2020-01-30 15:21:50 UTC
Who would’ve thought it would take almost seven hundred reviews spanning two and a half years of rock’s existence before finally encountering something so prevalent in rock’s history – that of a single song overwhelming its creator to the point where it becomes their entire identity.
That’s always the risk whenever somebody scores big with a record early on in their career, something which seems at the time to be the culmination of their dreams, the possibility that it will become the only thing they’ll ever be known for.
Raise Sand All Night
Professionally speaking the goal of most artists is to make a living by playing music and that generally means scoring hits. The bigger the hits, the more opportunity you get… to keep making records, to always have a stage to perform on, to earn royalties to live off in your old age (although this is 1950 we’re talking about so that last example is just purely a fantasy for most artists).
But from a purely personal level the goals are often quite different. You want to reach people with your songs, to make them react in a visceral way to your music and the bigger your songs get the more chance you have to do this. Yet sometimes achieving that goal can become something of a double-edged sword for a performer when it’s one specific song – and only that song – which elicits that reaction.
An artist revels in the idea of bringing an audience to their feet by their playing, it’s a feeling that few outside of music can relate to, but it’s the surprise involved, that of not quite knowing it this will be the night you truly generate that response, or at what point on stage you lift the collective energy up through the sheer passion of your performance, that makes those moments special.
But when you have that eternal chestnut, a staple of catalog radio and a thousand and one TV commercial and movie soundtracks to your name, you never have to guess when it’s going to happen. You know that as soon as you play those first chords the audience will rise in unison and shower you with praise for merely giving them what they want… what they came for… what they’ll always remember you for, even if after awhile you almost wish they’d forget it.
Yet those songs – as much as they might grow to resent them, even loathe playing them – are what enables them to keep getting gigs, to keep putting fannies in the seats and making money playing music and, most importantly, to keep their name alive long after their expiration date as an artist has otherwise passed.
Clarence Garlow never quite made it to the level of immortality we’re talking about here, but in his own more limited corner of the music world he most assuredly DID reach it with Bon Ton Roula, a song that defined him for the rest of his existence and beyond.
Don’t You Be No Fool-ay
We met Garlow for the first time just a month ago when his debut came out on Macy’s Recordings, a recent entry into the independent label sweepstakes. When writing the reviews for the very good She’s So Fine and the passable Blues As You Like It I remember thinking it was nice for Garlow’s sake that we got to start with something OTHER than this record which would soon follow, because once this cat is out of that bag there’s no putting it back in.
Everything he’ll do from this point forward in his career will in some way or another be affected by this record, either directly taking from it or trying desperately to escape the shadow it casts over him.
But as unfortunate as that is for the big picture Clarence Garlow story, its appearance nevertheless makes for the most interesting plot twist, as well as providing the most riveting action and the showcasing the all of the most compelling aspects the lead actor in the film possesses.
It is, after all, the reason you’d buy a ticket to see this movie, for not only was Bon Ton Roula his one big hit but it’s also one hell of a great record – a trendsetter and an endlessly durable warhorse rolled into one that was able to survive decades of being shown on every screen from here to Kalamazoo and re-run on late night TV until you knew it by heart… yet would tune in to watch it again just because you knew you weren’t seeing anything better at that time of night.
Cuttin’ Cane All Down The Line
Rhythm is the keyword of this script, a vibrant, quirky, unrelenting rhythm which pulls you in like ants to a picnic.
The drums that kick off Bon Ton Roula are playing a distinctively off-beat rumba pattern, a dry herky-jerky sound that is so infectious that sitting still is not an option. It sounds like a parade beat played on makeshift drums that came from somebody’s kitchen – pots, pans and empty cardboard canisters for oatmeal or something. But while it may have the trappings of an amateur do-it-yourself kit, Johnny Marshall’s playing is crisp and precise, snapping off beats that are locked into the groove from the start.
The odd thing of course is this is THE song credited with popularizing Zydeco music, a black form of Cajun music, yet it hardly features any of the elements that define that music stylistically such as an accordion and fiddle – both of which Garlow knew how to play, but wasn’t doing so here – and a washboard. Instead the main accompaniment to those intoxicating drums was his own bluesy-sounding guitar, kicking off with simple but ominous low notes drenched in thick reverb that act merely as atmosphere and contribute the barest sense of melody.
