Talking 'bout my generation

In writing his life of John Lee Hooker, Charles Shaar Murray found the story of the bluesman's long, hard road became part of a greater history. But can the real truth ever be told?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It is now almost a decade since John Lee Hooker, the Mississippi-born, Detroit-ripened blues singer, became the world's unlikeliest superstar and its longest-delayed overnight success, slamming into the album charts with guest-star-laden albums like The Healer and Mr Lucky and even, one miraculous week, outselling Madonna. He'd scored his first big hit record with "Boogie Chillen", recorded in late 1948 and all over the US black-music chart by early 1949. His compositions, like "Boom Boom" and "Dimples", had become core-repertoire staples for mid-Sixties British R&B bands, and his original versions even edged into the British singles charts.

It is now almost a decade since John Lee Hooker, the Mississippi-born, Detroit-ripened blues singer, became the world's unlikeliest superstar and its longest-delayed overnight success, slamming into the album charts with guest-star-laden albums like The Healer and Mr Lucky and even, one miraculous week, outselling Madonna. He'd scored his first big hit record with "Boogie Chillen", recorded in late 1948 and all over the US black-music chart by early 1949. His compositions, like "Boom Boom" and "Dimples", had become core-repertoire staples for mid-Sixties British R&B bands, and his original versions even edged into the British singles charts.

He'd remorselessly toured the US, the UK and Europe, popping up in clubs and festivals in jazz, folk and rock contexts, equally at ease sharing bills with Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin on the one hand, and Joan Baez or Bob Dylan on the other. And he'd hit the cusp of the Sixties and Seventies by entering the US album lists with a double-album collaboration with chart-riding blues-rockers Canned Heat.

Then it all went very quiet. For over a decade and a half, Hooker recorded infrequently, and then only for independent micro-labels. It seemed as if his best years were long behind him. And then, in 1989, came The Healer, featuring memorable guest shots from Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray and others. After a slow sales start, extensive in-store play kicked off a major word-of-mouth success. The Healer sold ten times as many copies as all of Hooker's existing records in the previous decade.

By the time The Healer's successor Mr Lucky, featuring Van Morrison and Keith Richards among the supporting cast, reached Number 3 in the UK album charts, Hooker had gone from near-obscurity to near-mythic status. This most idiosyncratic and defiantly maverick of bluesmen had become the archetype of the genre, the ur-bluesman. And, paradoxically, little was known about him. He had never been the subject of an in-depth profile, let alone a biography. His past, prior to his debut success, was a maze of conflicting accounts: myths and counter-myths. Even his age was a mystery: for years it had been accepted that he was born in 1917, but Hooker had also claimed 1920, and a whole variety of birth dates between 1915 and 1925, were floating around.

Clearly, a serious biography was necessary. And Hooker's management decided to approach some English guy who'd never written a full-on biography before.

"I got a history long as from here to London, England, and back, and back again," Hooker told me early on in our colloquy. "I got so much to tell, and so much to write about. Everything you read on the album covers is not true, and every album cover reads different. People using their own ideas; they didn't come to me, to get it from me. John Lee did this, he did that. I'm gonna tell you, as far as I know, the truth about my life. I got nothin' to hold back. Some things you ask me, I know but I done forgotten. I just about know what I did, but some people may tell you some things I didn't do. Nobody know John Lee Hooker. They know as much about my cat as they know about me. It was a hard road.

"Sometimes I don't enjoy talkin' about it - you just want to throw it out your mind. There's a lot of misery, hatred, disappointment - all that. I hate to talk about it - but it's there. There's so many things I regret, I can't put my hand on it. I made my decisions early in life, to be a musician. Before that, I was a hard-working person. I didn't like hand-outs. I'd get out there and work, earn a living and stuff like that, but that wasn't what I was going to do the rest of my life. I knew that.

"That was a hard road, right up to now. It was a hard road."

So I decided to walk that hard road in his footsteps. And in doing so, I ended up having to walk a hard road of my own.

You stand accused of conspiracy to commit biography in the third degree. How do you plead?

There are very few reasons to write a biography. The first, and most obvious, is if someone is offering you truly obscene sums of money to do so. The second is primarily polemical, deriving from an irresistible desire either to big up a chronically underrated public figure or to tear down one who is drastically overrated. A third is that you may have a specialised knowledge or privileged insight into a specific individual, and you wish - or are persuaded - to share it with the world, preferably for money.

Then there is the need to tell someone's story because of the light it will cast upon other stories, or because the process will illuminate hitherto unexplored - or underexplored - areas of human experience. And intimately linked with this is the realisation that the only way you can really learn a story which fascinates you is first to commit yourself to telling it. And once that commitment is made, it will very rapidly become apparent that to tell the story adequately means having to do a lot more than simply tell that story.

Telling John Lee Hooker's story meant starting at the source: John Lee Hooker himself. For weeks at a time, I moved into a motel near John Lee's home in Redwood City, near San Francisco, and spent most of my time just hanging out chez Hooker, becoming part of the furniture, taping 10 minutes of conversation here and half an hour there until I had the spine of the story from, so to speak, the horse's mouth.

I visited the Mississippi Delta to see the landcapes around which he grew up, and to see if anybody remembered Hooker and his family. In Detroit, I found former bandmates and associates, and saw Hooker play a memorable (adopted) hometown concert. In Texas, I encountered bluesman Jimmy Rogers, a mainstay of the great original Muddy Waters band who'd known Hooker as an adolescent, and in Los Angeles the producer with whom he'd cut his earliest hits.

And everywhere I found that, monumental as John Lee Hooker is, the story was bigger than simply that of Hooker himself. It was the story of a whole stratum of human life in the American 20th century, and that I needed not only extreme close-ups but a panoramic backdrop. Finally, I realised that I had to do more than tell readers what John Lee Hooker looked like to me: I had to try to make a dizzying cultural leap, to try to show the world as it seemed to John Lee Hooker.

"All blues singers," George Melly once wrote, "are notorious liars." This dictum should be taken with several shovels full of salt - Mr Melly is, after all, a blues singer himself - but it does contain a kernel of truth. Which is this: to grow up, as most African-Americans of Hooker's generation had to, under American apartheid, as part of the underclass below the underclass, means that to survive in a world which doesn't care if you live or die, let alone what kind of existence you lead, you have to be able to invent yourself, to define yourself. Because the definitions others create will simply kill you.

Boogie Man sets out to tell the small truths, and also the larger ones. It was supposed to take a year and a half to write, and come in at around 100,000 words. Instead, it took almost eight years, and weighs in at over a quarter of a million words. Ultimately, the story, and the stories behind the story, had to drive.

If the book could be boiled down to one sentence, I'd be a fool to admit it. But if, and only if, it could, it would be this: "John Lee Hooker do not do, he be." Boogie Man is about what Hooker has done, but it's also about who he be.

'Boogie Man' by Charles Shaar Murray is published tomorrow by Viking (£17.99)

Comments