Jordan Ryan Pedersen lists his smoking skull on a stick as his emergency contact.
Where do the weird go to die? Do they become greeters at a Halloween store? Go to hospice in a haunted house? Do cannibals partake of the early bird special? Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the mad R&B balladeer who pierced his nose with a spiked bone and performed alongside a smoking skull on a stick named Henry, spent his last years – fittingly enough – on Frank Zappa’s Bizarre Records. The Bizarre Years collects the best of his three albums on Zappa’s label – recorded between 1991 and 1994 – on a new limited run vinyl pressing – in deep purple ooh la la.
Most credit Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” as the first shock-rock song but really, it’s just the most honest torch song. Classic R&B and rock traffics blithely in stalker tropes – “each day through my window/I watch her as she passes by” – and violent possessiveness – “I’d rather see you dead, little girl/than to be with another man.” Hawkins’ producer Arnold Maxin grokked the pristine ickiness of the lyric – “I put a spell on you/because you’re mine” – and ambushed Hawkins and the band with ribs and chicken and booze. So much booze that Hawkins blacked out and subsequently had to relearn the song from his own recording. The resulting cut was so evocatively ghastly that radio banned it for sounding “cannibalistic.”
Finally, a creepy R&B song that *sounded* creepy. The band staggers forward, Hawkins egging it on like a prison band drum major. Others dressed up their toxic masculinity in treacly strings and sweetly crooned vocals. “I Put a Spell on You” is a monstrous song delivered by a monster.
Hawkins spent the rest of his career playing up shtick – he’d perform with voodoo props and rise from a coffin onstage. Later he lamented his pigeonholing as the first shock rocker – “Why can’t people take me as a regular singer without making a bogeyman out of me?” But his protests feel half-hearted, especially in light of the songs collected on The Bizarre Years. This is a man who sounds utterly at ease as an aging pervert ghoul: shouting, barking, and making fart noises about jerking off on “Strokin”; growling about stepping on cracks on “Whistling Past the Graveyard”; issuing warnings about an anthropomorphic forest over tribal drums on “Swamp Gas.”
“I Am the Cool” is the collection’s high-point. Over smoky slide guitar, Hawkins boasts about the fancy hotels he’s stayed at, his clothes “so cool even Calvin Kline stares at me,” the scores of women he’s slept with – Hawkins is said to have fathered as many as 75 children, so that last point may not be exaggeration. The Randy Newmans of the world might end the song with a bittersweet coda about the ultimate hollowness of their riches. Not Hawkins: his cartoon boasts simply trail off as the song fades out, as if he could have gone on for hours.
One of the best qualities of The Bizarre Years is that it retcons out his 90s-era producers tendency to smooth out Hawkins’ sound. It will never cease to amaze me how often the establishment delights in retaining an oddball, only to sand off all the qualities that make him interesting. The producer allegedly wiped Hawkins’ piano takes after he left each night. The ten cuts on The Bizarre Years are, gratefully, vintage Hawkins: unpolished, unabashed, gross.