Category Archives: Blues

John Lee Hooker – The Best of John Lee Hooker – Classic Music Review

Over the years, my music collection has grown into a completely unmanageable mess, especially since I started the blog. Those of you who regularly read my stuff know that I listen to each album three times without distraction, then listen to it again as I write. What you don’t know is when I review an album not in my collection, I usually don’t just buy the record I’m going to review—I also buy the surrounding albums in the artist’s timeline. For example, in preparation for my upcoming review of Blondie’s third album, Parallel Lines, I also bought their first, second, fourth and fifth. I like to know where an artist has been and where they’re going, and I feel like I’m cheating the reading audience if I don’t understand the developmental context of a particular piece of music.

And because my life is quite full without the blog and because I travel through six time zones to earn my daily bread, life is sort of a happy blur for me. I hate sitting on my ass doing nothing, and even if you were to see me sitting on my ass apparently doing nothing, my mind is going a mile a minute with plans, possibilities, musical construction and plenty of sexual fantasy. Stimulation is a permanent state of affairs for me.

While I do like the constant action, it does have its downsides. I forget where I put things. When I lived in the States, I had to file an extension every year because I’d never get around to paying my taxes. I give really bad directions because the part of my brain that processes geography stopped working after years of complete neglect. I just go, and figure it out on the way. And sometimes I buy things that I already have—duplicate sweaters and skirts, duplicate glassware, and oodles of duplicate music.

All of these influences converge right here, with The Best of John Lee Hooker. I have no fucking idea how this particular John Lee Hooker record wound up in my collection. According to Discogs, this particular version of The Best of John Lee Hooker (there are several) was released in Australia and New Zealand in 1993. I’ve never visited either country and don’t know anyone who lives there. It appears to be a later release of a version released in the U. S. in 1974, but I wasn’t alive then and that version was unavailable until recently (it’s now a pretty expensive piece of music history).

Worse still, when I started my annual blues jag and browsed through my collection, I found no less than four John Lee Hooker compilations in the vault, with many of the same versions of the same songs. It’s entirely possible that I saw those records in a store, felt my diddle twiddle and rushed to the checkout stand without considering the possibility that I already owned the music.

Oh, well. I never wanted to be rich anyway. Better to piss it away on music than a Maserati.

I chose this collection for three reasons. One, the sound is fantastic. Two, it’s a solid representation of his work spanning three decades with few significant omissions. Three, this collection opens with John Lee’s opening remarks for a gig he played with Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. Some of his words are elusive, but the essence of his message is a timeless statement of artistic purpose:

It’s a big wide world. You can roam a long ways. I’m so glad that we are here . . . You know we have come a long ways . . . we all are entertainers . . . trying to reach you . . . to bring you the message of the blues.

There are few bluesmen as qualified as John Lee Hooker to bring the message of the blues to a modern audience. He is a superb storyteller, making it easy for the listener to visualize a moment, share his joy or empathize with his pain. While the departure point for most of his songs is the standard blues progression, he nearly always wanders from the model—sometimes by dropping the fifth entirely or by replacing it with an unusual chord created by using standard positioning in open tuning. To the endless frustration of those who had the honor to play with him, he would unexpectedly drop or add measures according to how he was feeling it, giving his music an unusual immediacy. John Lee also combined lessons from his bluesman stepfather with open tuning to create a drone effect that gives his sound a different flavor than classic Delta blues and its offsprings. Like Muddy Waters, his music bridges the acoustic-electric/Delta-Chicago shift of the post-war era.

And the boy knew how to boogie-woogie—it was in him and it got to come out!

However, not all is sweetness and light when it comes to John Lee Hooker, particularly when it comes to his attitude towards women. While he’s hardly alone among bluesmen in voicing his ever-throbbing machismo, he is unusual in his directness and in the specific requirements he imposed on broads who wanted to bang him. I have no problem with the directness, but I do have to hold him accountable for some of his more outrageous sexist meanderings and, from my perspective as a dominant female, take him to task for what I feel are ineffective domination techniques more likely to backfire than set the bedroom on fire.

One final note: like Thelonious Monk, John Lee Hooker recorded many of his great songs several times over the years. Most of the tracks in this collection are from his Vee-Jay years, a mix of new recordings and new takes on earlier work. The years you see in parentheses are the year of the first-known recording (according to Discogs), which may or may not be the year the version in this compilation was recorded. When it matters, I’ll point it out—but we have more important things to do.

Like getting down to boogie!

“Dimples” (1956): “Dimples” is a timeless ode to female magic featuring an irresistible swing that Ted Gioia described as something that “sounds like a twelve-bar blues with a few beats amputated.” This early Vee-Jay recording utilized Jimmy Reed’s backing band, and in spots you can hear the band’s hesitation as they struggle to follow John Lee’s unexpected truncation of measures. It hardly matters, because what drives this song is John Lee’s testosterone, and a great male lover always shifts his rhythms based on how he’s feeling it and how she’s responding. “Dimples” is as hot as fuck, whatever your gender. For the ladies, it’s the ultimate sashay song, encouraging you to thrust those hips and shimmy those shoulders. For the gentlemen . . . well, it’s no surprise that the McCann Erickson agency used the instrumental passage from “Dimples” to advertise Viagra. “You’ve reached the age when giving up isn’t who you are, this is the age of knowing how to make things happen. So why let erectile dysfunction get in the way? Talk to your doctor about Viagra—20 million men already have.”

Ask your doctor if your heart is healthy enough for sex. Do not take Viagra if you take nitrates for chest pain—it may cause an unsafe drop in blood pressure. Side effects include headache, flushing, upset stomach and abnormal vision. To avoid long-term injury, seek immediate medical help for an erection lasting more than four hours. Stop taking Viagra and call your doctor right away if you experience a sudden decrease or loss in vision or hearing.

