Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Pitching the Wang Wang Doodle with Whitey

I wrote this in 1995. I think I was trying to sound like Tom Wolfe or Nat Henthoff.

I first met Willy at Burly Earl's. Burly Earl's, or Burly's as it is usually called, is a Deli on Seventh Avenue. It used to have a big mural on the side that featured a large, crazed-looking cartoon character about to devour an enormous pita bread sandwich. I was always under the impression that the character depicted on the side was a caricature of a guy named Earl who really loved sandwiches--probably the owner. But somewhere along the line, perhaps because of a management change, Burly's decided to class-up its image. The mural is gone, and the sign hanging out front pictures a man dressed in 16th century European garb. I assume he is supposed to be an earl since they changed the sign out front to read "The Burly Earl" instead of "Burly Earl's." He bears no resemblance to the atmosphere inside. I miss the crazy sandwich-eating man.

The music at Burly's was lame, usually some guy with a cheap acoustic guitar singing Jimmy Buffet or Cat Stevens. One night, David Burks, the drummer for my band tells me that I need to come down to Burly's to hear a blues act he is playing with. The name of the band was Willy King of the Blues Liberators with the 47th Street Blues Band. Actually, it was two bands. Willy King and the Blues Liberators were an all black blues band from Pickens County, Alabama, and the 47th Street Blues Band was an all white blues band from Birmingham. Willy is probably in his late forties or early fifties. It's hard to judge the age of blues players since many of them look pretty weatherbeaten and/or lose teeth early.

Willy is on stage with his trusty sidekick Kenny, a young singer/tambourine player, and they're both wearing this kind of African dashiki and one of those brimless African hats. When I see him, I'm thinking "This guy looks African, but he sure don't sound African." He is playing down home Delta blues. When I studied Black American Literature in college, I remember the professor talking about the theme of the struggle for identity in Black American Literature. At least according to this professor, many Blacks in America are constantly wrestling with their cultural identity. You know, they're thinking "should I be like an African, or should I embrace White American values and customs? I don't think Willy did a lot of conscious identity wrestling. I'd be willing to bet that Willy just thought the threads looked cool.

Willy is playing a cheap Strat copy, a Fernandez I think, through a low-end solid state amp, the knobs of which have long been lost. He is not using a pick (pretty common among Black blues players of Willy's generation), and he is getting a great sound. Good equipment adds polish to your sound, and I believe that the lack of good equipment is one of the reasons that Black players sound so raw. Lesson: Cheap = Raw, and raw fascinates white middle-class audiences.
Later that evening, I had the good fortune to have my first opportunity to sit in with Willy. I get on stage, plug in my guitar, and look to Willy for some hint as to what to play. He just gives me this look as if to say "Well? Let's see what you got, man." He just starts the tune without even giving me the key or the progression or even a 1,2,3,4. Well, I guess I did o.k. because I ended up kind of displacing the guitar player for that band, which I've always felt bad about because he was a hell of a nice guy. Many blues players are not nice guys, or at least they don't let on that they are nice guys. Groucho Marx once said that audiences should be treated with utter disdain. Many blues players cop this attitude and even extend it to other musicians. I guess it's a way of asserting one's self.

There's this cat named Topper Price--one of the best harp players I've ever heard. He's not a bad vocalist either. He's got the blues attitude. You look at this guy, and you know you're looking at the real deal. He doesn't split his life in two--no stage persona. He's gone whole hog. Audiences may not consciously be aware of such things, but they sure do respond to it--at least white audiences do.

A lot of young, white blues players complain justifiably that guys like Willy can get in front of a microphone, strap on an electric guitar, play the most elementary nonsense--badly--, get the lyrics all wrong, and still get a standing ovation. A young white guy could get on stage and do the exact same thing note for note and be laughed right off the stage. The reason Willy gets the response is because white audiences coming to see Willy don't want precision. They want to see Whole Hog. Topper Price is young, white, and about as Whole Hog as they come.
He's got a boldness that few white players ever get hip to. A blues player has to proclaim his greatness. Humility ain't hip. But a blues player should never be serious about his boasting. It's got to be done with a smile. Muddy Waters says "I'm A Man" and then he spells it out for you just so there is absolutely no misunderstanding as to his manliness. Topper also seems to have zeroed in on the fact that the blues is not sadness; it is catharsis. Its function is to effect the proper purgation of pitiable and fearful events from the soul of the man on stage. That is why good blues is not maudlin; it is very matter of fact. I respect Topper.

