Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


Re-Encountering John Lee Hooker

Posted in Books,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the May 13th, 2020

Last week, I enjoyed reading Robert Christgau’s belated review of Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century, Charles Shaar Murray’s 2002 biography of John Lee Hooker, the great Detroit blues musician. Christgau admits that he’s never been a huge fan of Hooker’s recordings, but Murray’s writings have opened his ears in a new way.

No surprise, then, that Hooker has risen in my personal blues pantheon. Sure I still prefer early Skip James and Robert Palmer’s Elmore James best-of, among others. But on The Healer, just as a for instance, I can now hear how right it is that the star-stoked first half, most strikingly the Carlos Santana title song and Los Lobos’s big-bandish “Sally Mae,” wind down into a guitar-bass-drums “My Dream” that’s less sung than sweetly murmured and the solo “No Substitute” finale, which fades into a whisper on the repeated theme “There ain’t no substitute for love.” “No Substitute” is some kind of masterpiece. I can’t imagine anyone but John Lee Hooker getting away with it. And I also can’t imagine feeling it the way it deserves if Charles Shaar Murray hadn’t shown me the way.

I haven’t read the Murray book yet, but Christgau has convinced me to put it on my to-read list. And it reminded me of the two times I got to see Hooker play.

The first time was in 1980, I think, at the Union Bar, a venerable blues joint in Minneapolis. I was nineteen at the time and went with my friend Frank to see the “King of the Boogie” in person. We worked our way through the crowd up to the front of the stage, and I remember being blown away by Hooker’s solos. Atonal and punk-ish, they repeatedly seemed on the verge of veering off into chaos but then Hooker would play a lick that instantly pulled the whole string of notes together so that the whole thing made brilliant, completely unexpected sense. It was as if the rest of us were stuck in Euclidean geometry, and he was playing fractal equations. Hooker was sixty-three at the time, but his calloused and deeply grooved fingers looked like they were about a thousand years old.

All through the show, two women who looked to be in their late twenties were standing right in front of Hooker, who played sitting in a chair. I noticed that one of the women kept reaching out and stroking Hooker’s shin as he played. He steadfastly ignored this for most of the set, until near the end of the evening. At that point, he looked straight at the woman with a grin on his face and announced, “The next song goes out to a young lady in the audience tonight. It’s called, ‘(If I Could Only Do Now) The Things That I Used to Do.”

The second time was in the summer of 1986. He was playing at the Cabooze near the University of Minnesota campus. I went with my friend Tom. Again, Hooker provided an amazing lesson in how to make the blues sound completely original. Between sets, they announced that he would be available at the merchandise table to sign autographs. So Tom and I dutifully lined up: for a mere $5, you could get your own signed John Lee Hooker photograph.

As we waited, though, I saw that the whole process was oddly mechanical. When your turn came, you approached Hooker, who took the 8×10 glossy from his manager and slowly printed his name below at the bottom with a thick magic marker. He barely made eye contact with the fans who had waited their turn.

This wouldn’t do. So, when my turn finally came up, I lied through my teeth. “Great show,” I said. “You know, the last time I saw you play was two years ago, in Sendai, Japan.” Hooker’s show in Sendai happened in early 1984, before I got there for my year-abroad program that autumn, but I heard all about it from friends at the Peter Pan rock music coffee house. Hooker paused, looked up at me with a smile and asked how long I had stayed in Sendai. I told him I’d stayed there for a year and that I was looking for a way to get back–both of which were true. He asked if I had a girlfriend there, and I told him that I did. He smiled again and said something about how much he liked touring in Japan. He then took up the black marker and signed my photograph (that’s it above) and it was Tom’s turn to get his autograph.

Honesty is usually the best policy, but not always.