Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Ridin' High on Electricity

Buddy Guy's lively, unputdownable 2012 autobiography When I Left Home (co-written with David Ritz) is studded with fantastic details of mid-century Chicago blues clubs and bars. Guy moved to Chicago from Louisiana in 1957, and, under the tutelage of Muddy Waters, eventually wowed crowds in packed clubs on the city's south and west sides with a guitar-slinging showmanship that few had heard, or seen, before. I have to guard against romanticizing the life inside rockin' clubs like the 708, the Checkerboard, or Mel's Hideaway Lounge—while I'd pay big bucks to the time machine inventor we're all patiently waiting for, I recognize that the vast majority of the men and women in these bars were inwardly and outwardly fighting discrimination, low wages (Guy: “money was funny”), and shitty living conditions, a second-class status that many others were privileged to avoid. Sexism, violence and menace were everywhere. Yet reading about the the details of these shows—Guy's, Muddy's, Magic Sam's, Otis Rush's, and others—transport me to these joints, where I'm happy to virtually drink a few and marvel at routine and duress meeting grins and spectacle, turned up to distorted levels.

Early in his book, Guy writes evocatively of the vibrating divide between southern rural and northern urban blues, the step into electricity he and many blues artists made that was, well, electrifying. "Wasn't no way to amp it up. When we was young, we heard those guitars that are now known as acoustic. They were played soft because they were played in a room or on a porch where three or four or five people were gathered. Didn't need to be loud. The blues came through them in a beautiful tone—straight from the heart of the guitarist to the hearts of the folk listening. The softness of those notes did something to the soul. I'd say it soothed the soul."
Now come on up to Chicago and—Lord, have mercy—those the barrooms in Chicago are loud. The folk are happy and excited to be off work, and they wanna talk and tell stories at the top of their lungs. They got energy to release. So if you a musician and wanna be heard, you gotta pump up and project. Baby, you got to shout. That shouting is a thrilling thing to behold. If you went into a Chicago barroom, say, in 1958, you’d be thrilled out of your mind. The electrical music would throw you back on your heels. I loved it so much because, though it was new music, it was also old music. It wasn't nothing more than country blues jacked up with big-city electricity.

I cottoned to the electricity because it was something I could turn up. Volume did a lot for me. If I couldn't play better than the guitarists around me, at least I could play louder. I could also play wilder. When I heard the buzzin’ and the fuzz tones distorting the amps, that didn't bother me none. I figured fuzz tones and distortion added to the excitement of the sound. Didn't mind jammin’ notes together in a way that wasn’t proper. Notes crashing into each other was another way to get attention. I learned how to ride high on electricity.
Says Guys succintly: "The blues electricity got into the people."

Recognizing the need to outplay and outperform other local guitarists, feeling the breath of competition on his neck, Guy made the calculated decision—motivated by native joy and urgency—to show off, and to dismantle the divide between stage and audience, a time-honored, usually nervy, always thrilling rock and roll gesture dear to my heart.

He recalls one snowy night—three-foot drifts along the sidewalk and street—when he hooked up his 150-foot guitar cord and started playing from inside a car parked outside the bar. "The crowd was screaming long before they ever saw me," he writes. Unlike other local guitarists, Guy never sat down when he played. "I never started playing inside the club. No matter how cold or hot the evening, I'd come marching in, my guitar screaming. I might march into the men's room and play from there. Hell, I might march in the ladies’ room and play from there. I’d jump off the bandstand and sit at some pretty woman's table if she was alone. I'd leap up on the bar and play flat on my back. I’d pick the thing with my teeth. I’d put it between my legs and stroke it all sexy. I’d wave it around the room like it was a flag. I'd do any goddamn thing to get them to like me." I would've loved to have been in a club—or the men's room!—and see Guy enter playing his guitar. Boundaries blissfully erased. I'll have another beer.

