Music's dark heart

Music's dark heart

Blues – from its roots in black rural poverty through 60s psychedelia and on to the college rock scene of today has always been about attitude. Here Jefferson Chase takes a walk on the wild side, while on page 24, Dave Broommeets the masters of psychedelic blues, Love.

News | 04 Jun 2004 | Issue 40 | By Jefferson Chase

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Everyone knows the legend of Delta bluesman Robert Johnson going down to the crossroads and selling his soul in return for being taught how to play the guitar, but the story of Johnson’s death is equally devilish and probably closer to the truth.On August 13th, 1938, the 27 year old Johnson was playing at a club where he’d been carrying on with the owner’s wife. He died three days later after drinking whiskey poisoned with either strychnine or lye.Harmonic player Sonny Boy Williams claimed that he’d slapped a first bottle of moonshine from Johnson’s hand, warning him that the stuff was laced, but that Johnson guzzled a second one anyway.The tale of Johnson’s demise is just one episode in the long-running love story between the blues and the water of life, or, in many cases, death. Moonshine whiskey was a source of inspiration, a killer of both time and pain, and one of the main forms of currency in which itinerant blues musicians of the 1920s an ‘30s were paid. But more importantly, whiskey was an essential ingredient of what really makes the blues the blues: attitude.Countless people have tried and failed to define the blues. Even the snappy axiom ‘three chords and the truth’ doesn’t fit the bill since many Delta blues songs are built around a single riff. Nonetheless, we all know what the blues are. The blues is a tough guy or gal, both bemoaning and revelling in life’s hard knocks. A bad ass who knows he or she is going to hell and doesn’t really care as long there’s a bottle of booze around.Case in point: Leadbelly, a.k.a. Huddie William Ledbetter, born in 1888 and one of most influential exponents of acoustic ‘country’ blues. He did four stretches in jail for offences ranging from assault to murder. Small wonder, then, with his fondness for firewater, romanizing and knives, that he counselled listeners in Alabama Bound to stick to the weak stuff: “Oh don’t you be like me/Drink your good sweet cherry wine/And let that whiskey be.’Luckily for us, Leadbelly didn’t follow his own advice and survived the sauce to an amazing age of 61, penning evergreen classics such as Goodnight Irene and Rock Island Line in the process.Or take Son House. Born Eddie James House in 1902, Son became a Baptist preacher at 15 and spent the next 10 years developing the bottleneck slide-guitar technique that was so admired by Johnson.His life and music took a decisive turn in 1928, when he was convicted of murder and sentenced to one of Mississippi’s most notorious jails. When he got out two years later, he was recording songs like Dry Spell Blues: ‘So dry old boll weevil turn up his toes and die/So dry old boll weevil turn up his toes and die/ No, ain’t nothin’ to do, but bootleg moonshine and rye.’Like all great blues lyrics these lines are both extremely simple and incredibly evocative. When a drought hits the South, drying up the field, it leaves the sharecropper with no choice other than to peddle illicit hooch.And the singer knew whereof he wrote. A fellow blues musician who played years later with House remembered: “He had this sort of wild look in his eye, like Charlie Manson. He was scary. Like he could spring up from his chair and be on me in a second if he wanted to. I was told that I could pour him a drink if he asked, but I couldn’t let him drink it. He told me, ‘I got a soft brain, boy. You know what that is?’ That was from drinking too much liquor over the years; all he had to do was sniff it to get high. And when you’d leave the room, he’d shoot the whiskey down.”.Blues attitudes toward whiskey were ambivalent. The musicians never tired of bemoaning all the trouble they got into while under the influence. On the other hand, blues singers also revelled in the joys of drinking for intoxication’s sake. Lightning Hopkings proclaimed ‘Ain’t Nothing Like Whiskey,’ while Willie Dixon solemnly intoned: ‘If the sea was whiskey and I was a diving gull/ I would dive to the bottom and I don’t know when I’d come up.’One of the most famous paeans to booze is Amos Millburn’s One Scotch, One Bourbon and One Beer, covered by John Lee Hooker and George Thoroughgood only with drinks in a different order.In the 1920s and ‘30s, the music’s popularity remained confined to the area around the Mississippi Delta. After World War II, music labels realised there was money to be made, and many musicians moved to cities like Memphis and Chicago.The blues went electric, with the foot stomping of the Delta morphing into a backbeat, and the emphasis shifting from finger-picking to guitar solos and vocals.Two figures, in particular, typified the new sound. One was Muddy Waters, born in Mississippi. Although a disciple of Son House, Muddy his guitar playing was anything but groundbreaking.But he dressed like a pimp, sang with the ominous rumble