The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: August Darnell from Dr. Savannah to Kid Creole
To mark the 60th birthday of Britain's New Musical Express, here's a classic piece from the paper's vaults: Ian Penman's 1980 homage to August "Kid Creole" Darnell——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
A man stands alone in a baggy white suit, a black masquerade visor over his eyes. He is concealing a broken heart and a loudhailer...
Just imagine: you have the opportunity to write one of those all-time sexiest and most heartbroken of songs. First step: you get involved with someone who drives you crazy with desire — ensnares you, mesmerises you, has you at arm's length and in the palm of their hand. Then something happens: that inevitable separation. You're classically awry — but where's the gain (or the end) in being uselessly melancholy?
Write that song about it, summing up both your despair and the wonder of the love and sex that caused it in the first place.
You have to choose your words carefully, carnally; you have to find a crucial metaphor. It has to be just so — to sound like you're completely drunk on love and near suicidal through the absence of your loved one. You recline on a couch and clutch your heart. The evening seems impossible: so many hours to go and no chance of the loved one appearing...
The song has to read like a love letter, from miles away. You map it out, the scenario is precarious. You get dressed up to kill, take enough numbing drugs and stand alone at the peak of your metaphorical island. You whisper — the loudhailer turns it to a plea for all the world to hear...
"Off the coast of me lies you;
In a waterfall of solitude.
I must find a one-way passage through.
To the very heart and private part of you."
Just imagine: the song of my dreams.
The August Darnell world — as manifested in a lot of Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band and all of Kid Creole and the Coconuts — is a looking glass world, a somewhere far away peopled by metaphors. But you don't need a map to find this island, because its mythology is built around that very real, most easily found (and lost) of places — love. Sexual love, romantic love, high life love, hedonistic love, hardship love whatever, wherever or whoever...
There's a whole new lyrical country here just waiting to be discovered. It is cavalier, cinemascope and carnal. It's a subliminal carnival, a bit of a circus, a sip of a cocktail: amorous, clandestine, physical, light-headed and heavy-lidded. The dance of love — do you know the opening steps? You awful flirt!
"High heels / Straplessly red / Seedless grapes / Cozied in the bed/ Peg leg pants / Tossed aside / Scarlet smears across the bathroom tile / No, you needn't explain: / First comes the thunder, then the rain."
Just look: there's the author. An infinitely cool and not unshifty looking character. A character somewhere between Alice's mysterious little late White Rabbit and a black market spiv, between Cab Calloway and Graham Greene, between Glenn Miller and the De Niro of New York, New York. Observe the cool. Study the deportment: the stall, the sly romantic glance up from his drink. Takes out a pocket watch from his waistcoat, on a too-long golden chain. His second hand's playing for time...
For a contemporary popular music scene — "rock's rich tapestry," call it what you will — all too often devoid of true troubadours and the conveyed bliss of sexual love, Mr August Darnell is a person we scarcely seem to deserve, an unusually conscientious and industrious writer, composer, arranger, producer, player, singer, stage manager, character, bon vivant. As his sartorial projection might lead you to believe, he belongs to a different age. An age when songwriting was a craft — your profession, your pride, and often a crafty progression from the very heart and poison pen parts of your day-to-day life.