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Jewish World Review
April 23, 2007
/ 5 Iyar, 5767
The birth of wail
When I heard that Richard Berry, the man who wrote "Louie Louie," had died, I said . . .
Well, I can't tell you, in a family newspaper, what I said. But it was not a happy remark. It was the remark of a person who realizes he'll never get to thank somebody for something. I remember the day I first heard "Louie Louie." I was outside my house, playing basketball with my friends on a "court" that featured a backboard nailed to a tree next to a geologically challenging surface of dirt and random rocks, which meant that whenever anybody dribbled the ball, it would ricochet off into the woods and down the hill, which meant that our games mostly consisted of arguing about who would go get it.
So we spent a lot of our basketball time listening to a transistor radio perched on a tree stump, tuned to WABC in New York City. (I mean the radio was tuned to WABC; the stump was tuned to WOR.) And one miraculous day in 1963, out of the crappy little transistor speaker came . . .
Well, you know what it sounds like: This guy just wailing away, totally unintelligibly, with this band just whomping away behind him in the now-legendary "Louie" rhythm, whomp-whomp-whomp, whomp-whomp, whomp-whomp-whomp . . .
And it was just so cool. It was 500 million times cooler than, for example, Bobby Rydell. It was so cool that I wanted to dance to it right there on the rocky dirt court, although, of course, as a 15-year-old boy of that era, I would have sawed off both my feet with a nail file before I would have danced in front of my friends.
I loved "Louie Louie" even before I found out that it had dirty words. Actually, it turned out that it didn't have dirty words, but for years we and when I say "we," I'm referring to the teenagers of that era and J. Edgar Hoover were all convinced that it did, which, of course, just made it cooler. We loved that song with no idea whatsoever what it was about.
But for me the coolest thing about "Louie Louie" was this: I could play it on the guitar. In fact, just about anybody could play it, including a reasonably trainable chicken. Three chords, nothing tricky. This is why, when I like so many teenage boys of that era became part of a band in a futile attempt to appeal to girls, "Louie Louie" was the first song we learned.
We'd whomp away on our cheap, untuneable guitars plugged into our Distort-O-Matic amplifiers, and our dogs would hide and our moms would leave the house on unnecessary errands, and we'd wail unintelligibly into our fast-food-drive-thru-intercom-quality public address system, and when we were finally done playing and the last out-of-tune notes had leaked out of the room, we'd look at each other and say: "Hey! We sound like the Kingsmen!" And the beauty of that song is, we kind of did.
I continued playing in bands in college, and many other songs went into and out of our repertoire, but we always played "Louie Louie."
Over the years, musical and cultural critics have offered countless explanations for the song's enduring appeal, but I would say, based on playing it hundreds of times in front of a wide range of audiences, that the key musical factor is this: Drunk people really like it.
My band found that if large, beer-guzzling college-fraternity members became boisterous and decided they wanted to play our instruments, or hit us, or hit us with our instruments, all we had to do was play "Louie Louie," and they would be inspired to go back to dancing and throwing up on their dates.
Sometimes people got a little too inspired. One night we were playing in a frat house at the University of Pennsylvania, and during "Louie Louie," an entire sofa a large sofa came through the front window, which was not open at the time. The crowd did not stop dancing, and we did not stop playing; we kept right on wailing and whomping. That's the kind of indestructible song "Louie Louie" is. I'm confident that it's one of the very few songs that would be able to survive a global thermonuclear war. (Another one is "Wild Thing.")
I'm not defending it as art. I'm not saying that, as a cultural achievement, it is on a par with the "Mona Lisa" or "Hamlet." On the other hand, when the "Mona Lisa" or "Hamlet" comes on my car radio, I do not crank the volume way up and wail unintelligibly at my windshield. I still do this for "Louie Louie."
And for that, Richard Berry, wherever you are: Thanks.
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