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August Darnell And The Creole Perplex

by Carol Cooper

"The dominant feeling of the black poet is one of malaise, better still of intolerance. Intolerance of reality because it is sordid, of the world because it is a cage, of life because it has been stolen on the high road of the sun."

-- Aime Cesare, "Introduction à la poésie negre américain" (Tropics # 2, 1941).

The Kid Creole world is one in which a society babe can be a bottom bitch. Downward mobility? Not at all, this is present day, real world egalitarianism where an Inaugural ball may have as many call girls as debutantes in attendance and never know the difference. Illusory class divisions as fragile as Japanese wall panels provoke semantic transparencies: the chippie becomes a courtesan; the pimp becomes an entrepreneur. Migrating to cities in order to attain new rights and powers, bucolic personalities dissolve into the sophistic fluidity of form and identity epitomized by Kid Creole and the Coconuts. The songs they perform embody a crash course in human nature that accepts "evil" as a relative virtue . . . call it the omnipotent perspective. In the City (which Kid Creole has conceived as a handcrafted jungle habitat), a Japanese wall panel will not be perceived as anything but perforable paper, nor a bottom bitch as anything but a loyal wife.

The tintinnabulation of hell's bells opens side one of Kid Creole and the Coconuts' Wise Guy. Bandleader August Darnell created this socafied aria "Annie, I'm Not Your Daddy" as simultaneous homage to Edgar Allan Poe, illegitimate joy babies, the upscale and downscale "leisure" classes, and every ringing telephone that ever pierced the sleep of the weary. Although casual listeners won't get past the characteristically acerbic subject matter, "Annie" represents a sort of culmination for the ex-copilot of Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band. Darnell's musical and literary in-jokes used to be too obscure to translate effectively on vinyl (Frank Zappa said facetiousness never translates in print, either), but the songs collected on Wise Guy, the third Kid Creole opus, are among the most accessible of any number of Darnell-produced projects.

Wise Guy may not be as populist as the first Machine LP, or as exuberant as '79's Gichy Dan's Beechwood #9, or as arch as 1980's Cristina. But all have been hot, manic, pop illusions, alternately flecked with lurid cynicism and cloying euphoria. Pathology, not politics, inspires Darnell and his fascination with the universal kinks in the human psyche makes him a most accurate chronicler of the passing scene. Darnell achieves universality where other pop musicians have failed because he frames each musical question in genuine paradox rather than mere controversy. He wants to force an inner assessment and hence a destruction of the gap between what we think we are and what we are culminating in a violent revolution of the will. By sheer dint of will Stony Browder Jr.'s erstwhile lyricist and protégé has become a formidably astute composer. When the head of Savannah Band was asked to describe how brother August's work differed from his own he could say: "It's the same thing -- dream music."

Or nightmare music. What always separated Browder and Darnell from the pop mainstream was their insistence on dreams as "the shadow of something real," a way to thoroughly confront a sordid reality. Neither the lulling escapist fervor of disco, nor the formulaic self-righteousness of rock could comfortably compare with songs from the second and third Savannah albums whose music and lyrics made the concept of contradiction an art form in itself.

There is a most fundamental contradiction in the work and persona of August Darnell alone. Ever since Island Records signed the Kid Creole act outside the U.S., Darnell has become a favorite interview for the European press. Great Britain has been particularly solicitous, zeroing in on his elegance, glib erudition and gigolo mien to iconize their first black American pin-up boy. Paul Robeson, Darnell is not, but he is, consciously, closer to Robeson than Teddy Pendergrass and accepts the foreign adulation with an ironically arched brow. Moving with equal ease among rich-raff and riff-raff he incorporates scenes from their respective salon-to-boudoir lives in songs that see such social designations as interchangeable. He has taken words like wit, charm, and style away from the entertainment and society columnists to invest them with equally true antithetical meanings. No modern songwriter is quicker to recognize wit as sarcasm, charm as hypocrisy, or style as superficiality than Darnell. But such are the games that famous people play, and Darnell will act the fool if that will get him over.

On the basis of his extremely flippant and equivocal public image it would be easy to play a rabid Daffy Duck to Darnell's urbane bugs Bunny, damning his ways and means as sexist, racist, classist, et al. But I have no intention of stammering "You're deth'picable" at New York's own François Villon. Too many interviewers have been thrown by Darnell's effortless self-hype, and confused the quality of the music with the quality of the put-on. Darnell's lyrics are better guides to his creative intent than his quoted explanations. His poetry (at its metaphysical best on the Savannah Band LPs), reveals it all, from ballots and bullets to sluts and saints. Aware of how media legends are implanted, Darnell views the interview process with fascination and contempt; qualities that provoke magnificent encounters but little in the way of insight. Darnell purposely withholds the key to his parables because he pursues larger media in which to unfold the complete idea. The trick is to sustain our curiosity until he lands that movie deal.

