Sunday, August 2, 2015

Discovering Eric Burdon

For much of my adult life, my ignorance about popular music has been a bit of a running joke among my friends. Having grown up in Eastern Europe and South America, I managed to miss all of the sixties and much of the seventies, music, social turmoil and all. I remember "Ob-la-di Ob-la-da" from my childhood and "Black Magic Woman" from my early teens, but that pretty much covers the lot.

When I arrived in North America, this profound ignorance continued for quite some time. When everyone in my grade 10 class was selling tickets for a raffle for which the prize was attendance at an Elton John concert, I was out there talking up John Elton tickets, because the name "Elton John" made no sense to me. And later, when I was working in a leather store (pipe down, we sold purses, wallets, and luggage, not kinky stuff) and Eric Clapton's manager walked in to buy luggage for -- who else? -- Eric Clapton, I was not the least bit impressed, because I had no clue who Eric Clapton was. The shocked manager asked whether I had been living on the moon, and gave me four tickets to Eric Clapton's show. My date and I sat in the audience and gamely sang along with everyone else at the right times -- except when they sang the refrain "cocaine, cocaine," we enthusiastically sang "okay! okay!" The poor guy was just as clueless as I.

This is a long preamble to the astonishing statement that two weeks ago, a mere 50 years after they burst on the music scene, I managed to discover Eric Burdon and the Animals. I was perusing YouTube and somehow ran across "The House of the Rising Sun." With vague memories of having heard the song before, I watched the video. And here was this very young guy (Eric Burdon), looking dreadfully uncomfortable in a suit and also like someone who has been woken up early after one heck of a rough night. But then he opened his mouth and this incredible voice came out that just went straight for your gut and your heart.

I am a creature of serial obsessions. A few winters ago I watched all of "Boston Legal"; last winter was the winter of "House," as I watched every single episode of all eight seasons on Netflix. Having discovered Eric Burdon, I next went on an internet hunt and listened to pretty much everything I could find on YouTube, and let me tell you there is a lot. My next favourite after "House of the Rising Sun" was this one, sung by a much more mellow Burdon in 1970:

The man just loves to sing. His voice is an instrument with incredible range. Rolling Stone has him as number 57 of their 100 Greatest Singers, calling his voice "big and dark." He apparently inspired Bruce Springsteen, who in 2012 gave Burdon and the Animals a deeply felt (and funny) tribute. He said their music was the first he heard that reflected his own life and that they gave him hope because they were one of the ugliest bands around, that Eric Burdon looked "like your shrunken daddy with a wig on" and "couldn't dance":

Springsteen's comments gave me a different perspective on "We Got To Get Out of Here" and "It's My Life." There is social consciousness in them there hills! It's not "just" rock and roll! So here is another Burdon song with a message, "Letter from the County Farm," which I don't think is very well known, but should be:

And, surprise, surprise, Eric Burdon is still around. He has had a tumultuous life but it sounds like he has now found safe harbour. He has gone through a series of bands, the Animals, the New Animals, War, the Eric Burdon Band, and still more Animals, but he never stopped singing. Since Springteen's tribute his career has kicked into high gear: he does up to a dozen concerts a month and released an album in 2013 that some people say contains his best work. He is now 74 years old. The voice has aged like rich dark wine but still packs a punch.

PS: to get an idea of Burdon's range, listen to this in comparison to either "House of the Rising Sun" or "Spill the Wine", or better yet, "See See Rider":

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