Swamp Dogg, Part 2
“I worked in a pharmacy called Washington Pharmacy, and I was a delivery boy. A lot of times, I worked behind the counter. They would make the black women customers wait there at one table sitting in the back. The black men had to wait out in the hallway to wait on their shit. If you were gonna make a sundae for a black person, you didn’t use quite as much ice cream as you were supposed to for a white person. A buddy of mine that I was working with, when the black people would come in and ask for a soda, he would go in the back and make the sodas. Well, for some reason, the people who owned the drugstore didn’t care that we were getting it from the back. Actually, every time we would bring the ice to the front, and pour it into the receptacle, we’d done pissed in the ice. We’d piss in the ice, and then we’d bring it up, and people would be like, ‘Awww God, you make a good Coke!’”
“And we’d done pissed in the ice! The first couple times I saw my friend doing it I said, ‘Man, what the fuck are you doing??’ But he’d piss in it, and then take it up front. So we’d make all our sodas in the back. You should’ve seen the restrooms. The one for black people had ‘Colored’ on the door, and that’s where we kept the mop and the buckets and all that shit. And the bathroom for whites looked like it was built by King Tut. It was laid like a motherfucker. They would have us in the prescription room, and we used to put the short count on white people. That was our way of getting back. Let’s say if your prescription was 50 pills, we’d put in 47.”
It was y’all’s small act of rebellion.
“Yeah, some of those people used to call up, ‘Hey, goddammit, you shorted me three pills.’ So I’d have to hop on the bicycle and ride on down there and take them people their motherfucking pills. But it didn’t really get that bad down there, mainly because of all the military installations. Navy and Army. We didn’t do like Mississippi or Alabama and call ourselves the Sovereign State. I remember my man – Governor Wallace – declared Alabama another country. You’re gonna need a passport to get in his shit. Crazy motherfucker.”
Yeah, absolutely crazy.
“But, I’ll tell you, I admired him for one thing…”
What’s that? What could you possibly admire George Wallace for?
“For running with his beliefs. I mean, we knew he was wrong, but here’s a motherfucker that really thought he was right. And he took it as far as he could – as far as people would allow him to take it… That’s all. I admire him for being a motherfucker who would stick. If he had been a musician, I believe he would’ve been one of the top musicians in the world. Mainly because he would’ve laid with it. He didn’t want blacks doing their damn thing in Alabama aside from working and being second-class. I mean, that’s more of a left-handed compliment. I mean, naw, I don’t have no damn admiration for George Wallace.”
Well that’s amazing. It’s a testament to your open-mindedness and observations that you could see it at all from that perspective. Did you feel like playing music opened any of that up? I know you said you listened to country music, but did playing music break those racial boundaries down a little bit?
“I noticed all over the country that, whatever kind of musician it is, whatever genre he was into, if you walked in as a black guy and wanted to sit in, you never had a problem sitting in. The club owner might come up and raise hell, saying, ‘Y’all gotta get that nigger out of here.’ But the musicians really didn’t care. And it’s always been like that. As long as you can make some good music, then come on! I wish sometimes – of course we’d more than likely be starving to death – that the world would have the attitude of musicians. We’ll live together. One musician never meets another musician that’s a stranger. And we’ll meet a lot of other strangers in other walks of life. But you never meet a stranger who is also a musician.”
You know, there’s definitely a humility I’ve noticed in your songwriting that I think is interesting, because your music tends to deal with calling out what is wrong with the world. Whether that’s the government’s treatment of black people, or the growth of consumerism and globalism, or the way one man mistreats his family. But you address it all with enough humility and honesty to keep them thought provoking rather than pompous. What inspires you to talk about these things? Do you feel like, as a songwriter, you have a responsibility to the world to talk about these things?
“Naw. Just like I’m talking to you right now, I’m just saying what I believe. These are my opinions. A lot of things are observations – that are really happening, or have really happened. Like, I keep referencing that line in ‘Total Destruction’: ‘They find out how to tax the grass/ Now watch them get the law passed.’ And that’s what they’ve done! Let me tell you something, man. You can do anything in the United States you want to do as long as you let Uncle Sam be your partner. I mean, you can run drugs… Just let him be your partner. That’s all he wants.”
