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Inside the House of the Rising Sun

DON'T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD, By Eric Burdon with J. Marshall Craig, Thunder's Mouth Press: 326 pp., $24.95

January 06, 2002|PAULA FRIEDMAN

In 1968, shortly after "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" had topped the American charts, Eric Burdon was waiting for a flight at the Atlanta airport when he was approached by two Marines who said to him, "Thanks for the music, man. It helped. It really helped." Years later, when leaving the stage of a Long Island club, a soft-spoken man approached him, a Vietnam vet who lingered after the show to tell Burdon an amazing story about a night when he was stationed at a secret base in Cambodia: "'One of the men had a small Spanish guitar,' he told me. 'It was Christmas night. The stars were out, and the jungle was beginning to come alive, as it always does at night. He started playing "House of the Rising Sun" on the guitar. We were barely into the first verse when the whole lush mountain seemed to come alive in song--even some of the Vietcong on the opposite side of the hill joined in.'"

Not many rock 'n' roll stars can recount anecdotes that so dramatically reflect the urgent role their music has filled. After all, Burdon's hallmark tune had at least momentarily united archenemies engaged in one of the most brutal of wars.

Born in 1940 in the grimly poor town of Newcastle in northern England, Burdon began playing jazz--his first love before the blues--in such local clubs as Downbeat and the Rex Hotel, where he often sat in with Mighty Joe Young's jazz band. One night when Burdon and his buddies were hanging around at the Downbeat after playing, they decided to put their own band together, and it wouldn't be long before Eric Burdon and the Animals would hit the stage.

By 1963, they had a growing reputation as a rhythm & blues band and were asked to accompany Sonny Boy Williamson on a New Year's show. That same year, Burdon was contacted by talent scout Peter Grant and told he and his band had been chosen for Chuck Berry's British tour (beating out the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones). Record producer Mickie Most quickly latched hold of the band that had the "rawest" sound of any he worked with. But as Burdon tells it, conflicts soon arose, first over whether or not the band should even record "House of the Rising Sun," with Most and the Animals' manager, Mike Jeffery, convinced it would amount to nothing but a waste of money.

Burdon and the band fiercely disagreed, for the reception the song received when they performed it on the Berry tour assured them that they had the right tune and the right delivery. With its roots in a 17th century British folk melody, the song had circulated among musicians in the American South, and was first recorded by black bluesman Texas Alexander in 1928.

Although it had been recorded acoustically in the early '60s by the likes of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, "House of the Rising Sun" didn't climb the charts until the Animals played it electric in 1964.

But conflicts continued to brew among band members and between the musicians and their manager, who Burdon came to believe was a complete scoundrel who mismanaged their business dealings. In fact, the money made from their first albums seemed to vanish into thin air, a pattern that would plague Burdon and his many bands to follow.

In this instance, the Bahamian bank where Jeffery invested the Animals' earnings actually did disappear, building and all. Throughout his autobiography, Burdon makes no bones about his lack of business smarts, insisting that the music and touring were his true passions. After breaking up in the late '60s, the Animals were soon replaced by the New Animals and then a scant few years later by Eric Burdon and War. And while these, and many of his later bands produced fine music, even hits, none seemed to possess the utter magnetic power of the original Animals.

Burdon also discusses his relationships with other musicians of the era, most notably Jimi Hendrix, a close friend until the guitar genius died of a drug overdose in 1970. Among other '60s debacles--most of which concerned some kind of drug abuse or another--he includes Hendrix's death as a key sign that an era was ending. Though Burdon was married twice, he regretfully acknowledges that enduring relationships with women were not his strong suit. Yet, despite the many losses, Burdon remains fiercely proud of his accomplishments, and his sustained passion for music and for traveling, including extended stays on the Spanish islands of Majorca and Minorca and tours of Israel's Negev and Bosnia, keep him looking enthusiastically toward the future.

Readers may find Burdon a bit scant on insight into some of his important personal relationships, but his perspective on the business end of 1960s rock 'n' roll--and his own place within it--proves riveting and informative.

*

Paula Friedman is a poet and book critic.

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