When I sit down at a piano, there’s only one song that I can pick out on the ivories--and, no matter how ineptly I play, the song is instantly and universally recognizable.
“Duh-duh-duh, duh-duh,” goes the familiar beat of “Louie Louie,” a song that serves as a kind of lyrical Rorschach test for the overheated sexual imaginations of generations of American teen-agers. And now the song--as well as the legend and lore surrounding it--are the subject of a monograph by rock chronicler Dave Marsh.
“It is the best of songs, it is the worst of songs,” Marsh rhapsodizes in a book that tells us just about everything there is to know about “Louie Louie.” “A song with roots, a glimpse of the future, the song that defines our purpose, the very voice of barbarism . . . Barely a song at all--three chords and a cloud of dust.”
There’s a certain note of madness to Marsh’s undertaking. Is there, after all, a whole book in “Louie Louie”? But we soon realize that “Louie Louie” itself is an authentic pop icon, not merely a song, and Marsh uses it as a lens through which to examine the fine grain of American popular culture in general and rock ‘n’ roll in particular.
Marsh is spoiling to cut away the mythic overgrowth that has come to obscure the song and the songwriter. “Louie Louie” is associated with the Kingsmen, a Portland group that recorded a hit version in 1963, but Marsh reminds us that the song was actually written in South-Central Los Angeles in 1956 as a variation on the cha-cha by a black songwriter named Richard Berry for a Latino group called Rocky Rillera and the Rhythm Rockers.
“In other words,” observes Marsh, “ ‘Louie Louie’ was created about as amateurishly as the atomic bomb.”
Marsh’s book is, among other things, a saga of the very earliest stirrings of rock ‘n’ roll in Southern California--and, incidentally, a morality play about what can happen to a young rock ‘n’ roller like Berry when he dives into the shark tank of the music business.
Some of the very best moments in “Louie Louie” are the passages in which Marsh describes the hipsters and hypesters, the crooks and con men and the desperately earnest young artists who invented rock music.
“Los Angeles’s original rock and R&B; singers would have been shocked by the ‘90s idea of their town’s rock heritage,” writes Marsh in celebration of the colorful folk who populate his book. “The doo-woppers, shouters and R&B; teams of the ‘50s . . . would spit in the eye of all this trash, kick ‘em in the balls, then open their mouths and show such impostors how to rock .”
But “Louie Louie” soon transcended the clubs and dance halls where it began and entered the collective unconscious of a nation. As Marsh points out, the song has been studied by college professors, rock critics, pop historians and even, weirdly enough, the FBI, all of whom sought to decipher the allegedly scandalous lyrics that were obscured by the slurred delivery of each of the rock ‘n’ roll singers who performed the song, ranging from Paul Revere and the Raiders to John Belushi.
“It may be fairly said that the only genuinely useful purpose to which the FBI put America’s tax dollars in the ‘Louie Louie’ investigation was in accumulating variant versions of (the) supposed dirty words,” writes Marsh, who insists that the original lyrics are not really dirty at all.
Curiously, the book does not include the actual lyrics of “Louie Louie” because, sadly, the current copyright owner refused to grant permission to reprint them. Marsh gives us enough hints to figure out that the song is a romantic Jamaican sea chanty rather than a heavy-breathing pornographic fantasy: Louie, Marsh allows us to understand, is actually “a guy who . . . sees that Jamaican moon above while sailing all alone for three nights and days without respite.”
On the other hand, Marsh does give us the “dirty” lyrics of “Louie Louie” in all their hormonal excess, and he insists that it doesn’t matter whether we know what is written down on the lyric sheet. “The whole reason for making rock ‘n’ roll,” he observes, “is to do something that speaks directly to those who get it and remains utterly unfathomable to everybody else.”
Or, to put it another way, even after Marsh has revealed everything he discovered about “Louie Louie,” Duh-duh-duh, duh-duh is all you really need to know.