Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

The Mau-Mau Feasts On Jiffy Squid:
Screamin’ Jay Rides Again…On Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train

When it was first released in 1989, Mystery Train didn’t cause much of a fuss. It’s never been a major item in Jim Jarmusch’s film career, which arcs from the indie-zeitgeist-making Stranger Than Paradise (1984) to a kind of quasi-commercial peak with Bill Murray’s turn in Broken Flowers (2005). At the time, the movie’s overlapping triptych of shaggy-dog stories set over the course of an evening in a fleabag Memphis hotel felt like a lark. It was as if the director had corralled a bunch of his buddies – from ex-Clash frontman Joe Strummer to a still-under-the-radar actor Steve Buscemi – and taken a road trip to Elvis Land.

Some of the stories, like the one about the young Japanese couple on a pilgrimage, work an understated magic. Others, like the one in which Buscemi’s hapless barber gets shot in the leg, are more shag than dog. But re-watching Mystery Train in Criterion’s new Blu-Ray edition, what’s popping is the film’s evocation of Southern forgotteness. Cinematographer Robby Muller’s color images resonate with the lazy afternoon emptiness of faded signage on a weather brick building. Very Eggleston, if you ask me…a city of long shadows and low-wattage neon, simmering in the heat of the night as John Lurie’s score slinks along in a half-awake blues mode, bent notes trailing off of Marc Ribot’s guitar like mosquitoes hovering in the still air. It’s a mood piece.

Of course, that is not a mood associated with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. But there he is, the R&B legend, in the flesh, keeping it tethered in the role of a desk clerk at the open-all-night hotel that serves as a way station for all the wandering souls who convene from every vector. Besides gifting Hawkins with a priceless line about a take-out delicacy known as “jiffy squid,” the film – as Jarmusch explains in a Q&A session included on the disc – was an effort at payback. Twenty years later, Hawkins remains the most memorable phenomenon in the movie. He died in 2000, at the age of 70, and as Jarmusch recalls, he was, indeed, a complete American original. For all its tongue-in-cheek worship of Elvis, Mystery Train abides as a genuine tribute to one of the freakiest musical personas of all time.

Digging back through my archives, I came across an old conversation I had with Hawkins, back when Mystery Train made its debut. Here is a version of it…


Stare too long, and your corneas might begin to fry like a pair of eggs crackling on a short-order griddle. His shirt a vivid wash of nova-burst orange, flecked with splotches from a leftover Jackson Pollock canvas, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins lives up to his name before he mutters a word.

Everything about him shouts in defiant testimony to the glories of self-invention. But then, what would you expect from a man who gave a generation the willies with his incantatory 1956 hit “I Put a Spell on You”? A mutant waltz, the song churns in obsessive delirium, then yawns as bleak and wide as a sepulcher, a dank and unholy place from whose depths emerges – woooo-HAH-ha-ha – the toe-curling sound that is uniquely Screamin’ Jay’s.

He was a buoyant and ageless 60 at the time. The Los Angeles resident, eyes shaded and hair pomped, was on his best behavior as he slipped in from an adjoining room in his Toronto hotel suite. En route, he killed the volume on a tape-deck tootling vintage Tiny Grimes, the ’40s rhythm-and-blues singer who gave the young Jalacy J. Hawkins his start when Elvis Presley was still negotiating puberty.

The King was much to the point. It’s an Elvis Presley song, after all, that lends its name to Mystery Train.

The Manhattan-based director first evoked Hawkins as a spiritual presence in his 1984 cult favorite Stranger Than Paradise. The existential road movie includes a scene in which Eva (Ezster Balint), a 16-year-old Hungarian refugee, clutches a boom box pounding “Spell” like the zombie national anthem – the voice of some mythic, primal America, indecipherable yet impossible to ignore.

“It’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and he’s a wild man, so bug off,” Eva declares in her newly appropriated language, over the objections of her irked cousin Willie (John Lurie).

Conjured in the flesh, Mr. Hawkins was told to suppress his wild-man persona, the better to match the chilly tone of Jarmusch’s patented minimalism. His character’s pent-up attitude did not come naturally.

“I told him, ‘I’m a stick of dynamite and you done lit the fuse and you defy me to blow,'” Hawkins explained. He was sitting across from me during a mid-afternoon interview at the Toronto Film Festival, where the film originally premiered. As he spoke, his fingers, a set of creeping cypress roots encircled by skull rings, drummed the top of a coffee table.