Men will do almost anything to keep their plumbing in working order, even dangerous drugs. Takeaway for the ladies: before sex, ask your prospective stud if he takes any performance-enhancing supplements, and if he answers in the affirmative, respond with “I’ll take the top position.” If he’s going to croak during the act, this gives you an easy exit strategy while leaving the crime scene relatively pristine.

“Hobo Blues” (1949): John Lee ran away from home at the age of fourteen, escaping the dead-end of Mississippi for the music magnet called Memphis. Although he didn’t know it at the time, the escape triggered an itinerant phase in his life that would last several years. The man knew all about “hoboin’,” but unlike others who have sung of the trials and tribulations of life on the road, here John Lee sings about the more crucial moment when his mother followed him down to the train yard and watched her son climb into a boxcar. The music is both rhythmic and mournful, a one-chord acoustic guitar drone punctuated with steady handclaps and nimble fills that enhance the emotional content of voice and lyrics. The closing passage, where he describes his mother crying, “Take care of my child!” is deeply moving, the picture of the moment intensified by the repetition of the line as the song fades into darkness. Unlike Edith Piaf, John Lee Hooker faced his regrets, and we’ll see this tendency in other songs in the collection. It’s one of the personality traits of John Lee I admire most—the willingness to look back on those moments in life when we chose one path over another, and learning to accept the fact that tough choices almost always involve hurting someone else, hurting ourselves, or both. Those choices are the essence of the human experience.

“Boogie Chillen” (1948): This is definitely NOT the original. This seems to be the Vee-Jay version from 1959, but he recorded and re-recorded this song so many times it’s hard to know which version is which. It hardly matters—“Boogie Chillen” (or “Boogie Chillun)” is one of the great blues songs of all time, combining an irresistible guitar hook with John Lee’s spontaneous approach to rhythm and his remarkable ability to make a story come alive.

The 1948 version definitely sounds like a younger man who knows he has a hit on his hands—the bubbly confidence in his voice comes through loud and clear. And he was right—this sucker was a monster hit, shooting up to #1 on the “Race Records” (oh, for fuck’s sake) chart and selling around one million copies. The radio audience of the time was so taken with this song that WLAC of Nashville played it ten times in a row one night. John Lee commented, “The thing caught afire. It was ringin’ all around the country. When it come out, every juke box you went to, every place you went to . . . they were playing it there.” The song was successful enough to allow John Lee to pursue a full-time music career and abandon his job as a janitor in a manufacturing plant.

I still can’t get my head around that—one of America’s greatest musicians having to earn a living in one of the lowest-status jobs on the planet—the guy who has to clean up everyone else’s shit. John Lee doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would have gone back to the factory in his brand new Lincoln Continental and told the foreman to fuck off, but I hope there was some psychic payback somewhere along the way.

The version on this collection is more commanding—by this time, John Lee knew the song inside and out, so his vocal and guitar are more disciplined and intentional. The crucial component of the song is the last verse, when his father realizes John Lee’s purpose in life. John Lee nails it in both versions:

One night I was layin’ down
I heard mama and papa talkin’
I heard papa tell mama, “Let that boy boogie-woogie
It’s in him and it got to come out.”
Well I felt so good
And I went on boogey-woogeyin’ just the same

I think what drew people to this song more than anything else is the mesmerizing guitar figure that dominates the song. Guitar World published a superb analysis in Andy Aledort’s article In Deep With Blues Masters John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins, with charts and tabs for those in the audience who’d like to give it a shot. I’m forever fascinated by contra-rhythmic passages, and “Boogie Chillen” has a great one, described by Aledort as follows: “Though written in 4/4, this figure is played with a triplet, or swing-eighths, feel, which means that notes indicated as pairs of eighth notes are actually sounded as a quarter note followed by an eighth note within a triplet bracket.”

But the thing about the blues is you can’t sit down at the piano like Mozart and scratch out notes and tempo with a quill pen. It’s all in the feel, and the great bluesmen like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson loved messing with our conventional notions of time and space.

“Little Wheel” (1957): “Little Wheel” is John Lee Hooker’s interpretation of a song that has gone through oodles of permutations; the one that listeners know best is “Matchbox,” as popularized by Carl Perkins and The Beatles. Instead of the big dog/little dog dynamic, we have the big wheel/little wheel metaphor, with the big wheel serving as the broad’s main squeeze and the little wheel happy to make her twat tingle when the big wheel is unavailable. The band does seem to have a problem following John Lee’s chord changes, moving to the fourth when he’s stubbornly hanging on to the first. What carries this number is the stop-time interruption in the middle and John Lee’s absolute confidence in his ability to “do more rollin’ than your big wheel ever done.” This was a man who loved being a man.

“Process” (1961): This is one of several cuts from John Lee’s great Vee Jay album Burnin’ that found their way to this collection. “Process” is a strong, slightly slow-tempo Chicago blues with a fabulous droning sax, solid bass from an uncredited James Jameson and some of John Lee’s best solo licks. From a musical perspective, “Process” is one of the strongest tracks on the album and is frequently featured in my fuck playlists when I anticipate a night of slow grind. Sadly, the lyrics indicate that John Lee and I would have never made it as a couple, given his disdain for women who think too much and lack sufficient cash flow. If I could go back in time, I’d tell him right to his face that intelligence enhances eroticism and I’M BROKE BECAUSE I SPENT ALL MY FUCKING MONEY BUYING JOHN LEE HOOKER RECORDS!