I remember being witness to the first performance of last year's Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places at the Ritz, wedged amid a throng of nonplussed trendies and press in the balcony, a capacity crowd of groundlings below. Gone was 1980's REM pastiche of abstracted urban stereotypes. Fresh Fruit was a polyglot playlet that transformed the giddy fantasies collected on the previous Off The Coast Of Me into nightmare. Claiming to be a "rap musical" concerning the Kid Creole character's frantic search for his one true love, Fresh Fruit offered song after song indicating the degenerated American Dream for crimes against the state of man. Aghast that control of the social hierarchy is shunted between predator and parasite -- perpetuating the most primitive form of determinism -- Darnell fills his stage with living mirrors of every false dichotomy, an array of juxtaposed obsessions. Three Fay Wrays and a phalanx of banana-boat refugees, screeching middle-class shrews and Vegas girls, Dorsey and Ellington, Rosie the Dyke and Carmen Miranda deliver Darnell's lyrics with yelping scorn -- rending love, sex, race, power and politics to bloody shreds. "Going Places," one of several songs that holds out the possibility of escape, ultimately denies surcease with the punchline: "When you leave New York you go -- nowhere!", a mordant declamation which is just an upscale version of the Player's Creed: You can't win, you can't break even, and you can't get out of the game.

Wise Guy extends this idea with the addenda that hell's denizens learn to enjoy corruption and relish internecine cruelty. Thus you have songs like "Annie" and the insidious "No Fish Today" that expose the roots of mental and physical aggression. The child abuse implicit in "Annie" and the petulant sarcasm in "No Fish Today"'s dialogue between Almost Have and Have Not frame the moral limitations of Darnell's international cast of characters. It is here that all the mulatto/mongrel posturing first initiated by Savannah's Mulatto Madness breaks down to reveal itself as metaphor. Darnell is no half-caste, nor does he believe that black versus white is the central contemporary dilemma. He is simply aware that the general public has been socialized to think so, and this misapprehension is manipulated to draw the kind of media attention that no other black or mixed band would attract. Nevertheless the Creole conceit, which like Mulatto Madness is a pop mythologizing of the "tragic mulatto" (as delineated by Langston Hughes) into a symbol of rebellion, is becoming unwieldy. Darnell is careful, perhaps too careful, to make sure that his allusions work on several levels: from the most literal to the most abstract. The pronounced decadence of Wise Guy, in particular its provocative staging, strained Darnell's half-breed gigolo persona to the limit of many a critic's indulgence. Former fans like the London Sunday Times' Simon Frith were mildly appalled during Wise Guy's recent European debut, by Darnell's literal rendition of "I'm A Wonderful Thing" which sent the single zipping up the British charts. Seriously offended, Frith went on to bemoan Darnell's self-characterization as a "small time pimp," oblivious to the likelihood that he had fallen prey to a highly calculated means of discovering prejudice.

Darnell is possessed of an extremely chthonic imagination and is wholly intent on snatching the mask off anything that passes for respectability. The only "themes" Darnell has ever worked with are paradox and bathos, to focus attention (not smirking condemnation like Zappa, Ferry, Jagger, and others) on mankind's original irreconcilables: spirit and flesh, emotion and intellect. These, like the best of Darnell's music, transcend sex, race, and class.


DARNELL WILL ADMIT he is no singer, and his taking the lead vocals on the bulk of Wise Guy and Fresh Fruit was more a matter of expediency than his own better judgment. After years of producing and paying close attention to the successful risks taken by non-singers in rock and new wave, he became convinced that cleverness could compensate for vocal limitations. But the perfectionist in him that worked with fine singers in the past, resents having to pass off inadequacy as poignancy, no matter how successful the transmutation. Onstage there is no question that he continues to maximize his group's potential; innovative staging, charisma, and clear enunciation sell Kid Creole to any live audience. But selling records is primarily an aural crapshoot. The difference between a Darnell designed recording and one in which he or the Coconuts have taken a prominent singing role has too often been the difference between a hit and a near miss.

