In Search of Captain Beefheart – A Rock Memoir – Cont. The Blues, Elmore James and Son House

The saga of my musical journey continues – trips to Dobells and more discoveries in the blues:

I remember driving past Dobell’s on my motorbike and noticing two Elmore James albums in the window. They were like gold dust and the first I’d ever seen. Unfortunately the place was shut and I had to go back. It took me best part of a day to buy them. I had to drive all the way up to Charing Cross Road. It was like breaking into Tutankhamen’s tomb. The place was a treasure trove. I spent ages picking through the racks of American Blues. There were albums I’d never dreamed of! I had severely limited funds but came out clutching a handful of precious albums. I might not eat much for a few weeks but my ears were going to get nourished!

Unfortunately Elmore died before ever playing to a white audience so I never got to see him. Supposedly he had a heart attack in the recording studio in the early 60s. I always imagined that somewhere out there is a tape of Elmore crying out in pain and expiring. But that’s just me and my bad taste. I adored Elmore.

Later, because of the Blues boom, I got to see a number of the great Blues guys. I got to see Jimmy Reed play in a small London club. He had his son on bass and brilliantly slurred his way through a set of all his immaculate songs. But then he’d always sounded permanently drunk and the show was spot on.

I saw Muddy Waters three times with Otis Spann and his late 60s band. He was great but I think he’d toned down his act for white audiences. I would have loved to have seen him in one of those steamy Chicago clubs doing his full on act with all the women screaming at him, when he used to put a coke bottle down his trousers and get ‘em all going with ‘I’ve got my Mojo working’ and then flick the top off of the bottle and spray the audience at the crescendo. I think he felt that white audiences might find that a bit too raunchy. He may have been wrong.

That’s what Blues meant to me. It was dirty, dangerous and full of sex – a million miles away from sanitised white Pop music. You could see how it had fed into early Rock ‘n’ Roll. There was something seminal and real about it. It didn’t skirt the subject. It didn’t play for a gentile audience. It hadn’t been over-produced. It was still authentic and earthy. Where Sinatra sang of ‘Moon in June’ McKinley sang ‘I just want to make love to you.’ It was direct and honest.

They brought these Blues packages across in the late 1960s and I was privileged to see two of them at the Hammersmith Odeon. It gave me the opportunity to see many of my heroes before they slipped away. Many were at the end of their lives but still managed to give great performances, revitalised by the adulation of white audiences in Britain. They’d been dug out of obscurity and put back on the stage for a second career.

One package was Mississippi artists. I was really looking forward to it. I loved Bukka White, Skip James and Big Joe Williams and they did not disappoint. There were lots of them on the bill and they each got a twenty minute set. Big Joe Williams went down so well that he wouldn’t leave the stage and in the end they had to physically drag him off. Skip and Bukka were both ill and nearing the end of their days. Skip died shortly afterwards. But they both were great and their honest performances brought tears to my eyes. You wouldn’t have known how ill they really were.

Towards the end there was this guy Son House. I’d never heard of him. He was old and frail – in his late seventies. He shuffled on stage trailing his steel guitar behind him and we all wondered what on earth they were serving up. This guy looked well past his sell-by date. He sat on a chair, somehow lifted his guitar in his lap and began mumbling into the microphone like Hillbilly Bear (A cartoon character of the day). There was a muffled set of laughs. It was embarrassing.

Then he started to strum the opening to ‘Death Letter Blues’ the years dropped off him and the power radiated out. It was so powerful that it blew the whole audience away. The bottle-neck National Steel guitar was the most strident and forceful guitar-work I had ever heard. His voice was rich and expressive and he sang from the heart. By the end everyone in the hall was up standing on their seats bellowing for more. He shuffled off dragging his guitar behind him. The noise went on and he came back on without guitar. He stood there, clapped and stamped and sang a cappella.

I had discovered him.

I had found what I did not know I had been looking for. Son House had entered my life.

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