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Remembering the Old Dewey Cox

Dewey Cox? Yes, we remember him. But not without hesitation. There may be renewed interest in Cox in the wake of the new film Walk Hard, and he may be strutting about the Roxy all reenergized, playing the hits, trying to act like the '80s never happened. But he doesn't know — or worse yet, doesn't really care — what we diehards had to endure.

I loved Cox. We all loved Cox. Thirty-one times I've seen him. Chicago, Memphis, St. Louis, around the globe. I saw him on a double bill in 1974 in Nigeria with Fela Kuti and Paul McCartney, and it was the most amazing thing: McCartney trying to ingratiate himself with Fela, Fela giving him the stink eye back, unimpressed by the imperialist, to say the least. What does this dude know about rhythm? Fela gave Dewey the same skeptical look at first, but when Dewey started dancing erotically, Fela stepped back. Next thing you know, Cox and Kuti are inseparable. In Cairo, in front of the pyramids, they reimagined "You Got to Love Your Negro Man" as this wicked Afrobeat breakdown. Muhammad Ali was in the crowd that night and joined them onstage.

A few years later, I rode from Memphis to Los Angeles with Cox and his drummer, Sam, for a profile I was writing for Melody Maker. There was no way Cox was going anywhere near an airplane; at that point, he was eating five hits of acid each morning with his coffee, and by tea time, he was wandering through dimensions like they were floors in a department store. Dewey and Sam had this new Chevy Caprice — a shark if there ever was one. Dewey painted flames coming out of the wheel wells and a silver star on the hood.

Dewey was laid out in the back seat, staring out the rear window. He said, "Roberts, I found the 16th dimension just now. I was climbing this escalator in the Macy's of my mind and bingo, there I was on the 16th-dimension floor. It's where the music is, the 16th dimension. It's where it comes from and where it goes when it's dead. It's crowded up there with musical notes and bars and measures and those funny ampersand-looking things. The notes run around like herds of wild horses."

By the time we landed at the Troubadour 72 hours later, he was blotto, fighting imaginary "Vikings," as he called them. He kept gobbling aspirin because he thought that, regardless of what drug he had just done, a few aspirin would always set his mind right. He'd pound a bottle of Hennessey and 15 minutes later take two aspirin and think he was straight and sober. He finally crawled onstage at midnight, grabbed the mic, and listed his "inspirations," as he called them: "Demerol. Percodan. 'Ludes. Weed. LSD. Cough syrup. But I just took two aspirin, so we're OK." My notes from that night are telling: "Cox fucked beyond comprehension. Three weeks and he's dead, I bet. Just pulled out his penis — tiny! — rubbed it on Sam's snare drum. He started trying to use it as a drum stick. YOU LIKE MY DRUM STICK? YOU LIKE THAT? YOU LIKE THAT?"

Then he rolled over onto the drums and puked, causing a chain reaction onstage, with the three other Hard Walkers puking too. Half the crowd vomited that night. It was awesome. Cox was curled up in a fetal position mumbling into the mic: "Oh yeah. Puke it. Puke it." Then he stood up, shook himself off, and launched into the most searing version of "Royal Jelly" you'll ever hear.

By 1982, he was a shadow of himself. Doing more blow than Tony Montana, gaunt, walking flaccid. I ran into him outside of a gas station, and I nearly didn't recognize him. I called his name and he shot back, "My name ain't Dewey, motherfucker. It's King Chameleon. Fuck my fans. All of them."

You'll excuse me if I think Dewey has some redeeming to do. I've seen him touch the sky, and I've seen him chewing dirt.

Last week at the Roxy, he touched the sky.

Given that his first hit was in 1953, Cox looks fantastic. His ass is still round, and his little pecker pokes out of his snug black pants like it always has.

"I don't give a damn what anyone thinks," began Cox, launching into "Guilty as Charged," and the rest of the night, he proved it, jumping from classic to classic, rambling, defiant. "You guys like it when I say motherfuckers, don't you?" he said at one point, sneering, and the crowd roared in approval. He tossed his sweaty towels to the ladies, shot tequila. He dug back to "Let Me Hold You (Little Man)," his stab at social commentary, and when he declared with 1,000-yard eyes that "I stand today for the midget, half the size of a regular guy," you could feel his compassion and belief, still unwavering after all these years. "Let me hold you, little man/As the parade passes by/Let me hold you, little man/We'll make-believe you can fly." Even today, 34 years later, the song has resonance. We've come so far. Cox reminds us of how far we still have to go.

As in his preretirement years, Cox mentioned Dylan — "Robert Dylan" — and went on to claim once again that "Robert took a lot from me." Some grudges never die. But Cox has a point. I was at a party in the Hollywood Hills in 1964, and both Cox and Dylan were there. Predictably, they got into a shoving match. (They never could be in the same room together.) This time it was over the chord progression to "There's a Change a Happenin'." Cox accused Dylan of larceny, assumed the karate position, and called his rival a "Napoleon in rags." I heard it, and so did a lot of other people.

By the end of the Roxy gig, Cox was shirtless and, as always, playing with his nipples. "You've seen the billboard; now feel the real thing," boasted the superstar, so happy to be back onstage after being dead for so long.

By the time Cox did "Beautiful Ride," the Roxy had been transformed into the Coxy, and the audience was right there with him. "Now that I have lived a lifetime's worth of days," he sang, "finally I see the folly of my ways/So listen when I sing of/the temptations of this world/fancy cars and needles/whiskey, flesh, and pearls."

Last night, a poet was resurrected. Behold Dewey Cox. Back from the dead. Fleshier than ever.

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Randall Roberts
Contact: Randall Roberts