Black Oak Arkansas lead singer Jim "Dandy" Mangrum and his family have just spent the night huddled under a mattress in their bathtub as a string of tornadoes blew through their west Tennessee town. But when the time for an interview rolls around, he's ready to rock--and why not? After all, Dandy, who's fifty, has been the center of a storm or two in his day, and he seems eager to cause more. Check, for example, his comments about fellow Arkansan and President of the United States William Jefferson Clinton.
"Bill Clinton? Oh, yeah, he's a good friend of mine," Dandy announces. "I've known him since before he was attorney general. We used to smoke together."
Smoke? As in marijuana? As in the illicit substance President Clinton tried but didn't inhale?
"Oh, yeah," Dandy exclaims, sounding like a dream witness for special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. "He was a leader of NORML back then. He promised me he was gonna legalize pot and socialize medicine. Yeah. And he says he didn't inhale? Well, I ain't saying he's a liar. I didn't inhale, either."
If so, that's practically the only thing Dandy hasn't done. As the frontman for Black Oak Arkansas, which was named after his hometown, Dandy has been wearing out stages across the country for the better part of three decades. The band's hormone-powered Southern boogie was loud, rude and eager to please, and so was Dandy himself. His lengthy tresses, spandex pants and heavy-metal wailing inspired countless singers; in fact, onetime Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth lifted practically his entire shtick from the singer. Plenty of others loved the group's raunchy R&R as well, but not the era's music journalists, many of whom regarded Dandy as the worst musical joke America ever produced. The slagging peaked in 1973, when Creem critic Lester Bangs suggested that someone shoot and kill Dandy in order to spare the ears of the record-buying public.
Fortunately for Dandy, negative reviews bounce right off him. "I am the most profound radical nonconformist of our time," he declares, "and I've always upset people like that. They either love me like nothin' or I upset them greatly, and that doesn't bother me. I kind of like it. See, I was a leader and spokesman of a reactionary group, and that's far out when you consider I was from a place where people were afraid to speak their own mind even inside their own living rooms."
According to Dandy, the peanut-sized hamlet of Black Oak was a place where convention, not cotton, was king. Dandy reacted to the environment by turning himself into the diametric opposite of his neighbors. "I was the first longhair in Arkansas, and I know what being a thorn in their side is like. I had five fights a week behind the same barn for a long time. Until we got the music, I was fightin' 'em one at a time."
Young Jim and his mates began their musical mission in a typically unconventional way--by breaking into their high school and stealing the public-address system. After receiving lengthy suspended sentences for this act, the boys relocated to the woods outside town. Dandy was glad to escape. "Boring mediocrity is the only thing I'm scared of," he says. "And that's what Black Oak was all about."
After rustling up some gear and getting their chops in order, Dandy and his partners in crime (then playing under the handle Knowbody Else) landed a deal with Stax Records in the late Sixties. Shortly thereafter, they adopted the Black Oak moniker and signed to an even bigger company, Atlantic. Their rise amazes Dandy to this day. "We stood for something that I'm proud of," he emphasizes. "We showed a lot of young people that you could come from somewhere small and still do it. You just gotta have more willpower; you've gotta have more everything. And you've got to know what you want and what it's about.
"We were honest is what we was," he continues. "We were bone-cold, right-between-your-eyes honest. We also proved that marijuana, hair down to your ass and talkin' about things like karma and gettin' hot and nasty right there in the interior of the whole sacred nation itself...well, we proved that those things were."
"Hot & Nasty," the 1971 song that put Black Oak on the map, typified Dandy's approach. He describes it as "a joke about lettin' nature take its course, when all your peers were sayin' you're gonna go to hell for that. Kids shouldn't be told they're goin' to hell, because they might believe it someday and think, 'If I'm going to hell, I'm gonna raise some,' and they'll turn out to be a different person. We were just tryin' to make 'em laugh about it a little and get over it."
Not that Dandy had anything against the pleasures of the flesh. He traces his obsession with such matters to his small-town upbringing. "There were 272 people there; they were all farmers, and it was mostly boys around my age. There were no girls around, and that's why sex had so much to do with my music. It was the one thing that was at the top of my mind and deep in my heart at the same time." He adds, "I misled millions of people, but I never had nothin' I couldn't wash off with soap and water. Nah, nah, I take that back: I caught the clap two times and had to use ointment on them little ol' boogers."
Black Oak's only Top 40 hit, the self-celebrating "Jim Dandy," reached the charts in 1973. Dandy says he decided to cover the tune, which scored for R&B favorite LaVern Baker in 1956, only after Elvis Presley told him that he should. "You don't say no to the King of Rock and Roll," he points out.
Presley wasn't Black Oak's only superstar fan, Dandy swears; he lists the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Timothy Leary among those who also appreciated his singular gifts. But as the group got more popular, detractors became more vocal. In Dandy's opinion, that's because "I'm nature takin' its course--and it's coming right back at 'em and fuckin' up what they've had goin' for a long time, which was usually a scam. If they're true of heart and with the right intentions, I don't rub 'em wrong. See, most of 'em ain't honest with themselves or anybody else, and everybody's doin' each other's old ladies and hurtin' each other's ex by goin' around with their friends, and takin' things that should be more sacred and usin' them as nothin' but a tool or a weapon.
