"Whatever you do, do not play 'the Beat!' "
That was the first thing Bo Diddley said to us before we walked onto the stage of the Music Machine club in West L.A. for two sets in 1983. We were a mix of members of the Blasters and X who had agreed, with great enthusiasm, to back up one of our greatest heroes for free at a benefit show for the Southern California Blues Society.
To say that we were upset by his announcement/warning would be an understatement. How could you play Bo Diddley songs and not play the powerful, infectious and sensual Bo Diddley Beat?
Since Bo's first records for the Chess label back in the mid-'50s, his "Beat" (a primal and relentless mix of the old shave-and-a-haircut riff, Chicago blues grooves and Latin rhythms) had been borrowed, stolen or adapted by everyone from Buddy Holly to the Rolling Stones to David Bowie for their own hit records.
Now, even though Bo had used various permutations of the Beat over the course of his long career, he was asking us to abandon it entirely in favor of . . . what? It's sort of like asking an actor to do "Hamlet" but don't use any of Shakespeare's words.
Blasters drummer Bill Bateman and X drummer DJ Bonebreak, sharing the drum and percussion duties for the night, asked Bo to clarify what beat they should play. He tapped out some rhythm that stressed a different accent, but, to be honest, I couldn't tell what the difference was. Fortunately, Bill and DJ picked up on his instructions, and by the end of the first song Bo seemed pretty happy.
It was a very good band, with Bill and DJ teaming for the essential duties on drums, timbales and maracas, X's John Doe and Blasters bassist John Bazz sharing the bass position, while my brother Phil, who also played some harmonica, and I followed Bo as best we could on guitars.
Most of the songs in the first set were new songs that Bo had recently recorded but none of us had ever heard, let alone studied. We (and just about every other musician in the modern age) had been dissecting all of his old records for years with the passion of theology students poring over the Dead Sea Scrolls or physicists debating string theory. A couple of the songs in the set were straight blues that easily fell into a comfortable pocket, but the rest were extended one-chord, semi-funk jams that wound up sounding as much like "Bitches Brew"-era Miles Davis as they did classic Bo Diddley.
As the set progressed and I began to get comfortable with Bo's new beats, I started thinking that it was close-minded of me to expect him to play the old songs the same old way. Wasn't Bo Diddley as much of a musical revolutionary as Bob Dylan? Weren't his original recordings of "Mona" or "Who Do You Love?" as musically unique, pivotal and influential in their day as Dylan's?
Maybe Bo wasn't the genius lyricist that Dylan is, but in rock 'n' roll (or blues and folk), lyrics aren't everything. If Dylan could change the melodies, grooves and even lyrics to his songs to keep exploring the possibilities of his art, why couldn't Bo Diddley?
Some people would argue that Bo was one of the architects of funk and, if that's the case, why shouldn't he be allowed to follow his own rhythmic path to wherever it might lead him? Why should Bo Diddley have to be stuck in the past just because that's where a part of his audience (and perhaps his backing bands) wanted him to remain?
I remember smiling on stage like a goofball as I realized all of this and came to the conclusion that if you really dig Bo Diddley, then let Bo Diddley be Bo Diddley! I was a young guy at the time who was trying his best to replicate old music -- and that's the best way to learn, believe me -- but that night Bo taught me a lesson about growing and surviving as a musician/artist: Stay true to yourself.
After the first set I approached Bo backstage and told him what I had been thinking while I played with him. "That's right," he said, laughing. "I already made all them old records years ago. Now I'm keeping myself new."
But as we walked back onstage for the second set, Bo turned to us, smiled and said, "You know, you boys are pretty good, so I'll tell what: The first song is gonna be 'Mona' and you can play with the Bo Diddley Beat." And we did.
Thank you, Bo, for all your incredible music over the years and, especially, the wise life lesson you taught me.
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Dave Alvin has been a member of the Blasters X and the Knitters and leads his own roots-rock group, the Guilty Men.