Huey “Piano” Smith: Mardi Gras, Punk Rock and the Boogie Woogie Flu
Farewell to one of the true kings of Rock ‘n’ Roll
Rock ’n’ Roll has many mothers and fathers; a million and more bastard sons and daughters; but only a small handful of true Queens and Kings. Huey Piano Smith – who passed on February 13, at age 89 – was one of those Kings.
Huey “Piano” Smith leaves behind some of the most memorable and wonderful rock songs ever written and recorded, from “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” to “Sea Cruise,” from “Just A Lonely Clown” to “Don’t You Just Know It,” from “Little Chickie Wah Wah” to “Don’t You Know Yockomo.” Flying bop, that’s what it is, smoggy angels with wings made of Mardi Gras Indian feathers fluttering the bottom edges of the low oyster shell-colored clouds above Canal Street, that’s what I hear. It’s creole punk rock that has this strange, undeniable lightness to it; Huey “Piano” Smith made rock’n’punk’n’b that was charging, chugging, yet somehow both silly and mysterious, as exotic as the steel-colored bayous, sinking sidewalks, and humid, panting calliopes of New Orleans, yet somehow as fist-thumping as Eddie Cochran or Motörhead, because, man, did this cat make rock ’n’ roll the way it ought to be made.
Listen. We leave the details of his life to others (and I am sure some of that information is damn interesting, especially the mystery regarding why he essentially retired for the last forty years of his life; and for those details, I happily direct you to a first-rate biography, Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues by John Wirt). I want to talk about how the work of his life feels: the nearly dissonant holler of the rhythm/against the space of the arrangements/against the goofy masquerade and quadruple entendre of the lyrics/against the beat that goes up and down and a little sideways like a freight train running east and hard through Arabi; and mostly how it runs forward and backwards and in circles like it’s inventing rock ’n’ roll while outrunning Mardi Gras Indians while inhaling completely synapse-separating weed, all at the same time (yes, I know that’s the second reference to Mardi Gras Indians, but their rhythms, their language, their strange and beautiful legacy is, I think, essential to Huey’s sound). Huey “Piano” Smith’s music is simultaneously silly and ecstatic, and it contains both space and urgency (sort of a cough syrup/coffee kind of thing). When I listen to Huey “Piano” Smith, I see the lay lines of all the rock ’n’ roll I love, from Star Club mach schau to Dusseldorf Rother-thump to Manchester Mark Smith billy-heat to Motörhead meatclubfoot to the swaying BOogie/DIDDLEY pulse of the bands marching down screaming Orleans Avenue in Endymion and all the Sonic psycho in between.
The music of Huey “Piano” Smith doesn’t go straight to dinner bell hell, like say, Jerry Lee Lewis does (though it is a cousin); it sashays. It doesn’t hang on for dear life as it scrapes the pads of its’ fingertips utterly raw trying to grab onto trucks flying fast down Airline Highway, like Little Richard does (though it is a brother). And it isn’t totally lost in the Zulu Parade morning fog like Dr. John or Dave Bartholomew (though it is an uncle). The music of Huey “Piano” Smith breathes and tells jokes. It is an ace definition of tight but loose, maybe the first time we can apply that term to rock ’n’ roll. There’s something delicate, almost feminine, about it, but at the same time it’s a clear precursor to punk rock, especially the kind of screwed-tight/played loose punk of Dr. Feelgood, the Flamin’ Groovies, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, etcetera etc.
VIDEO: Huey “Piano” Smith “Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu”
True, you can hear the very real connection to the bouncing, funky genius of Professor Longhair, Fats Domino and Jelly Roll Morton – all of whom played piano as if they were popping big fat poppy seeds into the loamy, over-wet Louisiana soil and the sidewalk they were standing on was on fire. But Huey took a pen knife to that piano and cut it down to its’ bare outline, and straightened it out and made it something that a sassy skeleton could slide into. In doing so, he created something that somehow connects Tipitinas to die Grosse Frieheit, and links Shortnin’ Bread to Wooly Bully (a song that is, in fact, an ultra-reduced rewrite of Huey’s “Don’t You Just Know It”). A real fat and fierce vein of the indigenous and very goddamn distinct American post-Elvis/pre-Fabs rock ’n’ roll – such as the Sonics, Raiders, and Wailers — appears to have been distinctly influenced by Huey and his tight but loose, simple but exotic sassy wallops. Huey also left an enormous thumbprint on Creedence and Fogerty (“Rockin’ All Over the World” is a fairly transparent attempt to write a Huey song), and a very real but more subtle influence on Dylan and the Band. I mean, it’s all there, and if you’ve seen any of Dylan’s rollicking, ecstatic spontaneous and thumping rock revues over the last ten or fifteen years, you know that he carries a lot of Huey “Piano” Smith with him wherever he goes.
