I PUT A SPELL ON ME
EMP, JBL Theater, 206-770-2702, $7/$5 members
7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Wed., Feb. 5
It was Alan Freed, the radio DJ/promoter, who put the coffin in Screamin' Jay Hawkins' act. This was the late 1950s, when the preachers and the PTA said rock 'n' roll was threatening to turn the white kids to marijuana, heroin, close dancing, and god knew what else. Ugly nights: Juvenile delinquents rocked around the clock, slashed the seat cushions at concerts, and whipped each other with bicycle chains in the parking lot after the show.
The kids were going crazy. It was the music, experts said. The music was making the kids nuts, lacing their thin, milk-fed blood with whatever jungle primitivism lurked in the fat grooves of those records.
And at just that moment—after Bill Haley had made everyone just a trifle nervous, but before Pat Boone could offend god and man with his ber-Teutonic cover of Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti"—up jumped Cleveland-born Jalacy Hawkins out of that coffin, flash pots exploding all around him, jabbering about voodoo, and waving a stick with a ponytailed skull nailed to it.
The coffin, designed by an Apollo Theater engineer, was Freed's idea. But the sentiment was Screamin' Jay's, and it was Jay's all the way. Jay's act was operatic, mythic, a statement to the dark gods, a memento mori—a reminder of the final mystery we all come to, naked and alone.
Born in 1929, Jay Hawkins was orphaned in his first year of his life and bounced around a lot after that. He went into the Air Force and entertained the troops, and even (he said) saw killing action. He was a Golden Gloves boxer in his youth, made middleweight champion in 1949. An aspiring piano player and performer, he got a gig with Tiny Grimes' Rockin' Highlanders in 1951 by walking up to the stage and asking for a job. He appeared on a few records, singing and playing piano.
It was a solo cut, however—1956's "I Put a Spell on You" for the OKeh label—that made him famous, sort of. That is, you know the song and I know the song and so does everybody else. And it made him a little money, though not much. It never charted; worse, it made a lot of people see Hawkins as a one-hit wonder, a cannibal-kitsch novelty act.
But for those who listened, "I Put a Spell on You"—like Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and Etta James' "I'd Rather Go Blind"—was and is one of the most genuinely disturbing moments in popular music. As a declaration of love or a distraught stalker manifesto, it sounds like nothing else in the pantheon: the staccato horn riff that drives the song in an insistent minor ascension; the echoing vocal; the shaky waltz meter, at once ancient and electric; the moments when Jay's voice seems to spiral up and out the top of his head in a wild shriek, raking shreds of his throat behind it, "Becaaaause—you're MIIIIIIINE!" None of the estimable performers who covered it, from CCR to Nina Simone, ever even attempted to replicate the unhinged feel of Hawkins' original version.
For me, as I'm sure for some people who don't know anything about Screamin' Jay apart from that song, "I Put a Spell on You" will forever be linked to its eerie, perfect use in Jim Jarmusch's 1984 film Stranger Than Paradise, in which Eszter Balint wanders the streets of New York in what looks like a narcotic daze, carrying a single-speaker tape player from which the song blares over and over again. She walks slowly, coolly, waiting for the city to cast its spell.
Screamin' Jay knew about the spells music could cast. That was why, when Jarmusch put Jay in front of the cameras for Mystery Train, his Rashomon-gone-to-Memphis set piece, he made sure Jay was right where he needed to be: behind the front desk of the battered hotel in which the bulk of the evening's violence and drama took place. Tricked out in a blood-red suit behind his massive post, Jay abused the bellhop, scowled at the guests, and looked for all the world as if he were about to burn the city down.
He was the night manager. Night was where he felt at home.
DIRECTOR NICHOLAS Triandafyllidis' new documentary on Hawkins, I Put a Spell on Me, is not a clean production. The sound quality surges and fades, the camera work is shaky, and the film itself, shot directly to tape, looks as if its entire budget might have gone toward the cost of a single Maxell six-hour all-purpose videocassette.
Biographically, it's not a terribly informative production. Screamin' Jay himself, a notorious embellisher of his own and other people's stories, provides us with most of the bio material, and Triandafyllidis indulgently rolls tape while he rambles. (Though all of Jay's stories are enthralling, most are engagingly filthy, and several are howlingly funny, it must be said that none is verifiable in the smallest detail.) References to his "awful past" in the music business—his money and management troubles were legendary—go largely unelaborated on.
What I Put a Spell on Me lacks in technical merit, however, it amply makes up for in its rigorous testimony to Screamin' Jay's importance in rock 'n' roll history. Considered simply as an act of archival rescue, the film's not just a success—it becomes, by its final moments, an enormously moving document.
An excellently balanced selection of interviewees—featuring Bo Diddley, Arthur Brown, Eric Burdon, Diamanda Galas (whose no-nonsense, foul-mouthed appraisal alone is worth the ticket), and Hawkins' sometime bandmate Rudi Prodtrudi of the Fuzztones—provides concise and cogently argued testimonials. Live footage from an Athens, Greece, concert, shot just five months before Jay's February 2000 death in Paris, runs throughout the film, linking its narrative sections and demonstrating the arresting energy of Hawkins' stage show, even as he turned 70.
Look past the structural limitations of I Put a Spell on Me and you'll see a loving, clear-eyed tribute to Screamin' Jay Hawkins—a profile that treats his theatrical innovations, gigantic voice, and deep R&B talent with the respect and attention they deserved during his lifetime—but one which never becomes maudlin, overstated, or sloppy. The best elements of the film, the most important, are its small touches: early 20th-century African-American baritone Paul Robeson's recording of "Go Down, Moses," which plays beneath the credits; Jay thumbing through a stack of biographical material downloaded from the Internet and softly musing, "Damn. My life's an open book"; the movie's final minutes, which record his heartfelt thank-you to his Athens audience.
As Jim Jarmusch observes toward the film's end, "The good shit stays good. We'll never lose what Screamin' Jay gave us." I Put a Spell on Me, for all its technical faults, offers decidedly persuasive support of that assessment. They never built the coffin that could hold him down.