This interview originally appeared in issue 23 of Carbon 14 magazine back around 2002. I think they still have a few stray physical copies for sale. If you're interested, you can try your luck HERE. My chat with Jim was done in conjunction with the band celebrating thirty years of rockin'. As they're hitting forty, I thought it only fitting to share this conversation with those that might have missed it on the first go-round. It's kinda long, so strap yourself in. When Jim starts to open up, he goes full-tilt boogie; I was thrilled to have the opportunity to try to hang on for the ride. The interview was transcribed by C-14 in such a way as to hopefully capture Jim's unique cadence; it's partly revved-up backwoods mystic, partly laid-back drawl, and completely rock and fucking roll. So without further ado, I give you:
YOU CAN'T STAND TALL IF YOU'RE AFRAID TO FALL
A Conversation with Black Oak Arkansas' Jim Dandy Mangrum
It was in the late 1960s that there came a mighty rumblin' way back in them Arkansas hills. It was fueled by moonshine and wanderlust and came to manifest itself in a group of backwoods rebel rousers with long hair and electric guitars. This cosmic boogie outfit dubbed itself the Knowbody Else and hit New Orleans like a hurricane in late 1969/early 1970. There, on the gritty streets of the French Quarter, the group paid its dues and honed its chops until the earth shook and God clapped along. By 1971 the group had changed its name to Black Oak Arkansas and was on the fast track to taking over the world with their cocksure attitude and blistering live stage shows. At the center of it all was the band's leader, Jim Dandy Mangrum. With his long blond hair and skin tight pants, washboard in hand, he stood out like a latter day hedonistic deity conjured up by some hillbilly mojo man. Some thought of him as heaven-sent, while others railed against him as a demon.
Black Oak Arkansas charted ten albums between 1971 and 1976 and found a top 30 hit in their cover of Laverne Baker's R & B classic, "Jim Dandy." While many uneducated rock-critic type folks would tell you that BOA fell off the radar in the late 1970s, Jim and various line-ups kept the torch aloft via independent releases and self-supported touring. Be it a roadhouse juke-joint or Anaheim Stadium, Jim Dandy and Black Oak Arkansas have always delivered to the highest degree and continue to rock harder, longer, and nastier than nearly all so-called "cutting edge" bands half their age. Rhino Records has recently released a superb DVD retrospective on the band, entitled Black Oak Arkansas - The First 30 Years, that I can't recommend strongly enough. A week before the DVD hit the stores, Jim was kind enough to take an hour out of his day and shoot the breeze. I've gotta go on record and say that I've conducted countless interviews over the years and no one has ever been as gracious or enthusiastic as Jim was. KEEP THE FAITH.
I wanted to ask you about the DVD, The First 30 Years - is that a totally different thing from the home video you guys released a while back?
It was part of it, but that was released before it was actually OK'd to be released. There's bits and pieces in there, which we've found, that I've really enjoyed. This is a retrospective, so the first thing you wanna do is start at the beginning, and start to fill everybody in. Everybody's been wanting me to do this - VH1, we had a little, let's say disagreement. I believe the viewers are as bored, or even more bored, than I am about seeing how managers rip you off and stuff like that. Everybody in the '70s and '80s got ripped off by their managers; there's nothing unique about that. I just wanted to talk about the good things. 'Cause no matter how much you rip me off, I'm still gonna have more friends, more fun, and more lovin' than the man who took my money. Some people's character shows - or it shows they don't have character - when they get money and they have something to lose. They asked me if I was in it for the money, and I said, 'No,' and they took the money - that wasn't funny. My parents and my children weren't uplifted at all by all the things I did. I generated a lot of money. I'm tired of hearing about it but they say 4.4 million dollars or something like that. I don't know. It's nothing compared to a lot of people. I mean when I met John Fogerty at Peabody's here in Memphis, he told me, 'Well, Dandy, it could have been worse. It was fourteen million for me! If you'd had more, they'd have taken more.' I said, 'Well, that's probably right.' Anyway, regardless of popular belief, I'm still alive and well. In fact, I'm better than I ever was, much to the dismay of my fourth wife who told me not to ever change and that she loved me the way I was, the way they oughta do. And you know, they still don't understand when you get married when they're twenty-two and you're forty-four and ten years later at fifty-four, you love more than you ever did and you're doin' more than you ever did and they just don't - somehow they just didn't picture that. Look at the Rolling Stones, you know.
