ROLLING STONE
THE BLUES TODAY
May 28, 1998
By: Will Hermes
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark


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Jonny Lang and John Lee Hooker, photographed by Mary Ellen Mark.

Living and playing the blues in 1998. The essential blues library and a nationwide guide to juke joints.

(excerpts)

JONNY LANG


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“We gonna romp and tromp till midnight, we gonna fuss and fight till daylight/we gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long.” –Willie Dixon

TALK ABOUT YOUR MANNISH BOYS. Even if seventeen‑year‑old Jonny Lang had made a deal with the devil at the crossroads ‑ as in the Robert Johnson legend ‑ the contract wouldn't be legally binding. "I think fourteen was the legal age back then," Lang responds with a laugh. Without Satan's help, Lang has become an adult‑size star, selling 1 million copies of Lie to Me, the 1997 A&M debut album on which he sings and plays lead guitar confidently. Though his quick rise has not impressed all blues purists, Lang is clearly helping to bring the blues to a new generation. Not bad for a white kid from Fargo, North Dakota, who didn't even take his first guitar lesson until he was thirteen.

When you sing "Good Morning Little School Girl," how young a schoolgirl are you imagining, anyway?

Well, I don't know. I thought it was just a cool song ‑ I didn't have an age bracket in mind, really.

But you can't sing like a dirty old man yet ‑ unless we're talking about an eleven‑year‑old schoolgirl or something.

[Pauses] Right. I'm trying to get myself out of some deep water there.

Was it great and scary to open for the Rolling Stones recently?

Oh, man, it was a trip. It was surreal, because our first gig with them was in Hawaii, in Honolulu at the Aloha Stadium, so it was just crazy 'cause it can't get better than that. We all kind of had to just stop, look around and take it all in. The show was just amazing.

Since they, too, started out as teenagers playing the blues, did the Stones have good advice for you?

Well, I had laryngitis in Hawaii, and I was talking to Mick ‑ or squeaking to Mick ‑ and he was so helpful. He got, like, his assistant to call his personal doctor or whatever and get a prescription for this stuff, and it was great.

Mick Jagger got you drugs!

Well, legal drugs.

Do you get frustrated with purists questioning your right to sing the blues?

There's a huge initiation process, but it's music ‑ it's for everybody, as far as I'm concerned. There are people who'll say, "No, you can't play; you don't have the right." Well, it's like, "What do you mean I can't?" I am, you know.

What was the first album you ever bought?

I don't even remember.

Come on, you're seventeen ‑ it couldn't have been that long ago!

The first album I personally purchased ... it had to be, like, Nirvana. No, it was Jane's Addiction.

Was there blues stuff around your house?

Not really. More Motown, Otis Redding, Gladys Knight kind of stuff.

You toured as an opening act with one of your blues he­roes, B.B. King. What sort of attitude do you get from the older blues artist?

Everybody who's been an influence who I've met ‑ Buddy Guy and B.B. King and Luther Allison and all those guys ‑ has been really supportive and happy to have young people carrying it on. To them it doesn't matter what color the person who's carrying it on is. If young kids don't have the right to play, how does the art form survive? So they were supportive ‑ or they appeared to be, anyway.

Does it bother you to be marketed in a way that capitalizes on the fact that you're sexier looking than, say, Johnny Winter?

Well, no. I think that to have to market music to sell it in the first place is lame. I don't pay attention. I would never go to the record company and say, "Take a really gorgeous shot of me and, like, airbrush it and make me look flawless." That's the last thing I would ever do. I would think that would be bogus.

Your first video, for "Lie to Me," was pretty bluesy, but the second one, for "Missing Your Love," sort of made you seem like Hanson with sadder songs.

I thought the video fit the song well, and I don't think anyone was going for a sellout thing there. It was just ... I had my girlfriend in there, who is, like, my best friend also, and it was really fun.

You mention having fun and being happy. Is it fair to say you don't feel that a good bluesman must be miserable?

Definitely. If playing music makes you sad, depressed and drunk, and you die when you're thirty, then why do it? That's, like, folklore or something. B.B. King was never sad. I mean, I'm sure he was, but he wasn't depressed to be playing music. Buddy Guy loves to play.

Who were your formative influences?

Albert Collins and B.B. King are probably my biggest in­fluences, guitar‑playingwise. Musically, I think all around, Stevie Wonder is probably my biggest influence. I never get star‑struck or nervous, but if I met Stevie Wonder, I would freak out.

Was playing with B.B. or any of the other blues greats frightening?

I wouldn't say playing with those guys is intimidating. That would mean my frame of mind would be competition, and that's not it at all. Playing with B.B. blew my mind, and I wasn't even con­centrating on playing anything. I just had the good fortune of standing three feet away, watching him play.

You've already taken blues music to some unusual places ‑ like a Disney special. You figure even Mickey gets the blues?

That sounds like a question Disney would have asked me! Yeah, it seems maybe I am reaching a younger audience that wouldn't have been exposed. When I see kids my age ‑ I'm calling them kids ‑ down front at shows, listening to our music with their eyes shut and waving their heads, it's like they're honestly getting this. And that's really cool because it proves I'm not some freak of nature that appreciates the blues.

