ROCK / The beat regeneration: After 15 years, Boz Scaggs's career has taken off again. He talked to Richard Williams

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The Independent Culture
THE DRIVER smiled as he shut the limo door - a sweet clunk - outside the departure terminal. And then, softly but with feeling, he swore.

Here, on the sidewalk, was the rock star. And there, locked in the limo's boot, was the rock star's briefcase, full of vital rock-star stuff. The driver had shut himself out. The smile dissolved into a grimace.

A scenario, surely, cut from This is Spinal Tap. What next? A hand- tooled cowboy boot through the limo window? But while the driver stammered his apologies, Boz Scaggs stood calmly at the kerbside, murmuring sympathy. And as the man ran to telephone for help, Scaggs wandered inside to pick up his ticket from the airline desk.

'Scaggs,' the young woman behind the desk noted, her voice morning bright. 'Let's see . . .' She tapped her keyboard. 'I have a Robert Scaggs. Would that be you?'

'Err . . . it could be,' the rock star mumbled modestly. 'Maybe something like Bob Scaggs . . .'

'Oh, sorry, no, that's not the one. Wrong flight. Now. Here we are. William Royce Scaggs. That you?'

It was. William Royce Scaggs - otherwise Boz Scaggs, 50-year-old rock star, en route from his San Francisco home to a Los Angeles rehearsal for his first proper tour in 15 years, his first since a string of hit singles. Since the time, in fact, when he really was a rock star.

The airline clerk might not have registered his name but, being in her thirties, she would almost certainly have recognised 'Lowdown', 'Lido Shuffle', or one of the other smooth dancefloor hits from the second half of the Seventies, when Scaggs's platinum album Silk Degrees became a fixture in smart record collections, capitalising on a reputation established during his time with the Steve Miller Band in San Francisco in the late Sixties. Scaggs's highly developed sense of visual style together with a grounding in R&B and soul music made him a kind of American version of Bryan Ferry, minus the avant-garde leanings. But then, in the fullness of his success, he went missing from the rock 'n' roll radar.

Fifteen years later, it can be said that this absence seems to have done him no harm at all. At 50, shaking himself out of hibernation to promote a remarkable comeback album, Boz Scaggs is one of those Sixties people to whom the years have been kind. Twenty years ago, when I met him in London while he was making an album and playing a few club dates, he was a handsome, stylish figure of unassuming charm, clearly comfortable in his skin. Now he looks, if anything, even better, and sounds even more at ease. Some Change is an album of plain, honest, grown-up rock 'n' roll, with good tunes, thoughtful and literate (and sometimes exceptional) lyrics delivered in Scaggs's distinctive high tenor, and the sort of musicianship associated in the Seventies with the likes of Little Feat and Steely Dan. In contemporary terms, it belongs with the best of John Hiatt, Don Henley and Robbie Robertson in what American radio calls the 'triple-A' format: Adult Alternative Album rock, a gruesome definition but one which vaguely suggests its qualities.

'In 1980,' he said, attempting to explain his lengthy absence, 'I decided to take six months to a year off. I had two sons, who were then two and three years old, and I'd been keeping a pretty rigorous schedule. It turned out to be a time that was . . . well, a time to make some changes. I got a divorce. There was a lot of resettling to be done in my life. So the six months to a year became two years, then three, and so on.'

He likens the experience to that of jumping off a train: 'At some point you roll to a stop, and you look back and see that heavy, fast-moving object disappearing into the distance. Then you look around, and you see another world going on. I wasn't real eager to get back on that old schedule. I had my sons to take care of, and for the past 15 years I've had joint custody - they've alternated two weeks with me and two weeks with my wife. I've arranged my life around that, and it's been very important to me. A lot of things have come out of being able to raise my sons like that. It filled in a lot of gaps in the way I see myself.'

It helped that Scaggs, a native Texan, has a strong attachment to the Bay Area, where he lives with his second wife, a Memphis-born publisher's editor, in an elegant Pacific Heights apartment while they await the building of a house in the Napa Valley. First associated with San Francisco during its hippie heyday, when he settled there to sing and play guitar with Miller, an old Dallas schoolfriend, Scaggs has become a local fixture. He played occasional shows even during his long lay-off, and is the part-owner of a downtown R&B club, Slim's, now in its seventh year of presenting people such as Dr John and Booker T and the MGs.

'The city has grown into me in a way that's been very important to the course and the pace and the goals of my life,' he said of an attachment that began when he read Kerouac's The Beat Generation at the age of 11 or 12 and fell in love with its portrait of the North Beach jazz-and-poetry set. 'There's a wonderful culture here, a kind of nonchalance, a provincialism, a self-deprecating attitude. To some extent, it's insulated me. I don't feel the pressure to go out and set the world on fire. This city doesn't change. It tears down freeways instead of putting them up, and it renovates its old buildings. Time seems to stop, and life becomes a dream in some ways.'

The city's ambience played a part in his new album. Apart from being his first under a new contract with Virgin America (after two decades with CBS), Some Change also finds Scaggs breaking away from big-

budget Hollywood productions. This time he used his own small demo studio, bringing a small group of selected sidemen - including the organist Booker T - to join him and his co- producer, Ricky Fataar, the South African drummer best known for his work with the Beach Boys and, most recently, Bonnie Raitt. Some of the best tracks of all, in fact, were built on the core of Scaggs's own demos, and the result is a warm intimacy recalling his first solo album, recorded for Atlantic in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in 1969.

There was, as few will remember, an earlier comeback, with an album called Other Roads in 1988, a protracted and unhappy attempt to reproduce the manner of the mid- Seventies hits. That scared him off for a while, and it took the enthusiasm of other record companies to encourage him to try again, plus the enjoyment of going on the road a couple of years ago with Michael McDonald and Phoebe Snow as part of Donald Fagen's Rock and Soul Revue. A postmodern version of the archetypal Fifties package tour, this was 'done for all the right reasons and beautifully put together'.

If Some Change has any conceptual basis, he says, it's in the enthusiasms he shares with Fagen - 'Fifties bop and rhythm and blues' - and in a desire for simplicity. 'I thought about the albums that are my favourites, that have stayed with me over the years,' he said. 'They're usually small ensembles, quartets or quintets. I thought of Al Green, Otis Redding, Bill Withers, Horace Silver. Ultimately, that's the kind of work I'd like to do.' -

(Photograph omitted)