John Lee Hooker, Part I

2013-06-10 20.31.39

To Vala Cupp who hung herself in an Austin motel room. She was John Lee Hooker’s third send-off singer, after me.

—Cathy Lemons

JOHN LEE HOOKER AND THE RARARAROLLING STONE (PART I)

Lyin’ Marvin lived in a hotel room the size of a long narrow closet. He told me the night before when we smoked crack together naked on his single bed, his long athletic black limbs reclined against mine, that he just needed a woman that he could work for and then he would straighten up.

The next morning I walked out of that hotel room and made a call to John Lee Hooker from a pay phone in a downtown laundromat. It had been only 2 weeks earlier when Deacon Jones had arranged for me to meet Hooker at JJ’s Blues in San Jose, and I arrived with Randy Bachman, the midget photographer. While I sang “Crossroads” Randy kept putting his tiny finger to his lips saying “Shhhh.” In other words, I was singing too loud and with too much force. Randy wanted me to be a star. The band was quiet and he wanted me to sing quiet.

John Lee Hooker always sat in the dark corners of any club. On this particular night he was with Deacon, John Garcia, and a few other nameless sidemen that god seems to have created a whole lot of throughout these generations of blues players.

I remember JLH had on a red suit and a red hat. The hat looked too big on his head. And he smiled at me with a little boy smile. And his hands were so soft and rubbery—and I felt I should squeeze them—like I would squeeze a child’s hands to reassure them.

John was moved—he thought I could sing. He gave me his phone number and told me to call him. Deacon just stood at the sideline and smiled like a trainer at the ropes—waiting.

I walked out onto Post Street to a cold morning in San Francisco. It was mid July 1987. I had been chipping again with the heroin, and my mother had changed the locks on her apartment door and put my 2 suitcases in the hall.

I was not sure if I had a habit—and I thought maybe if I could get out of town I might get back on track. I had already blown it with Mark Hummel and Paris Slim. They thought I was goin’ down and stopped booking any work with me. Paris Slim cancelled my appearance at the upcoming San Francisco Blues Festival—the bastard. But it was my own fault.

So I stood out on Post Street at Taylor and sure enough along came a big black Cadillac car. A youngish chubby Mexican woman with beautiful long black hair was driving—she had on red lipstick—wore a wide smile. JLH was in the back and motioned with his boogie-man hands to come on in with him.

I could smell the leather—the soft comfortable leather. And I got in.

I had been wanting to get high all week but Deacon would not set it up. I had done everything right so far. I had my own room at Hooker’s house. I had recorded a demo—over of all people’s voices—Buddy Miles. I had done the photography shots for Virgin Records. The songs Deacon had written for me to sing were his ticket to paradise—or so he thought. His best song was “Livin’ on a Dead End Street” which I did a good job on. But the problem was all the songs were a step and a half too low for my voice. And so I could not get a big sound. And Deacon and Hooker did everything so cheap. The promo shots didn’t really do me justice. And I only got to do 2 takes on the recordings to be sent off to Virgin. I was sure it would amount to nothing in the end. Plus I was not sleeping well. I was not strung out—but I could not sleep. JLH gave me valium sometimes at night and we would talk in his room.

JLH could not believe that I knew his songs. I did. I had been listening to “No Shoes” since I was 22 years old. And “Crawling King Snake” and “I’m Mad and I’m Bad like Jesse James” and “The Flood” and “Blues Before Sunrise” and “Serves me Right to Suffer.”

You see I knew who he was. I knew what he had. I knew what I could learn from watching and listening to him. And he was a gentle soul. He never pushed himself on me—not ever. He would just smile and look at me with a quiet longing and say “Cathy you are a ra ra ra rolling stone” or when I sang good, “Now that’s Big Mama!” which to me was the greatest compliment in the whole world. And he told me how he remained friends with his x-wife—a French woman. How he still spoke to her on the phone. And I liked that he could be friends with women and not try to own them. And it fooled me.

Deacon also never laid a hand on me. He had 2-women trouble of his own. He had a buxom blonde girl that was his mistress, and a long, lean, dried out woman for his wife that was like a rock and managed things for him—and she was also the mother of his children. These 2 women would stand side by side at Deacon’s gigs and sell his CD’s and T-shirts. It was insane—but that was “Sneakin’ Deacon,” as Hooker would say. When Hooker said “Sneakin’ Deacon” he always giggled and ran his hands together like a little kid thinking about something real bad that was gonna happen.

