June 3, 2008

Remembering Bo Diddley

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Scott M.X. Turner

[I know, FotM has been kinda heavy on the tunes lately, with the last three posts being about John Brown-related music, but c'mon, you didn't really think Bo Diddley's passing would go unnoticed here, did you? We are fortunate to have a guest commentator who knows his oats chip in this piece, written directly after he heard the news. That'd be Brooklyn's own Scott M.X. Turner, guitarist and singer for RebelMart.]

"I am owed. I've never got paid. A dude with a pencil is worse than a cat with a machine gun."
Bo Diddley

Bo Diddley has died. He was 79, an ancient mariner in the world of rock'n'roll.

The only square that wasn't.

Here's the heavy notion about Bo Diddley: he had a beat named after him.

Not a movement, or a genre, or a philosophy, or a style. A beat.

Rhythm is the most deeply-rooted human element. We use it for communication and entertainment. We declare love when our heartbeats pick up steam. We suss out how things are going by how fast/slow/erratic something is. The attack on Pearl Harbor became a surprise when Japanese diplomats took too long to type up their declaration of war.

Time is an independent thing. The only thing time needs is rhythm. Beats don't need anything, but time needs a beat.

Bo Diddley had a beat named after him.

The quote at the top tells us that Bo Diddley -- and just "Bo" or just "Diddley" feels weird -- never escaped the exploitation Black rock'n'roll pioneers suffered. He was still touring 'til a stroke last year because he never earned what he was worth.

Bo Diddley's famous square guitar was patterned after his homemade model decades ago. He tuned it so that he never had to make chords -- he just ran his fingers up and down the neck.

So confident was Bo Diddley in his direct link to the mystic deities of rhythm that his early band was himself on guitar, a drummer, and a maracas player. A maracas player!!

On tour, Bo Diddley tucked his guitar into the bus's sleeping rack. If space was tight, he'd sleep in a bus seat and let the guitar have the bunk.

Making sure people knew a progenitor when they saw one hit the stage, Bo Diddley's first single was called "Bo Diddley."

In the '50s, he had women guitarists in his band -- no one was doing that back then.

"You cannot say what people are gonna like or not gonna like," he told his biographer many years later. "You have to stick it out there and find out! If they taste it, and they like the way it tastes, you can bet they'll eat some of it!"

Over the next week or so, thousands of bands will perform some well-known song with a Bo Diddley beat. "Not Fade Away," "She's The One," Who Do You Love," "Desire." Maybe they'll go a step further and write something for the occasion.

Then they'll go back to the dull, misanthropic sludge that many white rock bands play these days. Self-satisfied and inward, these bands have forgotten that excitement is what drives the pistons of the rock-roll engine.

Bo Diddley never forgot. You don't forget the thing you invented.

Here's an anectdote from today's Times obit -- and yes, as per the Times, he's referred to as "Mr. Diddley":
Appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955, Mr. Diddley was asked to play Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons." Without telling Mr. Sullivan, he played "Bo Diddley"instead. Afterward, in an off-camera confrontation, Mr. Sullivan told him that he would never work in television again. Mr. Diddley did not play again on a network show for 10 years.
Which guitar-slingers fight the power like that these days? They don't know Bo...no kidding they don't...

It's a terrible thing when a rock'n'roller's heart gives out. Joe Strummer's at age 50, and now, Bo Diddley's a year short of 80. Heart is part of the equation. Heart, soul, rhythm.

We're in trouble now. I kinda feel like Bo Diddley, the only man they named a beat after, was keeping a lid on things. Who's gonna have the ears of the rhythm deities now that Bo Diddley's gone?

That square guitar has stopped its holy vibrations. Who's gonna wind the clock that ticks away our days, excitement just up ahead?

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