The original "Louie Louie" was an r&b shuffle cut by Richard Berry in Los
Angeles in 1956. Five years later Seattle's Wailers reinvented the song as
a frat-rock rave-up. In 1963, Portland's Kingsmen--an obscure high school
combo--cut the passionately inept rendition that scaled Billboard's singles chart.
But the story didn't end there, for if "Louie Louie" is one of rock's most
insubstantial texts, it is also among its most resilient. Twenty years
later, in 1983, a college radio station, promising to play "every version
of the song in existence," solicited renditions, with the slogan "Three
chords and no talent is all you need." Eight hundred versions ran more than 63 hours. That weekend "Louie Louie" achieved mythic status as an icon of rock 'n' roll's capacity to democratize culture.
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The ensuing decade saw two Best of Louie Louie CDs, multicity "Louie Louie" parades, a zine devoted to the song, a wine-cooler campaign, and a bill to make it Washington State's official song. All of this fuss for an unabashed piece of trash.
In Louie Louie, Dave Marsh charts the song's history, and inflates its
mystery. Considering how much of the song's notoriety descends from thirty
years of arguments about the lyrics--which the Kingsmen had rendered
largely indecipherable--it's ironic that the song's publishers have denied
Marsh permission to quote them. Recounting the FBI's obscenity
investigation, though, he does contribute "official accounts" of the "dirty lyrics" that concerned citizens swore to the Bureau they'd heard on the record.
Marsh argues that the song's crucial power resides not in the words but in
the riff that refused to die: those five notes (duh duh duh. duh duh)
possessed a nearly occult power to lodge permanently in a listener's mind.
Marsh tackles questions about originality and appropriation as he traces
the riff from L.A.'s early r&b/doowop scene, where the original song
emerged, through its reinvention in the Pacific Northwest, following its
trail through the song's bizarre reemergence in the '80s.
The history of "Louie Louie" is a whale of a tale. Unfortunately, Marsh has awkwardly submerged and muddied it in this text. At some sorry juncture he decided to cast the song as the Rosetta Stone in a heretofore hidden history of rock 'n' roll, making it a talisman against all claims that art demands expertise. In the process he finds its signature riff ticking at the heart of every genre, and era, since the Kingsmen's.
His capacity for divining the song's influence seems almost clairvoyant. He finds it concealed in a staggering array of tunes: not just in the Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night," but rewritten by the Who as "My
Generation," disguised in Tim Buckley's "Wanda Lu," deconstructed in the
opening of Hendrix's "Purple Haze," ticking at the heart of Boston's "More
Than a Feeling," and resurrected by dint of a shared "root emotion" in the
Stories' ballad "Brother Louie." While Marsh begins by aptly following
"Louie" where it leads, too soon he is finding it everywhere. Therein lies
the hubris that curdles this book's real accomplishments.
The best and freshest material in Louie Louie reflects Marsh's original
research. He interviewed Richard Berry at length, and he crafts a nuanced
portrait of L.A.'s r&b scene in the '50s and of the song's author's life.
It is a remarkable saga that could stand alone as a dark, unintentionally
comic, r&b Book of Job--one that's redeemed by a happy ending so cheesy
John Waters could have penned it.
Following the song's trail to the Pacific Northwest, Marsh again offers a
wealth of detail, but the account is marred by repeated attempts to infuse
the mundane with the force of myth. Thus the Wailers' lead singer's shout
"Let's give it to 'em right now," which cuts a guitar solo, becomes a
cultural epiphany. The youthful exuberance of the local bands is glibly and pretentiously equated with the pathological materialism of the Northwest Indian potlatch. Finally, Marsh seems to overlook the one fact that may be most remarkable about the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie."
The history of rock 'n' roll repeatedly charts the appropriation of r&b
hits by white artists, who would fish them out of the gutbucket and hose
off the funk--enunciating all the carnal erotic swamp out of the lyrics to
make them fit for mainstream consumption. "Louie Louie," for the first
time, turned this tradition on its head: a group of middleclass, white
teenagers took a chaste, adult r&b shuffle and remade it as a salacious
howl, fueled by their thundering hormones. Their teen yawp was a world
apart from anything in Berry's version--which the Kingsmen, incidentally,
hadn't even heard.
Berry's claim on the Kingsmen's "Louie" seems remarkably paltry, so making
Berry's bio this book's narrative spine seems almost like draping a study
of Duchamp's Fountain over the tale of the gent who designed the urinal.
Marsh seems compelled to conflate the two tales, as he similarly
exaggerates the song's ability to baffle the FBI, and paints critics
Geoffrey Stokes and Robert Ray as blind to its mysteries--suggesting how
few have mastered its deep, anarchic, interracial mojo. By the end of his
book Marsh is claiming Richard Berry as the forebear of both rapper Ice-T
and Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, insisting, with typical understatement, "Louie
Louie" shaped the modern rock 'n' roller's entire world."
Marsh has gathered fascinating stories and inspired insights, but there's
hardly one that he doesn't belabor, exaggerate, or proffer as proof of the
preposterous. What makes this overreaching so frustrating is the toll it
takes on the substantial accomplishment that is cached in this volume.
There is more to "Louie Louie" than meets the ear, and those who can abide
Marsh's excesses will find most of the evidence here. It would have been
far better, though, had he simply told its story. For in the quest to trace the id of pop to "duh duh duh. duh duh," Marsh stacks so many dimes on the tonearm of his skipping record that it grinds to a halt.
San Francisco-based writer Adam Block grew up in Seattle to the strains of
"Louie Louie." His recent work has appeared in Mother Jones, Out,
Filmmaker, and Parade.