Woke up with those mean old 20th-century blues

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Boogie Man: The adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century by Charles Shaar Murray (Viking, £17.99)

Boogie Man: The adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century by Charles Shaar Murray (Viking, £17.99)

THE JOHN Lee Hooker story is, it seems, the triumph of age over experience, and for that let all of us over the age of 25 rejoice. The pop-cult obsession with youth, currently at its fiercest for a decade, has no answer to this cumulative career story in which repetition of the same riffs and songs ("Boogie Chillen", "Crawlin' King Snake", "Boom Boom") produce a reputation, leading to the reverence of juniors as well as peers. Following the Jon Landis film Blues Brothers, which reasserted the blues in popular culture, Hooker's Santana-produced album in 1989, The Healer, seems almost a predictable outcome of that career. Genius finally gets its rewards.

This re-emergence also produced, at least in Britain, an advertising fest in which various clothes, cars and insipid beers were cast as "authentic" through a gamut of country blues and R&B symbols: the guitar-strumming hobo riding freight trains, the bluesman on the front porch. The blues, and John Lee Hooker's buttered-gravel voice and spark-struck guitar in particular, have become an aspect of an imagined America in which the hands on the guitar strike a chord of C and there's fried chicken and cornbread still for tea.

Hooker's own adventures in the American century were altogether less quaint. Coming from rural poverty in the apartheid South, illiterate, spending too many of those pre- Healer years locked into the real musician's life of exploitative recording contracts that paid poorly if at all, and gigging circuits that paid enough only if you worked too hard, Hooker has paid his dues, and then some, for his status. He has lived a blues life far removed from the Lear jet world of the rock star.

Flitting in and out of public acclaim, never quite attaining full stardom before the Nineties, and with the typical family problems of anyone whose life is spent on the road, he has voiced the pain of the excluded and mistreated as a participant-observer. All of which, Charles Shaar Murray argues in fan's hyperbole, gives Hooker the status of great achievers, survivors and leaders such as Nelson Mandela and William Burroughs. He is indeed a healer; nay, he is a shaman.

Two-thirds through his painstaking and well-crafted account of Hooker's life and times, Murray stops to examine how the music works. He listens, describes, and then tries to produce a meaning for the blues in general through Hooker's particular gifts. Murray's evocation of the shamanic in Hooker's ritualised performances is apt, up to a point. Those guttural gestures in which the voice calls a response from the guitar, and the loose structures that defy our expectations but clearly inhabit their own logic, can easily take both performer and listener to an ecstasy that is not of this world.

Hooker himself is happy to acknowledge his music's healing power. But there is a sticking-point. Murray's notion of the shaman is realised, uncomfortably for the European reader, through the mystical substitute religion (and/ or psychoanalysis) of Robert Bly, whose new myth of Iron John seeks to reinvent masculinity by, er, acknowledging pain and practising pseudo-Native-American rituals. Sweatlodge freemasonry may well help men feel better about themselves, but is the blues only for men?

We need something more universal, and we get it. Without really wanting to acknowledge it, Murray hits on one of the main reasons why those small, repeated gestures can and do signify so resonantly today. Hooker's is a prototypical post-modern musicality, recognisable to any who have lived through the dance decade. He samples and cuts, from his own songs and others', from African deep roots, from the history of the blues and rock. He refuses the orthodoxies of the 12-bar format. Instead, he offers a micro-patterning, through which his music accumulates in sequences.

I don't suppose that Hooker has ever used a computer sequencer (and I don't want him to start now), but his music is far more at home in the computer-music era than that of contemporaries such as BB King. Age has indeed triumphed over experience. John Lee Hooker lives the musical adventure of 20th-century America, its most positive legacy to the rest of us. May he live long and prosper.

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