A Review: Ian Whitcomb: Rock Odyssey
November 26, 2008
You Really Turn Me On
Review by R.E. Prindle
Whitcomb, Ian: Rock Odyssey, 1973
I don’t suppose too many people today remember Ian Whitcomb. He surfaced in 1965 with his hit song
‘You Really Turn Me On. In 1965 I was a very old twenty-seven but getting younger every day. I saw Whitcomb once while visiting my wife’s relatives. Her young cousin was watching the Lloyd Thaxton show out of LA. I’d never heard of Lloyd Thaxton either but according to the cousin he was the hottest thing on TV. If I remember correctly the Kinks had just sung Dedicated Follower Of Fashion that I thought was very OK. The Ian came on and did his breathy falsetto androgynous song: You Really Turn Me On. At one point after suggestively fondling the microphone stand he shot down out of sight like a tower from the World Trade Center resurfacing moments later. Pretty startling stuff at a time when nearly every new group was an actual mind blower- The Rolling Stones, Animals, Dave Clark Five and this was just the beginning. More and even stranger and stronger stuff was to follow quickly only to begin a slow fizzle even as it peaked ending in the Rap and stuff that passes for music today. A very old Bob Dylan trying to bring light into the heart of his growing darkness. After the startling sixties came the sedentary seventies. But then Whitcomb disappeared like his fall from the microphone stand and I never saw or heard of him again. A true one hit wonder.
Years later I came across his LP Under A Ragtime Moon. Then I knew why he had disappeared. He was into that English music hall stuff. But then, I didn’t mind that. He sounded quite a bit like one of my personal favorites The Bonzo Dog Doo Wah Band. Of course they didn’t really get that far with that stuff either. You have to be a member of the cult to really dig it. In order to like the Bonzos you have to have a fairly eccentric side to your musical taste. A little out of the mainstream which is where I preferred to live my life. I thought the Bonzos were wonderful, still do. But I was pretty much all alone out there. I liked and like, Neil Innes and the late great Viv Stanshall, two of the Bonzo stalwarts. ‘Legs’ Larry Smith. Ragtime Moon lacked the modern rock foundation the Bonzos infused into their music but to this day I couldn’t tell you whose version of Jollity Farm I’m familiar with. Anyway I have a soft spot for this sort of thing so over the years I’ve played a side of the Bonzos fairly often and dusted off my copy of Ragtime Moon occasionally.
You Really Turn Me On always stuck in my mind, great song. Kinda struck my lost chord and made it gong into the distance. If you’re only going to have one hit you might as well make it a good one. And then for some reason, I don’t know, I googled Whitcomb and saw that he’d written a few books, including this autobiographical sketch cum pop history so, as it was cheap on alibris, I sent for a copy. I was delighted with the volume as I read it through. As biographies go this is one of the better ones, right up there with Wolfman Jack’s not to mention that of that phony Jean-Jacques Rousseau although I stop short at Casanova. Casanova is one hard one to top. As a history of the period it is more balanced and beats the hell out of that crap from the Boys Of ’64.
Ian took offense at being a one hit wonder; he really wanted to be up there with, say, Jim Morrison of the Doors, Mick Jagger, people of that ilk. I have to believe that stories Ian tells are true although some are stunningly improbable but then those things can and do happen that way, you know. It’s all in how you see what goes on around you. Toward the end of the book he’s pondering on where he went wrong, he’s sunk into a fair depression over this, he flees from his apartment in his pajamas one early morning to take a stool in a coffee shop. That’s depression. But, let Ian tell it in his own inimitable fashion. As improbable as it may seem he took a stool next to Jim Morrison who recognized him first.
When ‘Light My Fire’ had reached number one, Jim had gone out and bought a skintight leather outfit. At the Copper Skillet, it wasn’t so skintight anymore.
“How do you do it?” I asked.
“I never dug Jerry And The Pacemakers. How do I do what?”
I wanted to kick myself for bringing up my obsession with pop success, but I plowed on: “How do you stay intellectual and still be a hit with the kids, the masses?”
