Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Review: "Screamin' Jay Hawkins' All-Time Greatest Hits" by Mark Binelli

I am going to assume that for people of my generation, their first interaction with the musician Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was through the movie Hocus Pocus, where the Sanderson Sisters put a spell on the parents of Salem with a rendition of Hawkins’ most famous song. It was hard not to see Bette Midler, decked out in witch garb belting out this tune while reading this novel by author Mark Binelli, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins All-Time Greatest Hits. But even with those images floating around my head, along with images from a handful of Jim Jarmusch films, added to the wonderful inventiveness of this slim novel, which effortlessly blends fact and fiction until you not only can’t see which is which, but by the end, simply don’t care because the story is so rich and magical. It takes a mythic figure like Hawkins, who was part Robert Johnson and Part Alice Cooper, whose legend preceded him by a country mile, and does its best to dissect such an incredible person and story. It is not a perfect book, but with a story such as the one that is told, that really doesn’t matter. To begin, I will discuss a few of the details of Hawkins early life. He was born in 1929, and was soon adopted by a Native American couple who named him Jalacy. Other than those few facts, which come up within the first few pages, the bulk of this novel is a series of vignettes that attempt to describe the origins of a lot of Hawkins’s stage and personality quirks. These scenes sometimes don’t form a linear trajectory (the book itself is far from linear), but they are quite fun. There is a scene early on involving Jay’s grandfather hunting squirrels which, along with his burgeoning interest in horror films and a Great Lakes ballerina show, cemented his love for macabre subject matter and led to his outlandish stage acts. We also get glimpses into his time in the army, where an otherworldly experience with a tribesman during World War II inspired his signature look, most importantly the thin bone attached to the bottom of his nose. The most memorable vignette about his stage person involves the skull on the staff he’d carry to the stage, who he called Henry, and claimed was a monk who fell prey to Satan. The story also has sad moments, such as his many loveless flings, characterized perfectly through the eyes of one of his illegitimate children (of which there are reportedly 75), who, listens to the songs of his father and is depressingly unimpressed. The most indelible images I will take from this novel are two sections, the first of which is a virtuoso rendering of a ghost of a former musician Jay replaced who died of an overdose. The scenes are rendered with great ennui, forsaking profound or horror elements, and are quite funny. The other section is the last section, where Binelli speculates on the origin of “I Put a Spell on You” his most famous song, in a scene of longing and rejection. Don’t let this book slip past you. It is a smaller book, but very deserving of your time. 

Rating: 5/5

No comments:

Post a Comment