Friday, December 12, 2008
My Back Pages.1
I ruminate. Most nights, the darkness is the signal for thoughts to go crazy in my head and play on the black walls, sometimes in no meaningful order. The other night the indignities befalling McKinley Morganfield danced in front of my eyes. The thoughts kept me awake like a curse.
The album cover you see above is as close as I could find on Google of the way I remember Muddy Waters. His dark moon face. That parted mustache and heavily lidded eyes. The processed pompadour. The man looked like he carried the weight of the world on his broad shoulders and maybe he did. In my mind, then as now, he was closer to any deity I could have imagined seeing. A God of evil and temptation, of weakness and vulnerability... of mojo. I used to lie to my mother and tell her I was going to the Boston Public Library then head to Harvard Square... to Club 47 where Muddy and his band were playing. Peter Wolf, the great raconteur, deejay and voice of the J. Geils Band, tells of how Muddy was the highest paid act to ever play the club, which was mostly a place for folkies and beatniks.He was the only performer to have Chivas Regal on the rider of his contract. Muddy and his band, featuring the likes of Jimmy Cotton on harmonica (Mr. 5X5, Muddy would introduce him as) and Otis Spann on piano. Luther Georgia Boy Snake Johnson on guitar. Man, what a band. They all wore matching sharkskin suits and narrow dark ties to play a little room a few steps down from the street. To borrow a phrase from Chester Burnett, "the men don't know what the little girls understand." Muddy was mesmerizing. Almost frightening in his delivery. He would sing out the side of his mouth, in a voice that came from someplace dark and primitive. A place that grew from that cabin in Mississippi. "I got my mojo woikin'" so he would sing, for all he was worth... a shake to his leg a look in his eyes that was both beatific and riveting. I swear I saw God those nights.
And I know it is hypocritical of me to cast asparagus toward a movie that hasn't come out yet. Jeffrey Wright is a fine actor. Syriana. The Constant Gardener, all that. He is playing the part of Muddy in Cadillac Records. We live in an age of disillusionment and dreary reality and yet Hollywood hasn't caught up. They perpetuate and manufacture myths and legends--anecdotal tales created from the vacuum of the pitch room and run them through the filter of what will look good, and the truth be damned. Marshall Chess has said his dad did not have an affair--torrid or otherwise--with Etta James. He also has debunked Keef's pickled memory of meeting Muddy as he stood on a ladder painting the ceiling of the studio at 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Marshall says that Muddy was too proud to ever do such a thing. He was also meticulous as hell, always taking pride in his appearance. He was, after all, a ladies' man. Memories and history are user-defined. Go see the movie. I may very well do so myself. But I won't see a document. I will see a fabrication-- a tale, as it were. Pay your eleven or whatever it is bucks and suspend your belief. We've gone down this road too many times. Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis? Diana Ross as Lady Day? Even the love and admiration that Clint has for Bird didn't pull Forrest Whitaker over the wall to believability. Sorry. Cate Blanchett nearly pulled it off, bless her heart... but what fiction can compare to the documentary truth of seeing a snarling, teasing, stoned-out and tempestuous Bob in Don't Look Back?
Like Beatle John implored, "Just Gimme Some Truth."
The memories I have of Muddy are as precious as any I harbor. To say they were life changing just doesn't do them justice. He, and the genre of the blues is so profoundly comforting and inspirational to me. I could wax on about the power of the blues. Many have. It is a genre that is both uniquely American and a fabric in the tapestry of world music, from the purity of Mali to the idolatry of London... to the genealogy encapsulated by that wonderful blued song title, "The Blues had a Baby and They Called it Rock 'n Roll."