“Blues Before Sunrise” (1961): The second regret song in this collection (also from Burnin’) is my favorite John Lee Hooker song of them all. In “Blues Before Sunrise,” John Lee immerses himself in that dreadful moment when after a fitful sleep you wake up and remember that your long-term partner has ended the relationship, leaving you all alone in the world with nothing but a continuous replay loop of self-recrimination and self-justification. The utter sincerity of the performance is demonstrated in John Lee’s refusal to limit himself to verse structure to express himself—his lines spill over the edges, running into the following verses. The poetic meter follows no fixed pattern, making the monosyllabic tetrameter of “Lord knows I tried” extraordinarily powerful, especially given the metrically broken lines that follow:

My wife had left me
Left me for another man
For seven long years
Lord knows I tried
Everything I could
To get along with my wife
Oh, blues before sunrise
Tears standing in my eyes
A horrible feeling, boys, that I do despise

By the last verse he is reduced to repeating the themes of failed effort and loss, admitting he “tried too hard” to make things work. With strong support from the studio band (especially Benny Benjamin on drums and Joe Hunter on piano), “Blues Before Sunrise” is an absolute classic.

“Let’s Make It” (1961): I’ve frequently mentioned my disdain for sexual euphemisms, and though I really wish John Lee had replaced the phrase “make it” with “fuck,” I’m pretty happy with his direct approach in this piece:

Let’s make it, let’s make it, baby
Let’s make it, oh, right now, oh, yeah
Let’s make it, oh, baby, me and you
I don’t care what the world may say
Let’s make it, let’s make it

The directness is intensified through the complete lack of chord changes—one chord, one simple concept—what more do you need? Get the fuck on with the fucking! Towards the end, it looks like the object of the invitation wanted to talk things over before jumping into the sack, but John Lee nips that shit in the bud (“We ain’t sayin’ nothin’, we ain’t sayin’ a thing”). That’s good dominance—keeping your partner focused on the only thing that matters: poontang!

“No Shoes”(1960): “I know why the best blues artists come from Mississippi. Because it’s the worst state. You have the blues all right if you’re down in Mississippi.” So said John Lee Hooker in Ted Gioia’s book Delta Blues. And this ain’t past history—it’s now. This morning I read a summary of a U. N. report indicating that extreme poverty is on the rise in the United States, and the U. N. Team didn’t even visit Mississippi, which ranks last or close to last in nearly every measure of the human condition. I visited the Delta about ten years ago and some of the poverty I saw there was worse than anything I’ve seen in Africa.

When America was a future-oriented, progressive country, they used to say, “If you want to know where America is heading, look to California.” As long as Trump and the GOP have their way, the future of America looks a lot more like Mississippi. It’s incredible that the richest country on the planet has a government that prioritizes making “No Shoes” the future anthem of America’s underclasses.

Dominated by a guitar riff that expresses both anguish and puzzlement, John Lee amplifies the tragic nature of the situation through  a vocal that sounds like an embarrassed cry for help:

No food on my table
And no shoes to go on my feet
No food on my table
And no shoes to go on my feet
My children cry for mercy
They got no place to call their own

Homeless and hungry, suffering hard times that “seem like a jealous thing” in terms of sheer relentlessness, we leave the scene with the “children crying for bread.” The reaction to this song should be deep shame and immediate action, but in the land of the free, people are free to starve because it’s their own damn fault if they weren’t born white and they should just shut up, accept god’s will and pray to Jesus to forgive them for their poverty.

“Drug Store Woman” (1961): One of the great things about America before white flight from the cities created the atrocity known as the suburban shopping mall was the local drugstore. It seems like there was a scene in every American movie from the 1930’s to the early 60’s where one of the characters had to stop at the drugstore. The drugstore had everything! Cigarettes! Coffee! Chocolate malts! Grilled cheese sandwiches! Candy for the kids! Nylons! Lipstick! Perfume! And there was a real phone both with a seat and a door so you get the latest report from your private detective, then go to the pharmacy counter in the back, buy arsenic from the man in the white coat and get rid of your cheating husband! What a great place!

Sadly, John Lee does not approve of one core component of the drugstore: the extensive beauty section where a girl can try and buy the latest beauty aids from Revlon, Max Factor and Maybelline. In this single-chord monologue addressed to the “fellas,” John Lee disapproves of the merchandise and the women who shop there, buying lipstick, powder and nylons.

Huh? Why wouldn’t you want your woman to look her best and feel good about herself? A woman who feels beautiful fucks beautifully! What the hell DO you want, Johnny?

I want the kind of woman that stay home every day
Be home when I get there
My meal’s on time—-everything on time
She meet me at the door, she says, “Johnny, are you tired?”
I say, “Yeah.”
My supper’s ready
My bathwater is ready
Everything is ready

Let me leave a note on the fridge: Johnny, your Hungry Man meal is in the icebox. If you don’t want it, shove it up your ass.

“Boom Boom” (1962): Though I bemoan the imagery that links guns to penises, “Boom Boom” fucking rocks, featuring one of the best backing band performances of John Lee’s Vee-Jay years. The stop-time pauses after each line help energize and focus the band, and every time they hit their spots they seem to ramp up the energy a little higher. John Lee’s vocal combines clear intent and extraordinary reserve, expressing the inner heat you feel when your eyes have landed on the ultimate object of your desire.

The origins of the song are fascinating, as described in this snippet from Songfacts:

I used to play at this place called the Apex Bar in Detroit. There was a young lady there named Luilla. She was a bartender there. I would come in there at night and I’d never be on time. Every night the band would beat me there. Sometimes they’d be on the bandstand playing by the time I got there. I’d always be late and whenever I’d come in she’d point at me and say, ‘Boom Boom, you’re late again.’ And she kept saying that. It dawned on me that that was a good name for a song. Then one night she said, ‘Boom boom, I’m gonna shoot you down.’ She gave me a song but she didn’t know it.