Deacon said, “Let me handle the drugs, Cathy, all you have to do is sing.” And I believed him. I did believe him.

So here I am living in a blues legend’s house—and the demon is flying.

Deacon picked me up at 7:00pm because Hooker had already left for the club. We drove in a batty beat up old van. John, his dealer, was driving. We pulled up to the Palo Alto projects and lord, lord, lord. It was already dark and so you could not see clearly, but there was a child at the door. Her eyes did not look right and she was so thin, and her hair was all nappy and tattered-like.

We entered and there were people huddled in corners on the floor—there were several rooms. I looked over inside one of those rooms and saw a bathtub filled with some kind of dark refuse—it smelled horrible. I saw in another corner two children asleep huddled up on a small table. The little boy with his round black head was sucking his thumb. Everyone’s eyes looked strange in that place—all lit up from behind like.

Deacon’s dealer finally walked in and it was like Christ had come. All the creatures gathered round—as if he was their long lost lover. He took some of the men aside into one of the bedrooms. And I waited.

Deacon finally motioned with his hand for me to come into the room. He looked at me very seriously and then handed me a balloon of heroin and a tiny plastic bag of cocaine. And a rig. And a spoon.

I found and slammed the bathroom door. I could hear him talking to me—like a father would to a child, “Now don’t get sloppy silly on my ass—you gotta sing later and meet John at the club. John’ll kill me. And don’t stay in their too long or I’ll have to break the damn door down.”

“Deacon I’m all right. I’m fine. I’ll be out in a minute.”

I can handle it. I can handle it. Well I couldn’t. I did the cocaine shot first and I got such a rush I thought I heard angels talking and spinning above the bright lights of the bathroom ceiling—talkin’ “Not your time yet—not your time yet”—like a clock hands that tick—but singing like.

And then I did the heroin and I had to sit down.

My head was spinning—and I felt sick. Then I felt all warm inside as if no one could ever hurt me again as long as I lived. And I felt home. And all the fear inside of me was gone. All of it.

Deacon began to knock at the door. “Cathy—you gotta come outta there right now! You been in there too long—you gotta come out right now!”

Well I came out and he took one look at me, and then he looked at his dealer and went all gray in the face, and his afro was shaking back and forth, and his big round eyes were burnin’ mad. And he started yelling, “John is gonna kill me! You gotta straighten up right now! I gotta get yo ass straightened up! I gotta do something man! Look at her!” Dealer man smiled, shook his head at both of us, tossed his head back, and laughed.

We got to the club and the band was playing, and there was Hooker in the dark corner table with a few women plus Kathy his dark haired housekeeper. I sat across from JLH and smiled at him. I was flyin’ high. And then I squeezed his hand, his soft child-like hand, and he gave me the greatest smile back.

That night after singing and standing in front of a gorgeous looking sax man with dark slick hair—long and lean—I went home with him. I told him stories all night after making love about what it was like to be a dancer. He was fascinated. He wanted me to do the moves, so I did. And then I remember him saying as we listened to Aretha Franklin “Can you sing that shit? Can you sing like that? You know you could make a lot a money. Let me hear you sing that shit. Hell—you could make more money than Hooker.” He was a gorgeous handsome man. And when he drove me into the city the next day he couldn’t believe I actually had a gig of my own and had pulled a band together.

Well I crawled back to JLH. And he wasn’t mad even—or he hid it. And he told me he wanted to take me on tour with him to the North and then Canada, a packaged show with John Hammond Jr., Elvin Bishop, Pinetops Perkins, the rhythm section from The Nighthawks, and Elvin’s back up guys which included Elvin’s rhythm guitar man. I would be the send-off singer opening the shows. I said yes.
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JLH took me to a hairdresser in Redwood City. I felt her lovely hands on my hair and head and she cut my brown strands and they fell to the floor like bark from a tree—beautiful brown gold shavings.

The hairdresser had teased up red hair and white skin—and she wore a blue dress—kinda like Nancy Reagan would wear—but shorter. She told John who was sitting in the chair across from us as she cut and styled my hair under the bright light that she was a singer. And John said, “Well maybe I should get your phone number. I am always La-la-l-looking for singers.”

I remember thinking “Oh Ya—she’s gonna suck and in more ways than one.”

The first stop on the tour was Detroit. I remember I bought a long silk blue shirt there—Detroit—the place where John Lee Hooker was from—the place where he worked in a factory—the place where he first recorded. John gave me some money to buy some clothes, but he had one of the guys drive me to a store—said I could not walk out in the city there—that it wasn’t a good idea.