That’s the truth… So, how can you address these heavy questions, and give these insights, but then humbly say, “I don’t claim to know the answers here”? How do you avoid preaching?
“I guess that’s just not my personality. If you say, ‘Hey man, Lee Bains is going to do this,’ and I don’t believe in it at all, just because I don’t believe in it does not mean that you’re wrong. So, I’ll give you the encouragement to follow your mind, and do it. It’s just like bungee jumping. I wouldn’t do it. But if you feel you should do it, then do it! And I don’t care what you do in life, somebody could get hurt. You could be home in your bed, and a motherfucker could break in and hurt you. So, there’s no such thing as staying completely away from danger and negativity. So, that’s the way I write: ‘This is what I think.’ But, you know, if you don’t go along with it, that’s cool.
“I was onstage one night, and I was talking about Nixon. And some motherfucker way in the back screamed up there – and it was the first time and the last time – and he was pro-Nixon. Well, you know what, I said, ‘Hey man, I’m just telling you how I feel. I ain’t getting in no argument with you. You may very well be right.’ And I didn’t hear no more. But I didn’t say nothing else about Nixon, either, that night. And that’s when I was doing ‘Sam Stone.’ And I knew exactly what I was singing about. That song caused a lot of controversy. John Prine wrote the dogshit out of that song. And that’s another thing. I will give recognition to any songwriter I think is great. And songwriter whose song you hear me sing, I feel they are a better writer than I am. I’m singing a song that I wish I had written. ‘Well, since I didn’t write it, goddammit, I’m going to sing it!’”
Well, now you know why I recorded your song! And I wanted to talk about how, on Total Destruction to Your Mind, you covered two Joe South songs.
“I love me some Joe South! For some reason, he disappeared. I think he may have died.”
He sure did. He passed away recently, unfortunately.
“A writing motherfucker.”
Well, y’all remind me of each other.
“You know, he opened a hell of a door for me: to be able to use the word ‘nigger’ in my songs. Because every time I’d say ‘nigger,’ most of the complaints would come from white people in Cadillacs. Bleeding hearts and shit. And I said, ‘Hey! Joe South wrote that song! ‘Niggers, dagos and Jews.’ Before I ever said ‘nigger,’ I HEARD ‘nigger.’”
Yeah, you didn’t invent that word!
“No! I didn’t wake up one morning, and say, ‘Hey! Nigger!’ But I have been awakened by ‘Hey, nigger! So… shit!”
It’s interesting because both “Rednecks” and “These Are Not My People” seem to speak to an experience of being a stranger in your own country, and observing others. In one song, it’s racist, obnoxious assholes, and in the other one it’s bougie hipsters putting on airs.
And in spite of trying to reconcile yourself to them, you just can’t do it. How did you relate to those songs personally?
“Mostly traveling around the country. Like, in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1965, I got arrested. The cops beat me up and shit. They broke into my room. I was staying in a hotel called the Alibi, of all places. They broke in my room, guns drawn, threw me down on the bed, and handcuffed me and shit. I’m asking, ‘What did I do?’ But I also knew not to ask a lot of shit, and not to say a lot of shit. Because them fucking guys was ready to just do anything to me. Because they wouldn’t tell me why I was being arrested. When I got down there, they put me in the cell and whooped my ass, all bloody. They whooped my ass after they put me in a lineup. It’s like Richard Pryor said: ‘Boy, if you ever get put in that lineup, and get picked, it’s your ass.’ See, what I was accused of was being somebody named ‘Little Joe.’ And I had beat up an old white man and wife in a trailer park, and took their money, right?”
Holy shit! And you’d been playing a show or whatever… not even in Charlotte, probably!
“Yeah! The only way I was able to prove it wasn’t me is that I just happened to be in jail in Macon, Georgia!”
Do what? Are you serious?
