BO DIDDLEY It’s Bo’s party- and you can howl if you want to. Getty Images
Bo Diddley's 76th Birthday Celebration
Thurs Dec 30
Berbati's Pan
10 SW 3rd

AMERICA'S IN TROUBLE. You might say "doomed," but that's a little heavy. There is hope, though, and Bo Diddley fits into the rescue operation. How? We'll get to that later. First, some background, a little history to explain why YOU--"you" being generations removed from Bo and kinda, sorta lazy about seeking out "older" music--should love and understand him.

You may only know Bo from the jocktarded "Bo Knows" commercials he did with Bo Jackson in the '80s. Or maybe you know him from the NOFX song which queries, "did you ever go to shhhleep with Bo Derek and wake up with Bo Diddley?" But historical footnotes and pop culture name-checks are just that--let's stick to the important stuff.

Bo Diddley was born December 30th, 1928--76 years ago this Thursday. In the early '50s, bugged out by his visions and weirdo illuminations of a new form of futuristic blues, he created a beat echoing what he called "that freight train sound." He dubbed it "The Bo Diddley Beat," a rough strum that chugs and shuffles loose and rangy like "bump, bahbump-bump, bump-bump!" (The Stones used it later, so did Buddy Holly--though a way softer, whiter version.)

With his new beat, Bo dropped his first single on Chess in 1955. Based around an old nursery rhyme, "Bo Diddley"--yeah, he named-checked himself--brought blues and old R&B together. It was thick and growly, and had a raunchy, primitive rhythm perfect for very non-1950s-apropos dancing.

The lyrics--"Bo Diddley bought his babe a diamond ring/If that diamond ring don't shine" etc--were intrinsically catchy, and the music grabbed you and told you What Is. (The song was later raped by The Strangeloves, who rewrote it as "I Want Candy.") After that, Bo hit big with songs like "Road Runner"--covered by everyone from Jad Fair to Aerosmith--and "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover." But his best song was "Who Do You Love?"--a raw, bloody slab-steak of roadhouse rock "n' roll.

Bo starts the song off bragging like Jay-Z: "I walk 47 miles of barbed wire/Use a cobra snake for a necktie," and then lays down flows flossing about his new digs: "I got a brand new house on the roadside/Made out of rattlesnake hide/I got a brand new chimney made on top/Made out of human skulls."

But he's not done; he tells his girl, "come on take a walk with me, Arlene, and tell me/Whooo do you luhh-ve?" and goes back to boasting: "tombstone hand and a graveyard mind/Just 22 and I don't mind dying."

But no matter how wild and absurd he gets, sweet Arlene is down with him. She takes him by the demon claw, pulls him close, and coos, "Ooowee, Bo/you KNOW I understand."

To understand Bo you need to be cool with the bragging, with campy evil talk, and his homemade square-bodied guitar's loud, clattery honk. You'll get all that on Thursday--the hits, the shtick. BUT you'll also get a piece of America that's near vanished--a misty, mysterious America of traveling vaudeville shows and tent revivals--the same America that gave us P.T. Barnum and restlessness as a culture.

The great, craggy, raw divide of America is alive in Bo, and as long as Bo himself is alive, we're a little safer from the Wal-Martization of America.

I've spent the last six months driving around this country, hanging out in places like Georgia, Bo's Mississippi, and St. Louis. I've seen the good and the bad, but mostly the bad--mostly a lot of seedy Dairy Queens, tired-looking old people, drive-thru Starbucks, and rhino-like Hummers rumbling over what was once Route 66. And if there's one thing I've learned it's that the old America was a lot better--more fun, more daring, more innocent, etc--and any little bit of it we can get our hands on shouldn't be taken for granted. Bo is part of old America's voice, the kind of voice Don McLean said "came from you and me."

It's Bo's birthday--you should come to his party.