Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Listen to ELEPHANT MAN by Bo Diddley.

""I got some shocking things I want to do before I decide to say, 'Hey, I'm giving up,' " he says as we climb into his Ford minivan, which is equipped with a Diddley-built wooden console full of drink and map holders. "But I'm not doing anything at the moment because I have a very undecided problem. They call it a matrimony problem. I'm going through a separation, a divorce, whatever you want to call it." In his deep, rich voice, Diddley explains that he has decided to lay low creatively, in case the courts decide that his fourth wife should have a piece of any new project.

We pull into the driveway of an old white house. Lola, a white pit bull missing an eye, greets us.

There is only one item in his hallway: an overturned washtub with a three-foot board screwed into the side. Running between the center of the washtub and the top of the board is a nylon string. Diddley steps up to the washtub bass and begins picking at the string, adjusting the pitch by tilting the plank backward and forward. Whenever he gets a particularly resonant sound, he chuckles happily. We are in Bo Diddley's playpen now.

In the first room off the hallway is a giant amplifier, at least six feet long, that Diddley made. It sits next to another one of his inventions. "It's a board game," Diddley says, gesturing to a giant wooden tabletop covered with squares of writing. "The Bo Diddley Horse Racing Game."

"If I put the guitar down today or tomorrow, I would not starve," Diddley continues as he leads me to the next room, his studio. "I know too many damn things. I can decorate. I can cook. I can do electronics and wire any kind of electric shit. I can figure anything out."

Leaning against the studio wall is a gorgeous square guitar made of blond wood and covered with eagle stickers. His picks, which he rarely uses, are coated with Velcro and attached to a Velcro patch on the side of the instrument. Next to it is a guitar with a misshapen head that's at least two feet long. Inset into this surreal instrument is a CD player, which has been rigged to play backing tracks while the guitar is played.

"I built that motherfucker, but I built that motherfucker too big," Diddley says, sighing.

He sits behind a desk strewn with recording equipment: a Mackie mixing board, a sixteen-track reel-to-reel recorder, a cassette deck, keyboards and half a dozen effects. On a nearby shelf there are dozens of boxes of Ampex tapes stacked in unwieldy piles, dated from 1958 to the present. "See all that over there," Diddley says, gesturing lazily at the shelf. "That's stuff people ain't heard before."

Diddley turns on a drum machine and picks up a microphone. What follows is a rare insight into the musical mind that helped invent rock & roll. His performance lasts nearly two hours.

The man making music before me is not the Bo Diddley I've seen onstage countless times, leading a band through classic blues and rock numbers, with a little rap mixed in. This Diddley is a low-fidelity genius, a do-it-yourself musical tinkerer, a cross between a children's entertainer and a scatological comedian.

The drum machine churns out a "Rock the Bells"-style beat as Diddley raps verse after verse of a nursery rhyme involving the three little pigs, who call Bo Diddley for help when confronted by a big bad wolf. His voice, laden with effects to sound like a chorus of four, booms through the speakers. "I don't care who you are," he sings as the wolf. "Bo Diddley, I'll eat you and your guitar."

Without changing the beat, he begins rapping dirty rhyming verses. "Two old maids was playing in the sand/One told the other, 'I wish you was a man'/One said, the other said, 'I ain't no man/But hold still baby, I'll do the best I can.' "

In another verse, a rooster tells a bow-legged duck, "You ain't good-looking, but you sure can doo-doo-doo." He covers up a swear word in each couplet with innocent singing or an innocuous rhyming word.

When Diddley finishes, he tells me, "That's the stuff I used to do as a kid.""

Photo: Street signs (2).


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