Saturday, 12 September 2015

American music - Mitch Ryder

Back in 1979, when I was living in Germany, the TV show Rockpalast put on a fine late-night gig, featuring Nils Lofgren, who was good, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes, who were very good, and then finally Mitch Ryder. At the time I didn't know Ryder's work, beyond a couple of the Detroit Wheels hits from the mid-1960s, and had no image of him. But he was a revelation that night.

We first saw him in a live interview with presenter Alan Bangs, when he was clearly drunk and/or stoned already. Amongst his most coherent responses was to ask his own question: 'Have you ever seen two dogs fucking in the street?' Bangs decided it probably wasn't necessary to translate all his comments for the German audience.

By the time Ryder actually staggered on stage in the early hours of the morning - considerably later than scheduled, to the annoyance of the audience - he was even less together and had (we later learnt) just had a fist-fight with his band backstage. Despite that, the band was on good form, which was just as well since there were long, long passages to be filled with noodling, while Ryder stumbled around with a beatific look on his face as though he had no idea where he was. When he did sing, though, it was with the most beautiful voice: croaky and hoarse, ravaged and ruined, every word was slurred, but the phasing and feel was still impressive. If you want to see the gig, most of it is on YouTube, including the concluding 10-minute version of 'Soul Kitchen'.

Following the broadcast, I immediately went out and bought Ryder's newly released album, How I Spent My Vacation, which I learned was his first record for the best part of a decade. Unfortunately, it was a bit disappointing. There were a couple of interesting lyrics ('Cherry Poppin'', 'The Jon'), in which he discussed gay sex far more explicitly than - as far as I'm aware - any rock singer had done previously, but mostly the songwriting was unexceptional, and the music was pedestrian rock. And the cover art (see below) was simply dreadful.

This song, 'Passion's Wheel', however, was the standout, an uptempo acoustic number that I've loved now for over thirty-five years. Again, I don't think much of the arrangement, but Ryder's vocal performance is one of my favourite ever. From the opening line ('How much suffering must I endure?'), he sounds both defiant and desperate, like he's been to hell and still has hopes of getting back one day. Few have ever managed to get such anguish into their work. And what I particularly like is that somehow he imprisons this ragged howl of pain in such a confined and rigid little melody. For a man with one of the best white soul voices ever, there's a surprising absence of emoting.

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