I wrote a song once about Topper. Actually it is more a song to Topper. It's kind of a boasting jab at him telling him that his time is up because I'm making the scene. I say to him that I'm going to "trim his hedge." Hedge trimming is a cool blues metaphor that I copped from an old blues cat named Johnny Shines. Suppose some guy is playing in a club and he's really givin' it to 'em. If I start playing in the place across the street, and a bunch of those folks walk over and check me out, then I've just done a little hedge trimming.

Well my band starts playing this song for a couple of months, and it gets a pretty good response. One friend of Dave's named Mike particularly likes the tune. He's heard us play it at practice and in the clubs and always comments about it. We're playing the Nick one night, which is a very dirty club in Birmingham, but one of the few places bands can play anything they want, and we're about to do the Topper tune, and he walks in the door--Topper Price in all his scraggly glory. I look over at Dave, and he knows what is next on the list. He just kinda smiles as if to say "Whaddya Yella?." So I start it up. Topper sits down, and Mike immediately goes over to him to explain to him that the song is about him. I sing the song looking directly at him, kind of asserting my self, and I'm thinking about Muddy singing "I'm a Man." We finish the song and call Willy up to the stage to do his thing. As Willy comes up, I see Topper leave. I remember feeling a little disappointed that he didn't even acknowledge my jab at him. So we start into Willy's first song, and in Topper comes again carrying his bag. The notorious bag-o-harps. He walks up to me and holds up the bag as if to say "Mind if I play." I signal him to come on up. Topper is not smiling. Willy gives him a solo, and he starts soaring into some of the most beautiful tones I've ever heard. When the song is over, he shakes everyone's hand but mine and walks off the stage. He leaves the bar before the set is over. The man is undeniably cool. He rose to the occasion and picked up the gauntlet. Totally put me in my place.

One time somebody booked us for a gig playing for a Postal-workers Union party. Well, I show up ready to do my usual thing, which is to fill in the gaps, take solos and do my best to try to fix Willy's weird timing. I walk up, and sitting there is George. George is older than Willy, and is the other half of the Blues Liberators. He is sitting there wearing a bright orange polyester suit with a matching hat and a printed shirt. I can't help but think to myself, "Who in the hell made this suit, and what were they thinking? Has there ever been a market for such a garment?" I mean the shirt collar reached his shoulders. All he needed to complete this package of nonfunctional threads was a pair of platform shoes and a Bolo string tie--and perhaps a really enormous belt buckle. But that's just the thing. George is whole hog. The white audiences come to see the whole hog suit in all its horrible, shiny, bright-orange beauty.

George is a hog (I use hog here in the sense of one who is very possessive of the attention focused on the band). He takes every guitar solo. Some old players are like that. They want to prove to you that you ain't got nothing, whether you do or not. They aren't interested in what you got, and they expect you to be real interested and complementary of what they got. I guess it's like when you tell your kids that they have to sit in the back seat of the car. They can carry on all they want, and your response is that grownups sit in front. When they grow up, they can sit in the front. But until then, they take a back seat.

This guy is really aloof.

There is a horrible song that Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder did together called "Ebony and Ivory." The lyric goes something like:

Ebony and ivory
Live together in perfect harmony
Side by side on my piano keyboard
Tell me why don't we?
Well Paul and Stevie are kind of stretching the truth a bit. You may be able to get perfect harmony with black keys and white keys on a piano keyboard but they won't be side by side. The only thing you get playing adjacent black and white keys is tension and discord. In fact there is no more discordant combination of keys on the keyboard. The great Thelonious Monk would, however, use these combinations in improvised solos. At first the listener might think they were klinkers or mistakes. But if you imagine the music without them, it would seem antiseptic. It would sound like elevator music. These discordances make Monk's music interesting and alive. I guess it's kind of the same strategy that prompts women to use beauty marks. You put a mark on your face to attract attention and at the same time force people to think "Man, she would be a babe if she didn't have that hideous mark on her face." Interestingly, Monk called these discordances "blue notes."

