Spiders

Originally posted September 15, 2009

Living in an older home, as we’ve done for a year now – ours was built sometime between 1940 and 1948, but we’re not sure of the exact date – there are some things that one has to take as givens. Among those things are bugs and spiders.

Most crawly things don’t bother me too much. Over the years, in Minnesota, I’ve seen crickets inside as well as some beetles, ladybugs and so on. During my years further south, in Missouri, the two older homes I lived in had some roaches in the basement, but that’s almost a given in older homes in that area (as well as in parts further south). I kept each kitchen clean (and a light on overnight where the cat food was), and that pretty well controlled things.

Larger insects can un-nerve me, though. The other week, the Texas Gal and I saw Cubbie Cooper, our youngest cat, tracking something by the dining room wall. It turned out to be a two-inch long beetle with an ugly set of pincers. With a little bit of the “ewwww” factor in play, we dispatched it and then spent a few minutes scoping out corners, looking for more. We saw none.

A bug has to be pretty large to flip my ick switch. Spiders, on the other hand, need do nothing more than exist for me to be unhappy. From the itty-bitty ones that we sometimes scooting across the floor and down the cracks to the two-inch wide creatures that look like a miniature Shelob (I saw one of those in the garage this summer and none, thankfully, in the house), spiders trigger an almost atavistic fear in me.

It’s pretty much the same for the Texas Gal, though, so when an eight-legged creature needs dispatching around here, I’m the one that does it. Now, we’re not infested or anything like that; it’s just that an older home will have its share of uninvited guests. And every so often, I’ll spot a spider making his way across the counter or up a wall. Or the Texas Gal will find one migrating across the floor of the loft while she’s working on a quilt. And the trespasser finds rough justice.

I know, I know. Spiders eat other insects. They’re an important part of the continuum of life. They’re beneficial.

They also give me the creeps. Always have. As I was rinsing a mug the other evening, there was a spider the size of a nickel in the sink. A good-looking one, black with some bright yellow trim on its back. But fashionable or not, it didn’t belong in the sink. The sink is ours. So I got a paper towel, wadded it up, and got rid of the spider. And then I trembled for about five seconds.

A Six-Pack of Spiders
“Spider In My Stew” by Buster Benton, Jewell 842 [1971]
“Black Widow Spider” by Dr. John from Babylon [1969]
“Black Spider Blues” by Johnny Shines from Chicago/The Blues/Today! [1965]
“My Crystal Spider” by Sweetwater from Sweetwater [1968]
“Boris the Spider” by the Who from Meaty, Beaty, Big & Bouncy [1971]
“Mean Red Spider” by Muddy Waters, Aristocrat 1307 [[1948]

This mix is a bit blusier than most of my offerings get. That’s not a problem for me, but I think that some of my readers shy away from the blues for one reason or another. Nevertheless, three of the songs here are rooted deeply in the blues: “Spider In My Stew,” “Black Spider Blues” and “Mean Red Spider.”

The last of those three was one of Muddy Waters’ earlier recordings after he came to Chicago from the Clarksville area of Mississippi. His catalog with Aristocrat starts, as far as I can tell, with No. 1302, a September 1947 recording of “Gypsy Woman” (not the song that the Impressions and Brian Hyland took to the Top 40 in 1961 and 1970, respectively), and Waters’ first real hit was “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” the result of a December 1947 session that became a hit in 1948. “Mean Red Spider” came out of a session that took place nearly a year later, in either October or November 1948, according to the notes in the Muddy Waters Chess box set.

The Johnny Shines track comes from one of the true landmark sets recorded in the mid-1960s, when the first blues boom was beginning to draw a wider audience to the form. Blues historian Sam Charters brought nine different Chicago-based performers or groups into a studio and had each one record four or five tracks. The results were released on a series of LPs titled Chicago/The Blues/Today! The three resulting albums were released on CD in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but All-Music Guide notes that a 1999 box set containing all three albums is sonically superior. As to Johnny Shines, the late performer – he died in 1992 – was known to have been a frequent traveling companion of Robert Johnson, and he continued performing and recording to the end of his life. If one were looking for an introduction to Johnny Shines beyond the tracks on the Charter project, I’d suggest the albums Hey Ba-Ba-Re-Bop from 1978 or 1969’s Johnny Shines with Big Walter Horton.

Beyond having one of his singles in my collection, I know little about Buster Benton. All-Music Guide tells us that “[d]espite the amputation of parts of both his legs during the course of his career, Chicago guitarist Buster Benton never gave up playing his music — an infectious hybrid of blues and soul that he dubbed at one point ‘disco blues’ (an unfortunate appellation in retrospect, but useful in describing its danceability). In the late ’70s, when blues was at low ebb, Benton’s waxings for Ronn Records were a breath of fresh air.” AMG goes on to note that Benton connected with blues legend Willie Dixon in 1971, and the result was the Dixon-penned hit “Spider In My Stew.” (I’ve seen a date of 1970 for this track, but I’m following AMG’s lead and going with 1971.)

Dr. John’s “Black Widow Spider” comes from Babylon, his second solo album, an effort that I’ve long thought was a little wan when compared to the voodoo-meets-psychedelia whirlwhind that was 1968’s Gris-Gris. Still, the good doctor gets into a groove on “Black Widow Spider” that pulls you through the track, even if the vocals and guitar above the groove aren’t nearly as compelling as anything from the earlier record.

Psychedelia without the voodoo was Sweetwater’s stock in trade, at least on the group’s first album. “My Crystal Spider” fits snugly into that niche, right down to the electronic effects solo in the middle of the track. “My Crystal Spider” isn’t poorly done, but it seems to me that the track – and actually, the entire self-titled album from which it comes – sounds so much like stuff that other San Francisco bands were doing just a little bit better at the time. That doesn’t mean there’s not a place for Sweetwater in 2009’s random rotations; it’s just that the band was not as good as its neighbors were.

AMG says that, according to Pete Townshend, “Boris the Spider” – a John Entwistle tune – was one of the most frequently requested songs at the Who’s concerts. I’m not sure I get the song’s popularity, but that’s okay. I pulled the track from my vinyl of the group’s Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy collection. The song originally came out on the 1966 album A Quick One (titled Happy Jack in the U.S.).

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