollicking solo by 17 year-old Raymond Hill (later the father of Tina Turner’s child).

2. David Bowie, ‘Young Americans’ (1975)

The title track from Bowie’s Tony Visconti-produced foray into imitating the post-Motown r&b sound associated with the Philadelphia International label, is led by a funky (if overblown) saxophone, in addition to gospel backing vocals.

3. The Band, ‘It Makes No Difference’ (1976)

The band’s enigmatic multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson delivers a beautifully understated sax solo in this tearjerker from 1975’s otherwise weak Northern Lights album, probably best known for its emotional performance in The Last Waltz (1976).

4. Bruce Springsteen, ‘Drive All Night’ (1980)

While far from the most epic of Clemons’ solos (that honour goes to Born to Run’s ‘Jungle Land’), the hypnotic beauty of Drive All Night from The River is pushed into overdrive by Clemons’ restrained sax.

5. Pete Rock and CL Smooth, T.R.O.Y (1992)

This rumination on friendship and family, inspired by the death of a beloved associate, is from Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s classic Mecca and the Soul Brother (1992). The track is driven by a stirring saxophone break sampled from Tom Scott’s cover of the Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Today.’

Honourable Mention:

Jennifer Lopez, ‘Get Right Remix’ (2005)

Written by Usher, this single from J-Lo’s fourth studio album Re-Birth (2005) is considered her most sonically ambitious song. It is built around a saxophone sample  from Maceo and the Macks’ ‘Soul Power 74’ (1973), itself a remix of James Brown’s ‘Soul Power’ (1971). J-Lo’s grating vocals almost, but don’t quite ruin the stellar production . This remix with Brooklyn rapper Fabulous is the best.

5 of the Best: Howlin’ Wolf

Chester Arthur Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf, was born in 1910 in White Station, a tiny stop on the railway—if passengers blinked they’d miss it—linking the towns of Aberdeen and West Point in the heart of North Mississippi’s hill country. He was named, somewhat inexplicably, after Chester A. Arthur, the undistinguished and largely forgotten 21st President of the United States who occupied the oval office from 1881 to 1885.

Looking back many years later from a position of unimaginable worldly success, it would seem to Burnett that music had always been with him. He could remember beating on pans with a stick as a young boy to imitate the rhythm of the passing trains that provided some of the only excitement in White Station.

Despite this and a few other pleasures, Burnett’s early life was hard and appeared to promise little. His parents separated when he was an infant and his father relocated to Mississippi’s musically storied Delta region. When Burnett was still a child, his domineering mother, a religious zealot, ejected him from the house for supposedly shirking farm duties. He went to live with an uncle, who abused him.

At 13, Burnett ran away to reunite with his father, making a gruelling 85-mile (137 km) journey on foot to the Delta, where he found stability within a large paternal extended family living on the Young and Morrow Plantation, near Ruleville. It was there Burnett met the man who shaped his musical education, Mississippi folk blues legend Charlie Patton. After Burnett’s father gave him a guitar for his eighteenth birthday in 1928, he began taking lessons from Patton and was later taught harmonica by Sonny Boy Williamson II, for a time his step-sister’s boyfriend. Burnett taught himself to sing by listening to records by Patton and another idol, Blind Lemon Jefferson.

By the late-1930s, Burnett was working as a farmer in Arkansas, where his family had relocated, but also touring the south as a blues singer.  At this stage, it is likely he was already performing as Howlin’ Wolf. Although the stories he told over the years about the origins of this name could be contradictory, it seems the moniker was inspired by Burnett’s grandfather, who used to warn that if he didn’t behave, the howling wolves of the Mississippi hills would come for him.

Burnett served in the US Army during the Second World War, but struggled with military discipline and was discharged in 1943. By 1948, he had relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, and formed his first regular band, The House Rockers. The group secured a radio spot, which brought them to the attention of Sam Philips (of Elvis Presley fame) who recorded two early singles. Although little footage of Burnett exists from this era, he was likely already exhibiting the rough physicality that would define his unique performance style.

