The Kingsmen Are Obscene (?)
“Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.”― OMAR KHAYYAM
We all know there is obscene materials available for those who seek it, but when they start sneaking in this material in the guise of the latest 'teen age rock & roll hit record,' these morons have gone too far.
From 1815, with the trial of Jesse Sharpless and the pornographic painting that hung in his house, til the present day banning of books that is still unfolding, the United States has had a penchant for ambushing artists and the art they create with the moral flyswatter of obscenity. On this date…May 17th…in 1965, the FBI ended what is now thought to be one of the dumbest of all the dumbest of their investigations into obscenity, giving up their case looking into the lyrics of the Kingsmen’s hit song, Louie Louie.
It all started in 1964 in Indiana where a letter of complaint reached the governor suggesting that the lyrics in the second verse of the song were obscene. The song had been a break-out hit for the band. It is a garage rock masterpiece, whose low-fidelity fuzzed-out production was embraced by the youth culture of the time even with lyrics that were not the easiest to understand, with the vocalist’s mumbled style losing a fight to the guitar onslaught. And as what generally happens in these kinds of moments, listeners went about trying to figure the lyrics out.
Just taking a look at songwriter Richard Barry’s lyrics gives a sense of how they might be hard to sing…hard to interpret. They are in the voice of a sailor, who is pining for his love while out on a voyage:
Three nights and days I sailed the sea
Me think of girl ah constantly
Ah on that ship, I dream she there
I smell the rose ah in her hair
Just the “ah”s alone make the stanza read awkwardly. Add to the fact that the young listeners of the song…with ears to their speakers, trying to figure out what the song was saying…might have been just a little bit excited at the possibility of a subversion woven into a beloved pop song…started circulating transcribed lyrics that were very different than Barry’s:
Every night and day, I play with my thing.
I fuck you girl, oh, all the way.
On my bed, I'll lay her there.
I feel my bone, ah, in her hair.
While the rhythm runs consistent through the song, just a quick listen--even through crappy computer speakers proves that yeah…the lyrics are hard to understand…but they aren’t the new interpretation (I do hear bone in place of rose…but “I FEEL MY”? coming before that word? nah…). That did not stop a letter of complaint reaching the governor, which led to a banning of the song in Indiana with the FBI getting involved and local and federal police looking into criminal charges against distributors for bringing the singles across state lines to sell them.
Oh, and it also led to the song getting incredible press, resulting into rocketing sales of the singles.
As it turned out, the letter was written by two kids in high school who had seen the wrong lyrics as they were being circulated, circulated as things were in the pre-internet days: scrawled on paper, handed off in-between classes, in lunchrooms, in schoolyards. A journalist tracked down one of the kids over fifty years later who said: "We shouldn't have sent that letter out (to the governor)…It wasn't a bad song, it wasn't dirty. We didn't have all the information. This was an immature mind. We didn't think."
And while the government during that time was going after other art pieces for their obscene nature, the case of Louie Louie was different: you had the published song lyrics as proof to what was being sung and the invented wrong lyrics were easy to discredit upon listening. So the FBI dropped the case, as the song continued its rise to the ranks of one of the most popular recordings in history, with the help of the government giving it a free and mighty PR boost.
But it does remind us of the stupidity of branding art as obscene and using the brand to censure it, to erase it from the world. It is the obsenators…those who rally against the art…who should be slapped and silenced.
The Library of Congress has a huge collection of letters from iconic individuals to others and has put together this article showcasing some of them. The above is an opening to the letter Rosa Parks wrote to her husband. There is one from Fred MacMurray, the star of Double Indemnity, to James M. Cain, the writer of the book the movie is based on, a letter from Mozart, Jackie Kennedy to Leonard Bernstein right after Robert Kennedy’s funeral, Nina Simone to Hazel Scott, Ralph Waldo Emmerson to Walt Whitman and on an on….this is a rabbit hole for anyone interested in seeing these letters.
“HBO Documentary Films has started production on "STAX," a documentary series exploring the legendary record label founded in South Memphis and responsible for some of the greatest soul hits of the 1960s and 1970s. The series will explore the Memphis-based record label's rise, fall and cultural impact through the lens of race, geography, musical traditions and the challenging world of the recording industry and will feature rare archival footage, according to a news release published by Concord, the California-based company that owns Stax Records.”
“Some have suggested that the painting is indeed real, including Andres Bautista, a former chairperson at the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), which was set up to recover funds gained by the Marcoses by corrupt means. In an interview with Rappler, Bautista claimed that the Picasso painting that the PCGG had seized was ‘a fake, it was a tarpaulin so it’s still with them.’
In honor of the great writer’s birthday, I thought I would post my favorite (and the most famous) short story of Willian Saroyen.
Speaking of people who champion freedom of expression, tomorrow is Bertrand Russell’s birthday…and this is a great story.
By: Adrienne Rich
This is the grass your feet are planted on.
You paint it orange or you sing it green,
But you have never found
A way to make the grass mean what you mean.
A cloud can be whatever you intend:
Ostrich or leaning tower or staring eye.
But you have never found
A cloud sufficient to express the sky.
Get out there with your splendid expertise;
Raymond who cuts the meadow does not less.
Inhuman nature says:
Inhuman patience is the true success.
Human impatience trips you as you run;
Stand still and you must lie.
It is the grass that cuts the mower down;
It is the cloud that swallows up the sky.
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****HAPPY 80th Birthday, Taj Mahal!