DOGS AND POP
by Ian Whitcomb
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer,
composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and
Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to ianwhitcomb.com
I'm a pop music person, a one-hit wonder of the 1960s and since then a curator of vintage songs and singers. Dogs have always been on the soundtrack of my life, starting with Panda, our sheep dog with the smoker's cough and bark, who lived with us on the East coast of England in 1946. I must have been 5 when my friend and I were standing with our tricycles by a concrete pillbox and he told me that the war had ended ages ago and why didn't I know that. It meant nothing to me.
What mattered was that after I threw Panda into the lake (to see what he'd do) I quickly pulled him out because his pathetic struggling -- the speed of his whizzing paws — filled me with a delicious tingle of pity.
There followed other family dogs and then dogs of my very own, Californian ones named Beefy and Inspector and now Rollo H. Danks. Big, tall dogs, never toys. Dogs have become an essential part of my world. I don’t like people who don’t like dogs.
Sometimes, quite often actually, I've introduced my dog ahead of my wife. "Old Shep," the song, makes me cry just thinking about it. But more about that later. I've noticed that several of my pop colleagues, whether from rock or jazz, have strong dog connections. Doris Day, for instance, has written that dogs are as important to her as people. I’d have to alter that to: "SOME people."
Peggy Lee had a mutt named Rex who adored her and everybody else. One day Rex was mortally ripped up by a pack of hounds. Miss Lee tended to his wounds and put him to bed where he wagged his tail in a dying "thank you." She laid him on the freezing ground wrapped in a stone-secured army blanket; in the Spring she was able to give him a proper burial.
Brian Wilson tells of how his classic song, "Good Vibrations" was inspired by his mother's observation that a dog is able to sort out the good guys from the bad guys by the kind of vibrations they broadcast. He'd completed the tune but got stuck on the words. To clear the block he commanded a huge wooden box be built around his grand piano. The box was then filled with two tons of sound and finally Wilson was installed at the piano, an artist in the center of his universe, able to work on lyrics while his dog Banana roamed the domain laying turds at random. Understandably, Wilson's musical collaborators chose to work with him from a strategic distance.
Phil Spector, the Svengalian rock & roll producer, kept a ragged army of dogs at his mansion and they guarded him snarlingly whenever reporters dared to ask leading questions. He trained his German Shepherds by the swimming pool, using his killer eyes to stare them down until poor beasts were reduced to trembling wrecks. Bob Dylan was less active, more laid back: he collected dogs haphazardly— a Collie here, a St. Bernard there, and then a long string that included a Beagle, a black Labrador, and two Great Danes. Dylanologists, together with his garbologist, have noted their comings and goings, plus their diets (which came mostly in cans).
I wonder why we musicians are so attached to dogs. Maybe it's because we work from instinct and feelings, unfiltered by everyday, sensible thought. So we react like dogs and we like to have them around with their tail-wagging of anything we perform and their wonderful inability to criticize.
With all these dog-loving popsters around you'd expect a fine body of Rover songs but I find no such thing. The subject matter of most rock is drearily limited to the strenuous pursuit of a good time. However, at pop's beginnings in the first two decades of the 20th century songwriters dealt not only with the staple of moon/June love but also with such equally important passions as food ("The Terrible War In Snider’s Grocery Store", "Every Night I Bring Her Frankfurter Sandwiches") and dogs ("What D’You Mean You Lost Your Dog?", "Fido Is A Hot Dog Now")
Nor did Tin Pan Alley flinch from facing the fact of cruelty to animals: the 1912 hit," They Gotta Quit Kicking My Dawg Aroun’ " tells of Jim-dawg’s rescue from the town bullies by his farmer-masters and how, in the final verse, Jim reciprocates when a tipsy master is about to be beaten up by these same thugs, by "ripping right into those gentlemen" and leaving the town square a litter of "rags and meat and hide and hair".