‑David Wild

JOHN LEE HOOKER


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“Woman, I’m troubled, I be all worried mind/because I just can’t be satisfied and I just can’t keep from crying.” – Muddy Waters

THE ORIGINAL MACK DADDY, JOHN LEE HOOKER represents the funkiest lowdown essence of the blues. Born in the Mississippi Delta in 1917, Hooker was a player at nearly every stage of the music's progression. He cut electric blues for many labels ‑ including Chicago's Chess imprint ‑ during the early to mid‑Fifties. He also became a staple on the coffeehouse circuit, playing unplugged during the folk‑blues revival of the early Sixties, and he was championed by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. He recorded with the blues‑rock group Canned Heat in 1970 and helped fuel the late-Eighties blues revival with his Grammy‑winning The Healer, an all‑star session featuring Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana and Robert Cray. In person, Hooker is charming and otherworldly. He arrives at his manager's office decked out in a dark suit, a hat, shades and star‑spangled suspenders.

You sang gospel professionally for a short while, didn't you ‑ back in Cincinnati, before the war?

Yeah, yeah ‑ and back in Mississippi, too. I sang in the church 'cause my mom and dad made me go. I couldn't tell 'em no back then. Practically all my stuff's got a gospel flavor. It's just there ‑it's where I started out. I'm thinkin' about doin' some gospel sometime ‑ a few songs, maybe a whole album.

Your recent work tends to look at both the future and the past. You write new songs, but you also remake old ones.

I like to do some of the stuff I'd done in the past 'cause I feel like I can do it better now. And a lot of the younger generation had never heard the old stuff back when I first did it. It's new to them, and they love it.

On an old record of yours, Teachin' the Blues, you said, "Fancy chords don't mean nothin' if you ain't got that beat; throw the fancy chords away." You still feel that way?

Yeah, I do. The blues is the blues ‑ it's a feelin', y'know? You can't get that out of a book. It's a feeling that's in a talent that you got inside of you; it just comes out.

Nowadays some people will go to school to learn the blues.

They do. That's them, not me. You can throw that school away. I'm the school. Listen: It's just what's in here and here [points to his chest and head]. It's about people and life: heartaches, trouble, things like that.

You were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. Are you a rocker or a bluesman?

A bluesman ‑ I'll say that real quick. But I feel I deserve to be there. Rock & roll comes from the blues ‑ it's just the blues up‑tempo, that's all. "Boogie Chillun" was rock & roll. I know that. Some people don't admit it, but it's true.

This November it'll be exactly fifty years since you recorded "Boogie Chillun." What was that like? It was your first recording session.

I remember it. I was just a kid. It was the first time around, so I was a little bit shaky. But I'm not now. I think my voice is better now than it was then ‑ more secure. It's not more powerful, but it's more mellow.

You also do a great version of Jimi Hendrix's "Red House." Were you a fan?

Hooo, yeah! He was a tremendous guitar player, really fast. But when he's playin' slow, you can hear my licks in his music.

There's a guitarist from Mali, Ali Farka Touré, who's a big fan of yours, and he said that the first time he heard you on record, he couldn't believe you were American; he thought you were an African musician. Do you ever think about blues music's African roots?

Yes, I do. The music did originate there, though they don't sing the blues like we sing it. And I couldn't sing like them. All I know is, the blues were here when I was born. That's all I know. I'd have to go back there to tell you more.

You won two Grammys [Best Traditional Blues Album and Best Pop Collaboration] this year, and your old buddy Bob Dylan won one, too.

I'm gonna tell you something you might not know: I was the first person to let him up on the bandstand, at Gerde's Folk City, II West Fourth St., in New York City. When I was playin' there, he would come to my hotel room every night with Suzy, his girlfriend at the time, and then we'd all go down to the club together. He opened for me. Every night we'd be drinkin' wine, partyin' and all that [laughs]. I still see him once in a while.

You've both been at it for a long time.

I paid my dues. A lotta dues. Sometimes I wonder what I'm still doin'; I think I gotta stop this, retire. But I love do­in' it. I say I'm gonna retire, I'm gonna quit the business, but then I find myself right back in the middle of it.

What do you think about the current state of the blues? Is it in good shape?

Oh, yeah. It'll never die. So many young people into it now, learning the blues. I like 'em all. They're what keeps the blues alive.

You've been doing a lot of commercials, for Budweiser and others. How's that been?

Oh, I enjoy 'em. Just sittin' around, playin' the guitar, talkin'. It's easy. Relaxing.

Do you have any aspirations left? What things do you still want to do?

I dunno; I about did everything. What I really want is, when I'm gone, for people to think of me as a great person, a nice person and a good bluesman. I think I'm all of that. I don't have much more ground to cover.

Do you think a lot about death?

Yeah, well, ev'ybody thinks about death sometimes, I think. You ain't gonna be here forever. You gotta go someday ‑ that's gonna happen for sure. And whether you come back, I don't know. Some people say you come back; I dunno. I don't know nobody who's come back. Do you ever think about death?

Sometimes I do.

Yes, you do. And whether there's another world, we don't know. So just live for as long as you can, enjoy life, enjoy the pretty women in the world. Just live and let live. And love people. There's some good in everybody. I'll never put anybody down. Even the winos down on Sixth Street. I see 'em, I always give 'em fifty cents. They good people; they just like their wine, that's all.


END