Reflections on Ike Turner

Ike Turner, one of the principle innovators in American music, died recently after a brilliant career.

Feb 2 2008, 12:00am

Illustration by Jim Krewson

Ike Turner, one of the principle innovators in American music, died recently after a brilliant career. His records from three decades are classics, and his live revue with then-wife Tina was a spectacularly kinetic and hypersexualized showbiz explosion.

His composition “Rocket 88,” about a particular make of luxury automobile, was declared by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 to be the “first rock ’n’ roll song.” Though this is a nice accolade, it should be viewed with a certain amount of circumspection. When an institution like the Hall of Fame draws seemingly arbitrary magic demarcations around particular cultural events or forms, it is plain suspicious. After all, jazz, blues, R&B, rock ’n’ roll, et al., were once fairly interchangeable terms, used to denote black or “race” music, until “rock ’n’ roll” became specifically the purview of whites, in the late 50s. So why the citation? Is “Rocket 88” the first rock ’n’ roll song because Sam Phillips recorded it? Because it sounds like something the Hall of Fame thinks constitutes later rock ’n’ roll? Perhaps, to the Hall of Fame’s mind, “Rocket 88” sounds like what rock ’n’ roll became by the middle 60s, a Europeanized variant of African-American R&B.

To name a particular tune the singular genesis of the genre seems artificial. After all, rock ’n’ roll as we know it is a famously broad musical form, not dependent on a particular beat, arrangement, or set of instruments to be classified as such. It is the musical counterpart to the anti-ideological liberal market system that spawned it. A rock section in a record store includes Kraftwerk, Elton John, Bobby Day, and Motörhead. However, regardless of whether Ike Turner “invented rock ’n’ roll,” he was indisputably a maverick in the exciting and fecund world of R&B music, the music that was eventually chosen by mainstream America to replace big-band jazz as the official soundtrack and expression of the postwar world, a universe in which the USA, having emerged from the conflagration as nuclear conquistador, was lord of all it surveyed.

Anyway, whether or not he invented rock ’n’ roll, Ike Turner had an influence far beyond his own chart hits. In the 50s, he was a talent scout, “discovering” and signing blues singers like Elmore James, B.B. King, and Howlin’ Wolf. He also worked as a session player for people like Fontella Bass, Dee Clark, and Buddy Guy. Eventually he had his own bands, for which he wrote, arranged, and produced music, like the Ike & Tina Revue, the Ikettes, and the Mirettes. In 1971, he built his own studio in LA called Bolic. This was where Ike and Tina recorded some of the most exciting soul/rock crossover records ever: “Workin’ Together,” “Her Man, His Woman,” “Feel Good,” “Nuff Said,” “Nutbush City Limits,” and “Let Me Feel Your Mind.” Ike and Tina were musically omnivorous, trying out anything they liked in the blues/rock paradigm. Black Sabbath’s “Evil Woman” is performed effectively as “Evil Man,” for example.

Making music as prolifically as he did, however, doesn’t come cheap. Ike was a taskmaster, was considered difficult and paranoid by some, and had developed strange habits. He kept an AK-47 spring-loaded beneath his mixing board, for example. He abused drugs and made illegal long-distance telephone calls, for which he was investigated by the FBI. Eventually, his string of hits in collaboration with Tina and sundry other feats were overshadowed by their divorce and the subsequent release of her book, I, Tina. This became the 1993 blockbuster biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It and outlined, in Hollywood style, Tina’s grievances against Ike as a physically and mentally abusive spouse. Thereafter, “Ike Turner” became a synonym for “wife beater,” symbol to a benighted mass audience oblivious to his achievements and influence. Ironically, Ike and Tina’s marketing of themselves through their career had been very much based not just on their relationship but also on the dysfunction of it.

Ike and Tina’s love affair began in 1959, a short time after the start of their musical collaboration. Though their union apparently had all the earmarks of a modern-style romance, with its prioritizing of emotions above practical concerns (“amour fou”), as evidenced by the abuse, it also had the attributes of an ancient idea of love, that of the political union, since it was a tool for Ike and Tina’s mutual advancement, musically and economically. The modern idea of love, the irrational model, the blinding force that demands submission from its victims, is a relatively recent invention, coinciding with the rise of the bourgeois or “middle” class and the inevitable displacement of their superstitious and illogical royal nemesis. After the bourgeois ascension, love, in fact, became the only irrational aspect of life to be tolerated in an otherwise martial, logical, and self-policing social system. It simultaneously became the inversion of what it had once been, the sensibly considered stewardship of strategizing matchmakers who joined spouses for the mutual benefit of the families involved. Indeed, conjugal partnership had always been determined logically through considerations of status, dowry, property, and hierarchy. Before love’s reinvention by the “middle class,” love was ephemeral (“eros”) and was kept separate from marriage, which was a political transaction. Though the bourgeois era replaced much of the ancient world’s arbitrary brutality with order and law—necessary since capitalist aggression and subjugation are largely legalistic—love was strangely exempt from the stringent codes of the new age.

Under feudalism, marital partnership was akin to buying a cow. Under bourgeois rule, it was an alluring and mystical illness, an irrational transgression, even cautioned against as a possible threat to the existing social order that might lead to folly, death, and idiocy (as dramatized in Romeo and Juliet, written by William Shakespeare, the great bard of the burghers). Love was now allowed to survive as the singular form of rebellion in the face of institutionalized, insidious, and crushing class oppression, a liberating specter of the savage and sensual life of the prebourgeois age.

