Feeling and Sound:
Houserocking with Hound Dog Taylor
I’ve been playing guitar for nearly twenty years. Ever since that Christmas morning, after the desire for dolls and action figures had waned, when my first guitar was brought into the living room and placed firmly into my waiting, six-year-old arms.
My first few years were spent plucking out the standard material on that baby guitar. “Twinkle, Twinkle,” “Camptown Races,” and, inexplicably, “Love Me Tender.” I was taught in the backroom of Boutilier’s, a strip mall music store in Sydney, Cape Breton, (Nova Scotia, Canada) by a bedraggled man in a leather jacket named Darryl. Darryl was a shredder who smelled permanently of aggressive aftershave and old smoke. He likely had a seven-string guitar tucked into his closet at home, but he was sweet and patient with this serious, three-and-half-foot tall redhead he found in his charge for one hour each Thursday afternoon.
We moved to the U.S. when I was nine, and I started playing classical music. It took two years of study to be able to play “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Two painful years spent stretching my small hands across the fretboard until my left hand’s fingers could span four frets.
Then I moved to jazz. I liked the hook-driven bop of Thelonious Monk and the cool, sashaying groove of “Black Orpheus.” But after a few years, around the time I was supposed to be learning how to solo over “A Night in Tunisia,” I began to find the whole thing too mathematical and anxiety-inducing. I felt nothing about the music I was playing, except that it sounded good when everything went right. I learned the lines methodically, by rote. I forgot them quickly.
Then I started spending my afternoons with my head in my mother’s record collection. I found myself buying picks in bags of twelve, learning to strum out chords in time with the wandering lyrics of songwriters like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Even though this was a technical backslide, I had found something that made me excited about the instrument I’d already invested so many years into learning. Perhaps I stopped before I reached my full technical potential. I still consider myself only a competent player—I know just about enough, as they say, to get into trouble.
Around the same time, I had landed my first job working in a local music store. We were what they call a “full-service” music store—we sold musical instruments and accessories, as well as recorded music. The small store has been in Farmington, Maine, since the early seventies. It has weathered the transitions from vinyl to eight-tracks, then from cassette tapes to CDs.
I loved the six years I spent being a shop girl. I loved proving to the (mostly male) clientele that I could talk circles around them about recordings, gear, and instruments. I absorbed everything I could from the environment. I wanted to talk pickups. I wanted to talk bow hair and circuitry. I wanted to convince you there was something you could buy that would make you a better musician.
We set up a speaker so we could play music out on the street of the small downtown. Whichever employee opened the store tended to control the music. It was nearly impossible to wrest back control. I had routines—Beach Boys on summer days from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. to rouse the quiet streets from the morning fog; London Calling on slow afternoons, when I could dust the guitars and dance to “The Card Cheat” with little chance of interruption.
We had certain go-to albums for when we couldn’t agree. Those times when my coworker, Chris, had exhausted his Pixies albums, or my boss was threatening to slip in another Clannad album, subjecting us all to two hours of the insistent whinny of fiddles and pennywhistles. Or those long and quiet afternoons where it was painfully clear we were hawking a dying medium. Those were the moments Chris or I would select CD #64—Hound Dog Taylor & The Houserockers’ Release The Hound.
Hound Dog Taylor has been dead longer than I have been alive. Born Theodore Roosevelt Taylor in Mississippi in the late 1910s, he moved to Chicago in the 1940s, haunting South Side clubs like Florence’s Lounge for twenty-five years before finding some modicum of success. Then he abruptly died of cancer in the early seventies. His claim to fame mostly involves the presence of an extra finger on his left hand.
Release The Hound is a collection of some of his best work, both live and studio recorded. Bruce Iglauer started Alligator Records expressly to be able to release Hound Dog’s music after he saw him thrilling a crowd with his cheap Japanese guitar, a Pall Mall in the corner of his mouth and Canadian Club at his feet. The fifth, yet penultimate, finger on his left hand encased in a steel slide, made from the sawed-off leg of an old kitchen chair.
Even with the surplus digit, his style is bare-bones, unadorned. His slide playing is reminiscent of Elmore James; people will often compare them. But Hound Dog’s sound is sloppier, his tone pure Chicago boogie—hot, muddy, and overdriven. Freddie King has admitted that his classic version of “Hideaway” was taken almost entirely from Hound Dog’s version.