Howlin’ Wolf (centre) and bandmates, date unknown

By his late-teens, Burnett had grown into large, powerful man who stood at 6 feet 3 inches and weighed nearly 300 pounds. Early publicity photos reveal a bear-like figure with an unusually large head, an open, slightly pock-marked face with high cheekbones, and enormous, gnarled hands.

Though a relatively crude instrumentalist, Burnett controlled any room he performed in with a booming voice and outsized personality. Onstage, he would careen around and jerk his body in a brutish way. While many (in particular the white, British-born blues musicians who later idolised him) confessed to being physically intimidated by Burnett, he was also known for his warmth and wry humour.

Burnett’s commercial break came in the early 1950s when he relocated to Chicago, assembled a new band featuring the sublime guitarist Hubert Sumlin and began recording with songwriter Willie Dixon for the Chess Label. Along with those of label-mate Muddy Waters, Dixon and Burnett’s Chess recordings of the 1950s and early 1960s codified the new genre of urban electrified blues. Howlin’ Wolf songs are characterised by a stomping 12-bar back-beat, alternately boastful, sinister and self-deprecating lyrics, peels of angular guitar and a booming yet mellow vocal delivery.

Howlin’ Wolf, Moanin’ at Midnight (Chess/MCA, 1962).

This electrified blues style, a key sonic template for rock and roll, was both the soundtrack and product of one of the major population movements of the twentieth century: the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the urban North and Mid-West in search of employment and racial freedom. This migration began as a trickle during the First World War and increased due to ammunitions manufacturing during the Second World War, reaching its peak in the post-war period and continuing until at least the late-1960s.

Due to its location as the first major transportation node directly north of the ‘Deep South’ states of Alabama,  Mississippi and Georgia, Chicago played an pivotal role in the Great Migration. Between 1916 and 1970, more than 500,000 African-Americans settled in Chicago of the approximate 7 million who left The South during this period. As early as 1945, sociologists St Clair Drake and Horace Cayton Jr would identify the city’s South Side as an emergent ‘Black Metropolis’, an urban environment being reshaped by the arrival of unprecedented numbers of African-Americans and itself altering the culture and life trajectories of the incoming population.

Men on the Street in Chicago, 1941. Library of Congress.

Burnett’s string of chart hits while based in Chicago during the 1950s were eventually collected in 1959’s Moanin’ at Midnight. This success was followed by his acknowledged masterpiece Howling Wolf (1962), more commonly known as the ‘Rocking Chair Album’ for its iconic cover image and The Howling Wolf Album (1969), an attempt to remake classic Burnett-Dixon songs with a contemporary psychedelic rock flavour. Burnett reputedly despised the latter project.

The 1960s saw Burnett tour the world, playing to large, rapturous audiences, particularly in Europe, as well as recording with a host of famous rock star acolytes . Despite being illiterate for much of his life, Burnett had returned to school in his forties to take GED-level courses in accounting, skills which served him well as his fame and income and critical respect increased in these years. Unusually for a blues bandleader, he was known for paying his backing musicians well and on-time and being personally frugal. Burnett’s health began to wane in the early 1970s:  he was a hard drinker and had bruised his kidneys in a 1970 car accident. Burnett died a wealthy, respected man in 1976. He is buried, fittingly, in suburban Chicago, the city whose musical heritage he had helped make world famous.

My top 5 Howlin’ Wolf songs:

1. ‘Smokestack Lightnin’ (Moanin’ in the Moonlight, 1959; earlier single release)

The most famous cut from 1959’s Moanin’ at Midnight, Hubert Sumlin’s driving guitar line made ‘Smokestack Lightning’ an early rock and roll standard. It was covered numerous times, particularly by Eric’s Clapton Yardbirds and other British blues  artists of the 60s, but never with as much grit as the original.

