Culturespill » Muddy Waters

On the Trail of a Pretender: Kicking Clapton to the Curb

25th June

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Anyone who’s lived enough knows that hindsight’s got a bad habit of separating the bullshit from the real thing. Few things illustrate this truth more clearly than revisiting Eric Clapton’s Me and Mr. Johnson four years later. It will be apparent to most who’ve given the album a second chance since its release in march of 2004 that listening to it is about as riveting an experience as listening to a second coat of paint dry on your mother’s bathroom wall. It exudes about as much passion for its material as the corporate executives who’ve been cashing in on Clapton’s deplorable laurel-resting for decades. And though Clapton’s role in defining rock ‘n roll and introducing the work of many blues legends to the larger audiences they so richly deserved cannot be denied, it’s about time to call the old buzzard’s bluff: this ain’t no blues man.

This is “blues” for people who thought Blink 182 was “punk.” That’s probably the reason why, working in the music department at a Barnes & Noble when this drivel hit stores, I watched a succession of soccer moms and burned-out Floyd fans cough up their kids’ gas money to hear Eric Clapton’s ridiculously over-hyped disaster of a “blues” album. “One thing the blues ain’t,” Stephen Stills admonished a fan in the audience on the classic live album Four Way Street, “is funny.” The way he said it, it sounded as if Stills was perfectly prepared to slit the poor bastard’s throat with his pick if he dared utter another sound; coming from the guy who jumped Elvis Costello in an Ohio bar amid a fit of rage after Costello called Ray Charles “a blind, ignorant nigger,” the threat of physical violence was entirely real.

(In defense of Costello’s remark, for which he scheduled a press conference to apologize, Salon writes that “There’s no evidence that Costello was a racist — he’d been active in Rock Against Racism before it was fashionable and was too smart in any event to let it show if he was — but he was being as stupid, reckless and out of control as any of the broken-down ’60s stars his energy, brains and invective were supposed to be an antidote for.”)

Another thing the blues “ain’t,” though, is comforting–or at least that’s the way the genre’s founding fathers intended it to be. That’s why it’s the very last genre you should be able to listen to on your way to soccer practice with a legion of snot-nosed kids packed in the back of your SUV. Not because it is explicit–for that is merely controversial–but because real blues is the musical equivalent of a razor to the wrist. A well-delivered blues track, such as Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail,” should leave you no more settled than a track from Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate. And if you’ve listened to either Johnson’s song or Cohen’s album, you know what exactly what I mean. Clapton’s album, by contrast, plays like the soundtrack of a walk through the sandbox on Sunday afternoon with a fistful of birthday balloons and clown paint cracking on your chin in the sun. It is, to put it simply, much too polite a record for the blues.

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Robert Johnson

 

It is nothing less than a travesty that Clapton is continually allowed to pass himself off as a blues man when his days as an edgy and innovative guitarist hell-bent on making the blues cool again are so far behind him now as to be the stuff of urban legend. It has been a long time since Clapton was a no-name strapping on his guitar for another session with the Yardbirds, and his recent recordings prove that he has forgotten what it was that brought him to pick up a guitar as a kid. He fails to understand that mere competence does not constitute “Blues” music. Blues comes from within, from a depth in the gut that’s been hollowed out by the kind of real-life suffering that brought the original blues masters — whose genius was not rewarded by millions of dollars in royalties, but by an occasional burst of applause by the roadside — to their chosen craft.

Take Robert Johnson, for example: he grew up in squalid poverty and worked as a sharecropper as a boy, his first child was stillborn and his first wife died during labor, his next wife suffered a breakdown and also died young, he himself was a victim of near-blindness and, finally, he was poisoned to death at the age of 27. Maybe that’s the kind of shit that Robert was fixing for the night he sold his soul to the devil in Rosedale, Mississippi, but that doesn’t mean it was easy to live with. Or take Muddy Waters, who never sold his soul to the devil, but grew up under the care of his grandmother because his mother died when he was five years-old (the age at which he began to teach himself harmonica, beating on a can of kerosene to get a feel for rhythm.) He worked as a sharecropper at the Stoval Plantation and lived in a shoddy wooden cabin about the size of a matchbox, somehow scrounging together enough in wages to buy his first guitar at 17.

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The Cabin Muddy Waters Lived in As A Boy

The idea behind Blues music upon its birth was that the artist had to HAVE the blues to sing the Blues. Clapton’s lackluster performance on Me and Mr. Johnson–as on so many of his past records–further demonstrates that he is too far removed from that state of the soul to make real music. My disgust with the album has nothing to do with “purism” or a lack of grittiness. I’ll take a clean sound if it’s got soul. I’m talking about modern blues masters like Charlie Musslewhite, John Hammond or even Tom Waits. Clapton, by contrast, compounds weak performances with vocal deliveries that sound as though the man is slipping into a coma as he sings.

I’m sorry, but a guy who puts out albums with liner notes that include catalogs of his own merchandise is the last guy on earth who ought to be cutting blues records. Clapton has made it clear that the tremendous celebrity status he engendered as a young man was so unappealing to him that he is willing to release decades worth of diluted, subpar blues/rock, which he has done. He has proven to be a rather powerful enemy of his own reputation, and has subsequently forgotten how to bring his soul to the microphone. If anybody ought to be keeping his hands off those Robert Johnson records, it’s Eric Clapton. If you want to know what Johnson sounded like, stick with the original tunes and hunt down the stuff that Muddy was listening to while he worked with his bare hands in the fields of Mississippi to save enough for that first guitar: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson or The Mississippi Sheiks.

The Heavy: “Making Noise While You Make Love”

18th May

The Heavy

Major Culturespill props are due to StellaSplice for tipping all of us off on a band they call “incredibly digable.” We completely agree. The Heavy, a funky, put-on-your-assless-purple-leather-Prince-pants-and-get-down outfit out of the UK, is easily making some of the most boogie-worthy music this side of the moon. But you probably haven’t heard any of it yet, and that’s about to end right now. Cluttering the kitchen sink of Parliament-worthy funk with a bulging load of every genre under the sun–Motown, hip-hop, rock, pop, soul, industrial, folk and–who knows–maybe Polka and Carnival music are on the horizon too–their myspace page identifies them as everything from “Black metal” to “Easy Listening” to “Italian Pop.” That pretty much leaves it all out on the table. And to top things off, you can watch them blast some Remington 1100’s into a row of unassuming water bottles here. Yippie.

The world hasn’t heard music with this much groove since RHCP lured George Clinton into a studio to lay down some tracks with them on their underappreciated Freaky Styley album 23 years ago–you know, back before the Peppers became “arteests.” As the funktastic “That Kind of Man” explodes with a relentlessly massive sound that brings to mind some dude straight out of the late 1970s with a mile-high afro and an early boombox half his size clutched to one ear as he struts right by you up the block, it becomes clear that The Heavy aren’t taking shit from anybody. That’s probably why they include “big bad wolves just doing what they do” among their band members on MySpace. There really isn’t a more accurate description of their sound than that. These boys (and one girl–clutching an axe with a murderous stare on their myspace page, no less) are here for the long haul.


The Heavy: “That Kind of Man”

The Heavy’s sound is Tom Waits backed by The Stooges, Muddy Waters back from the Dead to make an album with Danger Mouse (because Danger Mouse SO needs another project on his hands.) These guys are bringing taste back in a big damned hurry, and judging from the friends they keep on MySpace, it’s hard to conceive of a more fitting band to do it–The Sonics, Howlin’ Wolf, Slim Harpo, Tom Waits, and even Waits’s label Anti. These people know a good groove when they hear one, and they’re threatening to bring plenty more of their own for good measure. Check ‘em out.

You Better Watch Yourself: A Tribute to Little Walter

25th April

Walter

“Little Walter was dead ten years before he died.”
— Muddy Waters

Even now, forty years later, no one knows for sure exactly what killed him that night. Did the brother of one of Walter’s million wounded lovers bruise him with the fatal blow, a crushing shot to the head in an alley fight somewhere on the south side of Chicago, rupturing an injury sustained amid the many prior brawls that marbled his face with a storybook of scars? Was he beaten to death with an iron pipe in the street over a gambling debt, as others allege?

“He’s real tough, Little Walter” Muddy Waters would say not long before then, “and he’s had it hard. Got a slug in his leg right now!”

Grooves arched over one of Little Walter’s eyebrows where stitches were sewn and plucked. He also wore the permanent gash of a broken bottle someone corkscrewed into the side of his head, and one darker stripe of skin curled around the socket of an eye caved in by a man’s ringed fist.  His death is the lingering mystery of a life lost in an oblivion of alcohol, womanizing, squandered genius, street fights, blues and pain. Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter why he died so young in his sleep on February 15th, 1968, more than a decade since the world passed the blues by in a cloud of kicked-up dust called rock ‘n roll and left him to shrink in the shadow of the giant he used to be, blasted on dope, boozed into uselessness, and forgotten along the road to newer thrills with the names of younger gods such as Richards, Page or Clapton. No matter the cause, the greatest blues man to ever play the harp was dead, and he was just 37 years old.

Walter

By then, Walter had fallen a long way from the harmonica king who cupped a mic and harp to his mouth and blew the thing into a hand-held fire from Memphis to Maxwell Street, where he’d cut his first record at Bernard and Red Abrams’s record shop in 1947. By the age of 17, Walter had already backed the biggest names in blues, from Memphis Slim, Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Nighthawk, before Muddy Waters took him in to form the most badass duo the blues has ever heard. Unsurprisingly, Muddy measured every harp player that came his way later on against the gargantuan talents of their predecessor.

“Walter’s was an uncommonly systematic musical mind,” blues historian Robert Palmer wrote. “In his hands, the amplified harmonica became virtually a new instrument. In his soloing, Walter used tone, timbre, dynamics, phrasing and space with the freedom and imagination of a jazz saxophonist.”

Yes, he’d fallen a long way. From the fat cat who rolled around town in a Caddy with a trunk full of cash and credit for beating Muddy to the top of the charts with his legendary harp riff, “Juke,” in 1952. From the home he escaped at 13 to leave behind a father doing time at Angola for murder and busk his way to some kind of living in the streets. From the divine heights he climbed to the minute he plugged his harp into an amp and blew it into a microphone, rivaling the volume of any electric guitar.

“There is no other way around it,” Ben Harper declared as he inducted Little Walter into the rock ‘n roll hall of fame last month, “to pass through life, you must pass through the blues, and to pass through the blues, you must pass through Little Walter.”

Through the haunted whirlwind of harp he blew to blacken the darkest mood on songs like “Blue and Lonesome,” a rattling flicker of guitar and drum blasting the bottom out of the song as Walter wills it to an unforgiving close. Through the spitting threats about the woman who left and hurt him so bad in “Hate to See You Go” and some doomed bastard who’s going around “stealing everybody’s chick” in the livid and fatalistic “It’s Too Late Brother,” how he’s got “no need of goin’ no further” and why the rest of you “better watch yourself.”

It’s exactly the kind of stuff you’d expect of a brilliant bluesman bent on brawling his way to an early grave. “He was behaving like a cowboy much of the time,” writes Mike Rowe in Chicago Blues, “and would roar up to a club date in his black Cadillac with a squeal of the brakes that sent everyone rushing to the door to stare.” It wasn’t long until they’d stare for a different reason, this time at the crumpled and bloody mess he’d become on night after night of boozed-up throwdowns in the streets of south-side Chicago, his talents wasted so thoroughly as to produce unrecognizably lame reworkings of his own songs in a super blues band of Muddy, Walter and Bo Diddley that turned out to be not so super after all.

But America’s heritage of self-destructive genius remains one of its saddest cultural chapters; Walter’s name wasn’t the first to join that tragic list, and it won’t be the last. As Ben Harper said the night Walter’s name entered a more celebrated canon in Cleveland this past March, however, “it is a historical occurrence when the word ‘immortal’ finds its proper home.”

The word most certainly finds its home in Little Walter, and nothing, not even death, can take that from him.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com