If we’re getting technical, all of the years Screamin’ Jay Hawkins spent howling, grunting, and moaning occult blues and lascivious R&B were bizarre. But in the early ’90s, Hawkins was actually signed to Bizarre, the label established by art rocker Frank Zappa. A new collection from Real Gone Music, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: The Bizarre Years, plucks selections from his albums for the imprint—1991’s Black Music for White People, 1993’s Stone Gold Crazy, and 1994’s Something Funny Goin’ On—as well as a Bizarre compilation rarity released in 2000, the same year he passed away in the Neuilly-sur-Seine neighborhood of Paris following an aneurysm.
When he was approached by producer Robert Duffey in 1990 after a show at Club Lingerie on Sunset Boulevard, Hawkins was coming off a string of profile-boosting associations with Jim Jarmusch, who used his classic “I Put a Spell On You” in 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise and cast Hawkins as a hotel night clerk in 1989’s Mystery Train. They decided to work together, and their approach drilled down on his gonzo appeal, emphasizing the audacity and bad taste that endeared Jay (and Henry, his smoking skull on a stick) to punks and hard rockers.
Though Manifesto’s 2018 collection Are You One of Jay’s Kids offers everything he recorded for Bizarre, The Bizarre Years presents a tighter focus on Hawkins’ zeal for infamy. The man loved a cringe-inducing wisecrack, as evidenced by “Ignant and Shit,” “Strokin’,” and “Shut Your Mouth When You Sneeze.” The success of each depends greatly on the individual listener’s tolerance for yucks. The stomping rockabilly of “Swamp Gas” finds Hawkins picking up a little action from the Cramps (though not as much as the Cramps picked up from Jay) and the Duffey-penned “I Am the Cool” oozes high-grade weirdness, as does Hawkins’ dubious ode to Twin Peaks star “Sherilyn Fenn” (though you wish someone would’ve swapped the straight-out-of-Guitar Center squeals for some Badlementi twang). Hawkins covers two songs by devoted fan (and Jarmusch colleague) Tom Waits, “Whistling Past the Graveyard” and “Heart Attack and Vine.” The latter is especially menacing and the best of the set (“Don’t you know there ain’t no devil/that’s just Screamin’ Jay when he’s drunk”), and enough to make you wish Jay had got around to covering selections from Mule Variations.
Though the songs collected aren’t as raw or unhinged sounding as his classic late ’50s and early ’60s works, they nonetheless confirm that right up until the very end, Hawkins was interested in
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