I took that thing and I hummed it all the way home from the bar. At night I went to bed and I was still thinking of it. I got up the next day and put one and one together, two and two together, trying to piece it out – taking things out, putting things in. I finally got it down right, got it together, got it down in my head. Then I went and sang it, and everybody went, Wow! Then I didn’t do it no more, not in the bar. I figured somebody would grab it before I got it copyrighted. So I sent it to Washington, D.C., the Library of Congress, and I got it copyrighted. After I got it copyrighted I could do it in the bar. So then if anybody got the idea to do it I had them by the neck, because I had it copyrighted. About two months later I recorded it. I was on Vee-Jay then. And the record shot straight to the top. Then, after I did it, the Animals turned around and did it. That barmaid felt pretty good. She went around telling everybody I got John Lee to write that song. I gave her some bread for it, too, so she was pretty happy.

As far as The Animals’ version is concerned . . . well . . . here’s my write-up from my review of The Animals Retrospective:

Look, when John Lee Hooker sings, “I’m gonna shoot you right down” to his woman, he fucking means it, whether the shooting is a euphemism for getting a sassy bitch off her high horse, a fluid he would like to eject from his hardened member, or a small metal object expelled from the barrel of a .44. Eric Burdon doesn’t mean it, because he didn’t have the life experience to give those words the layers of meaning in the original. Once again, he overdoes the vocal. John Lee’s is one of quiet, cocky confidence: he knows that bitch is goin’ down.

“I’m in the Mood” (1951): John Lee simply had to write this song, because it seems like he’s always in the mood. This is a seriously hot blues with the resonance from the hollow body electric guitars coming through loud and clear.  The original (this isn’t it) sold over a million copies, making it one of the biggest selling blues singles in history. No surprise there—most of us get horny at least once a day, so eventually song will sync with mood if you’ve got the radio on all day. What I love about John Lee’s performance is that there’s no messin’ about—he’s in the mood, he wants to sing about it, and as soon as this recording his over, he’s going to do something about it.

“Maudie” (1959): I’ve never figured out why John Mayall and The Animals bothered to cover this song, as it goes absolutely nowhere. The storyline: “I love Maudie. She left me. I’m hurt.” We never find out a thing about Maudie—nothing about what she looks like, how she talks, how she shimmies or even if she shimmies. Not one of John Lee’s better efforts, but stay tuned—we do learn a bit more about Maude Mathis, John Lee’s first wife, in the closing track.

“Crawlin’ Kingsnake” (1949): I fully understand why this ancient Delta blues number has been covered by everyone from The Doors to George Thorogood to Buddy Guy—it integrates a powerful phallic symbol with a clear statement of the male right to take multiple mates while keeping the little woman safely locked up at home and telling her to mind her own fucking business. John Lee’s performance is a near-perfect expression of man-on-the-prowl, a feeling amplified by quiet passages where the guitar almost disappears and all we hear is John Lee’s deep-throated whisper, dripping with testosterone. I can put aside the laughable argument of male superiority and the tendency to overrate the importance of the penis and appreciate what is really one of the great blues vocals ever. Of all the versions out there, John Lee’s is the gold standard.

But if I want a version I can sing along to, I’ll put on Etta James’ version on her album Blues to the Bone. Singing the song from a woman’s perspective, she properly recalibrates the meaning of “snake in the grass,” calls bullshit on the whole operation and makes this pompous ass of a kingsnake shrivel to the size of a baby earthworm.

“Tupelo” (1959): Another reason Mississippi sucks: the place floods with cruel regularity. Memphis Minnie and hubby Kansas Joe  sang about The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 in “When the Levee Breaks,” a human-scale re-telling of the most destructive river flood in United States history. Although Songfacts claims that John Lee wrote this song about a Tupelo flood that took place “twenty years before,” I can find no evidence of such a flood occurring in 1939. Tupelo was hit by a massive string of tornadoes in 1936 that killed over two hundred people, but there’s no reference to tornadoes in the song.

Therefore, we can assume that this is another tale about The Great Mississippi Flood, and I’m good with that. Listening to John Lee makes me feel like a kid sitting on a rickety porch on a warm night in the Delta listening to the old folks tell the old stories you love to hear—a feeling intensified here because it’s a live recording. The tale is liberally spiced with complementary guitar riffs and held together by a calm, steady beat. My favorite turn of phrase (atheist that I am) is, “There were women and there were children,  screaming and crying, ‘Lord have mercy, in the great disaster, who can we turn to but you?'” Assistance from the federal government at the time was extremely limited, and as is always the case, the needs of white property owners came first. The key takeaway here is that the black people of the Delta remembered the flood as an unforgettable display of the awesome power of nature, and another indignity in a long line of indignities heaped upon people whose skin is unacceptably dark.

“Whiskey & Wimmen” (1960): I have no problem with men seeking solace in booze and broads after another boring day on the job. My problem is men who a.) get drunk, stupid and unfuckable and b.) men who don’t back the fuck off when I tell them I’m not interested. And it really pisses me off when guys blame booze and broads for wrecking their lives as John Lee does here in such an inaccurate and incomplete manner. It wasn’t the booze—it was your inability to moderate your booze intake! It wasn’t the women—if you thought the way to a woman’s pussy was by throwing your hard-earned dollars around like confetti, you’re a fucking moron! Stop blaming women for inherently male limitations!

Harrumph!

“Whiskey and Wimmen” has a definite honky-tonk feel with its boogie-woogie riff, so I don’t pick up the needle when it comes on, but it’s sort of a nowhere song unless you’re in denial and peaking on a testosterone high.

“I’m Going Upstairs” (1961): I love the basic riff here—it was so good it was ripped off by Canned Heat in “On the Road Again,” but since John Lee and Canned Heat hooked up later for the double album Hooker ‘n’ Heat, I guess that imitation-flattery thing pays off! Despite the snappy, upbeat rhythm, this is a story of a guy whose mother is dead and gone, his father doesn’t want him around and his girlfriend has found a younger stud. The Depression Trifecta! The disconnection between music and story is too great for this to rank as one of his best songs . . . but I do love that riff.