2. ‘Who’s Been Talkin’ (Howlin’ Wolf, 1962)

The lyrical conceit is simple and timeless: Burnett is anguished over a lover’s sudden departure, due to news of his philandering getting back to her. The harmonica-driven song has a haunted ambience, culminating in the weary, self-aware closing  chant: ‘I’m the causin’ of it all’.

3. ‘Killing Floor ‘ (7-inch Single, 1964)

A truly funky, danceable beat and seamy lyrics make ‘Killing Floor’ one of Burnett’s hardboiled classics. The song would be covered by Jimi Hendrix and ripped-off  (albeit with liner note credit) by Led Zeppelin in ‘The Lemon Song’.

4. ‘I walked all the way from Dallas’ (7-inch single, 1965)

Not one of Burnett’s most famous songs, but a favourite of mine due of the horns giving it slightly more upbeat, R&B sound, as well as the catchy double-time rhythm guitar.

5. ‘Back Door Man’ (Howling Wolf Album-1969)

Originally from the ‘Rocking Chair Album’,  this is one of the few songs on the critically panned Howling Wolf  Album-1969 that benefits from fuller treatment, making it sound even more delightfully sinister.

Chipmunk Soul: A Requiem

 

Kanye West, The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2004)

I spent the early months of 2004 taking an Introduction to Film course in Summer School and working the evening shift at a petrol station. My employer, BP Jervois, sat between a picture framers and a motel on a wide boulevard lined with cafés and boutiques. This thoroughfare borders Herne Bay, that creamy slice of central Auckland (named during the nineteenth century after a modest seaside resort in Kent), perched on the south-western slopes of the Waitemata Harbour.

My uniform consisted of teal slacks with permanent creases, a short-sleeved twill shirt in camel, and on the rare occasion it was cold enough, a scratchy green sweater. The work was dull and slightly dirty, lacking the camaraderie and visceral satisfactions of manual labour, but also the physical ravages. Nonetheless, there were some distinct occupational hazards. Constant exposure to oil and gas would make the pads of my fingers peel and petrochemical vapours soaked into my clothes and hair. Even freshly showered, I couldn’t quite shake the smell of Unleaded 91.

Our station’s proximity to the Harbour Bridge on-ramp ensured its small four-pump forecourt was jammed with irritable commuters every morning and late-afternoon. The first few hours following my arrival at 3.00 would rush by in a montage of nozzles clicking on and off, backhands drawing across sudsy windows, rows of numerals racing higher and higher on greasy console displays. From around 6.00 until the end-of-shift at 10:30, however, it often fell eerily quiet. Some weeknights the area had an air of desertion. The hands of the Sachin Tendulkar picture-clock on the store’s ceiling beam seemed to move agonisingly slowly.

To put it mildly, there wasn’t much to do on these evenings, save the approved tasks of restocking the drinks fridge; cleaning the perpetually dusty shelves and filmy floor and emptying the forecourt bins. Then there was the illicit (and more frequently exercised) option of perusing the magazine rack. Having no interest in cars, fishing, hunting, rugby or overt lechery, the men’s titles were mostly impenetrable. Thankfully, we stocked a respectable selection of gossip weeklies, then in their paparazzi-fomenting heyday. That summer I received a first-class education on the nuances of Jen and Brad’s relationship and the earliest partying of the plump, fresh-faced Lindsay Lohan.

An off-brand boom-box behind the till provided a soundtrack to this reading. It remained on constantly, tuned either to ‘urban’ radio or low-volume Hindi slow-jams. The latter was the choice of a large contingent of my co-workers, recent immigrants from the Indian sub-continent in their thirties and forties. These men were enduring several years of minimum wage purgatory while retraining or saving to open businesses of their own. They were hard-working and glad to be in New Zealand, despite the obvious challenges of establishing themselves in a society largely indifferent to the qualifications and experience many had brought with them. Being young and lazy, I admired this work-ethic in the abstract, but sometimes  found their rigidity a bit of a drag. It was more fun to be on shift with a cohort of younger, kiwi-born Fijian Indians, who didn’t deign to do much cleaning and didn’t order me to. We instead spent most of the evening downtime horsing around and listening to hip-hop.

