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Jay Presents: A Quick One Featuring The Amboy Dukes’ “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “Journey to the Center of the Mind.”

February 10, 2011

The old expression goes “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Critics don’t exactly make a living by heeding this Thumperian Principle, but it is nice to accentuate the positive when you can.

I don’t care for his politics or, well, much of anything else when it comes to “Motor City Madman” Ted Nugent. But, I will say that he’s a damn good guitarist. His considerable six-string skills formed a crucial element in the success enjoyed by his first band, the acid-drenched, hard-charging Amboy Dukes.

Two fine cases in point: “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” a scrappy, driving cover of a track by Van Morrison’s Them, and the galloping, psychedelic “Journey to the Center of the Mind.” “Baby” appeared on the band’s startlingly good debut album (1967); “Journey” came from their solid sophomore effort (1968).

“Baby” demonstrates Nugent as being well-versed in the blues tricks that ruled the day and that he obviously aimed to make a mark for himself. He even tosses some Hendrix licks back to Jimi to prove it. The rest of the band had chops, too. Vocalist John Drake sounds like a hybrid of Arthur Lee and Van the Man, Steve Farmer’s no slouch on rhythm guit, giving Nugent plenty of places to jump off into assured soloing, and the drums hit as hard as the material demands. Overall, this song is a great entry point to an album full of surprises.

Fans of HBO’s “Six Feet Under” may remember “Journey” from its appropriation as theme music for Nate’s discovery of his deceased father’s secret “bachelor pad.” The song formed a perfect soundtrack for Nate’s grieving, stunned imaginings of it as a place where his father brought mistresses, listened at top volume to records he couldn’t play in the family home, and got chemically altered. It’s a chugging bit of psych-rock whose pro-drug mind-expansion message stands in ironic contrast to Nugent’s staunchly anti-intoxicant stance.

This skirts negativity, but I’ll also throw in that his status as a band member and not band leader or lead singer/lyricist only strengthens this material, even if he wrote or co-wrote much of the music. The checks and balances inherent in a collaborative process truly helped keep at bay the kind of superficial indulgences he’d be guilty of in later years–especially in his solo output, after he’d reached the Guitar Hero status he longed for. “Cat Scratch Fever” this stuff ain’t. But, while he isn’t the most original or distinctive player, I have to admit that there’s a reason why we all heard of Ted Nugent before his hoary pro-hunting hectoring: he’s a skilled, competent guitarist, and his abstinence from drugs and alcohol made him far more reliable than many of his contemporaries. Woody Allen said that 80% of success is showing up.

But, Frank Zappa said it best when he said:

“Shut up n’ play yer guitar.”

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