To understand a prebourgeois mindset, one must look to colonial countries or to nations that sidestepped the Masonic-Napoleonic upheavals of the 19th century, such as Russia. Since Russia never experienced a true middle class and went from feudalism straight to communism and then to CIA-sponsored mafiocracy, the Russian’s consciousness is as yet unaffected by sensible (“middle-class”) concerns about health care and savings accounts, while alcoholism and thuggery are the orders of the day. Love as we know it is also something a Russian would find quite foreign unless it were as an affectation, like an American practicing sitar. Though often quite refined and impressive in his or her job as ballerina or chess master, the Russian stumbles through life much as a fish glides through the ocean or a bird swims through the sky, soaring in pure, unaffected, eternal consciousness. The insanity, irrationality, and confusion we equate with love are a Russian’s entire life. For those trapped in the Western middle-class paradigm, though, things are not so simple. There is a love/life dualism that the “Westerner” dances around, an elaborate tango that is invisible to all but them and confusing to the uninitiated onlooker (foreign cabbies, for example).

Because love was sanctioned as the sole freedom/transgression in this most repressive and conformist society known to history, it is sung about at a rate that people in older eras would have found baffling. Indeed, old story songs about canals, murderers, gray geese, moles, and mountains have been almost entirely replaced in the postindustrial “rock ’n’ roll” genre with songs about love. In fact, songs that aren’t about love are typically considered inauthentic, dishonest, or even—the worst crime of all—intellectual. Since love’s role as official transgression survived the various permutations of bourgeois society through to the industrial era, it would be the domain particularly of black Americans—that caste specifically exempted through systemic racism from the benefits of the “Land of Opportunity”—to express it, particularly through their music, one name for which was rock ’n’ roll.

Since love/sex was the sole allowed transgression in bourgeois society and everything else was regulated “work,” those who were disallowed from the wealth system became unconsciously appointed the guardians and priests of sexuality. Black Americans had created much of the wealth for what would be the USA (by 1776 already among the world’s largest economies) without recompense through slave labor, and after emancipation were still largely barred from education and economic opportunity, so they inevitably became the keepers of carnality and love, since these were the inversions of the bourgeois obsession with logic and order. Therefore black music, or “blues/rock ’n’ roll,” became the music of sex and amour. Rock ’n’ roll—like love—was similarly a rebuttal to bourgeois order, an expression of irrationality, nihilism, lust, romantic love, and animalism. Rock ’n’ roll was resolutely antibourgeois, the romanticized and semisanctioned sound of proletarian discontent, controlled, harnessed, and distilled through capitalism to eventually help subjugate recalcitrant elements in the rest of the world.

Just as Ike Turner was a seminal figure for rock ’n’ roll and arguably invented the form, Ike and Tina Turner were the embodiment of both rock ’n’ roll and love’s irrationality, marketing themselves as the volatile adult supersexual duo, involved in a highly passionate and even abusive relationship.

Most of Ike and Tina’s material through their prolific 60s period dealt in direct terms with their dysfunctional relationship. The song titles speak for themselves: “The Argument,” “Please Don’t Hurt Me,” “You’re a Jive Playboy,” “Hurt Is All You Gave Me,” “I’m Yours (Use Me Anyway You Want To),” “Cussin,’ Cryin,’ and Carryin’ On,” “Don’t Play Me Cheap,” “Tell Her I’m Not Home,” “I’m Going Back Home,” “Tina’s Dilemma,” and the list goes on. Part of the mythology of love was that it held an irrational and mystical power over those affected, that a person “in love” was unable to resist the object of their desire, no matter how abusive, savage, or uncaring. Imbalanced power relationships therefore are central to the very appeal of the love affair to prospective lovers. The Ike & Tina Turner Revue capitalized on the sexuality and the power dynamics evident in their relationship, elements that charged the imagination of the onlookers at their shows, making them a consistently hot ticket throughout the 60s and early 70s.

Whether their torrid affair was initially a construct to motivate buyers or whether it was real can only be conjectured, since historical memory is untrustworthy, but it was certainly an effective marketing tool. Any member of any group can also attest to the fact that resentment, competition, and even hatred within a group can fuel creative prolificacy. Certainly this was the case for the Ike & Tina Turner Revue who were, by the late 60s, a crossover phenomenon that scored on the R&B and pop charts, put out 21 full-length LPs between 1969 and 1974(!), and toured, sometimes 270 nights a year, on and off the R&B “chitlin’ circuit.” By the mid-70s, though, despite the continued dynamism of their recorded work together, Tina left Ike and wrote her autobiography, which outlined Ike’s abuse and was eventually turned into a major motion picture.

When What’s Love Got to Do With It, starring Laurence Fishburne as Ike and Angela Bassett as Tina, came out in 1993, it was released to critical and public acclaim, to a mass audience who for the most part had never heard of Ike and Tina Turner and, even if they’d heard their music, were oblivious to what they were listening to. The indignation toward Ike as an abuser was instantaneous, though, as he became the patron saint of wife abuse, while Tina became an inspirational survivor and feminist icon. Though Ike decried his celluloid portrayal, Tina’s move, besides being smart, was an economic inevitability. No longer was marital dysfunction considered to be sexy, hot, or attractive as it once was. Woman’s roles had drastically changed along with the insidious class oppression of the postindustrial world, a place where women were forced from stifling relationships with dictatorial spouses en masse into the totalitarian workplace. The sadomasochist excitement that had previously been expected from a relationship was now dispensed by the boss class to worker women. Therefore, in the new slave state, rock ’n’ roll and love were both discharged from their roles as official rebellions against the ruling class. No dissent, however ineffectual and ritualistic, would be tolerated anymore.

What’s Love Got To Do With It is an apt title for a film that declares that love, the last refuge of irrationality from capitalist numerological subjugation, is dead. The title song itself, an awful Streisand-esque MOR anthem, is a telling sonic declaration that rock ’n’ roll is also dead. Now Ike, the man who maybe invented rock ’n’ roll, the final stand of the id, has passed away as well. May he rest in peace.



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