“Want-Ad Blues” (1961): Except for the howl following the line, “But when it comes to lovin’, I’m a lovin’ little fool,” this piece really doesn’t work for me due to the inconsistency with “Let’s Make It.” Here John Lee meets a promising squeeze he found in the want-ads but when it comes time to go to the bedroom, she wants to . . . talk. John Lee enthusiastically responds, “All right!” This can’t be the same guy who refused to take that talking shit in “Let’s Make It,” and given the extreme Cold War tensions that dominated 1961, I’m claiming that this is not John Lee Hooker singing but a Soviet agent sent to discourage Americans from engaging in the reproductive act.

“Five Long Years” (1960): Most of the songs in the collection were written by John Lee, either alone or with his most frequent collaborators, Bernard Besman or Vee-Jay Records exec James Bracken. “Five Long Years” is a cover of the Eddie Boyd original, which is frigging outstanding. Eddie was a great blues pianist with a smooth mid-range voice who had an excellent command of vocal dynamics. In his version of “Five Long Years,” the blues he’s feeling over getting dumped by the wife after having worked his ass off for five years while faithfully bringing home his paycheck every week is masterfully communicated through varying dynamics and a tone of “Man, did this broad play me for a sap, or what?” The underlying absurdity of the situation is emphasized by a seriously growling sax and barroom atmosphere, which adds to the song’s Everyman flavor. You leave the song rooting for Eddie, hoping he’ll make good on his commitment to never let it happen again.

John Lee takes a completely different approach. His version is as still as a dark night, featuring only voice, guitar and a light beat, transforming the song into one of personal reflection as opposed to outreach for sympathy. His voice is generally subdued, as if in shock. The extended guitar fills are marvelously varied, the sounds of a man trying to translate powerful but still confusing feelings into some form of human communication. You leave John Lee’s version in a state of devastation, feeling deep empathy for a broken man who did all he could but still lost out.

“My First Wife Left Me” (196o): Our final regret song is the deeply personal “My First Wife Left Me,” John Lee’s reflections on losing Maude Mathis. Applying the same spare arrangement he used on “Five Long Years,” John Lee engages in an extended confessional, calling into question all his kingsnake tendencies and wishing that he would have tempered the insatiable male urge to prove one’s masculinity by balling other women:

I had a good wife, but I did not treat her right
It’s my fault–only have myself to blame
It’s my fault, it’s my fault, boys–I only have myself to blame
She would have been home right now if I hadn’t wanted every woman that I seen

I found out one thing: these women don’t mean you no good
I found out one thing, people: these women don’t mean you no good
You mistreated a good girl for some woman–that she’d turn around and turn her back on you

I love it when he speaks directly to the “boys,” the “fellas” he addressed in the sexist rant in “Drug Store Woman.” It’s fucking hard for men to let down their guard and show vulnerability, but most men have told me it’s ten times harder with the guys due to the unwritten codes of male bonding behavior. I also love this song’s placement at the end of the collection, as it demonstrates another aspect of the human experience—we all make errors of judgment, but we all have the capacity to learn, and goddamn, learning is one mean bitch.

Even though I sometimes resist some of John Lee Hooker’s messages, I have to give the guy credit for his honesty, a quality shared by all the truly great blues artists. The blues is the safe space where a person can share their innermost thoughts and feelings, no matter how ugly, no matter how socially unacceptable. Only in the blues could Robert Johnson have expressed a desire such as “I’m goin’ to beat my woman ’til I get satisfied.” While the term “politically correct” has the positive connotation of attempting to communicate in a way that shows respect for other human beings, political correctness can be easily transformed into a form of repression, and repression only ensures that when the feelings do come out—as they must—they will come out in the form of poisonous resentment.

John Lee Hooker let it all come out, and that’s the real message of the blues. It got to come out, people!

John Mayall – The Turning Point – Classic Music Review

John Mayall is conclusive evidence that “Hope I die before I get old” is the dumbest fucking statement in music history.

The still-active Mr. Mayall will celebrate his eighty-fourth birthday this November. He has been a working musician for sixty-one years, and as I write, he is currently on tour in the United States. After a six-week hiatus, he’ll spend every night save three in the period between October 17 and November 26 on a stage somewhere in the U. K. He released his sixty-fifth album earlier this year, jamming with Joe Walsh on two of the tracks.

Fuck Pete Townsend.

The Woodstock Generation adopted another motto frequently attributed to yippie Jerry Rubin but actually added to the vernacular by Jack Weinberger of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement: “Never trust anyone over thirty.” John Mayall entered the consciousness of that generation with the release of Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton in 1966. The anti-aging crowd probably didn’t notice that John Mayall had already smashed the boundaries of obsolescence, having reached the ripe old age of thirty-two about six months earlier.

Fuck Jerry Rubin and Jack Weinberger.

To be fair, John Mayall is one of those characters who defy time and generational classification. In terms of genre-tagging, he is primarily known as a blues musician, a very limiting tag indeed. For while blues has always served as his musical foundation, and though The Bluesbreakers pretty much stuck to the dominant Muddy Waters electric guitar virtuoso paradigm of the British Blues Boom, Mayall has always been a curious sort, a man more than willing to expand the boundaries of the blues. After giving huge boosts to the careers of Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor by making them featured Bluesbreaker soloists, he grew tired of chasing down the next guitar hero once Mick left for The Stones and decided to move in a different direction.

