Death Row Discs

My music is keeping me alive.

I have terminal cancer, which is like Bergman’s chess match with the Grim Reaper: You know you’re going to lose, but with skill, determination, and luck, you can delay the inevitable, move by move. Determination is key, because it’s all too easy to give up. My music—a collection I’ve amassed over the last 60 years—inspires me to keep going, to keep listening.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to keep up with everything new that’s happening in the music world, but as cancer weakens me, I listen more to old favorites, exploring the nooks and crannies of a collection that I have never been able to listen to as thoroughly as I would have liked.

I’ve had several friends die from the disease, and I take courage from them. One of my best friends, a guy called Jimmy Mack (after the 1967 hit by Martha and the Vandellas), passed away a couple of years ago. Mack was the road manager for Barrence Whitfield and the Savages. As I traveled with that band, we had many adventures, often trekking from the northeast to New Orleans and back again. Mack lived in a trailer on the shore of Brant Rock, a fishing village in Massachusetts, and his lair was outfitted with the efficiency of a ship’s cabin. It was like a giant sound booth, lined with records and books, with speakers built into the stacks—a great listening space. When he knew his time was near, Mack set out to listen to as many of his records as he could, in alphabetical order, and give them final judgment. I was there when he started the process, drinking Irish whiskey and bathing in the breeze off Massachusetts Bay while listening to the Animals. We cranked up Animalization (MGM E-4384, 1966) and reveled in the magnificence of the band’s Geordie soul and the shouts, laments, and exhortations of lead singer Eric Burdon as Chas Chandler’s bass rattled the windows.

The band, and Burdon, never sounded better than they did on that record, which fused crate-digging blues and R&B with hard-edged rock. This was the point where producer Tom Wilson, who was involved with so many watershed moments in 1960s music, took over the band’s production from Mickie Most. The Animals walked the razor’s edge between hardnosed pop and roots music, scoring big hits with the blazing opener, Goffin/King’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” with its awesome fuzz guitar, and “Inside Looking Out,” with its dramatic build-up. A rocking cover of Ma Rainey’s “See See Rider,” John Lee Hooker’s “Maudie,” the Chuck Willis classic “What Am I Living For,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You,” and Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” gave Burdon the spotlight, and he stamped himself as the UK’s preeminent blues shouter. For good measure, he threw in a snorting vocal on his own “She’ll Return It.”

I doubt Burdon would want to be compared to a French cookie, but the experience was Proustian for me, because listening to Animalization brought me back to 1966 when the record was a primal influence on my teenage sensibility. I had been a confirmed consumer of the 7″ record until the year before, when I broke down and purchased an LP, Beatles ’65. I played Animalization several times a day on my first record player, a Japanese lunchbox with built-in speakers and a turntable so small that 12″ discs hung precariously over the sides. I had the usual teenage depression issues, so in between chapters of Jude the Obscure I sang along with the Animals’ versions of Bessie Smith’s “Gin House Blues” and the Joe Tex classic “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show,” identifying completely with Burdon’s take on the blues.

Without that cloistered experience, I never would have had the courage to stand onstage and front a band. To this day, I can close my eyes and play that album note for note in my mind—very useful when you’re strapped onto a board and stuffed into a machine for a PET scan or a 45-minute bout of radiation therapy.

Animalization got highest marks in Mack’s terminal evaluation, a process I now think of as “Death Row Discs.” It’s my answer to one of the dumbest concepts in the history of music writing, the Desert Island Disc, which asks, if you were stranded on a desert island, what one disc would you bring? There aren’t enough “as if’s” in the universe to assail this concept. My main objection is, why would you subject a cherished album to the fate of becoming your most hated album because it’s the only one you ever get to listen to?

Death Row Disc has real meaning: If you are down to it, what album do you want to hear as a last request? Animalization does it. It sounds just as good to me today as it did 45 years ago.

Mack never finished his project. I know, because I visited him shortly before he passed, and he was only halfway through his collection. The day of my visit, we listened to another Death Row Disc, Steve Miller’s Brave New World (Capitol SKAO-184, 1969), a clarion call of an album produced by the inimitable Glyn Johns. The highlight is “My Dark Hour,” with a special guest on bass: Paul McCartney, listed as “Paul Ramon.” This surging maelstrom of sound shows how aggressive a guitar player Miller could be and the thunder McCartney’s bass can summon in the right setting. The track sounds like a lost piece of The White Album.

Who’s that comin’ down that road

Looks like he’s carryin’ a heavy load

What’s that voodoo that he started to say

Want to come with me on my way

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