In spite of all the bumps in the road, what keeps you going after thirty years?
When you guys started out, thirty years ago, you were way ahead of your time. Nobody was doing what you guys were doing.
What'd she do?
She set me up. On the radio, I told my mama happy birthday, and that she's seventy-seven years old. I broke my back like eleven or twelve years ago on her birthday, which is why I never forget her birthday anymore. I fell asleep at the wheel and hit an oak tree, which wasn't very funny. But anyway, my parents are sharper than I am, they're still alive, and I'm a very fortunate man just for having them as parents. And having the adventure I've had and being taught I could do whatever I wanted to do. There's a lot of things I could have done. It fascinates me, the world, and I wonder about people. If these policemen like me or if these policemen don't like me because they imagine what they would have done in my position. You know the world judges the world by their own standards. That's why a lot of people are very worried and paranoid, because they've been doing people wrong and they don't think that's anything but normal. So they think everybody's out to get them. But I've had a very, very, very fortunate life, great parents, great friendships that have gone for decades and decades; friendship is the greatest value in the world. I would have liked to have ended up with the money too, that way I could have said that I made money, but I just generated it. It didn't really bring my family's lifestyle up much. My children don't really have...my daddy says don't leave 'em nothing, it'll ruin 'em anyhow. But that was no problem with me because I didn't have nothing, except for what I've got. What you see is what you get. I'm there when I'm there and I ain't when I ain't. I don't write many letters 'cause I'm busy writing songs. I love to do what I do, there's nothing better than what I do. I'm truly the happiest in my life when I'm on stage or when I'm getting to create with somebody. It's not that I don't really want to just do it by myself but whoever's there with me, the interplay and being able to write with somebody is fascinating to me a lot of the time. All of the time, if it's somebody good.
How do you approach songwriting? Are you always writing lyrics or do you and Rick get together?
Like you said, it's people measuring by their own standards.
Not a lot.
Well, you know, I don't believe they're much different than me. They ain't seen much smaller than a bread crumb; they don't really know whether to believe in amoebas and any kind of...I don't even know if I've got a brain. They say I've got one but I've never seen it. I don't know if it's been lost or misplaced, maybe it wasn't even ever there. Maybe I'm now just talking like a butterfly in random.
You spoke about your children, and on a different kind of level you've definitely spawned other children like David Lee Roth, Vince Neil, and Jesse James Dupree. There are a lot of people who've heavily borrowed from Jim Dandy; how does that make you feel?
I'm very fortunate for the life I've had. But Elvis liked me, and he treated me good when he didn't have to. I finally got to meet him about ten months before he passed away, at the Macon Hilton in Macon, Georgia. He said, 'It comes through us, not from us. We're just in the best seat in the house.' And I think that's the most wonderful thing that was ever said to me because it's true. In a sense, it's like channeling. I ain't trying to be Shirley MacLaine or nothin', there ain't nothin' wrong with her, but it's true, we can't own anything like this. David didn't steal nothing from me, in fact, I love David; I always thought he was the Shecky Greene of rock and roll. At least Van Halen had a sense of humor when he was with 'em. Or at least he did, so the band did. But it seems that they maybe didn't have enough of one. I believe that if David had a wife of his own, which is doubtful, I'll bet he would have been making jokes about her too - just as much as he was Eddie's wife. Eddie picked a woman that looks just like him, what the hell does that say? I love 'em all. I love the way Eddie plays guitar. I love the way the band was. Hell, I love Bob Dylan. I love everything. I'm a person who's been able to enjoy my life to the utmost. I came from outta nowhere, and I took my time to reach there. It ain't over yet, and it ain't got nothin' to do with no fat lady. It's got to do with the person that's livin'. You can't stand tall if you're afraid to fall, and if you're always trying to keep up and count your stuff more than the bank does, then give it up. Because their whole life is counting your stuff.
Has there ever been a point in your performance history where you've thought, 'This is it, I've made it. I'm at the top.' Are you ever gonna reach a pinnacle or is it something you continuously strive for?