A few distinct sounds dominated the airwaves that summer,  but the one I remember best is the micro-trend dubbed ‘Chipmunk Soul’. This term is a fairly accurate sonic description of a style of hip hop production that began colonising the airwaves and certain albums in the early 2000s. It represented the first significant departure in a long while from the two poles of mainstream American rap: the James Brown/Parliament-Funkadelic-influenced ‘Boom Bap’, popularised in the 1990s by DJ Premier, Pete Rock and other East Coast producers and ‘G-Funk’, the brand of laid-back sleaze indelibly associated with California’s Dr Dre and DJ Quick. For much of the previous decade, the sound-beds these producers had assembled typically featured some combination of hard-funk keyboard loops, slinky synthesisers, stabs of sampled horns, scratches, vocal snippets from movies or other rap songs, thumping bass, and heavy drums programmed to a crisp but rhythmic 80-to-100 beats per-minute.

By contrast, the new sound being pioneered by a slightly younger generation of producers (in particular Just Blaze and Kayne West, the in-house beat-makers for Jay-Z and Dame Dash’s Roc-A-Fella Records) was predicated on sampling vocal snatches from vinyl records. The songs West and his peers  were grabbing parts from weren’t just any old records either, but they included some of the most gorgeous, transcendent moments in the history of soul, smooth jazz and r&b: famous ad-libs by Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandros over swelling strings, Mavis Staples and Patty La belle pleading with their capricious lovers to stay or coolly asserting their independence.

Not all the samples of the era were so obvious: lesser-known but successful producers like Nottz and The 45 King favoured show-tunes as much as soul, while the late- Detroit-based maestro J Dilla specialised in constructing floating, ethereal soundscapes from barrages of obscure loops, each often lasting only a second or two. In most of what made it to the radio, however, the cuts were big and unsubtle, threading through the new songs’ skeletal beats as insistent refrains, often inspiring the narrative conceit  of the tracks themselves or being referenced by the rapper in a kind of call and response. The major gimmick and defining characteristic of this process was that these samples had been sped and pitched-up, usually by the crude technique of playing a 12-inch record on the 45 revolutions per-minute-setting designed for 7-inch singles. This treatment rendered samples that might otherwise have been cliched  exotic and fresh, like they were being sung by underwater or by soulful wood sprites.

Almost as soon as it had reached the point of  ubiquity, chipmunk soul seemed to enter a steep decline. Within a year or two, many of its exponents had moved on to more sonically ambitious production, often using live instrumentation. Its early champion West had unequivocally shed his initial identity as a goofy, under-appreciated producer for Jay-Z to become a major artist in his own right, although he was already showing signs of the grandiosity that would come to consume him. Tellingly, Jay Z’s own epic retirement fake-out record the Black Album (2004), featured several classic productions by Just Blaze, all of which were already eschewing the chipmunk effect for a fuller, more complex soul and rock-derived sound.

In retrospect, it is clear that the brief zenith of chipmunk soul was really the death rattle of the ‘classic’ rap paradigm of the 1990s. By the early 2000s, the urban musical landscape had already begun to shift under the feet of those who had made their reputations (and fortunes) in the previous decade, as rap completed its transition from urban curiosity to corporate-linked behemoth. The funk-soul-blues nexus of the polyglot cities of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles—music that had harked back, in its sonic templates, if not hardboiled attitude, to the ‘golden era’ of African-American pop and soul which followed the Great Migration of southerners to northern cities in the mid-to-late 20th century—was shedding cultural relevance. It was being replaced  by the emerging style and sound of Atlanta, the predominantly suburban, predominantly black metropolis of the ‘New South’, populated by refugees from the rapidly de-industrialising great cities of the East Coast and Midwest. Where late-period ‘Boom Bap’ and ‘Chipmunk Soul’ had been lush, the new southern sound was minimalist, almost icy, in the precision of its operatic synths and 808 drums. I didn’t like it as much. Nor, more than a decade later, would I respond to  ‘Drill’, the nihilistic soundtrack to urban violence that saw Chicago return briefly to the centre of the rap universe for all the wrong reasons. But those are stories for another day.

