In The Desert Of Seth

By G. B. Marian

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

He might be 15 years deceased, but this man can still KILL you

Anyone who knows me knows that I just love “shock rock.” I love seeing people dress in outlandish costumes and play wild songs about controversial subjects, then prance around on stage doing offensive things (like throwing raw meat at the audience or wiping their butts with the American flag). I’m a big fan of acts like Alice Cooper, King Diamond, Marilyn Manson, Ozzy Osbourne, Twisted Sister and W.A.S.P. I even like it when non-heavy metal artists do it, like David Bowie, Lady Gaga and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. But do you know how shock rock got started in the first place? Well it originally started in blues music, and the first person to have done it (that I know of at least) was an African-American musician named Jalacy Hawkins. If that name doesn’t ring a bell for you, perhaps it’s because Jalacy is more famously known today as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. (And they sure nicknamed him right, because that man sure could scream.)

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1929, Hawkins sought to become an opera singer when he grew up, but he settled for becoming a blues singer and pianist instead. He also became the heavyweight boxing champion of Alaska in 1949, if you can believe it. He later joined a blues band with Tiny Grimes in the 1950s, and he launched his solo career in 1956. Hawkins’ first and most successful recording would be “I Put A Spell On You,” which I reckon is probably the single most covered song in history (considering that it’s been covered by Annie Lennox, Arthur Brown, Creedence Clearwater Revival, David Gilmour, Iggy Pop, Marilyn Manson, Nina Simone, Pete Townshend, Queen Latifah, Ray Charles, and even Bette Midler for Duat’s sake). According to Hawkins himself, the song was originally intended to be just another bluesy love ballad; but when the time came for him to actually record it, he and his band were drunk. Someone in the recording studio just happened to like it better that way, and the next thing anyone knew, “I Put A Spell On You” became one of the biggest hits of the year. Its popularity was helped by the fact that audiences found it far too shocking and offensive (even more so than Elvis Presley gyrating his hips on The Ed Sullivan Show) and it became banned in several places. Preceding Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson by decades, Screamin’ Jay found a way to capitalize on people hating him. He even started getting theatrical in his shows by having himself carried out on stage in a coffin, singing his songs to a human skull named “Henry,” and sitting on a toilet on stage and pretending to be constipated, screaming in pain.

“Hey man! Anybody out there got any Ex-Lax?”

I’ve been meaning to write this review for a long time, but the only trouble is that I don’t actually own any of Screamin’ Jay’s classic albums; I’ve only ever been able to find the songs from these (either in stores or online) in “greatest hits” compilations. I generally don’t like such collections because “greatest hits” doesn’t really mean “best of” (despite the fact that many greatest hits collections are in fact called “Best of [Artist’s Name]”). While such collections are convenient if you aren’t interested in listening to one artist’s entire discography, they usually don’t include the artist’s best work. They only include the songs that receive the most radio play, and commercial radio generally wants simple songs that fit into easily defined categories (and that are only 2 to 3 minutes long). There’s nothing wrong with enjoying songs that fit this description, but the problem is that many artists produce their very best work in forms that aren’t radio-friendly.

Take Alice Cooper for instance. Such staples as “No More Mister Nice Guy” or “Welcome To My Nightmare” are almost always included in any of Coop’s “greatest hits” compilations; but while these songs are great, they’re not quite as impressive as “Halo of Flies” or “Unfinished Sweet,” which are hardly ever included. Another problem with “best of” albums is that there tends to be more than one of them in an artist’s discography, and they often include many of the same songs. I own two Screamin’ Jay CDs – Voodoo Jive (1990) and Cow Fingers and Mosquito Pie (1991) – and they both cost me about $12 a piece when I first bought them several years ago. Yet they include most of the same songs with only a few different tracks. This means I essentially paid for most of the same material twice. I’m not exactly a miser when it comes to spending my money on an artist I really enjoy, but I find little purpose in paying for the same thing twice (unless I’m replacing something that I’ve lost). I think it’s generally more worth my money just to buy the original albums from which an artist’s “greatest hits” are taken. None of this is Hawkins’ fault, of course; I’m just clarifying that since I can’t really review one of his original albums (like 1958’s At Home with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or 1969’s What That Is!), I’m limiting this discussion to some of my favorite songs of his that you’re most likely to find on any “Best of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins” collection.

I suppose we’d better start with the most famous Hawkins number (which you’ll find on every compilation), “I Put A Spell On You.” This song is basically about preventing a romantic partner from becoming unfaithful by casting a black magic “Voodoo” spell on them to keep them in line. More than anything else, this is the track that established Screamin’ Jay’s entire persona as a Vodun houngan with a solid taste for rhythm and blues. As I mentioned above, there are many different versions of this song that have been produced by later artists (my personal favorite of these being Marilyn Manson’s version from his 1995 remix album, Smells Like Children). But nobody – and I mean absolutely nobody – can top the Hawkins original. When he screams in this song, it literally sounds like someone’s jabbing red-hot pokers beneath his fingernails. When he grunts, he sounds like an escaped mental patient who’s about to bust into your home and use your skull as a drinking glass. Not only is it goofy and extremely funny; it’s also fairly unsettling, like this man really was possessed by an Orisha or a Lwa while he was onstage. There’s just something so authentic about this performance that it makes me understand why evangelical Christians think this kind of music is “satanic” (even though there’s a mighty big difference between Lucifer and Baron Samedi).

