Hey, let's crocodile and let's rock awhile

Come all ye ignoble etymologists: It's contest time! Define "hum cap," win a T-shirt. Plus: Southern-fried music lit's finest hour: "Rythm Oil."

Published June 12, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Isn't there something poetically vulgar (or vulgarly poetic) about the expression "crocodile's birthday"? The phrase recalls euphemisms for vaguely dusky events, or worse -- such as being drunk as David's sow, sentenced to the three-legged mare, facing the blind cupid, weathering a hail of beggar's bullets, tolerating the beetle-headed, slurping hum cap or being set upon by rattling mumpers. In fact, however, "crocodile's birthday" is not a euphemism for anything (though it should be). Its meaning? Crocodile's birthday. Coincidentally, just such an event, and a rather important one, was celebrated last week in Thailand at the Samut Prakarn Crocodile Farm.

The birthday beast was the world's largest croc, Yai, who Thursday turned 27. Yai measures 20 feet in length and weighs a ton-and-a-quarter. He's a big boy and by all accounts reveled in the festivities, which were attended by "monkeys, macaws and hundreds of tourists," all of whom, with the possible exception of the monkeys and macaws, sang "Happy Birthday" to the humongous reptile. Yai's gift basket included "chickens, ducks, beef, pork, sharks and other fish," but no petit fours. The brave soul who held the cake as Ole' Dragon Breath extinguished the candles was not named in the reports. To cap the celebration, elephants, monkeys, chimpanzees, orangutans, golden pythons and macaws paraded past the Great Jawed One's pen with a banner wishing him a happy birthday (nice, huh?). To which I add a hearty "Here, here!" Speaking of which, can you make that infernal ticking go away?

OK -- you've been so patient -- here are the contest details. The prize is an authentic, official, handsome, clean, new and two-color Salon T-shirt, which will be mailed (first class) to the lucky winner (of which there will be only one). Rules? There are no rules. All's fair and anyone can enter except employees of Salon who can easily acquire their own T-shirt by grabbing one out of the storage room when no one's looking. The winner will be the first person (monkey or macaw) to correctly state the origin of the phrase "David's sow" (as it relates to inebriation), and then accurately define the following: "three-legged mare," "blind cupid," "beggar's bullets," "beetle-headed," "hum cap," and "rattling mumpers." Finally, suggest what crocodile's birthday might be a euphemism for, if it were a euphemism. Entries should be sent by e-mail directly to me. Anyone who rubs me the wrong way will be disqualified. I'll respond to the winner. If you don't hear back, that means you didn't win. Tough. Live with it. Now, start your search engines, and may the best human, monkey or macaw prevail.

And while we're on the subject of big-mouthed reptiles, do we really need another book on the Rolling Stones? Instead, how about putting the best one -- published more than a decade-and-a-half ago -- back in print? It's highly unlikely that Stanley Booth's "The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones," published in 1984 and now available only from Booth himself (who's written for Salon) or used book outlets, can be improved upon, so why bother trying, I say. Nonetheless, according to Reuters, British musician and TV presenter Jools Holland is giving birth to "Life on The Road," a "glossy new biography of one of the world's most long-lasting rock groups." Wake me up when we get there.

However, fine as it is, Booth's Stones book, celebrated, appropriately, by novelist Robert Stone in a Salon feature a couple of years back as "a lost treasure," is not his best. "No work on the popular arts so faithfully serves its subject while unpretentiously succeeding in being about so much more," Stone wrote of "The True Adventures ..." Right, except for Booth's "Rythm Oil: A Journey Through the Music of the American South," a collection of magazine pieces rich as barbecued pork, which was published in 1993 and is now also out of print.

Here is the writer's own opulent, accurate description of "Rythm Oil" from the book's introduction: "'Rythm Oil is the story of a journey, un voyage au bout de la nuit, from slavery in 1940s south Georgia to murder in 1960s Memphis and back again to savagery in 1990s Georgia, with many laughs along the way: the writer shows up in Louisiana, California, and England, but returns to the place where the bullfrog gets his water." In the book, Booth writes about Robert Johnson, Furry Lewis (who accompanied him to John Hurt's funeral, which he also writes about), Elvis (who tells of goin' south on Natalie Wood), James Brown, B.B. King, Janis Joplin's failure to do the Sideways Pony at her Memphis debut, ZZ Top and, well, more.

But Booth doesn't write so much as he jumps, swings, shimmies, shouts, whispers, evokes, conjures, shakes a mojo at the page and lets words rain down. "The tradition of romantic poetry," Booth's introduction continues, "in which artists like the ones considered here surely occupy a place, derives its origin in no small part from Wordsworth and Coleridge's reading of William Bartram, the 18th century American naturalist, on the regions and legends of the Okefenokee Swamp. Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' translates -- with a supposed admixture of opium -- from Bartram's writing about Salt Springs, in Marion County, Florida. Aside from personal fascination, there is historic precedent for keeping an ear to the American South and Southeast." And in "Rythm Oil," Booth's got perfect pitch.

In praising "The True Adventures ... " Robert Stone wrote: "Booth knows the secrets of the heart as well as he knows rock music. Like Hunter Thompson's, his writing conveys in its style a whole mode of life. But his sense of irony and tragedy is usually keener than Thompson's and the examination of his subject penetrates more deeply."

And at the end of one of "Rythm Oil"'s 20 jewels, Booth, in his own precise, peculiar way, proves Stone's case: "Carla was waiting for the limo to come back from taking Johnny Taylor to his hotel when closing time came and she found herself standing on the club's steps. She had come from benighted Memphis to progressive Atlanta, where she had worried, she had worked, she had done good. At the club she had been used and insulted, and at the concert, in her view, perhaps robbed. She was exhausted and she wanted to sit down. This music is about redemption. A friend, putting an arm around the magnificent shoulders of Carla Thomas, said, 'Don't worry, baby. That's why they call it the blues.'"

So you have your weekend assignment, should you choose to accept it: Hunt down a copy of "Rythm Oil." And don't forget the crocodile's birthday.

By Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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