That’s virtually all he managed to say about the movie, and that some 20 minutes into a conversation that rambled from barroom brawls in the ’40s to California divorce courts in the ’80s; from the wilds of Ohio – where he said he was raised by Blackfoot Indians – to prisoner-of-war camps in Japan.

“I hate the Japanese, hate ’em!” Screamin’ Jay announced. That’s ironic. Mystery Train was bankrolled by JVC, the Japanese electronics company, and stars two young Japanese actors in the first and best of its three segments. The Orient also was the only place to welcome the singer’s 1968 rendition of “Constipation Blues” (since re-recorded with New York band The Fuzztones), a moan-n-groan meditation certain to alienate polite company. And, after making the movie, Hawkins found himself wedded to a Japanese woman.

Ignorance, however, must be bliss.

“They don’t know this,” Hawkins says, before launching an anti-KKK diatribe. “I cannot afford to let them know this.”

Elvis Presley, who looms over Mystery Train like a pop-cultural hologram – you can look, but you can’t touch – doesn’t exactly cater undying respect, either.

“[Gossip columnist] Dorothy Kilgallen kept comparing me to him [during the ’50s],” says Hawkins, his voice by turns Happy Hour affable and laden with Stygian gloom – a voice a spider could spin a web from. “Kept saying I made Elvis look like a choirboy, Little Lloyd Faunt’roy. I couldn’t understand it.

“The girl I was going with at that time, she was a feisty little devil, 4-feet-5, she was wicked, she was pah-er-ful! She said, ‘You got to go see this guy.’ I said, ‘What person?’ She never told me the man’s name. I never knew who I was going to see. I sat down in the arena in West Philadelphia, and all of a sudden onto the stage comes Elvis Presley. And all the girls, including my girl, jumps into the seat. WAHHHHHH-oooooo! And I grabbed her by the thigh. I pinched her as hard as I could and I said, ‘Don’t you know I sing? I have yet to see you jump and holler for me. What’s wrong with you?’

“Finally, we left. Went home in the car. I said, ‘What’s the big deal about Da Pelvis?’ That’s what I called him, Da Pelvis. She says, ‘Oh! He’s handsome.’ I said, ‘You need a new man! You are spennin’ my money like Niagara Falls drops over that huge cliff!’ I mean, I was teed off about it. Because it was my woman raving over another singer. We never questioned the fact over what color he was.”

But color, Mr. Hawkins insisted, was always the heart of the matter. “Bo Diddley always said, ‘Elvis stole my act.’ I said, ‘No, he didn’t. Let’s face it, they were ready for a white boy, and you ain’t it.’ It coulda been Lloyd Price, it coulda been me. It coulda been B.B. King. But I would never blame the man,” he says. “You forget, the world was bought for Elvis.”

The world according to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins is clouded with suspicion, innuendo, conspiracy – as smoky as the stages he’s prowled, toting a cane topped with a skull he calls Henry. But when a man records songs with the pungency of “She Put the Wamee on Me,” “Screamin’ Blues,” and “Feast of the Mau-Mau,” people listen – even if most of them are in Europe, where the singer tours exclusively.

“I learned to believe half of what I see and don’t believe nothing of what I read,” he declares, and proceeds to explicate a few of the verities that have sustained him.

– On natural genius: “You gotta have your head busted against the wall, you gotta scrape your behind, you gotta cry, you gotta be ornery, you gotta suffer and love. You gotta believe in God, you gotta love the devil. You gotta go through a whole lot of things to understand that inside of you is a certain talent if you just bring it out.”

– On honesty: “People say, you tell the truth, the truth will set you free. I say, you tell the truth, the truth will get you killed.”

– On home remedies: “I carry my own garlic. Garlic is good because I have high blood pressure. That stops me from getting a heart attack. I’m only hoping to get a stroke, and my ex-wife is trying hard for me to get a stroke.”

– On loving thine enemies: “If it’s somebody I really hate, kill him or cripple him. So you can hear him dragging his leg six blocks. This way, he can’t pull a snake attack on you.”

Screamin’ Jay was still laying it down as the tape runs out. A female publicist lurks in a back corner, heroically maintaining composure as he begins detailing an ex-wife’s “woman troubles.”

“Some people,” he said, “don’t want to deal with the truth.”