Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Some Songs Are So Beautiful They Make You Want To Spit

(I wrote this in 2004 and an amended version ended up in Ugly Things Magazine. As far as I know, I was the first person to ever write about this album. Which seems kind of incredible given the name recognition of someone like Chubby Checker. He has international fan clubs! At the time I wrote this there was absolutely no mention of this album in official Chubby Checker discographies. Shortly after my Ugly Things article appeared in print, a crappy bootleg CD was put out and made its way to record stores and later a crappy vinyl bootleg. But nobody has ever told the WHOLE story as far as I know (or had access to original master tapes) and Chubby isn't talking. In any case, there is a lot of conjecture and hearsay and bad journalism in my original piece. I just really wanted to get the word out. It's still a relatively unknown recording and like I say at the end here, it deserves better.)

Chubby Checker - "Goodbye Victoria" (Ariola-1971)

My brother got me really, really high. This was when he was living in a shabby apartment down the street from the campus of Western Connecticut State University in Danbury. (Danbury! Home of Youth Of Today-Nutmeg State hardcore legends. Danbury! Home of Charles Ives-Nutmeg State hardcore legend. Hat City! Where the restless ghosts of those who went mad toiling over the headgear that would embrace the domes of the rich and the famous and the working man alike wander down Main Street wondering when their souls will be freed of torment. They shuffle invisibly toward the statue of Sybil Ludington for respite and find none waiting.) He had the second floor of a worn-out three-story house that, after he had moved out, would end up burnt to the ground when some college kids decided to light bottle rockets inside the place and not notice that one had ended up smoldering under the couch cushions until it lit the house ablaze. The kids had gone to sleep and died in their beds. They joined the hatters and the Yankee faithful in their perambulations round that old town at night.)

My brother got me really, really high. And it wasn’t the first time! But what he did next surprised me. He put in a tape and said, “Try and guess who this is.” The music was beautiful. Slow, dirge-like. Epic. The voice strong, soulful, and sad. My head was on fire. I needed to hear it again. Who was it, I asked? “It’s Chubby Checker!” The way he said it made it seem as if he were the one who was surprised. You could have knocked me down with a feather. The song was “Goodbye Victoria”.

But first: This was in 1990 or 1991. And my brother had bought the tape around that time for a couple bucks at a truck stop. One of those generic, no-name tapes that you buy to pass time on the road. I used to buy the same sort of tape all the time because you never knew where the somewhat dubious recordings came from. That was part of the fun. Maybe it was The Animals live with no dates or location given and only a cheesy ancient picture of Eric Burden on the cover to guide you. Maybe it was a mysterious recording of Jimi Hendrix playing “Day Tripper” with a less-than-stellar bar band.

In fact, all those weird Jimi Hendrix albums you have seen over the years with the crappy covers that feature chitlin-circuit soul singer Curtis Knight singing over Jimi’s funky chicken guitar? They are all the handiwork of Ed Chalpin who has licensed those inferior-sounding recordings around the world for decades. In the 60’s, working out of the Brill Building, Ed would allegedly have a no-name studio band tackle the hits of the day and then quickly sell them to record companies in Europe and South America hoping that he could stay one step ahead ahead of copyright law. It seems he had Curtis and his band, featuring Jimi, do some work and sign a contract in 1965. This contract apparently gave him eternal rights to the various odds and ends that that band recorded for him. He even sued Reprise after Jimi hit it big claiming that Jimi was still under contract to him. And Jimi recorded tracks for him as late as 1967!

But we will leave all that for the Hendrixologists of the world. All you need to know is that the tape that my brother played for me, which was on the dodgy 51 West imprint, a possibly tax shelter-ish subsidiary of CBS, was produced by Ed Chalpin and Chubby Checker for Ed’s PPX productions and released on 51 West in the early 80’s. In fact, Ed had always owned the recordings going back to 1971. How he and Chubby got together is a mystery. The album in question was never released in the United States at that time which is why there is almost no mention of it in any Chubby discography.

I bought a Spanish copy on Ariola from 1971 that is simply called Chubby Checker. The British version, also released in 71, on London is called Chequered. The 51 West version is called New Revelation. Who knows what countries Ed sold the tapes to? I haven’t asked him. There could be 50 different titles and covers. Hence the difficulties in tracking down information. It doesn’t help that the covers of the two copies I have make it look like a Twist-era Chubby budget L.P. that anyone would pass right by without a second glance. I bought a sealed copy of the 51 West version for 3 bucks in London, Ontario and I thought they were gonna laugh me out of the store when I told them how good it was. That cover has a superimposed young Chubby on a checker board dance floor surrounded by confetti. It ain’t right, I tell you. (But Chubby knows from curses. Everything he ever did for the Cameo-Parkway label is owned by the slimy Allen Klein who has been holding that catalogue hostage for years.) I also think that the album, whatever it’s called, was recorded prior to 71. It sounds more like 69 and on the album Chubby is kinda obsessed with the Moon landing and the moon in general so I’m guessing he wrote this stuff around that same time.