Spooks In Space, a bizarre workshop compilation that drafted members of Savannah, the Ze Records stable and Darnell as primary lyricist under the aegis of producer Bob Blank offers a peep into the evolution of Darnell as musical scriptwriter. "(He's a) Marathon Runner," set to music by Carlos Franzetti and Andy Hernandez, catalogs Darnell's personal phobias: aging, failure, competition. His protagonist is a victim of ambition and the protestant work ethic. Pattering feet strive against the envy of a jeering crowd as the record subsides into a chilling death rattle. Although Wall Street brokers can empathize, "Marathon Runner," like Edith Piaf's "Traque," is pure ghetto desperation. On "Goin' To a Showdown," where Darnell contributed words and music, the scenario shifts to a lopsided Hollywood western. Taana Gardner chirps encouragement to her street corner cowboy: ". . . Put on something nice/ just in case ya die/ You'll leave a pretty corpse behind . . ." There is something about this mannered syntax that whistles up Madison Avenue, yet "Goin' to a Showdown" is fin-de-disco tin pan alley.

Gichy Dan's Beechwood #9 which Darnell co-produced with Ron (Spooks in Space, "Deputy of Love," "Cowboys and Gangsters") Rogers, is the sunny side of this street. Darnell was still committed to Savannah band, but had written a batch of songs Savannah couldn't use. So Darnell and Rogers took Juan Cotto, Frank "Gichy Dan" Passalaqua, and Lourdes Cotto into Blank Tapes to manufacture the most intriguing pop album of 1979. Frank Passalaqua and the Cottos were a cagey choice for the vocally demanding collection of ballads and Caribbean-flavored show tunes, for they represented just the right touch of racial and sexual ambiguity to overcome all the usual obstacles to airplay and fame in America. If Elvis was the bridge to white audiences for black music and performers, Gichy Dan was to be the inoffensive way to crossover Darnell's apocryphal troops of south-sea islanders, Caribbean natives, chino-clad immigrants, and zoot-suited fancy men.

As usual, much of the material is veiled autobiography, but the quality of the singers elevates each daring merger of doo-wop, soca and latin from in-group novelty item to instant classic. A listen to Passalaqua's solos on "Splendor in the Grass" and "Lady from the Caribbean" lets you know where Fresh Fruit's "I Stand Accused" and the new single from Wise Guy are lacking. "You Can't Keep a Good Man Down," which got limited airplay after the warm reception of the single "Laissez Faire," might have been clipped from Darnell's score for the musical Soraya which Joe Papp had been offered long before he saw and preferred Fresh Fruit. "Good Man" and the doo-wop bop of "Young Hearts" frame the overall optimism of Gichy Dan's Beechwood #9 the same way "Annie" and "No Fish Today" frame the overall pessimism of Wise Guy. It's been a long way from 1979 to 1982.

If the dreams of Gichy Dan were all of Hollywood romance and a sometimes overheated hearth, then Cristina offers the dark side of the moon-June-spoon sort of reverie. Michael Zilkha of Ze Records was looking for someone to produce a tolerable record for his girlfriend, and Darnell jumped to the challenge. What, he wondered, would be the dream-life of a wealthy, well-traveled Radcliffe wench with a rakish wit, manqué pretentions, and no voice to speak of? Darnell, again with the assistance of Rogers and Blank knuckled down to his favorite type of conjuring: silk purses from sows ears. Merging Cristina's personality with his own, he concocted a series of theatrical shadow boxes for her to inhabit, embellished with the combined psychological detritus of Ayn Rand, Eldrige Cleaver and Salvador Dali. "Jungle Love" is the vinyl genesis of Darnell's extended flirtation with the Fay Wray/King Kong mythos: "They say that a blond-headed girl/ Is tied between two giant stakes/ Tonight in this primitive world/ She's going to marry an ape . . ." Cristina's shrieks and 24 tracks of jungle sound effects made this a minor hit in California. "Don't be Greedy" and "Mama Mia" are my personal favorites. The former features unique instrumentation set around a terse ultimatum to a wandering mate thereby cushioning the singer's dramatic excesses. The latter does all that and more to evoke the emotional mise-en-scene of a wife and mother who is prone to wander, leaving a little family ever uncertain and longing for her return. Resentment? You betcha, Cristina is all about the politics of desire and resentment -- why we hurt the ones we love.


