Monday, June 2, 2008

Bo Diddley - RIP

This is the best time to thoroughly acquaint myself with the man's music, of which I know little except the epochal A-sides. I didn't know much about him either, so this much-cited Neil Strauss profile from 2005 does a splendid job of rounding out a life that, blessedly, didn't need rock and roll as much it needed him -- and, indeed, why should he need rock when rock did shit for him financially?

Anyway, the interview's got sensational bits:
"I got some shocking things I want to do before I decide to say, 'Hey, I'm giving up,' " he says as we climb into his Ford minivan, which is equipped with a Diddley-built wooden console full of drink and map holders. "But I'm not doing anything at the moment because I have a very undecided problem. They call it a matrimony problem. I'm going through a separation, a divorce, whatever you want to call it." In his deep, rich voice, Diddley explains that he has decided to lay low creatively, in case the courts decide that his fourth wife should have a piece of any new project.

We pull into the driveway of an old white house. Lola, a white pit bull missing an eye, greets us.

There is only one item in his hallway: an overturned washtub with a three-foot board screwed into the side. Running between the center of the washtub and the top of the board is a nylon string. Diddley steps up to the washtub bass and begins picking at the string, adjusting the pitch by tilting the plank backward and forward. Whenever he gets a particularly resonant sound, he chuckles happily. We are in Bo Diddley's playpen now.

In the first room off the hallway is a giant amplifier, at least six feet long, that Diddley made. It sits next to another one of his inventions. "It's a board game," Diddley says, gesturing to a giant wooden tabletop covered with squares of writing. "The Bo Diddley Horse Racing Game."

"If I put the guitar down today or tomorrow, I would not starve," Diddley continues as he leads me to the next room, his studio. "I know too many damn things. I can decorate. I can cook. I can do electronics and wire any kind of electric shit. I can figure anything out."

Leaning against the studio wall is a gorgeous square guitar made of blond wood and covered with eagle stickers. His picks, which he rarely uses, are coated with Velcro and attached to a Velcro patch on the side of the instrument. Next to it is a guitar with a misshapen head that's at least two feet long. Inset into this surreal instrument is a CD player, which has been rigged to play backing tracks while the guitar is played.

"I built that motherfucker, but I built that motherfucker too big," Diddley says, sighing.

He sits behind a desk strewn with recording equipment: a Mackie mixing board, a sixteen-track reel-to-reel recorder, a cassette deck, keyboards and half a dozen effects. On a nearby shelf there are dozens of boxes of Ampex tapes stacked in unwieldy piles, dated from 1958 to the present. "See all that over there," Diddley says, gesturing lazily at the shelf. "That's stuff people ain't heard before."

Diddley turns on a drum machine and picks up a microphone. What follows is a rare insight into the musical mind that helped invent rock & roll. His performance lasts nearly two hours.
Besides the "color" every reporter lives for, Strauss gets Bo to 'fess up to a reality which five score indie artists know: no one wants my shit, so I'm going to record it myself. But not one has his rhythmic smarts. Almost as touching: the suggestion that art is only worthwhile when you're sure you can surrender the urge to create it when the mood strikes. Maybe art isn't worthwhile at all.

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