Originally posted January 19, 2010 via my old Posterous blog:
Celebrity as a cultural beast is quite pleased. Unlike the fiscal economy, the economy of celebrity grows larger each quarter without exception. The more data that swirls through our multi-dimensional media web, the more celebrities are born. And — unlike a few generations ago — once you’ve become a celebrity, you’re always a celebrity. With so many niche media outlets all competing for their own marketshare, even the fallen celebrity is celebrated, as are the D-listers and coulda-beens. On some level this helps explain why it seems like so many people are dying recently. Last Wednesday, for instance, I’d already muttered two “RIPs” via my Twitter account (for up-and-coming garage rocker Jay Reatard and soul legend Teddy Pendergrass) when — late in the day — I heard from my good friend that Bobby Charles had passed away.
What a disappointment. And a disappointment that I felt I had no currency left to express. My articulated sentiments were cheap by now. But this was sad news to me, and it was sad news that I knew wouldn’t be getting above-the-fold headlines anywhere. I’ve seen a handful of pieces written in the last few days, each talking about how the Louisiana-born Robert Charles Guidry was a founding father of swamp pop, how he got into the business as a singer-songwriter just as rock n’ roll was coming into its own in the late ’50s, cutting singles for Chess, none of which were hits until they were covered by Bill Haley (“See You Later Alligator”) and Fats Domino (“Walkin’ to New Orleans”) to name but a few, but that he couldn’t find traction as a recording artist so he dropped out of the biz. They mention his getting back into music with his underperforming & underappreciated self-titled debut album produced by The Band’s Rick Danko & John Simon (Music from Big Pink producer) released by (Bob Dylan’s manager) Albert Grossman’s label Bearsville. These facts are all covered in near-facsimile.
What isn’t covered is how much heart & soul there is in Bobby Charles. Its vulnerability comes through without a bit of pretension, its levity without the wink of an eye (as with Randy Newman, who shares a sonic and tonal kinship with Charles). It makes even the best albums by The Band (Music from Big Pink and The Band) seem ambitiously vulnerable — even postured, as if The Band were in hot pursuit of an emotional response from their audience. With Bobby Charles it feels to come so naturally, so effortlessly. Now, I don’t mean to tear down The Band in order to build up Charles; such would be foolish (and not just because Danko produced and most of The Band played on Bobby Charles). Over the years, though, The Band has come to symbolize a sense of soulful integrity, American work ethic and whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts potential of a spirited collaboration between Hemingway heroes that somehow places them in that zen-like ring toward the top of the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame Christmas tree which belies their commercial record, and which I’d like to take full advantage of here as I try to make a case for you to return to Bobby Charles or seek it out for the first time (and not give up when you find it difficult to track down). So I stand on the back of The Band’s mythology in order to alley-oop Charles into that special place on the tip of your tongue, such that you may find yourself lucky enough to be walking in the crisp morning light singing “Small Town Talk”, “Save Me Jesus” or “I Must Be in a Good Place Now”, wondering what it must’ve been like to walk in this man’s shoes, whose shoes so closely resemble your own, except that he knew how to speak of those shoes and where they took him as a man. Like Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, he was a songwriter whose words were catapulted into the public consciousness by singers with more juice than he had as a pop star, but it was in his own small way with his own humble voice that these songs met their greatest potential as human works and were able to transcend our own flawed language and give some shape to the ineffable.