RIP chimunk soul 2002-2004.

Looking onto the back alley of Parkville houses, date unknown (photograph by author).

The neighbourhood I recognise as Parkville is a diminutive grid of Filigree-style Victorian terraces, tucked discreetly behind Royal Parade opposite the western edge of the University of Melbourne. Trams shuttle constantly up and down this long parkway, lined with tall trees, that connects Melbourne’s business district to its northern suburbs. As rain threatened one Tuesday evening this winter, I found myself wandering these streets I hadn’t set foot on for years.

I was in the midst of a short, somewhat aimless, visit from out of the country and had twenty minutes to kill before meeting a friend for dinner. She lived with her husband and their three-year-old son in a small apartment that was a prize for performing some ambiguous pastoral care function at one of the plush residential colleges, or glorified dorms, which sprawl across the University side of the parade. This row of sandstone piles and their brutalist additions begins on Royal Parade and stretches in a crescent around the corner to overlook the huge Melbourne General Cemetery—a 110-acre necropolis that is the last home of some 300,000 souls. It’s not inaccurate to say that more people live under the ground than above it in Parkville.

I’d found returning to Melbourne, after an absence of seven busy and mostly happy years, to be exhilarating, strangely tiring and a little poignant, although I am aware of a tendency to ascribe poignancy to otherwise banal occurrences that are in fact rather quickly forgotten. It is my experience that when I move—and I have done so several times, uprooted to cities and towns I’ve never before visited and where I know no one—the place I have just left lives on intensely inside me for a short time. It then suddenly ceases to exist, like a draft of smoke that stings your eyes before dispersing into the air. Being faced with incontrovertible evidence of time continuing to move forward in a location where I am no longer physically present is always oddly confronting, a reminder of my own solipsism and lack of perspective. Melbourne, for reasons to do with youth and impressionability, has lived on longer than almost everywhere in my heart.

With regional New Zealand as my current point of reference, almost from stepping onto the concourse at Tullamarine Airport, Melbourne seemed improbably dynamic and busy, its public spaces shiny and bustling. The people I encountered were extroverted, if a little brusque and on the make. In the first few minutes of my arrival an insistent gentleman in a stained black blazer almost conned me into catching an exorbitantly-priced limo into the city, something that would likely never have happened a few years ago, when I still dressed like a student. The next day a DeGraves Lane barber delivered a detailed, if entirely unsolicited, lecture on the need to maintain and develop a regular exfoliation regime, while scraping a straight razor across my neck.

On the surface, a lot about the place seemed to have changed. Most of the restaurants, bars, and lunch spots I could remember frequenting either no longer existed or had morphed to be almost unrecognisable as their former incarnations. The cumulative effect of these alterations in the urban landscape, individually inconsequential and likely ignored by those who walk, drive and glide through it on bicycles and trams every day, brought to mind various clichés about cities embodying capitalism’s signature cycle of creative destruction. Indeed, if everything solid hadn’t exactly melted into air, every business that could conceivably be serving more customers and making more money now appeared to be doing so. But Melbourne remained comfortingly intimate and unchanging in many places and scenes—bantering school children breaking the pompous hush of the NGV and the State Library; office workers reading aloud a Herald Sun quiz at a café in East Brunswick, a Hebrew School girl offering me her phone when I was lost on the tram trying to find my aunt’s home in South Caulfield.

