The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century
By Charles Shaar Murray
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2000 Charles Shaar Murray
All rights reserved.
They Don't Give This Old Boy Nothin'
High noon in the lobby of a generic airport hotel on the outskirts of Newark, New Jersey. John Lee Hooker, the blues singer, is leaning on the reception desk methodically charming the pants off the receptionist. He is an elderly, dark-skinned man of slightly below medium height, lean and wiry except for a neat, globular pot-belly, and dressed like a Japanese banker, albeit a Japanese banker fond of augmenting his immaculate pinstriped three-piece suit with menacing wraparound sunglasses, a rakish Homburg hat decorated with a guitar-shaped brooch, and socks emblazoned with big white stars.
He turns from his banter to greet a recent acquaintance. "Huh-huh-how you doin', young man?" he says in a deep, resonant voice, as grainily resilient as fine leather. Electronics companies make fortunes by manufacturing reverberation and equalization devices which make voices sound like that. Hooker sounds as if he has $100,000 worth of sophisticated digital goodies built into his chest and throat. Yet his voice is quiet and muted, its tonal richness offset by a residual stammer and blurred by the deepest alluvial accents of the Mississippi Delta. He extends a hand as softly leathery as his voice, a hand like a small cushion, but he leaves it bonelessly limp in his acquaintance's grasp. The top joint of his right thumb joins the root at an angle of almost ninety degrees, the legacy of more than six decades of plucking blues guitar bass runs. Were the acquaintance sufficiently injudicious to give Hooker's hand an overly enthusiastic squeeze, the response would have been a warning glance from behind the wraparounds, and a mock-agonized wince and flap of the offended paw. No one crushes John Lee Hooker's hand, just as no one allows cigarette smoke to drift into his breathing space. That hand, and its opposite number, create a blues guitar sound which nobody, no matter how gifted, has ever been able to duplicate effectively; that voice is one of the world's cultural treasures. You endanger either at your own peril.
It's August of 1991 and Hooker, a rhythm and blues veteran whose first million-selling record, "Boogie Chillen," had been released over forty years earlier but whose career had been in effective hibernation for more than fifteen years, is surfing a renewed wave of popularity without any real precedent in the history of the turbulent relationship between blues, rock and the mass market. His last major record contract, with the once -mighty ABC label, had been allowed to expire in 1974, by mutual consent, after the last of an increasingly dismal series of rock-oriented albums, which reflected little credit on either company or artist, had died an ignominious death in the stores. Subsequent recordings, for small independent outfits, had been few and far between; often of indifferent quality, and generating only mediocre sales. In the mid-'80s, management of Hooker's career had devolved onto the shoulders of Mike Kappus, an ambitious young music-business entrepreneur. A California-based transplant from the Midwest, Kappus came up with the idea of an album project to make a real, proper John Lee Hooker record and facilitate "a paying of tribute by friends." To this end, he had assembled a bevy of Hooker's famous admirers — including stars like Carlos Santana and Bonnie Raitt, plus his own other clients like George Thorogood, the fast-rising young blues star Robert Cray, and the East Los Angeles Chicano roots-rockers Los Lobos — to co-star on a new record which would restate the fundamental values of Hooker's music, untainted by undignified concessions to transitory pop-rock fashion, and reintroduce the frail titan to the pop mainstream. Shopping the resulting album, The Healer, to the major record companies, he had found no serious takers. It saw eventual release in the winter of 1989 via two decidedly minor independent companies: Chameleon Records in the U.S. and Silvertone in the U.K. To the surprise of just about everyone, it was a hit. First in the U.K. and then in the U.S., the album climbed the pop charts. One week, Hooker was even outselling Madonna.
By the New Year, the illiterate septuagenarian from the Mississippi Delta had become the world's oldest and unlikeliest pop star. During the summer of 1990, Hooker and his band, their fee now jacked into the stratosphere, hit every major blues, folk and jazz festival in the Northern hemisphere. By autumn, the tour had grossed a figure not unadjacent to three million dollars.
In the summer of 1991, a sequel, Mr. Lucky, stood ready for release. This time, the co-stars included Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, Ry Cooder, Albert Collins, Johnny Winter and Van Morrison; and once again, Hooker was on the road, prised from his suburban California hideaway to perform three concerts on the East Coast in locations ranging from grimy New Jersey to genteel New England. In the baking heat of the hotel parking lot, Hooker's car is ready: a rented white Buick Park Avenue with Georgia plates. His driver is a young emissary from Mike Kappus's Rosebud Agency. Like all the Rosebuddies, he combines brisk efficiency with laid-back San Francisco cool, and an absolute devotion to Hooker's comfort. The baggage — including Hooker's all-important Gibson guitars — is slung into the trunk, and Hooker creakily installs himself in the back seat with his traveling companion, the diminutive singer Vala Cupp, who serves as warm-up act with Hooker's group, The Coast To Coast Blues Band. Chameleon have just released her solo album, nominally produced by Hooker and featuring him on the duet version of his venerable "Crawlin' King Snake" which they perform together at every show. Can the acquaintance think of any U.K. labels which might be interested in releasing it?