“You could have done it. You were into the theater of the absurd. I saw you on ‘Shindig’ and ‘Lloyd Thaxton’ goofing off and telling the audience that rock n’ roll was a big joke. That the whole of existence is a big bad joke. You were too comic. Tragedy’s the thing. Western civilization is ending and we don’t even need an earthquake; we’re performing crumble music for the final dance of death and you know what? Truth lies beyond the grave. I’ll pick up the tab.”
I couldn’t have put it better. Ian’s problem was that he was working from a different ethic. He didn’t understand that the singer and the song was the show, the whole show. Nothing else was needed. We were only there to see the singer sing his song. It’s nice to know that Jim and I were watching the same Thaxton show together. If I hadn’t seen Ian on Thaxton I wouldn’t have been as impressed because on that show singer and song were a single projection.
Due to the wonders of the internet I was recently able to catch several versions of Ian’s song but not the Thaxton one. One had him and a half dozen other guys charging around a series of pianos. Completely missed the point of the singer and his song. Not even good entertainment. Ian considered himself an entertainer bacause of a childhood encounter with a music hall comic named O. Stoppit. Fateful encounter. Because of it Ian wanted to be a comic, ended up a singer and as Morrison noted the two were too dissimilar to work.
Ian was probably headed for depression from the age of five or six or so as he came to terms with bombed out London in ’46 or ’47. His biographical sketch is a wonderful tale of a seemingly cheerful man’s descent into a deep depression. By book’s end Ian is nearly out of his mind.
He quotes a psychoanalyst for his definition of depression:
It was the great Serbian psychoanalyst Josef Vilya who concluded that chronic depression is the result of a head on collision between dream and reality. The patient dreams of becoming King but goes on to become a member of the tax paying public.
That’s probably what Morrison meant by tragedy. Life always fails to meet our expectations so that humanity responds by assuming at least a low grade depression that makes comedy an adjunct to tragedy. Thus in the Greek theatre there was a terrifically depressive tragic trilogy followed by some comic relief. The burlesque of an Aristophanes.
Ian’s problem was as Morrison noted that he saw the absurdity of the human condition but was too jokey about it. Absurdity is a serious thing and has to be so treated. O. Stoppit taught Ian a silliness unmixed with tragedy. A tragedy in itself. When silliness such as You Really Turn Me On met the tragedy of a one hit wonder Ian began his descent into depression as Vilya suggested.
I’ve never been depressed myself, never had the blues, but I have visited the lower depths as a tourist so I have some notion of what Ian’s talking about. Dirty Harry in drag. I just never got off the bus that’s all, except once, to walk through Haight-Ashbury where I saw first hand how horrible true depression could be. Boy, did Ian find out about that. Good thing he never found his Debbie.
In his narrative combining grim humor with his developing depression Ian gets off some rippers. I had a good many uproarious belly floppers. Try these few lines. Two good ones in succession. You do have to have the same sense of humor. The North and South are those of England.
These frightening stories of Southern travelers stranded in woebegone depressed cities and suffering under the rough natives. For example a well known Shakespearean actor, having missed the last train out of Crewe, knocked on the door of a hotel. “Er, do you have special terms for actors?” the traveler asked. “Yes- and here’s one: Fuck off!”
And if they weren’t being aggressive, the Northerners were acting daft. One heard of a Lancashire lad down in London demanding another helping of dressed crab (in the shell): “Give us another of them pies- and don’t make the crust so hard.”
Of course Ian can’t do that on every page but laughs are liberally sprinkled throughout the underlying depression.
Ian’s book opens with his youthful encounter with O. Stoppit and ends with another unifying his theme nicely.
In between Ian enters the world of rock almost serendipitously with his one hit song: You Really Turn Me On. After that his story is a search for a sequel that he can never find but which he pursues somewhat as Alice down the rabbit hole. He loved his one brush with fame so much that the clash between his cherished hopes of finding his sequel and the grim reality of not being able plunges him deeper and deeper into depression. Personally I would have gone out and found a songwriter. There were thousands in LA.
