Killer Joe: The Song That Gave Me Pause

You know, I’m not exactly the poster boy for being cool. I mean, the last time that a hot chick couldn’t keep her eyes off of me was . . . was . . . was . . . yeah, now I remember. I was about two years old, being pushed around in a baby carriage. “Oh, he’s absolutely adorable,” the girl cooed, bending down to get a better look and never taking her gaze from mine. Wow, that was the best!

But I’ll tell you something. I do know how to be cool once in awhile. Like when I hear a great tune on the radio, one so finger-snapping and head-bopping fine that I can’t contain myself. Just watch me as I rise from the sofa and strut across the living room, the dining room, the kitchen and back again. Fingers snapping. Head a-bopping. Cool, man, cool. It happens now and then.

Killer Joe. That’s the tune that got me off the couch one recent evening. As usual I was doing not much of anything, except half-listening to the radio and counting the number of Cheez-Its crumbs stuck to the sofa’s cushions. I had counted 87 of them when — POW! POW! — Quincy Jones’ version of Killer Joe came on the air. It sounded spectacular. Next thing I knew, I was stepping.

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Killer Joe, a jazz standard, was composed around 1959 by jazz saxophonist Benny Golson, who has written many other songs (I Remember Clifford, Whisper Not, Stablemates) covered by scads of jazzbos. And Benny’s 1960 recording of Killer Joe is absolutely ace (click here to listen). Benny put the tune on wax with The Jazztet, the group that he co-led with trumpeter Art Farmer, and it came out on their album Meet The Jazztet. But Quincy’s KJ is better. It’s just too, too much, though it took me awhile to settle permanently into that opinion (click here to listen). I like it more than The Jazztet’s version because it has more slinky sizzle. Quincy himself didn’t play on the tune, which is from his 1969 album Walking In Space. But he arranged and conducted it and hired some monster guys to send out the sounds. Ray Brown (bass), Hubert Laws (flute) and Grady Tate (drums), to name a few.

To me, Ray Brown’s confident, strutting upright bass is the key to Killer Joe. From the opening bass lines straight through to the song’s end, Ray Brown is walking the walk. He’s under control, yet swaggering. He’s keeping things tight and tense, but jaunty too. And Tate, his steady high-hat cymbal work somehow loose as a goose, ambles arm-in-arm with Brown. Beyond the purring Brown/Tate engine, I couldn’t get enough of the airy flute solo, the piercing trumpet interludes and the pleading voices of the female chorus. Man, my fingers were snapping big time as I did my household shuffle.

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It wasn’t till the next day, though, relistening to the song on YouTube, that I paid attention to the lyrics that the ladies sing. “Killer Joe, don’t you go/Hurt me slow, please Joe.” Whoa, what did that mean? Is this a song about physical abuse? Had I been slow-marching and bopping to a composition that contains a really nasty notion? It took me a good long while to grasp the meaning of the words. They don’t paint a pretty picture, but I believe that the hurt referred to is emotional, not physical. Killer Joe (the character, not the song) is a cad, a heel, a self-absorbed jivester whom some women just can’t resist. Smitten, they know it’s a certainty that he will leave them. And that their hearts face a sad destiny: to be broken. The ladies want to be let down easy, not hard.

Now, The Jazztet’s recorded version of KJ basically is an instrumental piece. It has no lyrics, though Benny Golson felt the need to open the proceedings with a spoken introduction to let the world know that KJ ain’t a swell guy. Nine years later, on Quincy’s version, lyrics, brief as they are, were added. Who wrote them? I’ve scoured the Web, coming up unsure as to the answer. Could have been Golson, could have been Jones, could have been both or neither of them. Regardless, Quincy’s 1969 take on the song expanded Golson’s equation. What had been an instrumental description of a me-first, ponies-playing ladies’ man became deeper, something to ponder. Quincy Jones’ Killer Joe is a swinging statement tempered with reminders about how doleful and strange and complicated life can be.

Speaking from my me-first perspective, it’s a good thing that Quincy’s KJ isn’t about women who like their bad boy to whup them. If it were, into the deep freeze it would go, never to be listened to again. I’d be a chump to support any tune that goes that far to the dark side, even if it grooves like a champ.

