John Lee Hooker

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Published January 29, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

If, as ex-Stone Bill Wyman once explained it, old blues records tell the story of one man and one guitar against the world, then how the earth must have trembled in the knees at the sight of John Lee Hooker climbing into the ring circa 1951. Hooker's timekeeping foot varied in timbre song to song, microphone to microphone, from a hale Rice Krispy crunch to a resonating basketball bounce to a dry tapping of implacable menace; the guitar followed the foot in ominous four-to-the-beat scratching or rang out in fizzy crescendos of revenge consummated; the voice, calm center of these sonic cyclones, often sat content to read off a list of charges while the foot walked the guilty to the scaffold and the guitar yanked back the switch. The first and oldest cut, "Mad Man Blues," finds Hooker as cool in homicidal frenzy as his trademark fancy suits. "Look out dere, man, I got the MAD MAN BLUES," he declares -- not without a certain civility -- over a rhythm figure pushing the words, hustling like an adrenalized heart, and when you can't figure out what he does to his baby's neck down by the riverside, you don't want to know. Then the guitar tells it to you anyway.

The exact recording dates and locations of these sides are lost to history, and with them has gone some of the shocking sensation they must have delivered on successive 45s sold from black record shops in black neighborhoods in 1951 or 1952. The starkness of one situation sketched in less than three minutes, stories about leaving a woman, being left by a woman or killing a groundhog in the front yard (that one turns out to be about a woman too), manufacture a new and satisfying shock of their own as a body of work, rather than a series of isolated incidents daring you to spin them again after the click of the lifting tone arm. Toward the end of the second disc comes Chess' shots at mainstreaming their auteur; the foot fades away, the guitar joins horns and piano and a real rhythm section. Doesn't make much difference. "You Have Two Hearts" ("one is yours and one is mine") makes a matter-of-factly weird proposition even without the ghostly plinking of an incongruous (and appropriately, anonymous) celesta behind John Lee's six-string; on "It's My Own Fault" and "Cry Baby Cry," you can hear the voice, and sometimes the instruments behind it, wow and flutter with such ferocity it's hard to think the source tapes weren't sticky. Or maybe that was just the world trembling once more.

By Andrew Hamlin

Andrew Hamlin is a Seattle writer.

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