“Yeah! I was supposed to start opening for Otis Redding. He was supposed to pay my hotel bill, but he left. So I skipped out of the hotel, the Holiday Inn. They called the police. I’m just walking down the street, back to Otis’s office, the RedWal building [Redding and then-manager Phil Walden’s business HQ]. Otis is gone, and I tell Phil Walden, and he says, ‘Man, I don’t have nothing to do with what you and Otis did.’ He didn’t give me the money. I must have owed every bit of $70. I’d been there about two or three days. Anyway, that was the proof. And when the guys let me out of jail, as they were walking me down the steps, they told me, ‘Don’t let us catch you around here no fucking more.’ And I wanted to say, ‘I ain’t done a goddam thing!!’ But I said, ‘Yessir.’”
“Then I go over to the radio station who had brought me in there, WGIV, and they had this lady disc jockey. She was the heaviest thing down there. Big-headed bitch. Looked like she had a big old watermelon on her neck. And that bitch had the NERVE when I walked into the studio… She had stopped playing my record those couple of three days I was MIA. And she said, ‘I’m canceling the show.’ I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Oh, you’re the worst thing ever happened to Charlotte. I’ve never been so embarrassed in all my life. And I’m canceling the show.’ I said, ‘You big-headed bitch, I don’t give a fuck! You’re gonna give me my money!’ I think I was making about a hundred and a quarter a night. Long story short, I did the show, I made my money, and she quit playing my record. And I had a little thing called ‘Baby, You’re My Everything’ that, if it wasn’t number one, was top five most places. And she was calling up the record company, telling them what happened, what I did. But it just so happened I was working for a record label owned by gangsters, so they didn’t give a shit. Fucking motherfuckers up was their hobby!”
Is it right that you moved from Portsmouth up to Philadelphia and New York?
“Well, first I moved to Newark, New Jersey. Because I was afraid to go to New York. I would catch the bus to the Port Authority in New York. I would get off, walk about five or six blocks up the street. And they had a place that sold a good Polish dog. And I’d buy a Polish dog, and I’d look through the windows and shit, and then I’d go back and get on the bus, and go back to Newark! I was afraid to go past that! So, finally, I got involved with a promoter that got me into the middle of things up there. But, no, in ’66, I moved to Miami. I went down there to play a show. I had just closed the Christmas show at the Apollo, starring Solomon Burke. And I did ten days, five to six shows a day.”
“Yeah! For 300 motherfucking dollars. But, if you hadn’t played the Apollo, you hadn’t done shit! It was almost worth paying the motherfuckers that owned the Apollo to play there. Because motherfuckers would say, ‘Oh, you were at the Apollo?!’ Yeah, but they don’t know you were the worst thing on the bill! They just know you were at the Apollo. But when the plane started to land [in Miami], all these niggas out there with short-sleeved shirts with big old flowers all over them, and fucking straw Panama hats and shit. I said, ‘Where the fuck is this? I hope the plane didn’t crash and I’m dead!’ I got off the plane; it must have been 85 or 90 degrees. I said, ‘Baby, I ain’t going back there. You get the kids together, and you’re coming to Miami. Motherfuck Portsmouth!’”
“So, I got to Miami, and I worked, and I made a little money. I was a celebrity. And then my next record came out, and it didn’t sell. Due to the fact it didn’t sell, now I’m working with a motherfucker named Wild Man Steve. He was a disc jockey from Boston. We were on a gig one night, this band called the Magnolias out of Atlanta and me. We go on out to play a banquet room at like a Holiday Inn. And we’re getting off the bus, and he says, ‘Look here, you guys are the Four Tops!’”
“I said, ‘What?!’ I said, ‘Well, fuck it. I need my money.’ But now here’s the funny part. I’m supposed to be Levi [Stubbs], right? Here I am 5’5”, and Levi’s seven foot tall. And I’m out there singing. I knew the songs. The whole audience was white. And I look over to the left, and there’s a black guy leaning against the wall. And he’s got his jacket over his arm, and he kept looking up there. And I told Calvin – the leader of the group – I said, ‘Calvin, we got a problem with this motherfucker over there. He just told somebody, ‘That ain’t the Four Tops.’’ All of a sudden, hell breaks loose in there. We take off, running like a son of a bitch. We get to the bus, and that motherfucker Steve’s got the money, got the bus, and taking off on us. He stopped the bus, and we got on. We never did get paid, because he said he left without the money. We never did believe him, but anyway… As I think about it at this moment, he might have been the one that spread the word we weren’t the motherfucking Four Tops.