The first song I sang to open up for John and all of them was “Black Night” and after I sang it Elvin Bishop came up to me backstage and said “That’s a great song there that ‘Black Night,’ a great song, and you sang it real good.” And at the time I didn’t know that Elvin never complimented anyone ever. How was I to know that? There he was in his overalls with his frizzy hair and deep southern twang—and his chewing tobacco which he spit out anytime he felt like it. And clearly everyone respected him. But behind the cartoon-like persona I saw a man who had lost his soul just like me to alcohol or whatever and was just marking time before he died on that stage. He didn’t really care. He didn’t even hire a good singer but sang himself. He was a trouper though—tough as nails. He worked hard every night on that stage. And he played that guitar great. But he couldn’t get up in the morning like the rest of us—at 6:00 am. He drank so much the road manager had to wrestle with him.

We were in Montreal, Canada and there was a huge crowd out front in the packed auditorium. I wore a shiny gold lame shirt and tight new jeans and heels. I was pacing back stage, back and forth. I could hardly breathe and my heart was jumping up and down, up and down. When the stage guy signaled for me to go out on that big stage I thought I was going to die right then and there. My legs were shaking. It’s hard to walk in heels when your legs are shaking. But I was not drunk and I was not on heroin. And I started to feel better the minute I heard that great big sound from those great big monitors. And suddenly I forgot about all the bullshit about havin’ to share a room with John Lee Hooker even though all the other guys didn’t share rooms. And I forgot about how Elvin Bishop kept looking at my breasts. And I forgot about how I liked that young rhythm guitar player, and I forgot about that handsome John Hammond who wouldn’t even open up his hotel room door to tell me where the swimming pool was.

And I felt so alive up there! I could FEEL the music. And I sang “I’m a Woman,” and suddenly it dawned on me that this was where it was at—on the big stages—with the big lights and the best musicians and the best sound—and you would never have to strain your voice through four sets a night singing through a tin can. You just did a few numbers and the next night you did it again—and you could build—and keep you voice clear—and it would get stronger over time instead of weaker from having to hammer through it all. It was easy street and anybody with any talent could do it. Well I kept on singing, and I felt so alive, and by the time it was over I had the whole auditorium up on their feet clapping hands with me. And I felt great. Like I had been born.

And then after I came off all sweaty-like Hooker came over to me and he was smiling his little boy smile and he said in his low voice “John Hammond been pa pa pacin’ up and down looking for you ba ba backstage—wants ta tell ya how good you done. Go on over there and tat a ta talk to ‘im now.”

And so I went back there to where John Hammond was and he smiled at me and said, “You know you sound so good. We really don’t have any women singers singin’ real blues ‘cept for Rita Coolidge—and she’s just so pretty. You know you should keep at this—you are just so good.” I watched his crocodile lined eyes lookin’ down. And I smiled and beamed up like a child lookin’ at this handsome son of a legend--handsome son of a legend who was married and called his wife every night in his room and would not open that hotel room door. Lord have mercy! And he was such a gentleman to me and never gave me the looks like the other guys—those sly sideways looks like I was some kind a whore.

And I started to think about those sideways looks. And it made me mad. And I went out to the crowd. And mingled with the sights and sounds. And somebody came up and told me I was great and would I like to do some mushrooms. And then I had some tequila and met up with that rhythm guitar man out front under the marquee. And we started talkin’ and suddenly I came up and kissed him and he didn’t know what to do. He just shook his head and went back into the club.

We had to get up at dawn one morning and it was cold outside. And I got in the limo with John Hammond Jr. and John Lee Hooker and the road manager who drove the big black car. I had done some valium the night before and I felt horrible that morning. My eyes were swollen. With half-opened eyes I laid back on the soft back seat and listened to the talk. John Hammond was in the front seat and he was talkin’ with John Lee about Aretha Franklin—how she was so great—maybe the greatest ever born for singin’—and how something terrible had happened to her—by her own father—and how when she was 16 she had to go away—16!. And I saw that deep lines were forming along John Hammond’s mouth—creases down the sides of his face. And then he talked about his own father—same sadness in his voice. And John Lee Hooker just listened and nodded his head like a father to him.