However his odyssey, as he calls it, Brave Ulysses ne Ian, led him through the heart and soul of the Golden Age of Rock And Roll from the Beach Boys and Beatles and Rolling Stones through Morrison and the Doors, Procol Harum, Cream, Pink Floyd, Donovan, you know, like that. After that crescendo followed the diminuendo ending in Rap and the current rather laughable music scene.
Ian has encounters with the aforementioned Morrison, Mick Jagger and others. His observations of the social scene are trenchant. He makes an acute observation do in place of a couple hundred pages of twaddle a la Todd Gitlin and Greil Marcus.
Along the way he sprinkles the little known odd fact:
Procol Harum is Latin for ‘beyond these things.’ Have no idea what that has to do with Procol Harum’s music.
…the name Pink Floyd was taken from a record by two Georgia bluesmen named Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Amaze your friends with that one.
And in conversation with Bobby Vee he confirmed a question about Bob Dylan that I needed confirming:
The afternoon I taped “Hollywood A Go Go” a syndicated TV rock n’ roll show that’s allegedly seen as far away as Rhodesia and Finland. The set was sparse- cameras, lights and a few rostrums. The empty spaces were filled with boys and girls who danced or gazed. All the acts had to lip synch their records. Chubby Checker (the Twist King) was on the set and, when he heard my record he pronounced it “bitching!” Bobby Vee was a special guest and looked every inch a star in his sheeny silk suit. He really had his hand movements and head turns down to an art. We chatted during a break and I brought up the subject of Bob Dylan and my concern about him. To my amazement, Vee told me that Dylan- before he got into the folk kick and when he was plain Bobby Zimmerman back in Minnesota- had played a few gigs with Vee’s band- as pianist! Vee said Dylan was very good, in the Jerry Lee Lewis sytle, but he could only play in C. He said he knew a lot about country music, too. As it was hard to find pianos at their gigs Dylan didn’t play with Vee very long. But as he has fond memories of him and said he was really well versed in current rock n’ roll at the time of their meeting. He had the impression that Dylan was very hip to whatever was happening. ;I wondered if the young Zimmerman had ever been a Bill Haley fan.
So, that would confirm that Dylan did play with Vee in the summer of ’59 after his graduation.
The book is a great read, a very good book, as Ian struggles and fails to find success. In a fit of depression he returns to the seaside pier on which he had seen O. Stoppit. An old poster is hanging that he secures then finding his model’s address he visits him to present him with the poster. O. Stoppit tells him bluntly to stop living in the past. A fine thing to tell a historian but Mr. Stoppit was apparently a blunt, unfeeling brute. Also well past the sunny side of life.
Has Ian ever adjusted to his being a one hit wonder? I’m afraid not. It still rankles. As late as December 1997 in an essay written for American Heritage Magazine Ian quotes a letter from fan Arlene:
Dear Mr. Whitcomb:
I have watched you several times now and I want to say that sure you have talent and you’re magnetic, but why, oh, why, do you screw it all up by horsing around, being coy, by camping, as if you’re embarrassed by show business? You could be great if you found your potential and saw it through, but that would take guts. Instead you mince, and treat it all as big joke. Come on now!
Well, that was the same thing Morrison told him thirty years earlier; the vaccination didn’t take then either.
I think Ian entered his depression early in life, as many of us do. Then one has to face it. Some become phony chipper optimists in their attempt to overcome the conflict between expectations and reality. Some become goofs and jokers. Something I fought for years. Some like Ian become silly. The most extreme type of this I ever saw was Red Skelton the ‘great’ clown who was painful for me to watch. In fact I couldn’t do it. I saw too much of myself in him and ended up hating the bastard.
If Ian wants that second hit and more he has to master his silliness. Weld the singer and the song like greats like Jagger and Morrison. Be to some extent what his fans want. A good sense of humor on songs done with respect for the song, himself and his audience. Scratch Red Skelton. People want to love Ian, just as Ian wants to be loved, but as the saying goes, he won’t let ’em. I’m not criticizing or demeaning, I know where that’s at too. I am recommending the course of action however. I, Arlene, Jim of blessed memory and others want a sort of closure that has been left hanging.
The book is a great one through Ian’s struggles to come to terms with his times, himself and the future.