Wanda Jackson at the Ventura Theater
By David Cotner 11/27/2013
The American Music Awards: It’s a different kind of American music than the American music brought to mind by First Lady of Rockabilly Wanda Jackson, here at the other end of the musical galaxy; a place that’s less glitz and more Schlitz and not affected by the angry congealing wound of the red carpet. Hers is a kind of music that’s proven more timeless than various flavors of various moments, and yet it is almost violently impossible to imagine what today’s current crop of musicians will look like six decades hence, let alone what they might sound like in the may-be year of A.D. 2073 American Music Awards time. At either end of that spectrum, you’re either fresh meat or a fêted survivor.
The press tends to treat Jackson’s longevity with a sort of surprised smirk, the obverse of that casual salaciousness with which they treat most girl singers of today. She is nothing if not emblematic of that thing that people want so desperately to do but have neither the will nor capacity to accomplish. That is, in the words of essayist Christopher Morley: “There is only one success — to be able to spend your life in your own way.”
Such are the blessings of maturity.
The great irony, of course, is that her métier and milieu are still rooted in rock’s rebellion, the irresistible force of youth against the immovable objections of grown-ups.
You’re only as young as you feel. She’s 76. It’s 9:30 p.m. The night is young, and here she is.
Jackson plays to a packed house and delivers this action for the ages (when you reach a 60-year career, rarely is there a “take two”) and it’s a bit of a relief, after all the frenetic electricity of the preceding punk bands, to enjoy the acoustic persuasion of a piano and a big bass drum. She and her band start with a cover of the Leiber-Stoller hit “Riot in Cellblock Number 9,” her reedy voice keening like a gritty Eartha Kitt or earthy Lola Falana, brassy and sassy as she commands the stage throughout. Then it’s her 1958 single “Rock Your Baby,” and then, from 1956, her first rock and roll song, “I Gotta Know.” There’s sort of a peppy swaying in the throng pressing into the stage, at which point she announces, “I am very happy to be here tonight . . . and you need to be happy, too,” launching into 1961’s “Funnel of Love.”
The humorously ominous “My Big Iron Skillet” precedes Jackson’s varied country music offerings, a music that’s the cornerstone of her creative homestead. Also: yodeling! She chuckles good-naturedly at the senior moments that come with reminiscing, remembering some things, forgetting other lyrics. She talks about touring with the young Elvis Presley, whom she later dated, admitting, “He’s the one who encouraged me to sing rock’n’roll.” And, ever faithful to the man and those songs, she wore his ring around her neck.
She talks about her 2009 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, barreling forthwith into a rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel.” “Jack White knows his music,” she announces, telling the story of how the White Stripes mastermind contacted her with an eye toward producing her 2011 record The Party Ain’t Over, her 30th (!) studio album. A cover of Johnny Kidd and The Pirates’ “Shakin’ All Over” — which she sang with White on The Late Show with David Letterman — leads into “You Know I’m No Good.” She beams about Unfinished Business, her album from late last year, playing a few songs from it: “It’s All Over Now” and 1959’s “Fujiyama Mama,” a song that, despite lyrics about annihilating Hiroshima and Nagasaki, went to No. 1 in Japan. She winds up with the gospel stylings of “I Saw the Light” and ends her set with 1960’s “Let’s Have a Party” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
One of the things that so distressed the world 58 years ago was a woman expressing an intensity of emotion that was equal to any man’s feelings — and unapologetically so. The biggest threat to the system is that, through rock music and other forms of liberation, a woman might actually develop an internal life that doesn’t depend entirely on a man for it to be valid. To age gracefully in this way while evolving as an individual adult human being — and having a damned good time doing it — is what Wanda Jackson has perfected throughout all these decades, putting the “living” into “living legend.”