I hear...boom boom boom boom…
Years ago, I met The Blues.
San Francisco Blues Festival, 1986. Lineup: Etta James, Albert King, Carlos Santana, Roy Buchanan, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy and many more.
From a backstage area on the Fort Mason lawn, I soaked up some sun, free beer and the aura of some legends, from a few feet away.
They were singing about the blues and playing those gut-check guitar notes, but they seemed to be having a good time…
And, when songs and sets were met with roaring applause, they — just like the working-class blues bands trying to make the rent in 2021 with gigs at the Blooze Bar, Copper Rock Blues Pub and the Rhythm Room in Phoenix and Janey’s in Cave Creek — would smile appreciatively, with a humble, “Thank you.”
Perhaps a better response to the reaction would be: “What?”
“I’m pouring my heart out up here with some very sad things, my guitar is cryin’ like a scared school girl — and you applaud? For what?”
I didn’t think of that, at the time, because, you know, the sun, the music, the beer…
Then, around that time, I met The Blues.
Also known as: John Lee Hooker.
One of the great things about him is no one really knows when he was born, though his legacy website says it was Aug. 22, 1917. He was later in life when I met him, but going strong. “As John Lee Hooker entered his 70s, he suddenly found himself in the most successful era of his career – reinvented yet again, and energized as ever, touring and recording up until his passing in 2001,” according to johnleehooker.com.
Hook, as his friends called him, had settled in the Bay Area; I interviewed him at his modest but spacious house in Redwood City, about a 15-minute drive from my newspaper office in Palo Alto (this was long before Facebook and other tech companies would dominate the area).
It was a couple days after I saw him performing at one of his favorite spots, the Stillwater in Mill Valley, where he sang 40 years’ worth of songs about being wallet- and heart-broke.
But he wasn’t broke, when I interviewed him. His career was rising, just after being featured singing "Boom Boom" in "The Blues Brothers" and on his way to being voted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and scoring a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award.
And he sure didn’t seem heart-broke, from the looks of the half-dozen young ladies keeping him company at his home. At his age, it was probably just eye candy, which was probably one of the reasons his eyes had a twinkle.
So he had fame and fortune was smiling on him, all that singing and guitar plucking about the blues was just a faint memory, right? Same with Etta and Albert and B.B. and all the greats who made it big after years of struggle? All just "nostalgia for the rough times," right?
Or maybe when John Lee Hooker sat on stage and started questioning that guitar and growl-singing, he was passing the microphone to his soul.
And the soul probably doesn’t give a lick about money and reputation, the pleasures and joys, troubles and trifles of the body and mind.
Maybe bank accounts and responsibilities and the news and social media chatter and everything else that fills our heads is a thick curtain — and the blues is a crack in it, allowing a glimpse into the vast, deep, uncanny, inexplicable…
Maybe the blues is just the question: