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John Lee Hooker, R.I.P.

06.26.2001 | MUSIC

It's been about 13 hours since I found out that John Lee Hooker died. I didn't sleep well last night. Maybe I got two hours of escape and respite. Then the sun hit so hard it made me feel guilty. I haven't gotten a good night of sleep in about two weeks.

I woke up to the news that John Lee Hooker had died. I was on a couch, in a friend's apartment, thousands of miles away from anyplace that ever seemed like home. I had a hangover so strong it felt like an electric charge, running boom boom boom through my head.

I'm not broke, but the prospect of being broke is looming on the horizon. I have half a pack of cigarettes and five bucks on me. The bars are all closed. I wish I had some John Lee Hooker.

Day slowly bled into night. At a punk rock coffee shop (or maybe more goth, these lines are drawn more finely every day. I just can't keep up.) I was drinking black coffee, smoking cigarettes. A machine in the bathroom would light and spin a disco ball while playing a donna summers record for a quarter.

A bag of potato chips and two bottles of Budweiser later I'm playing my second game of pool of the night. I'm taking a long table length shot into the far side corner pocket. Bringing my hand over the rail, I scrape my hand against the side of the table. The wound that results is far deeper than it has any right to be. I win the game and the next. Afterwards, my hand shook as I smoked a cigarette.

WBGO. The jazz NPR station in Newark has a three or four hour afternoon blues show that plays most every day called "Across the Tracks." Driving through Sopranos country in the afternoon I'd listen to the radio with the volume so low it was almost inaudible, just a rhythmic hum. The standard fare was modern blues, the stuff you hear at bars: bass guitar drums, stilted near boogie lines that are like barely articulated skeletons of real blues songs. Every once in a while a John Lee Hooker would cut into the play list. I say "cut" deliberately. In a soundscape as dull and gentrified as an afternoon blues program John lee Hooker was a serrated ginsu knife. Something that could cut cans and leave scars.

He had that great voice. I don't know if he was drunk when he performed, or hung over, if it was a put on or if he just sounded like that, but he had this eerie ability to inflect every syllable exactly right. Tossed off, casual, it was perfect, but he obviously didn't care. Without John Lee Hooker I would have never known that beer was a two syllable word.

If you had a guitar in your hands and you knew a coupla basic chords I could show you how to play a John Lee Hooker song. They'd seem easy, but you wouldn't play them right. The heel of your picking hand has to rest on the bridge just so, your fretting hand has to lift up and down exactly on the off beat, and you have to half strum half scrape the strings to get it right. His songs aren't technically difficult. There aren't usually any more than three chords and four frets involved. But learning to play John Lee Hooker is like learning how to strut. If it doesn't come natural, just remain seated.

I read in an interview a long time ago that he started out as a drummer. And that he always tapped both his feet as he played guitar and sang. Neither foot was on straight one-two-three-four rhythm, but instead hit phantom high hat and bass drum pedals. He tapped out a backbeat and played right through the middle of it.

At his peak he put out records the way a speed freak puts out cigarettes, adopting fake names to dodge record contract stipulations, switching bands, recording standards, rerecording his own songs with slight variations. He never changed up his style almost until the celebrity friends backing band end, he just waited for the times to tune into him.

Everything I know about John Lee Hooker's personal history comes from liner notes and magazine interviews. He was born in Mississippi, and moved to Detroit. He worked in auto factories until he started recording records in the late 1940's. He played urban blues, and lost most of his original audience in the late fifties and the early sixties. Young black people apparently connotated his style of rhythm and blues with field work and Uncle Tom-ism. A couple of years later he was discovered by the Haight Ashbury set and his career entered its first renaissance.

He never lost touch of his original audience at least in his lyrics. He played at Soledad close on the heels of George Jackson's death. He responded to last sixties urban strife with songs like "The Motor City Is Burning." He never traded his worn work suit for beads no matter what the audience at his shows looked like.

The first time I read Milton it was a quote in a comic book. The first time I heard John Lee Hooker it was in the Blues Brothers. Sometimes pop culture works out like that. On the streets of Chicago, he wore a brown polyester suit and a tan pork pie hat, leaned into a microphone and said how how how how in a voice like a dark alley.

Avowed Hooker disciples the Rolling Stones (check out "Ventilator Blues" on Exile On Main Street. Then check out La Grange by ZZ Top. Then check out crawling King Snake Blues by the Doors. Then check out every Canned Heat song ever. Then buy a copy of Hooker and Heat, on vinyl if possible.) played a concert for pay per view that was later rebroadcast on the Fox network. It was something like 1989, 1990 maybe. It was a star studded affair. I particularly remember Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin screeching guest appearing on Salt of the Earth. John Lee Hooker played in the middle of the show. He performed seated for most of the song, but during the three note guitar solo he walked the edge of the stage, staring down the crowd of whatever football stadium the show was shot. He wore sunglasses.

Every time I hear a John Lee Hooker song I know how the room smelled when he wrote it. I can tell if his fingers hurt as he played it. His songs are more real than real, but he's still one of my favorite liars.

"Celebration day," by far Hooker's most haunting song has just become today a song by a dead man about a dead woman. I just realized that it's four o'clock in the morning. Birds are chirping outside my window.

The first time I heard "Celebration Day" I was in Prague. The apartment I shared with a notorious radical Russian Jew had been without heat or electricity for two days. I cocooned myself in my sleeping bag when it was too cold and dark to read. I drank Slivoce, smoked a joint and put a John Lee Hooker cassette into a borrowed walkman. Halfway through "Celebration Day" the room grew colder and darker even though I was convinced that wasn't possible.

About the Author
New Jersey native Adam Bulger currently resides in Hartford, CT. As a free-lance writer he has written numerous articles on booze, cops and robots.
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