KEEPIN’ IT REAL: The Price Of Authenticity

Dearly departed Fat Possum recording artist and Mississippi juke joint operator Junior Kimbrough

JAMIE DAVISBY JAMES M. DAVIS “Full of mojo $300” read the Craigslist ad for a guitar speaker from the ’60s. It was a Jensen C12N, the same speakers that used to come stock in Twin Reverb amps. It was authentic is what the ad was trying to say, it would drive inspiration. Your rock star fantasy would be that much more impenetrable. You could buy a new Warehouse clone with the exact same specifications of the same speaker for a quarter the price, but there’s no denying it, you would lose the mojo. The Fender Twin that Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones used to record Never Mind The Bollocks did not have warehouse speakers, it had the original Jensen C12Ns. By that logic, vintage Jensens are the sound of punk rock. Of course, back then the C12Ns were not 50 years old, but that’s beside the point. You need the mojo.

Long story short, I bought the Warehouse clones. But going into the world of guitar gear has opened my eyes to this strange collective fantasy which is the guitar gear economy. This idea that spending insane amounts of money on gear can somehow make you more creative. Few are immune to this premise. Jamie Hince of The Kills claims his $4000 1921 Gibson L-I is haunted, allowing him to write better songs on it. Johnny Marr talks about how he wrote “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” after buying his Gibson 1959 ES-355. “It just came out” he said. The list price for that particular guitar is around $20,000 at this point. Of course, the fact that Johnny Marr played that particular model of the guitar may have contributed to its exorbitant price is beside the point. Message: if a rock star played a guitar it is authentic.

Truthfully, Johnny Marr’s story was a little more complex than that. It was gift, something he made an A&R rep buy for him as a bonus for signing to his label, and it actually did result in a song which certainly made him far more money than the guitar could have cost. However, the worst offender is not scrappy Mancunians from the ’80s. The worst offender is beard-dads who pronounce Bulleit Bourbon like “bullay” and wear flannel and start bands with names like THE BLACK KEYS. I pick on the Black Keys because they are the ultimate example of vintage-gear loving, tube-amp only, won’t play it if it doesn’t look like it’s been driven over with a car, etc. blues rock bands. I don’t think they even play the blues anymore. Anyway, I also pick on them because this image of theirs is deeply ironic considering they spent their formative years obsessively imitating a musician by the name of Junior Kimbrough [pictured, above].

Junior Kimbrough comes from the North Mississippi Hill Country blues scene. Names like R.L. Burnside, Kimbrough, and James “Model-T” Ford are all legendary figures to those in the know, and all used to perform regularly at Kimbrough’s juke joint in the ’90s. There was some stir over them in the ’90s when they all got signed to Fat Possum records (The Black Key’s label-to-be) and blew up, attracting everyone from Iggy Pop to U2 down to Kimbrough’s haunt. They made a movie about it, and it is clear from the footage (if not the music alone) what was so attractive to these rich old white guys. These were real men making this music, weathered people who’d spent their whole lives living in poverty. They played through cheap solid-state Peavey amps and used odd heavy-metal Ibanez guitars, essentially whatever they could get their hands on. And the music was so, so good. On par with the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and Son House.

There is no emulating that sound. The Black Keys are the closest anyone has gotten, and their album of Kimbrough covers Chulahoma is probably the best thing they ever released. What’s funny about that album is all the warm, fat-sounding vintage gear Dan Auerbach invested in, his flawless execution of the riffs and well produced, perfectly EQ’d studio sound — all of it only takes him farther away from the original, jangly sounding and unpracticed, Junior Kimbrough’s eyes fixed drunkenly on nothing while he plays, no emotion escaping his face as if he is truly dead to the world. The truth is, Dan Auerbach dropping out of his liberal arts college to become a bluesman can never understand the life that went into that music, what experiences the man’s talent is trying to convey, no matter how many times he listens to the record, or whatever amps he buys. Ultimately, the price of authenticity is far, far too high for anyone to pay willingly.