But all is well in my music world. Onward!

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Missing David Bowie

On January 11, a Monday, I heard about David Bowie’s passing. He had shuffled off this mortal coil the prior day. I was shocked by the news, though I’d hardly have described myself as a devout Bowie fan. As that Monday morning segued into afternoon, I couldn’t get Bowie out of my mind. Neither could my wife Sandy, who is far less of a Bowie devotee than I am. We were drawn, as if by an invisible force, to WXPN, the Philadelphia area’s most astute music radio station. In tribute to the great man they were playing Bowie music exclusively for much of the day. We listened for two or three hours, and when XPN turned to other programming at 7 PM Sandy and I put on WPRB, the Princeton University station, to see if Bowie reigned there. He did, and we listened to his songs for several hours more. I can’t think of many artists who, following their deaths, would receive radio homages of this sort. And of course the Bowie outpourings weren’t limited to radio. Media coverage of his life and death has been enormous and heartfelt worldwide.

David Bowie fans left tributes to him outside his New York City apartment building. (Photo: Getty Images)
David Bowie fans left tributes to him outside his New York City apartment building. (Photo: Getty Images)

Naively I suppose, I’ve been amazed by the degree of attention that Bowie, in death, has attracted. I’ve been very glad to learn that countless journalists and media commentators held him in really high esteem, not to mention legions of fans. On January 11 Bowie was a top global story, probably the top story, in newspapers, on television and throughout cyberspace.

And I’m struck by the extent that Bowie’s death has touched me. My reaction took me by surprise, wasn’t something I’d have predicted. I don’t know the last time a celebrity’s demise hit me so strongly. Maybe it was in 1980, when John Lennon left us. Lennon was one of my heroes. Though Bowie wasn’t, I admired the heck out of him during a swath of the 1970s and always have considered him to be a cultural giant. That accounts for part of my sadness, but not for all. So, what else was it about Bowie’s death that got to me? I’ve thought about this for awhile and have come up with two main reasons.

David Bowie recorded 26 studio albums. His final work, Blackstar, entered the marketplace on his 69th birthday, two days before he died. I own six of his albums. All of them are from the 1970s except for 2002’s Heathen. I love my six from the 70s. Each I believe is great, and the greatest to me is 1976’s head-spinning and majestic Station To Station. I don’t know why I stopped buying Bowie’s releases after Station To Station. I read about them, heard some tunes on the radio, but didn’t lay down any dollars again till 26 years later. Nothing new, I was just plain stupid. Here was a guy with a brilliant track record, whose albums I once had spun over and over, and nonchalantly I had abandoned his singular musical journey. It wasn’t till a few nights ago that I realized what I had missed. WXPN and WPRB played tracks from Low, Lodger, The Next Day and other albums I barely, if at all, was familiar with. The music, as I might have guessed, was fantastic. And I played Heathen on my CD player. I hadn’t listened to it in so long I didn’t recall a single number. David, I only partly knew ya’. I should have kept up. Mea culpa.

Still, missing out on a lot of David Bowie’s music isn’t the end of the world. But it’s an example of not paying attention to life, of letting life pass on by without proper appreciation. And that’s a big deal. I try fairly hard to savor the moment and to do the right thing, but there’s mucho room for improvement. Bowie’s death somehow made me look at myself and my underachieving approach. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

And Bowie’s passing did more than that. In the recesses of my mind I discovered some connective tissues that bonded me with him. You see, David Bowie was only a smattering of months older than I, and because of that I subconsciously had felt a kinship with him. And so when he died an internal link to my younger self broke and I started to contemplate the big picture even more deeply. I mulled over the kinds of thoughts that aren’t reassuring. Such as: Even if I make it for another 25 years I’m a whole lot closer to the end than to the beginning. Man, that’s a bummer. My excellent friend Jeff recently asked me if I believe that human life goes on in a spirit mode after the flesh fails. He’s a believer. I’m not. My take is that each person’s trip is confined to Planet Earth and that the trip is one-and-done.

That said, on with the party. I plan to buy a bunch of David Bowie albums soon, to catch up with someone, now-departed, whom I miss.

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