I won’t delve at length into the other songs on the album, as wonderful as they are, but I will give you an idea of what they are like: “My Mind Comes From A High Place” is an acid-funk smackdown. Screaming fuzz a la Jimi - who knows, people from Curtis Knight’s band post-Jimi might have played on the record, it makes sense - and Chubby as soul brother number one 67-style. He’s on the loose and everybody’s free! A wonderful track. (Realizing that everybody and their mother made attempts at groovy psych-pop at the time, from William Shatner and Sonny Bono to Yma Sumac, etc. and that most of those attempts are good for a laugh today as a curio and kitsch, I gotta say that it just feels good to hear the Limbo rocker letting loose and letting his hair down! It helps that the songs are swinging. But Chubby early on was very much a creation of other people. Heck, Dick Clark’s wife gave him his name, and on these songs we get a glimpse of something less manicured and much more soulful.) Equally devastating is the double-step quick time of “Love Tunnel” with more fuzz and a middle-section with lonely organ and Chubby intoning streams-of-grooviness about fire and hate and monsters wanting a piece of you. He sounds like he’s sobbing by the end of it. “If The Sun Stops Shining” is a pretty organ-driven ballad that is languid and sweet. “How Does It Feel” is a rambling nearly 8-minute showstopper. This one has to be heard to be believed. The Moon landing is called “The greatest discovery since Columbus did his number one” and elsewhere there is talk of smoking, tripping, the sound and music of a lute, unknown freaks jumping in your sexy tree, doing tea on the moon, making love, and having a doggone space baby! Yikes! “He Died” is a quiet, aching, tortured account of Jesus’s last moments on the cross. Naturally. “No Need To Get So Heavy” is all bluesy swagger and Chubby’s screams cue some ace axe fuzz. “Stoned In The Bathroom” has carnival organ and Chubby’s sublime reefer haze delivery. Lyrics: “Stoned in the bathroom on a Sunday afternoon/stoned in the bathroom just sitting on the moon”. Then Chubby screams cueing more ace axe fuzz. “Let’s Go Down” is more carnival organ demento-pop and has something to do with wasting away in the mud and the back streets. The Spanish Ariola pressing I have has two songs on it that aren’t on the 80’s U.S. issue, “Slow Lovin” a funky electrotwang organ crawl of a tune and a version of Curtis Knight’s and Jimi Hendrix’s “Ballad of Jimi”. Chubby plays it pretty straight. You would think this song would provide some clues as to when the Chubby record was recorded as it’s an elegy to Hendrix except it was an elegy to Hendrix when Hendrix himself recorded it in 1967! But if it was included on the album as an “actual” elegy than it is possible that Chubby recorded this album in late 1970 or early 1971 as Jimi died in September of 70. Yeesh, never mind.

All of this brings me to “Goodbye Victoria”, a song so beautiful that it makes me want to cry like a moon baby every time I hear it. It actually got to the point where I had to stop playing it - after playing the album a 100 times or more - because I was afraid all the magic would leak out. When the martial drum beat and the doomed piano chords first hit and when you first hear Chubby’s voice boom out with “We’ll be - in heaven” it goes straight through my bones. The rising organ on the chorus and the spectres of squalling guitars and backing vocals that accompany Chubby on his climb up some gothic mountain top as he sings “Time won’t forget you Victoria/Time just won’t let you Victoria/Goodbye Victoria/Everybody’s going to the moon” makes me swoon! Yes, everybody’s going to the moon. But I believe him when he sings it. Granted, I don’t quite know what to make of “In the valley/Of your heart/Is an open mind/The train is coming to the station/To the station in your mind”, but he manages to sell that too! And all is nirvana on the mountain top as the choruses just get bigger and grander till the climax. It’s echo and ghosts and love and death. It's a corker. The song that Chubby was born to sing. And somebody won the tapes in a poker game. Or something. It deserved better.

A note on the text: Mention is made of a statue in Danbury, Connecticut of Sybil Ludington. Sybil Ludington was 16 years old when she rode over 40 miles on horseback to gather militia volunteers to fight off the British army who had proceeded to burn and loot the town of Danbury during a sneak attack. She evaded capture and made it home safely. She is known as the female Paul Revere. (Even though Paul Revere never finished his ride and his ride was only half as long as Sybil’s.)


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