Things were getting bad. You see I got lonely. I was 28 years old and I got lonely for love. So one night after a show I was supposed to get John Lee Hooker his food from the kitchen, which I did, but I made a B-line for that rhythm guitar player’s room. And I sat on his bed and we talked. And he told me that he wasn’t happy with his girl for well over a year. And he told me he didn’t think we should make love because it wouldn’t amount to much. And after we made love he motioned for me to get out of his room. And I got so damn angry that I grabbed my clothes and threw my shoe at him. And he told me to sit back down on the bed. He said, “Oh come on back. I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s the matter with me.” And I told him I had nowhere to go, had nowhere to live, and that I was strung out on heroin and living with crack heads downtown before I got up to Redwood City and Hooker’s house. And I said “What was I supposed to do? John said he’d show me the ropes. That was all.” And he smiled and I smiled and I stayed a while longer.

By the time I got back to John Lee Hooker’s room—well he was so mad. He said in his deep mad voice, “I don’t care about where ya beeahn! I just don’t want ma ma ma fa fa’fa food to git cold! Bring me that food!” And his hands were shaking a bit when he pulled out the fried potatoes all wrapped up in tin foil. And he wouldn’t look at me. And he didn’t talk to me much that night and went to sleep in his silk t-shirt and his black boxers like he always did.

...

In Montreal there was big hotel—a beautiful, rich hotel. I was with Hooker and Hammond at a table and we had ordered breakfast. I could order anything I wanted. Suddenly there was a commotion over to my left at the front desk because RobinTrower in a big coat came in with a pretty girl on his arm, and behind her came a few roadies carrying his guitars and bags and such. Then he saw John Lee Hooker and came over to our table. Trower and Hooker stepped a few paces away from me and Hammond. But I could hear them talk: “Ya, well I got me a real good lookin’ one over there—see her over there?” And Hooker to my horror said back “Well I got me one right over there!” He pointed to me. I turned all red. I coulda died. And I will never forget how John Hammond looked at me—like it was all right—that I had nothing in the world to feel ashamed of—that I wasn’t a whore—that I was a real person—a fine singer—and not a whore … not a whore.

Now things started to get real bad because I got sick and tired of all these men starin’ at me like they wanted me while at the same time they were all mad at me because I didn’t want any of them. Once I had slept with that rhythm guitar man the word got out. Elvin was the worse one of the bunch. One night he and the rhythm player were gonna go out to the clubs after a show and I wanted to come. And when I got down to the lobby all dressed up and lookin’ nice, Elvin motioned his rhythm player to come over to the side to talk. And Elvin kept shakin’ his frizzy head. And then the rhythm player came back over to me and shrugged and said, “Elvin don’t’ want you to go with us.” And I said, “Now why is that?” And he said, “Well he just don’t want you to go, that’s all.” And so I had to turn around and go back upstairs to the room and hear John Lee Hooker snore. And I was so mad that I tried to steal some valium outta John Lee’s bottle on the bed stand and he jumped up and grabbed my hand and said “How many you got in yo hand?” And he made me open my hand and he took two pills back. I was so humiliated. And there was nothing I could do—nothing at all. Nothing at all.

The last leg of the tour was in Buffalo, New York. When you cross the line over from Canada suddenly you are back in the old USA. The huge auditoriums fade and suddenly you are back in the smaller, darker clubs that smell of whiskey and cigarettes—stale like. And the crowds are rowdier, and they don’t listen like they do up in Canada. Suddenly that special feeling of being a real artist is gone.

But Hooker could thrive anywhere; he had so much magic in him and he’d been doing it so long. I sat on the sidelines with the rhythm player that night and watched Hooker sing “One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer,” watched his hands move as he told the story—his boogie-man hands—watched how he would smile out at the audience at the funny places in the story—watched how his feet would keep perfect time on the floor. Hooker—sitting in his chair—with that big hat too large for his head—his rich deep voice filling the place up—filling everything up. And I remember thinking to myself, “How does he do that—tell that story so relaxed—with that voice so rich?” And I remember watching him on that rickety wooden stage—how he cued the band with his hand moving in a cross—with a fist headin’ down—to end the song with the downbeat kick. And then the rhythm man whispered in my ear “You know, Cathy, Hooker’s singing about YOU. That’s what he does. He sings about what’s goin’ on. That’s what all the greats do. He’s sure singing about you.”

You know when I got back to the city I went wild after that tour. I went and sang at a couple of clubs and saw some old friends, and then one mornin’ I woke up with one of those old friends and realized I had nowhere to go. Except back to Hooker’s. And I didn’t wanna do another tour, but I knew I would anyway because I had to sing. And so I did my drugs and went back to Hooker’s house to kick.

To Be Continued …

© Mary Catharine Lemons, February 20 2012