"See, I've always been in touch with the spirit world," he goes on. "I'm a very devout Christian, but I'm no holy roller. I go where preachers are afraid to. The spirit world is metaphysical, but it's just as real as the physical, and I've been more at home there than I have here until the last few years. It's evident in a lot of the stuff that we did, which everyone said wasn't real commercial. And they were right; it wasn't. We didn't know what commercial was, and we didn't know we were supposed to be it. We probably would have been like everybody else, but we didn't know what they were doing. In Arkansas back then you missed a lot, and you still do."
These days Dandy insists that weighty subjects no longer interest him: "I'm tryin' to keep to more people and human things instead of the spiritual and the political," he says. But his words suggest otherwise. Clearly, Dandy has never seen a soapbox he didn't want to stand on or heard a conspiracy theory that wasn't worth trying on for size.
"I mingle with my people, and I hear the voices of a humanity that is not humane and a civilization that is not civilized--and there ain't nothin' civil 'bout civil rights," he intones. "This nation was started with rebel rights. The truth is, the powers that be make Sam Walton of WalMart look like a speck on a big dog's back. There ain't but about six or eight families that run this whole earth, and the ones who run the United States ain't gonna worry about if it's a Republican or Democrat who wins, because they own both sides. I wouldn't even bother to vote. We just go through this because it keeps us happier with ourselves and makes everything work better."
Dandy displays similar paranoia when discussing the early deaths of many of his fellow musicians. "We're easy to get rid of in my business," he maintains. "All you do is shoot us up with pure and they'll all believe we're junkies. And you know about the entertainment business. I mean, how many people check to see if they had somebody do it to 'em? There was a person who's not too far from right up where you are, and I'm not gonna bring up any names, but he was a friend of mine, and his brother's my drummer."
It's not difficult to suss out Dandy's allusion: Black Oak Arkansas's current drummer is Johnny Bolin, the brother of Colorado-based guitarist Tommy Bolin, who died a drug-related death in 1976. So is Dandy suggesting that Bolin was the victim of foul play? In response to the question, he breaks into a cackle. "You act like you don't know this and your readers don't know this?" he asks. "Bull. Let me tell you something: Tommy did not OD. Tommy was done away with, and I'm not gonna say no more. And he wasn't the only one, and he wasn't the first. That's why everyone knew it was real with Lennon--because nobody would have just shot him like that. They would have been more subtle than that."
That Bill Clinton holds the highest office in the land hasn't convinced Dandy that such sins are a thing of the past. But he still has nice things to say about his old pal. "I like Bill," he says. "He's done a lot of good things, and I wish people would quit talkin' 'bout the women and start noticin' what he's done for education. I believe youth is the wealth of the world. You know, there are only two kinds of people in the world, and it ain't got nothin' to do with color, and it ain't got nothin' to do with sex. It's got to do with people with conscience and people without. Bill, he's got a conscience, and I'll tell you what: He can take it. He copes, and he ain't afraid to go and attack a problem, and he ain't always so worried 'bout bein' popular, except when he's campaignin'."
As Dandy tells it, Clinton's style on the stump during his attempt to regain the Arkansas governorship he lost early in his career was weak until he took a lesson from Jim. "The elderly just didn't believe him, because he was raised on a silver spoon and had that Elvis smirk on his face even when he was talkin' about their troubles. I told him, 'Bill, with you I think we'd better go with the kind of Method acting that character actors are taught in movies. That is, think about the worst thing that ever happened to you that made you sad--your dog gettin' run over, your mama, anything that brings you to where you can't smile and you wanna cry. It may not be that what you're talkin' about is what you're thinkin' about, but if you put those tears and that frown with what you've got on paper, it'll work.' And it did."
Right now Dandy is on a campaign trail of his own in support of a live CD Black Oak Arkansas recorded in 1976 at England's Reading Festival. The disc contains versions of the group's bigger smashes, along with stompers such as "Hot Rod," the tenderly titled "Fistful of Love" and "Lord Have Mercy," a quasi-sermon in which Dandy deals with Satan and God. The platter also includes a new tune cut with the current lineup, which features original members Rickie Reynolds and Pat Daugherty on guitar and bass, respectively.
On stage, Dandy isn't the whirling dervish he once was. He still plays a mean washboard, but because of a 1990 car accident in which he broke his back, he can no longer do his trademark splits. Otherwise, he says he's in good health for a man with so many miles on him, in part because he kicked a hashish and cocaine habit that left him sounding more like Wolfman Jack than Howlin' Wolf. "I've got my voice again, and this band's got more heart than the whole world," he boasts. "We're better than ever now."
Tornadoes aside, Dandy's home life is also looking up. He just celebrated another year of marriage to his fourth wife, an exotic dancer at a Memphis gentlemen's club who's half his age, and although he says that corrupt managers duped him out of more than $4 million over the years, he's not complaining. "You gotta laugh when you've generated that kind of money and you still see your children goin' without the things they should have," he notes. "But you can't blame nobody but yourself. It's a lesson and you learn it--and I'm a very happy man. I mean, it's a dandy world and a dandy life, and now I've got me a dandy wife. Oh, yeah!
"The older the bull, the stiffer the horn," he says with a wicked chuckle. "Always remember: The mightiest oak was once just a little nut that held its ground. And I'm that little nut."
Black Oak Arkansas. 8 p.m. Friday, May 29, Buffalo Rose, 1119 Washington Street, Golden, $10, 279-5190 or 830-
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