I think the screw-ups that Willy makes serve the same purpose. The audience never can seem to get the timing exactly right because there is no timing. White listeners try to intellectually analyze what he is doing. They say things like "How is he doing that--is he adding in an extra half beat?" or "It sounds like he's playing a thirteen bar blues instead of a twelve bar." And they're smiling all the time like they've solved the morning crossword. The big joke is that Willy doesn't even know. He couldn't play the same song twice with the same timing if his life depended on it. He plays like James Joyce writes. Only if you look at Joyce's writing enough, you'll eventually figure it out. The best you can hope for with Willy is to kind of "tune in" to his conciousness, try your best to anticipate him, and pray everyone else does too.

The other part of Paul and Stevie's metaphor is the black and white thing. Willy's band at that time was bi-cultural. The big stars of the show were black. We were all white. At some point Willy felt he needed to address that issue, and he did so by writing a song called "Come together." Like Paul and Stevie, he longs for racial harmony. But if we played "in perfect harmony" as Paul and Stevie suggest, the music would be one big audio barbiturate. There's also something about playing black music for a predominantly white audience that is interestingly tense. The average white audience member is fascinated by black culture, but doesn't want to go to a black club and be immersed in it. Willy is therefore akin to the friendly ambassador. He, like adjacent Ebony and Ivory on the keyboard and Monk's blue notes is able to create just the right amount of tension. Tension is cool, and cool gets gigs.

My guitar playing is not innovative. That is not to say that I'm not a good player. On the contrary, I'm the best there is. By saying that I'm not an innovative guitarist, I'm merely saying that my playing is more nostalgic than ground-breaking. The chops and licks I play are subconciously tied to memory. The things I play sound slightly familiar. That's usually because half of it is stolen from other songs. I lift other player's licks frequently. All players do it. I may hear a little snatch of something in a Buddy Guy solo that strikes me, so I steal it, put my own spin on it, and use it in my own context--maybe even build a whole song around it. The blues is largely creative stealing.

There are lots of tricks to being a good blues player. Rock and rollers have trouble getting the hang of the blues sometimes because they don't understand the attitude. I try to gently ease people into my music like I'm setting them up in a nice old chair that is good and broken-in. Only just as they are getting all nice and comfortable, I kill them with something that is all mine. Of course the most important trick to learn about blues playing is economy. You got to learn to make 'em wait for it.

You know, I've talked about race and tension and their relationship with the blues, but for me, there is one overriding tension, and at times it can be crippling. The problem is that I'm a white, upper-middle-class kid who has never been in dire straits finacially, and virtually all the women I've ever been with have treated me with respect and conducted themselves with dignity. I am and always have been pathtically content. I listen to the blues; I understand the blues; I love the blues; but I don't identify with the blues. When I read interviews with blues players, I constantly come across the same statement: "the blues is universal." I'm not so sure that this is true. I mean, when I hear Howlin' Wolf sing "You mix my drink with a can of Red Devil Lye," I inevitably come to the conclusion that his reality is pretty far removed from my own. The question that I keep asking myself is do I have a stage persona, or am I whole hog? Does a guy like me belong singing the blues? Is my show the genuine article, or is it just "The Bluescapades?" The sneaking suspicion I have is that I'm just a historian, not an artist-- like a guy who knows all about a subject, maybe as much as anyone, but can never be a true part of what he studies.

Maybe I'm the one with the identity crisis. What the hell is white, suburban, middle-class culture anyway? Wonder bread? The Brady Bunch? Not exactly rich. Maybe it is that emptiness that defines us. We are the great bourgeoisie. In the great scheme of things, am I defined by my lack of any sort of defineable culture? The central question is this: Does an artist have to be of a particular culture to produce the art of that culture? If not, then what's left for a guy like me who comes from a bourgeois background? What culture do I have available draw upon for inspiration? "How Much is That Doggie in the Window?" I don't think so. Should I just write cookbooks?

I'm beginning to ask questions that I have no answers for. Maybe it is beacuse of this sense of emptiness that the white middle class is attracted to the blues in the first place. That's why they want to see the orange suit. That's why they are fascinated by the raw blues sound. That's why they love the boldness and the assertiveness of the blues. That's why they love the whole hog. It is to fill a cultural void, the same void that the beat generation felt. Maybe that void is the root of my blues.

Here's a little clip of Willie King, long after I played with him.

Topper Price died a few years back. Broke my heart. Here's a clip:

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