The duet has become one of the major theatrical set-pieces of Hooker's show. The song itself, learned on the front porch of his childhood home from his earliest blues mentor Tony Hollins, is among the oldest in Hooker's repertoire, first recorded by him in 1949 and — rerecorded in tandem with Keith Richards — one of Mr. Lucky's showpieces. Performed with Cupp, it becomes a sensual epic: she hovers around Hooker's chair like a butterfly, trading lines with him in a progressively more fevered exchange which culminates in a reassuringly daughterly peck on the cheek. Not surprisingly, there is a certain amount of speculation concerning the exact nature of Hooker's relationship with Cupp, generally among white male rockers of what we might call "a certain age," to whom the great man's predilection for surrounding himself with attractive young women is something of an inspiration; cause for an optimistic vision of their own rapidly approaching twilight years. "Hooker," wrote Dennis Hopper in the notes to the soundtrack (by Hooker and Miles Davis) for his movie The Hot Spot, "proves you can still make a steady diet of fried chicken well into your seventies and still try to get all of those pretty young things into a hot tub." The nudge -nudge-wink-wink response generally received by Hooker's own denials — "they ain't my girlfriends, we just friends" — obscures the fact that, most of the time, he's telling the truth. There are exceptions, though. A friend of the acquaintance is fond of recounting the tale of when, attending the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, he and a buddy found that the hotel room that they were sharing was kitty -corner from Hooker's. The buddy, an obsessive Hooker fan, insisted on knocking at the great man's door so that he could press the flesh and testify to his devotion. So he did. After a long delay, Hooker came to the door in his shirtsleeves. Visible behind him, in the bed, was this fabulous blonde; you know, really fabulous. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Hooker announced, "Well-uh-uh-uh, it certainly has been a pleasure meetin' you, young man, but right now I got me some business to 'tend to.'" And then he closed the door.
The reality of Cupp's situation, though, is simply that he enjoys her company. When they check into hotels, her room adjoins his; she keeps track of his possessions and talks to room service for him. Plus her presence — neat figure, ready smile, cascading brown hair — fuels his legend.
Once ensconced, Hooker removes his hat and shades, and wriggles into the most comfortable position. His hair, apart from a bald spot on his crown and the widow's peak which runs in his family, is still thick and healthy: it is dyed a rich reddish black and left nappy and uncombed beneath the trademark Homburg. Silver stubble gleams against his mahogany cheeks and jaw. His left eyelid droops slightly, leaving one eye wide and guileless, the other hooded and watchful. Without the dentures which he wears for video shoots and major photo sessions, his remaining upper and lower teeth are an almost exact mirror-image, requiring him to sling his jaw to one side in order to chew his food. As the Buick noses out to the freeway, the one-time Detroit auto-factory worker disapprovingly notes the number of Japanese cars on the road. The Chevrolet, now that was a fine car. Made of U.S. steel, real steel. You get into an accident in one of them, you can get out and walk a-way. Mm -hm. Not like now. You get in an accident in one of them Japanese cars, you get hurt.
For most of the journey to the first show, Hooker is asleep. He can sleep just about anywhere, just doze right off like an old tomcat in front of a warm fire. The night's concert is to be held at a 7,000-seater auditorium set in the grounds of a lush, wooded park; he is to share the bill with fellow Rosebud stars Los Lobos and Robert Cray. When on tour, Hooker rarely headlines a show if he can avoid it. He prefers the middle spot on the bill: this facilitates the quick getaways he favors whenever there's a long drive between his show and his bed. As Hooker's Buick pulls in, Los Lobos are in the home stretch of their set. By the time Hooker has found the most comfortable sofa in his dressing room, popped a can of lite beer and issued instructions for the precise constitution of his plateful of cold cuts from the buffet, Los Lobos's vocalists David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas are in the dressing room to pay their respects. "Hello, John," they say, their voices soft and their eyes shining. Hooker extends a regal flipper. "Huh-huh-how you doin', young man?" he replies.
The Coast To Coast Blues Band have already arrived in the rather less luxurious circumstances of a collective van, and have established themselves next door in a welter of guitar and saxophone cases. There is a minor crisis within their ranks: one of the band's mainstays, organist and master of ceremonies Deacon Jones, has opted to stay home in San Francisco to play a series of shows with his own band for rather more money than a Coast To Coast sideman's wage. His replacement is pianist Lizz Fischer, a sinewy pixie with a Rapunzelesque blond braid, formidable jazz chops and one of Coast To Coast's only two clean driving licenses. Her other qualification is that she looks absolutely stunning in stiletto heels and a little black dress; Hooker, murmurs one of the male Coast To Coasters, would be happy to have an entire band of attractive female musicians.
