How the Kingsmen's Singer's Story Defines the Beauty and Tragedy of Rock
Jack Ely, who five decades ago sang in a band of Portland teenagers called the Kingsmen, died yesterday.
His story was one of regret and accidental fame. Think of it like this: You’re 19. You walk into a studio in downtown Portland, and you record two minutes and 45 seconds of screaming vocals, tumbling drums, repetitive keys, and chunky guitar sludge, all based on a simple riff with a complicated folkloric backstory. (Is it Jamaican? Cuban? Something? Anyway, the song was making the rounds in the Northwest garage-rock scene, so everyone sort of knew it.)
You hate it. There are audible and glaring errors, including a moment about a minute and forty seconds in when the entire song almost falls apart. About 10 seconds later, you start singing at the wrong time completely. But you press 1,000 copies because you don’t really have another plan, and in any case your band isn’t exactly a vast moneymaking concern.
And those two minutes, 45 seconds end up largely defining your life. Over the next few months, the kids of America decide you accidentally made something perfect—a rough diamond that refracts all the energy of youth at that time and, weirdly, all time. With its smashing chords and daffy buoyancy, your version of “Louie Louie” somehow rises above literally hundreds of other versions—versions of the same stupid song!—to transcend not only its era but the entire technological and cultural context in which it was created.
Fifty years later, unauthorized YouTube uploads will get hundreds of thousands of plays, for all the same reasons people called 1962 DJs to demand another spin. Right now, somewhere, some rabble of teenagers with guitars is picking its way through that Morse Code-like riff, learning their instruments via a song you barely knew how to play in the first place. If we ever need to teach space aliens what rock is (or was), we’ll probably play them “Louie Louie.”
And no, you won't ever do it again. And you won’t ever get the money. Because if you did, it wouldn’t quite be a rock and roll story, would it?
Read Jack Ely's version of the "Louie Louie" origin story, as told to Portland Monthly.