Guy acknowledges an influence on his showmanship, Guitar Slim, "The Performanest Man," a rocking stage marvel I've written about here and here. Guy recalls going to see Slim play at the Masonic Temple in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "I ran over," he writes. "I was the first guy in line to buy a ticket. Cost fifty cent. The hall had a big ballroom. I knew the place would be packed with dancers, and I wanted to be right up on the bandstand. I wanted to see the man’s hands when he played the guitar. Didn't take long before the crowd arrived. Soon it was full. Folks pushing and shoving, but I wasn't moving. Kept my spot so I could see and hear everything. Eight o’clock came and went. Then nine o'clock. Then nine-thirty. At about a quarter to ten the band came on stage and started playing the opening notes of 'The Things I Used to Do.' Man, my heart skipped a beat. It was like someone had poured a quart of whiskey down my throat. I was warm all over. I heard the music alright but I didn’t see Guitar Slim. The guitar kept playing, I thought to myself, Where is he? Where the hell is he?
Guitar Slim
Finally, I heard a buzz in the crowd. Everyone turned around. From the back of the ballroom, coming through the door, was this giant fat man carrying a guitarist on his shoulders. The guitarist was Slim, playing like his life was on the line. Mounted atop the huge guy, Slim looked like a baby. But he was no baby. He was slick as grease and dressed to kill—flaming red suit, flaming red shoes, flaming red-dyed hair. He made his way through the room until everyone was in a stoned fury. When he jumped down form the shoulders of his man, I saw that his guitar was a beat-up Strat that looked like it'd been through two world wars. He wore the guitar low on his hip like a gunslinger. His guitar strap was made of fish wire and the cord to his amp had to be three hundred feet long. Before this, my idea of a guitarist was Lightnin’ Slim, who sat when he played. Lightnin’ was the one who told me that the guitar was designed to be played sitting down. It fit on your lap. That's where I figured a guitar belonged.
Guy adds: "Guitar Slim never sat down. He played his guitar between his legs, played it behind his back, played it on his back, played it jumping off the stage, played it hanging from the rafters. Wasn't nothing Slim wouldn't do and nowhere he wouldn’t go with that beautiful old Strat of his."
The Strat was strong. Its one-piece Maple neck was made with steel and could take a beating. The tough construction allowed Slim to sling it around his hip like a bag of potatoes. I liked how he treated it rough, because that treatment got into the feeling of the music. The music was blistering. It was like the Strat was saying, “Go ahead, throw me around, beat me up, I can take all you got and still sound like a screaming angel from heaven."

Guitar Slim's show thrilled me. He wasn't bending the strings but straight lickin’ 'em. I had heard a little of T-Bone Walker, B. B.'s idol and one of the first to plug the guitar into the wall. I liked how T-Bone could chord the instrument. Slim didn’t know no chords. He was single pickin' with only two fingers, but those two fingers were causing a riot.

Among other great stories in When I Left Home is the one Guy tells about the hard-partying code among many blues players. Guy had long wanted to see his idol Jimmy Reed play. One night, Guy's at his small apartment in Chicago; his ne'er-do-well roommate's out with his girl, so Guy's trying to catch up on some much needed sleep. "Must have been three in the morning when a knock on the door woke me up. It was Joyce, the lady who'd shown me how the buses and trains worked."
“Buddy,” she said, “hate to wake you, but I remember you saying how you'd give anything to see Jimmy Reed. Well, a friend of mine just got back from Pepper's where Jimmy's playing with his whole band."

That’s all I needed to hear. I jumped out the bed, threw on some clothes, and ran over to Pepper's on 43rd Street. Must have been a helluva night, because people was laid out on the street, drunk on the music or just plain worn out from dancing. Had to step over one guy just to get in the front door.

“Jimmy Reed here tonight?" I asked the bartender.

“Was here. But they through playing.”

“I'd just like to meet him. I'd just like to see him."

“You just did.”

“How's that?" I asked.

"When you was walking into the club, that was the man you stepped over."

I went back out to get me a good look. Bartender was right. Jimmy Reed passed out cold in front of Pepper's, his face in the gutter, his red felt fedora all crushed up against his head.
The blues electricity got into the people, indeed.


I haven't swung by myself to check it out, but Google Street View provides this September 2016 evidence of the state of the legendary 708 Club on East 47th Street, where Guy made his Chicago debut and where Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Memphis Minnie, Howlin’ Wolf, and others played regularly. Conspicuously lacking electricity. Though there are plans to rehab the famous Sydni building, which dates to the 1920s.

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