LOUIE LOUIE - DAVE MARSH "GIVES IT TO 'EM ONE TIME AGAIN"
Book Review by: Scott Pfeiffer
Dave Marsh is probably best known to readers of THE ROC as the author of 50 Ways To Fight Censorship and as the editor of the anti-censorship newsletter Rock & Rap Confidential. But through his rock 'n' roll writing, Marsh has really been fighting censorship for over 20 years. Marsh's book "Louie Louie" is an investigation of the mystery of, as well as the questions raised and the answers given by, that cosmic and banned rock'n'roll classic "Louie Louie."
Marsh has never been a typical rock critic, he cares too much about reaching everyday rock fans to be that. Marsh thinks marginal the "progressive rock" that most critics like to write about. Likewise, the singles oriented music that most critics don't like is the stuff that Marsh is interested in listening to, talking about and writing on. Hence, a full book on "Louie Louie." Marsh has been called "America's best rock critic," and "Louie Louie" shows again why he's also the best.
"Louie Louie" demonstrates Marsh's tenet that all great pop music, despite its almost casual and tossed-off surface, is the product of much hard work and effort. The sloppy trash that is the song's greatest and most famous version, the one cut by the Kingsmen in 1963, wasn't simply invented on the spot by a bunch of amateurs. As Marsh wrote in The Heart of Rock & Soul, his great book about the 1001 best singles ever made (in which the Kingsmen's "Louie" is #11), "Naturally, this Parthenon of Pop didn't spring from the head of the Muse. A Muse would probably have slain it on sight, or passed away herself from the shock of something so crude and fine."
Indeed, by 1963 "Louie" had history, and Marsh traces the song's inspiration back to Rene Touzet's cha- cha number, "El Loco Cha Cha. " Hearing that songs "Duh duh duh, dub duh" opening inspired Los Angeles R&B singer Richard Berry a consummate professional at age 21, to write and record "Louie Louie" in 1956. Berry's version was a regional hit. The song later became a staple among Pacific Northwest garage bands, thanks to Seattle singer Ron Holden, who used "Louie" to win the area's fierce battle of the bands.
No one suspected the mystery at the heart of "Louie Louie" until Seattle's own Rockin' Robin Roberts and the Wailers did their version in 1961, however. The spirit and mystery is in Robert's shouted injunction, "Let's give it to 'em, right now!" Two years later in Portland, Oregon, two up-and-coming bands, The Kingsmen and Paul Revere & The Raiders, recorded the Northwest's favorite song in the same week. By telling the story of the Pacific Northwest rock scene, Marsh proves that rock & soul was definitely not dead between 1959 and 1963, despite what almost history of the MUSIC says.
Marsh recounts all of this like the skilled storyteller that he is, but readers of THE ROC will be interested in the book because of the anti-rock forces are such a large part of the story. Buck Ormsby of the Wailers recounts the way that Seattle/Tacoma's rock scene was attacked by the "city fathers, the city mothers, trying to protect the kids from rock & roll music." Of course, "Louie Louie" is legendary as a dirty song, and you'll laugh at the story of the myth of the Kingsmen's dirty lyrics, the stupidity of the 2-1/2 year investigation of "Louie Louie" by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, and how the tune came to be banned in Indiana. Yeah, Marsh does print the "real" dirty lyrics in Louie Louie, and they're evidence that anyone who claims that the American imagination was more innocent in the "old days" is basically full of shit.
Marsh's personal world view is expressed in his work through recurring themes. His most important theme is the rock audience, and the nature of its identity as a productive community. At its best, the rock audience does not just take, but is involved in an interactive process with bands. A sense of community developed the Pacific Northwest's battling bands, with the audience shouting for "Louie Louie," the soundtrack to a rock ritual. Of the early 70's rock scene, a time when the "Louie Louie" spirit was almost dead, Marsh writes, "Rock fans went from being active participants capable of raising forbidden faces into the spotlight into a pulling wad not forced but willing to choose among slim picking without a peep of protest. Even rebellion had been codified, and, within the codes, circumscribed." And in the pot-latch tradition of the Pacific Northwest's Native Americans, Marsh finds a terrific metaphor for the rock audience that gives of themselves.
Another theme of "Louie Louie" is race, and how the segregation of black music from white music is what truly kills the spirit of rock'n'roll. "Louie Louie" prospered in an integrated Seattle club scene. The people who helped create "Louie Louie" included African Americans, Filipino-Americans, Native Americans, and whites. Also, "Louie Louie" has been recorded as every form of rock'n'roll, from heavy metal to disco to reggae to hard-core punk to rap to R&B. Other themes explored with verve and vivacity in "Louie Louie" include success, contradiction, adulthood, reconciliation and rebellion.
One of Marsh's ideas is that if you immerse yourself deeply enough in rock & roll, it will help you find yourself. "Louie Louie" itself tells the story of rock 'n' roll, and Marsh writes, "Embrace "Louie Louie" tightly enough and you may come to know more about yourself than it's easy to contemplate, let alone tolerate." So although you'll learn from "Louie Louie," it'll tell you things that you won't necessarily understand. So Marsh keeps asking questions--what the hell is the story? Why did these things happen? Is the universe an orderly system or is it a "vast practical joke," in Melville's words?
Dave ponders the "Louie" legacy, writing about what the song has given to such modern pop music styles as gangsta rap (NWA, Ice T) and grunge (Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice In Chains). He points out that the song's persecution by the FBI was a portent of NWA's "Fuck tha Police" being censored by that bureau in 1989. He goes looking for clues to decipher "Louie" in Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," hearing in the Seattle band's song a "Fuck you if you don't get it" attitude similar to that expressed by the Pacific Northwest garage rockers of the early '60's.
Ultimately, the song's legacy is freedom, including freedom from embarrassment. As true termite trash, "Louie" broke (or should I say ate?) through barriers, and that's a legacy that rock is sorely in need of today. Also, this book has the potential to reinvigorate rock & soul, or at least discussion of it, because it isn't about any of the predictable rock heroes. Certainly Richard Berry, Rockin' Roberts and Jack Ely have never before been subjects of such extended writing. But the full scope of the book is only hinted at in this review, which ain't supposed to be the Cliff's Notes of "Louie Louie", anyway. Go read it, you won't be sorry! "Louie Louie" works do well its story allows Marsh to further amplify his favorite themes. Not only that, it's his most wildly funny book yet, reading it is a kick. Plus, you will learn about the history of music censorship.
As far as I can tell, the book contains only one error. A newspaper report which Marsh reprints that states that "College students from 'Miami University' in Athens, Ohio" sent copies of the dirty lyrics to censorious Indiana Governor Matthew Welsh. There is no Miami University in Athens , and there never has been. I ought to know, it's my town. But the possibility that students in Athens snitched on "Louie" makes perfect sense to someone like myself, who actually suffered through four years at the school that is there, Ohio University.
"Louie Louie" is really the story of a dream, and what's best, it's a true story. More than any other rock writer, Dave Marsh has nurtured the dream of rock 'n' roll. At heart, it's a dream of a better world. I'd like to say "thank you" to Dave Marsh for sharing that dream with us, for encouraging us to ask questions, for getting us together to cry, "Let's give it to 'em, right now!" at the censors, and for "Louie Louie," this strange and wonderful book of secret stories and hidden histories.