I apologize in that I’ve spoken about this album before in public; I try to avoid making a habit out of repeating myself when talking about my favorite music. That said, when I talked about Little Beaver before, it was on a short podcast and I didn’t have time to elaborate about how much and why I love this record in the way that I’m about to below.
Little Beaver is a singer, songwriter, and electric guitarist. His birth name is Willie Hale, but he got the nickname “Little Beaver” while still a bucktooth little kid and it stuck. He was born in Arkansas but made his way to Miami in the early 70s, where he played with a nightclub band called Frank Williams and the Rocketeers and then found work as a session guitarist (he plays all three guitar parts on this Betty Wright jam). On the side, Beaver made music that deserves to be the music everyone forevermore associates with Florida; if there were any justice in the world there would be Beaver-themed bars all over America and nobody would ever mention that Buffet fellow ever again.
It is impossible for me to separate Little Beaver from Florida, from humidity, from relaxation, from jocularity. His songs all wear a tipsy perma-smile, and you can feel a hot, sticky sheen of sweat across them. My favorite Little Beaver solo record is his first, entitled Party Down; the cover depicts Beaver in a snappy all-leather suit with a cocked little leather cap, smiling coyly in front of an intricately-patterned home rec-room bar, behind which is a wood-paneled wall with an inset TV and some gold records proudly displayed on it. Sitting on the bar are a bottle of rum and a bottle of red wine. The color palette of this image, from the beautiful sunburst of Beaver’s hollowbody Gibson guitar to the globe-lit woodgrain of the paneling behind him, is that of a rich, flaring-out Florida sunset. This is one of my favorite album covers of all time (which by the way the back cover sleeve tells us was designed by a man named DRAGO) – it’s an example of the album cover acting as an ambassador to the music within, telling everybody what they’re about to find when they slide out the disc and put it in their player. And I’ve listened to this record so many times that I want to live in this image. I want to walk away from my life and my own band and into this kick-ass rec room where it is always 8:39 and the setting sun is always searing the horizon and the long shadows are stretching out and the guests are upstairs and the party is always just about to happen as soon as Beaver gets done with this quick photo shoot and fixes himself a drink with that rum and yeah, thanks, I’ll take one too.
For the past couple of years Party Down has been slowly cruising its way into my “desert island discs” designation or whatever you’d want to call it, a list that has very specific criteria attached to it. Those criteria are: high artistic value, a full world created in the space between the start of the first song and the end of the last, many levels on which the record can be appreciated, many contexts in which putting it on would be appropriate, and the ability to change your mood every time you put it on! And that is what this record is and what it does. This is one of those records that perfumes the room. A little world unfolds, and it’s a world as detailed and immersive as the world on Sgt. Pepper’s or Berlin.
Like Sgt. Pepper’s, like Berlin, this is a concept album. It’s a more modest concept album than either, but the concept is rigorous, simple, eternal, and conveyed in every song and practically every lyric. The concept is partying. This is a treatise on partying. From “Party Down” to “Get Into the Party Life” to “Let the Good Times Roll,” Beaver sticks with and hammers home the subject matter. Even songs that aren’t directly about partying seem to take place within a larger context of partying, with the party swirling around them. In the otherwise straightforward love song “I Can Dig It Baby,” Beaver breaks into a bridge where he tells his loved one, “Girl, you party all night long, livin’ it up and gettin’ it on. I’m so lonely when you’re gone.” Party chatter is frequently heard at the start of songs and imagined at other times, the clink of glasses and the shouts of revelry blend with the congas and Latin touches of the rhythm section and the sparkle of Beaver’s distinctive guitar lines and his little cat-yowl vocal improvs. And again and again each song circles back to the same ideas and the same lines, like little mantras. Party down. Have big fun. Let the good times roll. Let it roll before you get too old. Turn the lights way down low. Let the music play sweet and slow. I like the party life. Never rushing. Taking it easy. Making a good time last. Hey baby. The party life. When you’re blue and you’ve got nothing to do, get into the party life. The big city and bright lights. The pretty girls dressing skin-tight. Every Friday night is party time. While the men are drinking beer, the ladies drink champagne wine. Party with your lady. Look at the people party down. Get it on. You’ve only got one time around.
It gets profound. It really does. Because everything he’s saying is true! I used to think that music and songwriting should be violent and aggressive. A song could be something to dredge up the scariest parts of existence from some swampy terrifying dark place and expose them to the light where everyone could see them. A song could be something that cuts and tears and rends, that opens scars, that makes you feel – even painfully – the things you need to feel. But, for me personally, repeated exposure to unaestheticized pain – the real physical and emotional pain that adults, all adults, end up feeling, often repeatedly and inescapably and out of nowhere – made me realize that terror and darkness is everywhere and that music is also there to heal wounds that have been opened, to soothe people, to help them enjoy themselves, to give them a good time. That’s what music was invented for, just as much as it was invented the other stuff. And that’s what parties were invented for, too. To take your mind off your troubles. To be a comfort. As Beaver says in a spoken intro at the start of “Get Into the Party Life:”
Nothing in the world makes me sadder than to see a lonely person,
because with all the poverty, heartbreaks and heartaches,
ups and downs and phony smiles and envious frowns,
there’s still a lot of love and happiness to be found –
all you’ve got to do is party down.
Now listen: I’m not talking about kid’s parties here, kids getting drunk with their red plastic cups and puking on the lawn. I’m talking about sophisticated adult parties, with real cocktails, mixed by adults who are drunk but keeping it together and who don’t puke on the lawn but maybe once, discreetly in the bathroom and nobody knows about it. These parties have food. These parties have friends who have known each other for a long time, maybe friends who stopped being friends for awhile and then reconnected after years and realized how much they missed each other and how happy they are to be hanging out tonight. You look over at this party and you see your buddy who you have seen at his absolute lowest and also his very finest hour, your friend who knows your secrets and knows about the times you’ve been hurt, your friend that you know you can trust no matter what. Your wife, your girlfriend – your “lady” in both the Beaver and soft-rock parlances – who has stood by you through thick and thin. That’s the kind of party I’m talking about – the kind of party your parents had. Partying against the darkness, letting it roll before you get too old, partying because you’ve only got one time around.
We’ve been conditioned to thinking that serious and lasting artwork is dark and conflicted and gnarled and heavy. But Party Down is a masterpiece and it is lasting and most importantly its mission is a noble one. Because all these songs are linked together – and because they gather force and meaning the deeper you go into the record – I couldn’t link to just one song, so here are a couple. But really you should buy this record, preferably on vinyl, because adults don’t listen to damn Spotify coming out of some kind of cheap plastic portable speaker you bought at Sharper Image that “sounds kind of good actually, right??” Adults listen to records on their hi-fi, and that is what I recommend you do with Party Down to truly appreciate a concept album that I would put up with the best and weightiest and most self-serious concept albums out there. And maybe if Lou had been invited to parties like this he wouldn’t have had to write Berlin anyway.
Sparks and Semen and Transcendence
The Baptist Generals and Having a Song to Protect You
No One Can Ever Call George Jones Mr. Fool No More
Van Morrison Does Middle Age Right
Alice Swoboda and By the Way They Actually Can Take Away Your Dignity