Hound Dog had a few brief years of success—sold-out clubs and festivals, then auditoriums, finally venues like Philharmonic Hall in New York City. A feature in Rolling Stone followed. But it all only lasted four years. After only three albums with the band, Hound Dog was dead. Any live performance caught on film or tape lives on as proof of the lasting impression he made on his audiences.
A tight trio, the Houserockers didn’t have a bassist. On songs like “Gonna Send You Back to Georgia,” and, “See Me in the Evening,” rhythm guitarist Brewer Philips covers the basic back and forth shuffle normally regulated to the bass, while simultaneously spinning fantastic, rollicking licks in between the verses.
On Release The Hound, Hound Dog takes liberties with classic material, changing the chord progressions and altering the rhythms. I have heard numerous versions of “It Hurts Me Too,” and maintain the only two worth my time are Elmore James’s definitive version, and Hound Dog Taylor’s scrappy, electric cover. He drops roughly half the words and lets the guitar fill in the most important lines, coming back in only with a raucous shout: “it hurts me too!”
In the lead, Hound Dog’s guitar is jarring, abrasive, and gleefully powerful. He’s pushing his amp as hard as possible in the tiny room. True distortion comes from an amplifier being asked to produce more sound than it’s capable of creating in a healthy way. The circuit overdrives and creates a harmonic above or below the one that’s intended. The tubes in his amp are so hot you can hear them hissing between tracks. His tone tells me that on that night in the South Side of Chicago, Hound Dog filled the room up with bottleneck boogie until it felt like it would burst.
The whole album is great—little distinction should be made between live and in-studio, considering the recorded tracks were all cut in an evening, in a single take, since, as Iglauer puts it, Hound Dog and the band, “hated to play the same song twice.” That being said, the live tracks, and all of his live releases, are something special. The crowd participates, calling out, yelling, answering his questions and asking their own. A hidden track of a particularly bawdy exchange of words between Hound Dog and an audience member closes out the disc. It’s not heckling, it’s reveling.
Loud, brash and genuine, nothing sounds exactly as it’s supposed to—but it all sounds right. As Iglauer writes in his liner notes for 1982’s Genuine Houserockin’ Music, Hound Dog himself put it best: “When I die, they'll say, ‘he couldn’t play shit, but he sure made it sound good.’”
People tend to think that because I’m a musician, and have been one for so long, that I can only be moved by music in a technical sense. Often they seem reticent to share with me songs they truly love. “But you probably understand what they’re doing here,” they say. The quiet concession is that their enjoyment is shallow, lacking comprehension.
And it’s true that I can tell you every key Hound Dog is playing in, almost every note he plays. The drumbeats are basic, knocked out on a three-piece kit with cheap rims and marred-up skins. Musicians and music geeks spout these kinds of facts like sports fans list the stats of their favorite player or predict how an anticipated match-up of two teams will play out. It’s an attempt to translate ineffable passion into a more quantifiable shape.
Still. Still, I can’t quite put the words on why this album, over so many more precise and fine things, satisfies me so deeply. Perhaps because, as Wallace Stevens puts it in “Peter Quince at the Clavier”:
Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound.
I return again and again to Release The Hound because it captures that feeling. It’s the same feeling I had when I slipped one of my mom’s records on the turntable’s spindle; when I heard the opening chords of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Far beyond just fingers on the keys or a piece of old metal dragged over strings.
I’ve learned, since I left the music store, to relax those walls of technical knowledge. To allow myself to be moved by a recording where the wonder comes from a place far beyond musical theory or objective talent. For all my musings on gear and production, arrangement and style, isn’t the experience we seek from music, really, to be blown apart by something we can’t fully understand?
It’s tape rolling in a room—small, dimly lit, crowded with people who have come to see the six-fingered man sitting on a folding chair on the stage, playing a cheap guitar through a broken amp, and hear their busted souls played back to them. You could play your scales for hours each day your whole life, and never be able to accomplish that.
All I’m left with is the glory of that room. And the happy knowledge that Release The Hound is still in print.
You know, it’s no problem of yours, it’s mine, Hound Dog hollers in “Things Don’t Work out Right.” The crowd shouts and responds. But he’s wrong—because it resonates in each person in that room, and in each person who listens to his recordings. With his hard-fought fame and his short time in the spotlight, Release the Hound exists as a monument to some of the most stripped down, simplest music ever created. But he also created something more—music that is both an admission of, and a way through, our shared sufferings. Or: When things go wrong for Hound Dog, it hurts us too—and we’re all better for it.