‘Charles Shaar Murray’s book deserves its status as a classic.’ Reviewed by Des Cowley.
Boogie Man: the Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century
By Charles Shaar Murray (Cannongate)
Charles Shaar Murray, one of England’s finest music journalists, published his monumental biography of John Lee Hooker in 1999, just two years before Hooker’s death. Why did I not read it at the time? I have no idea, and it strikes me as unpardonable. When I spotted the revised paperback edition in a bookshop recently, I knew judgment day had come.
Like many people, I first came to blues music arse-about. The Stones were my introduction to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf; and I first heard the music of Albert King and Willie Dixon by way of Cream. It took some years to work my way back to the source.
With Hooker’s music, I took a somewhat different route, courtesy of Canned Heat, a band I loved in my early teens. Their first album had unwittingly been my introduction to the Delta blues of Robert Johnson and Elmore James. So when, in 1971, they released a double album Hooker n’ Heat, I rushed straight out and bought it. Even now, I remember my crushing disappointment upon first hearing it. Aside from a few tracks featuring ‘Blind Owl’ Wilson on harp, Canned Heat didn’t really feature until well into the third side. Till then, it was pretty much all solo Hooker – just a voice, guitar and foot stomp. (Of course, I had no idea, and wouldn’t for many years, that Al Wilson had modelled his vocals on the genius of Skip James, but that’s another story).
I’d never heard of John Lee Hooker, and, judging by the cover shot, he looked old to boot. Needless to say, I felt short-changed. But, more to the point, his music sounded utterly alien to my fourteen-year old ears. Like nothing I’d ever heard before. I remember having the same reaction, a few years later, to the music of Ornette Coleman. Let’s face it, genius musicians create their own language, and it’s up to us whether we make the journey to meet them on their own terms – cause’ they sure ain’t coming to us.
I might have already been down with Canned Heat’s boogie (which, unbeknownst to me, had ripped off Hooker in the first place) and basic 12-bar blues. But when it came to Hooker’s solo stuff, there just seemed to be no damn rhythm, no easy point of entry. Instead, he seemed to be just half-singing/half talking random snippets of stories, or just moanin’ over the sound of his tapping foot. He unleashed his guitar in unpredictable little flourishes, or used it to lay down a repetitive drone. His open tunings sounded eerie and ghostly. It all somehow seemed raw and unfinished. How little I knew. Listening to Hooker n’ Heat today, the solo sides are amongst my favorite Hooker recordings; and Al Wilson comes across as the most sympathetic accompanist of all the white musicians who subsequently recorded with Hooker.
Writing about Hooker, Charles Shaar Murray states: “And that is it. That is the whole deal. Music stands or falls by what it makes its listeners feel, and everything else is simply furniture”. Today, I forgive my unformed 14-year old self, recognizing that I needed many more years of living before I could feel a little of what Hooker was feeling when he recorded this music.
Charles Shaar Murray’s book deserves its status as a classic. He had unfettered access to Hooker in his final years; and his book alternates between telling Hooker’s life story, and recounting his own time hanging out with Hooker on tour. After the massive success of The Healer, Hooker spent his remaining years playing to adulatory audiences. He must have been amused by this ‘overnight’ success. He drank better liquor, rode in limousines, and stayed at five-star hotels. Other than that, the man never changed, and neither did the music.
Murray has the good sense to recognize that blues, above all, comes out of a storytelling tradition. Hooker himself certainly never let the facts get in the way of a good story, and Murray, more often than not, is happy to let Hooker call the shots. Much of Hooker’s early life remains shrouded in mystery, even his year of birth remains in contention. But from his 1948 break-out recording ‘Boogie Chillen’ onwards, Murray is on firmer ground, documenting Hooker’s prolific output for a variety of labels, including numerous singles issued under pseudonyms (John Lee Cooker, Texas Slim) in breach of his then recording contracts. Hooker, after all, had a family to feed, and he’d record for anyone anytime if there was a dollar in it. But Hooker’s genius also meant he never performed the same song twice – he improvised new versions every time he played.
Keith Richards, who recorded a version of ‘Crawlin’ King Snake’ with Hooker, summed up the primitive nature of Hooker’s blues, when he said: ‘He was the last of the solo guitar players, a throwback even in his own time… Even Muddy Waters was sophisticated next to him. He was a guy more in line with Charley Patton, Blind Blake and Robert Johnston – a one man band, totally his own man’. That’s why, to my mind, Hooker never sounded better than when he played solo.
One of my favourite Hooker albums is the music he recorded with Miles Davis for The Hot Spot – a crap movie, but a brilliant soundtrack. Two great artists, poles apart, bridging jazz and Delta blues. Hooker remembered Miles complimenting him afterwards: ‘You the funkiest man alive. You in that mud right up to your neck’. Hooker knew what Miles meant: ‘That mean the deep deep blues… I mean, jazz and blues, they practically the same thing’.
Early on in his book, Charles Shaar Murray muses that if he could sum up Hooker’s life in one sentence, it would be: ‘John Lee do not do, he be’. Thankfully, Murray had the good grace to add another five hundred pages or so to this sentence, giving flesh to Hooker’s statement: ‘I’ll never – never – get out of these blues alive. I’ll be dealing with the blues ‘til the day I done gone. Never get out of these blues alive. Yeah’.