Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A World Without Bo Diddley

I was more or less in awe of Bo Diddley -- his music, his guitar playing, his unconventional and un-rock star look (thick glasses, the "who me?" dumbfounded looks he'd give before starting to shred on the guitar), his bad-ass lyrics, the hot chicks in his bands. He stayed relevant well into his old age, not only thanks to a series of fondly remembered Nike ads, but because his groundbreaking music (which includes his distinctive playing and macho posturing style) has proved to be virtually timeless. Bo Diddley was a gunslinger, Jesus, and about two dozen other things. Everything he said about himself or was said about him -- it was all true. He was a bad motherfucker, the baddest. As far as musician deaths go, this is about as sad as it gets.

I think I took to Bo Diddley more so than other first generation rock and roll legends because I hear the roots of 90's rock in so much of his music. His use of the guitar as a rhythm instrument not only far predated James Brown's more celebrated style, but also anticipated the rise of scores of white experimental guitar bands. Listen to the intro of, say, "Roadrunner" and then slap on Sonic Youth's "Bull In the Heather" as a good point of comparison. Check out "The Story of Bo Diddley" and it's driving, repetitive chops and think about the debt that Stereolab owe to Bo Diddley. His obsession with effects (particularly delay) made him one of the first shoegazers, a true "smother the song with guitar" original.

Don't misinterpret this as my appreciation for Bo because he sounded "white". I could also write about my love for Bo Diddley the funk star and blues poet. But principally, it's silly to apply labels like "white" or "black" to music made by Bo Diddley in the 1950's that would only acquire race-related labels decades later. When Bo made his version of motorik rock, he was the trailblazer, making music that nobody else was making and as such, could not possibly be contextualized until a bunch of other bands (who happened to be white) picked up the mantle where Bo had left it. Bo Diddley's music was his own and nobody else's, and once elements of his style became some of the standard tools of white rock, the evolution of the music was well out of his hands. With the best artists, their legacy and influence is always this extensive, spanning multiple genres and scenes over multiple generations, such that disentangling is a confusing task at best, and futile at worst.

Now get thee to youtube if you haven't been doing so already for the past two days.

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