The horns here are the other notable component, something not usually found in Zydeco but which serve here as accents to the main aspects, giving it additional melodic qualities to off-set the dominant rhythmic thrust. The horns play two primary riffs, a droning circular hook led by the alto sax that caps off each line which is the most memorable for sure, but then the tenor spirals down during the verses, hitting the bottom of its range, like the last vestige of water swirling down a drain giving it an entirely different feel.
All of these things remain in the background but they’re omnipresent, setting the tempo and the mood with equal efficiency, keeping your mind in the right place even as they purposefully don’t do anything to draw attention to themselves, making you hold your focus on the overall sound rather than singling out any one of them individually.
Only when Garlow takes a more traditional sounding guitar solo does this intensity let up slightly. He tries to fit it into the atypical arrangement by keeping it at a medium pace while the drums clatter at a quicker tempo behind him, but it seems grafted on from another record in a way because it’s too predictable.
I’m sure that was the point, an attempt to ground the song for listeners not used to the more avant garde approach found in the rest of the arrangement, but its familiarity pulls us from the hypnotic trance we’d been under and as a result is actually the weakest part of the record even though his playing is not weak in of itself. The reason we want him to stop is to let those other sounds take over again – or at least have him switch back to that more foreboding tone he used earlier – because those are the things that made Bon Ton Roula so distinctive.
By contrast this type of solo we can hear on lots of records which sort of makes it unnecessary on a song which otherwise is breaking every other rule in the book… much to our delight.
Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler
Though it has been debated for years about whether or not the song itself qualifies as Zydeco – and let it be said that its MAIN genre classification no matter which side of the fence you fall on is undoubtedly rock ‘n’ roll – there’s little question that Garlow was the man most responsible for bringing the name zydeco into the lexicon with the lyrics.
Yet even this – like the music itself – is sort of a bastardized version of the language, as he freely mixes English, French and Cajun into the lines, choosing words based on how they sound rather than their precise meaning.
The one meaning however remains not only unquestionably important, but universally recognized, and that’s the title… or if you prefer the strict translation of the meaning then use the heading of this section instead.
The line of course is “Bahn Tahn Roulay” as it’s pronounced, meaning “Let The Good Times Roll”, which he then throws in as a freebie just so you don’t go pestering all of the Creoles in Louisiana to find out what the hell he’s talking about.
Those words, however you spell them, pronounce them, or whichever language you use to convey them, are in essence one of rock’s defining mottos. An open invitation to a freewheeling party that’s been going on long before you showed up at the door and will still be in full swing long after you pass out, are hauled away by disapproving friends or relations, if not the fuzz on their daily storm-trooping rounds to forcibly stop you from enjoying life.
Because that party will surely be still rolling along after we’re all six feet in the ground Garlow’s job here isn’t to delve into too much detail, after all any party with that much traction isn’t defined by only a few aspects that can easily be summarized to begin with. Instead Garlow only has to give us a general overview, first by telling us the mood you need to take part, then by giving very basic directions on how to find such a shindig.
Once you get in you’re on your own, but if you need any instructions on what to do when the drinks are flowing and the bodies are grinding then rock ‘n’ roll probably isn’t the music for you in the first place but listening to this a few times and you might be able to fake it. He captures the mood with a sharp eye that makes it distinctive, so much so that if you’re not a native you might need a subtitles to get some of the references, yet thanks to his warm tone and laid back attitude he makes it seem reassuringly comfortable at the same time. This is one pied piper you’d follow anywhere as long as he kept this up.
One Fine Dish
With one record Clarence Garlow both ensured his immortality in a way, as in time zydeco essentially followed much of the blueprint Garlow laid down here, but in another sense it confined him to never moving beyond this. Though it was only a small – and brief hit – it sold consistently over time and as such at every stop he made thereafter he was called on to either come up with “another” song like it, or better yet just re-do this one.
When the recording opportunities finally dried up by the late 1950’s he drifted into other less glamorous work including dee-jaying and TV repair before being coaxed back on stage late in life to resume his stalled career.
But as you hardly need me to tell you the one prerequisite for all of those shows and the handful of records cut in his twilight years was he had to keep doing the Bon Ton Roula… whether he wanted to or not.
But then again that’s always been the going price for his type of immortality.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 8/10