FALLING BRIEFLY BACK into the Savannah band to fire off Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band Goes to Washington, Darnell contributed lyrics that were nowhere near the multi-lingual incisiveness of "The Gigolo and I" or "Auf Wiedersehen, Darrio" from Meets King Penett. "We used to laugh at Sandy Linzer and those guys after the first album," Darnell admitted, "because they would only write and sing in one language." But the public didn't get the point behind the fluent, almost subliminal transitions from English to Spanish, English to French, or English to German. So Browder and Darnell attempted a different sort of complexity. "Seven Year Itch" merges be-bop theories with rock 'n' roll technique to provide Cory Daye with an orchestrally busy, dissonant backdrop where only she and a bank of horns know where the melody goes. The lullaby of Southern Boulevard? Perhaps. There is something frightening about the fact that each note of this swelling cacophony is written down -- arranged -- like the vivid minutiae of recurring nightmares, so that upon analysis one is able to decipher a good deal more of the subconscious text than might be comfortable to know.

Darnell no sooner finished his contribution to Savannah's cryptic dreambook than he was back on the casting couch with his own. Kid Creole & the Coconuts became a performing entity because it wasn't enough for Darnell to let people hear his obsessions without the visual counterpart. Off The Coast of Me was just a screen test, a grab-bag of Darnell's most varied ideas to see what the public would bear. "Lili Marlene," a German disco version, was a bit too camp. "Darrio (Can You Get Me Into Studio 54?)" was a bit too cute. "Calypso Pan American"? Too bizarre. So all the more moderate elements of these tunes were shifted, refocused and rethought to produce the rock/reggae/cabaret extravaganza Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places.

Joseph Papp had originally proposed to mount Fresh Fruit on Broadway in '82. But Papp's reservations about the script and the feasibility of some of the music has pushed that date back until such time as Darnell and Papp are able to reach a middle ground to collaborate (collaborate?) on the definitive book and score. Asked if he found Darnell resistant to changes in his concept, Papp replied that the opposite was true, that he had to stave off Darnell's urge to compromise (in the interest of speed) to preserve "what I like best about his work."

"Darnell understands the middle-class very well," Pepp continued, "and he likes to taunt them. I think they enjoy it too, but some of the harsher aspects of his music which perfectly complement the downtown club scene will have to be adjusted for a Broadway audience." No doubt Darnell appreciates Papp's respect for the satirical thrust of his writing, but it must gig Darnell, the master of irony, to have to relinquish the final shape of his immorality play to even such an accomplished entrepreneur as Papp.

Meanwhile, we are left to peruse the interim release, Wise Guy. Although reminiscent of Off The Coast of Me's frivolous boogie appeal, Wise Guy purports to be a flashback on the Fresh Fruit story, a tale of 21 days spent in the Coconut equivalent of the Black Hole of Calcutta. In reality, we have only returned to that somnambulant never-never land where even Darnell is forced to tell the truth. "Stool Pigeon," a brassy swing salute to Joe Valacchi, careens along replete with screams and moans in the instrumental breaks -- the gleefully violent sound track for a pistol whipping. "The Love We Have" is a conga-line detour into yet another evanescent romance, pounding out the frustration of inconstant affection. An instrumental chant "I'm Corrupt" ends the side by going to the heart of the matter. Who is so righteous that he is "worthy" of being loved? Who is so evil that he is "worthy" of being hated? How can immortal spirit exist in flesh, or rational intellect coexist with brute emotion?

During their correspondence in 1919, Sigmund Freud congratulated Carl Jung on his discovery of the American "Negro complex," which ascribed the psychological eccentricities of Americans to highly symptomatic sexual repression. Dr. Otto Rank was later to paraphrase this theory as being ". . . sought chiefly in the effects of living together with the Negro, which has a suggestive effect upon the laboriously subjugated instincts of the white races." Freud and Jung also debated the use of animist religion and parapsychology in diagnosing mental disease -- and mental health. Much to Jung's disillusion Freud preferred to set up the sexual theory as an unassailable dogma against "the black tide of mud, of occultism," and to defend biological determinism against the type of faith healing dream therapy could become. Being the grinning golem of the black tide, and an archetypal beneficiary of the Negro complex, Darnell probably attended these discussions as a protoplasmic fly on the wall. Now, by creating a self-referential legend that makes the story of Bumpy Johnson and the Domino Sugar heiress seem like Ozzie and Harriet, Darnell has woven these psychodynamics into songs that are trenchant social allegories.

Word for word and note for note, August Darnell is an eloquent apologist for urban living -- the definitive pan-American tunesmith who has made his home in the heart of darkness.

Published in: Village Voice, July 27, 1982