There comes a time in every man’s life when he looks at the popular culture around him and wants to vomit through his nostrils.
Huey Morgan has reached this point on Rebel Heroes: The Renegades Of Music & Why We Still Need Them, a 247-page rant in defence of ‘real’ rock’n’roll, whose militant tone suggests the Fun Lovin’ Criminal wrote it after watching a pack of tweenagers twerk to Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball. Morgan’s opening gambit makes his position clear: “Rock’n’roll died with a bang on 5th April 1994, when Kurt Cobain blew his own head off… it breaks my heart to see the direction it’s taken.”
Rebel Heroes is a collection of essays tracing the evolution of rock’n’roll via the dazzling fuck-ups who lurched across its landscape, and it repeatedly draws the same conclusions. Rock stars used to be renegades and now they’re thumbsuckers. Music used to mean everything and now “it doesn’t weigh enough”. The industry used to fizz with mavericks and now it’s populated by parasites flogging us tie-in dreck (“a T-shirt, or a perfume, or a sneaker…”).
An alternative title for this book could have been They Don’t Make ’Em Like They Used To & It Was Better In My Day. But as his half-million BBC Radio 6 listeners bear out, nobody tells it like Huey: a man whose every utterance is swathed in Noo Yawk cool and charisma. Critically, too, the singer’s passion wins out over his cynicism, and for every swipe at Kim Kardashian, Madonna or One Direction (“If they’re still around in 10 years, we’re shit out of luck”), there’s a love letter to an esoteric personal hero buried in a pauper’s grave.
Morgan starts with the blues and draws thumbnail portraits of his favourites, ticking off titans like Robert Johnson, Lead Belly et al. He’s particularly good on the female pioneers, reminding us of the trail blazed by Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith (who was making $200 a record to her male contemporaries’ $15) and the pair’s shared taste for donkey shows (“a euphemism for sex shows,” explains Morgan, “where the gentleman concerned would be very well-endowed”).
Morgan then salutes the electric pioneers – from Muddy Waters, through Hendrix and Clapton, to Rory Gallagher and Duane Allman – and while he doesn’t tell you much you don’t already know, he’s far better company than Wikipedia. “The poor bastard,” he drawls of Jimi’s demise, “ended up with a girl that didn’t know to turn him on his side”.
At times, Morgan’s writing gets a little unstructured, many chapters effectively ending with a Forrest Gump-style ‘…and that’s all I have to say about that’. There’s a few crashingly obvious points dressed up as revelations – most of us are aware of the 27 Club – and a sense that all this might work better as a podcast. Overall, though, Rebel Heroes will strike a chord with any exasperated music-lover, and is one of the best pub rants you’ll read all year.