Friday, September 14, 2007

I Got The Blues, Honey

I don’t know if I fit the typical profile of a blues fan. But then again, I don’t know if such a profile exists. The blues is something that grabs a hold of you. And if you have at least a little musical soul, the blues is going to stick with you. I love the blues like I love my Mom; unconditionally and without exception.

I grew up in a religious home, middle class, sports loving, suburban life, white as the day is long. I’m very white. Greg Brady white. And yet, the blues lives in me as much as my Scottish heritage.

My older cousin Mark got me into music when I was 13 or so. I had no older brothers, nobody to teach me. A young person trying to find music on their own without a mentor to guide them is a dangerous thing. (That’s how I ended up with The Jackson 5 “Victory” cassette.) Those are the people listening to top 40 disposable radio. Those are the people that bought Fat Boys and Falco records. When we would go to visit our family in Bellingham Washington, Mark would play music for me. Something I’m very grateful for. When my friends were listening to Poison, Ratt, Motley Crue and the rest of the interchangeable hair-sprayed, eyeliner wearing hair bands, I was listening to The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Cream, The Yardbirds, Simon and Garfunkle, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. I didn’t understand the butt rock, MTV bands. Just a bunch of pricks in tights to me. Why were they all trying to look like drag queens? Why did all the guitar solos sound the same? What is this garbage? I was a snotty little bugger.

As I went through high school listening to those great old records, I began to want to know more about what influenced the bands that I loved. Zeppelin quoted Robert Johnson. (And J.R.R. Tolkien, by the way.) Clapton played songs that were written by Muddy Waters. The Doors had blues songs. Dylan had a song about Blind Willie McTell. The more I dug, the more I saw that the majority of the bands I loved were influenced by early American blues artists.

I vividly remember hearing Robert Johnson for the first time. He was mentioned the most by Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. It was Crossroad Blues. “I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees. Asked the Lord above ‘Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please.’” It sounded so viral, so gut wrenching. Reading about Robert entranced me. Did he sell his soul to the devil at “The Crossroads” to play guitar like that? Was he poisoned by a jealous lover’s husband? Was he out barking at the moon the night before he died? It was amazing to me. To this day, we still don’t know how he died. Or which one of the three gravestones is the correct marker. I still can’t believe that is only one guitar on those records.

From there I started listening to John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, B.B. King and Willie Dixon. That’s where I started. A few of my friends thought I was nuts listening to music that was 50 years old, but I didn’t care. They didn’t know what I knew. The blues mattered. The blues spoke to me. The songs were about love and pain. They told stories. They had wit and depth and soul. Songs that were written for black juke-joint audiences in segregated southern America decades before I was born moved me, a white, Mormon son of a public school teacher. I felt those songs were just as important to me as they were to Clapton and Page.

My love of the blues has grown. It has matured. It has spread like influenza. Many modern bands that mean something to me still have blues influences. From Mike McCready’s blues infused solos, to Jack White’s damn near reinvention of the blues. I read an interview with Jack the other day and the interviewer asked how he would like to be remembered. Jack replied, “A good husband and father, good upholsterer, and he loved the blues.” Here here Jackie.

From the core blues artists I progressed to more blues greats. Tommy Johnson, Son House, Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, Charlie Patton, Taj Mahal, Big Bill Broonzy, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Little Walter, Freddie King, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie McTell. Just to name a few. I continue to find a little gem-of-a-song here and there. Not too long ago a found a song called “Rabbits Foot Blues” I didn’t know from Blind Lemon Jefferson. What a beauty.

So much of modern music is pre-packaged, over-marketed garbage. I read about record companies using an algorithm that can figure if a song is going to be a hit or not. You plug in a verse, a chorus, another verse and a scantily clad girl “singing” and presto; a top 40 hit. That is offensive to me. People complain that the arts are suffering. Music isn’t as good, films are weaker, novels are boring. This is true, sadly. The reason is because the suits are killing the arts. Jackass’s that are more concerned about where they are having lunch and with who than letting a burgeoning artist grow and mature. They believe they can predict what will sell, not what is good. Nobody in an office building in Santa Monica told Son House not to record a song about a dead girlfriend in the morgue. (See: Death Letter, a blues classic.) The blues was (and is) raw and unfettered. The songs were about life around the artists. They mattered.

Part of my definition of good or important music, whether I like it or not, is it must last more than one generation. The blues lives on. The blues breathes. She has life of her own. Thank God she’s a part of mine.

No comments: