This will be my twenty-first and last review covering The Beatles and their solo careers.
I am so done with The Beatles.
More accurately, I am done with a hardy group of Baby Boomer males who have hounded me for years because I had the chutzpah to express my heartfelt opinion that both The White Album and Abbey Road suck.
Blasphemy! Burn the heretic! She wasn’t even there—what does she know? You can’t possibly understand what The Beatles meant unless you were there!
That perspective is so fucking stupid you’d think Trump invented it. Members of the generation who experienced the history are the least qualified people to evaluate that history. Every generation thinks their generation was the greatest gift to humanity, and the Baby Boomers are exceptionally prone to mythologizing. While there is no doubt that the rock music of the 60’s and early 70’s contained some of the finest and most lasting contributions to music history, that music was made by human beings, not gods, and all human beings are subject to hot and cold streaks. The Beatles were a great band for five or six years, then went into a noticeable decline during which their godlike status, not their music, sustained their popularity. They still bathed in the glow of mythology and its revenue-generating power during their solo careers, none of which produced much of lasting value.
Which brings us to Ram, a good-news/bad-news album if there ever was one.
Let’s start with the good news: Paul McCartney has rarely sounded more exuberant than he does on Ram. With Linda’s emotional support, he found his way through the darkness occasioned by the collapse of The Beatles and shed all traces of depression and disorientation that marked his first solo effort. On Ram, he sounds positively thrilled to embark on a new, independent musical adventure, as is evident in the unbridled energy he displays throughout the record and the blessed return of his sense of humor. His melodic gifts remain intact, he sings as well as he ever did and he’s still one hell of a bass player.
The bad news: exuberance often occasions a lack of discipline and judgment. We have all experienced this phenomenon in our personal lives when we get too drunk or too horny and wind up doing dumb things we regret. The thing about Ram is that Paul did a lot of dumb things that he should have regretted but instead wound up using the dumb things to create the template for his solo career. That’s the really bad news: Ram turned out to be the incubator for later crap like “Silly Love Songs” and “My Love.” Add to that the generally weak and sometimes nonsensical lyrics and there’s a lot about Ram not to like.
Note that I did not include the presence of Linda McCartney in either the good news or bad news. She’s not much of a vocalist, but at least she hits the notes. Having said that, there is always a temptation to compare the relative contributions of Beatle wives, but the last thing I want to get into here is the whole John-Paul public brouhaha that in many ways was more classless than the tiresome spats involving the Gallagher brothers.
Unfortunately, the song that John uses as evidence for his “I didn’t start it–he started it!” argument opens the album. Sigh.
If you leave the nonsense out of the discussion, “Too Many People” is a pretty strong opening cut. McCartney’s vocal is outstanding, spanning the range from full-throated, growling oomph to sweet soprano. His bass part is thumpingly energetic, adding significantly to the strong forward movement. Hugh McCracken’s lead guitar solo is very impressive, and Linda’s supporting vocals are her strongest on the album. What’s not to like?
All the nanny-nanny poo-poo shit, of course.
The confirmed attacks on John and Yoko (the ones McCartney owned up to) involved the lines, “Too many people preaching practices,” and “You took your lucky break and broke it in two.” Other somewhat credible suspects include:
- The “cake lines.” These include the opening, “Piss off, cake” and “Too many reaching for a piece of cake.” Both are references to the well-publicized act described in “The Balllad of John and Yoko” where the two honeymooning lovebirds found themselves in Vienna, “eating chocolate cake in a bag.”
- “Too many people going underground,” is allegedly based on John and Yoko’s shared perception of themselves as leaders of an amorphous worldwide underground movement that was going to achieve world peace through billboards and bed-ins.
John also thought “Dear Boy” and “Back Seat of My Car” were about him (ridiculous), and some sources say that John and Yoko saw the whole album as an attack on them, which has about as much credibility as John’s assertion that Yoko was one of the greatest artists to ever grace the planet. The silliness didn’t end with John, unfortunately. George and Ringo thought “3 Legs” (coming up next) was an attack on them and Mr. Lennon, a splash of lingering spite left over from the argument concerning the selection of The Beatles’ business manager.
Putting all the pettiness aside, the most important lines in the song are the closing lines to the third verse:
Too many people holding back
This is crazy, and baby, it’s not like me
That is Paul McCartney’s statement of liberation from the chains of depression. He’s telling us he’s not going to hold back anymore; he’s going to be himself and doesn’t give a rat’s ass if anyone thinks he’s a bourgeois bore. I think he’s right in one respect—holding back is crazy from a personal perspective. You have to be yourself regardless of consequences; otherwise, what’s the fucking point of living? However, the creation of art involves creating some kind of aesthetic distance from the subject matter, for without that shift in perspective, the personal remains personal instead of universal. What happens too often on Ram is McCartney follows his undisciplined impulses, and without a Lennon or George Martin around to whack him upside the head, what we get sometimes is pure self-indulgence.
“3 Legs” is a good example. The answer to the question, “What the fuck was he thinking on ‘3 Legs’?” is pretty obvious: he wasn’t. The lyrics are terrible, the music is an insult to every credible blues performer who ever lived and the attempt to spice up the dullness with vocal patches and tempo changes fails to achieve the desired effect. It’s followed by the equally awful sort-of-title-track, “Ram On,” another piece of total nonsense with only one redeeming quality—it allowed Paul to get acquainted with the ukulele, a skill he would apply some thirty-odd years later with grace and class when performing “Something” in a touching tribute to George Harrison.
“Dear Boy” is a definite upgrade, with McCartney displaying his still impressive talent for melody and harmony. I have to say that I strongly prefer the mono mix of this song, as the stereo version leaves Paul’s lead vocal and the Linda-Paul background vocals competing for attention. A YouTube comment by a gentleman by the name of Gene Stewart described the song as a “Wonderful, elegant Fuck You song,” and I have to agree. The lyrics express his appreciation for Linda’s presence in his life through a message to her ex, a pretty odd way to express appreciation, but not uncommon with competitive males. While the lyrics don’t exactly knock me out, they do form a coherent story, which is more than we can say about the two preceding tracks and the one to follow.
That next track demanded a conversation with my father:
ME: Dad! “Uncle Albert!” What the fuck?
DAD: I assume you mean “How did ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ make it to the top of the charts?”
ME: Yeah! The Grammy I get—Grammy voters have always been stupid. But why on earth did people flock to the record shops and pay money for this . . . this . . .
DAD: Wow. My daughter at a loss for words. Never thought I’d see the day . . .
ME: I’m baffled, befuddled and bewildered. What happened?
DAD: It’s pretty simple. “Uncle Albert” was the one that sounded most like The Beatles at their peak—it had the harmonies, it had the joy, it had the humor. I know you don’t care for the suite on Abbey Road, but for a lot of people, that was their favorite part of the album.
ME: But . . . just think about that one line—“Hand across the water/Heads across the sky.” What?
DAD: I know you hate to hear “you weren’t there,” but there is some validity to that statement in one sense. For those of us who grew up with The Beatles, losing them was like a death in the family, and you know the first stage in processing grief is denial. I think we were all in denial about it, but for several years after they broke up, just hearing one of their voices was very, very comforting—the dream was still alive. “Uncle Albert” was the closest thing we’d heard to that magical sound, and I don’t think anyone bothered to pay attention to the lyrics, even when they were singing along.
Similar to the suite on Abbey Road, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” is pieced together from unfinished fragments of songs. The “Admiral Halsey” piece is clearly a throwaway, but McCartney had something there with the story of the boring old uncle who inspired everyone in the family to avoid his presence at any cost. The chords to the “Uncle Albert” segment are quite clever, with a nifty half-step resolution to the D major root. Sadly, he never finished it, tacking on an absurd bit about an American admiral, an exhortation to the listening audience to discover their inner gypsies and the faux thrill of “Hand across the water/Heads across the sky.” An author by the name of Andrew Grant Jackson interpreted the song to be a quite coherent tale related to The Beatles’ breakup, but on closer examination his explanation makes about as much sense as the “Paul is dead” conspiracy theory.
Side one ends with a song that I will defend to my death, the seriously exuberant “Smile Away.” Why does this one make the cut while other exuberant songs on the album miss the mark? First, it’s Paul McCartney rocking as hard as he had in years, and when McCartney has the fire on high, he’s fucking awesome. Second, and probably even more important, it’s Paul McCartney poking fun at himself, placing himself in the unlikely role of total loser, the guy who desperately needs a shower, a SonicCare and a fresh bottle of Listerine. In the context of a guy recovering from depression, the ability to laugh at oneself is a huge sign that recovery is moving full steam ahead. I love McCartney’s Elvis/Lady Madonna voice, and when he adds roughness to it during the fade it knocks me out every fucking time. Great guitar, great bass, solid Americanized fifties background vocals from Linda—love it!
Side two brings us to “Heart of the Country.” Jon Landau of Rolling Stone thought it was the low point of the album; Stephen Erlewine of AllMusic gushed over its arrangement and claimed that it ranked among McCartney’s very best songs. I find it dull, duller and dullest, but if there’s one song on Ram that tells you where McCartney will be headed in the future, it’s “Heart of the Country”—inoffensive, not unpleasant, but hardly engaging.
On a spectrum all by itself we have “Monkberry Moon Delight.” There are three major interpretive theories about this piece:
- The song is an attempt by the authors (Paul and Linda) at surrealistic poetry.
- The song is the evil twin of “Glass Onion,” poking fun at Beatle freaks who dive deep for meaning and come up gasping for air.
- Paul and Linda were stoned out of their fucking minds.
I don’t buy the surrealistic argument—this was written years after the brief period surrounding Revolver when McCartney spent his free time hobnobbing with the avant-garde. I also don’t buy the “Glass Onion” connection, an argument that weirdly validates the content of “Glass Onion.” No, I’m going with “stoned out of their fucking minds,” because when I listen to it straight—and by that I mean “not under the influence of cannabis or hashish”—I feel like I’m hearing people laughing at one of those funny things that are only funny when you’re high. As I was unable to score any weed before writing this review, I’m going to give “Monkberry Moon Delight” a pass until I can confirm my theory.
Shit. If I’d monetized the blog, I could have deducted the weed as a business expense. Oh, well.
Ringo and George liked the next tune, “Eat at Home,” a Buddy Holly-esque rocker that allows McCartney to reconnect with his teenage self. I think the song would have been a good fit in the back-to-basics operating mode of Let it Be/Get Back, but nothing could have saved that turkey, and given all the bad juju in the studio back then, I don’t think Paul would have given it half the energy he does here. Overall it’s a plus, but nothing that knocks my socks off.
McCartney got one thing right on “Long-Haired Lady”—the first word. Man, this sucker is long. It seems to go on forever. The best part of the song comes early, when Linda gets a little snarky on the line “Or is this the only thing you want me for?” After that, you can lift the needle at any time. You may want to skip the next track, too, a pointless reprise of “Ram On.” I have no idea why McCartney bothered to reprise this piece of nothingness unless he was trying to duplicate the reprise trick made famous on Sgt. Pepper. That reprise was the perfect way to introduce one of the great songs in rock history; this reprise does come before one of the best songs on the album but it does nothing to heighten your sense of anticipation like the Sgt. Pepper piece. In that sense, the reappearance of “Ram On” only provides evidence about how far we have fallen.
Lucky for us, McCartney makes a last-minute save with “The Back Seat of My Car,” a song that owes a deep debt to Brian Wilson. The rising falsetto passages are pure Beach Boys, and there’s nothing wrong with imitation if it is delivered with deep admiration, as McCartney does here. For teenagers of that era (especially American teenagers, who had much easier access to family wheels), the back seat of the car was the place where you could snuggle up with your honey, share the feelings and thoughts you’d never share with mom and dad, and, if magic was in the air, find yourself a candidate for a statutory rape charge. McCartney isn’t so much concerned with the snogging aspect of the back seat as he is with its status as a safe haven from the buffeting winds of the generational divide:
Speed along the highway,Honey, I want it my way
But listen to her daddy’s song—“Don’t stay out too long.”
We’re just busy hidin’, sitting the back seat of my car.The laser lights are pretty
We may end up in Mexico City
But listen to her daddy’s song—“Making love is wrong.”
I’ve always been amazed at the thickness of parents of the era as depicted in movies, music and television—they seemed to believe that parenting had everything to do with “Thou shalt nots” instead of encouraging kids to talk about their feelings and help them think through the upsides and downsides of a desired course of action. Because the parents were engaged in many of the activities they told their kids not to do (smoking, drinking, fucking), the “Thou shalt nots” inevitably led to valid accusations of hypocrisy. “Because I said so” didn’t cut it with a better-educated, skeptical generation of teens. The complete deafness on one side led to both sides taking the posture, “We believe that we can’t be wrong,” hence the Generational Divide.
The arrangement is easily the best on the album, a well-balanced mix of orchestral and rock conventions, diverse tempos and strong vocals (especially the low-octave pairing on “But listen to her daddy’s song”). “Back Seat of My Car” was apparently a late-stage possibility for Let It Be/Get Back, but it would have been wasted on that not-much-of-an effort. Here it allows McCartney to finish strong and give fans some encouragement for the future.
As history shows, though, ever-hopeful McCartney fans were in for some serious disappointment if they bought the first Wings album. My passionate-defender-of-all-things-Beatles father listened to Wild Life once, slipped it back in its sleeve and traded it in for the new Badfinger album, a definite (if ironic) upgrade.
Ram was not received well by critics of its day, but lately it has gone through a reappraisal, resulting in more favorable reviews. The Monkees recently experienced a similar reappraisal, demonstrating only that Baby Boomers can’t let go of the 60’s, and even if they have to scrape the bottom of the barrel, they cling to the belief that any music that came out during their salad days has to be better than Radiohead, even the fucking Monkees. My take is that Ram has a few good songs on it but if this album had been released by a nobody, not too many people would have bothered to listen.
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!
“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!