“Don’t look back–something might be gaining on you.”
Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Collier’s, June 13, 1953.
Usually when a quote is too good to be true, it’s too good to be true. One of the nice things about Satchel Paige was that his too-good-to-be-true quotes were almost always things he actually said.
The phrase “don’t look back” has an interesting history in popular music. Before 1964, it was never used as the title of a hit song on any American chart and was undoubtedly rare as either a direct quote or a common sentiment in American music or American life.
I don’t mean to say the idea wasn’t around or even that the common language hadn’t already made some sort of place for it. Hard to judge that. What does seem evident is that it hadn’t made its way far enough into the nation’s everyday speech to become insidious. When that happens, we know what happens next.
Somebody writes a song about it.
Beginning in 1964, somebody did. And somebody or other has been re-writing it ever since.
It’s interesting to think about what happened in the interim between Paige’s quote–with its insinuation of paranoia-that-isn’t-really-paranoia-if-that’s-a-lynch-mob-on-your-trail camped squarely inside a good joke that everybody could relate to–and 1964.
1953 to 1964. H-m-m-m-m.
Too much to take in on election day, probably. So just think about what had happened recently, like maybe a March on Washington where the leader of the current manifestation of a century old Civil Rights movement, who happened not at all coincidentally to be a minister, had actually managed to address the nation’s central sin in such perfect language and in such a public fashion that it could not, at last, be ignored.
Then, of course, the sitting president took a bullet in the head, and the man who took his place–piggy-backing those two forever linked events–pushed through historic civil rights legislation in July of 1964.
During the middle of all that–I haven’t been able to trace the exact moment–a black man named John Lee Hooker, who happened to be one of the dozen or so blues singers the world can more or less inarguably call a genius (and who, in his very essence, represented the precise element of the population that has always made white America want to lock up its daughters, not to mention the element intellectuals are bound to call “primitive” when they suspect something is up that they better get a handle on and have to go fishing for a compliment that’s not really a compliment).
I don’t know if Hooker was channeling Paige or not but he was certainly onto something. As a cultural catch-phrase, “don’t look back” arrived within months of “free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we’re free at last.”
It has stuck around even longer.
Of course, the catch-phrase and the music that surrounded it got hollowed out with time. It’s never gone away, exactly. It’s just been co-opted. It was the title of a bland country hit for Gary Morris in the eighties. A party time cover for Teena Marie. A catchy classic rock number (with at least some of its original power retained) for Boston in the seventies. A UK number for Lucie Silvas a few years back, where it was finally indistinguishable from any other set of words that don’t mean anything (catch it on YouTube if you must).
That’s how it goes with catch-phrases that speak to wounds. What we can’t heal, we keep sticking gauze on.
Eventually, the gauze is the permanent feature. The wound goes back to being out of sight out of mind….Wound? What wound?
But there was a moment in the mid-sixties when Hooker’s phrase crept into the world in a new way.
Oh, it never quite “broke out.” I imagine we were still a bit leery of the notion being put so bluntly, even though it was supposed to be an indestructible part of our national ethos. I haven’t heard Hooker’s original version but it’s hard to believe it’s much better–or bleaker–than honorary American Van Morrison’s 1965 cover. Or that it contains much deeper paranoia than the Remains’ garage rock classic (different song, same title) from 1966.
None of those records made the charts. Maybe that was just the luck of the draw. There were other records as good as those by Morrison (then still with his original band, Them) or the Remains, which didn’t make the charts either. Not many, but some. Enough to make it barely plausible that some sort of underlying aura of suspicion or discomfort wasn’t the only possible explanation.
And, of course, there was D.A. Pennebaker’s monumental documentary of Bob Dylan’s trip to England in 1966–injected under the toe-nails of the national conscience, residing there like a thorn ever since.
Called it Don’t Look Back, they did.
In the last days, there will be warnings and rumors of warnings. Consider yourself warned.
The phrase found it’s apex, though, in 1965, when another African-American musical genius named Smokey Robinson collaborated with his fellow Miracle Ronnie White and came up with a B-side for the era’s (or maybe just history’s) greatest vocal group.
In a scenario as perfect as Satchel Paige’s original quote–and with the same mixture of hope and dread woven deeply into its aural fabric (all the more deeply for being conceived as filler and for being released just as we entered the quagmire in Viet Nam from which the national soul has never really emerged)–it reached #83 on the Pop chart, #15 on the R&B chart, and, riding a rare moment when the Temptations’ third lead, Paul Williams, left Eddie Kendricks and even David Ruffin in the dust, permanent status as a staple on the group’s compilations despite being rarely heard on the radio since….And as the go-to anthem for every election day that has come and gone ever after.
Tomorrow, half of America will wake up depressed, wondering how the country will possibly survive, and the other half will wake up relieved, thankful that catastrophe has been so narrowly averted, reminding themselves that treading water in a shark pool still beats drowning!
And rock and roll will still be the closest thing we have to something we can agree on.
Have a happy…