“Little Demon” is the story of a dark Underworld spirit who blows his top because his wife (“Miss Demon”) won’t let him be “the boss” in their relationship. This guy is apparently powerful enough to drastically alter the fabric of our space/time continuum (“He made the sky turn green, he made the grass turn red”; “He took the Fourth of July and put it in May”), but he still can’t make his mate do whatever it is she doesn’t want to do. In this way, “Little Demon” probably has less to do with demons per se and more to do with witchcraft (in the sense of female empowerment) in general. I first heard this song in Chris Carter’s TV series Millennium (1996-1999), during the second season Halloween episode entitled “The Curse of Frank Black.” Millennium is one of my all-time favorite TV shows (and I’ll explain why in a future review sometime), but during the particular episode in question, Frank Black’s (Lance Henriksen’s) electronics keep randomly turning themselves on over the course of the night, and his stereo absolutely refuses to play anything but Screamin’ Jay’s “Little Demon.” This is a really funny and tongue-in-cheek little song, but its presence in the context of that episode was downright creepy. (This was also my very first exposure to Hawkins.)

“Alligator Wine” and “The Feast of the Mau Maus” are very similar, sharing the same chords and lyrical themes. Both songs are essentially recipes set to music, but the former (written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) is about making a love potion to procure oneself a lover down in the Louisiana swamps. The latter is about preparing a feast for a community of seemingly folkloric creatures that eat all kinds of disgusting things, including “wine from the spines of their bulldogs.” I don’t know what the “Mau Maus” in this song actually are, but there was a rebel militia known as the Mau Maus in Kenya during the 1950s. They were trying to get Kenya out from under British rule, and the colonial view was that they were a degenerate, violent and cannibalistic tribal cult. (They are now honored and remembered in Kenya today as legendary freedom fighters.) It could be that Screamin’ Jay is making fun of racist white misconceptions about these Kenyan rebels and playing on white ethnocentric fears about the so-called “dangerous black savage.” I’m unaware of what his political views might have been (or if he’s even referring to the real-life Mau Maus in this song at all), but the voices of the Mau Maus here sound like the Chipmunks (i.e., Alvin, Simon and Theodore), which makes me think they’re intended to be folkloric creatures. (Perhaps Hawkins is suggesting that the version of the Mau Maus presented to us by the British media were entirely fictional.)

Coolest. Album. Cover. Ever.

Perhaps the most disturbing song in Hawkins’ repertoire is “I Hear Voices,” which can be a truly frightening experience when heard in the dark. Hawkins actually sounds terrified in this one, like he’s literally stricken with paralyzing fear for his life. Are the voices he’s hearing really a paranormal phenomenon, or is he simply losing his mind? This one always makes me think of Walt Disney’s The Haunted House (1929) – the one where Mickey Mouse gets chased around by a bunch of dancing skeletons and such – except that here, it sounds like the skeletons might actually be trying to kill Screamin’ Jay. (Or perhaps they’re trying to make him kill someone else.) “I Hear Voices” is just one of the many Hawkins songs that prove his talent as a master songwriter and performer. It may seem grossly over-the-top to those who prefer to keep their blues music perfectly “straight,” but Hawkins’ usual cartoonish antics are completely absent here. This is a song about true, authentic fear.

Other Hawkins songs I love include “Yellow Coat” (which is about a coat that drives people, animals, and even the Earth’s atmosphere into near-apocalyptic hysterics whenever Hawkins wears it), “The Whammy” (which is about Jay trying to free himself from a witch’s spell by killing with her a shotgun, but failing miserably), “Portrait of a Man” (an unusually serious song about knowing death is near), and his stirring rendition of James V. Monaco and Joseph McCarthy’s “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It)” (to which I desperately wanted to dance with my wife at our wedding). But my personal all-time favorite Hawkins song by far is none other than “Constipation Blues,” which I think is the funniest song ever written in the entire history of the human species. Here we have Screamin’ Jay hollering about being constipated and sitting on a toilet, trying his hardest to relieve himself. He truly captures the essence of what a really terrible case of constipation feels like, complete with realistic sound effects (created with Hawkins’ voice). I might add that this song has a happy ending, which only made it less acceptable in terms of radio censorship at the time it was released. (I’ve always thought Hawkins should have written a sequel to this song called “Kidney Stone Blues,” which would have been even harder for most people to listen to)

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was a truly outstanding individual, and the world lost one of its greatest singers when he passed away in early 2000. I don’t know how much of his stage persona was real or how much of it was fictional (though I’m guessing it was mostly fictional), but I think it’s safe to assume that numerous pre-Christian Deities probably had Their hands on his shoulder at one point or another. It’s easy to see how entities like Baron Samedi, Eleggua, Exu and Papa Legba would each get a kick out of his music; and of course, I feel that Seth enjoys it as well. The thing I like best about Hawkins’ songs is that generally speaking (and with only a few exceptions), they’re just so hilariously tongue-in-cheek. Listening to him scream and holler like a Looney Tunes adaptation of The Exorcist (1973) never fails to put a smile on my face, no matter how down I might be feeling. Here’s hoping Jay is having fun wherever he might be now, whether he’s in the Christian heaven, Typhon’s mysterious realm beyond Ursa Major, or some other spiritual afterworld.

Promotional poster for a Hawkins concert in France on May 13, 1980

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