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John Lee Hooker, 1917-2001

Rest Easy, John Lee

by Jeffrey St. Clair

Lately it’s become fashionable among a certain wing of the post-modern critical bloc to reassess downwards the accomplishments of the late great John Lee Hooker. He’s been written off as a one-trick Johnny, a derivative writer and a “lazy” performer. Tired, perhaps, but lazy?

No way.

Hooker was one of the hardest working bluesman in the business. He recorded more songs and sessions than anyone else. More great songs, too. In fact, no one’s even close, not even the tireless BB King. By one account Hooker had recorded more than 600 songs, under various pseudonyms, from 1946 to 1960 alone. He wrote many of them. Played live nearly every night. And worked in one of the most backbreaking jobs imaginable, on an assembly line in a Detroit auto plant and at a steel mill.

Admittedly, John Lee Hooker isn’t Son House. Son House may be the greatest country blues singer who ever lived–greater than Robert Johnson or Charley Patton or Mississippi John Hurt or the unforgettable Skip James. But that wasn’t John Lee’s gig. He was creating his own kind of music, a strange blend of swamp blues fused with an urban urgency–the Delta meets Detroit.

The Hooker sound is as original as it is unmistakable. Yes, his guitar playing was often limited to one chord, but he could do as much with a single cord as Raphael could do with the color blue (and a hell of a lot more than Alice Walker did with the color purple). It’s both a haunting and infectious sound. There’s something that links Hooker and Miles Davis, something more than the dismal soundtrack they did together for that horrible neo-noir movie The Hot Spot, directed by the ludicrous Don Johnson. It has to do with the way that they could take a familiar line, a boogie woogie in Hooker’s case, break it apart, slow it down, transform it into entirely something new. Into art. Check out Hooker’s reinvention of In the Mood or It Serves You Right to Suffer or Tantalizing the Blues.

Hooker was also a fantastic songwriter, and an original one, who jettisoned rhyming couplets for an unnerving kind of blank verse. There’s nothing submissive about a John Lee Hooker song. Listen to I’m Bad Like Jesse James. These are songs of strength, of optimism and defiance in the face of hard times. Songs for working people, about sex, and love, miserable jobs, friendship, boozing, barroom talk, and disdain for the boss man. Many of them speak of the sounds of the street as mimetically as the best hip-hop.

Hooker could also rock. Think Twice Before You Go, one of my favorite Hooker songs from the 60s, is as good as anything to come out of the British invasion. And his voice is one of the signature sounds in American music. Both menacing and ironic, underlain with an incredibly playful (yet dangerous) sense of humor. Any one of these qualities would make Hooker someone to be reckoned with. Put them all in one package and you’ve got one of the great bluesmen. Hooker, Robert Johnson, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters. In my book, that’s damn exalted company, man.

My wife Kimberly and I saw one of Hooker’s last performances on a stormy spring night in Portland’s old Roseland theater. Hooker played for about 40 minutes. From our perch in the balcony, he looked old, frail and impeccably cool. His voice was raspy, deep, at times downright chilling. He danced, flirted with the young blonde piano player, boogied and sat on a chair, stomping his foot on the floorboards and playing that black electric guitar, occasionally picking a few notes, but more often whacking the strings hard with his palm, transforming the guitar into a strange electrified percussion instrument. The man got the point across. He always has.

Afterwards, I told my friend Dave Marsh that I didn’t think Hooker was long for this world. “Perhaps,” Marsh said. “But then again John Lee could go on another ten years.” In the end, he didn’t make it that long. But he kept playing as if his life depended on it. Perhaps it did.

And if John Lee Hooker didn’t put it out to the max every moment, so what? When he was on, he was as good as it gets. What more do we need? A sniveling perfectionist like Eric Clapton (Johnny Winter is an albino, but Clapton is so much whiter) or a soulless pampered robot like Bonnie Raitt? For bluesmen like Hooker the music ain’t just art; it’s a job. Why crack the whip? Lazy my ass. Round here we call that laid back.

Rest easy, John Lee.