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Portland’s new federal building is adorned with a glass-and-acrylic sculpture that depicts the sound waves of that great rock ’n’ roll song, “Louie, Louie.“

There’s no way around it: That’s undeniably cool.

The Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building opens next week. We suspect that Tim Bavington’s sculpture, in vibrant neon colors, will prove to be a potent tourist attraction.

And, as Bavington noted in a recent story in The Oregonian about the sculpture, it’s fitting that it’s located in the federal building.

That’s because The Kingsmen, the Portland rock band that had a huge hit in 1963 with the song, were the target of a federal investigation into whether its lyrics were obscene.

The lyrics on The Kingsmen’s recording of the song are notoriously muffled. That’s because Jack Ely, the only member of the band who knew all the lyrics to Richard Berry’s song, had just had his braces tightened that day. So, the story goes, the producer felt compelled to move the microphone away from the singer, who never had the greatest voice in the first place.

But the word on the street back then was that if you slowed the single down — if you played it at 33 1/3 speed instead of 45 (for our older readers who still recall vinyl singles and record players) — you could make out the words.

And, the rumors went, not only could you hear them, they were obscene.

You know the rest of the story: Buyers flocked into record stores. Millions of copies were sold. It’s likely that you can hum the song right now, and play air guitar along with Michael Mitchell’s great solo.

Your federal government — then as now quick to respond to outrages against the common weal — leapt into action. The Federal Communications Commission investigated, eventually clearing the record.

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The Kingsmen rode the controversy into a long-running career that continues even today.

And now, Bavington’s sculpture offers colorful testimony to a real piece of Northwest cultural history.

In the Oregonian article, Bavington offered some potent analysis of the record’s enduring appeal: “Few songs have a more storied history. … But if it makes you dance, you dance. That’s what good art is like. If visually you like it, you don’t need to know the lyrics; you enjoy.“

As arts criticism goes, that’s not bad.

But in many ways, we prefer the conclusion of the FCC official who was tasked with getting to the bottom of the charge that the song’s lyrics were obscene.

His conclusion, in what might still be the greatest rock criticism ever penned: The record is “unintelligible at any speed.” (mm)

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Mike McInally is the editor of the Democrat-Herald. He can be reached at 541-812-6097 or mike.mcinally@lee.net

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