Hence The Turning Point. From the liner notes, written by Mayall himself (caps preserved):

THE TIME IS RIGHT FOR A NEW DIRECTION IN BLUES MUSIC.  HAVING DECIDED TO DISPENSE WITH HEAVY LEAD GUITAR AND DRUMS, USUALLY A ‘MUST’ FOR BLUES GROUPS TODAY, I SET ABOUT FORMING A NEW BAND WHICH WOULD BE ABLE TO EXPLORE SELDOM-USED AREAS WITHIN THE FRAMEWORK OF LOW VOLUME MUSIC.  THIS ALBUM IS THE RESULT OF THIS EXPERIMENT AND IT WAS RECORDED LIVE AT THE FILLMORE EAST THEATER, NEW YORK, AFTER ONLY FOUR WEEKS EXPERIENCE OF EACH OTHER’S PLAYING.

Elsewhere in the packaging, Mayall shows off his economical writing style, managing to further expound on his new direction while introducing his new bandmates at the same time:

It no longer seemed logical to me that I should find yet another new lead guitarist; since Eric Clapton more or less founded a whole cult of blues guitar stylists, too many people are into that bag for it to mean much anymore. So I have now got a new thing in operation whereby drums are not used on the theory that every instrument is capable of creating its own rhythm. An acoustic finger style guitarist of the finest order, Jon Mark, replaced drummer Colin Allen, Johnny Almond on flutes and saxophones replaces Mick Taylor who made the headlines a week after leaving me when he was asked to join the Rolling Stones.

“Every instrument is capable of creating its own rhythm” is a concept that solo acoustic guitarists and classical music aficionados easily grasp, and just a few months before The Turning Point, Ian Anderson demonstrated the utility of the flute as a rhythmic instrument in the context of blues on Jethro Tull’s This Was. But even with those precedents, dispensing with the drummer represented a huge commercial risk for Mayall. As anyone who has ever played in a band understands, the presence of a drum kit requires all the other instruments to crank it up so they can be heard. This dynamic becomes a virtue in rock music, because the loudness itself adds to the aura of excitement, allowing even third-rate bands to sound pretty good for a number or two until the audience filters out the noise. Because Mayall’s audience was a rock-oriented audience who expected loud-and-powerful, one would assume that “low-volume music” would have been greeted with hoots, hollers and catcalls by the crowd at Fillmore East on July 12, 1969.

Damn if he didn’t win them over and leave them begging for more. The Turning Point is one of the truly great live albums, all the more delightful for the risk involved.

After Mayall’s decidedly proper introductions of the boys in the band and without further ado, the band launches into the Mayall composition, “The Laws Must Change.” In the midst of the atmosphere of protest pervading the United States with the Vietnam War at its peak, Mayall delivers a song that radicals of the era would have dismissed as “Establishment propaganda.” Urging listeners to be nice to the police and to try to see both sides of a question, Mayall even goes so far as to remind his probably stoned audience that “Every time you’re holdin’/You are guilty of the crime.” Seriously uncool, man! Actually, the advice is quite sensible, but common sense was an alien concept for the starry-eyed idealists of the period:

It seems to be the fashion
To say you’re right and they are wrong (2)
But you gotta see both sides
(Or) You’ll find yourself in jail ‘fore long

You’re screamin’ at policemen
But they’re only doin’ a gig (2)
Gotta try and take the time
To figure out how the issue got that big

After that verse Johnny Almond launches into a Yusef Lateef/Ian Anderson-style flute solo, heavy on the thrust with sharp overtones. The rhythm section of  Steve Thompson on bass and Jon Mark on rhythm acoustic guitar is spot-on, inspiring a mid-tempo ass wiggle from yours truly. Halfway through the solo, Mayall asserts himself on harp, leading to a tight call-and-response pattern with Johnny Almond’s flute that earns a well-deserved round of applause. Almond disappears for a moment during the Lenny Bruce verse (“Lenny Bruce was trying to tell you many things before he died/Don’t throw rocks at policemen/But get the knots of law untied), reappearing with a sax to enhance the sharpness of the rhythmic punctuation. This switcheroo pays off in the fade when the band highlights the dominant pattern of three eighth notes played in 4/4 time, leading to a subtle crescendo of rising harmonic notes and a sudden but effective finish that definitely wows the crowd. “The Laws Must Change” is the perfect opener, a mid-tempo number that shows off the tightness of the band (after four weeks!) and allows the audience to get comfortable with drum-deprived rhythm.

“Saw Mill Gulch Road” is a slower blues number with a gorgeous introduction featuring John Mayall playing slide on a Telecaster, his sustained notes floating over a somewhat intense rhythmic pattern established by Mark and Thompson. Johnny Almond enters toward the end of the intro with a warm and gentle flute pattern that communicates a mood of introspective regret. The song is about a teenage girl, your classic jail bait who sneaks out at night to meet her adult male lover. The male narrator decides to break it off without a word of goodbye, probably realizing that fucking a minor wasn’t the smartest idea he’d ever had. What makes the story work is not the double-sided aspect of the regret (lost love and “how could I have been so fucking stupid?”) but the simple truth that the blues is the place where you share the unthinkable, the shameful and the honest, sometimes ugly truth. As a mood piece, it’s a first-rate performance.

The next piece is John Mayall’s second tribute to the late blues great J. B. Lenoir, a relatively minor figure from the popular perspective but an influential guitarist and one of the few blues singers in the 50’s and 60’s who tackled social and political issues such as racism and war. Mayall’s first song about Lenoir was the mournful “The Death of J. B. Lenoir” on the album Crusade, where he sings that Lenoir’s death “hit me like a hammer blow.” In “I’m Gonna Fight for You, J. B.” he has moved beyond grief and resolves to dedicate his energies toward making sure Lenoir’s blues is “heard everywhere.” Mayall would not realize his dream until the 21st century, when Lenoir was featured in Martin Scorsese’s documentary series The Blues (2003), inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame (2011) and honored by the inclusion of his song “Alabama Blues” in the movie Selma (2015).