of an approaching storm cloud and knew how put himself across as the boss.When Muddy said he was a m-a-n, you believed him. Small wonder he earned his keep as a bootlegger. As Waters himself sang on Rolling and Tumbling: ‘all the whiskey and women, just would not let me pray.’The other titan of the electric blues was Riley “Blues Boy” King, a sharecropper’s son born in 1925. B.B. King’s style was far smoother than Muddy Waters’, but those who primarily know him as a occasional guest on Sesame Street might be surprised find him singing on an early hit: ‘I’d rather be sloppy drunk than anything I know.’Both Muddy Waters and B.B. King had a string of hits, but their music could not compete with rock’n’roll for either radio airplay and record sales.Blues is a live genre. It needs an audience, preferably in a smoky bar, for the attitude to emerge in full force.The ‘60s weren’t a particularly good time for the blues. Just as whiskey fell out of fashion as an intoxicant, radio was dominated by the largely blues-free Beatles, and black music moved toward the poppier Motown soul.Blues, however, didn’t die; it mutated. By the end of the ‘60s, white kids were discovering the pleasures of repetitive guitar riffs and stomping beats.The list of bands who played the blues reads like a Who’s Who of what we now call classic rock: the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Free, Bad Company, Coverdale-era Deep Purple and then the likes of AC/DC, the Stooges, and Van Halen.The Stones took their name from Muddy Waters and covered Robert Johnson. Led Zep bludgeoned their way through Otis Rush, Willie Dixon and Howling Wolf on their debut LP, while the graceful Allmans kicked off what is arguably the best live album ever with T-Bone Walker’s Stormy Monday Blues.Self-appointed purists, who prefer Eric Clapton, tend to dismiss the stadium-rock giants as bowdlerisers, even accusing Keith Richards and Jimmy Page of racism for occasionally failing to credit the original black songwriters.Leaving aside the fact that stealing other peoples’ songs is a time-honoured blues tradition, what the purists don’t get is that the blues is all about demonic energy. They may be dinosaurs now, but the above-mentioned bands were the true heirs to the bad-ass blues legacy: run-ins with law, hyperactive libidos and a penchant for alcohol. Needless to say, unlike Clapton, Iggy Pop and Angus Young have never worked with Phil Collins.In the ‘80s, heavy drinking became passé, and the two most popular albums were Thriller and Born in the USA. Most of the classic rock bands and the dwindling numbers of surviving bluesmen headed into retirement.The turning point, at least in mass-market terms, came with Nirvana, whose best moment came, in turn, when invited to play a live acoustic set for MTV. The highlight of that gig was a chilling rendition of a traditional number, usually known as In The Pines, which they learned from a Leadbelly record. The song is about a woman who murders her husband, and then is herself murdered by her lover.The connection between indie rock and blues may not be apparent at first, but it’s there, and the leaders have often been women. From the Cowboy Junkies’ 1990 debut record, Whites Off Earth Now, to more recent critics’ darlings The White Stripes, American groups have been reviving slide guitars, Delta riffs and barroom posturing.White Stripes’ drummer Meg White likes her drink of whiskey, and ex-husband and guitarist Jack begins their most recent album Elephant with a Muddy Watersesque boast: “I’m gonna fight ’em off/A seven-nation army couldn’t hold me back.”And it would be criminal to finish an article of blues and whiskey without mentioning Rural ‘R.L’” Burnside, one of the last surviving Delta bluesmen. In 1996, around the time small-batch bourbons and single malts began their last renaissance, the 70-year-old Burnside made an astonishing comeback with a record called A Ass Pocket of Whiskey.I had the good fortune of seeing Burnside live at a one-off gig in a tiny club in Nottingham, England.The night began with the man hoisting a glass and announcing: “I ain’t going to drink any more.”Burnside waited for the momentous news to sink in before adding, “but I ain’t going to drink any less either.”He then sat down in a chair, and the three-piece band commenced to play the hardest, most hypnotic devil’s music I’ve ever heard.After about an hour-and-a-half, I awoke from my trance to find myself yelling ‘goddamn’ every time guitarist Kenny Brown played a solo or R.L. wet his lips.After the show, I ran into the drummer, R.L.’s grandson Cedric, in the toilet. Cedric Burnside hits the skins harder than any man on the planet since Bonzo choked on his own vomit, and I racked my brains for adequate words to express my admiration. “That was the best concert of my life,” I said. “Hands down.”Cedric Burnside looked at me like a bug he’d just squashed under the heel of his shoe, muttered “I know,” and headed to the bar to join his Grandpa.R.L.’s signature drink is called ‘Bloody Muthaf**ka’ and consists of equal parts Old Granddad and tomato juice. Now that’s what I call the blues.
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