Such an epic of righteous violence could be called a forerunning country & western number since the original model was a folk song before being adapted by Alley craftsmen. The makers of C&W music—emerging as a genre in the early 1930s—continued the tradition of heartfelt, simple sentiment even as its original exploiters, the Alleymen, were lapsing slickly into Swing and a sort of sophistication of the arched eyebrow variety. Thus in 1941 it wasn't so surprising when into the country best-selling record charts there charged Red Foley’s recording of an old-fashioned tear-provoking waltz ballad about the death of a dog.
"Old Shep" was written by Foley, with help from Willis Arthur, and published in city-slicker Chicago. However, Foley had already established himself on radio as a down-to-earth country boy and he told the press as how "Old Shep" was a memoir of his childhood days in rural Kentucky growing up with Hoover, his German Shepherd. The song is a story of boy-dog devotion and loyalty—how together they'd strayed "o’er hills and meadows," how Shep had helped rescue the boy from drowning in the old swimming hole, and how, years later, the grown man just couldn't shoot at the "faithful head" of his old and ailing pal. Instead Jim lays down his gun to go stroke "the best pal a man ever had." Sheppie licks at that hand and looking up seems to say, "We're parting but you understand." After Shep has died the singer states in no uncertain terms that if dogs have a heaven then "Old Shep has a wonderful home."
Now you really have to hear this song sung straight as an arrow, accompanied by its armory of lilting tune and heart-tugging harmony, in order to succumb to the magic of this piece of true popular art.
Clearly, the young Elvis Presley was captivated by the magic. We read of how, in 1945 at age 10, he'd launch into the song at any opportunity. Invited by his teacher to contribute a prayer to morning devotions he did so and swiftly followed up with his piping version of "Old Shep." Taken immediately to the school principal he repeated the performance. Everyone, it seemed, was impressed by the odd mixture of pouting kid Elvis and the lachrymose waltz. A few weeks later, clad in overalls and standing on a chair so as to be close enough to the microphone, Elvis Presley made his very first public appearance before a crowd of 2000 at the Tupelo fairgrounds. He sang "Old Shep."
Now just like my peers in 1950s Britain I thrilled to the rocking and rolling of Elvis. His very name shot excitement. But I was happy that "Old Shep" survived the fury and that Elvis got to record a version, true to his childhood. Actually, I experienced "Old Shep" through the jolt of a picture: a television talent show broadcast from a seaside resort in which, at a pier theatre, a middle-aged bloke in a cardigan and smoking a pipe sat in a rocking chair stroking his Collie as he crooned the dear old song while other contestants waited in the wings anxious to render "Rock and Roll Is Here To Say" or "Heartbreak Hotel". All the way through the performance, even at the tragic climax, the Collie wagged his tail madly. The dog must be long gone, and possibly the bloke as well, but I’ll never forget that lovely picture they created in the midst of musical frenzy.
The song went into my repertoire even though I was getting keen on Rhythm & Blues, even though my well-to-do British background excluded any authenticity in performance, even though my rock colleagues found the whole thing hilarious. And to my shame there were times when I caved in and, by a certain vocal tone and a certain look, made cruel fun of the boy and his dog.
Eventually, slipping into my real self as I broached 40 and onwards, I was ready to embrace straightforward sentiment in my own songs. Manufacturing in a vacuum was no use—a situation had to arise naturally. When Inspector, the strong-willed character mongrel I’d inherited from the late crooner Rudy Vallee died of wounds received from some fast-moving object (we never found out exactly what hit him) I turned to the piano in my grief. The result was "Good-bye, Old Boy," written furiously in one session, even as the tears welled. The dog word is never used, the only reference is when I sing of leaving his scratches on the door.
During the recording we had to stop during several takes due to my emotions. But you can't always convey your feelings successfully: one of my best friends, on hearing the finished track, declared it to be one of my funniest numbers. "You truly slay me!"
In the end neither songs nor stories can do the trick. In the end you and your dog are the only ones who understand that love without explanation, that look that pierces the other side.
******************************************** Ian Whitcomb, July, 2000
or by going to ianwhitcomb.com