Phil Milstein: Louie
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
“Loua, Lou-wee / Oh baby, I gotta go / The communist world is fallin’ apart / The capitalists are just breakin’ hearts / Money is the reason to be-ee / It makes me just wanna sing ‘Loua, Lou-wee,” Iggy Pop yowled while dancing in the streets. Come to think of it, few Americans danced when Capitalism™ won the Cold War. The Bible promised so many of them that nuclear missiles and the Lake of Fire would overthrow the Eastern Bloc, not Big Macs, the Devil’s rock ‘n’ roll, and Hollywood. Yet, I can imagine World War 3 survivors chanting “Louie, Louie” in their fallout shelters from the Pacific to the Atlantic after the defeat of the Russo-Iranian-Costa Rican-New Zealand Alliance. Of course, the song would need to be repeated for at least five hours straight to keep the sanity.
Brother Pop’s embellished lyrics in his 1993 cover of the immortal tune captures the essence of “Louie, Louie” well. Thousands of bands translated Richard Berry’s 1955 R&B tune about a Jamaican sailor chasing a lass into the anthem of reckless escapism. The Kingsmen taught us to slur and mumble the lyrics; the world can go to hell for all you care. Singer Jack Ely famously bumbled his way through the Oregon garage band’s shambled 1963 recording, only the chorus of “Louie, Louie / Woah-Woah / Me gotta go / Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” is comprehensible. He also blows his cue after the guitar solo and drummer Lynn Easton yelps, “Fuck!” when he misses a beat. The Delta Tau Chi fraternity in Animal House later revived that sloppiness as the gold standard for the folk song of American bacchanalia.
The Kingsmen’s performance is a milestone of minimalist pop. The rudimentary chords—na-na-na-dum-dum-na-na-na-dum-dum—are mechanically looped throughout the entire track as if the recording just caught the Kingsmen playing the song for the 50th consecutive time. No matter, the melody activates the gene that causes many of us to join tribal chants that last all night long. The song became a “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” for punk rock in the 70s and 80s. Black Flag and countless hardcore bands used “Louie” as a concert set-filler for crowds to drunkenly chant, while Lester Bangs wrote about the Stooges playing that damn song for 45 minutes to offend bikers who demanded it at a gig. The song and a leading cowbell clang are also a staple of marching bands across God-blessed America. In the 50 years since Berry wrote “Louie, Louie,” more than 1,500 artists recorded the song, according to LouieLouie.net. There were failed attempts to change the Washington and Oregon state songs to “Louie, Louie,” and a California radio station once played different versions of the song for 63 hours straight.
Phil Milstein draws from a well filled from four decades of people indulging in the anthem in his collage, “Louie.” He cobbled together what sounds like 50 recordings of “Louie, Louie” into an utter mess for RRRecords’s 1994 compilation America the Beautiful. The noise label commissioned artists to throw together tracks that embodied what “America” meant to them. The results ranged from horrible stand-up jokes and a tone-deaf rendition of “God Bless America” to art-terrorist noise assaults and Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo screaming “HEY” into the listener’s ear. Milstein’s “Louie” is the clear standout. He conveys the Kingsmen’s decadence and intoxication of “Louie, Louie” better than anyone.
Instead of politely playing one sampled artist at a time, our man forces the dozens of bands to shove each other for the listener’s attention. A marching band’s brass first blurts out the basic melody before Black Flag knocks them back. There are punk and garage bands from decades apart that have screaming matches against each other. Elsewhere, a pep rally of high school kids bellows the chorus, while several garage bands struggle to get the chords and the “yeahs, yeah, yeahs” right. It’s the sound of tributes mutating into a smog cloud of clichés. He plays the Kingsmen’s recording softly in the background, like a barroom ghost throwing bottles and stools at the drunks.
Milstein’s three-minute track first draws a chuckle, and then, as the booze slides down the gullet, bewilderment, queasiness, numbness, and finally exhaustion. Those minutes feel like hours with no end in sight, but when the noise finally stops, I impulsively replay the track three more times. The crowd conformity hooks me and I should know better. I won’t.
By: Cameron Macdonald
Published on: 2006-06-28