“I’m Gonna Fight for You, J. B.” is a relaxed blues in the traditional style, sung by Mayall in his relatively high-pitched voice (a trait he shared with Lenoir) over a guitar duet that shifts to a long instrumental break allowing both guitarists to strut their stuff. Jon Mark’s acoustic solo is a breathtaking flurry of notes and chords with occasional patterns that break the boundaries of the loping rhythm; Mayall’s Tele solo is by contrast clean and classic blues. Interestingly, Steve Thompson doesn’t enter until Mayall’s solo, adding depth to that passage and retrospectively confirming that “every instrument is capable of creating its own rhythm” (you hardly notice his absence during the duet). The simplicity of the arrangement also gives you a moment to appreciate the quality of the recording: The Turning Point is beautifully recorded and engineered (kudos to Eddie Kramer), capturing each performer’s contributions while always maintaining superb sonic balance.

“So Hard to Share” shifts to more of a jazz sensibility in large part due to Johnny Almond’s sax and Mayall’s syncopated rhythm guitar pattern. Johnny Almond’s solo is a marvelous piece of work alternating between smooth riffs, disciplined flurries and near-growls at the higher end of the register. In one memorable passage, Mayall sings scat while harmonizing with his guitar licks, totally immersed in the groove. The fade is fascinating because it is a genuine fade, a slow but steady reduction in volume down to nothing but the sounds of the musicians catching their breaths. The audience is so silent during the fade you’ve almost forgotten about them, indicating how firmly Mayall had them seated in the palm of his hand with his low-volume approach.

Mayall attached a brief explanatory tagline to each of the songs in the track listing, and the one of “So Hard To Share” reads, “Patricia and a possessive ‘old man’ who stood in our way.” Patricia is hard to share because her ‘old man’ sometimes keeps Patricia “locked up,” denying Mayall a coveted spot between her luscious legs. Mayall differentiates himself from the possessive prick in the third verse, stating clearly that “If she loves him that’s okay,” indicating he has no possessive designs of his own. Whoop-de-do. 1969 was the year of one small step for man, and I guess the share-the-broad concept could have been perceived as one small step in the deconstruction of traditional relational paradigms. Since there’s no indication that Patricia had a say in the matter, though, I think it was really one small step forward and two steps back into the safety of a male-controlled society. In a truly enlightened relationship, Patricia would have been in charge of the whole thing! To be fair, Mayall wasn’t the only stepper to stumble that year, for 1969 was also the year of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a thoroughly stupid film about open relationships long on titillation, short on delivering the goods and leaves all participants in the foursome completely disillusioned about traditional and alternative ways of getting your rocks off. If Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice had been released in today’s environment of sequel-mania, there would have been four sequels, one for each member of the quartet, each showing them masturbating for two hours in a state of existential disillusionment.

John Mayall wisely changes the subject with “California,” a nine-and-a-half minute Mayall-Thompson opus described as “improvisations and moods on the theme of homesickness.” California of the late 60’s probably was more like the paradise described in this song (unless you lived in Watts or East Oakland), so the lyrics represent a time capsule of sorts. Here the music is the draw, an extended jazz jam that remains in the key of D for the entire journey. The soloists take over a little more than a minute into the song, beginning with Johnny Almond on alto sax. Almond’s solo captures the feel of driving down Highway 1 during a sunset while the Pacific Ocean fog remains at bay—fluid with peaks of color expressed at the upper end of the alto sax range. The next passage features Jon Mark’s rhythmic capabilities with a few understated variations, inviting Mayall to join in with a touch of support on the harmonica. We also hear a touch of Almond’s flute, presaging a more prominent role in a harmonica-flute duet. Here Almond adds a touch of Arabian Nights by shifting briefly to the Andalusian scale, reflecting the reputed magic of the California scene. The piece wraps up with Mayall returning to the scant lyrics, and my overwhelming reaction is one of disbelief that this piece has ended so soon! It certainly doesn’t feel like nine-and-a-half minutes, indicating that it is very easy to lose yourself in such an enchanting piece as “California.”

“Thoughts about Roxanne” shifts the mood to 3 a. m. night club with a languorous blues number featuring deft and subtle work from Almond, Mark and Thompson (who co-wrote this piece). The fills and responses here are an absolute delight, with Almond’s smooth but intense blues-informed riffs and Mark’s nimble command of the stop-time-punctuated rhythms. John Mayall’s Telecaster enters with some sweet reverb-accented touches before cueing the band to pick up the tempo. Johnny Almond is all over that cue, leaving smoothness behind for the sensibilities of modern jazz played fast and furiously. Mayall comes to the fore with his guitar, a relatively straightforward run that sounds fabulous in context. A sudden shift—perhaps a bit too sudden to my ears—brings us back to the smoky bar and our half-finished highball.

Up to this point, none of the songs on The Turning Point qualify as up-tempo numbers, and though Mayall and friends have broken any resistance to low-volume music with a series of intensely pleasurable performances, both he and the crowd recognize it’s time to slam the foot down on the accelerator and get the fuck moving! In the pause that follows “Thoughts about Roxanne,” someone in the audience calls out for “Chicka, chicka!” Mayall’s response is a puzzled, “What? What’s it say? Chicka-chicka what?” He then acknowledges the request for mouth percussion by announcing, “Well, there’s a bit of chicka-chicka in this one, actually. You’ll be all right. This one’s called ‘Room to Move’.”

Oh, yeah, baby! Chicka-chicka all over me!