The music of Huey “Piano” Smith bounces, sighs, pushes, stomps, and tiptoes on the curb-edge of hysteria. It is likely the only sound instantly familiar to fans of both Motörhead and the Grateful Dead; which is to say it has a cough-syrup and absinthe time-hop, a purely weed-foam green weight on the temples, that the Dead re-purposed as one of the primo signatures of their music (and yes, the Dead covered Huey); at the same time, often on the same goddamn songs, Huey’s music has a pure over-the-top satanic mill overdrive (the sound of beer drinkers rushing to the saloons after work, the sound of Fred Flinstone foot-peddling his pedi-car on his way to buy condoms, the sound of a rusted-out out of control funicular whaddda-dadda-da-ing down a hill) that was taken as the basis of Motörhead’s meatgrind. Mostly, it just sounds like rock ’n’ roll, a furious funny ankle-bendy wobbly r’n’b punk rock set to a New Orleans parade beat; it’s what the Reeperbahn would have sounded like if it was on Rampart Street. Which is also to say there’s a very direct connection between Huey Piano Smith’s bliss-nod hadacol + chicory coffee nail-gunning and Jerry Lee Lewis Live at the Star Club, or, for that matter, the ballroom-shaking punk rock of the Sonics and two of Smith’s most direct disciples, Joe Meek and the Dave Clark Five; both Meek and the DC5 took Smith’s hysteria, beat madness and absurdist point of view and made it the foundation of their inventions (one of the best Huey “Piano” Smith covers – out of many – is Screaming Lord Sutch’s “Don’t You Just Know It,” from 1963, produced by Joe Meek).
In fact, virtually anyone who played post-1960 electric boogie hysterically, with a complete abandon that discarded finesse but held on to the beat for dear life and who had no problem descending into the madness of nonsensical lyrics and even dissonance, can trace their DNA to Huey “Piano” Smith. We cite, well, anyone from Slade to Status Quo (especially bloody Status Quo) to Dr. Feelgood to Rockpile to NRBQ, man, not to even mention the New Orleans-centric acts who owed him so much like Doctor John, Galactic or Cowboy Mouth. When you listen to Huey, you see a direct connection between his thumping hysteria, two chord vamps, and 4:30 AM silliness – with elements of too-late nights and peekaboo games for waking toddlers – and the American garage punk sound of the very early 1960s, or even the bubblegum origins of the Velvets (it’s hard not to notice how “Everybody’s Whalin’,” from 1956, frequently breaks into Velvets repetition and near-dissonance). Huey’s creations have one foot in the high energy vaudeville-meets-meathammer bleats of the Treniers and the Rivingtons and one foot in the overdrive of the Sonics, all the while leaving a kind of stoned space for the brain to take leave of the senses. And that’s probably one of the most remarkable things about Huey “Piano” Smith (I mean, alongside his utter and complete catchiness, and the way he compels one to instantly fall in love with his music): He leaves space in the chaos and throws us some serious joy.
VIDEO: Huey “Piano” Smith and The Clowns “Don’t You Just Know It”
To love rock ’n’ roll is to love Huey “Piano” Smith. It’s greasy and angelic, ridiculous and utterly holy, it’s a green fairy an’ gage smoke-hacked two-beat that stutters in the lungs but stomps the mold-veined wooden floor as solid as any last-century motor; it’s the head always trying to catch up with the soles of the shoes and the heart aligning near goddamn perfectly with the snare even if everything else flails it’s arms and elbows. Yessirmaam. I cannot imagine how he invented this, this masculine/feminine wide open wild-time bayou-holler nonsense/total sense punk’n’b. While turning the corner on Rampart and Dumaine on a hot winter’s day, did he think could see the air, full of winter white and the palest blue? Or maybe he was just high. Was he floating on a pillow-fist mixture of codeine cough syrup, very light very strong coffee, and medium-cheap bourbon? And in his head, did he hear the sound of Louis Jordan, Junior Parker, the Treniers, and the Coasters stripped down and opened up, mechanized and then melted, and reduced to loose, louche, gage-hoppy lyrics skipping around a solid damn snare and kick, like a silly but goddamn serious elastic exoskeleton? Or maybe it was just Longhair’s hopscotch bounce plugged in and Rocket 88’d?
Maybe. Probably not. But Huey “Piano” Smith leaves us with a relatively small but utterly extraordinary catalog of recordings that need to be incorporated into the dreams of everyone who loves rock ’n’ roll.
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One thought on “Huey “Piano” Smith: Mardi Gras, Punk Rock and the Boogie Woogie Flu”
Looks like Tim’s been into my stash and my record collection again…