(As I’ve noted, my life is a little topsy-turvy right now, so I missed the great Joe South’s passing a couple of weeks back…Hence, I’m a little late but I couldn’t let this one go by.)
In 1981 I was majoring in English at Florida State and living in a studio apartment a block off campus.
The apartment complex had a couple of notable features beyond cheap rent and a location that allowed an easy walk to class.
The first feature was the roaches–legendary in college apartments to be sure, but this place had gone a little above and beyond the call. It attracted a particularly high class of survivor-roach and it attracted them in even greater than usual numbers. There were some occasions when my college budget (which had taken every penny I earned working for my dad between the ages of nine and seventeen in the first two months back in the fall of 1980 and was now being abetted by a job as a courier for a real estate company) could cover roach-traps.
Alas, these traps usually filled up within a day or two and my budget allowed for a replacement somewhere along the lines of once a quarter.
The upshot was that, when I was in college, I became very proficient at killing cockroaches with my bare hands. My roaches being of the gone-into-a-crack-less-than-one-second-after-the-light-comes-on variety rather than the don’t-worry-I’ll-just-waddle-along-the-open-floor-here-while-you-get-the-fly-swatter variety, it was either that…or let them go.
After about six months I had developed a deep aversion to letting the little so-and-so’s escape.
If I woke up in the morning and there were, say, half-a-dozen in the kitchen sink, I could forgive myself if one got away. Killing six roaches in less than a second–with your bare hands and within a minute of waking up–is no small feat even when you are young and strong. If there were less than six, however, and one slipped off, I usually entered a state of semi-catatonic depression which was likely to last until I got a chance to wipe out the next brigade.
That was one feature of the Jefferson Arms on Jefferson Street, a long block from the building where I plied my major.
The other feature involved the hot and cold water handles on the sink faucet in the bathroom.
They turned opposite ways.
Let me just tell you that having faucet handles which are not synchronized is a much quicker path to contemplation of suicide than sharing a place with endless legions of German cockroaches.
I mean it might not have been so bad, except that the entire water service shut off so frequently. This meant that about once a month or so you would be using this particular sink–and almost certainly have both faucets wide open to make up for the lack of water pressure–and then have to guess which way the countervailing handles were supposed to turn when the water suddenly stopped flowing.
Now, is it the right side that turns clockwise or the left?
Somehow, I could never bring myself to write it down. Pride I guess. Or fear that if I acknowledged my low state of affairs in this clinical, unromantic, way it might lead directly to the situation becoming permanent–not an irrational thought for those of us who turned to English-majoring in college because we had no plan for life beyond it!
Often as not, then, old habits asserted themselves and you just absent-mindedly turned the faucets the way they were supposed to go.
Which meant you better be there when the water came back on, because if you weren’t, you were the one responsible for the complex’s monthly flood.
One day in 1981, I was the one responsible.
I can tell you generally how it happened.
I was in a hot hurry to get to work.
Whether the specific cause of my hurry on this particular day was just the usual tight schedule (stiff walk from class, grab a baloney sandwich, run to the Maverick, get to work on time!) or a Hayley Mills movie on one of Ted Turner’s cable stations (I swear no other living creature could make me late for work…and I don’t mean Ted Turner!) I do not recall.
Suffice it to say that when I did get back from work that evening there was a note on my door to see the management–and a very wet apartment.
Evidently, mine was one of the worse floods.
I was on the ground floor and my next door neighbor wasn’t home either, so the water had to get all the way out the front door before anyone noticed.
Management was lenient. I had been drenched from above on two previous occasions and my prompt reporting (of course I was home when it was somebody else’s apartment!) had prevented some real damage (the truly dreaded kind that might have made re-threading the faucet handles cost-effective or something).
My next door neighbor was sweet about the whole thing. We agreed on seventy-five dollars for damages and I was only a couple of days late paying her off.
Her cocker spaniel had been frightened out of his wits but was otherwise unharmed.
So the only lasting effect of the flood I was responsible for was on my record collection.
* * * *
In those days–five years into my habit–I could fit all my vinyl LPs in a single double-shelf case my father had custom built for me.
I still have the case, which was built to hold between two hundred and two hundred and fifty LPs (depending on how many doubles were included)
Despite sitting on the floor, it emerged unscathed.
