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Can Blue Men Play the Whites? 

Wednesday, Nov 4 1998
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Jon Spencer do not play no blues.

He tells you that, his own bad self, on "Talk About the Blues," the first single from his current Matador Records album, Acme. Over a rumbling groove that's split by a sampled shard of Judah Bauer's guitar, Spencer, utilizing that mush-mouthed white-blooze voice that would embarrass even professional white Negro John Hammond, lays down the law:

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Rolling Stone magazine, on the telephone bay-buhTalkin' about the blues . . .Rolling Stone magazine, coming on the phone, bay-buhTalkin' 'bout that fashion.Spin magazine wanna tell ya what to wearBut I ain't gettin' with that, or MTV . . .Stay with it, bay-buh, 'cause I got somethin'I want everybody to hear right now, ladies 'n' gennamen.I don't play no blues. I play rock & roll!That's right. The blues is No. 1, the blues is No. 1, ladies 'n' gennamen.But there's something I gotta tell ya right now -I do not play no blues, I do not play no blues.I play rock & roll! Get it!

This outburst doesn't come unladen by Spencer's customary irony - after all, Acme's very first track, "Calvin," begins with the sampled proclamation "THIS IS BLUES POWER!" - but it isn't unexpected, either, and its anger and impatience are definitely sincere.

Spencer's music has the same effect upon critics that a strobe light does on some epileptics; the chafing of the Blues Explosion's parodic elements (including but not limited to Spencer's punk-Elvis vocalizing) against its diligently forceful re-configuration of blues and R&B moves has always touched off petits mals in the press corps.

The JSBX's exploits in 1996 dispensed waves of cognitive dissonance through the journalistic community. At that point, the group was coming off their hip-hop/'70s- soul-inflected 1994 album Orange and 1995's Experimental Remixes EP, which comprised Orange tracks jacked around by UNKLE, Wu-Tang Clan's Genius, Moby, Beck, and Mike D. of the Beastie Boys. The Blues Explosion - singer-guitarist Spencer, guitarist Bauer and drummer Russell Simins - executed a bizarre 180 by first backing north Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside on his loose-jointed raunch fest A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, and followed it up with their own Now I Got Worry, the most primal assault the band had mustered since Crypt Style in 1992.

So, taking things on their face, certain writers reasoned that if Spencer was playing the blues, then he must be a bluesman, just as the band name connotes (which would explain the Blues Explosion's presence alongside established blues artists in Rolling Stone's blues supplement this spring). And, it followed, since Spencer is a white, college-educated semiotics student, he has no right to play the blues (an idea with more crow's-feet on it than Mick Jagger's mug).

Explaining the mocking tone of "Talk About the Blues," Spencer - calling from a hall in the Pacific Northwest, the latest stop on the Blues Explosion's U.S. tour - says, "I guess it was a reaction to a lot of the criticism I've received over the last couple of years, after Now I Got Worry. The thing that kind of triggered it was doing that interview for the Rolling Stone blues issue. The piece came out great, and they printed a nice photo of me, and what more can you ask for? A nice big picture. But I just got so nervous when they said, 'Rolling Stone wants to interview you for their blues issue.' I just thought they were gonna drag me through all sorts of shit, you know. So I got so worked up and nervous about it. A few days after doin' it, that's when I wrote that song. And the song was kinda unusual, because it's just me sampling the Blues Explosion, some kind of jam session we recorded with Calvin Johnson at his Dub Narcotic studio in Atlanta a couple of years ago, and then just kinda did the lyrics freestyle over it. It was just made up on the spot."

Spencer admits that he has probably made it tough on himself by calling his band the Blues Explosion.a "Yeah. I mean, I've certainly thought that. But fuck it. I think some people just don't have a sense of humor, and by that I do not mean that the Blues Explosion is a comedy act. We're not a joke band. Some people are too square or something . . . I think that the song is more than anything about, you know, like, this is rock & roll, and, come on, man, get off it, let's dance. It's just music. You know?"

Yet, while Spencer suggests that such matters are beside the point, he bridles at any notion that the Blues Explosion has no right to dip into the blues lexicon if it chooses to.

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