Editor’s Note: Last week would have been the 83rd birthday of Rhythm & Blues pioneer/domestic abuse anti-icon Ike Turner. I was too busy to post at the time, but I like to think it isn’t too late to revive this pretty-decent review I wrote of Risin’ with the Blues, Turner’s last album before his death in 2007. I have, as you can probably tell, a complicated relationship with Ike Turner: I obviously abhor his amply-documented misogyny and violence, but I think the body of work he created with then-wife Tina Turner between 1960 and 1976 constitutes some of the most vital music ever to grace the crossroads between blues, rock, pop, soul, and funk. Also, you have to appreciate the man’s sense of style. So here it is: an uncomfortable, conflicted review for an uncomfortable, conflicted man. – Z.H.
What if Elvis was just some hillbilly who died on the crapper? What if Jerry Lee Lewis’ most famed accomplishment was not “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” or “Great Balls of Fire,” but his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin? What if Little Richard, after decades as the self-proclaimed “architect of rock ‘n’ roll,” ended up being remembered only for a couple of Geico spots and a series of truly hideous wigs? And what if Ike Turner, the man whose “Rocket 88” arguably launched rock’n’roll itself in 1951, went down in history as little more than a domestically abusive, cocaine-addicted wash-up?
That’s the question Turner wants to ask in Risin’ with the Blues, his second album since reemerging from obscurity and ignominy in 2001: where do we draw the line between great art and the flawed, human, possibly even contemptible artists who create it? And at least in terms of performance, the 75-year-old musician makes a pretty decent case.
Risin’ finds Turner in more or less the same musical place he was in his mid-’70s heyday, which is to say that it’s a rough-around-the-edges blend of gutbucket blues and synth-laden funk. Were it not for its decidedly secular subject matter, the opening take on Hound Dog Taylor’s “Gimme Back My Wig” could have stemmed easily from the sessions that produced 1974’s The Gospel According to Ike & Tina; there’s the same juxtaposition of traditional roots music and “hi-tech” drum machine textures, and frankly, it’s still just weird enough to work. Even more encouragingly, the cat plays a mean guitar — just check out his fiery solos on the aptly-named “Rockin’ Blues” for definitive proof that blues is one genre where age needn’t mean domesticity. Sure, the best thing one can say about Ike’s vocals is that they make you pine for the days when Tina was behind the mic; and it’s an unfortunate truth that, while songs like the aforementioned “Wig,” Louis Jordan’s “Caldonia,” and a country-tinged original called “Big Fat Mama” might come off as innocently humorous in the hands of another blues musician, with Ike behind the wheel they take on a malevolent, misogynistic subtext. But hey, a couple more tracks like “Rockin’ Blues,” and I’d even forgive the guy for beating me up.
Trouble is, it’s tough to forgive or even forget about Ike’s checkered past when he insists on bringing it up in damn near every song. Sometimes these (barely-) veiled references are palatable enough: “I Don’t Want Nobody” (“…that don’t want me”) is silly with its budget-priced Prince production, but at least its defiance is jovial; while the cover of Eddie Boyd’s “Five Long Years” (pettily retitled “Eighteen Long Years” as a reference to Ike and Tina’s marriage) actually uses Turner’s vocal deficiencies to its advantage, making his strangled cat yowl sound like the result of severe emotional duress.
But I draw the line at “Jesus Loves Me,” in which Turner sing-songs “I’m a bad boy but Jesus loves me anyway” over bombastic female background vocals and what appears to be a pre-programmed Casio track. It’s an exercise in solipsism, the sound of a lifelong egotist howling into an empty room, and it’s unflattering to say the least; not just because the “movie” he mentions at one point, What’s Love Got to Do with It?, is 13 years old this year, but because he seems intent on beating this dead horse into the ground long after its influence as anything more than a camp classic has faded. “I can’t live forever–how long do you think I’m gonna wait for forgiveness?” Turner chokes at the end of the song. No idea, Ike, but in the meantime, maybe you should consider burying a few hatchets of your own.
Buy Risin’ with the Blues, or stream it on Spotify below. I would make some kind of “eat the cake” joke here, but I’m too damn tired so make it yourself: