The FBI’s now infamous probe of “Louie Louie,” the ubiquitous garage rock hit of the early 1960s, was not only one of the weirder chapters in the history of the bureau, but it also had a profound, life-changing effect on FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
The notorious “Louie Louie” investigation began when a worried parent complained to Attorney General Robert Kennedy that its garbled lyrics might contain some obscured obscenities. Hoover’s disdain for the Kennedy clan led him to believe that anything they disliked must be good. He gave The Kingsmen’s single a few spins on his old Victrola before feeling spontaneously transformed. To that point, Hoover had been suspicious of most youth culture music, at one point calling Fabian “a communist dupe of the highest order.” However, the raw energy of “Louie Louie” spoke to him in a way music never had. “I can’t explain it,” he confessed to friends, “and dammit, I don’t want to!”
Hoover secretly stymied the bureau’s “Louie Louie” investigation, even as he attended many of the band’s gigs incognito. (This came to an abrupt halt when a photo surfaced from a Kingsmen gig at Georgetown University, in which a stocky and blurry Hoover-esque figure can be seen in the background, doing a keg stand.) When the “Louie Louie” report finally crossed his desk two years later, Hoover brutally edited the content to absolve the band of any wrongdoing. It was he who added the infamous verdict of “unintelligible at any speed,” though he would later confide to his most trusted advisers, “Looking for any meaning–obscene or otherwise–in an aesthetic masterpiece like ‘Louie Louie’ is like searching for the point of the Mona Lisa.”
Daring midnight raids at DC-area Sam Goody stores allowed him to acquire an enviable collection of 45s, which he would play for hours on end in the privacy of his office at FBI headquarters. Longtime secretary Helen Gandy threatened to quit the afternoon Hoover spun The Remains’ “Don’t Look Back” 37 times in a row.
Soon, it wasn’t enough to listen to these sides over and over again. Hoover bristled at the idea that his new favorite songs were dismissed with the label “garage rock,” and felt compelled to argue their artistic merit to the world at large. At first, he penned a few reviews for the FBI’s monthly newsletter, but the pieces confused and disturbed his underlings who expected “Hoover’s Music Corner” to focus on albums by Liberace and Mantovanni. Deputy Director Clyde Tolson was particularly upset when a photo feature on the bureau’s annual summer cookout was bumped for Hoover’s in-depth look at The Troggs’ first LP.
Hoover squeezed mafia informants to get inside information on the recording industry; specifically, how to receive promo copies of upcoming releases. He also pressed regional bureaus to send him records from local bands, under the guise of looking for “subversive elements.” The Seattle branch was rewarded with accolades and special assignments once it introduced him to The Sonics.
He then submitted reviews to publications like Crawdaddy and The Village Voice under a series of assumed names. Hoover issued threats of IRS audits via third parties to ensure the reviews would not only be accepted, but run with little editing. Though he genuinely loved the music, Hoover’s clumsy pseudonyms read like desperate attempts to connect with youth culture, via handles like Chip Duggins and Scooter Merriweather. Also, his reviews often included tell-tale references that betrayed his day job. Consider this take on The Standells written by “Sky Tubbs.”
One had hoped to see some more of the promise displayed by the savage drive of “Dirty Water,” but “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White” is a plodding, anti-authoritarian dirge, nowhere near as rebellious or dangerous as the inflammatory statements of Stokely Carmichael, which if left unchecked will surely lead America’s Negroes to armed insurrection.
Or this review of a single by The Seeds from “Ringo Turnstile.”
Some might be attracted by the angular guitar sound or the sneering vocal delivery. But for my money, it’s the arpeggiated keyboard lick that really makes it. It treads that fine line between monotony and genius, as it operates in lockstep with the beat, much in the way that the Berkeley Free Speech movement moves part and parcel with the international COMINTERN agenda.
Hoover’s tastes tended toward the lo-fi, “The rawer, the better” his mantra. More polished acts like The Beau Brummels were dismissed as “tedious as the secret recordings of JFK’s extramarital dalliances.” Thee Midnighters, on the other hand, were praised for “practicing a primal, savage brand of rock almost as frightening as the legions of Viet Cong-trained operatives who have infiltrated our college campuses.”
The reviews slowed down to a trickle in the late 1960s as Hoover was forced to deal with the turmoil of the Nixon administration and the slow death of the garage rock genre. He became an early contributor to Creem and Rolling Stone (most often under the name “Sludge Gunderson”), but his tastes seemed trapped in amber. Lester Bangs dubbed him as “that guy who won’t shut the fuck up about The Blues Magoos.”
In his last years, Hoover collected together some of his favorite singles, hoping they might be compiled in one place as a testament to music that once so captivated him. Realizing it would be a political impossibility to produce it himself, he mailed the material and track listing anonymously to Elektra Records, along with a handwritten appreciation of the MC5’s High Time.
Hoover was pleased to find out Elektra loved the idea, but was disturbed to learn that the collection would be called Nuggets. Compounding his disappointment, the Oval Office no longer feared Hoover’s once prodigious power, and continued to stonewall his request of a full presidential pardon for Roky Erickson.
Crestfallen, Hoover fell into ill health and died of a heart attack on May 2, 1972, with his musical legacy known to only a select few. For years thereafter, references to Hoover became something of a secret code among garage rock enthusiasts, such as the New York Dolls dedicating Too Much Too Soon to his memory, and the surviving members of The Castaways testifying on Hoover’s behalf during the 1979 Congressional hearings on the JFK assassination.