The Song: Jimi Hendrix’s cover of The Troggs’ “Wild Thing”
Written by Eric Weisbard
So, what exactly am I supposed to do at this point—something with my arms and fingers? I don’t play any damn instrument and when I worked at EMP I hated the idea that Jimi Hendrix was the patron saint of the place: I curated a disco exhibit here and Paul Allen kind of yawned and declined to take a tour. But here’s the thing: Robert Palmer, the great rock critic whose vision still shapes everything in this hollow body edifice, had one hope for what you could do, especially in the instruments interactive space SoundLab upstairs: teach a visitor in 30 minutes to play a power chord. Give them the chance to feel like Hendrix just before he burned his guitar. To rock the fuck out. All these years in the building later, I’ve never made it to the end of the tutorial.
But I can relate to some of what I think was behind this moment, at the Monterey, yes, Pop Festival in 1967, when Hendrix covered the Troggs for an audience of hippies covering hipsters, then set the night on fire. I can empathize with Mailer’s version of the white Negro, the psychopathic hipster looking for kicks, not with that stupid jazz as orgasm trope but with the spirit that co-founded the Village Voice and put David Johanssen in drag on the stage of a crumbling building I never made it to singing about trash, gonna pick it up. In other words, still with Mailer’s “art of the primitive.” Or Lester Bangs, in his manifesto “James Taylor Marked for Death,” using those Troggs, troglodytes, lowlifes of teenage kicks all through the night, to talk about the communal politics of “groin thunder” and “caressing Math Class Judy in his highschool “pube punk fantasy,” helped by the copy of Dharma Bums in his backpack. That was all a big cliché when I came of Bangs and Mailer reading age, or maybe it wasn’t: now the band X, John Doe and Exene Cervenka, remade “Wild Thing” one more time, looking to dumb down their never commercially viable Beat Generation punk rock cabaret act with the one thing that surely heavy metal America on the Sunset Strip and KROQ could agree on: BUM diddy BUM BUM BUM. Somewhere in this room, the Pop Conference spirit of Ned Sublette still resides, explaining how the song is a Cuban cha-cha-cha. Wild Thing, I can’t stop loving you, though that’s Ray Charles covering Don Gibson. I get my references mixed up.
But here’s the coda. When I teach music, and music writing, my students don’t get “Wild Thing,” at least not in the way that ran Mailer to Bangs to indie punk. They struggle with a horny-brainy teen boy, white Negro fantasy of cultural release. They know hipster is a term of insult. They really don’t see what James Taylor ever did to anybody, especially now that it’s Taylor Swift who’s 22, like Bangs when he wrote his opus, and it’s she, Math Class Judy, who packs the arenas, not Grand Funk Railroad. To them, “Wild Thing” is Freddie Wong on YouTube rocking Guitar Hero. It’s karaoke, not counterculture. To them, Susan Sontag makes far more sense than Norman Mailer. In my Cultural Criticism course this semester, the student who’s going on to MA work hated the hipster article and wanted to write about camp, specifically Rocky Horror Picture Show. The A-plus student who’s going on to PhD work wanted to write about Kanye West’s Yeezus as what he called “racial camp.”
Only the student who never spoke up, who broke two ribs in a car accident toward the end of the semester, wanted to write about Jim Morrison’s poetry and excess. So so long “Wild Thing,” it’s been good to know you, you been a good American Studies myth and symbol but you done broke down.