Thursday, August 11, 2011

Citrullus lanatus var. vulgaris

These are depressing days. I'm in a foul mood and not happy at all with what I was able to accomplish lately. Can't sleep until dawn, but the many things awaiting my attention won't go away. They're always lingering in the back of my head. Mean old world. So I felt I need something strong today, a force of nature. The obvious choice for this in a blog like mine is Tina.
     And mind, being not overly satisfied with myself and the world at the moment does easily put me into a polemical frame of mind. This is just as well and kiss my ass. Start doin' it here for a beginning:

Incidentally, these asses were meant to lure the eyes of Billboard-readers, in the issue of Oct. 19, 1968 (»Here Come De Blue Thumb«), to the fact that Bob Krasnow shortly before had established the Blue Thumb label. One of the first LPs released by Blue Thumb was Ike & Tina Turner's »Outta Season« (BTS-005).
     Polemically-wise, speaking about Ike & Tina Turner always warms my heart. Because there is one thing which since years has been upsetting me regularly, viz. What the heck is wrong with Ike & Tina? Browsing through the net and turning endless pages of music-related books makes you think that Ike & Tina were a minor phenomenon quite unsuited to be treated in detail, commercial to the bone, selling their souls to every record company that would offer them a fat cheque (or better still, cash), trusting on Tina's oversexed stage antics to sell their songs, with Ike being a mediocre composer and Tina a willful bitch. Of course, we also have the die-hard fans of Tina Turner mainly grown on her post-70s career, yet in most Soul circles her very notoriety made her name, it seems, almost a taboo. Professional music writers tend to ignore her pre-80s career. Mean old world.
     But you can go on for weeks badmouthing Ike & Tina and you won't harm them a bit. Theirs is a status much beyond the vain brabble of latter-born mortals. Yes, they were looking for the easy buck, and Ike's life can fill ten volumes of stories that will have your hairs stand on end. Both, and Tina in particular, were a force of nature the like of which you won't find a second time. And naturally gifted at that. They never recorded something really bad, no matter how unsuitable the circumstances and how distracted (or bored) the artists in question. I would like to remind you of what Nat Freedland wrote in a concert review: »As always, the biggest mystery about Ike & Tina Turner is why they aren't among the superstars of contemporary pop. Tina is such a fine singer and such a superlative performer that any reaction less than adulation seems pointless« (Billboard, Oct. 16, 1971).

* * *
Feeling better now, having said this. Mean old world, don't come knockin' at my door again. On to the Blue Thumb album. The first to strike one is the cover as has been often noted (see here and here).

Basically, you see Ike (on the front cover) and Tina (on the back cover) biting into water- melons slices, i.e. slices of citrullus lanatus var. vulgaris. Their faces are smeared with a white paste, creating the unusual effect of whiteface. It was all part of a thought-out message as Bob Krasnow, owner of Blue Thumb, explained: »It was a parody. All the white guys were doing blues records then, so I thought, 'Hey, the only way a black act can do the blues now would be to put 'em in white- face,' you know? We had plenty of problems with that cover. I mean, people had threatening my life« (quoted in Turner/Loder: I, Tina, page 150). Krasnow's love for creative cover artwork is known,and thus it is not astonishing that he came up with the Turners' whitefaces: »One day, Ike Turner complained to Krasnow that white kids were making a fortune playing the blues and Turner, a black man and a life-long blues musician, was still scuffling. The result ... was the Outta Season cover, depicting Ike on one side and his wife Tina on the other, each in whiteface makeup and eating a huge slice of watermelon. Outta Season was nominated for a Grammy, for its cover design.« (quoted from Bill DeYoung: »The Story of Blue Thumb Records«, Goldmine no. 412, read it here).

Tina is present even twice on the album sleeve. Once sinking her teeth into the citrullus lanatus, once inside the gatefold cover where she appears in a sexy black dress, striking a soul-power pose (or whatever it was meant to be). Greil Marcus accorded her a »fabulous and dazzling sexiness breaking through even on a gag photo.« However, if you consider how Tina would appear only little later in the early 70s during her stage shows, this photo is still a far cry from what was to come. Seen in this light, Tina here appears rather like a bourgeois cocktail party guest who lost her stiff countenance after a gin or two!

The most thorough analysis of the melon-cover was put forward by Susan Fast in her article »Bold Soul Trickster: The 60s Tina Signifies« (in: Laurie Stras (ed.): She's So Fine. Reflections on Whiteness, Femininity, Adolescence and Class in 1960s Music, Farham 2010, pp. 203-234).

Susan Fast writes: »In a carnavalesque reversal, Ike and Tina turn the racist legacy of blackface minstrelsy in on itself in a grotesque parody, while at the same time complicating the desire for the Other that the mask of traditional minstrelsy symbolized. Instead of whites desiring blackness ... we have blacks desiring whiteness that desired blackness. The image suggests that whites who appropriate black culture do so in superficial or stereotyp- ical ways - by eating watermelons, the fruit so often used in racist caricatures of blacks or by dabbling in black music. But the prominence of the black hands - their foregrounding - belies Ike and Tina's racial identiy, as do the knowing winks given by both.« (pp. 203, 205). And note that both actually have already bitten off a piece of the slice! Not the least achievement of Ike & Tina in late 60s soul to have their faces put on this innovative cover, even though Bob Krasnow can, I think correctly, be credited with the idea.

As for the music, the first of Ike & Tina's Blue Thumb LPs features mostly standard blues songs. Two of those, Little Walter's »Mean Old World« and B.B. King's »Rock Me Baby«, you can hear in the following. Of all their LPs, »Outta Season« (and its follow-up, »The Hunter«) is certainly the most blues-oriented; Bob Krasnow, in a 1971 Rolling Stones inteview, called it »gutbucket R&B ... like we have on our Blue Thumb record ... really blues.« All songs were played in an almost classical mode, very close to how the blues players from the Chicago scene had done them before. This, on the other hand, was to become the cornerstone of critical remarks con- cerning this album, and many since have repeated what Greil Marcus wrote in that regard. He found little to recommend in the album:
»The material, almost all blues, looks fine ... The possibilities for letting Tina loose seem terrific. Maybe so, but it doesn't happen. All the cuts are done straight, without invention or excitement. The one saving grace is Ike's guitar playing, very tough, melodic, at times almost dazzling, great debt owed to BB King and all that, but in fact a good lesson for young musicians who can't make their instruments speak but who don't want to sound like Blue Cheer either. But that's it. The band sounds tired and bored, as if they've done it all a million times before and just couldn't be bothered.« (Quoted from here).
This is not without some justification. But, again, it throws the baby out with the bath water (and, I'm tempted to add, also hacks the tub into pieces). I think Ike & Tina still did a terrific job. They couldn't do otherwise, at least not before the mid-70s when everything fell to shambles eventually.
     Just enough for today. In a future post I will say something about the ways the Turners were related to the Blue Thumb label. At the moment, you will have to do with Ike & Tina's gutbucket blues recorded in late '68 (as far as we know). I can imagine many a fate much worse than this. My Weltschmerz is, I can assure you, much eased by listening to Tina's blues performance. Mean old world! If you're still eager to read more about Ike & Tina right now, check out Jaime Danehey's Ike & Tina Project or read this page.

Ike & Tina Turner: »Mean Old World« / »Rock Me Baby« from the Blue Thumb LP # BTS-5 »Outta Season«:


  1. woww..!Rock it all night long... Some "Weltschmerz" can't be that bad!

  2. Oh certainly not! Some ain't as bad ... we're stuck with the rest, though :)