As the band gather sidestage, quiet comments are passed concerning the forest of guitars awaiting the attentions of The Robert Cray Band. Hooker carries two (one in standard tuning, one in the open "Spanish" tuning in which he plays his show's boogie finale) and the rest of the band's guitarists — stocky, snub-nosed Mike Osborn on lead; gaunt, hirsute Rich Kirch on rhythm; spiky, nuevo-wavo Jim Guyett on bass — make do with one each. They have, after all, flown in from California, traveling light: the drums, amplifiers and piano are rented. They hit the stage with a slow blues: "Cold Cold Feeling," originated by T-Bone Walker, who more or less invented modern blues guitar and who, back in the Detroit of the late '40s, gave Hooker his first electric instrument. It's sparked by a rich, resonant vocal by Cupp — whose voice sounds like it should emanate from someone at least three times her size — and Osborn's plangent, sinuous lead guitar. Then the band settle into a rocking boogaloo as Cupp, head held high, strides into the wings and Guyett, depping as M.C. for the absent Jones, takes the microphone to announce John Lee Hooker.
The man from Mississippi ambles into the spotlight, adjusting his shades and waving to the audience, as the man from Rosebud moves a folding wooden chair into position and adjusts a microphone stand. The band's only black member, the large, melancholy-looking saxophonist Kenny Baker, whose nom de blues is "Dr. Funkenstein," hands Hooker his guitar, painstakingly tuned by Osborn a few minutes earlier, and the maestro regally seats himself before thumbing off a fusillade of jangling notes that hang in the air like an unruly swarm of splintered neon -blue razor-blades.
Essentially, it's the same set he always plays, last overhauled to include songs from The Healer. Hooker doesn't so much dislike rehearsals as disdainfully refuse to recognize even the simple fact of their existence. In 1979, Mike Osborn played his first show with Hooker entirely unrehearsed, and the only subsequent ones have been called by Osborn himself: to rehearse the band in Hooker's absence. The maestro simply can't be bothered: anyone who lacks the instincts to play his music spontaneously shouldn't be playing it at all. Once upon a time — as thrillingly documented on any number of his records — John Lee Hooker used to rock any house with just his relentless boogie guitar, his inexorably stomping feet and his tireless, incantatory singing. Dance 'til you drop? Those records could make you feel tired just listening to them. However, that was then. John Lee can't put out like that anymore: the solo boogie is a young man's art, an energy-draining ritual which requires the painstaking cultivation and maintenance of Olympic stamina and endurance. Energy is the most precious commodity Hooker possesses: he tires very easily, and his every move is finely calibrated for maximum economy. So now The Coast To Coast Blues Band — two guitars, bass, drums, keyboard and tenor sax — supply the muscle and the momentum. They unfurl the carpet beneath his chair, they build the pedestal for his monument. They are a literal workhorse of a band: big and powerful and tireless, but also disciplined and reliable and self-effacing. They are sensitive to their boss's every nuance; in collective person-years they have invested almost half a century into interpreting Hooker's wants and delivering what he needs when he needs it without so much as a second's hesitation.
Nevertheless, there are songs he rarely entrusts to them. The title tune from The Healer is one such: for Hooker, it is his credo, and it is inextricably linked to its co-composer and featured soloist, Carlos Santana. Even though it is one of the most popular pieces in his repertoire, Hooker hardly ever performs it unless Santana himself is there alongside him. As for the songs from the imminently available Mr. Lucky, which could use some promotional exposure ... forget it. They ain't in the set. Not tonight, anyway.
Though the band's repertoire is large enough to permit song shifts from show to show, the structure invariably remains the same. Slouched in his chair and protected by his shades, Hooker works through his tales of lust and anger, sorrow and loneliness, regret and despair. They call certain kinds of blues "low down," and sometimes what is meant by that is a social judgment on certain sorts of people and certain sorts of lifestyle. In Hooker's case, "low down" is a barometer reading of the emotional depths. This is as bad as it gets. Oh, the details may vary. He ain't got no money. He ain't got no place to go. He wants her. She don't want him. She wants him. He don't want her. But into each scenario, the grain of his voice breathes verisimilitude — I been there — and compassion — it hurts, I know it — and the sheer fact of his presence seemingly guarantees that, just as he survived it all, so will we. The inevitable climax is the joyful catharsis of his trademark boogie. It is for this moment that he goes to such extreme lengths to conserve his energy: that electrifying instant when he casts his guitar aside, tears off his shades, leaps to his feet and prowls the stage, all frailty or fatigue forgotten, exhorting both band and audience to greater effort. From the bluesman, arm-wrestling his pain and the world's on a Delta front porch or in a rat-infested ghetto apartment, he is transformed into the preacher, who cajoles and bullies us toward salvation.
Like the preacher, he speaks in tongues. This closing boogie does little more than allude to his signature tune "Boogie Chillen"; it certainly doesn't include any of that song's celebrated monologues. All it is is a riff and a string of solos over which Hooker drops his nigh-wordless exhortations and incantations: "Hey-hey," "l-l-l" and the like. Transcribed, it would be not so much meaningless as languageless: the words, such as they are, are nothing, but the sound of his voice is everything. It is utterly primal; it reaches us on a level far deeper than any which can be accessed by words, or meaning, or language. It is a direct link from soul to soul. "You know what?" asks Hooker's son Robert, once his on-the-road keyboard player, now himself a preacher. "If you ever listen to him in that son 'Boogie With The Hook' at his closing act, do it to you kinda sound like he's preachin' in there?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from Boogie Man by Charles Shaar Murray. Copyright © 2000 Charles Shaar Murray. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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