On a confusing day, cold, overcast — I keep bumping into tables and walls, and electronics don’t seem to like me — I find myself thinking about the blues.
I land on seven blues songs that seem like markers, pieces that instantly conjure still-vivid memories….
Robert Johnson – “Hellhound on My Trail”
First time I heard Robert Johnson’s “Hell Hound on My Trail” I was stoned in a trailer in Landrum, SC. I was practically out of body when I realized that a growling Pitt Bull was inches from my groin. The insane owner fired a shotgun into the trailer ceiling just as the Robert Johnson song came on. The Pitt Bull made an exit, whimpering stage left. To this day, I wonder if I imagined the entire scene. What was “Hell Hound on My Trail” doing playing on this guy’s stereo when everything before and after was southern rock and AC/DC? The room was filled with Confederate memorabilia and the nauseating reek of moonshine. I too was at the crossroads. Robert Johnson’s voice was celestial, other-worldly, beyond biblical, and I was both exultant and terrified.
Lightnin’ Hopkins – “Give Me Central 209”
I went through a few harrowing months in 1995 when I listened to Lightnin’ Hopkins almost exclusively. My first long-term relationship had ended with my girlfriend dying of cancer. I didn’t really know how to grieve, but there was something about LH that transported me to a place I knew I needed to visit (and once I had visited, I wanted to stay there). About a year later, I was starting to date again. I was driving to the Steeplechase in Camden, SC, with a woman whom I’d dated a couple of times. I was playing LH’s “Give Me Central 209.” She said something like, “This just doesn’t sound right.” It seems silly now, possibly an overreaction, but I decided in that moment there was no way that she and I could be compatible.
Howlin’ Wolf – “Goin’ Down Slow”
I’ve searched the internet for the cover of the Howlin’ Wolf album I’d swear my father sent me when I was fourteen, but I can’t find it. I do recall, though, playing Howlin’ Wolf’s “Goin’ Down Slow” over and over on my cheap stereo. I’d never heard anything like Chester Burnett’s both sonorous and twangy voice or Hubert Sumlin’s guitar. Later I would also appreciate that Muddy Waters had provided the spoken narrative (“Now looka here, I did not say I was a millionaire…”), alternating with HW’s singing. When I first encountered Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (around the same time), it occurred to me that his signature Romantic strain—that desire to break free and transcend the chains of self and society—was directly influenced by blues musicians, particularly Howlin’ Wolf. In fact, I think I asked an English teacher if I could write whatever paper I was supposed to write on the connection between Springsteen and Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Son House. She said that she didn’t think it was an appropriate topic.
Jimi Hendrix – “Red House”
My father sent me Are You Experienced when I was thirteen or so. “Red House” was one of those songs that made me want to play guitar. I remember taking the song to my guitar teacher, who listened one time and proceeded to transcribe the whole piece (it didn’t occur to me that he already knew the song!). I would practice some of those licks over and over. Even as an arrogant kid I could tell that there was something magical in that sound, though I never learned to play the piece even proficiently. To this day, when I hear “Red House,” it still strikes me that Hendrix’s guitar was, of course, plugged into his amp, but that there were two invisible cords as well—one extending into the sky, the other sparking in the depths of the earth. (This is a live version from a 1969 Stockholm show.)
Led Zeppelin – “I Can’t Quit You Baby”
I didn’t hear Zeppelin’s first album until I was attending boarding school in the mid-80s. I was familiar with Zeppelin’s second and fourth albums, but my roommate, Patrick Fitzsimmons, who had an extensive music collection, introduced me to their first. That album, and particularly “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” is the perfect storm of guitars, vocals, bass, and drums. Zeppelin 1 is still my favorite LZ release. Patrick was a bass player with a good ear, and I recall he’d get his bass out and play along to that album; every note seemed right-on.
Stevie Ray Vaughan – “Texas Flood”
I’m not sure when I first heard Stevie Ray Vaughn, but it was his tone that mesmerized me. The notes seemed as if they were about to erupt, as if they were bursting at the seams. And it wasn’t a matter of volume; it was more that the sound was as full, as packed as it could get before it might simply rupture like a sun in nova. In addition, SRV’s band, Double Trouble, provided a rhythmic bedrock. There have been a few others who managed to capture and sustain tensions in that sort of way. Albert King (with whom SRV played) and Albert Collins come to mind, but somehow SRV accessed an intensity and presence that seem unparalleled. His melodic sensibility was impeccable too, and his voice was a powerful addition to the musical package, but it was that instrumental tone…. Apparently he played at the Double Door in Charlotte in 1979. I’ve met a few people over the years who attended that show, and they all described it as a spectacle, one of the most memorable concerts they ever attended.
Roy Buchanan – “Drowning on Dry Land”
In 1990, after I got sober, I met someone who had been friends with Roy Buchanan. I’d never heard RB’s music, but after talking with this guy, I spent a bit of time listening to his various recordings, particulary the incendiary “Drowning on Dry Land.” The guy ended up telling me about RB’s drinking, how he (the guy) had tried to help him quit, how RB had just been unable to keep off the alcohol. Apparently the guy was one of the people who got a call when RB was found dead (his death was ruled a suicide) in a jail cell in Fairfax County, VA. Another casualty of addiction. Like SRV, RB seemed to access a tone that pierced whatever illusions a listener might have, immediately slicing through preconceptions and egoic shticks—a soul opened wide, bleeding into the universe.
Another day plunges into early darkness. Interesting to revisit these songs and reflect on different and past times. I think I’ll take a stroll through the neighborhood. If I see a large man with a guitar standing at an intersection, I’ll do my best to keep on walking…