According to the liner notes, “Room to Move” is about “a musician’s need for personal freedom to love without entanglement.” The lyrics are short and to the point:

May seem peculiar
How I think o’ you
If you want me darlin’
Here’s what you must do.
You gotta free (give) me
‘Cause I can’t give the best
Unless I got room to move.

If you want me darlin’
Take me how you can
I’ll be circulating,
‘Cause that’s the way I am.
You gotta free me
‘Cause I can’t give the best
Unless I got room to move

I endorse these sentiments whole-heartedly, because unlike the “I’ll be true to you” blather that accompanies too many romantic interactions, these sentiments are unmistakably honest. This man needs freedom to get a hard-on, and unlike all the other lovers who sneak around behind your back, he’s giving you the straight scoop. Now you have a choice, and that choice needs to be just as honest—“Well, I’ll fuck him and maybe he’ll change” just isn’t going to cut it. That’s called a hidden agenda, and that’s something you should never bring into a relationship. And here’s a tip: honest people are experts at sensing hidden agendas and relational bullshit. If you try to get down and dirty with a guy like Mayall, you’ll send all kinds of confusing vibes and the result will be a penis that you couldn’t firm up with all the plaster in the world.

Hmm. Maybe I should do a “Dear Altrockchick” column.

Lyrics aside, “Room to Move” reinforces the other freedom that pervades the album: the freedom to create rhythms without a drummer. There is no better illustration on the album—or perhaps anywhere—to demonstrate that human beings are creatures of rhythm, and if you don’t have a drummer handy, you still have plenty of options. Thighs. Hands. Fingersnaps. Shoes, with or without taps (boots for the heavy stuff). The body of an acoustic guitar.

And the entire human vocal apparatus.

“Room to Move” shoots out of the gate like the proverbial bat out of hell, with all four musicians on point with the quick chord changes and the stop time moments at the end of each bar. The chord changes themselves aren’t at all difficult (E-D-E-D-E-D-E-rest, then up to A-G), but the speed and the precision required to properly execute the pattern isn’t kids’ stuff. The break to a G chord also temporarily changes the rhythm, and whether that feels like temporary relief or a stride-breaking moment depends on the musician. Fortunately, this bunch could handle anything you threw at them.

After only four weeks of rehearsal.

After Mayall sings the first verse, he launches into an energetic harp solo. What I find amazing here is that he’s already spent more energy alternating between voice and harp in the first verse than most singers expend during your average song, but damn, this is a man on fire and there’s nothing that can slow him down. Accompanied only by Jon Mark slapping his guitar body and a bit of handicapping, Mayall delivers a solo that qualifies as an absolute delight—I smile every time he starts to crank it up. Right when he seems to hit the peak, Johnny Almond enters with “mouth percussion” (chicka-chicka stuff), a series of unvoiced syllables attached to the frantic rhythm. Eventually, Mayall puts his harp in his shirt pocket and does counterpoint mouth percussion that draws oohs and aahs from the crowd, throwing in a cheek pop and random breath for good measure. Now I’m smiling and giggling, immersed the sheer playfulness of this unique musical moment. Mayall reconnects with his harp for a few more measures, gives the countdown one more time and once again, the entire band enters on point, thrilling both the crowd and yours truly. Amazingly, Mayall, who has taken more breaths during the preceding four minutes than an out-of-shape stud giving the fuck of his life, steps up to the mike to sing the final verse, blowing harp between the lines. I want this man’s genes preserved for science! Needless to say, “Room to Move” ends on the dominant pattern, with everyone ending at precisely the same moment, like a group of Olympic gymnasts who all stick it at once in a ten-point performance that even a Russian judge would validate.

God damn, what an experience! More! More! More!

If, like my dear OLD dad you bought the original album in the 60’s, you didn’t get any more. The album ended with “Room to Move.” What? No encore? No sloppy seconds? No post-fuck cigarette? You’re just going to fuck me, put your pants on and split! You rotten bastard!

Ah, but if you buy the 2001 re-issue, “Room to Move” is followed by three bonus tracks. I usually abhor bonus tracks because they usually are sloppy seconds, but in this case, the bonus tracks enrich the listening experience so much I can’t imagine listening to The Turning Point without them. “Sleeping by Her Side” combines a soothing background of acoustic guitar and clean flute with a lyrically-vivid story about a seriously desirable party chick who passes out in John Mayall’s arms, and though he didn’t hit the jackpot, he nestles by her side as the sun rises over the Arizona desert. “Don’t Waste My Time” is a country-tinged hoot (Jon Mark does some brilliant finger-picking here), a reinforcement of the “Room to Move” message:

Well, tell me woman who you’re with tonight
If you’re on your own then that’s alright
But if you don’t want me with you
Don’t waste my time with your jive

Mark opens “Can’t Sleep This Night” with another mesmerizing pattern that seems more British folk than blues or jazz, a pattern that eventually gives way to bass, sax and Tele riffing over a steady, slightly edgy contrasting minor key pattern. When Mark returns with the opening pattern, it has the effect of intensifying the edge, a musical replication of the tension that often drives a sleepless night. After the song ends, Mayall responds to the applause with a polite but absolutely firm, “Thank you and good night,” giving the album the proper ending it deserved.

One of the most truly unique and memorable albums to come from a unique and memorable decade, The Turning Point is a testament to the freedom-seeking ethos that formed the positive pole of the 60’s dynamic. Conceived and released during a period when genre-definition was virtually irrelevant, the spirit of The Turning Point reflects the same spirit that led Miles Davis to turn traitor to the pure jazz contingent and create the inevitable act of fusion we know as Bitches Brew. In The Turning Point, John Mayall proved two things: one, that despite certain structural norms, the blues is much more malleable than people believe; and two, music in all its various forms has the power to move people to let go of expectations when the music is played with drive, enthusiasm, talent and ego-free collaboration.

May John Mayall live and play forever.

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