So unscathed I can no longer pick it out from its thirteen matching companions, all of which I built myself as the years and the records accumulated.
These days, the cases are all full.
Back then, thankfully, the flood only reached the bottom shelf of that one case–and there were probably less than dozen records down there.
Over the years, I replaced a few, simply because the jackets became too warped and moldy (though, oddly, never the records–it was as if they were charmed somehow).
Dusty Springfield’s Golden Hits (replaced).
Diana Ross and the Supremes Greatest Hits (replaced–I was enough of a snob to have them filed under S, where they by God belonged!)
Tanya Tucker’s Greatest Hits on Columbia (replaced).
Some of the others–because they were too hard to find or simply weren’t damaged badly enough to warrant bothering with it–stayed on as permanent reminders.
The true survivors.
The Who’s Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy (survivor).
The Shangri-Las’ Golden Hits on Mercury (survivor).
….Joe South’s Greatest Hits (survivor).
* * * *
What strikes me now about that list is how important they all were–and are.
How much every purchase counted in those days of desperately low finance countered by an equal and opposite need to know what was hiding behind those cellophane wrappers in the record store.
How easy it was to listen to those albums all the way through every time I put them on.
That’s a heavy list up there. Filled with artists who either are or should be in whatever Hall of Fame exists for their kind of music.
I don’t say Joe South necessarily does or does not belong in any Halls except those he’s already in (Nashville Songwriters and Georgia Music)–though it’s easy to imagine him having earned such accolades already (say the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the national Songwriters Hall) if his brother’s suicide in the early seventies hadn’t taken the heart out of him.
But, based on the music he did get to make, he definitely belongs in that high company.
South made some great music as a sideman.
The rattlesnake guitar on Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools”–which sounds like a soundtrack of the entire sixties–is his, as is the heavy lifting on significant parts of Bob Dylan’s earth-shaking Blonde on Blonde.
He made some wonderful music as a producer (the hit run of the very under-rated Billy Joe Royal as well as Friend and Lover’s Devil’s Island classic “Reach Out in the Darkness,” among others).
God knows he made some truly great music as a songwriter and God knows that music traveled.
There aren’t too many writers who can claim to have written standards that crossed from swamp-rock (South’s own hits) to countrypolitan (Lynn Anderson’s “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden”) to teen-pop (the Osmonds’ “Yo-Yo”) to heavy metal (Deep Purple’s “Hush”) without sounding the least bit forced or scatter-shot.
South was one who could.
For all that, I still value him most as a singer because I still go back to how well that slightly moldy Greatest Hits album (which didn’t even include “Redneck”–one of his greatest songs and, given when and where it was recorded, likely his boldest) stood up in the elite company of my early record collection.
His versions of those great songs were always the equal of anyone who covered them, up to and including Elvis (who smoked “Walk A Mile In My Shoes” live) and Swamp Dogg (who recorded a version of “Redneck” which is my favorite South cover). This was despite the fact that South in no way possessed a classically great voice and in no way attempted the kind of obvious affectation we now associate with the Bob Dylan school of persona-management.
He was great because he had an extremely rare quality–the knack for just being. (And, hey, if the knack really was an affectation, it was sufficiently disguised in his case to amount to the same thing, which would make him rarer still.)
He was great because Rock and Roll used to demand that of people and he was one of those who lived up to the challenge.
He was great because he lived in angry times and he wasn’t afraid to take them on–as Dave Marsh and others have pointed out, it took real courage for a southern white man who had no intention of going anyplace else to start a hit song in the voice of an angry populist and end it by shouting “Furthermore, to hell with hate,” in the year that George Wallace was making a serious run at the presidency. I would only add that it also took a touch of genius to make this sound as natural as breathing.
And he was great because he lived in times like any other and he wasn’t afraid to acknowledge that either. There’s never going to be an age when “Don’t it Make You Want To Go Home” or “I Knew You When” or, heck, “Yo-Yo,” don’t speak to somebody’s life and so there’s never going to be a time when Joe South, who had his two biggest hits with protest records that were as rooted in the special circumstances of their time and place as any music could be (and turned out to be transcendent after all), won’t have a chance to sneak up on somebody and change their life, too.