You just wanna play music.
Let me tell you something. You're on the top of your game when you're not worried about the top. That's ambition, and I'm not down-rapping ambition, it's good to have some goals and it's good to have a will. Because will means more than anything in this ambitious world, because this is not really the music business. In the music business, you get the business. And it's a personality personification of truth, that's what the real truth is. What sets Muhammad Ali and Elvis Presley apart from the others is personality. That shine you can feel when you're not even looking at 'em, when you got your face at the front desk of a hotel and all of a sudden you can feel it; somebody just walked in there behind you and everybody takes notice to it. That's when Muhammad Ali or Elvis walks in. Fuck the President! [laughs]
So you mentioned a new song. Are you guys working on a new album?
It just still don't seem to hurt my sex appeal none. It's a wonderful life, and I don't mean Jimmy Stewart either. It's been a thrill and an adventure. My mama still asks me, 'Jim, are you still cursed with the wanderlust?' And I have to tell her, 'Mama, I love you but I guess I still am because I can't stay here.' So now it's two hundred and seventy-seven people and I'm fifty-five and it's grown five people since I left. But it's a dry county, there ain't no place to go there. There ain't no girls - not that I need girls anymore, I mean, really. It's nice; need ain't the word though. I've had a full life and I'm tired of trying to deal with multiple personalities; in the sense of having a band like I've had. I didn't realize there was no real Three Musketeers or no real Robin Hood and his Merry Men. I didn't realize The Beatles didn't really like each other as much as they acted like they did, and that most bands out there are traveling on different buses and in different planes! At least we're a real band and we loved each other and we went through hell together. We went through making an adventure together that can't even be put into words. We had only seen three concerts before we were playing 'em, and we were scared to death. Most people said we didn't look scared, but that's because we were in motion the whole time. They say I started off the movement on stage for a lot of people because I was doing the catwalk. I was running in place. I was going on a forty-foot stage side to side while I'm singing', and then in between songs I wasn't even sounding like I was out of breath. I don't understand how I did it either. It's just something that comes over you when you get out there if you it as much as I do, and I LOOOOOVE IT. God, I love what I do. I love to perform for people. I love to take them up to another level, to where they walk out feeling like they've had some kind of revelation or some kind of uplifting thing and they can't put their finger on what it is.
But still, it's like in the beginning, when I first started going out front. I started on drums. But like I said, I was fighting behind the same barn five days a week because they said they didn't like what I stood for, whatever the hell that was. One of these fights I had was over forty-five minutes long and I couldn't hold my hands tight long enough anymore; I broke every finger on both hands except for one thumb. I couldn't hold the drumsticks so I went out front, that's the last time I played drums. I realized I had some kind of talent - not so much for singing - I learned how to sing and talk between songs just because I love to communicate with the audience. I love to agitate change. I love to say the things that they're afraid to say, and that's what they love about me the most. Ricky said, way back when, 'Don't you think that could end up being a little bit dangerous, Jim?' I said, 'If it ain't dangerous, Ricky, I don't wanna do it because there ain't nothin' dangerous around Black Oak.' I mean that to me is a little bit exciting. I ain't afraid to die at all. Dying well is like...knowing how to live is one thing, knowing how to die is everything. It gets down to a point of faith and whether you believe or not. Some people have spiritual conviction and strength and confidence and know where they're going. Like John Lennon said, I'll never forget this. Paul McCartney said, after Brian Epstein died, 'We've gotta have leader of the band, now more than ever. John, you picked us all, do you wanna be the leader of the band?" And John says, 'Look, don't call me no leader. I know where I'm going, and if you wanna follow me you can.' [laughs] I thought that was the most beautiful thing I ever heard. I met him, too. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Can we go talk?' And I was worryin', thinkin' 'I hope my tongue'll work...I hope I can talk.' He told me never change, and he wasn't really talkin' about my music. He was talkin' more about the Bob Marley and John Lennon side of me.
Do you think that side of you is what has inspired such a devout following? 'Cause you have such a devout following of fans that get off on what you do, do you think that plays into it? That spirituality?
Well, I hope you continue to do it for a long time.