Increasingly dwarfed by the gleaming towers of the University and the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Parkville had changed, but not a great deal. Its houses—and there are so few of them they are practically individually memorisable—have quaint names like ‘Beaconsfield Terrace’ engraved atop their facades. They are imbued with a cosy domesticity belying the fact no one ever seems to be home. To be sure, the Parkville of 2017 was slightly sleeker and less practical than it had been in the ‘old’ days. The bare, beer-crusted floorboards of Naughton’s pub were now softly carpeted in its new identity as a bistro/boutique hotel, while enterprising persons had transformed the Cypriot Milk-Bar—faded rolled-oats advertisement on its gable end, trays of cling-wrap-covered cold cuts, ancient coffee machine, delicious tabbouleh—into a fashionable-looking eatery. The Post-Office seemed permanently shut. Parkville, however, has always seemed to dwell largely outside of ordinary time and, to an extent place, having existed for decades before I ever got there as a sleepy, overlooked bourgeois enclave sandwiched between once-gritty Carlton and Flemington. Walking the streets, I felt that this character was fundamentally impermeable.

Yosl BERGNER, House backs, Parkville, oil on canvas, c. 1938. Collection of National Gallery of Victoria 2004.140.

Before long, I came to a pair of brick townhouses on the end of a small row. Their stucco-covered facades were largely un-decorative, save for wrought-iron balconies with Victorian latticework. I had lived briefly in both properties: one, on the inside of the block, for an alternatively boozy and studious year, the other, larger, residence, for a trying six month stop-gap a while later. The well-tended row sat on the southern edge of the neighbourhood, opposite University High School, renowned as a meritocratic incubator for some of the city’s brightest and most aspirational teens. For years, nearby Ormond College had let out the two houses as a slightly unfashionable residence for older, non-resident students. Not too long ago, I’d heard the college had sold the properties for a tidy sum. Demand to rent them had apparently been slackening for some time, with more students preferring livelier precincts and it being a ten minute walk to access the vats of lasagne, wilting salad and arrayed Sara Lee cakes that constituted the meal plan. I walked down the alley past the back courtyard—in our day, a cigarette-butt strewn concrete pad with a couple of picnic tables on it, putatively protected from intruders by a wire cage (ugly, yet never sturdy enough to prevent us and our neighbours from being robbed). This caged yard, I saw, had been replaced by a handsome patio, replete with what looked to be a built-in pizza oven. A light was on upstairs and classical music (I thought I detected Glen Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations) tinkled from an open window.

Not wanting to be taken for a prowler, I quickly returned to the corner and stood there for a self-consciously contemplative moment. Into my head popped the memory of kicking a football with some friends in the middle of the road on this empty corner. We were semi-drunk in the late-afternoon sun, following a long, well-lubricated barbecue.  It was the dregs of the last day of the semester, everyone getting ready to go home for the summer. The baking midday heat had begun to cool as evening closed in and the mood was one of hedonism mixed with listlessness and mild disappointment as we contemplated the complicated business of packing up rooms and returning to jobs or otherwise dull regimes.

Standing there looking at the patch of heavy sky poking between the tops of the houses, I was struck by the revelation that so much had remained unwritten for me at that point. At the time, I’d had little to no clue of this infinite possibility, being absorbed by trivial worries and deadlines. Then and for long after, I’d always believed something essential to be missing from my life, an affinity for excitement and true connection I assumed other people effortlessly possessed. This moment of self-indulgent introspection didn’t last long, for right then it began to rain, not the picturesque rain that falls on people in movies and R&B videos, but one of those freezing spurts that turns clothes instantly sodden, drips down the back of necks and into ears, seeps into the soles of shoes, giving the lie to earnest manufacturer promises of waterproofness. I threw my coat over my head and began running for the shelter of the awnings on Royal Parade. All precious thoughts were washed away in the gathering storm.

 

Sentimental Journeys: Parkville